Netbooks aren’t new, they had them in the early 90s

So the current tech craze is netbooks. First we had tablet PCs, which never took off. Then it was UMPCs which sort of died off when devices like the Nokia N800 and iPod Touch came out. Then the world finally got a grip, realised the Internet was important, that we liked keyboards and big screens and concentrated its effort on making laptops smaller and netbooks took off big time.

Only, go back to 1989 and you’ll see Atari created the Atari Portfolio, then go forwards a few more years and Amstrad came out with the NC200 notebook (really, that’s what it calls itself). And if you’re a bit daft, you can go into Maplin and come out with a Datawind Pocket Surfer, which uses good old GPRS and a proxy in Canada to render popular websites in several shades of off-blue. Using these ancient devices is like watching history slowly being created, with different companies trying to work out what portable computing should be like.

Amstrad NC200, Atari Portfolio, Datawind Pocket Surfer and a Lenovo S10e netbook
Amstrad NC200, Atari Portfolio, Datawind Pocket Surfer and a Lenovo S10e netbook

I wonder what future portable computers will be like…

I’ve just ordered a Texas Instruments TI-85 calculator from eBay. I need a real calculator, and I always wanted a TI-85 when doing my GCSEs at school.

How vacuum tubes were made

I found these fascinating videos showing how vacuum tubes used to be made.

You can find part 2 here.

And if you want to know how tubes work, here’s a series of videos explaining them

Electronics at work Part 1

Electronics at work Part 2

Diodes have two plates. Triodes have three. That’s why they’re called ‘diodes’… I never knew that before.

ZX Spectrum +3 with DivIDE CF board and RGB cable

A month or so ago I ordered a DivIDE board from Papaya Labs. The DivIDE board is an ATA interface for the ZX Spectrum, allowing IDE devices such as hard disks, CDROM drives and Compact Flash cards to be plugged into the Spectrum, which, through a special loader built into the board, allows .Z80, .TAP and .SNA images to be loaded into the Spectrum and run. The .Z80 and .SNA images are simply pushed into the Spectrum and it runs them with no need to reboot. The .TAP files are presented to the Spectrum as real tapes, and after typing ‘LOAD “”‘ they load in exactly as a tape would – only in a few seconds, rather than a few minutes.

This is a long post, with lots of information in, more after the break… Press it, you can watch a YouTube video at the end. More photos of the setup available on my photos website.

Continue reading ZX Spectrum +3 with DivIDE CF board and RGB cable

Crystal Radio Set

Crystal Radio set using razor blade and pencil
Crystal Radio set using razor blade and pencil

These things are somewhat amazing. With nothing more than a coil of wire, a pencil, razor blade and some random wire it’s possible to construct a crystal radio set. These things are so simple the fact they work at all is like magic.

All it takes is a long piece of wire for an antenna, a ground connection and then some sort of semi-conducting material for a cat’s whisker and you’ve got a radio. ‘Semiconductor’ sounds a bit high tech, so replace that with ‘something that mostly conducts electricity, but not that well’. The signals are incredibly weak and tuning is an artform and watch where your hands go or you’ll end up becoming part of the radio!

I built the set from random junk in my house. The purple wire I have on a spool for just such occasions, the razorblade came from my bathroom (no, I’m not Emo 😉 ) as did the toilet roll tube. The cork block is actually a sanding block out my toolbox.

The ‘set’ is connected to my PC’s soundcard to amplify the signals but even with that I had to turn the volume of my PC right up to the point the speakers were humming with all the stray EM noise my house generates (the washing machine is on at the moment which can’t help things).

Crystal Radio set connected to my PC
Crystal Radio set connected to my PC

I worked out the construction of the radio by looking at a few pictures on the web and then fiddling until things worked. I had problems with the lacquer coating on the thin wire I took from an old hard drive’s read arm assembly. Eventually after some faffing and prodding I had the pencil causing giant bursts of static when it touched the razor blade. The razor blade needs to be “blue”, to do that it needs heating in a flame until it glows red.

And then the coolest thing ever happened… I picked up a football match. I hate football, it bores me to death, but the fact it came from a bunch of crap on my desk was pure magic 🙂

If you try to build one of these but it doesn’t work, test all the contacts by prodding them with your fingers. There should be little bursts of static or other noise if you touch stuff. The set is highly sensitive to everything, so if it works sit still and try not to wave your hands about. Seriously, for reasons beyond my understanding I had an excellent signal if I touched my finger to the blue thumbtack, and put a dirty spoon across the wires going to the soundcard plug. Blowing onto the pencil helped too since the contact needs to be “just right” and is utterly random.

A new way to mount hard disks

I took some of my smaller computer stuff and mounted it in box frames. Here’s a load of processors and integrated circuits

3.5 and 2.5 hard disks mounted in a frame
Intel 286, 486, Pentium, AMD, MOS 6581 SID Chip, MOS 6510, plus other chips

And here’s some hard disks. Future plans for this include some way of powering the large one up.

A 3.5 inch hard disk and a 2.5 inch hard disk with the lids removed
A 3.5 inch hard disk and a 2.5 inch hard disk with the lids removed

Magic diskdrive killing rays

… must be flooding through my house. I have so many dead Amigas with broken diskdrives, it’s untrue. Every single Amiga I own (all four of them) has a dodgy diskdrive. And I’ve just been given another one to repair, and I’m failing!

Had to resort to buying an entire new A600 off a local friend in exchange for an XBox 360 game.

Bloody retro tech, it sucks sometimes. I’m going to buy a floppy disk cleaner out of desparation.

Week 2

Of 39…

It’s going well so far. I managed to keep a class of year 9s quiet whilst I spoke to them for ten minutes, which is a big improvement on last year when I was fighting the buggers to keep their mouthes shut. Tomorrow I will have looped around all my classes once, so I’m watching now for any of the quiet timid ones to start poking their heads up.

And when they do, I’ll soon make them hide again.

This year’s motto of “take none of their crap” is proceeding well.

While sorting out my diary’s categories I made that strange realisation of just how old this site is. I’ve been pushing words into this since October 2000 – LiveJournal users, this is where you follow the link back onto my real site 🙂 . The database is growing quite large now, and there’s some fun posts hidden in here. I think I’ll have some self-indulgence and post up a selection of my favourite entries. It can be the blogging equivalent of those “Top 100 ways to watch paint dry” programs that TV is full of.

At the weekend we’re supposedly off to rescue some ZX Spectrums from being thrown in the tip. I have no idea what I’d do with more of them, but the books and assorted addons interests me. I’m a sucker for weird hardware 🙂

Late night hacking

I’ve not done this in ages 🙂 Sat, in pieces, in my office is a Compaq 486 all-in-one PC that Amy has given to me. It came preloaded with Windows 3.11 and contains a network card. My aim was simple – get it on the network, then see if it would go on the Internet.

Getting it on the network was easy, all I had to do was install the Windows 3.11 TCP/IP update and configure it. The machine popped up on my network and managed to install Netscape 4.0 off my Linux server. It had no idea what to make of the long filenames, but coped very well.

I ran out of disk space, the tiny 100meg HDD only having 7 meg free. So out it went and in its place went a 256MB CF card in a CF-to-IDE converter. Some farting around with fdisk and xcopy gave me a neat clone of the original HDD that booted.

Netscape didn’t run too well on the weedy 486SX/25 CPU and with only 4 meg of ram it was constantly swapping to the disk. Fortunately I had 8 meg of ram in another old PC so in that went, bringing the machine up to 20 meg of ram and instantly the disk swapping stopped. But it was still quite slow overall, so out of the old 486 came its DX2/66 CPU.

And here’s the current state of things. The CPU is designed for a ZIF socket because DX2/66s need heatsinks and fans to keep them cool. Originally I got around this issue by supergluing the heatsink and fan to the top of the CPU. This worked, but the superglue has gone brittle and the heatsink fell off. My next plan is to somehow attach a Pentium MMX class CPU cooler and heatsink to the processor, probably using cable ties and luck.

It’s fun though, and it’s been ages since I sat up for half the night fiddling with a PC.

Webby Site Update

It’s not quite finished, but I present my updated website. Rather than seeing my blog on the front page, it’s been moved back behind the main site. I’ll be using my main site to write about my hardware and software projects and other technology related things. This blog will become my place to write about everything else, along with some cross-posting of new things on my main site.

This blog will continue to be cross-posted to LiveJournal, but the main site won’t; there’s no Drupal plugin to do that, and it’d clog my LJ up.

So if you like tech, soldering irons, code and watching someone with no formal training in electronics taking stuff apart you can do worse than visit my main website.

Eventually, when I’ve taken the photos, there will be a section for my increasingly large Retro Computing Collection. I have a lot of retro games consoles and computers, so many that I can’t actually remember what I own so a catalogue is next on my list of things to make.