3DFX Voodoo2 V2 1000 PCI

This is a 3DFX Voodoo 2 V2 1000 PCI still sealed in the box.

V2_Box_Full

I actually own three Voodoo 2’s. The first one is a Metabyte Wicked 3D (below, with the blue colored VGA port) that I bought from a friend in high school.  The second one is the new-in-box 3DFX branded Voodoo 2 I bought off of ShopGoodwill last year.  The third one (below, with the oddly angled middle chip) is a Guilliemot Maxi Gamer 3D2 I bought at the Cuyahoga Falls Hamfest earlier this year.

V2_All_Three_Cards

The Voodoo 2, in all of its manifestations, is my favorite expansion board of all time.  It’s one of the last 3D graphics boards that normally operated without a heatsink so you can gaze upon the bare ceramic chip packages and the lovely 3DFX logos emblazoned upon them.  It was also pretty much the last 3D graphics board where the various functions of the rendering pipeline were still broken out into three separate chips (two texture mapping units and a frame buffer).  The way the three chips are laid out in a triangle is like watching jet fighters flying in formation.

V2_Three_Chips

It’s hard to explain to someone who wasn’t playing PC games in the late-1990s what having a 3DFX board meant. It was like having a lightswitch that made all of the games look much, much better.  There are perhaps three tech experiences that have utterly blown my mind.  One of them was seeing DVD for the first time.  Another is seeing HDTV for the first time.  Seeing hardware accelerated PC games on a Voodoo 2 was on the same level.

V2_Box_Rear_Full

A friend of mine in high school won the Metabyte Wicked 3D in an online contest.  I remember the day it arrived at his house I had walked home from school trudging up and down piles of snow that had been piled up on the sidewalk to clear the roads and I got home exhausted…And he calls me asking if I wanted to come over as he installed the Voodoo 2 card and fired up some games.  Even though I was exhausted I eagerly accepted.

I think I saw hardware accelerated Quake 2 that day…Nothing else would ever be the same.  I was immensely jealous.

V2_Box_Name

Ever since personal computers have been connected to monitors there has been some sort of display hardware in a computer that output video signals.  Often times this hardware included capabilities that enhanced or took over some of the CPU’s role in creating graphics.

When we talk about 2D graphics we mean graphics where for the most part the machine is copying an image from one place in the computer’s memory and putting int another place in the computer’s memory.  For example, if you imagine a scene from say, Super Mario Bros. the background is made up of pre-prepared blocks of pixels (ever notice how the clouds and the shrubs are the same pattern or pixels with a color shift?) and Mario and the bad guys are each particular frame in a short animation called a sprite.  These pieces of images are combined together in a special type of memory that is connected to a chip that sends the final picture to the TV screen or monitor.

It’s sort of like someone making one of those collages where you cut images out of a magazine and paste them on a poster-board.  The key to speeding up 2D graphics in a computer is speeding up the process of copying all of the pieces of the image to the special memory where they need to end up.  You might have heard about the special “blitter” chips in some Atari consoles and the famous Amiga computers that made their graphics so great.  2D graphics were ideal for the computing power of the time but they give videogame designers limited ability to show depth and perspective in videogames.

Outside of flight simulator games and the odd game like Hard Drivin and Indy 500 almost all videogames used 2D graphics until the mid-1990s.  PC games during the 2D graphics era were mostly being driven by the CPU.  If you bought a faster CPU, the games got more fluid.  There were special graphics boards you could buy to make games run faster, but the CPU was the main factor in game performance.

V2_Two_Cards_Angle

Beginning in about 1995-1996 there was a big switch to 3D graphics in videogames (which is totally different than the thing where you wear glasses and things pop out of the screen…that’s stereoscopics) and that totally changed how the graphics were being created by the computer.  In 3D graphics the images are represented in the computer by a wireframe model of polygons that make up a scene and the objects in it. Special image files called textures represent what the surfaces of the objects should look like.  Rendering is the process of combing all of these elements to create an image that is sent to the screen.  The trick is that the computer can rotate the wireframe freely in 3D space and then place the textures on the model so that they look correct from the perspective of the viewer, hence “3D”.  You can imagine it as being somewhat akin to making a diorama.

With 3D graphics videogame designers gained the same visual abilities as film directors: Assuming the computer could draw a scene they could place the player’s perspective anywhere they desired.

V2_Box_Rear_Images

The problem with 3D graphics is that they are much more taxing computationally than 2D graphics.  They taxed even the fastest CPUs of the era.

In 1995-1996 when the first generation of 3D games started appearing in PCs they looked like pixelated messes on a normal computer.  You could only play them at about 320×240, objects like walls in the games would get pixelated very badly when you got close to them, and the frame rate was a jerky 20 fps if you were lucky.  Games had started using 3D graphics and as a result required the PC’s CPU to do much, much more work than previous games.  When Quake, one of the first mega-hit 3D graphics-based first person shooters came out it basically obsoleted the 486 overnight because it was built around the Pentium’s floating-point (read: math) capabilities.  But even then you were playing it at 320×240.

At the same time arcade games has been demonstrating much better looking 3D graphics.  When you sat down in front on an arcade machine like Daytona USA or Virtua Fighter 2 what you saw was fluid motion and crisp visuals that clearly looked better than what your PC was doing at home.  That’s because they had dedicated hardware for producing 3D graphics that took some types of work away from the CPU.  These types of chips were also used in flight simulators and they were known to be insanely expensive.  However, by the time the N64 came out in 1996 this type of hardware was starting to make it’s way into homes.  What PCs needed was their own dedicated 3D graphics hardware.  They needed hardware acceleration.

That’s what the Voodoo 2 is.  The Voodoo 1 and it’s successor the Voodoo 2 were 3DFX’s arcade-quality 3D graphics products for consumer use.

V2_Full_Board

A texture mapping unit (the two upper chips labeled 3DFX on the Voodoo 2) takes the textures from the memory on the graphics board (many of those smaller rectangular chips on the Voodoo 2) and places them on the wireframe polygons with the correct scaling and distance.  The textures may also be “lit” where the colors of pixels may be changed to reflect the presence of one or more lights in the scene.  A framebuffer processor (the lower chip labeled 3DFX) takes the 3D scene with the texture and produces a 2D image that is built up in the framebuffer memory (the rest of those smaller, rectangular chips in the Voodoo 2) that can be sent to the monitor via the RAMDAC chip (like a D/A converter for video, it is labeled GENDAC on the Voodoo 2).

V2_Angle

3DFX was the first company to produce really great 3D graphics chips for consumer consumption in PCs.  Their first consumer product was the Voodoo 1 in late 1996.  It was soon followed in 1998 by the Voodoo 2.

The Voodoo 2 is a PCI add-in board that does not replace the PC’s 2D graphics card.  Instead, there’s a cable that goes from the 2D board to the Voodoo 2 and then the Voodoo 2 connectors to the monitor.  This meant that the Voodoo 2 could not display 3D in a window, but what you really want it for is playing full-screen games, so it’s not much of a loss.

V2_Box_Rear_Card

My friend who won the Metabyte Wicked 3D card later bought a Voodoo 3 card and sold me the Voodoo 2 sometime in 1999.

I finally had hardware acceleration.  At the time we had a Compaq Presario that had begun life has a Pentium 100 and had been upgraded with an Overdrive processor to a Pentium MMX 200.  It was getting a bit long in the tooth by this time, which was probably 1999.  Previously I had made the mistake of buying a Matrox Mystique card with the hope of it improving how games looked and being bitterly disappointed in the results.

Having been a big fan of id Software’s Doom I had paid full price ($50) for their follow-up game Quake after having played the generous (quarter of the game) demo over and over again.   Quake was by far my favorite game (and it’s still in my top 5).

V2_Quake_Box V2_Quake_Box_Back

id had known that Quake could look much better if it supported hardware acceleration.  They had become frustrated with the way that the needed to modify Quake in order to support each brand of 3D card.  Basically, the game needs to instruct the card on what it needs to do and each of card used a different set of commands.  id had decided to create their own set of commands (called a miniGL because it was a subset of SGI’s OpenGL API) in the hope that 3D card makers would supply a library that would convert the miniGL commands into commands for their card.  The version of Quake they created to use the miniGL was called GLQuake and it was available as a freely downloadable add-on.

It’s a little hard to show you this today, but this is what GLQuake (and the Voodoo 2) did for Quake.  First, a screenshot of Quake without hardware acceleration (taken on from the Pentium III with a Voodoo 3 3000):

V2_Quake_Shot

Pixels everywhere.

Now, with hardware accelerated GLQuake:

V2_GLQuake

Suddenly the walls and floor look smooth and not blocky.  Everything is much higher resolution.  In motion everything is much fluid.  It may seem underwhelming now, but this was very hot stuff in 1997 and blew me away when I first saw in 1999.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that it was pretty much all downhill for 3DFX after the Voodoo 2.  After the Voodoo 2 3DFX decided to stop selling chips to 3rd party OEMs like Metabyte and Guilliemot and produce their own cards.  That’s why my boxed board is just branded 3DFX.  This turned out to be disastrous because suddenly they were competing with the very companies that had sold their very successful products in the 1996-1998 period.  They also released the Voodoo 3, which combined 2D graphics hardware with 3D graphics hardware on a single chip (that was hidden under a heatsink).

The Voodoo 3 was an excellent card and I loved the Voodoo 3 3000 that was in the Dell Pentium III my parents bought to succeed the Presario.  However, 3DFX was having to make excuses for features that the Voodoo 3 didn’t have and their competitors did have (namely 32-bit color).  Nvidia’s TNT2 Ultra suddenly looked like a better card than the Voodoo 3.

3DFX was having trouble producing their successor to the Voodoo line and instead was having to adapt the old Voodoo technology to keep up.  The Voodoo 4 and 5, which consisted of several updated Voodoo 3 chips working together on a single board ended up getting plastered by Nvidia’s GeForce 2 and finally GeForce 3 chips which accelerated even more parts of the graphics rendering process than 3DFX did.  3DFX ceased to exist by the end of 2000.  Supposedly prototypes of “Rampage”, the successor to Voodoo were sitting on a workbench being debugged the day the company folded.

Back in the late-1990s 3D acceleration was a luxury meant for playing games.  Today, that’s no longer true: 3D graphics hardware is an integral part of almost every computer..  Today every PC, every tablet, and every smartphone sold has some sort of 3D acceleration.  3DFX showed us the way.

V2_3DFX_Logo

VideoLabs ScholasticCam

This is my VideoLabs ScholasticCam desktop video camera from 1999, a sort of TV camera on a goose-neck mount that based on it’s name seems to have been intended for classroom use.

VL_Profile

Oddball stuff like this is why I love the Village Thrift on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls.  At other thrift stores you’re lucky to get a smattering of mundane electronics like old TVs and VCRs.  At Village, they do have an electronics section but they also have another section that’s just a long set of shelves full off everything imaginable: Housewares, videogames, cookware, audiobooks, sporting goods, board games. medical supplies, etc.  On a typical trip to Village Thrift my Dad and I will scrutinize these shelves several times because lost in the piles can be real gems.

The ScholasticCam is one of those things that you see out of the corner of your eye and think “What is that?”

VL_Box_Front

When I spotted this thing I was hoping it was a web cam that magnified so that you could capture close up images of small objects on a PC.  It turns out that it’s a bit too early for that.  It’s actually a tiny TV camera attached to S-Video and Composite outputs.

VL_Connections

The box implies that you can use it as a web cam but when you read the fine print it says in order to use it like that you need a video capture device on your computer, which they do not supply.

VL_Box_Specs

On the other side of the box it looks like VideoLabs sold a line of similar cameras for other purposes.  I would love to have the model that attaches to a microscope.

VL_Box_Other_Products

At first it looks like the ScholasticCam does not have any obvious controls.  The base has nothing whatsoever other than a connector for the power/video-out dongle and the VideoLabs logo.

VL_Base_Logo

There’s a power button and indicator light on the camera.

VL_Camera_Top

VL_Camera_Side

What’s not immediately obvious is how to focus the camera.  See that cone-shaped thing at the bottom of the camera?  That twists for focus.  It feels a little too free and loose when it turns.  I would prefer something a bit more smooth and firm.

VL_Camera_Lens

One problem I noticed is that focusing the camera inevitably bumps it slightly out of position.  You end up having to very delicately twist the focus while watching your video source to see how you’re doing.  It seems like twisting in one direction and looking in another leads to more camera bumping.

To it’s credit, the ScholasticCam is built like a tank.  The base is well weighted so that you can bend the neck very far without it having balance issues.

I was very curious to see what this camera’s pictures looked like on a computer.  I don’t have any modern video capture equipment but I do have this Dazzle Digital Video Creator USB (circa 2000) that I found at the Midway Plaza Goodwill in Akron (it’s a pretty safe bet it will show up in a future blog entry).

VL_Dazzle_Box

The Dazzle, like many PC peripherals of it’s day, does not have drivers for modern versions of Windows (Vista, 7 and 8).  I had to pull out the old Gateway Pentium 4 I used in college to fire up Windows XP and install the Dazzle’s drivers.  I quickly discovered that with the Dazzle the image doesn’t update on screen at full speed.  You can output to a TV and see a 30-fps view of what you are capturing, but I was too lazy to hook that up.  So, making fine adjustments to the ScholasticCam while watching in 5-fps on the computer screen was a bit of a pain.

VL_Camera_Setup

The Dazzle is sitting on top of the Gateway mini-tower and the ScholasticCam is sitting on the table with some objects I want to look at.

The first time I tried hooking up the ScholasticCam and the Dazzle to the Gateway it was at night and I quickly found that the lamp I had on in this room was not providing enough illumination for the ScholasticCam.  So I improvised with a little LED light with legs.

VL_Night_Setup

The next day I moved into the living room so that I could try some images under daylight.

This 2012 Hawaii Volcanoes America the Beautiful Quarter presents a difficult target to image.  Keep in mind that this is connected via S-Video (which is alright, but not great) through a low-grade video capture device and JPEG compressed.  This is under the artificial lighting at night.  As I said before, focusing was difficult because every time you focus you bump the camera.

VL_Quarter_Night

There are a lot of strange color aberrations and much of the detail on the eruption was been lost.

VL_Quarter_Day

This image taken with daylight is a little better.  At least you can see the eruption.

One of the problems is that large focus cone ring on the ScholasticCam does not do you any favors for lighting.  It would be better if it had a built-in lamp on the camera.

Here’s another coin, a 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar.  First, under artificial lighting.

VL_1964_Half_Full_Night

We see more of those color aberrations but the details are good.  And now, under daylight.

VL_1964_Half_Day

The colors are bit better under daylight.  But, the color fidelity on this camera, and the resolution it outputs at makes everything look like it’s being taken underwater by a submarine.

Something else I noticed is a spherical aberration in the lens.  This TextelFX² chip is clearly supposed to be square.

VL_3DFX_Close_Night

This Intel 486 chip is also supposed to be square.

VL_486_Day_Close

I spent some time trying to focus this image of the serial number on the bottom of this Apple Desktop Bus Mouse for some time and I thing I got a good example of what a properly focused image looks like.

VL_Mouse_Label

Honestly, it seems like my iPad gets better images than this.

Now, it could be that without having the manual to this thing, I’m not giving the ScholasticCam a fair shake.  It also could be that this camera is not intended for taking such close up images.  But it seems like this well built and obviously highly engineered camera from the late-1990s has been thoroughly outclassed since then.  It also reminds me that phone camera tech was producing images of similar quality to this just a few years ago.  It makes you appreciate how far CCD technology has come.

VL_Box_Label

Odds and Ends #2

I mentioned last week how much I loved going to the library as a child.  These days rather than going to the library I tend to buy used books from thrift stores and used book stores.

I used to look at thrift store book sections with disdain because they were mostly filled with romance novels, out-of-date political books, self-help guides from the 70s, and other forms of useless drivel.

But, what I came to realize is that there’s always a diamond in the rough and considering how much rough thrift stores tend to have, the rate of finding diamonds is pretty high.  The beauty of it is that because these books tend to be so cheap you can really indulge your curiosity without feeling like you’re throwing away money.

Sometimes I’ll buy a book because I know nothing about the subject matter.

Ekiben: The Art of the Japanese Box Lunch

I was at the Goodwill on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls recently when I found this 1989 coffee table book about Ekiben, the Japanese tradition of creating special Bento box lunches for sale at train stations so that people can eat them on the trains.

Odds2_Ekiben_Cover

Odds2_Ekiben_Back

Odds2_Ekiben_4

Odds2_Ekiben_3

Odds2_Ekiben_2

Odds2_Ekiben_1

I can’t imagine a similar book about American airline food, can you?

Other times I will buy a book because I am very familiar with the subject matter or I’m collecting books on a specific subject.  Ever since my parents bought me the Encyclopedia of Soviet Spacecraft as a child I’ve been interested in collecting books about spaceflight, including books by or about astronauts.

We Have Capture: Tom Stafford and the Space Race

I think I found this copy of We Have Capture, the autobiography of astronaut Tom Stafford (co-written with space writer Michael Cassutt) at the Waterloo Road Goodwill in Akron.

Odds2_Stafford_Book

Among the Apollo astronauts Tom Stafford is somewhat forgotten because he didn’t walk on the Moon and until I read We Have Capture I didn’t realize how much of an impact Stafford had made. After flying on Gemini 6 and Gemini 9 , Stafford commanded the Apollo 10 mission, which was a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. He and Gene Cernan descended in the Lunar Module to about 47,000 feet above the Moon’s surface before testing the Lunar Module’s ability to abort during landing.

However, the most interesting part of Stafford’s career came after the Moon landings.  In 1971 was sent as a US representative to the funeral for the cosmonauts who died on the Soyuz 11 flight.  Later he would command the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), the flight that is depicted in the jacket image.  ASTP is somewhat forgotten today but in a historic moment of the Cold War in 1975 the final US Apollo flight docked with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft in order to demonstrate international cooperation.  What’s fascinating is that in the 25 years after ASTP Stafford continued to act as an adviser for NASA and helped to shepherd the Shuttle-Mir flights and the transformation of the failed Space Station Freedom project into the joint US-Russian-European-Japanese International Space Station project.  In many ways the most interesting parts of the book have to do with Stafford’s techno-bureaucrat functions on that ground more than what he did in space.

Incidentally, I hope someday a space writer like Michael Cassutt, Andrew Chaikin or Dwayne Day writes a book-length history of the origins of the International Space Station (ISS).  From what I understand there were some unique political, diplomatic, and engineering challenges that were overcome to create the ISS.

The best writer to tell that story may be William Burrows, author of books including Deep Black and Exploring Space.

Exploring Space: Voyages in the Solar System and Beyond

I found this copy of Exploring Space at the Waterloo Road Goodwill in Akron.  This is a funny book because to look at the cover this looks like your standard “spaceflight is so great” kind of hagiography that’s common among books about spaceflight.  In Exploring Space from 1990, Burrows actually takes a more critical approach.

Odds2_Burrows_Exploring_Space

I don’t think Burrows dislikes us spending money on exploring space.  Rather, he’s unhappy, perhaps even disgusted with the way we’ve gone about doing it.  The history of spaceflight is rife with good ideas that were poorly executed repeatedly before the engineers got them right (JPL’s early flights in the Pioneer, Mariner, Ranger, and Surveyor series) , good ideas that we spent way too much money on before they were finally executed right (Viking and Voyager) and questionable ideas that were forced to be realized because of political pressure (like the Space Shuttle).  The bizarre way that we fund spaceflight through political kabuki lends itself to these kinds of costly messes.  I suspect that if Burrows were writing Exploring Space today he would be more sympathetic to NASA’s cost controlled Discovery program, very unhappy with the James Webb Space Telescope, and seething with rage about the forthcoming SLS launch vehicle.

An interesting example of when spaceflight vision and reality collide is well illustrated by…

Challenge of the Stars: A Forecast of the Future Exploration of the Universe

This thin coffee-table sized volume is another book I found at the Waterloo Road Goodwill.  I remember that I spotted it right after one of the book’s authors, the English astronomer and television presenter Patrick Moore, had died late last year.

Odds2_Challenge_of_the_Stars

Much like The Compact Disc Book, I mentioned last week, the fun of Challenge of the Stars is seeing if what they predicted would occur that has occurred and what has not occurred.  One thing they got right was the “Grand Tour” of the solar system that became the Voyager 1 and 2 probes.

Odds2_Challenge_Soyuz_Skylab

This stunning illustration of a proposed docking between a Soviet Soyuz and the US’s Skylab space station (note the Apollo CSM waiting in the distance).  This idea was turned down in favor of the Apollo-Soyuz Test project flight that Tom Stafford flew.

What really caught my eye though, was the section on space stations and a manned Mars landing.

Odds2_Space_Station

On the bottom left is one of the earlier proposals for the Space Shuttle.  Rather than the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters we bacame so fami,iar with, this earlier proposal used a liquid-fueled booster that would fly back to the launch site and land rather than being discarded like the External Tank.

The real prize though, is the photo on the opposite page.  Here’s a closer view.

Odds2_Challenge_Mars_Mission_1

Other than the fact that this is a beautiful piece of art, there’s quite a bit of political history attached to this image.  This was produced for a study that Von Braun’s group at Marshall Spaceflight Center conducted in 1969 about what to do after Apollo.

That blunt-nosed craft in the middle of the image with the three cylinders with the USA insignia on them are Von Braun’s idea for a manned-Mars exploration ship.  The three USA-labeled cylinders are actually nuclear powered rockets.  Here a space shuttle is delivering a fuel shipment to the craft while it’s being assembled in orbit nearby a space station.  What you’re seeing envisioned here would have taken dozens of Saturn V launches to get into orbit.

On a later page is an illustration of what the Mars Excursion Module, Von Braun’s Mars lander, would have looked like sitting on Mars.  Note that it’s basically a giant-sized Apollo command module.

Odds2_Challenge_Mars_Mission_2

The excellent False Steps blog goes into more detail but essentially this outrageously expensive proposal was laughed out of the room in Washington.  One of the reasons we got the Space Shuttle after Apollo was that the Space Shuttle was seen as more cost effective than Apollo, and into this atmosphere NASA’s spacecraft designers at Marshall were tilting at windmills rather than proposing a more cost-effective alternative to the Shuttle.

It’s fascinating to imagine what might have been though, had Von Braun’s Mars mission proposal been accepted by Nixon.  In fact…

Voyage

Voyage, by Stephen Baxter is a science fiction novel that explores an alternate history where a version of Von Braun’s proposal was actually carried out and the United States landed on Mars in 1986.

Odds2_Baxter_Voyage

I believe I found this paperback at Last Exit Books in Kent.

Voyage is a real treat for spaceflight fans because it goes into immense detail about the trials and tribulations of the political squabbling, engineering feats, test flight mishaps, and other nerd candy that lead up to the Mars landing.  Clearly Baxter studied the various Mars mission proposals from the late-1960s and early 1970s carefully because many of the details from Von Braun’s plan, like upgrade versions of the Saturn V and the NERVA nuclear rocket project make their way into Voyage.  He also takes cues from real life as well.  For example, rather than the Challenger disaster, a gruesome mishap occurs with on a NERVA rocket test flight.  Rather than the ASTP mission flying, the Soviets are invited to a US Skylab-style station orbiting the Moon.  If you’re a space nerd at all, Voyage is going to be right up your alley.

Sometimes I stumble onto neat space memorabilia in unexpected places.

Atlas V AV-003 Interactive DVD

I was at the Kent/Ravenna Goodwill a few weeks ago browsing at the DVDs and suddenly I see a DVD that says Atlas V AV-003 on the side.

Odds2_Atlas_V_Cover

I expect to see Atlas V rocket serial numbers the on the NASASpaceflight.com forums, not on something at Goodwill.

The Atlas V is a launch vehicle originally developed by Lockheed Martin and currently built and operated by the United Launch Alliance.  You might remember the original Atlas rocket that began as an ICBM in the 1950s, flew astronauts during the Mercury program in the early 1960s, and became a workhorse for launching satellites and space probes well into the 1990s.  Since then, the Atlas name has become a sort of brand name for the Atlas rocket family.  The current Atlas V has design heritage that goes back to the Titan and Atlas-Centaur rockets and uses a first stage booster engine built by the Russians.

Odds2_Atlas_V_Disc

This is the Atlas V AV-003 Interactive DVD.  AV-003 refers to the serial number of the rocket, so this DVD documents the launch of the third Atlas V in 2003.

At first I was a bit disappointed in this DVD because it seemed to be full of standard marketing video drivel and over-produced launch video crud.  That is until I found the menu where they let you watch every camera that was covering the launch.  There are the cameras you expect to see: cameras on the pad and tracking cameras that track the rocket from afar.

Odds2_Atlas_v_Tracking_2

But then there are cameras mounted on the first and second stages.  I’ve seen these used on launch videos before, but I had never had the chance to just watch the raw footage with no commentary or editing.

Odds2_SRB_Sep_1

Here is a view on the first stage looking downward as one of the solid rocket boosters separates.

Odds2_SRB_Sep_2

And there it goes tumbling away.

Odds2_Fairing_Sep

This camera is looking upward as the payload fairing (aka the nose cone) separates after the rocket has gotten far enough out of the atmosphere that it can shed the weight of the fairing.

Odds2_Centaur_Flies_Away

This is from the same camera looking upwards after the first stage has shut down and the second stage, a Centaur upper-stage, has started and speeds away from the dead booster.

I have no idea how a DVD like this made it’s way to the Kent Goodwill, but it made my day when I found it.

Odds2_Atlas_V_Back

Yamaha CDV-1100

This is my Yamaha CDV-1100 LaserDisc player that I bought in May at Time Traveler, a record store on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls.

CDV_Front

At the end of my post on the Pioneer LD-V2000 I said that I was looking for another LaserDisc player that had digital audio capability if the price was right.  At Time Traveler I came upon two LaserDisc players: a Pioneer CLD-S201 priced at $40 and this Yamaha CDV-1100 priced at $20.  The Pioneer had it’s remote while the Yamaha didn’t.  The LaserDisc conventional wisdom says to always go with the Pioneer.

CDV_Other_Player_Store

However, the CLD-S201 just looks boring to me.  It has that boring look that so many pieces of early 90s audio and video equipment have.  One of the parts of this hobby of collecting obsolete electronics that I adore is that you can collect based on “coolness” rather than specs or features.  In 1992, the CLD-S201 would have been the right thing to buy.  But I’m not in 1992.

CDV_Front_Angled

The Yamaha CDV-1100, on the other hand has a bit more late-80s styling.  I have an affinity for Yamaha stuff, especially 1980s Yamaha stuff, ever since I found a Yamaha DSP-1 and it’s associated 4-channel power amplifier at the old Abbey Ann’s #1 years and years ago.

CDV_Bottom_Manu_Date

But the main thing that attracted me to the CDV-1100 was that wonderful CD-Video logo on the front of the player and how it brought back fond memories of The Compact Disc Book.

CDV_Book_Cover

When I was a child my mother instilled in me a love of books and public libraries.  She would visit Taylor Memorial Public Library (now Cuyahoga Falls Public Library) on a regular basis.  Sometimes I would go with her and other times I would ask her to find me books on a specific subject.  There were certain books I was fascinated with that I would take out over and over. One of these books was a 1987 introduction to the CD called The Compact Disc Book by Bryan Brewer and Edd Key (how can you forget a book by a guy named Edd?).

Today when you Google The Compact Disc Book what you find is a post on the site Awful Library Books where librarians make fun of obsolete, out-of-date books that get culled from library collections.

Much of the book was right on.  The parts about how digital audio worked, how the data on a CD is encoded in pits and lands, and how CDs are manufactured are still relevant today.

However, the real fun part of books like this is the vision of the future they articulate.  Even as I was reading the book in the mid-1990s the vision of the future the authors envisioned had not quite come to pass.  The pages about how CD-ROM was going to revolutionize the world (complete with a priceless picture of a giant external CD-ROM drive attached to an IBM PC AT) were on the mark but the sections promising that CD-Interactive (CD-I) and a mysterious format I had not heard of called CD-V were going to revolutionize the living room clearly had not happened.

CDV_Book_Discs

The reason I’m so into LaserDisc today?  That page, right there.  The idea that the ubiquitous CD was actually part of a family of disc standards that had been patched together fascinated me.  I was aware that 12in LaserDiscs had movies on them but I had never seen an 8in LaserDisc or 5.25in CD-Video disc.  I was especially taken with the idea that somewhere out there were gold CDs with video on them.

This Vine video I did with the Yamaha CDV-1100 and the various disc sizes is my tribute to that photo in The Compact Disc Book.

Earlier in the book there’s a section that explains the LaserDisc format and it’s relationship with CD Audio and CD Video.

CDV_Book_LaserDisc

The pièce de résistance was this vision of what the “living-room of the future” would look like.

CDV_Book_Living_Room

In the future we will all have giant 4:3 flat screen TVs and “omni-disc” players for all sizes of LaserDiscs (though, I have to admit I do have a 40in flats screen and my PS3 does play many things…).

So, as I’m standing there in Time Traveler I was thinking about that book.  I was thinking how both the Pioneer and the Yamaha both would basically be considered “Omni-Disc” players by the definition of The Compact Disc Book, but that the Yamaha was actually emblazoned with the CD-Video logo, was actually from the 1980s, and was $20 cheaper.

CDV_Logos_Close

So I bought the Yamaha.

Unfortunately I also violated the cardinal rule of buying used electronics: Always try the thing in the store.  I was so enamored with having one of the players that the book was talking about that I didn’t bother to test it in the store.

When we got it home we discovered that, much like the Realistic CD-1000, the belt responsible for opening and closing the drawer were totally shot as well as the belt responsible for moving the laser assembly.

Lesson learned.

My Dad offered to try to fix the CDV-1100, like he had the Realistic CD-1000, but that he wouldn’t have the time to do it for several weeks.

So, while I waited, I kind of went nuts on eBay.  I started looking for a gold CD-V disc, like the book had described.  It seems that people collect these now and many of them go for $30 and up.  That was a little too rich for my blood, especially since I didn’t know if the Yamaha player I would need to play them worked.  Fortunately, I found the CD-V disc from David Bowie’s Sound and Vision boxed set with the Ashes to Ashes video on it for a more reasonable price.

CDV_Gold_Disc_Close

I finally had a gold disc in my hands.  And, as the book said, there is an inner groove with CD Audio on it and an outer groove with LaserDisc video on it.

While searching for CD-V discs, by chance, I stumbled upon the remote for the CDV-1100 I was missing!

CDV_Remote

Like the player itself, this remote was emblazoned with the CD-Video logo.  It resembles the remote for my DSP-1 in shape and layout.  Where the DSP-1’s remote has “DSP” in it’s bottom right-hand corner, this remote has “CDV”, which is really nice symmetry across the product lines.

CDV_Remote_Logo_Close

Next, I found the service manual for the CDV-1100.

CDV_Service_Manual

The service manual is very, very cool.

It has the stuff you would expect, like a labeled internal diagram of all of the player’s guts and disassembly instructions.

CDV_Manual_InternalCDV_Manual_Open

But it also has instructions for a technician to calibrate the player with an oscilloscope.

CDV_Manual_Calibrate

Finally in order to refresh my old memories, I bought the copy of The Compact Disc Book I was showing you from AbeBooks.com.

Someone must have used the original receipt as a bookmark, because it was sitting inside the book!

CDV_Book_Receipt

It looks like the book was purchased at Tower Books on 1/22/89!  I love it when things have the original receipt with them.

Meanwhile, my dad replaced the belts on the CDV-1100, which involved trips to two electronics parts shops in the Akron area because places don’t stock old belts like the used to.

CDV_Insides

What he found after he put everything back together was while the player works, and plays discs beautifully, it sometimes has trouble detecting that a disc is in the machine.

There are lights on the front of the machine that indicate what type of disc is in the machine.

CDV_Front_Lights

Sometimes when you put a full-sized LaserDisc in, it refuses to see the disc.  You can tell that it first checks for a 12in disc.  If it finds it, the LD light lights up.  If it doesn’t find it, there’s a click and then it starts looking for a smaller 5.25in disc.  If it doesn’t find that either there’s another click and the player just sits there.  Sporadically, you put in a 12in disc, get the two clicks, and the player refuses to play.

CDV_LD_Tray

Oddly enough, I have found that if you turn on the player and put in a 5.25in disc, it’s detected almost all of the time.  If you then take out the 5.25in disc and put in a 12in disc, there is a far greater chance of it being detected.

CDV_Ashes_to_Ashes

The service manual unfortunately doesn’t give any details as to how the disc detection process works.  I have a feeling there’s some mechanical device that detects the disc size so that the player knows how to deal with the different size spindle holes between 3in/5.25in CD disc and 8in/12in LaserDiscs.

The good news is that if the player detects the disc then it plays beautifully.  Here’s the Ashes to Ashes video on that Bowie CD-Video disc.

CDV_Ashes_Video

One of the neat features of the CDV-1100 are the different on-screen displays you get depending on what type of disc it’s playing.

When you turn the player on, you get this lovely, oh-so 1980s white text on blue background title screen.

CDV_Display_Yamaha

If you put in a disc with CD Audio on it, such as a 3in CD Single, a normal CD, or a CD-Video disc, you get this screen that shows you how many tracks of audio and video the disc has and the total time.

CDV_Display_CD

While playing a CD the information about track time and track number you would usually get from a display on the player instead is shown on-screen.

If you put in a LaserDisc, you get a screen that tells you the disc size, format (CAV or CLV), and which side you have in the player.

CDV_Display_LD

We’re spoiled in the post-DVD world of elaborate on-screen menus but considering the primitive state of on-screen graphics in those days, this must have been very impressive in 1989.

When it’s working, this is a very cool piece of late-1980s home entertainment equipment.  Like the Compact Disc Book promised this is an “omni-disc” player that basically played every type of Compact Disc/LaserDisc they sold in 1989.

CDV_Tray

The tray has indentations for 3in CD Singles, normal 5.25in CDs and CD-Video discs, 8in/20cm LaserDiscs, and full-sized 12in/30cm LaserDiscs.  The player can play both the digital audio and analog audio tracks on LaserDiscs.

I would love to be able to use this player as my “daily driver” LaserDisc player, replacing the LD-V2000, but I’m not sure about the reliability.  Even so, I’m very glad I bought it since I now have a player that was a part of the promised future laid out out in The Compact Disc Book.

CDV_Book_Discs_Close

Commodore 1084 Monitor

This is my Commodore 1084 monitor, which I believe was made sometime around 1987.

C1084_Front_Quarter2

About two years ago an aunt and uncle that live nearby heard that I was looking for old computers and offered me my uncle’s first computer.  When we got it out of their basement I found that he was giving me a Mitsuba-badged XT clone, as well as the monitor that had remained attached to it for over 20 years.

I was kind of shocked to find out the monitor was a Commodore!  That was not a name I expected to see on a monitor connected to a PC.

C1084_Rear_Serial

The Commodore 1084 is an unassuming looking thing.  I have to admit when my uncle first pulled it out of his basement, I was a little disappointed.  I was hoping to see something really cool like an IBM 5130 Personal Computer Color Display Monitor. The Commodore 1084, on the other hand looks like any one of a myriad of generic composite monitors you may have seen in the 1980s or come upon in a school that kept it’s Apple IIs well into the 1990s.

Oh how wrong I was to be disappointed about the 1084.  From what I gather this is actually a legendary monitor among Commodore aficionados.  It looks remarkably generic looking until you look at the connections on the back.

C1084_Rear_Connections

What makes the Commodore 1084 legendary?  Let’s take a closer look at those video connections on the left.

C1084_Rear_Connections_Close

At first glance that looks like a standard cluster of a yellow composite video RCA input and two white and red RCA audio inputs next to two strange and proprietary DIN connectors.

But that’s wrong.  The little switch to the left that’s labeled CVBS and LCA clues you into the real story.

Several of Commodore’s products such as the Commodore 64 supported a video signal that used two RCA connectors for Luminance (aka Luma) and Chroma.  This is electrically identical to S-Video, which uses a more familiar small DIN connector.  LCA stands for Luma, Chroma, and Audio.  When the little switch is in the up position the yellow plug is for Luma and the Red plug is for Chroma.

The 1084 has an amplifier and a generous speaker built into it’s left side so the white connector is a standard mono audio input.

When the switch is in the down position the yellow becomes a standard composite video input and the white input is used for mono audio.

So, just in that cluster of three RCA plugs we can see that the monitor supports two major video standards of the time: composite and S-Video.  That’s already much more interesting than one of those generic composite monitors.

So what’s TTL RGB?  That’s what my uncle had his PC plugged into, via an adapter cable that went from the DB-9 CGA connector to the DIN connector on the 1084.

C1084_DIN_to_RGB_Cable

Yes, this monitor supports CGA (and by extension, some EGA modes).  That’s interesting because unlike the analog VGA we’re all very familiar with, CGA basically sent very primitive digital signals to a monitor where, for example, the Red channel was either ON or OFF (rather than a varying intensity) depending on the color that was being sent.  There have to be guts inside of the monitor to turn the TTL signals into video.

The second DIN connector is apparently for Linear RGB, which was an analog RGB standard supported on the Amiga, though, I don’t have an Amiga available to test that.

C1084_Front_Controls_Close

One of the controls on the front panel switches between the RGB DIN inputs at the RCA composite/S-Video inputs.

If you want to use composite, the front switch must be in CVBS and the rear switch must be in CVBS.  If you want to use S-Video, the front switch stays in CVBS and the rear switch is set to LCA.  If you want to use the TTL RGB for CGA, the front switch just needs to be in RGB.  That seems a bit kludgy but you get used to it.

So, what is fascinating to me is that this unassuming monitor supports at least four of the major video standards of the time (and maybe more because I see some discussion that there was an adapter make the Apple IIgs work with the 1084).  This makes sense because in this time period Commodore was selling Commodore 64s, Amigas, and PC clones and it was sensible for them to have a single monitor that worked with all of their products.

I’ve been spending a lot of time researching Apple products of the 1980s and this sort of blows my mind.  At the same time as Commodore was selling the 1084 Apple had several video standards going for the Macintosh, Apple IIgs, and Apple IIe/Apple IIc and did not sell a single monitor that worked across their whole product line.

Now, to be fair, this is not a multisync monitor.  All of these video standards that the 1084 supports have a common scan frequency.  So, for example all of the standard this monitor support have a 15.75 KHz horizontal scan frequency and could never support the Macintosh II’s 35 KHz horizontal scan frequency.

Just to see for myself how well this monitor supports different standards, I cobbled together a little demonstration with some of the computers I have laying around.  Keep in mind that taking photos of CRT monitors is a bit of a crapshoot.

First, an Apple IIe on the composite input.

C1084_AppleII_Demo

Here are some scenes from the Apple IIe’s famous “Apple Presents…Apple” demo and tutorial disk.  The Apple II’s color composite support was always a bit of a hack, and that’s why you’re seeing the odd green color fringing on the otherwise white onscreen keyboard.  But, the orange carrots look fine.

C1084_AppleII_Demo_Logo

The memorable scrolling Apple logo looks nice and colorful.  That banding is an artifact from taking the picture.

Here is a Commodore 64 on LCA/S-Video.

First, the famous Commodore 64 “64K RAM System” boot screen.

C1084_C64_Boot

That classic blue has never been bluer.

C1084_C64_Alien_Syndrome_Title

This title screen from Alien Syndrome looks fantastic and the accompanying audio that blares out of the 1084’s mono speaker is the bee’s knees.

C1084_C64_GEOS_Demo

The GEOS demo disk looks beautiful as well.

The kind of detail that you get from a Commodore 64 on S-Video just blows away the Apple IIe.

Finally, CGA.  Now, I have to say that CGA is an abomination and one of the worst things that ever happened to the PC.  CGA and it’s awful color pallet set back PC gaming for years.  But to prove it can be done, here is the Ultima I title screen in all of it’s purple and teal CGA glory.

C1084_Ultima_Title2

Confusingly, I’m using the Apple IIe as a stand here for the 1084.  The PC is actually a Panasonic Senior Partner “luggable” 8088-based PC clone (that will undoubtedly be featured in a future post).

Here’s what Ultima I gameplay looks like in CGA….Yuck, but not the monitor’s fault.

C1084_Ultima_Gameplay

Finally, I didn’t realize the 1084 had a plastic fold-down kickstand until I watched a YouTube video by vwestlife where he demonstrated the kickstand on his 1084.

C1084_Kickstand

After compiling this demonstration, I’m very impressed.  It may not be as pleasant looking as one of Apple’s Snow White-era monitors but the Commodore 1084 is a computer collector’s dream in terms of versatility.

C1084_Front_Logo

SNK NeoGeo Pocket Color

This is my NeoGeo Pocket Color (NGPC), a short-lived handheld videogame system that the somewhat esoteric Japanese company SNK sold from 1999-2001.

I believe I found it at Village Thrift sometime well after the system was discontinued in the United States in 2000.

Village Thrift has a good habit of taking a lot of items that go together, like a NGPC and several games, and putting them together in a clear plastic bag.  I remember finding it at their showcase, rather than the electronics section.

I’m also not sure if the scratch on the screen was there when I bought it or if that happened later.

NGPC_Collection

The games that were in that plastic bag along with the NGPC were:

Sonic The Hedgehog Pocket Adventure, a Sonic the Hedgehog platformer:

NGPC_Sonic_Pocket_Title NGPC_Sonic_Pocket_Screen1

Bust-A-Move Pocket, an entry in the well-known puzzle game series that resembles Bejeweled:

NGPC_Bust-a_Move_Pocket_Title NGPC_Bust-a_Move_Pocket_Screen1

Baseball Stars Color, a fairly straightforward baseball game:

NGPC_BB_Stars_Title

Neo Dragon’s Wild, a collection of “casino” games:

NGPC_Dragons_Wild_Screen

Metal Slug 1st Mission, a portable version of SNK’s Rambo-like side scrolling platforming shooter:

NGPC_Metal_Slug_1st_TitleNGPC_Metal_Slug_1st_Screen1

And finally Metal Slug 2nd Mission, the sequel to Metal Slug 1st Mission:

NGPC_Metal_Slug_2nd_TitleNGPC_Metal_Slug_2nd_Screen1

Oddly enough, there were no fighting games in that lot because that’s what SNK was known for and what enthusiasts wanted the NGPC for.

There are several neat and interesting things about the NeoGeo Pocket Color hardware.  The first is that it has this tiny spec sheet for the display written above the screen.

NGPC_Specs_Close

You know, in case you ever need to look up it’s pixel pitch.

The screen on the NGPC can be difficult to see in all but direct sunlight and it can also be a pain to photograph.  So, if my screenshots look odd, that’s why.

The need for very bright light in order to see the colors well was a problem with a lot of the color portable systems of this time period.  I fondly remember the uncomfortable position I had to sit in to play Tetris DX on my purple Game Boy Color while hunched below a reading light that was attached to my bed.  Penny Arcade memorably poked fun of the difficult to see screen on the Game Boy Advance in 2001.  The rise of back-lit screens like the one on my Game Boy Micro finally alleviated this problem.

The unfortunate thing is that when you see screenshots of games from the NGPC and Game Boy Color from emulators you realize what beautiful colors those games were putting out and how the hardware made them almost impossible to see.

The NGPC has a unique 8-way joypad located on the left side of the console. This was the system’s most memorable feature and one that people would be wishing for on other portable game systems for years afterword.

NGPC_Joypad_Close

Unlike the control stick you might see on an XBox controller this is a digital control pad, rather than an analog one.  However, because it can move in eight directions it’s easier to point in a diagonal direction than a conventional cross-shaped D-pad like you find on Nintendo systems.  SNK specialized in 2D arcade games that had sophisticated joysticks so it’s no surprise to find something like this on their portable system.  The joypad has a really solid feel and makes a lovely clicking sound as you move it around.

NGPC_Rear

On the back the NGPC curiously has two battery covers.  The system uses two AA batteries to power the system and one CR2032 button battery to backup memory to save games and settings.

NGPC_Battery_Message

If the CR2032 dies you get this lovely warning message when you turn off the console.

When you turn on the NGPC the boot screen has an attractive little animation accompanied by a cute little tune.

NGPC_Boot_Logo

If you turn on the NGPC without a cartridge you get this menu screen that includes a calendar and (in silly Japanese fashion) a horoscope.

NGPC_Menus

NGPC_Menu_Calendar

NGPC_Menu_Horoscope

I can’t think of a videogame feature more utterly useless than a horoscope.

In order to explain the NeoGeo Pocket Color I have to tie together a few threads.

SNK is not what you would call a household name in the US but it was one of the titans of the Japanese arcade in the 1980s and 1990s.  Their specialty was (and still is) was 2D fighting games.  That is to say that the graphics are hand-drawn sprites that view the action from the side.

In 1990 SNK released the NeoGeo home console which for all intents and purposes was one of their arcade machines repackaged for home use.  As you would expect it was outrageously expensive.  The console itself (including a pack-in game) was $650 and games cost $200.

If you owned a Sega Genesis or a Nintendo SNES the NeoGeo must have seemed like some sort of mystical Shangri-La.

If you purchases a NeoGeo what you would have gotten for your obscene amount of money were perfect arcade games in the home.  From the beginning of the home console market the fidelity of home console conversions of arcade games had been a constant problem.  There were always compromises in animation, music, fluidity, and control sensitivity.  Not so, if you were a NeoGeo owner.  What you got was perfection.

But in the mid-1990s the market moved on to consoles such as the PlayStation and N64 that were built around 3D graphics.  The arcades moved on too, and fighting games like the Tekken and Virtua Fighter series that were built on 3D graphics excited the public’s imagination.

SNK’s contemporaries like Capcom (whose Street Fighter series is one of the pillars of the 2D fighting genre) found ways to stay relevant by developing new series like Resident Evil while continuing their line of 2D fighting games.  SNK didn’t and the NeoGeo became an expensive collector’s item.

Then, something possessed SNK to release a monochrome portable system called the NeoGeo Pocket in 1998 followed by the NeoGeo Pocket Color in 1999.

NGPC_SNK_Logo_Close

1999, when the NGPC came out, was a very strange time for portable videogames because it’s when the technological gap between the home consoles and portable consoles was at it’s peak.  It wasn’t so much a technological gap as it was a chasm.

It’s funny how technology trends wax and wane over decades.  Today, vast sums of R&D dollars are being spent on making components (especially CPUs and GPUs) for portable electronics faster and more power efficient.  Intel’s new (Jone 2013) Haswell processors have marginal speed gains for desktop users but offer better battery life and less heat for mobile users.  Across the industry from Apple to Samsung the effort is going into making better mobile devices.

Back in 1999, everything was different.  Back then the money was being put into chips for devices like PCs and home game consoles that were plugged into the wall.  We wanted faster devices and didn’t much care how much power they used or how much heat they put out.

In the home console market, the Dreamcast had just debuted, ushering in an era of more more refined 3D graphics that would lead to the PS2, XBox, and GameCube.

The Dreamcast was powered by a 32-bit Hitachi SH-4 RISC CPU and a PowerVR GPU that’s the direct ancestor of the GPU in today’s iPad and PS Vita.

Meanwhile in the portable realm the popular Game Boy Color was still based on an 8-bit CPU, technology that was solidly rooted in the game consoles of the 1980s.  Very roughly this meant that the state-of-the-art home console was at least several hundred times more powerful than the leading portable console.

Battery life was the root cause of this gap.  You could build a much more powerful portable system with a much more powerful CPU, much more RAM, and a higher resolution back-lit screen.  But, it would have been heavy and had horrendous battery life.  The marketplace thrashings that the Atari Lynx, the NEC TurboExpress, the Sega Game Gear, and the Sega Genesis Nomad received at the hands of the Game Boy throughout the 1990s were all clear proof of this reality.

Essentially those systems had tried to be to the Game Boy what the NeoGeo had been to the SNES and the Genesis, a far more powerful, far more expensive competitor.  But, there was no place for that in the portable market.

The breakthroughs that would happen in the mid-2000s that allowed the revolution in portable computing devices simply had not occurred yet.

In 1999 the Game Boy Color sat at the sweet spot between battery life, weight/size, and cost.  As a result, any serious competitor would have to have a comparable size, weight, cost, and battery life to the Game Boy Color and that precluded anything that was vastly more powerful.  But it would also make it difficult for a serious competitor to differentiate itself from the Game Boy.

Technically, the NGPC was a 16-bit system and the Game Boy Color was just an 8-bit system but at these CPU speeds, with these amounts of RAM, and with these screens, the difference was negligible.

So the situation you had was that SNK must have felt that their background in 2D arcade games would be an asset in portable games, which were still totally dominated by 2D graphics even as the home consoles were putting out increasingly sophisticated 3D graphics.  They probably also thought that as a company that specialized in fighting games they could build a portable game system suited to fighting games (with that gorgeous 8-way joypad) and exploit a market that Nintendo had ignored.

The problem was that 1998-1999 was an awful time for any company not named Nintendo to launch a handheld game console.  From the earliest days of the Game Boy most of the best games had been essentially miniature versions of console games.  The great games of the Game Boy from 1989 to 1998 include Super Mario Land 1 and 2, Metroid II, Legend of Zelda: Links’ Awakening, Kirby’s Dream Land, the Donkey Kong Land series and other games that basically would not have existed without their console counterparts.

Pokemon changed all of that in 1998 (in the US).  Here was a game that had no console counterpart.  Here was a game who’s popularity was strongly attached to being able to play the game against and with friends by connecting your Game Boys together.  Here was a game that lent itself to consuming every available hour of a child’s day  –on the school bus, on the playground, waiting at the doctor’s office, etc — like no game since Tetris.

NGPC had nothing comparable to Pokemon.  At the time, the influence of SNK’s 2D arcade games was waning in American arcades so for the vast portion of the NGPC’s potential audience they had very little to offer.  There were SNK enthusiasts who loved the NGPC and there were fighting game enthusiasts who loved the NGPC, but on the whole it didn’t make much headway in the American market.  And that’s why mine ended up at a thrift store a few years later.

NGPC_Size_Comparison

HP-12C

This is my HP-12C financial calculator, which I bought from Shopgoodwill last year. It came in this beautiful case and just required some new batteries to start working.

HP12C_In_Case

HP12C_Front_On

To the extent that it’s possible for a pocket calculator to be legendary, that’s what the HP-12C is. When it turned 30 in 2011, it was covered in the Wall Street Journal and on major blogs like Technorati. HP even posted a celebratory video on YouTube entitled HP 12c Calculator — Then & Now. Despite the fact that it was first released in 1981 (the same year as the IBM PC) it’s still being sold today. You can buy one new at Amazon, or from Staples, or OfficeDepot, or Walmart and the price you will pay is not what I would call cheap.

I don’t actually have much use for a financial calculator but I bought this HP-12C for two reasons: First, because a Reverse Polish Notation calculator seemed like a great nerd novelty item and second because it’s a classic of early 1980s technology.

Today the vast majority of pocket calculators and small desktop calculators you see are extremely cheap commodity crap. But, there was a time when a calculator was a prized possession, probably the most advanced piece of technology a person owned. The HP-12C is one of the last remnants of that era.

HP12C_HP_Name_Close

The HP-12C is a member of a line of calculators that HP created for different professions in the early 1980s including the HP-10C, HP-11C, and HP-15C scientific calculators and the HP-16C programmer’s calculator. The HP-12C apparently has endured because finance professionals loved their portability and reliability of the HP12-C and required newcomers to learn how to use them.

HP12C_Logo_Close

Unlike most calculators the HP-12C uses Reverse Polish Notation (RPN). In order to add two numbers you do not type 2 + 4 and press =. Instead, you press 2 and then press Enter. Then you press 4 then you hit the + button and your two numbers are added together and 6 shows up on the screen. You enter the numbers first and then the operation. Why would you want a calculator that works like this?

It’s best if I let this page at HP’s site about RPN explain the difference:

Believe it or not, the process of using RPN is similar to the way you learned math. If you think about it, you have to modify the way you learned math in order to use an algebraic mode calculator.

Here’s an example

3+5

7+6

Or (3+5) / (7+6) = x

Algebraic method: Add 3+5=8. Write down the answer or store it in memory. Add 7+6=13. Now enter the 8 from the first answer and then divide it by entering the second answer to get x=0.62.

RPN method: Touch 3 then the ENTER key. Touch 5 then the + key. Touch 7, and then ENTER. Touch 6 then the + key. Note that the answer to the second sum is displayed. Now here’s the magic part. Touch the divide key and the calculator gives the answer, 0.62.

Algebraic: 13 strokes, not counting the effort to write down or memorize the first answer while you calculated the second answer.

RPN: 9 strokes, and no need to write anything down.

The beauty of this is that in RPN the order of operations is explicit. As computer science buffs are aware, RPN works on a stack. Basically each new number you put in is pushing down a new entry on the stack and each operation is popping off numbers from the stack in a last-in, first out order.

The tricky bit to imagine in that example above is that each time you enter numbers, the stack is being pushed down. So 3 is pushed into the stack and then 5 is pushed into the stack and then + pops them off the stack and then pushes the answer 8 back onto the stack. Then 7 is pushed onto the stack, 6 is pushed onto the stack and they’re added together to make 13, which is pushed back onto the stack. At this point the stack looks like this:

13

8

As a result, when the divide button is pressed 13 and 8 are popped off of the stack and 8 is divided by 13 giving us 0.62. Because there’s a stack there’s a fairly sophisticated memory function basically built in.

HP12C_Display_Close

The HP-12C is actually a small computer. Unlike most pocket calculators which have a relatively primitive fixed-function calculator IC there is actually a CPU inside of an HP-12C. When you push a button the calculator is actually loading a tiny program into the CPU.

The HP-12C and the other members of the HP-10C line all used the same CPU, referred to as Voyager, with different code assigned to the different buttons on each model.

The HP-12C is actually programmable. That is to say that it has what we would today call a macro language where you can store up to 99 lines of operations and recall them at a button press.

Because it is programmable there are honest-to-goodness games (warning: PDF) people have written for this pocket calculator. You have to key them in one line of code at a time, like old BASIC programs on early home computers.

On the back of the HP-12C is this sort of quick explanation of some of the calculator’s functions. The fact they’re written in gold lettering, and that there’s a ton of information contained in them that’s somewhat hard to decipher reminds me a bit of the pictograms on the Voyager Golden Record.

HP12C_Rear_Instruct

The gist of these things is that the programs trigger by those buttons are capable of some sophisticated data conversions, like finding the number of days between two dates. Additionally there are five special registers (basically memories) for Time Value of Money financial calculations called n, i, PV, PMT, and FV. A wide variety of financial calculations can be done by entering numbers into those registers and running the little programs on them.

HP12C_Serial

If this serial number decoding explanation is correct then my HP-12C was made in the United States during the 43rd week of 1988.

As you would expect from a consumer electronics device that has been made for three decades, there have been several revisions of the HP-12C over time. Suffice to say that over the years they have kept the button arrangement and external appearance the same but re-arranged the innards several times.

HP12C_Rear_Battery

According to this site, the HP-12C originally had two chips: a CPU chip and a ROM/RAM/Display Driver chip. By the 28XX series like mine the two chips had been merged into a single chip where the Voyager CPU chip also contained the other chip’s functionality.

Interestingly, if you buy an HP-12C today what you get is outwardly nearly identical but very different inside that the older one I have. The old Voyager CPU has been replaced with an ARM-based CPU. ARM CPU cores have been famously used in everything from the Game Boy Advance to the iPhone and Android devices. They’re ideal for situations where you need a CPU that uses a tiny amount of power for a specific task.

In the HP-12C, I believe what they’ve done is created an emulator that uses the ARM CPU to faithfully reproduce the functionality of the old CPU, but with faster execution speed.

These newer HP-12Cs can be identified visually by the fact that they now have two button batteries that go in horizontally, rather than three that face vertically.

HP12C_Rear

Sony Watchman FD-10A and Watchman FD-30A

Today we return to the extravagant world of 1980s handheld TVs.

This is my Sony Watchman FD-10A and Sony Watchman FD-30A, two of Sony’s attempts to create “Watchman” CRT handheld TVs in the 1980s.

WM_Both_Power_On

The FD-10A, dating from 1987 is on the left and the FD-30A, dating from 1984 is on the right.  They both still work, though the FD-30A seems to have a loose connection somewhere and sometimes will not turn on after you pull the antenna out.  As you can see, they are both black and white sets.

My father found the FD-10A at a thrift store some years ago and I believe I found the FD-30A at Village Thrift sometime in the past two years or so.

The most distinctive thing about these TVs is what they’ve done with the CRT.  On a typical CRT the electron gun is located behind the viewing surface you’re looking at.  The gun is firing at a surface of phosphors that are glowing on the other side of the glass tube you’re looking into.  There’s basically a straight line between your eyes, the surface of the picture tube, the glowing phosphors, and the electron gun.

WM_Travelvision_Example

Take a look at these Panasonic Travelvision handheld TVs and you can see the ergonomic issue this creates.  The shape you get from putting a tiny conventional CRT into a handheld TV  ends up with the screen on the short end of a long case.  Holding that up to your face is very unnatural.  If you’re sitting down you end up putting the TV in your lap and craning your head down to look at it.  If you really wanted to hold it up to your face you would have to hold it like a telescope.

The ingenious CRT that these Watchman units use solves this problem.  Their CRTs have a window built into the top of the wide end of the tube and the electron gun fires at a curved surface of phosphors located under the window.

WM_CRT_Close_Reverse

See that?  You’re actually looking down into the CRT there.

So, the electron gun ends up firing perpendicular to the viewers eyes onto the curved white area with the phosphors.  While this does not do great things for the geometry of the resulting image it does mean that you can hold the Watchman in a much  ore natural way as you would a portable radio or a Game Boy with your hands down near the Watchman logo and the screen facing your eyes.

This must have been difficult to design.  Clearly this is from the era people remember when Sony was doing amazing things miniaturizing electronics.

WM_FD_10_Front

The FD-10A is a fairly basic model that only has VHF/UHF and no other fancy do-dads like AM/FM or a video-in jack.  As a result though it’s more lightweight and somewhat smaller than the FD-30A.

WM_FD_10_Rear_Close

Other than an earphone jack, just about the only feature that the FD-10A has is a switch that allows you to save the batteries by only listening to TV sound.

I used the FD-10A to watch the end of analog TV on June 12, 2009.  Here is an image of Cleveland’s Channel 19, WOIO-TV taken before the 10AM cutoff and moments after.

WM_WOIO_Analog_End_1WM_WOIO_Analog_End_2

At the moment of the cutoff I took a blurry and unusable movie with my Blackberry.  While some channels made a big deal about the switchover to digital on WOIO there was no fanfare other than a text explanation that scrolled very fast up the screen, followed the by the static you see in the second picture.

WM_FD_30_Front

The FD-30A is a more full-featured set but it’s heavier and larger than the FD-10A.  It has a video-in jack (using a normal stereo Y-cable), AM/FM radio (with FM stereo), a DC power input, and a kickstand.

WM_FD_30_Rear_Close

This FD-30A also came with a cloth case.  All of the controls are accessible through the sides of the case so when the case is closed you can easily use the FD-30A as a rather weighty AM/FM radio.

WM_FD_30_Case_ClosedWM_FD_30_Case_Front_Open

The real party piece of the case though is that the cover can become a hood by unfolding flaps that attach to Velcro on either side of the Sony logo.

WM_FD_30_Hood_OpenWM_FD_30_Hood_Side

I supposed this might help in bright Sun conditions, but I couldn’t see using this thing in the rain at all.

One thing I like to think about when I collect items like this is what would people at the time thought about them?  That is to say, if you walked into an electronics store in the 1980s and wished to purchase a handheld TV with your hard-earned money, which one should you have bought?

WM_Handheld_TV_Group

As a collector, I love the styling on the Casios such as the TV-400 and the TV-1000 here.  These Sony Watchman units do not have the same 80s flair that the Casio do.  I’m sure salespeople hawking the Casios would have been buzzing about the stunning newness of LCD technology and the significant advance of on-screen electronic tuning.

In reality, those Casios are awful.  Even if you look past the inherent awfulness of first generation passive-matrix LCDs screens the electronic tuning is disturbingly bad.  Anyone who has ever tuned in analog TV knows that you always have to fiddle with the tuning.  There’s no way to do that with the Casios.  If they don’t find your desired channel, they just tune right on by.

So, what you really want is a TV with analog tuning.  I think you also want a CRT.  I still need to see what a quality 80s active-matrix LCD looks like but even so I don’t think the LCD technology of the time could hold a candle to the contrast and crispness of a CRT.  Even if those CRT handheld TVs ate batteries like vampires, I think the picture quality would still be worth it.

Personally, I would have bought a FD-10A.  It’s simple to operate and it’s more convenient than the larger and heavier FD-30A.

But then again, if this was the 80s and you were blowing a wad of cash on something as decadent as a handheld TV, you probably want the FD-30A with all of it’s bells and whistles.

WM_Stand

Apple Macintosh SE

This is my Macintosh SE, that I purchased sometime before mid-2003 at the old State Road Shopping Center Goodwill.  If we believe this Apple serial number decoder my Macintosh SE (serial # F9063FVM5011) was built in the 6th week of 1989 in Fremont, California.

MacSE_Quarter_Front

This Macintosh SE still works, outside of the fact that I’ve never seen the hard disk activity light blink.  It runs System 7.0 and seems to have been upgraded from the stock 1MB RAM to 4MB.  At the moment this is my oldest working Macintosh.

MacSE_Working_Crop

MacSE_System_7_0

In my post about the original Macintosh I said that machine held a lot of promise but was incomplete.  The Macintosh Plus vastly improved the situation in 1986 by adding 1MB of RAM standard and a SCSI port for adding a hard drive.  But considering how many pictures you see of Mac Pluses sitting atop an external hard drive you can’t really call that machine totally complete either.

MacSE_Mac_Plus_SCHD20

The Macintosh concept really lent itself to having an internal hard drive.

It wasn’t until 1987 when the Macintosh SE was released with an option for a built-in hard drive and the Apple Desktop Bus for peripheral accessories that you could really say for the first time the original vision of the compact Macintosh was complete.  In addition there was an expansion slot crammed in the back of the machine (behind Torx screws), which is where Apple got the “System Expansion” moniker from.  The SE was based on the same Motorola MC68000 CPU running at 7.83Mhz as all previous compact Macintosh models but added a fan that probably led to increased reliability due to better cooling.

Mac_SE_Rear_Full

It’s notable then that at the same time the Macintosh SE was released in March 1987 the Macintosh II was also released, which totally changed the conception of what the Macintosh was.

Some time in 1989 my mother visited a computer store in west Akron and picked up some Apple brochures that sat preserved in a drawer for years until I found them.  From one of those brochures, here is the state of the Macintosh lineup in early 1989.

MacSE_Brochure_Left_CropMacSE_Brochure_Right_Crop

The Macintosh II was basically the Macintosh re-imagined as an open, expandable desktop personal computer in the vein of the IBM PC AT and was based on the more powerful Motorola MC68020 CPU.

The Macintosh II implicitly admitted the Mac platform was too expensive to be the “computer for everyone” and finally dispensed with the appliance pretenses of the compact Macs.  Instead, Apple positioned the Macintosh II as a business workstation priced at a cool $5500 (before you bought a video card and monitor…Ouch).  People were doing desktop publishing and graphics design on Macintoshes before the Macintosh II but I suspect that once you used a 13in 640×480 screen and enjoyed the benefits of what was then a fantastical amount of RAM and the 68020 CPU you were loathed to go back to a 68000-based compact Macintosh like my SE.

So there’s a certain disappointment to the historical fact that by the time Apple built a compact Macintosh that really paid off the original concept the future was pointing to expandable Macintoshes that resembled desktop PCs.

With that said, if you had purchased this machine at the time, I suspect that you were very happy with it.

MacSE_Desk_2

When you sit down with one of these machines at a desk you quickly understand how the subtle angle of the front of the machine puts the screen right in line with where you eyes want to look.  The lovely glow the 9″ black and white CRT focuses your attention despite it’s small size.  I think this would have been an enjoyable machine to own in 1987-1989, even considering that the price tag at the time for the model that included this 20MB hard drive would have been somewhere substantially north of $3000.  Plus, you could play Shufflepuck.

MacSE_Shufflepuck

The Macintosh SE is also the best example I own of Apple’s Snow White design language, which saw it’s heyday in the Macintosh line from 1987 to 1990.  Previously I’ve talked about how I love the angular, metallic look of many pieces of 80s electronics.  Snow White goes in the opposite direction by emphasizing ornamentation and subtle curves in injection molded off-white plastic.  The overall effect is stunning.  It’s somehow very 1980s but at the same time stands out among other designs.

You can learn more about the different components of Snow White from Ed Tracy’s excellent 1998 graduate school project about Apple’s industrial design.  You may have also seen these wild prototypes that came out of the studies that designer Hartmut Esslinger from Frog Design created for Apple while developing the Snow White look.  One of the first Snow White products was the memorable Apple IIc, which may be my favorite looking computer, period.

MacSE_Apple_Logo

The idea behind Snow White was to take full advantage of the fact that Apple used injection-molded plastic cases rather than the sheet metal other computers used.  If computers need air vents for cooling anyways, why not adorn plastic computer cases with horizontal and vertical lines that look like vents so they distract your attention from where the real vents are?

MacSE_Foot_Front_Close

On the front of the Macintosh SE this results in a “grill” that contains the floppy drive, the hard drive indicator light and an air vent.

MacSE_OG_Comparison_Quarter

Adding the grill drastically changes the appearance of the front of the machine as compared to the original Macintosh case, even though both machines have basically the same dimensions.  The front of the original Macintosh is dominated by the large bevels that surround the floppy disk drive where on the SE the floppy disk is de-emphasized as a thin line that matches the rest of the grill.

MacSE_Comparison_Front

My favorite Snow White design element is the pedestal of vertical lines along the base of the Macintosh SE and the Macintosh II series cases.

Mac_SE_Snow_White_Foot

The lines on the pedestal help to conceal the air vents on the side of the machine that had been much more apparent on the previous compact Macintosh cases.

MacSE_Snow_White_Side

Sadly, the pedestal feature is often hidden behind the keyboard sitting in front of the computer.

Apple also produced monitors, CD drives, external hard drives, printers, scanners, and other accessories with Snow White designs from about 1986-1990.  A fellow could fall down a deep rabbit hole collecting all of them.

I’m somewhat enamored with the various Snow White computers and accessories.  In my opinion the Snow White designs have so much more personality than practically every other personal computer ever made, including Apple’s current product line.  Plastic might be out of vogue today, but Snow White showed us that plastic can be just as profound as brushed metal.

Before I really dug into learning about the Snow White look, I thought the Macintosh SE looked a bit funky.  The loss of the beveled edges the original Macintosh introduced gives the Macintosh SE a fat “chin” below the floppy drive.  If you sit a big keyboard in front of it so that the main Snow White feature you’re looking at is the grill below the screen, the machine loses at lot of it’s appeal.  However, as I have read more about Snow White I have come to appreciate the appearance of the Macintosh SE.

MacSE_Electric_Thrift