October 16th, 2008

Random Access (10-16-08)

With the help of my friend and fellow Apple II user James Littlejohn, I’ve finally been going through my collection of Apple II and Macintosh gear. I knew I had a lot of stuff — too much stuff actually. It’s often been a source of friction at times with my Wife. I’ve had gear strewn all over our house from years of collecting, donations, etc. and it was high time to do something about it.

My goal is to NEATLY squeeze most of the retro-gear I want to tinker with into my basement office and use no more than 3 (maybe 4) storage racks in the garage for the spare parts I have. Oh, and still have room to work on the newer tech that keeps me employed.

Last weekend we started the initial sorting and purging. There were several times when we discovered something new I didn’t realize I had, or we found an item that I thought was lost for good. I was also able to finally get a slightly better grip on inventory. One of the best examples of how “off” I’ve been on what I thought I had in storage is Unidisk 3.5 drives. I was pretty sure I had 3 or 4 drives, but in actuality I have 13 and there might be more. Wow. They were all over the place!

James has been a big, BIG help doing a lot of the sorting, stacking and heavy lifting for me. He says he’s doing it for fun, and because he’d heard about my “legendary” collection over the years and wanted to see it for himself. In past years, I’d open the garage up to KansasFest attendees to freely pick over the extra gear and machines I had. Apparently the collection has a reputation in the Apple II community… but don’t expect roadside billboards proclaiming “Come see The Biggest Pile of Apple II Junk in the Midwest” any time soon. There are other collections bigger and more impressive than mine — Tony Diaz certainly has more interesting things (prototypes galore) and Jamie Steffens and others have tons o’ software I’d love to play with.

Purging the stuff is the hard part. Deciding on what to keep, give away and sometimes throw away takes effort, discipline and determination. I’ve been giving James the option of hauling off anything I didn’t want to keep… Well, that’s not quite right, I’d probably keep everything and be right back in the mess I’m in now. It’s more like “things I’d have kept, but realized I don’t have the room or time to deal with it anymore” type of situation. Woof! Giving the stuff away to James helps me feel better, since he won’t accept money or anything for the hard work he’s put into helping me.

I’ve dumped extra machines, premium parts, hard drives, CD-ROM drives, tape drives, Woz GS lids, misc. gear, software, manuals and much, much more that James has loaded into his 1972 Chevy bus. Yeah – he drove his bus up, and for good reason. We filled it up with stuff I didn’t want anymore. No pickup, mini-van or car would have held all the gear I gave him. I wanted to get rid of more but the bus was overflowing, and he wouldn’t load anything else on it this trip. He’s just going to have to come back for the rest.

Yah, I know I could have put some of this stuff on eBay (some of it will end up there eventually) but you know, that’s a hassle I didn’t want to deal with right now. Maybe during the next sort and purge I’ll do that. That’s THIS weekend by the way… Woof!

Updated: 10/20/08

James came up again this past weekend to help me wrap up where we left off. My home office is now cleaned out, and awaiting the new furniture I ordered. I’ll be able to move my day to day Apple II gear back in within a few weeks.

Practically every little bit of Apple II gear I own has now been “seen” by me. I now have an improved awareness of what I have (too much), and of what I need to get rid of (a lot). I gave more gear to James (we didn’t fill the bus this time), while other bits and parts are going out to Tony Diaz and other people in the community I’ve made promises to. The rest will either be posted to eBay, or saved for KansasFest attendees.

September 11th, 2008

Retro road trip followup

I left the house around 7:00am on Saturday the 6th. I noted that it was cloudy and cool, and felt a moments regret that I hadn’t checked the weather report. No matter, I was on my way to Oklahoma to see James Littlejohn. My Apple //e and IIc Plus motherboards were in the car and I was ready to do some hacking.

It wasn’t too long before I ran into heavy rain, and I had to slow way down to avoid hydroplaning. Even at reduced speed, I had several white-knuckle moments as I tried to maintain control. Luckily, I made it to Chelsea only an hour later than I had planned. My map wasn’t that great, so I had to call James to guide me in the last few blocks. Chelsea is so small, I half-expected to spot the Big Green Monster from the highway.

I walked into the house and immediately I was amazed, surprised and a little envious — there were several H.E.R.O. robots, many Apple II (and III) computers, shelves of techie gear, books, software, peripherals and various gadgetry EVERYWHERE. Oh, yeah… some Timex Sinclairs too. James has a nice collection, no doubt about it.

After a bit of small talk, we got busy upgrading the IIc Plus motherboards. Some of the needed parts were misplaced, so James spent time verifying the boards instead. Since we couldn’t do the upgrades while I was there, I agreed to leave the boards for JL to work on later. As it turned out, that was a good thing — he managed to get them running stable at 10MHz (and in the process made an interesting discovery), now he’s going after 12.5MHz!

After lunch, it was time to assemble the LittleExpanderPlus (LEP). The rest of the parts needed for the project had just arrived the day before. I was going to be the lucky recipient of the very first unit.

James started by asking where I wanted the rotary switch located. I chose to have it mounted on the left top of the case, directly opposite of the square Apple logo (it’s a platinum //e). He then measured out the case and wires to make sure everything would be neatly tucked away. Next it was time to solder the wiring between the switch and the board, and a solder on a few more components. That took awhile, but it was worth it.

…and here’s the LEP installed in my workhorse Apple //e. Check out all that extra room! Can you identify all the cards in there?

As you can see, I haven’t installed my Pico PSU yet. I had to order a new AC adapter for it because the one I had didn’t have sufficient amperage.

Well, after James finished with the LEP, I had to hit the road. I didn’t want to get caught driving through rural Oklahoma and Kansas late at night. The last thing I wanted was a deer through the windshield.

The hacking continues…

September 10th, 2008

Overclocking the Apple IIc Plus (just got easier)

James Littlejohn has successfully overclocked his Apple IIc Plus to 10MHz with nothing more than an oscillator change and it works really well. Old news, right?

Overclocking the IIc Plus has been around awhile; hackers have been bumping the speed on the IIc Plus for years using various techniques. The most common procedure has been to replace the old oscillator, CPU and cache RAM with faster versions to achieve the desired speed increase (usually around 8MHz). You had to be handy with the soldering iron too.

Then earlier this year, we had a breakthrough; it was discovered that some IIc Plus boards overclocked with just an oscillator swap. It was still considered voo-doo though, because while some boards readily overclocked, there were others that refused to go any faster than their native 4MHz. No one knew why… until now.

I visited James recently in Chelsea Oklahoma, and left a couple IIc Plus boards with him to upgrade. While trying to get them to work at 10MHz, he made some interesting observations that he’s allowed me to post here.

While trying to overclock a couple of Sean Fahey’s Apple IIc Plus motherboards, I made a few interesting discoveries.

There are at least two versions of the Apple IIc Plus motherboard. You can identify them by the the silk screening which can be found under the power supply. The “A” motherboard is silk screened “1987/88”, and usually has socketed cache RAM. The “B” motherboard has “1987/88/89”, and features soldered cache RAM.

There are also two manufacturers for the ASIC chips used on these boards, NCR and UMC. The NCR chips appear primarily on the “A” boards (and occasionally on some “B” boards), while the UMC is found only on the “B” boards.

While experimenting with overclocking both boards, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

The “A” boards with the NCR ASIC are easily overclocked, as is. The “B” boards with the UMC ASIC will not overclock at all. However, some “B” boards shipped with the NRC ASIC.

Now here comes the kicker:

An “A” board with the UMC ASIC is able to be overclocked. So is a “B” board with an NCR ASIC. This suggests the NRC ASIC can be used in either version to achieve at least 10MHZ (maybe more — 40MHz crystals were the fastest I had on hand), without having to replace any stock chips. However, the UMC ASIC can only be accelerated in an “A” board.

I conducted these tests using 2 Apple IIc Plus “A” boards, and 4 “B” boards.

Wow, there you have it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an overclocking kit from ReactiveMicro at some point in the near future.

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August 8th, 2008

Q&A with James Littlejohn

One of the perks of attending KansasFest is getting to meet some of the active programmers and developers within the Apple II community firsthand and speak with them about their projects. James Littlejohn is one of our newest and most prolific developers, who has released an astonishing 6 new hardware products this year (available through ReactiveMicro). I had the opportunity to visit with James during KansasFest 2008 and pose a few brief questions.

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