Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Interview with Paul Rezendes

1. Hello and welcome from us at BlitterWolf. For our readers could you tell us your name, country and occupation please?
A. My Real name is Paul Rezendes and I am from the USA. My current occupation is with the US Department of Defense where I am an Engineering Technician with the Navy. Its a civilian position and I do a lot of support work for several Navies other than just the US Navy. Before that I worked as a Technician at Intel working in R&D. I also served in the United States Navy from 1991 through 2012.

2. When did you initially conceive the A4000 Replica board and the reason behind it?
A. I first thought of doing this project after seeing the A1K project red A500+ they did. I just didn’t know how I would be able to fund it. As many know I also do a lot of repair work and restorations of Amiga boards and peripherals. I’ve often thought it would be so much easier to replace a dead 4000 Rev B with a new board and transfer the good parts over to it. I am not a designer myself and haven’t done anything as complicated as a complete motherboard, only a few small projects that have been quite simple. The real spark that set this project in full motion though was the preview Hese showed off at Amibay and then started selling his 4000CR board. The day I first saw that board was the day I started the project funding page.

ACILL Motherboards
3. What is your drive behind continuing with A4000 Replica project?
A. My real drive is to have a good foundation to have 4000 Rev B boards available for use in repairs. A lot of the dead machines are from the battery leaking and taking out some very tight traces and key parts that make the 4000 function. It takes way too long to repair these and make any real money from it. Many people know my motivation isn’t to make money off this work and more to save machines. The next step is to take the newly released data and hope someone with the skill can update the schematic design and recreate the 4000 into a more modern form factor to allow better cases and even more features. Everything needed to do that is now released and possible. We just need someone to take up the project and run with it!

4. Accelerators always seemed popular in the Amiga community, how do you feel the Amiga community have reacted to your reverse engineered board?
A. With very few exceptions I have had nothing but positive comments and praise for this work. The speed at which it was funded shows that. In fact I was blown away at just how fast it funded, as did the company I used for a lot of the work. I don’t think they took me very serious at first actually. They are used to doing very big projects and the price was quite a lot for an old board with no real market from the point they saw. When I came back a week later and had over 50% to pay down they didn’t believe it. I think the passion and the praise that came out of everyone along the way so far speaks volumes on just how the community feels. I also think I have given an amazing gift to the community. I could have easily kept this closed and not released everything. That just isn’t me though. 

5. Why did you set out to create the board?
A. As mentioned earlier my primary goal was to have a clean base to do repairs and the ability to restore machines that would otherwise work again easily. 

6. What is the roadmap for the A4000 Replica boards?
A. I hope to see improvements get done to the board and one day see a new design come out of it. The company I am working with likes the project and had a lot of fun doing it with me. They are more than willing to do more in the future on it if asked, and of course get paid.  

7. Do you see yourself selling complete machines such as a desktop or just boards?
A. I have no plans myself to sell complete machines from this work. I only plan to sell boards and to also use them for repairs that would take longer to find the issues and repair than to just replace the entire board. I will be offering boards for sale very soon though. I have the goal at keeping them between $80-90 each if I can get a group buy going. The first step though is to finish a rebuild with one of the prototypes and makes sure it works!

8. Which version of AmigaOS will we see running natively on the board?
A. The board is a near identical clone of the A4000 Rev B. Any version that will run on the original should run on these with no problems. 

9. When it comes to the original Amiga Operating System between 1.x and 4.x which do/did you like to use most?
A. I love the 3.1 version with updates added myself for things like 060 support, USB, RTG and large drives. 3.9 is also nice, but I have found its just got too much in it and is harder to get a stable system running. I also have an AmigaOne X5000 and love 4.1FE on it as well as MorphOS. In all honesty I prefer the modern 4.1 OS over the classic environment installed for a near seamless Amiga experience on fast modern hardware if I had to make one choice. Lucky for all of us I haven’t been forced to choose though right?!

10. Have you ever been a member of an Amiga group and if so when and where?
A. Yes I have been involved with the Amiga since very early on. My first Amiga was the A1000 (Which I still own) that I bought back in 1987. I used it all through school even. I was a member of some very large user groups in California back then too. BAAUG (Bay Area Amiga Users Group) TOGA (The other group of Amigoids) and currently I am a long time active member of the Sacramento Amiga Computer Club. Home of the famous Amiwest show. I was also an active member of the group Lightforce for many years as Acill. I not only did Amiga with them for a short time but also consoles games.  

11. Did you have your most favourite played games on Amiga and what were/are they?
A. Favourites are hard to pick just one, but if I have to name some then my top choices are Super Frog, Lemmings, Speed Ball, Shuffle puck CafĂ© and Gods. Defender of the Crown sold me on the Amiga in the beginning as well! 

12. Best Amiga system of all time for you?
A. I have a soft spot for the A3000. I think it was the best built system of them all. It was done in the best times of Commodore when the money was not an issue for them and it shows. Its built so well and looks so unique that its hard not to love the machine. The 4000T is my next choice and is currently my main classic system. I have mine outfitted with everything anyone would ever want in it. 

13. Best Amiga game of all time for you?
A. The best Amiga of all time? Hmmm…. I think I would have to put the A4000T in that spot. Its just a work horse that not many people can even begin to realize. Its not the best looking, but it is by far the most powerful of them when put together right! The A3000T is a close second. 

14. What are your thoughts about what happened to Commodore - Amiga?
A. I have had an Amiga in my possession from 1987 up to now. I have owned at least one of every single model over the years as well. Commodore was an amazing company that truly brought great innovation and fantastic machines to the masses. I think the money got in the way of management and as a result they crippled innovation. Greed killed them and it made me so angry. It still does in fact. I know for sure things would be very different had Commodore stayed on a similar path as Apple. When the Amiga was released they all feared it. It was never put into the places it should have been and as a result they just let it get wasted. 

15. How do you feel towards AmigaOS4 and Amiga hardware reincarnations like AmigaOne?
A. I love the AmigaOne and own an X5000. I think its exactly what people need. Its got the feel of an Amiga and its modern. Many people say its way to expensive and I strongly disagree with that. If you look back at what systems cost new you will see its quite a deal in comparison! Even people building up the ultimate 4000 of their dreams are spending twice or more the money than what an X5000 will do out of the box at a much better speed.  

16. What do you make of the AmigaOS spin offs like MorphOS or AROS?
A. I don’t have a lot of experience with AROS. I do have a lot with MorphOS. I was one of the early users of it. I loved it so much that I sold my ultimate A3000T back just before the Pegasos II machines came out so I could get one. It’s a great OS and should be taken very serious. It every bit an Amiga in the sense of the way things are today as OS 4.1 is. I would say I use it nearly as much today as I do OS 4.1FE on my X5000. 

17. What do you see as the future for Amiga or Amiga like OS?
A. I would like to see the classic systems preserved for what they are. They are a big part of my life and that needs to be something to save. The future is not the classic machines. I think machines like the X5000 and the FPGA solutions are a great step in the future. The classics are not getting any younger and the custom chips are not available anymore. Once they are gone, they are gone. I want to see a complete and ACCURATE FPGA solution that can be plugged into something like the X5000 to give us the classic experience in hardware form and the ability to move ahead. I’d love to see the MorphOS team and the OS 4.1 team get together and build the ultimate modern OS solution. Both have amazing parts to them and together they would just be incredible! 

18. Any further comments to make?
A. The Amiga is a way of life and something those that have never owned one early on and grown up with them just cant explain to the younger generation today. Why do we love such old hardware and spend insane money to keep it alive and attempt to make it do things that a $50 computer can do in many ways faster and better? Well for me its from a time when computers were more than just a commodity item you got as a tool. The Amiga was my first experience talking with people from all over the world through a BBS or IRC. Its where I met my wife and many of my long time friends. I learned electronics and how things work through it and kept me feeling unique in a sea of plan beige boxes and boring software everyone else was using. Its part of my family and all of you that enjoy it and talk about it the same way online are just as much a part of my family as my real family is at times. I want to tank all of you for making this project possible. It would of never happened without you all and has spark new project that will keep the Amiga alive and well for years to come!!

Michael Holmes

Monday, 13 August 2018

Interview with Stefany Allaire

1. Hello and welcome from us at BlitterWolf. For our readers could you tell us your name, country and occupation please?
A. My name is Stefany Allaire and I was born in Quebec City in the province of Quebec, in Canada which makes me a French Canadian.  I presently reside in Vancouver, British Columbia. I started my career as an electronic technician which turned quickly in hardware design and the later years of my career, I got into FPGA programming and Mechanical Design.

2. Where did the inspiration for the C256 Foenix come from?
A. For a while now, I was going to get myself a C64 or C128, just to rekindle with my past I suppose. So, for some reasons, there was already a predisposition for me to get back into it. And then, the video from “The 8Bit guy” David Murray where is speaks of the “Gigagron TTL” computer happened. That was middle of April. He makes the review of a retro computer called the “Gigatron TTL” designed by 2 gentlemen from the Netherlands if I recall (don’t quote me on that).
So, at the end of the video David Murray makes the mention that all this time he has been reviewing all these different homemade computers, he never really came across the one he would have wanted. He finally tells the audience that he made a list on his website’s forum of the thing his dream computer should have. I proceed to take a look and there I decide to pursue the project. This is how the C256 Foenix project started for me. It was going to be another month before I really got into it.

3. Did you know from the start what you wanted to create, as in the specifications and the look of the machine?
A. Not really, however, I was in the right mind set to begin a new project and I was already in the retro mood. The early specifications were specified by David, so for me this was my base, my starting point. But it dawned on me quickly that what David wanted and this is my interpretation of it, was an enhanced C64; still compatible with the actual C64 but with more possibilities. And early on, in my first month of reflection that was a problem. Because I didn’t want to recreate a C64 with more features, I wanted to create something that would have followed the C128 but the capacity of an Amiga without going into full 16bits. So, some of what David wanted could be fulfilled but other stuff could not. He did mentioned also that FPGAs were not his preferred choice and an off the shelf solution for video would be preferred and this is one of the things I didn’t agree with. Because for me FPGAs could be considered as ASIC because this is what they are in the end and Commodore was very much into designing their own ASIC. So for me, FPGA made all the sense in the world to enhance the possibilities of the CPU and system in general and give an edge to video and audio. In the end, this internal FPGA discussion brought about the idea that the project should be about creating something that could have been designed by Commodore in the first place, if Jack didn’t leave Commodore. And from that moment, the whole project made sense and this is how I came about with my own specs (based heavily on what David wanted) and brought a spin on them.

4. Your slogan says "The C64/C128 long lost brother", in name only?
A. Well, like I previously mentioned, I thought that giving a twist to the design by forcing me into designing something from a different time or era would make sense, because things have changed so dramatically in the world of electronic since 1987, it’s insane. The goal was and is still to design something that could be considered the follow-up to the C128. What the next computer could have been if Jack Tramiel would have stayed with Commodore and that Amiga was never bought by Commodore considering that the C128 was not a very big success because of this idea of trying to please everybody with one architecture. Maybe, they would have decided to go clean room and reinvent what the next gen could have been and this is what the C256 Foenix is about, so in a way maybe it is more like the long lost sister! ;o)

5. Did you have any PCB schematics to work from as a starting point or is this built from the ground up?
A. Yes, everything was designed from ground up. I even decided to use a different EDA software suite than the one I was generally using. I used Eagle thinking that it would be easier to share the content, however, I came to realize that my design was going to be too big for the free edition and the standard paying version, so all in all, maybe not the best choice. Surprisingly enough, Eagle really grew on me. However, if Autodesk would not be the owner now, I think I would feel even better about it. I digress, however, aside the fact that used website like SNAPEDA to get the schematic symbols and PCB footprint. The schematic has been completely created by me.

The Product as of Today

6. Is the C256 going to be backward compatible with previous Commodore models and if so which ones?
A. The million dollars question, a straight answer to that question, is “no”. I believe that the C128 compatibility with the C64 is what limited the C128 and so I wasn’t going to repeat the same mistake being the successor to the C128. The C64 should have remained the C64 and the C128 ought to have been its own computer and thus this idea that anything design with Commodore in mind should be automatically compatible with the C64 because it has lots of game supporting it, is somewhat ludicrous to me. In the 1990’s there has been a lot of attempts for new computers and/or game platforms to come to the market and most of them failed and yes most of them was because of lack of software support. But in a lot of cases because there was a lack of time to develop new games and a lack of time to develop the right tools to support those game developers. And for me, this is the major point. I think people are ready to have a new retro platform with new games and my priority is to support the early adopters first. If you have games and it is easy to develop those games then we could see a major adoption of a new ‘old’ platform.

7. Why have you decided to call the project Foenix?
A. First, I realized quickly that if I was going to take David’s challenge seriously than there would be other and thus, I went and assume that some of them would take on the C256 name. So, to make sure that there would be no confusion with any other past or future C256 names reference to a hypothetical Commodore computer, I went with Phoenix for the fact that it is the computer that might have existed but then its rises from its ashes. So I think the image here is pretty clear. As far as the “F” is concern, well, I needed to make it mine, so Ste”F”any hence “F”oenix.

8. Have you always had a keen interest in hardware development?
A. Yes, actually the source of my interests in electronic and electronic hardware comes the C64. When I was 13, my dad bought a C64 for the family and back then I was residing in Rimouski, in Quebec province. Not a place you would write about, long and windy winter, short and windy summer. Anyhow, we just moved there and I had no friend, so I was bored. Now we are talking about 1984, so no internet or else. So, when the Commodore arrived, at first, I tried to do some things with it, but it was still very early, so there were not that many games and it is not like we could have access to those games anyway. But overtime, within one year of getting the computer we moved within the city and my brother one day brought back a game cartridge and this is where it really started for me. After a few months, we ended having a lot more games and I started hacking the games which I did many years till we moved again. I stopped doing it when I was 16, in the mean time I was doing some electronic stuff on the side.

9. Have you owned any Commodore computers in the past and if so which?
A. Yes, the C64 and that’s it. Unfortunately by the time the Amiga came around, I was already out of the C64 hacking scene and I never made the transition and by then, I was already doing stuff on the PC. A month ago, I got myself a C128 because at some point in time my brother trashed the family C64 and all the games we had (he didn’t tell me). Sad… snif…

10. Who is working on software development, such as the OS and any software, for the hardware?
A. Right now, few people have shown some interests in help with the low level stuff. As we speak, I think there is only Tom who is actively working on the firmware to create a Monitor/Text Editor for the machine. Others have shown interests in creating games and apps when the unit is ready. As soon as the FPGAs are done, I will join in for the Kernel section which is the most important to enable everybody else. Also with the FPGAs design done, then, all the documentations will be useful for developer as well. I think at this point, the biggest issue, is really to get a board and a board with programmed FPGA as soon as possible.

11. Do you intend future proofing the C256 by allowing for expansions, such as extra memory?
A. The C256 has an expansion connector and a cartridge connector. So, I believe that there are plenty of ways to go about making it better or to improve it. Memory wise, I think there will be plenty so, that won’t probably be necessary, so unless the end-user is really thirsty for it. Otherwise, the expansion connector could be used to implement different type of hardware that are more up to date, like an IDE interface, Wi-Fi module, USB, anything their heart desire.

12. What ports are going to be accessible externally?
A. External ports, we are talking about a 95% compatible USER Port (smaller connector though), RCA Stereo Line Output, Headphone with Amps Output, Midi-In, Midi-Out, DVI (D and A), Commodore 6 pins EIC Connector for the drives, then a extended version of the C64 pin compatible connector (smaller) with 64 pins that contains the 24Bits Address bus.

13. Do you have a roadmap for the C256 and possible future projects?
A. Good question, at some point in the design there was an idea to put 2 processors like the C128. In our case, it would have been the 65C816 and the MC68SHC000 in 8bit mode both running @ 16Mhz. So, if there was a follow up to the C256 maybe it could be either a dual processors version and/or to implement a real 16bit bus 65C816 into another FPGA, so to transform the C256 from 8bits to 16bits but to keep the same sound/graphics hardware. However, right now there are no plans whatsoever for any future model, obviously this is tied up to the fact that if there is no C256 that exists and thrive in the market, there is no point into making a successor.

14. Have you ever been a member of a computer group and if so when and where?
A. No, never… Never been much of a group person.

15. Did you have your most favourite played games on Commodore machines and what were/are they?
A. The games I enjoyed the most playing back in the day were mostly arcade games because while I was bored during my teenage years, close to the school there was an arcade which I spent all my money and my free time. So I got to enjoy first hand all today’s classic. As for the Commodore, I enjoyed mostly the early games like Jumpman and then there were a couple of game studios that were just making awesome games, like Epyx and Synapse that I really enjoy. But at the end of the day, I never have been much of a gamer. I would have way more fun cracking the game than to play with it! ;o)

16. Best computer system of all time for you?
A. Even if I never had one and never actually played with one or come close to touch one. I think Amiga is the computer of all time. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the C64 has played a major role in people’s life, but I think the Amiga was far ahead of its time and just set the bar to a level that just triggered everything else. So, in other words, I would say that people wise, I think the C64 has been a major game changer. In terms of technology, I think the Amiga was the computer that made the biggest difference.

17. Best computer game of all time for you?
A. I don’t have any specifics on that one. I would say that it is more like an era that made a different. So I would say, all the arcade games designed in the early 80s are the best games of all time.

18. What are your thoughts about what happened to Commodore?
A. Well, I think if Commodore would have not been so greedy and stupid (mostly from the time Jack left) they could easily be the actual Apple. They had everything to become one, but like I said, stupidity and greed just killed everything. I mean, I think Jack Tramiel was way more a visionary than Steve Jobs could ever be. I obviously don’t know the person, but I guess what he did was way more significant than Apple did, no offense to Apple fans here. Otherwise, there is very little we can say, since it is long gone!

19. Any further comments to make?
A. Well, not specifically, but I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to talk more about the project even it has been a bit overdue. Sorry about that. ;o) I hope that when the time comes people will enjoy this new “old” computer and will have as much fun with it that I got to design it and to make it happen!

Michael Holmes

Monday, 30 July 2018

Interview with Renaud Schweingruber

1. Hello and welcome from us at BlitterWolf. For our readers could you tell us your name, country and occupation please?
A. Hi all! My name is Renaud Schweingruber, I’m 36 and I live in French part of Switzerland where I'm born. I'm sales director in an IT services company based in Switzerland providing Cloud and Managed Services in B2B market. I’m involved with some kind of PR/marketing activities for Apollo Team and am “as much as I can” tester of the core.

2. When did you initially conceive the Vampire board and the reason behind it?
A. Majsta did conceive the Vampire V1 some years ago and got in touch with Gunnar who tried to port his Apollo core to the Vampire V1. The FPGA used in V1 was at that time okay-ish for a small TG68 core but not for the Apollo Core. That's basically how the Vampire V2 story that you know today started.

Vampire V1

3. What is your drive behind continuing with Vampire development?
A. Beside of being one of the most active project in Amiga-land at the moment, Apollo Team is also a very interesting and motivating human story. People in team are constantly discussing core and hardware development on IRC since years now and do it from 8am to 24pm without interruption. That dedication to such project is just impressive and I don’t remember seeing such hobbyist computer project involving so much human resources around the world. This is where I personally get my motivation from.

4. Accelerators always seemed popular in the Amiga community, how do you feel the Amiga community have reacted to the Vampire boards?
A. If I take a look at how many people shown interest in our products by registering themselves on our website, I can say that the community was really waiting for a powerful accelerator which bring a complete set of features. We receive quite a lot of positive comments from customers and that is really motivating for the team.
There are of course some old greedy bears in caverns but they aren’t the majority and in some way, they are also promoting the product by bad mouthing on it.

5. Why did you initially set out to create an accelerator and not go straight to a standalone machine?
A. Recreating a complete Amiga is a very complex task. An Amiga isn’t just a processor, it’s a complete set of custom chips which are interconnected to work together. If we went straight to a standalone machine, it’s highly probable that nobody would have an AC68080 right now. We preferred to deliver already part of our work through accelerators and build up a standalone machine step by step.

6. What is the roadmap for the Vampire boards?
A. Roadmap is pretty clear: we want to cover the highest number of Amigas with Vampire accelerators and offer a standalone product to customers. From that very simple sentence comes lot of technical and commercial choices we are discussing every day (which Amiga to support, which FPGA to choose, how much RAM, etc.).
We have some big tasks to work on at the moment in a short-term plan:
Bring AGA to non-AGA Amigas with GOLD3 core
Finish testing Vampire V4 and bring it to the market

7. Do you see yourself selling complete hardware such as a laptop with the Vampire as the motherboard?
A. A Vampire laptop would be really awesome and a killer product. We are of course thinking about it.

8. Can we see AmigaOS 4.x running natively on a Vampire board?
A. As AmigaOS4 is mainly coded in C, even if it gets ported back to 68k (which will likely never happen), it will be really slow compared to a lightweight and optimized OS as OS3 is.
I also doubt that considering investments made by the PPC market actors in AmigaOS4 for years it will ever happen.

9. When it comes to the original Amiga Operating System between 1.x and 4.x which do/did you like to use most?
A. Workbench 1.3 was a good starter for me when I was young and I liked very much how responsive it was at that time. I then moved to 3.1 and never went back to earlier releases. When I could afford to upgrade a bit my Amiga, I then tried OS3.9 and found it was a great step forward and a good attempt to modernize the aging OS3.1 without losing all it’s 3.1 mind. Regarding AOS4, I don’t own a PPC Amiga so I can’t really tell.

Amiga OS3.9

10. Have you ever been a member of an Amiga group and if so when and where?
A. I’m member of the Amiga Multitasking Force (AMF) which is a local group of Amiga users in French part of Suisse Romande. We meet every month to share Amiga news between us and enjoy being together.

11. Did you have your most favourite played games on Amiga and what were/are they?
A. Amiga had lot of super game titles but I of course had some preferred ones:
Simon The Sorcerer
The Settlers
Theme Park

12. Best Amiga system of all time for you?
A. Any vampirized one ;-)
 Joke apart, the Amiga 1200 is the golden one for me.

13. Best Amiga game of all time for you?
A. The Settlers

14. What are your thoughts about what happened to Commodore - Amiga?
A. Commodore made lot of mistakes and bad choices which lead them to bankruptcy. Alone, most of these choices would not have hurt them but considering number of them together at the same moment, I think Commodore destiny was pretty obvious at that time.
I’m a bit sad that considering how far in the past this happened nobody could not manage to get more IP from Amiga gifted to the community. For sure lot of sources and code are lost forever and will need to be recreated from scratch. AROS was conceptually a good attempt but failed on Amiga due to lack of developers interest.

15. How do you feel towards AmigaOS4 and reincarnations like AmigaOne?
A. One thing I always liked about the Amiga was how fast it was booting to Workbench and this is very important to me even today. I’ve seen AOS4 systems taking ages to boot and I know I could myself not stand that even if AOS4 feels very Amiga-ish when booted.

16. What do you make of the Amiga spin offs like MorphOS or AROS?
A. I have a PowerBook G4 running latest MorphOS version on it. I have to admit that MorphOS is really more advanced than AmigaOS4 in many, many topics and well packed but it misses that “little something” to bring me emotion I have with OS3. From what I have seen, AmigaOS4 has a better integration of E-UAE from a default setup and I think this could be improved in MorphOS to bring a better overall Amiga feeling.

17. What do you see as the future for Amiga or Amiga like OS?
A. With Vampire, 68k is getting a growing interest again and I’m sure that in the future we will see a resurgence of more and more 68k software and developer coming back to the Amiga.
Regarding OS4 and PPC, it looks to me like a dead-end since X5000 costs more than most people can afford to pay for a hobby and Tabor is lacking some important feature in CPU that will split the user base again as it was the case on 68000 with all its derivative binaries (020, 040, etc.). I would say that the “only” chance for OS4 to survive in a near future is to quickly make the same move that MorphOS made and support Mac PowerPCs. Moana was an early attempt to, I wish it was continued.

18. Any further comments to make?
A. Either being “silicon Motorola” 68k, 68080 FPGA, PPC or even emulation, I would like people to keep enjoying the Amiga platform and never forget it. Amiga is the root of most of our modern computers and it deserves to survive until the end of days ;-)

I'd like to say a big thank you for this interview, If you ever find yourself with a spare Vampire board for an A600 I have a very nice A600 waiting.

I'm really looking forward to where the Vampire road takes you and us next.

Michael Holmes

Monday, 14 May 2018

The OS4 Pre-release Preview Part 4: 3.. 2.. 1.. It is done?

Tool time
Not a lot has changed in the Tools department, at first glace, but soon some major new tools are discovered. USBInspector shoes information on the USB hardware connected, in a tree list view, including any hubs as well as the internal one and what USB devices are connected. Device types and any other information the device tells about itself are shown. KeyShow has been updated, now showing a PC keyboard layout, but the Amiga keys still intact and the ScrollLock position masquerading as the Help key. Yes, that was chosen as it was considered useless with Amiga programs, not used. Some of the keys seen to appear too small, as the text was squashed a bit and didn’t all fit. Media Toolbox, of course, resides here. It is a big overhaul compared to its predecessor, HDToolbox, and I will go through the brief here. Two modes are presented, Normal and Expert, and each is as dangerous for miss-setup on a drive. It works pretty much as before, except the partition editing window now shows a list of partitions on the right. Changing details requires another window opened, a little awkward say, if you want to change buffers allocated. Expert options allow a decent number of parameters changed, relating to the internal DOS volume mounted, so will be of no use to the everyday user. Also for the expert are a number of SCSI tools at hand, in abundance, covering mode pages, reading drive temperature, sector defects, determining drive read and write speeds and low level formatting including partition erase. Quite a few in there, although SCSI on the AmigaOne is a bit of non-goer presently, as OS4 apparently has no drivers yet for SCSI cards. I hope they didn’t spend too much time then coding those extra options in. What has been due in AmigaOS for a long time are disk recovery tools, supplied that is. You may remember Commodore supplied DiskDoctor, but removed it because it was thought to have too many problems, possibly causing more damage on a disk than repairing it. I did use it with success as times. Now we have the perhaps confusingly titled PartitionWizard, sounding more like a Windows harddisk setup program than the new AmigaOS disk recovery tool. Perhaps they should have resurrected the DiskDoctor name then, at least we knew what Lazarus meant when a disk was brought back from the dead, or did after a quick read in the bible. It does support a number of standard options including check, repair, salvage, undelete and unformat. And it will also optimise a volume as well, known as defragging on other systems. Lastly it will search for lost partitions and can save them out as a mountlist or a special Media Toolbox format. And can convert from old FFS volumes to the new LongName format. As it has settings for these on bottom of the window, and the functions selected by a nameless icon, it can get confusing at first working out what one is. It is slightly buggy too and can bring down the system if you’re not careful; this isn’t a usual case, it’s just that when you start work on the Workbench volume the system wants to access it five seconds later for some reason and so will complain. Acknowledging the requester asking for the Workbench volume in anyway will end up asking for trouble back, unless you give it back first. Otherwise a set of five second intervals later and the system can freeze, just before Workbench ignores you and becomes unresponsive. This isn’t an isolated incident either as other disk tools working like this have made the system complain in the same way, usually from not properly disabling the volume it is working on, which can always lead to trouble, for any volumes. I’ve seen a conflict like this on early Windows 9x systems where running a defrag operation left alone until the screen blanker (saver) kicks in and somehow needed to be loaded from disk, messing up defrag and it starts again. A program that should be in memory and not on disk, usually with everything on C: being loaded upsets defragging so it started all over again, but the system did not crash. In contrast, PartitionWizard on OS4 will cause system conflicts when working on the system volume, which can lead to complaints and unrecoverable crashes. Now I would expect this from third party software, but with software built into the system, this just isn’t on and I find this to be unacceptable behaviour. I even lost the end of a paragraph in my review because I had to hard reset the machine after a freeze.

A change of tune, PlayCD has been moved from Utilities to here, slightly updated. But looking a bit plain now as it is currently “skinless.” But it also does the job.

Commodities looks very familiar, the new ContextMenus is in there as spoken about in an earlier part of the review, letting by default the right mouse over icons being used to select relevant options. Including the Workbench backdrop and drawer windows also having their own menus. A useful little commodity. Another one is DepthToFront, almost similar in operation to ContextMenus, this allows you to select from a list of screen or window names and bring one to the front, depending if the mouse is over a screen or window depth gadget. What you could almost miss is an interesting update to Blanker. Still supporting that classic line drawing with optional colour cycling and animation, now with a speed control. The major interest is support for DPMS, a modern monitor feature, and this is just one of those little things that make it all the better. You can set stand-by, suspend and active-off delays, and first time I tested this on my ViewSonic 17” it actually worked. Excellent. You can also specify triggers for blanking including keyboard, mouse movements with threshold, and mouse buttons.

A new addition to Tools is a drawer called Dockies. These are add-ons made for AmiDock, which relies on these for certain features, and you could in fact say AmiDock’s world revolves around all different docks living, communicating and interconnecting together. You don’t realise how internally philosophically minded it is, like I just did, as is it siting on the dock of the bay. All the dockies mostly take up an icon or space in a dock, usually but not always acting like a gadget. In brief there is Access, similar to DepthToFront, giving a list tree of screens and windows to select. Anim showing an anim as a selectable icon, instead of a still image. Button being a standard selectable icon. Clock shows an analogue clock, in the dock. Debugger shows debug output of exactly what the dock is it up to, and doing nothing Debugger shows it’s still busy in the background. Lens will be familiar, displaying a magnified or you could say digital zoom of what is appearing under the mouse pointer. Double clicking changes it to a slightly humorous Maximised Lens. Other options include displaying a crosshair, grid, screen co-ordinates, RGB values and setting the magnification. Minimizer is next, said to minimise a dock with a set delay. Online is provided to put you online when you press the “This is planet earth” internet icon. Rainbow colour cycles though the rainbow with a box in the dock with a gradient. Separator simple provides a bar to put between elements. Subdock opens up another dock which when pressed allows you organise and structure your docks. Finally, Test bounces a tiny white square in a bigger black box. Moving the mouse inside the box will cause the square to follow the movements and clicking it will double its size and turn red. What strutting stuff.

Utilitarian actions
Of major importance and changes has to be in Utilities. First up we have a drawer called AmiPDF, containing a self-titled icon. The OS4 fast and friendly PDF viewer, showing every file I could throw at it, working very well. Then there is a GhostScript drawer, containing a script to make assigns. Which relates to AmiGS, inside another drawer, that runs a graphic interface to GhostScript, the command line postscript interpreter. Mostly useful for printing. The Clock has been updated, supposedly with an updated ReAction GUI I am told, the menus looking modern. But the clock in appearance still looks like the one you could see in Workbench 1.3, including that topaz font on the bottom, the only difference I could see was that it fitted inside the updated OS4 window borders. Who knows what else? Again from the 1.3 days, NotePad has made a comeback, this time somehow replacing EditPad. It looks the same, aside from a few more icons on top, so why rename it? For those who remember the original NotePad, this is only a name steal. Although better and able to do slightly more than EditPad, NotePad does not inherit the features of it’s ancestor, which I find unfortunate but expected. If you remember, NotePad was almost a word processor in its own right, allowing you to set fonts and styles within a page, not to forget that page select corner gadget. It was great to test out on your printer, my 9-pin at the time. But alas, that is no more, now reduced to a plain boring text editor. Aren’t things meant to improve and expand features on? At least I thought so, but even with using AmigaOS4 solo you are reminded of a Wintel World. Which brings me to Installer. Although supposed to be a new version it doesn’t support the multi-media sound and graphics support of earlier versions, so running newer scripts will produce errors, in the least they could have made it recognise the keywords and ignore them but no. This is just one of those things relating to the fact that Haage & Partner hogged the source code to the AmigaOS 3.5 and 3.9 updates because they consider the code theirs and they lost out by not doing the work themselves, which they was meant to. In the least, they could have assisted, for they were all keen for AmigaOS on PowerPC for ages then suddenly turned over to the darkside. And involved them selves with AmigaOS x86 emulation, a complete 180 degree turnaround, and made them selves an enemy of Amiga, Inc.

Extra! Extra! Read all about it
With the new AmigaOS4 you can take a hint, if you get one. With certain programs on the Workbench, by hovering the mouse pointer over different gadgets in the interface for a while will bring up a hint. Encapsulated in a black bordered yellow box, these are small descriptions of what a function does, giving you a handy hint.

Despite the Grim Reaper taking control of most software alerts, the Guru can still Meditate in OS4, with those yellow recoverable alerts still appearing. Unlike the normal ones we know these seem to be lazy and instead of pushing the screen down just overlay the alert right on top. It looks the same until you notice the rest of the picture isn’t at it seems, and doesn’t quite give the right effect.

OS4 still retains the Ctrl-Amiga-Amiga reset key combination, though now has to be provided through software rather than being a hardware reset. Thus being a soft-boot of a warm-boot. Doing so will just reset AmigaOS4 itself, just like old times with the Kickstart already being resident, but unlike old times it boots a lot faster. It also looks different, and is a bit worrying at first, because the screen just freezes and there is no way knowing of if it is going to successfully reset. Then a funny pattern appears, the screen goes blank and it reboots. Hopefully they will at least bring back the changing shades of grey in future so we know something is actually going on, and it will look better too. A hard reset or cold boot can also be achieved on the keyboard, this time by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Alt. Almost had a Del on there, but not quite. As long as the kernel is up to it this will perform the trick, otherwise a proper hard reset is required by pressing the reset switch on the case.

A flower that is yet to blossom, the Petunia 68k JIT emulator is yet to be implemented into OS4, talk about a wilt. This does seem funny as when I spoke to the author in email dialogue a couple of years ago he said it was finished, he just had to weed out all the bugs if any were found in his garden, and have it implemented into OS4. Hopefully this flower will be allowed to open up and spread it’s fragrance soon. As one the stability issues with OS4 also revolves around 68k emulation, or perhaps a lack off with some programs falling over. General tweaks in the emulation and an improved and expanded instruction set, especially for FPU as some things are missing, should alleviate the need to run those classic programs. And how well they do run.

The End Commandments
For some final words in my review before I will close it off full of special features I thought I’d take a look at the C: directory. A host of standard commands have been made native, and a few stand out. Some are so new no documentation appears for them yet, but I mention all that stand out. BuildMapTable adds support for a particular unicode table and charset. CharsetConvert will change a file from one charset to another. Clip sets and retrieves data from the system clipboard. CountLines will do so on a text file. Cut is used to extract a particular letter or word from a line. FileSize will report back the total disk space used for files specified, and you can also format the output similar to List. MakeLink has been updated, and can now fully link across devices. MD5Sum can be used to create and check sums to this particular algorithm. In place of Action, we have MooVid, this time appearing as a command. This is the first native port, and brings up a requester like the Workbench version, supporting the AVI, MOV and QT formats. Officially a Move has been added, similar to Copy it will transfer a file across, but then delete the original. ReportTool is provided to output the CPU type and memory, and what devices are on the PCI bus. RequestString can be used to pop up a string requester. SetFontCharSet is used to specify what charset to use on a certain font. SetPatch of course has changed, though it hasn’t much to tell. Uptime is used to find how long the system has been up. There are a few other additions, most notably the “Net” commands, which are part of Roadshow. Used for managing and getting information on networks. A few other commands, also linked to Roadshow are included, but these are mostly used for other networking tasks and some are just straight Unix ports. Finally, the Rexx commands have been shifted into here, amongst a cleaning up of AmigaDOS. Well that mostly covers it, and AmigaOS4 as well. Next part will be the last part of my review, yes that will be it, I will have nothing to write after. Full of special features I am preparing, it will break the mould of the reviews, and also be the final one.

Monday, 9 April 2018

The HP Deskjet and the Mystery of the Blank Pages.

Hello everyone. Time to vent some recent mindfulness. :-)

Remember that HP Photosmart driver I uploaded to OS4Depot years ago? It must have been there for a while now. In the beginning I only uploaded it as a temporary work around. At the time, there was a bug in the OS4 printer drivers, where the C compiled PowerPC code trashed a printer command code double buffer for some reason. On 68K it was fine apparently. This was worked around by changing it a triple buffer. Yet still, it was missed in the OS4 release of the time, so it would be some time before there was an update fix. However, the main source was available of the HP driver, as an example printer driver source code with the fix in place.

I had just bought a new HP Photosmart C4180 for use with document printing and business use. So was keen to have a working printer driver. And not rely on saving out documents as RTF in order to fidget with cables and print them on my iBook. So I chased down the source. Configured it for 600 DPI max density in both B&W and colour which my printer supported. Compiled it. Tested it as working. And then was happy to share the result with other OS4 users. I also wanted to give it a name. The example source was for a HP 1120C. But to me that was little too cryptic and I wanted a more general and friendly name. So I looked at my printer. Ah there we go. HP Photosmart. And so the HP Photosmart printer driver was born. :-)

Somehow, the driver has lasted. Although it was conceived of as a temporary fix, as things in history can go sometimes, it has lasted longer than it was meant too. I mean, it's been years now since all the OS4 HP printer drivers work as they should, on the printers they are specified for. And yet, when ever there talk of someone setting up a HP printer on a forum, in almost all cases the HP Photosmart driver on OS4Depot gets a mention. Now, even though I didn't write the driver code in the first place, it makes me happy to see it mentioned as something little I did helps others in the OS4 community. Perhaps I should go into marketing. LOL! :-D

Now that's not the end of the story. Since the driver did not remain static and did evolve. It was brought to my attention and I had noticed it as well that after a printout the printer would hang for some while, as if waiting for more data that was never to come. Xenic researched this and found that modern printers expected the print dump to be "partitioned" so to speak, by being encapsulated in a print job. Now a print job has job start codes, the main dump, then a job end code. Sounds logical. These other codes are in a language of their own. Called UEL. For Universal Exit Language. It pretty much comes down to an escape sequence of "%12345". To get attention one can send "%12345@PJL". PJL means Printer Job Language.

Now the the OS resource in charge of printing is a device driver by the name of printer.device. Similar to a function library, devices are opened, functions called, and then that device closed. With the added feature that devices have a few device specific functions and specialised commands for block reading and writing. Now with this methodology in place, you'd think it would be simple enough to encapsulate a print dump inside some job start and end commands, since it's opened, used, then closed. Not so simple, as it turns out. I found that a program can open the device, query the printer, then close it. So detecting this from the device open and closing wouldn't always work. Inside the driver, there are routines that deal with bitmap print dumps, where a raster dump is sent to the printer. Even though this is also organised in a similar way I had found; with initialisation, main  usage, then freeing of resources it could not be relied upon. Because a program could dump a raster in sections, thus causing repeated use of all the routines. This would mean start and end commands would be sent between each section dump, which wouldn't be correct.

Obviously, I found a solution. And this was, after detecting a job start, to count actual lines printed. Including actual text dumps sent. I had to separate the two as initially one was detected and the other wasn't. Then on driver close check the line counter and if lines had been printed then send a job end. And I was happy to have solved that one. :-)

Time passes. And I had an inkling time would catch up with my driver. It was when my printer ran out of black ink yet again and the colour cartridge was drying up. Funny how I desired a colour printer for years and when I get one hardly print any colour documents or pictures. As is typical with consumer goods, especially HP printers; the older your printer, the more cost it seems to buy a replacement cartridge. And for an official ageing HP cartridge sitting on the shelf from a supermarket to a bulk store, a cost going through the roof. I decided, even though I still liked my HP Photosmart printer, that I would just go out and buy a new one. It would be cheaper than a new set of cartridges. This time a budget HP Deskjet 3630. And soon, I would encounter the typical buyers regret, yet on several different levels.

The mystery? I hooked up the printer to my AmigaOne and set about printing a test page. I was soon met with an immediate problem. The paper was sucked in, the data sent, but after it spewed it back out as a blank page. I also saw after experimentation a rogue "9" character appearing in printouts. I suspected the new printers were more strict with command sequences than previously and later confirmed this. The HP driver is built with PCL3 in mind. That is an invention of HP, Printer Command Language, version 3. Just to throw another acronym in the mix, PCL is considered to be a PDL, a Page description language  As stated in technical documentation for common HP printers, ones built in recent years use a variation called PCL3GUI. From research, it means what it looks like when expanded; Printer Command Language, [version] 3, Graphic User Interface. Now historically HP documented PCL versions and command codes. However, for PCL3GUI, this is different. HP does not officially document it. Obviously based on PCL3, but using a limited set of compatible command codes. And for other important operations, such as graphics, a different set of command codes.

I did a little research and put it off until I had time to go into it more fully. It was when I got an email from one Achim, that I knew the problem had spread. Not wanting to leave fans in the lurch, of the HP Photosmart driver that is, ;-) I set about to solve the mystery of the blank pages. And what this PCL3GUI language interpreter expects. I found that this PCL3GUI uses another acronym, as the world likes, called RTL for Raster Transfer Language. This intern, makes use of, yes you guessed it, another acronym, called CRD. For Configure Raster Data. CRD is a PCL command for configuring the printer to receive raster data. It goes into detail describing this in specially formatted binary data structures. This in itself is not unusual, since there are commands to transfer raster data, where the data is binary. Here, in the CRD, it describes things like a DPI width and height matrix per colour pens and describing raster format data. For example, a raster can be a bitmap plane formatted exactly as the Amiga used on the hardware, such as in a black printout. It can be different pens, or even RGB values, where each pen is laid out with its own plane. Or even RGB data in standard chunky format. Had the Amiga hardware been developed beyond AGA, or even developed to where it should have been at that stage, it's likely it would have included these hybrid planar and chunky modes in the hardware. And another thing, which is interesting to note, the byte data in the CRD command format is in big endian order! :-D

So, at this stage, research had led me to forums with people asking what this PCLGUI is and codes for it. There are also sites describing CRD in limited capacity and possibly derived from reverse engineering a PCL dump. As well as examples of PCL interpreters decoding a limited subset of the PCL3GUI CRD command. I also discovered along with this some source code from some HP drivers such as CUPS. And what amused me most is that HP also offer sources for PCL3GUI drivers them selves. Of course there's no real documentation for CRD, apart from some commentary, but there is the source. Use the source Luke! :-P

With this information at hand I set out to update the driver. I needed to examine the output of the printer codes to make sure they were correct. I found I could use the printtofile.device as a substitute for the printer.device. As things are with AmigaOS, it's a little awkward to select this when I needed it, and it seems AmigaOS is made for programmers and not users at times. I went through a few runs until bugs were corrected and the output stream was how it should be. Then it was time for a test print out. As expected, it took a few goes before the printer accepted the codes sent to it, still printing out blank pages. One of the few situations where a blank page wasted my time and a waste of ink was beneficial. I eventually found the sweet spot with codes where the printer accepted the page and what. I also found it was a bit sensitive as to what it did accept as it would ignore certain commands and only accepted a limited amount of parameters.

Happy with the result that it was working with printers again I decided it was ready to share the results. And so I have. Below is the link to download it from OS4Depot. Well thanks for reading. And maybe you can do some printing. :-D

HP Photosmart driver.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

TheC64 Mini

Having owned a Vic-20 as a kid and at the same time my brother owning a C64 which eventually got passed down to me. The hand me down syndrome happened to me a lot when growing up, but I didn't mind in that instance.

As most who read this blog will know the Commodore 64 was and still is the best selling home computer of all time, so why not recreate this?

I wasn't sure about this to begin with, however, after some reading and checking out what other people thought about it and also after interviewing Paul Andrews I thought I would buy one.

Top of Box

Bottom of Box
Once I'd taken some photos of the outside of the box and gotten rather excited about what could be inside, I opened the box, and guess what... there was an inner box so I took another photo.

Inner Box

End of Box Show Features

At this point I opened the inner box and decided to take even more photos and then the time came to touch and see what one of the big issues people were having was like, the keys not moving.

Inside the Box - Nice and Shiney

Inner Box minus the Plastic

The Keyboard

The Joystick

The Unpacked Contents

The Keyboard

Size Comparison

All unpacked and several more photos taken, one with a coke can next to the keyboard to show a size comparison.

Thankfully no major setting up to do, it literally is plug and play. Just plug the HDMI lead in the C64 to the TV and then plug in the micro USB, plug in the joystick to one of the USB ports and switch the whole thing on.

Of course I had to take some video footage as well, not much though as I was quite excited about playing some games.

Just a quick look at the menu layout and some of the games available.

Thought I'd give Uridium a go and see if I remember what to do. I remember it being a really cool game and I wasn't wrong, even if I wasn't very good.

My next game was Super Cycle and found I was pretty good, I got to the final race and scored 100,320 points, not bad for a first go.

I know there is much more to it than I have shown, such as attaching a keyboard and being able to program using C64 Basic, etc. As and when I get ore time to play I might do a further blog commenting on further possibilities.

And what are my views on the hardware, quality, playability etc. Well there's the whole discussion on non-functioning keys, I say - "So what", if it's that important to you then go buy a USB keyboard. I'd say the build quality is excellent and as for reproduction accuracy it's definitely spot on.

So  would I recommend this to 40 somethings that remember the original Commodore 64, the answer is a resounding YES and would I recommend this to kids now, the answer, again, is a resounding YES. Understanding computer games of the past allows you to respect games of today.

As a nerd/geek who owns modern consoles it is nice to take a break from all that and play on some of the best hardware produced recently.

Apologies for the photo and video quality.

Michael Holmes