Tag Archives: SPEA

The SPEA Panther

This is really a rare breed… and yet another “cat of prey card” to be flopped: The SPEA Panther.

panther_full

Basically, it’s an Intergraph Clipper workstation on an ISA-Card. As usual, you can find more details about Intergraph and the Clipper CPU architecture elsewhere.

Most likely built & released 1988, this full-size ISA board features a Clipper C100 CPU(set), 4MB of ram (expandable to 8MB) and quite some glue-logic, mostly buffers, lots of GALs, some DP-RAM – and sad enough: no EPROM.
Having no EPROM means it was “booted” by the hosting PC and there’s no clue of how to feed this beast, i.e. what kind of protocol it is talking to the ISA bus.

A german article in the endless archives of “Computer Woche” (21.10.1988) mentions this:

[…]Für den SPEA-Panther, einem Aufrüstungsboard für PC, steht jetzt die CAD-Software Intergraph Microstation zur Verfügung. Besonderes Merkmal dieser Software ist, daß der Kern unter Unix läuft, die Anwenderschnittstelle jedoch eine DOS-Lösung beinhaltet. Microstation liest und schreibt DOS-Files. Auf Grund der Lösung “Unix under DOS” ist die SPEA-Version von Microstation voll kompatibel zu Workstations.” (Source)

Translated:

“[…]For the SPEA-Panther, a PC expansion card, Intergaph’s CAD-Software Microstation is available now. The particular feature of this software is that its core runs on UNIX while the user-interface is still hosted on DOS. Mircostation reads and writes DOS-Files. Because of the “Unix under DOS” solution the SPEA-version of Microstation is fully compatible to the workstation [version]”

So the Panther was probably running a full version of CLIX, Intergraph’s version of UNIX and the x86-Host was degraded to be the terminal… given the 1988 speed of PCs (Compaq just introduced the DeskPro 386 @ 16MHz), not the worst idea to have.
Well, if it wouldn’t to be the case that the Clipper architecture itself was dying a slow death over the next 2 years…and Autodesks AutoCAD was getting faster as 386/486’s were taking off…

That’s probably the reason why there’s next-to-none info about this card on the web… and print and newsgroups: Too expensive, too specialized, just a hand-full sold.

So just for the fun of it, here are some more detailed pictures of this “one of a kind”. The right half of the card has the ISA bus interface, four chips from Fujitsu marked MB622202 (my guess is it’s Dual Ported RAM), lots of 81C4256 DRAMs (32, so 4MB) and a mysterious gold-lid PGA Fujitsu chip marked C143C1C and 76460… could be anything. Ah, and a dip-switch… most likely for setting the I/O address or IRQ.

panther_right

The left side of the card is dominated by the CPU daughter board, obviously provided by Intergraph itself (featuring the companies logo) as I had seen this kind of board before. Above the CPU are even more PAL/GAL chip.
And again, the unknown C143C1C chip, now in its full glory. Next to the chip a 60MHz oscillator which lets me guess that the C100 runs at 30MHz… a bit below standard for C100s.

panther_left

When buying the card my hope was that there might be more enlightening stuff below the CPU daughter-card. But as most times in life… there was nothing worthwhile 😉

panther_below_CPU

Just lots of TTL logic and buffers… the PLCC on the left is a N82C54… a CHMOS programmable interval timer… boring.

So to conclude this chapter, I guess I won’t make this card run again – ever. It’s just another example of how undecided the computing world was around 1988. There where more than one way to reach your target (speed) but most of them failed. Still I think it was much cooler than today.

Update 2016:

Found an interesting auction on ePay… this is the original Clipper card – which seems to be the “blueprint” for the Panther… SPEA just replaced the tons of discrete logic by some ASIC chips, which made room for RAM. On the  original cards that is placed on a separate daughter-card:
(Pictures courtesy of FinestComputers.eu)

Clipper_total_f

The CPU card back side and RAM card front:

Clipper_total_b

The CPU Module is the same as used by SPEA:

Clipper_detail

The SPEA cards

Between 1990 and 1995 the German multimedia-card manufacturer SPEA was one of the leading companies in this sector (When ATI was comparably small and NVIDIA not even founded).
They offered a wide range of display-cards, from a simple ET4000 up to very expensive CAD/CAM cards using various graphic chips like the TIGA controllers, Hitachi ACRTC and… of course the i860.
Later SPEA was bought by Diamond Multimedia (still in business) and some employees started their own company to finalize the graphic chip they already started to design when being with SPEA (read more here and here… both articles in German, sorry).

Two SPEA cards using the i860 were built. The first was the

SPEA Fire

SPEA-Fire

This full-size ISA card features a 33MHz i860 with 4MB own RAM as well as 2MB VRAM. An Inmos G364 graphics controller is in charge for creating a picture on the monitor – BTW that’s the last and fastest graphics controller which was manufactured by Inmos.
Theoretically, this card could be called an INMOS B020 on steroids.

As this is “just” a 3D subsystem, a standard VGA was still needed for all 2D stuff. Its video signal was then looped-through the SPEA Fire… just like the Voodoo cards did it some years later.

A recent photo I’ve fond on ePay shows, that there was a proprietary memory expansion available, which has to be plugged next to the i860. Probably expanding the RAM to 8MB, which seems to be a considered a reasonable amount of RAM back in those days.

SPEAFire_RAM_upgrade

Interestingly the manual briefly touches the possibility to be programmed with own applications using Intels APX system. Sad enough, the APX is not included on the driver disks and was sold seperately… for a lot of money.

FGA860

SPEA-FGA860

The FGA860 is the bigger brother of the SPEA Fire. Actually it’s two boards sandwhiched together: The one on top is -again- called the Fire-Board. But this time it is designed completely different. There is no RAMDAC or such… just the i860, RAM (16MB) and some custom- and bus-logic.
Behind this, there’s a full-blown TIGA card called FGA-4E, using a TMS34020/32Mhz with 4MB DRAM and 2MB VRAM. Not so usual is the also included VGA part on the FGA-4E. This way you can save an ISA slot for the needed VGA card.

The Fire-Board was available for 5700 German Marks, the FGA-4E added another hefty 10.820 Marks making a total of 16.520 Marks (1990/91 that was about US$ 8000)!
But for that money you got a “graphic subsystem” which was capable of 300.000 2-D vectors/s (10 Pixel long) and amazing 30.000 gouraud-shaded polygones/s (10 × 10 Pixels).
[Back then, that really was amazing… today every mobile phone might be better in 3D. Here are some numbers for comparison/amusement:
3DLabs GLINT 300SX: 500.000/300.000]

Here’s a view from the top… not really much to see. It’s very hard to pry those cards from each other. I guess, they were never intended to be separated again.

SPEA-FGA860_sandwich

If you are in need of the drivers, I make them available here. It’s the IMHO most recent version from August 1994 including an AutoCAD 13 driver update.