Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Inside the Apple IIe

In response to my October 26, 2008 post, Rob said, “Am I correct in assuming that your Platinum //e came with a "SoftCard" or clone? Did it come with any other unique hardware like a clock? (for us old timers, clocks were a neat thing)”

The short answer is, “no.” The IIe came with a Super Serial Card, an 80-column 64k RAM card, and a floppy disk controller card (with two working half-height floppy drives.)

I did find an original Microsoft SoftCard at a garage sale. The seller warned me that it would not fit any modern computer and that I would need an older PC-XT or Versa Local Bus to use the card. I thanked him for the information, handed him my $5, and took the change. I set the switches, plugged it in, and it ran the flawlessly.

Along the way, I also picked up a parallel printer card that works well with a Brother laser printer in default Epson FX mode.

Therefore, the inside of the Apple IIe looks like this:
  • 0 — 80-column, 64k RAM card
  • 1 — Parallel Printer Card
  • 2 — Super Serial Card
  • 3 — (empty)
  • 4 — Microsoft SoftCard
  • 5 — (empty)
  • 6 — Floppy Drive Controller
  • 7 — MicroDrive IDE/CF Card
By default, the system boots into ProDOS on the MicroDrive. When I want to use CP/M, DOS 3.3, or Apple UCSD Pascal I put the disks in the floppy drives and reboot there.

I am still mucking around with DOS.MASTER and have yet to get it to work. Thankfully, the recent supply of 5.25” disks allows me to run the other systems until I either get DOS.MASTER to run right or give up on it entirely.

Keyboards & Mice

Work, that four-letter word, has intruded again on the pleasures of life. My thanks to those of you that commented, I appreciate it.

As I mentioned earlier, I have an Apple IIe Platinum – the one with the keyboard and numeric pad built into the case. One of the problems for me was adjusting to the new keyboard arrangement after years of using a PC keyboard. (Some of this goes away by changing to the GS, but that is another story.) Even on the PC side I am a bit of a throwback since I use an Avant Stellar keyboard by Creative Vision Technologies, Inc. It has the function keys on the left with F11 and F12 on a separate top row and 12 programmable Special Function (SF1 – SF12) keys along the top. It is a great keyboard that allows me to type for hours without fatigue or strain.

The IIe keyboard is great, just different. I am past the period where I have to watch my fingers as they type although for some of the control escape Apple functions still give me pause. I do not feel a strong need for a mouse (yet) as most tasks I perform are text related and even in Windows on the PC I am keyboard centric and use the mouse very slightly. Since both hands normally stay on the keyboard, it takes a conscious effort to stop, use the mouse, and return to the keyboard. Perhaps as I start moving over some graphics and games I will find more need for a mouse.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sometimes a Floppy is Still Required

I’ve been having too much fun recently to write. Sorry about that.

One of the problems I have found is that there is no way (that I have yet found) to use the MicroDrive with CP/M or UCSD Pascal. (There is a way to use the MicroDrive with DOS 3.3, it is called DOSMASTER and I still have not been able to get it to work.)

But finding a supply of 5.25” floppies is challenge. All of mine left for places unknown years ago and the only ones I have found around locally have been high density or something from a mushroom farm. I have read about the problems of the magnetic medium or its top coating clogging the disk drive heads and forcing the owners to clean and almost rebuild the drives. Not something I look forward to doing myself.

I found a listing in an online auction for a supply of still sealed disks and bid. The final price was about equal to the shipping charges. So I am now the owner of 50 blank new disks for less than $20 delivered. (When I first started with Apple in the late 1970s the same disks were $10 each.

I have completed the creation of a base set of CP/M disks so I now have a fully operational system on that side including:

  • dBase II (or perhaps dBase ][ as I have seen it sometimes)
  • WordStar and Word Perfect
  • Pascal
  • Assembler
  • PL/I
  • BASIC Compiler

It’s a great start.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Content, Content, Content

I have found the Elephant’s Graveyard of Apple II programs and it is called Asimov’s.

One problem facing anyone looking to revive their computing experiences of a quarter century ago (or longer) is where you can get programs. There were thousands of great programs written for the Apple II, everything from utilities to games. Some were made by Apple and other “large” publishers but many more were made by small one or two person above the garage companies that never published anything before or since. Fortunately, there are archivists among the Apple community who have preserved and collected these programs and made them available for the rest of us to use.

Many of the 5.25” and even 3.5” floppy disks that I have used died well before their time. As overbuilt as I thought the floppy disk drives were in their day, they too have often died a premature death or become so impaired that they were no longer usable. Thankfully, this is no longer a requirement to enjoy the great programs of the Apple II line of computers.

The problem is solved by a program called ShrinkIt by Andrew E. Nicholas) that creates a compressed image of the original floppy disk (sort of like a ZIP or RAR file for the old Apples) that can be used for storage or transmission of the disks. It is not an executable file and must be restored to a floppy disk or a hard disk subdirectory before being run. Since ShrinkIt expects everything to be in its normal place, it does not work on any copy-protected disks or those with a non-standard version of DOS as found on some game disks. While ShrinkIt will extract all of the real data from a disk, there are also programs that will copy copy-protected programs with a “nibble copier.” There are several other formats that of Apple disk images around including:

- Universal Disk Images (.2mg, .2img)
- DiskCopy 4.2 (.dsk)
- Copy II Plus (.img)
- Sim //e HDV images (.hdv)
- TrackStar 40-track images (.app)
- Dalton's Disk Disintegrator (DDD v2.1+, DDD Pro v1.1+) (.ddd)
- Raw FDI images of 5.25" and 3.5 disks (read-only) (.fdi)
- Unadorned sector-format files (.po, .do, .d13, .raw, .hdv, .iso, most .dc6)
- Unadorned nibble-format files (.nib, .nb2)
- ShrinkIt (NuFX) compressed disk images (.shk, .sdk)

Many of these are stored in an archive called Asimov’s at http://mirrors.apple2.org.za/ftp.apple.asimov.net/ and are available free. The offerings run from system utilities to games with about everything in between. They are available for:

- DOS 3.2/3.3 (13, 16, or 32 sectors, up to 50 tracks)
- ProDOS
- UCSD Pascal
- CP/M

Monday, September 1, 2008

Sometimes a Floppy is Not Enough

Hard disks for microcomputers were just starting to come on the scene when I exited Apple for the dark side of a PC clone and a copy of MS DOS. Over the almost thirty years since then the price has declined from around $20,000 for a 5 MB drive to less than $100 for over .5 TB. Along with this decrease in price has also come an increase in reliability and access speed. Given those circumstances, I am not a purist to the extent of demanding a hard disk originally intended for an 8-bit Apple. Plus, I have lost hard disks that were less than a year old. I could not imagine depending upon a hard disk 25 or more years old. Thankfully, I do not have to rely on one.

Current companies have developed an IDE adapter that fits the original Apple expansion bus. Other bright people have combined this type adapter with a Compact Flash (CF) memory cardholder allowing the CF card to be a solid-state hard disk. After a bit of research I selected the MicroDrive from ReactiveMicro of New Jersey (http://www.reactivemicro.com/). At $135, it includes all I needed to restart in Apple computing.

Beyond the essential hardware (including a 128 MB CF card yielding four 32 MB Apple ProDOS hard disks and a USB CF adapter for using the CF card on a PC or Mac), Henry Courbis of ReactiveMicro preloads all four hard disks with preformatted disk images. While disks 3 and 4 are empty and ready for anything you may want to put there (mine are still empty), disk 2 has Glen Bredon’s DOS.MASTER preinstalled to allow you to use DOS 3.3 applications within an Apple ProDOS hard disk. Disk 1 is already formatted with the final ProDOS release and many critical utilities. Among those utilities are:

- MicroDrive Utilities
- ShrinkIt
- CopyIIPlus
- DiskMaker 8
- Disk2File

Also included is a 5.25” flip floppy to get you started as well as a CD with additional documentation and utilities such as Andy McFadden’s Windows based CiderPress file manager.

Since the Apple nominally boots from the highest slot number to the lowest, I put the MicroDrive in slot 7, turned on the power, and grinned from ear-to-ear.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Machine

Twenty-five or more years had elapsed since I last touched an Apple. (We’ll forget that unfortunate incident with a Mac.) First, I wanted to learn what had happened in the Apple ][ line over the years. Early on, I came upon a great Apple history site by Steven Weyhrich called Apple II History at http://apple2history.org/index.html. Well worth the effort.

I realized several things from reading the history:
- While the IIgs is a superior machine, I am, at this stage, more interested in a “classic” Apple ][ with built-in keyboard.
- The //e series was the best choice for me since a number of the critical features I enjoyed on my original Apple were already built-in without changing the basic function and form of the machine.
- The IIc was also out for me because it was not easily expandable although it has even more features built-in.
- Within the //e series, the final edition, the Platinum, would be a better fit as I have come to use the numeric pad a lot in the past 25 years.

Turning to the world’s garage sale, eBay, I started researching past sales for historic realizations on Apples. Some were crazy with absurd bids (while the same item was offered for less than 1% that did not sell.) Most bids for machines were reasonable with only a few bidders interested. Long story short, I picked up a Platinum IIe, two disk drives (1/2 height), and a color monitor. It all arrived safe in two boxes and then the fun started. Did I mention that I had no disks yet?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Everything Starts (Again) Somewhere

This is a journal of my rediscovery of the Apple ][.

Once upon a time back in the 1970s, I had an Apple ][ with Integer BASIC in ROM. It was a great machine and did everything I asked of it. In those days it was all new, everyday brought word of new hardware or a new technique in programming on the Apple. At 1 MHz for the CPU and 48 KB of RAM, it was the finest 8-bit machine available at the time, or since. One thing to another and I parted with the Apple in late 1980 or early 1981. Recently I stepped back into the arena and picked up an Apple IIe Platinum from a vendor on eBay.

Many things have changed since then; many more (like the fun) have not changed.

These blogs chronicle my rediscovery of the Apple, some of the adventures in finding things (both hardware and software), some of the sites I have found on the web, some of the vendors still producing items for the Apples, and some of the people I have encountered along the way.

There is a lot of catch-up as this is written somewhere along in the process so many of the early entries may not be in correct chronological order.

Comments, suggestions, references, and general what-have-you are always welcome.