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Category Archives: Odds & Ends

One of the great things I love about retro computing and collecting is that it always seems like there is more to discover. Sure in the realm of video game consoles a rare Prototype will pop up time to time such as the SNES Playstation or some game that was almost translated into English but for the most part you need to be very lucky to come across something like that and by and large it feels like it has been talked about to death. Retro computing though seems to hold many more secrets that have yet to be revealed, rare expansion cards that had very low production runs or games that have fallen through the cracks of time and have been forgotten. Another great thing is that because retro computing is so much less popular than console collecting prices and availability are in general much better. It seems much more likely that you’ll stumble on a rare video card or memory expansion card from that 386 you grabbed off Craigslist for $5 then the odds of finding a Little Samson in that NES you probably overpaid for on Ebay. In this Odds & Ends I’m going to share with you two very unique finds that I acquired in the past few months of which very little information exists of and of which a lot of detective work and the help of some very knowledgeable people was necessary to even figure out exactly what I had.

OPTI LOCAL BUS

 So what is Opti Local Bus? Basically it is a proprietary form of the VESA or VLB bus found commonly on many 486 motherboards. Those really long brown slots that take the equally long cards.

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The VLB slot was designed to take advantage of the faster speeds of the 486 and 486 motherboards offering faster performance then the older 16 bit ISA slots. Before this became standardized into what we know as VLB or VESA slots many motherboard and chipset manufacturers attempted to implement their own version each with different and incompatible cards and slots. The most common of these proprietary slots was the Opti Local Bus slot introduced by Opti, manufacturer of the Opti chipset among other things.

Below is a motherboard with an Opti Local Bus slot, two actually. The board itself is actually of interest being a (possibly) early 486 Chaintech 433SCL. This is interesting because first the BIOS string indicates it’s a BIOS from July 7th 1991 placing it pretty early for a 486 and second because there is NO information on the internet about this particular motherboard, Nothing except the posts made on various forums from me as I tried to identify it. It actually took a lot of detective work by some very savvy vintage computer forum members as well as getting the board to post and looking at the BIOS string to get any information on this board. The Chaintech website archives confirms a Opti Local Bus motherboard was produced in ’92 but that’s all the information that could be dug up on this board from the internet.

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The two slots at the bottom that I have circled are the Opti bus connectors in question. If you know a lot about this era of motherboards you may mistake them for EISA slots which is what I thought they were at first. One of the biggest issues with this slot type is that it looks exactly like the somewhat more common EISA slots of the time and will physically accept EISA cards without issue. The problem is installing a EISA card in a Opti bus slot and powering on the board could very well result in a blown out card, motherboard or both. This being the case make completely sure what kind of expansion slot your motherboard is sporting. Fortunately when I found this board in a box of random PC parts at a local monthly electronics fest I also found an accompanying Opti Local Bus video card.

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You can tell what kind of card you have by comparing the pinouts with an EISA card and seeing if they match. Also many times a Opti card will have “Local Bus” printed somewhere on it though in this case, mine did not. By checking the FCC ID I was able to determine this card was also manufactured by Chaintech. The card is a 1MB video card based off the Tseng Labs ET4000 chip making it a pretty nice and speedy DOS card. Performance theoretically should be equal to the VLB version but as I never was able to get this motherboard to boot to an OS easily and never put the time into setting it up I was not able to benchmark. I should also note that in all my research I have only seen video cards using the Opti Local Bus connector and all of these were based off the Tseng ET4000 chip.

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The Opti bus along with the other even less known proprietary local buses were pretty short lived and came and went before most people even noticed as it was replaced industry wide by the VLB slot standard. As seen on my motherboard the chipset does not have to be Opti based to support the Opti bus. My board for instance is based off of a SIS chipset. Some Leading Edge 486 motherboards and Orchid’s Superboard series also use the Opti local bus and I encourage anyone who comes across a “EISA” motherboard to double check before installing any cards.

Here’s another example of a Opti Local bus board I came across.

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You’ll notice this unidentified Opti motherboard at least had the decency to label the slot as a local bus slot. You’ll also notice this one looks pretty much like a VLB bus slot.

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And here is the card itself which as expected is based on the Tseng Labs ET4000 chip. It looks as the traces on the back part of the connector all lead to the VGA BIOS. Unfortunately I could not get this motherboard to POST.

DIAMOND SONIC PRO (ARIA CHIPSET)

 The second item I have to talk about is the extremely rare Diamond Sonic Pro sound card based upon rare Sierra Semiconductor Aria sound chipset. How rare is the Diamond Sonic Pro? well, like the Chaintech 433SCL motherboard above before I randomly stumbled across this card inside a 486 machine I bought off Craigslist and posted images in an attempt to identify it there were no known pictures of the card on the whole of the internet nor any information on this particular card except a brief mention of its existence in Wikipedia and a dead link to possibly its driver package on the archived Diamond website.

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The Aria sound chipset is a surprisingly well supported sound chip supported natively in a number of games from the 90’s including The 7th Guest, Elder Scrolls: Arena and Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall among others and is most commonly found on the also rare Prometheus sound cards that I’m told turn up on Ebay maybe one to three times a year. As far as I know though the Diamond Sonic Pro card has never been on Ebay or at least not that anyone has identified.

The Aria cards MUST be initialized via a software driver to function which for this card presented a problem as the original Diamond drivers are nowhere to be found on the internet except a dead archived link. This forced me to use the drivers for the already mentioned Prometheus line of Aria based cards which fortunately mostly seem to work, at least under MS DOS. When I say mostly its because some utilities seem to work and others do not but at the very least I was able to initialize the card and set the basic I/O address, IRQ and ect… I have no idea what any of the jumpers or switches do as the only information available on this card is pretty much what I’ve supplied here. Interestingly games like Daggerfall gave me issues when setting the I/O address as the only option I have when installing the drivers for I/0 address is 280 and 290 and in the Daggerfall sound setup the highest I/O address selectable is 260. Again this may be an issue with mismatched drivers. another issue with the mismatched drivers is the mixer doesn’t seem to work or it could be my card is actually damaged. In testing games I was only able to get mono sound and some games did not mix audio correctly. I will update this if I can find the correct drivers. Until then I made a short video with some audio samples and comparisons though the Aria mono quality is fairly bad and surly does not do the card justice. As far as I can see at the time of this writing its’ the only example on YouTube of the Aria chipset.

Other then some information on thiese fairly rare and uncommon PC components I hope I got the idea across that the world of retro PC collecting still has some mystery in it and a rare find can still be had by the average guy buying a $5 PC locally. It’s part of the reason I still love retro computer collecting and still discovering new things every day.

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In this Odds & Ends I’m going to go over the venerable TRS-80 Model 100 a small portable computer. Also the much more successful relation of the LS-120 super drive the Iomega Zip drive and finally a number of gamepads from the king of PC gamepads in the 90’s, Gravis.

TRS-80 Model 100

Considered the worlds first laptop computer I came across my model 100 at a Goodwill and purchased it for a couple of dollars, about $3 I believe and to my surprise on hitting the power button the thing turned right on.

t1001

t1002

As you can see the model 100 is sort of like a giant calculator. These machines began to be sold back in 1983 and have anywhere from 8kb to 32kb of RAM. I believe mine had 24KB installed. Apparently these machines were very popular with news journalists and other “on the move” individuals. As I am primarily a gamer and this machine is pretty obviously not a gaming machine I don’t have to much to say about it but I did think it was kind of a neat little find. It has no internal mass storage capabilities so for saving anything permanently you would need to use an external cassette player of disk drive. The screen is a non backlit LCD and despite the age it displayed quite clear for me. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that its probably only capable of text display. It is also powered by 4 AA batteries but also has a port for an external 9v dc power supply. I’ve read that it is very easy on batteries and can go for 16+ hours on batteries.

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Here we have the back of the computer with most of our ports. We have a small reset button as well as a RS-232 serial port and printer port. The north American version like this one has a built in 300 baud modem which I believe that phone port may be for. Lastly a cassette port for a cassette player for storage.

Other then that I don’t have much to say about it. Its a neat little machine but doesn’t have much practical use I can find today at least not for myself. Apparently this machine has quite a following though http://www.club100.org/

Iomega Zip drives

Ah, the Zip drive. The much more popular “floppy” storage alternative to the LS-120. The Zip drive’s initial version could store up to 100mb of data on a disk and eventually a 250mb and 750mb version was released. Unlike the LS-120, Zip drives cannot read or write to standard 1.44mb floppy disks but they do have a higher transfer rate to their disks then a floppy has to its own. I’ll admit the Zip drive has become indispensable to me lately as everything from DOS to windows 7 supports it. Although smaller in storage capability They are more convenient then burning CD’s. Its nice to be able to download a patch or file from your internet connected Windows 7 PC that may be a little to big or to many files for a standard 1.44mb floppy. Transfer it on a Zip disk and then easily transfer that file to you ancient 286, 386, 486 or whatever PC. With a cheap and advisable NEC V20 CPU upgrade the Zip DOS driver even works on 8088 based PC’s like the original IBM 5150 via a parallel port. I even believe Zip disks are Macintosh compatible (may require mac formatting or only certain models). I personally tend to stick with the 100MB models as the larger capacity models seem to be rarer and more prone to failure as well as not being fully backward compatible. Also 100mb tends to be more then enough storage capacity for my pre USB capable systems.I believe zip drive drivers are included with Windows XP and 7. At least I had no trouble connecting my external USB drive to my Win 7 machine. There are separate drivers for Windows 98 and DOS. I don’t generally link to drivers here but I can tell you they aren’t hard to find with a web search. you can try the Vogons driver database here and check under uncategorized or utilities for the relevant drivers. The DOS drivers should fit on a 1.44MB floppy and all you need to run is Guest.exe and it will assign a letter for your zip drive. You can set it to do this on boot though your .BAT file but I generally just have it in a file named “ZIP” on my hard drive and only use it when I want to use the Zip drive since the TSR does eat some DOS memory when active.

I’ll start off with the internal drive. The internal drives came in two flavors, IDE and SCSI though the SCSI version seems to be far more uncommon.

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zipd2

Here we actually have a 250mb model which is identical except for storage capacity and logo to the 100MB model. I’m using this particular drive since all my other internal drive are install in systems at the moment. The internal drives are the same 3 1/2 inch size as a standard 1.44MB drive so you can install them anywhere you would one of those. Like most this is an IDE version and connects to an IDE controller just like your standard hard drive or CD-ROM drive. Being IDE it also has a jumper for Master, Slave or Cable Select. Many BIOS’s from the mid 90’s up directly support Zip drives. The thing that I find slightly annoying is the use of a larger molex power connector used for larger devices such as hard drives as opposed to the smaller floppy power connector. Usually that means I have to dig out or buy a Molex splitter because I’ve already used up all my connectors on hard drive and CD drives.

zipscsii

zipscsii2

Here we have the uncommon SCSI version of the internal zip drive. These were most likely intended mostly for Macintosh users. The front bezel is a little different and as you can see on the back it uses the smaller floppy drive style power connector as the 50 SCSI connector is larger then IDE. You also have jumpers to set device ID number and SCSI termination.

Now I’ll move on to the more common and cheaper external drives which happen to come in many flavors from USB and Firewire to SCSI and parallel and possibly others. These drives require and external power supply but other then that are identical in function. I tend to see these external drives fairly commonly at Goodwill’s and thrifts at a decent price. About $9.99 but sometimes under $5.

zipd6

This is my USB external zip drive that I use with my Windows 7 machine. The see through blue plastic shell is kind of cheap looking and it kinda clashes with my black PC but it works like a charm and was as simple as plugging in the power and USB cable and then it just works.

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Here is an assortment of older external parallel port and SCSI drives. On the far left is a Epson branded 100MB parallel port zip drive. The parallel port drives are very versatile and will pretty much work with any IBM PC or clone with a parallel port all the way back to the 8088 based models provided there CPU is upgrade with a NEC v20 chip. I believe this is because the V20 does contain some later coding that the 8088 lacks but which the Zip drive needs to function. As far as I know these are identical in function to the Iomega drives except for the branding and the color. I prefer the off white color of the Epson models as it looks much better with the off white case coloring of 1990’s and earlier PC’s that I generally use it with. The middle drive is a Iomega branded SCSI Zip drive. Finally on the far right is a 250mb model which uses a parallel port.

zipd5

Here are the parallel port and SCSI port drives from the rear. The parallel port drive is pretty simple with a input and then a pass through for a printer or potentially any other parallel port device. The SCSI drive has a few switches though. One is to set termination either on or off. On a SCSI chain of devises you want a “terminator” device on the last connection in the chain or have the last device on the chain set as a terminator. It also has a switch to set the device number ID for the SCSI chain. The SCSI Zip device can only be configured as ID 5 or 6. Also take not that the Zip SCSI drive uses the same 25 pin SCSI connector found on many Macintosh’s. Your going to want a 68 pin adapter like this one if you want to use it on most later PC SCSI controller cards.

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All in all I’m a fan of Zip drives and they’ve been a major convenience for me in transferring files. If your making a retro rig I do strongly suggest at least keeping a external model handy.

Gravis Gamepads

Back in the 1990’s Gravis was known for their Gravis Ultrasound sound cards for PC’s. Sound cards largely seen as superior in sound quality to the Creative Sound Blaster line but they also made a line of very successful PC game pads. Although their sound cards never became the de facto sound standard there game pads for the most part did. I have a few Id like to go over here. Keep in mind this is a evolving article so as I acquire more I’ll be sure to add them.

gravcon1

This I believe is the first model introduced labeled just the Gravis PC gamepad. I do believe there were a few minor variations. It has a standard D pad as well as a little joystick part that you can actually unscrew. This pad is very common and I see them at thrifts all the time though usually the joystick part is either missing or broken off. These make really nice DOS gamepads for games that support joysticks/gamepads. I like to use them for first persons shooters like Doom or Duke3d or platformers like Bio Menace. No drivers needed just plug it into your gameport either built in or on your sound card. As long as your game can be configured to use a gamepad it should work.

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This is the Gravis Gamepad Pro which is also a fairly common gamepad. This pad is a little more modeled on console controllers and bears a resemblance to the playstation controller. The gameport connector on this model is a pass through so you can connect a second gamepad for two player gaming. Other then that its basically the same as the standard gamepad though it does sport a start and select button as well as four more buttons on the shoulders. I generally prefer this controller and this is what I generally use for games like Doom or Duke3d.

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Here we have the Gravis Destroyer. In most ways this is kind of a step down from the Pro controller. I think its a little more comfortable to hold but it has less options. Less buttons including the lack of the start and select buttons, no joystick knob and the port connector is not a pass through so forget two player. It does sport a turbo button and LED that lights up green when activated which seems like a handy feature for shoot em ups. This controller does seem slightly less common “in the wild” and as the others is a breeze to use in DOS.

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The Gravis Xterminator. To be honest I don’t know much about it since this is a digital gamepad and as far as I can tell does not work in DOS. Maybe it will with drivers but from my initial search I could not find drivers for DOS or its intended OS Windows 9x. This controller does sport a lot of buttons as well as a analog joystick. It also has a pass through connection to allow other gamepads to be connected which is nice. I’ll keep looking for drivers this controller and update this article once I find them.

gravcon4

Lastly I have a USB Gravis Gamepad Pro which is basically just a straight USB version of the standard gameport gamepad pro so in all areas besides the interface it is identical. This is a basic but excellent gamepad and since it uses standard windows joystick drivers it should be just plug n play for windows 95 and up. I frequently use this controller on my Windows 7 machine for arcade emulation and it makes a great and simple gamepad that you simply plug in and it works.

Gravis was a defining force in 90’s PC gamepads and I highly recommend at least the gamepad or preferably the gamepad pro for all your DOS game padding needs.

Well this is the first article I’m writing of a series I’m calling “odds & ends”. basically just putting together a few things I think are kinda neat but don’t really have enough for an entire dedicated article. Its also decent filler till I write something more comprehensive. For this first one I’m going to go over the not so well know LS-120 “super drives”. The early 80’s Tandy portable game Hungry Monsters the 1967 Think-A-Tron…game? and lastly the Cryix 80mhz 486 CPU only because I like its green heat sink…really, only reason why.

LS-120 SUPER DRIVE

ls1201

The LS-120 and its larger capacity brother the LS-240 was the not so successful competition to the somewhat successful Iomega ZIP drives in mid 1990’s. Until recently finding one in a purchased PC I’ve never heard of these before. Like the ZIP drive these drives use special disks to store large amounts of data. This was before CD burning drives were extremely cheap and available. Unlike the ZIP drives though these things were more reliable, held slightly more data and here is the cool thing, could act as a standard 1.44mb or 720k floppy drive. Why these failed and Zip drives did not I don’t know (well I kinda do). I know it was not widely supported but many of my later socket 7 motherboards do support these drives in BIOS.

ls1202

As you can see they use IDE just like the ZIP drive but use the mini four pin molex connector unlike the ZIP drives that use the large molex connector usually taken up by your CD and hard drives. Like I mentioned earlier these drives held 20MB more Data then the standard ZIP drives and also could read/write to standard 720k and 1.44mb floppy disks faster then conventional drives. ZIP drives COULD NOT read or write to standard 1.44mb or 720k disks.

And here is an external model I recently came across at the thrift for a few $$. It uses the parallel port like many external peripherals of the day.

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The most likely reason these failed was that Iomega had a three year head start with the Zip drive and burnable CD media was on the horizon. Its a shame these weren’t more common.

TANDY HUNGRY MONSTER

In 1983 Tandy, the makers of the trs-80 and Tandy 1000 line of computers, among others released a portable hand held game, “Hungry Monster”. Its basically a Pac Man type clone but none the less its kinda fun.

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I picked this unit up at a Goodwill for about $3-$4. Its in good shape and requires 4 AA batteries for operation though it does have a connection for using an external power supply at 6 volt DC, center positive. The unit is light and pretty easy to use. I was slightly impressed by the color from the lights on this game and was expecting something more basic before turning it on.

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So yeah, Its really just a Pac Man clone down to the power pellets. But its a good Pac Man clone

THINK-A-TRON

The oldest computer like thing I own. From 1967 Its Hasbro’s Think-A-Tron modeled after the huge mainframes of the time.

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Where were going we don’t need zip codes! I say that because there’s no zip code for the address on the box (non mandatory zip codes were introduced nation wide in 1963 but did not start to become mandatory until some time in 1967). Anyways I received this for free from a bulk lot of vintage computer stuff I also received for free as a donation.

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Basically the machine uses punch hole cards and you feed it the question cards with the punch holes and it answers via lights on it light array. Kinda neat for the time.

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The crank on mine is cracked but other then that its in decent condition.

CRYIX 80MHZ 486 CPU

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This was in a computer I picked up. I really don’t have much of anything to say about it. I was never a big Cryix fan but I really really really like that heat sink. Though I guess any 486 over 66mhz is kinda neat-o.

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