Category Archives: Blog

Wonders that die

Yesterday it happened again. Another (little) wonder died in action  😥
My beloved Microdrive started to make those noises you don’t want to hear from a harddrive: Click, click, toc, toc…


I must admit that I already forgot about it, as it silently ran in my dual CF-card adapter as slave drive to store the swapping partitions/files for the Linux/Windows NT installations living on the primary drive (a real flash card) to prevent the massive wear-out through constant reading and writing.

The Microdrive was one of those things which were, when released, considered as a real miracle by myself. When I took part in the presentation at CeBit 1999 it was just sooooo unbelievable that IBM managed to build a 1″ harddrive and pack everything into a Compact Flash Type II card. Announcing the will squeeze 1GB into it the next year doubled the amazement.
Thinking back, those ‘wonder moments’ became quite rare these days. I mean really breathtaking releases that make you think “WTF!?” and stop breathing for more than 10 seconds.

Now it’s dead. Built 2003, in hard-working duty for me since 2008. Rest in peace little wonder.

Do you remember your last ‘real wonder moment(tm)’ in IT space?

Manufacturing PCBs in China?

Ever thought about manufacturing PCBs in China?

If you google this, you most certainly end up with “your mileage my vary”. Indeed it does… and here are my 2 cents:

Because the grass might be greener on the other side of the river, I’ve tested and will keep on testing several PCB houses over the time. So I’ll update this Blog post every now and then… until now, I wrote about


[Oct 2014]
For my AM-B404 TRAM I hadn’t had any other option than have them manufactured in China. 6 Layers and sub-20$ weren’t possible anywhere else. So I tried ShenZhen2U


After sending in the Eagle-CAD files their support was great. Several Mails with their engineer (Hi Iver!)  flew back and forth, during which he created a multi-panel board out of my single board design and turned it into a Gerber file and let me having it for a final check before everything went into production.


Manufacturing and shipping was OKish (20 days in total). At first sight, everything looked great. Nice, professionally framed SMD stencil, PCBs etc were carefully bubble wrapped.
When squeezing the whole stack of PCB it felt a bit ‘bouncy’ – looking at it from the side, it became clear why:


Some PCBs were bent. You can see the gaps between some of them.

Well, when the PCBs were from the 3-part panel separated it wasn’t that obvious anymore. So I started populating them.
This brought me to the next issue. The silkscreen was quite a bit off on some of the PCBs. Luckily, all of them had enough solder pad left to be usable:


In the end, 3 of the 60 boards were completely unusable. They had shorts within the internal layers which couldn’t be fixed even by cutting traces and re-wiring.
I guess all those glitches are the price you have to pay when going “cheapo”.

Update Nov 2015:
I ran a 2nd batch of the same boards from the same Gerber files and mentioned the non-working boards in the 1st order.
This time the quality was very good and they silently added 2 extra boards to my order. Thumbs up, ShenZen2U!

Update March 2017:
I asked for a quote for the same design, same number of boards but their price increased 30% within 15 months – so I had to find another manufacturer capable of doing 6 layers.

Dirt Cheap PCBs

For my QFP-to-BGA adapter – which just uses 2 layers – I tried Dirt Cheap PCBs. I really like the attitude of their site and for just 25 bucks for 10 PCBs it was worth a shot.


It’s a no-brainer. Upload your eagleCAD/Gerber file and wait – after some minutes you can even look at a rendering of the top- and bottom layer of your boards. They explicitly state, that this function is beta and yes, 1 of the ~5 times I used their service, that rendering wasn’t totally correct – so don’t wet your pants if this happens. Use a real Gerber viewer instead. That said, you normally have 1-2 days to update your files if I might have found a mistake later.
About 20 days later I got my little brown envelope. Everything’s fine, I’m totally OK with it.
Before using their service, be sure to check their FAQ. You’ll find jewels like this:
The board house will add three tiny numbers to your board: batch ID, a customer number, and our PCB ID. This is so everyone knows which crappy PCBs to send you. Don’t like it? Tough. Buy an entire panel somewhere else.

Update: I also tried their 4 layer service (for which they use an external board house) and while the price is good, the results were so-so.
They did not place the solder-mask on the most fine-pitch part (QFP 100pin) which is a pain in the a** to reflow without getting shorts 🙁


A more posh version of manufacturing PCBs in China is Seeedstudio who asked me to check out their “Fusion” service. They even offered me a $30 coupon (thanks!), so why not give it a try?!

Before sending my Gerber files I had a couple of questions and their email service is very good an responsive.
As they offer hard-gold finishing, I thought it might be a good time to create an expansion card with its connectors being plated with hard-gold to make it more robust to plugging the card in and out a couple of 100 times… some mails flew back and forth but in the end they asked for the same price for having the connector-fingers done in hard-gold as having done the whole PCB done in this process (the rest was planned in HASL). That’s 30 vs 230 bucks! Erm, no thanks… not this time.


So I ordered some standard 2-layer, HASL finished PCBs, no bells and whistles on Fri. Nov. 25th. Their order form is well designed and shouldn’t leave you with any questions – they even offer a Gerber viewer of your uploaded files, which I think is very cool!
(One hint: When entering your address, the form insists that you enter an EORI tax-number which private persons normally don’t have. A simple dash “-” does the trick, though).
They offer 3 ways of shipping, ~10€ for normal post (10+ days), DHL and FedEx (both 3+ days). I went for DHL – I’m pretty sure “normal post” wasn’t an option for my order when I had the choice. Maybe because of the weight…
Next day the boards went into production.  You’ll be updated about the proceedings by mail – pretty standard today – as well as in you accounts order history on their page.

On Nov. 29th I got an email confirmation, that my PCBs are finished and shipped… and on Dec. 3rd I got the boards in my mailbox. That was blazing fast indeed! 9 days from ordering to receiving


The cool thing is, that I’ve ordered the predecessor of this design at “Dirt Cheap PCB”, so I have a direct comparison.
Given the simplicity of the design, I haven’t found any glitches or mistakes… the two boards are nearly identical.
If you’re super picky about your design: like Dirt Cheap PCB, Seeed does print some internal ID on your silkscreen – and that’s not in their FAQ.


For a simple design (2-4 layers, no extras) Seeedstudio is comparable to other PCB houses – even a tiny bit more expensive.
Where they shine is when it comes down to support and all those extra features like penalization, V-grooves etc. which the other houses just can’t offer or leave you in the cold when it comes down to getting help.


So after ShenZen2U became too expensive for my budget (They’re still cheaper than European services) I found PCBWIN being another Chinese manufacturer able to provide 6 Layers for a reasonable price.


The order process was very convenient. After  requestin a quote online I’ve been contacted by my ‘personal sales assistant’ (Hi Betty!) straight away.
Their engineers checked my Gerber, clarified some measurements, v-groves etc. which I could explain by sending photographs and drawings. All in all, very a professional and reassuring process during which you also can contact your personal contact by Skype, e.g. if you’re really on a time-pressure.
I can’t give a usual delivery time for this order, as my fell into the  Quingming Festival season, so that added some extra days of delay – but they informed me about this, so all OK here! Including this delay, it took 10 days until shipping. After the usual 20 days wait and some more queuing at the customs office I got this:


The PCBs and a new stencil were well packed – and a quick visual check (ENIG, masks, printing) was quite satisfying. If there’s anything to critic, maybe the silkscreen printing was a bit  ‘thin’ – but that’s really a minor thing. The first PCB I’ve populated and tested worked fine – so I assume the other 29 will be fine, too 😉

After-sales are great, too. So your personal assistant will stay in touch and is honestly interested in how everything worked out etc.


So as with any other PCB service, it’s the people that make the difference. Yeah, the price is an important item on the list, but as the saying goes: If you buy too cheap, you’ll buy twice.
For me PCBWIN was a win. Thumbs up!

Do you have/had any good/bad experiences with Chinese PCB manufacturers? I’m happy to hear about it in the comments below!

Too poor for cheap tools

There’s a deep wisdom in one of my fathers favorite saying (posed every time we went into an home improvement store): “I’m too poor for cheap tools”.

I should have remember that, when I started to shopping for an EPROM programmer (or ‘burner’ as we call’em in Germany) in 2002. I started cheap with a simple, used Batronix Parallel Port programmer which very soon reached its limits not supporting PALs/GALs and mid-size EPROMs (27C020 to be precise) only, so I was again looking for a better programmer.


In 2006 the GALEP-4 seemed to be the wet dream of every device-programing nerd. While not totally high-end it was quite expensive (~400 Euro)… well “I’m too poor…” you know.


After 2 years it became obvious that especially vintage ICs (e.g PAL16L8) aren’t supported – honestly, why should they, who’s crazy enough to support EOL devices!?!!

Elnec is! Ok, the BeeProg series is really everything else than cheap but it’s worth every cent. While I thought the supported devices list of the GALEP was huge (6057), Elnecs list is a behemoth (85347 and counting).

And on top of that, there’s their free AlgOR (Algorithms On Request) service. If you have an unsupported device and some sort of specs/datasheet you can ship it to them and they’ll do their best to add your device-from-mars to the endless list.
I just used this service, and it just went great. For my AM-B404 TRAM I need to test quite some SRAMs from a “New-Old-Stock” source, which I don’t completely trust. While my BeeProg+ supports a wide range of SRAMs already, of all things these weren’t on the list. So I’ve sent two samples to Slovakia and a week later that type was included in the most recent release of their software!

So – if you’re into vintage hardware restauration – don’t waste time & money with half-hearted solutions. Even the price is steep, given their quality and service I’m very confident that this is the one and only programmer you’ll ever need. Period.

Flat is the new 3D

Ok, so we all had a close look at if there was a “one more thing” at WDCC. Well, not for me – but that’s a personal view.

Looking through my Yester-Tech pair of glasses, one thing caught my eye (pun intended ;)): OS X UI design is getting flatter (and flatter). It just struck me this time as I was just thinking how to get a more modern window manager running on Helios’ X11, which offers twm and mwm for now, looking like this:


Doh. That looks flat. And simple. But it just does its job: Manage windows (move, pop-over/under etc.). But from the beginning of UIs, everybody was looking left and right what Apple, SGI or even Microsoft did design-wise. And they were all trying hard to get a more 3D’ish look, mostly by using embossing and beveling.

So, at a time MacOS 7.x looked like this


Windows 95 tried to catch up (W98/NT/2k looked pretty much the same)

and the free fvwm was the free alternative to $$$ Motiv on X-Window:

Then came Mac OS X with its Aqua-look and all of the sudden spherical buttons, rounded corners and lolli-pop colors became a must-have. The original:


And the look-alikes from MS (Windows XP):

…and yet another X window manager (KDE this time):

After that hell broke loose and all sorts of crazy, mostly Hollywood inspired and supported by the capabilities of all those l33t 3D video-cards, 3D user interfaces hit the street web. Bumptop was one of many:


Then, slowly people recognized that while a UI might look cool, it might also be unusable or gives you a headache when using it for real work. So things cooled down and the clock went backwards.
With Windows 8 (and Windows Mobile following) UIs started to get flat again. And rectangular. Besides the “Windows 8 Modern UI” (aka Metro), even standard desktop windows and dialogs got pretty flat

And last but not least with iOS 7 and soon-to-be-released MacOS X 10.10 Apples UIs also will get flatter…


Am I the only one who feels “been there, done that”? Is flat the new 3D after it’s been very flat before?

If you only have a Hammer…

…every problem looks like a nail.

Why the rant? Well, a new mobile phone was due and I was bored by my iPhone. So as a matter of fact I could choose between the plague or cholera… ok, after Apple owned my mobile data the last 5 years it’s just fair to let Google have its share, too. Gasp! How could i!? 🙂

It wouldn’t be me if I would not mention ‘the good old days’. So let me divagate a bit:

In the long gone past, I was a avid defender of [enter the current favorite system here] versus the rest of the world, e.g. “C64 vs. ATARI XL vs. Amstrad/Schneider vs. Sinclair vs. Apple II” or “ATARI ST vs. AMIGA vs. PC (286 that was) vs. QL vs. Mac”. We spent hours to defend “our” system against other crap-computers and the same was true later on, when it came down to the OS arm-wrestling: Windoze vs. MacOS (we’re talking 7 here) vs. RISCOS vs. OS/2 vs. Linux (v0.94ish)… not mentioning 68k vs. x86 vs. ARM vs. Transputer.
Over the time I got more relaxed and maybe wiser -did I say that?!- and chose the mantra used in the headline: “If you only have a Hammer, every problem looks like a nail”.
When you’re young and financially limited you have to chose clever, or not, and then you’re doomed to stick with it until you can afford something better/newer… and because you’re stuck, you have to defend your decision with a knife between your teeth. Later you might get the idea, that it’s quicker to open & edit that damn document with Windows than converting it 10 times wasting an hour… and it’s just clever to use 3 lines of perl/bash/python instead of Batch-file kludges or HyperCard (remember that?).

That said: I officially quit OS/System/CPU wars. I pick what fits best for the job – that does not turn me into a fanboy of that choice.
Why? If you take a closer look at my examples given in the beginning of this rant, you might get the point straight away: I was just mentioning some of the available systems at those days. So the choice was big and with its possible combinations it was a huge offering to chose from.
Today, it’s very simple, mostly A, B or C: Windows, Linux/*BSD  or MacOS. iOS; Android or “the remaining 5% of the market”; x86, ARM or, mhh, MIPS perhaps. Boring. Very Boring. Yawn.

How about you? Are you still fanboy’ing about today-tech?

Newtech thoughts wk37

It’s not the case that I do not have a look at what’s going on in ‘Today-Tech’, as a matter of fact I have to know what’s going on in order to get the bread on the table. That said, and you might have guessed it already, normally I’m not really impressed by the latest ‘old wine in new bottles’.
But every now and then, there’s something which actually makes me raising an eyebrow (yeah, call me Spock ;-)) and if it’s really cool or totally crappy, I’m happy to share it here with you. So let’s see what I came along:

This is crazy shit. I really love it. Watch the video – it makes you go “oh my god!”.

On the other hand, that…


…is just boring. Besides the small changes, can someone please explain the idea of 64bit in a mobile phone? More than 4GB RAM? Hardcore math?

This one might be the first (recent) Smartwatch I might spend a second look at. Even it’s Android… but it might actually be available in stores (gasp!)


Coming back to the “old wine in new wineskins”, we all know that Smartwatches are nothing new, do we? Let me name a few: Seiko UC-2000 (1984), the EPSON RC-20 (archived URL) (1985, Z80 CPU, still have one NOS) and the famous Ruputer later called OnHand PC (1998). I was really close to buy a Ruputer back in 1998 but after building a 1:1 model out of paper (sic!) I had to admit that my wrist is just not big enough… and it still is 🙁
Side-note: I had a rather long’ish look at the WIMM watch… and when I was thiiiiis close to order a Dev-Kit they were swallowed by that one big company that rules them all – no, it’s not Microsoft anymore 😉

The answer to the why-question

If you have read some of the articles on this page, you might already got bored about the constant mention of “real men hardware” or the notion of some boring technical stuff being “nice”, “sexy” or just “beautiful”… well, I admit you have to be a bit geeky to fully understand that right from the spot but this rant tries to explain this a bit more in detail – especially because I hear the “why?” question a lot.

“Once upon a time…”

If you talk to geek-veterans (born before 1975) it often may happen to you that they start sentences with “Back then…” or “In those days, when everything was much nicer,…“. This is because the computing world wasn’t anything but settled. Many things were in flux, you had to fiddle a lot to make a computer to do more than just print some text on a screen or printer – and there were certainly many roads which led to Rome.
It was not god-given that you could have graphics (i.e. not just text) maybe in color -gasp!- or sound/music beyond a pathetic beep… and even if you had a graphic output, monochrome 280×192 pixels were called high res!

It’s becoming obvious that this page centers around technologies from 1988-1993’ish. So it’s not Commodore 64 or Apple II stuff which you would probably call “stone age hardware”, but still those Workstations, Cray-in-a-Chip or Super-Highresdevices are pathetic compared to todays PDAs or even mobile phones, not to mention current (personal) computers – the simplest things we got used to today are nearly impossible:
Animated 3D Graphics? With some extra CPU(s) I could rotate a wire-frame cube for you.
Playing MP3 files? Well, if you have a fast enough DSP that might work…
Surfing the web? Surfing what?
Burning a 4GB ISO image? Does it fit on my super-macho 5.25″ full-hight 200MB hard-drive?
Use that funky API for doing XYZ? Sure, if you code the driver first…

So what the fuzz?!

Deo in machina

It’s the esprit, the spirit, the ingeniousness which makes those old dogs so fascinating. You had to go the extra mile to reach nearly anything which is daily routine today. And while ASICs weren’t that fast as they’re today, most things were handled by additional general purpose CPU(s) or special coprocessors/chipsets like those used in Commodores AMIGA machines.

For example, the combo of a high-end TIGA graphic card and an additional, full-length accelerator containing a 33MHz MIPS R3000 CPU was able to display 10.000 triangles/s of 100 pixels, flat-shaded.
In 1994 a PlayStation (the first one, using the same MIPS CPU) did 360.000 flat-shaded polygons/s – so you get an idea, how “fast” a supposedly fast graphics card was back then… well, don’t forget that everybody else was still happy with 320×200 256-colors 2D graphics (that’s standard mode 0x13 VGA).

There you have it: Why? Because it’s still fascinating what engineers were doing to reach their goals. Squeezing the last drip out of everything.
Then, if you’re able to revive all this today and have it successfully running, it’s like an old steam train making its first “breath” after years of hiatus: Impressive.

Well, ok…

Ok, it had to happen one day. Everybody and his/her dog has a blog today, and sometimes I have to admit, I’d like to to give my 2 cents about things just happened/happened in the good old days or something I just discovered for myself which does not exactly fit into the normal GeekDot webpage. So here it is: The GeekDot blog.

Not sure if there will be many posts, but good to know I could, if I need to…

While you were obviously digging deeper, you might have seen that there’s a commenting facillity down there. Because I’m too lazy to create a commenting feature myself or fiddle around with 10+ plugins of my (ex) CMS I simply use(ed) DISQUS giving a plenthora of features as a plus. If you don’t like that or know better solutions, just leave a comment below 😉