Monitor II versus Samsung colour television – you be the judge

Sharpness or colour?
Sharpness or colour?

When first presented to the public in the 1970s, the Apple ][ was widely recognised as the only personal computer that could display colour graphics – at least, one that was somewhat affordable.

It was a novel idea for the time. The general public was still not quite used to the idea of manipulating pictures on a television tube – television traditionally having been a one-way medium (images broadcast from the telvision station to your living room, but not the other way round). Not only could the Apple ][ bring magic to your television, it could do it all in colour.

Sure... it's San Francisco. Why not.
Sure… it’s San Francisco. Why not.

Technically it was just ‘color’ – those using the PAL standard for television pictures weren’t able to immediately produce colour from an Apple ][, in part due to Steve Wozniak’s mastery of the NTSC system, which wasn’t compatible outside of North America and Japan (for the most part).

By the time the Apple //e was being produced, the Apple ][ in PAL countries could display colour right out of the box, much to my delight when I hooked up my model to my very own circa 1980s Samsung colour television, in itself an artifact from a time gone by.

Some games are almost essential to play on a colour monitor - Pitfall II being one of them.
Some games are almost essential to play on a colour monitor – Pitfall II being one of them.

However, there’s a catch.

The Monitor II, while only able to display one colour (green), was able to produce sharp images. Its ‘high resolution’ capabilities meant sharper lines in business graphics, precision crosshairs in space shooters, far beyond the capabilities of your typical consumer television.

The Monitor II was also necessary if you wanted to use the 80 column display mode on your Apple //e – televisions just couldn’t cut it.

So what’s a computer historian to do? Have two large monitors on their desk, of course.

For a long time (until very recently), I actually had both monitors hooked up to the Apple //e. The green phosphor Monitor II was plugged into the 80 column display port (part of the 80col card) and the colour television was plugged into the regular monitor out on the //e logic board. The result – one of the earliest dual-screen capable computing setups.

I absolutely need 80 columns to use VT-100 terminal emulation in ProTerm, but some games – such as Pitfall, Frogger, etc – look terrible in monochrome. It’s not just the single colour. In monochrome mode some colours appear as patterns; backgrounds fade into foregrounds, and it’s just a mess. Some games are playable in monochrome, but not all.

Even with its lower image fidelity, the colour television could still look gorgeous.
Even with its lower image fidelity, the colour television could still look gorgeous.

The exception to all this was the colour monitor, aptly named the ColorMonitor//e, which I recall being able to produce sharp 80 column text as well as perfect colour graphics.

Would I pick this up, if it was available? Maybe. I did own one at some point – pretty sure Dad ripped one off from a local school (okay, he fished it out of a dumpster or something – I really have no idea how he got his hands on it, he sure didn’t buy it).

But I probably wouldn’t use it. The colour television has this beautiful kind of shittyness to it, an indistinguishable blur on 40 column standard graphics which just looks gorgeous. Colours melt into one another and it’s quite a pleasing effect – even more so on NTSC televisions, I hear.

And you just can’t go past a green phosphor monitor for reliving (or in my case, emulating) the experience of 1970s and 80s computing. With sharp graphics and pleasant greens, it’s very hard to replace. Even more so after I went to the trouble of replacing the burnt out line capacitors.

You cannot improve on this load screen - fact.
You cannot improve on this load screen – fact.
Monitor II versus Samsung colour television – you be the judge

Inside your bog standard Apple //e computer system

Not nearly as terrifying as it looks
Not nearly as terrifying as it looks

Our VCR broke at some point in 1994. It was one of those huge units from the 1980s, with the now retro-tastic top loading tape mechanism. It was a beast, probably about the same size as a regular gaming computer is today.

The front of the machine had bright green VFD digits for the time of day, time to record, etc. While the technology is different, they now remind me of the same phosphorous green that eminates from the Monitor II, probably one of the best computer monitors to ever have been produced (I remember the Apple colour monitor being quite nice also… who needs 5K anyway?)

I’m pretty sure that the VCR just needed its belts changed, no big deal. The top popped off and dad got to work with the repair. As a six-year-old, looking at the insides of this machine was a moment for me.

It was fascinating to discover that the VCR actually had parts inside of it. It’s hard to describe now what kind of moment that was. Rather than the VCR being made up of buttons, displays and a top-loader, it was actually an extremely complex machine, with mechanical components (like gears, bands) and electronic components (like resistors and ICs), and everything needed to work together – one failed component, like a band, could bring everything to a halt.

This all seems obvious as an adult, and even recounting it now it sounds kind of silly. But there had to be a moment for everyone when they realised their world was more complicated than it looked on the surface. It may not have been electronics – I’m sure similar experinces are had when studying the human body, or global finance, or even agriculture.

Anyway, this fascination turned into a hobby, perhaps for the worse. To this day I’m still pulling apart perfectly good appliances to see how they work – I really just can’t help myself.

Apple must have been catering for the electronic nerds like myself when they made the Apple ][ and later the Apple //e.

Rather than having the computer case screwed shut like most expensive precision instruments, the case of the Apple //e was easily removable. Any idiot could open up the //e and take a peek inside, or even poke around in there.

For many orindary people in the 1970s and 1980s, this was probably their first look inside a computer. Engineers and computer hackers sure, they would have absolutely seen the insides of their own hobbyist machines – many computers of the time would have required a lot of tinkering on the inside to get the most out of it. But office workers, parents and school teachers – orindary, ‘dumb’ people – finally could see the sum of the parts for themselves.

Well, to an extent. Looking at the motherboard and peripheral cards, as intriguing as it would have been, was hard to digest.

What do we have here?
What do we have here?

Just like the VCR, rows and rows of cryptically named ICs and monolithic peripheral cards would have been the first items that stood out – that and the gold coloured power brick, with its terrifying red warning label.

Like most Apple //e computers, my personal machine comes with a memory expansion module that was also capable of driving an 80 column display output. Stock //e memory was 64 kilobytes – the memory expansion card doubled this amount.

80 columns screen width and 64 kilobytes of RAM all on the same card!
80 columns screen width and 64 kilobytes of RAM all on the same card!

Also essential is the Disk Controller Card – in this case a DuoDisk 5.25 inch controller, a special card that communicates with the DuoDisk drive, standard on post Apple //e computers.

Don’t you love that rainbow ribbon? It’s my understanding that most manufacturers did away with the coloured ribbon in favour of grey as a cost cutting measure. But nothing screams retro-tech louder than a rainbow ribbon cable.

Special DuoDisk controller card, compatible only with the DuoDisk drive.
Special DuoDisk controller card, compatible only with the DuoDisk drive.

The card just to the left of the 80col/64k card did not come with the original machine. I ended up selling the Silentype Printer Card and an odd IEEE-488 card on Ebay to finance my purchase of a bog standard Super Serial Card – while basic, utterly essential.

The Super Serial Card is another component that allows this relic to connect to the Internet via the Raspberry Pi. It features dip switches to adjust baud rate and terminal configuration. I bought this one specifically because it had ‘Australia’ written on the card. Even though it was purchased from the USA, I wonder whether this had originally been shipped overseas. I had to bring it home, didn’t I?

The innards of the //e are far too complex for one blog post – I’m hoping to write up several more of these, perhaps some more in depth than others. A blog will never beat the information inside the Reference Manual, but I wanted to share something that I still consider fascinating.

A green board with gold connectors. Throw in resistors, integrated circuits, capacitors, diodes, transistors… the //e is the sum of its components, like many of its contemporaries. But unlike other ‘hobbyist’ computers, you need not learn engineering to work and play on the //e. Even a six-year-old can understand it.

Inside your bog standard Apple //e computer system

Pascal – I really do not know anything about this

GUI?
GUI?

It’s going to take me a lifetime to learn everything about this machine.

We had stacks and stacks of diskettes when I was growing up – I recall that some were ‘borrowed’ from school, others were originals of course, but I was only ever concerned with the contents of a select few.

I’m sure that Pascal sat in that stack somewhere, but damned if I ever used it or paid any attention to it whatsoever.

I understand that Pascal is a programming language for the Apple //e, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. It looks fascinating enough, quite quick to load, and the example diskette was wrapped in a nice GUI that made learning all about Pascal even easier.

Were there ‘Pascal’ users and ‘BASIC’ users, for instance? As much as there are OS X fanboys today, were there Pascal enthusiasts?

I might just have to try this disk again and work my way through the tutorials. I see no practical use for it today, but I’ll still lose sleep over this ‘lost’ language.

DSC00255_1
Any excuse for another gorgeous //e portrait.
Pascal – I really do not know anything about this

Made in U.S.A. – the Apple //e Joystick

You still need the perfect combination of Mountain Dew and mozzarella to get the high score in Frogger.
You still need the perfect combination of Mountain Dew and mozzarella to get the high score in Frogger.

No Apple ][ system would be complete without some form of game input device – either a joystick or set of paddles.

I recall owning a joystick with my original Apple //e and playing Moon Patrol, which is still a fun game to this day.

I picked this up for around AU$40, and have since seen it selling for quite a big higher, so I’m pretty happy with the purchase.

First game to try was Pacman. This wasn’t a game that I had originally owned, however I was able to load it via the Apple //e cassette port and the Apple ][ Game Server (many thanks to the operators of this website, any Apple ][ owner and/or enthusiast should definitely check it out.

Fantastic for all those arcade classics.
Fantastic for all those arcade classics.

Unfortunately using the joystick option made the game considerably harder. Pacman would immediately reverse direction and slam against a nearby wall. There were obviously some calibration issues.

There’s a simple calibration program for BASIC that reads the joystick inputs and prints them onto the monitor. So simple in fact, I can provide it here:

10 PRINT PDL(0)” “PDL(1):GOTO 10

This program will continually report the joystick position from a range of 0 to 255. An ideal ‘center’ number is around 127, however no amount of calibration using the joystick’s plastic calibration wheels would get me anywhere near this value on the X axis.

Playing Pacman on my colour television.
Playing Pacman on my colour television.

The joystick will need further repair, but for now I’ve overextended the calibration wheel on the joystick to force it to center. The wheel is slightly bent underneath the plastic joystick to accommodate the ‘correct’ calibration setting. A proper repair will likely require a new potentiometer, but I’m happy with this for now.

One of the calibration wheels is forced underneath the cover to overextend the calibration setting - not recommended.
One of the calibration wheels is forced underneath the cover to overextend the calibration setting – not recommended.

The actual joystick itself responds very smoothly in all directions, and is self-centering in this configuration. The entire unit feels solid but not impractically heavy. It features two trigger buttons, which is often all you will need for most games.

I often have it stored on top of my Monitor ][, putting it easily in reach when I want to break out some classic games.

With the Apple //e Joystick, arcade favourites like Pacman, Space Invaders, Galaxian and Defender are now in the palm of your hand.

Made in U.S.A. – the Apple //e Joystick

Bit of Archaeology?

That belongs in a museum! (Lucasfilm/Paramount)
That belongs in a museum! (Lucasfilm/Paramount)

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our protagonist is on a boat somewhere off the coast of Portugal after tracking down a priceless artifact from no-good ‘Panama Hat’ (the name of the character in the credits, apparently his real name is unknown).

He’s almost thrown overboard but in typical Jones fashion, he manages barely escape with his life whilst clinging onto the ‘Cross of Coronado’ – safely delivering the relic to museum curator Marcus Brody.

What does Indy receive for nearly losing his life?

Satisfaction.

The relic happened to have been an important piece of his personal history, after nearly recovering it decades earlier as a child but eventually losing it.

A chip on his shoulder, he stopped at nothing to one day right the wrong, but rather than keep it for himself, he found much greater satisfaction in offloading it for public consumption in a museum.

The scene has got me thinking in respect to vintage and retro computers. From a personal perspective, the Apple //e computer that I’ve only recently recovered was my ‘Cross of Coronado’.

I distinctly remember traveling to the garbage tip with my dad around the turn of the millennium, the car loaded up with two Apple //e computers, an Apple Dot Matrix Printer, and several hundred disks (mostly copies).

Rather than lose these computers, I was foolish enough to be complicit in their destruction. I remember hauling one up and over my head, and throwing it as hard as I could against a nearby pile of garbage (certainly not hard enough to break it, but still quite satisfying for a 12-year-old.

I distinctly remember the plastic cover splitting and coming off the Apple Dot Matrix computer, I think it may have been even heavier than the computer itself.

It was only a few years later that I recall regretting that decision –
nostalgia creep had already set in. But it would be more than a decade before I could once again own one of these fantastic machines.

Copies of E.T. were recently uncovered in a New Mexico landfill after years of speculation
Copies of E.T.  for the Atari 2600 were recently uncovered in a New Mexico landfill after years of speculation.

Finding the right computer to (re)purchase was an exercise in patience. There are many systems available on Ebay, however the prices in recent years are astronomical and frankly, not warranted. Complete systems can go for more than AU$500. Occasionally a machine will pop up on Ebay US or UK for cheaper, but the shipping cost is prohibitive.

I was lucky enough to find this machine for AU$200. It needed a repair and a polish, but it was complete. I didn’t even hesitate to let that money go, so strong was the power of nostalgia.

But unlike Indiana Jones, I can’t stand the thought of losing this machine to a museum. It’s mine, and it has a prized place on my desk, right next to my Windows 8.1 desktop computer.

All that is a roundabout way of asking the question – is there such a thing as computer archaeology? As demonstrated by the asking prices on Ebay, these machines are becoming rarer and rarer.

While there are examples out there of ‘computer history’ museums, are these little more than oversized personal collections?

Efficient, but not terribly accessible. (Lucasfilm/Paramount)
Efficient, but not terribly accessible. (Lucasfilm/Paramount)

I would like to think that I can contribute to our current and future understanding of the history of computing, much like a ‘computer archaeologist’. I see this contribution coming not from the size of the collection, but from the accessability of information regarding each item in the collection.

It should be available to the public, not just to satisfy nostalgia, but so that we don’t lose sight of where we have come. Early 8-bit and 16-bit computers are simply fascinating, and I want to give everyone the chance to see them as I do.

Unlike a physical piece of history, there are other options when it comes to analysing the history of computers. Organisations such as the Internet Archive are dedicated to the goalof preserving computing history. They made the news several months ago after they made several thousand video games available on their site – all for free.

Emulators fill an important purpose in the preservation of computing history too, it’s never been easier to run vintage software on virtually any modern platform.

What does all this mean? I really do not know, this post kind of got away from me.

I suppose in summary – vintage and retro computers shouldn’t be locked up in the basements and warehouses of a handful of collectors. I do not wish to become another example of this, but I’m not really sure how to avoid it.

I could certainly give this computer away to a museum, but even if there was a local example nearby, I would be reluctant to let it go.

Perhaps I’m not Indiana Jones after all.

Bit of Archaeology?

Sending an email using a 30-year-old computer

DSC00209_1

There was once a time when reading and sending email was an ‘event’.

I still recall using a primitive version of Outlook Express to download emails using the POP3 service, long before I ever owned a web-based address (that wouldn’t happen until partway through high school).

I don’t feel terribly nostalgic for those times, although there’s a lot to be said about the triviality of communication in the modern age. It takes no effort to send an email to almost anyone – any email spammer would say as much.

DSC00207_1

That’s why for me, it’s such a pleasure sending an email using the Alpine email client, running via Raspberry Pi through the Apple //e Super Serial Card (more on that another time).

It wasn’t easy – several online guides offered instructions that were either out of date or just unsuitable. In practice, it’s a matter of getting Gmail and Alpine to talk with one another. It did take a few moments, but eventually my configuration ‘stuck’, and I had a fully capable email client running on the Apple //e computer.

Indeed, I’m using the WordPress ‘Post by Email’ capability to compose this entry.

Of course, there are limitations. I can see no practical way of inserting attachments using this system. In theory, I could load attachments onto the Pi and then attach using the Alpine system, but I’ve been spoilt by the simplified drag-and-drop system of modern email clients.

Using it for the purpose of posting an entry, I’ll still have to go back into WordPress on Windows 8.1 to verify formatting and insert graphics, so it’s not a total solution.

DSC00206_1But what this system lacks in functionality it makes up for with style.

There’s something about the sound of the Apple //e keyboard that makes even the most mundane of communications seem important. It’s extremely satisfying listening to the ‘clack clack clack’ of the keys.

There is also something to be said about minimising distractions. Without the use of ‘screen’ in the Linux system, I have nothing else to distract me while I type out this blog post (although I am cheating a little bit, with YouTube running in the background on my Windows machine).

Similiarly, seeing the highlighted line(s) of ‘new’ emails sitting in your Inbox using the Alpine client is much more satisfying than the dull grey or blue shades that are applied on modern web-based email.

It’s similar to when receiving emails used to be a thrill – like a message in a bottle from a distant land, arriving right inside your computer.

Not like now, when I dread the sound of my phone chirping at me.

I’ll likely continue writing up blog posts using the Post by Email feature. I had previously thought about using Multiscribe and then transferring the contents of the data disk using ADTpro, and then extracting using CiderPress. While this works, it’s a few steps too many.

But we will see.

Sending an email using a 30-year-old computer

First Contact

Apple ][ Forever
Apple ][ Forever
This blog is dedicated to my ever growing interest in vintage and retro computing.

What started off as buying a second-hand Sega Mega Drive while studying at university has snowballed into a hobby that keeps me thinking 24/7.

Since then, I have purchased many vintage gaming systems, from Colecovision to Playstation, but none of these acquisitions would match the nostalgia of repurchasing my childhood computer system – an Apple //e.

For me, a large part of this hobby is the result of seeking out nostalgia. Even though I am still a few years shy of 30, I am already looking back at my past, a childhood that was shaped with the likes of a green phosphor monitor and a blue sprite hedgehog.

I suppose I am motivated partly by a search for identity, or at the very least, how these relics of times past have shaped me today. The sweet kick of nostalgia is a bonus.

This blog is dedicated to technology that made me who I am today.

CWJW

Blogging Retro

First Contact