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29Nov/210

NEC PC-9801VX – Floppy Drive Maintenance

If you have the opportunity, do NOT use floppy disks... for anything... ever. I've just spent a lot of time debugging issues when I should've been playing A-Train! Due to the effort I've spent, I hope the answers you find in the rant below help you and prevent such effort expenditure. The goal was simple: The PC-9801VX was up and running and I wanted to run this...

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Yes, it's another version of A-Train. It's version 2, still prior to the version 3 that was released internationally. Now that I think of it, I'd actually purchased this game with a bunch of trains back here! I'd done nothing with it since... but now finally had a machine to run it on.

Unfortunately, the drives wouldn't even accept floppies!

I can't insert a floppy disk!

When this unit arrived, I tried to insert A-Train Disk A into Drive A. The disk would slide 70% in and then hit something. I decided not to push my luck and opened everything up...

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If you've noticed too much copper in the photo above, then you'd be spot-on. The 'head cover' of the read head has popped off (presumably in transit) and sat itself in front of the read head. This has succesfully blocked the floppy disk from inserting all the way. As these machines are super-popular in Japan, a quick Google found many examples of people having the same issue. I opened up the second drive and found the same issue!

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Each site that mentioned this issue had a different solution! Leave the cover on, take it off... leave it on? take it off? I'll do the latter... for now.

Expired capacitors

Now that the floppies could enter the drives, I tried to boot the machine. Drive A would do nothing... it'd just pretend there was no floppy at all. Drive B got as far as below and then noisily failed. The failure let me believe that it'd at-least loaded a bit of data from the disk.

pc-9801-floppy-boot-attempt

So, what to do? Fix Drive A first, then work out if it could do better than Drive B. I've already hinted to the issue, but it all became very obvious after extracting Drive A and flipping it over:

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What a mess! A quick google around found this article on FD1155D maintenance and, to my surprise, it actually mentions how to fix this exact problem. It mentions that if the disk isn't found and the motor just spins (which it did), then these capcitors are to blame. After a quick bit of cleaning and soldering, the tracks actually proved to still be conductive. I added a jumper wire anyway and replaced the capacitors as required.

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Shit job, I know, but.. it worked! Drive A now produced the SAME ERROR as Drive B! Progress!? Based on process-of-elimination, if both drives produce the same error, it's no longer the drives at fault. It's the motherboard (in-built controller) or the floppy disk!

Making my own floppies

First things first: make sure you have an old PC with a known-working 5 1/4" drive. Don't even bother going down this route if you have suspicions about the PC side of things. I went around in a few circles at the start as my floppy drive half-read the first disk I put in, only to totally reject everything after. The fix? Clean the heads with an ear-bud (q-tip?) and isopropyl alcohol! After that, it worked like a dream.

With the floppy drive functional, and Win98 Japanese version installed, I could then use the tools to get floppies written. I followed the instructions here and downloaded both Virtual Floppy Image Converter and Disk Copy Utility. Aim for the green download buttons on the pages when you're trying to obtain the software.

From here, everything was extracted and a relevant DOS bootdisk was found from the PC-98 Software Dump archive over at archive.org. There's also a bigger archive here, for those interested. The DOS disk image was inside the OS folder in FDI format, so it needed to be converted first. Go to the Virtual Floppy Image Converter folder and double-click the exe.

vf-1

Choose English and then set the default output location.

vf-2

Finally drop the FDI image onto the app and a DCU file will be spat out. With a blank/spare floppy disk in the 5 1/4" floppy drive, open a DOS prompt and browse to the folder where the DCU image file is. Alternatively you can browse to the DCU application folder and just edit the command line below to find the DCU image file.

c:\DCU\DCU.exe -f @C:\PC-98\A.DCU,0

Above, correct the path for DCU and the path and filename for your DCU floppy image. The -f means format the sector prior to writing and the ,0 means write to Drive 0. This is A:, with Drive 1 being B. This software also runs on the PC-98 where the drives are 1,2,3,4 and not A,B,etc...

writing-floppy

I tested writing the DOS 3.3 disk to a blank floppy first. It ran quickly and worked flawlessly .. My PC-9801VX booted this newly-written disk to an installer! No hard-drives on this unit yet, but this made me pretty darn happy! I then decided to try and re-write the A-Train Disk A. It was already broken, so why not just try and re-write the same image back to it. The disk image is actually in the same archive above, so I extracted it, converted it and tried to write it...

atrain-better-but-not-good

I first tried to write the DCU file to a blank disk and this completed with no issues, so I put it to the side. I then tried repeatedly to write the image back to the actual A-Train floppy, after removing the copy-protect tape. It kicked off and threw me to an input prompt very quickly. This prompt, as shown above along the bottom line, gives you a few options when DCU hits an error: R for retry, F for re-format and then retry and I for ignore-and-continue. Of course, choosing the latter will leave holes in your written image. As I'd mentioned, and as seen above, the errors weren't always perfectly aligned, but they were not stopping, so yeah, unfortunately that disk was trashed. I wondered if it could be cleaned (Herb Johnson has some tips)? Or if it's totally scratched up... or if you can even replace the medium inside? I tried a bit of isopropyl on it, as I'd done with the drive heads, but it didn't many any huge difference.

Just for fun, I thought I'd test the A-Train Disk A that I'd written to a blank disk. It booted fine, and that's when I realised I had options: leave the 'backup' disk in the box and don't touch the original?, try and transfer outer disk labels?, try and transfer inner disk guts? Hmmmm....

Re-sleeving or Re-mediuming a 5 1/4" Floppy Disk

This was super-risky. I had a properly-copied version of disk A on a (lol) Microsoft Works disk.. and a dead original disk. What to do? Pry open the original and swap the medium. First? Get out your Swiss Army Knife and perform surgery...

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Once you have the top broken open, do the same with the donor disk... being super-careful the whole time and remember: DON'T TOUCH THE MEDIUM.

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Looking at the old medium, you can see why it was never going to work (and also really hard to photograph):

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With everything out, just slot the new medium into the old sleeve and apply a TINY bit of glue along the seam you previously split open. And then?... test...

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Shit photos, I know... the game also seems to have shifted into a new resolution/mode and it's interlaced itself off the screen. Whilst my SCSI adapters are in-transit, I'll have to work out a proper video solution.

Filed under: Retro No Comments
25Nov/210

NEC PC-9801VX – Tear-down

I've always been fascinated by the older Japanese beige desktops and couldn't resist another impulse-buy when I saw this PC-9801VX show up on eBay. It was cheap, as it was listed as junk, until the shipping cost doubled the price. Regardless, I took the gamble, as I have a copy of A-Train for the PC-98 that needs a home.

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It arrived quickly, as postage from Japan can only currently be done via expensive couriers. Before long it was plugged into the step-down converter and failed to do anything good. From what I understand, on power up these machines are meant to PI-PO from their internal speakers... Of which this one did not!

A quick tear down saw the cause... but more on that later. What was I thinking?; purchasing such a huge beige boxen of junk. Fortunately, the tear down also saw that it came with surprises! The list included: a 4MB o'RAM CBUS board, an 8MB o'RAM CBUS board, a SCSI CBUS board and a SASI CBUS board. Also, two 5 1/2" floppy drives which can't be scoffed at... if they work.

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After a lot of research, it turns out that this unit is actually a 286, when purchased new. There's a lot of information online, but most of it is in Japanese. Fortunately, Wikipedia has a great article on the PC-98 series of machines and, if you scroll down far enough, you'll see this unit listed as an 80286 @ 8 or 10 MHz. BUT! What's that random sticker on the front?

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A 486, you say? In a 286 motherboard? I didn't quite believe it when I saw the photos on the auction... but opening it up showed that there was a slot for CPU upgrades and, well yes, you can actually put a myriad of faster CPUs in there! This one just happened to have a 486 upgrade.

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Nice. This opens up the game-play and MS Windows opportunities... if only I can get it to run.

Why wouldn't it boot?

Unfortunately, once down to the board, the CMOS battery proved to be the cause of failing to post. Excuse the awful photo, but I was in a state of buyer's remorse...

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You can see the green.. all the way into the CPU slot (middle-bottom) and, well, even further off the edges of the photo. The battery was quickly removed, but the damage was far-spread. Without schematics, tracing those corroded lines would be a nightmare. But what if I could find a replacement?

Buyee to the rescue

Turns out I had a cart of things to purchase from Japan, so I bit the bullet and purchased a junk spare motherboard for this machine. Yes, junk! That's all that was available online... no one in their right-mind would list these boards as 100% brand-new and ready-to-roll. I threw in a LAN card and a terribly-yellowed keyboard, just to double-down on my losses if everything failed! These also arrived in quick succession as Buyee charges like a wounded bull for shipping and uses top-notch couriers.

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The board was inspected and, to my surprise, was somehow perfectly clean. As above, you can see that the battery had corrosion, but it hadn't spread! Compared to the other board, it was a beautiful site.

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Shit photo, I agree... but above you can see the difference of the areas under the battery. Top being the newly-acquired board, bottom being the one I may have half-attacked with isopropyl and a toothbrush. Maybe, now that I have a working board, I can trace everything on it and check on the old... but honeslty, even in 1986 these boards were so bloody complex that I don't believe I have the skills to re-trace all of those traces.

But does it work?

Everything was assembled hastily... First flick of the switch, nothing... crickets. After a re-seat of everything that could be re-seated, I flicked it again. During the re-seating, I'd also turned the front volume dial up to MAXXX and, on pressing the power a seriously neighbour-annoying PIIIII-POOO PAAAAAAAAAAAAAA was emitted... Of course, the glee of the first two notes was murdered when that last note came out, deafening and disturbing, lasting until I hit the power switch.

Third flick, after another re-seat... PI-PO! Shit, that sounded perfect... I just had nothing plugged in to any video outputs.

Making it output video

This vintage beast loves its archaic refresh rates (more info here). RGB is 15khz or possibly 24khz, but nothing a new monitor will approve of. This video card has three output ports and you'll find the pin-outs here. I hacked together a 5-pin DIN to RCA plug cable (same as the Megadrive, actually, just without sound) and hooked it from the video card's top Mono output port to my 4:3 Samsung LCD.

It worked! But the picture wasn't great... maybe this is NTSC? Probably. I re-installed my capture card and tested out VLC with correct NTSC_J settings.

pc-9801-memcheck pc-9801-basic-startpc-9801-scsi-bios

It @#$%#$$# works! That last shot is with the SCSI card in... so it's found the TEXACO BIOS (is that the oil company? where did this machine come from?!) and tried to enumerate SCSI devices. I had none for it... so I removed ALL CBUS cards and tried to boot my A-Train floppy...

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First drive found nothing, and when nothing is found the machine just boots into the BASIC prompt. After a reboot with the floppy in drive B, it produced the above and stalled. It actually sounded pretty bad... but diagnosing the floppy drives is a whole-nother post, of which I'll tackle later.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about these machines, check out NEC PC98 Basic Reference. The amount of information in there is amazing!

Filed under: Retro No Comments
12Nov/210

Sony PictureBook PCG-C1S

Another eBay impulse-buy, this little guy came to me quickly (although AusPost is struggling during these 'unprecedented times') and in pretty good condition! It's a PCG-C1S, being the the second PictureBook model ever released.

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You can see by the single mono front speaker that they didn't focus too much on multimedia. Also no memory card slots or jog dials. Sporting a 266mmx Pentium CPU, there wasn't really much horsepower to play media with anyway! The internal drive had already been upgraded from 8.1g to 20g and the ram was maxed out with 2 64mb modules.

I used my previous knowledge of booting the PCG-CD51A to get Windows 98 installed... but struggled to find a stand-alone driver for the NeoMagic 256 AV video card that'd present the correct mode for the 1024x480 resolution.

So I went digging for an Application Recovery CD and found one for a PCG-C1X on webarchive. Not being an exact match, I was a little wary... and spent way too much time trying to boot and restore the system image. Instead, I then checked the Application CD #1 and found all the required drivers on it! You could download the pack and dig in, but an easier method is just to download this zip with all the drivers in it. I've also renamed the folders in the other directory to make it obvious as to what they are.

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There's an installer in the video driver folder, but just do the usual upgrade driver process through device manager.

CMOS Battery Replacement

The BIOS reported all-too-often that the system clock was wrong, so it was time to replace the battery. Remove ALL screws underneath the unit. Once the screws are out, flip the unit back over and pry the keyboard up. Be very careful not to lever the keys up as they'll easily pop off and end up across the room. Next, take out the three screws that were under the keyboard and pry the whole case apart.

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Removing the existing battery pack is actually quite a challenge! There's a huge piece of double-sided tape and it could easily destroy the mainboard if you just try to lever the battery pack out. Instead, I dissected the pack...

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Oh shit...

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The bloody cells had corroded.. I mean, why am I surprised? Let's hope it hasn't travelled too far. The plug on the mainboard end is so small that it's hard to determine if there's any of the usual green-tinge. Either way, I went hunting and a replacement battery-pack was found on eBay. It was actually for a Dell, but the cell specifications matched. Unfortunately, the plug was too large. Instead of finding another more-correct version, I chose to splice the plug over from the dead battery pack.

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This has worked well, regardless of the fact that the new battery pack already had a tarnished ground wire which required extra heat to get soldered.

DOS Gaming

Loading up the DarkSeed ISO saw a garbled colour screen on execution. The whole system was then frozen. Using this version worked fine though!

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DOOM worked fine also, although configuring sound was a little touch-and-go. If you tried to choose Adlib for music, then no SFX would play... and Soundblaster FM produced no music. Switching back to General MIDI and SB for SFX got beautiful music, but then the SFX stopped? A reboot with the same config saw it all working again. Seems the SB Emulation can get in a muddle and nothing like a good 'ol CTRL-ALT-DEL for Windows 98 SE to the rescue.

Linux on the PictureBook

I'd previously done this with a PCG-C1VX, and that all worked fine once the modeline was added, but this version of the PictureBook required a bit of extra work. The modes were already listed in the X11 config, but on boot, X11 would error saying that the modes won't display correctly on the LCD panel!

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There's a console app called dccxinfos that lists the available modes reported by the display hardware and our mode wasn't listed! (Yes yes, the above screenshot was taken after correcting the configuration!) So, the trick, after a lot of googling, was to add the overrideValidateMode command in the config. Here's the juicy bit:

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Finally, the LILO boot screen menu is stuck at 800x600 and runs off the page, but editing /etc/lilo.conf and setting the vga option on the linux kernel load line worked for further booting.

vga=769

just run lilo after editing the file above and reboot.

Filed under: Vaio No Comments
9Nov/210

Trans-Australian Railway Brochure Circa 1965

This item was picked up recently from a vintage shop in Colac. Finally, we're allowed to travel! Nothing like how we used to, though...

TA-1

TA-2

TA-3

TA-4

It's a 4-panel fold-out, with a full map on the back.

map

As usual, here's a better resolution version of the full-width map.

Filed under: AUS No Comments
8Nov/210

1952 Tokyo Railway Map

Next up from the box'o'paraphernalia, a map of Tokyo Railways from Charles E. Tuttle Company. This seems to have been produced in 1952!

Tokyo Railway Map - Cover

The map is usually folded into a single pane, but I stretched it out for that first scan above. Mainly so you can see the penciled in 25c price tag up top-right. I don't even remember where I acquired this from, but I'm sure I paid more than that.

Tokyo Railway Map

Note that the pop-up doesn't show the image in the best quality... use this high-res version instead.

The shot above is a stitched-together image from 9 A4 scans. I used Hugin to do the stitching, using the tutorial here. '10' is the magic number for focal length and it did a pretty magic job!

Filed under: JPN No Comments
7Nov/210

Tenshodo HO Model Railway Catalogue

Another from the found-at-flea-market and needs-to-be-preserved box. This actually came with a single A4 insert of pricings from a Melbourne hobby shop in pounds and shillings... and I lost it. Pretty angry.

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tenshodo-3 tenshodo-4

tenshodo-5 tenshodo-6

tenshodo-7 tenshodo-8

tenshodo-9 tenshodo-10

tenshodo-11 tenshodo-12

tenshodo-13 tenshodo-14

tenshodo-15 tenshodo-16

tenshodo-17 tenshodo-18

tenshodo-19 tenshodo-20

Beautiful rolling-stock. Interestingly with an inclusion of Japanese Freight cars! But no Japanese locomotives.

Filed under: MRR No Comments
5Nov/210

Akane HO Brass Catalog

Another item in the box'o'crap that belongs somewhere safe. This was found at a flea market here in Australia.

akane-3 akane-4

akane-2 akane-1

akane-5 akane-6

akane-9 akane-10

akane-12 akane-11

akane-7 akane-8

Some now-beautifully-expensive rolling stock!

Filed under: MRR No Comments
4Nov/210

Countrylink Paraphernalia

Back in the day, someone had a plan to upgrade the Canberra - Sydney rail fleet to X2000... or somesuch... The X2000 was shipped from the Scandies to Australia and strapped onto an XPT power car.

I happened to be there when the unit came to Canberra. Here's the pamphlet as proof:

X2000-1

X2000-2

X2000-3

X2000-4

Wait, no, I suppose this is the actual proof...

Image

Oh! They also handed out rulers... one of mine seems to have enjoyed a bake in the sun.

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And here's a sticker of the actual unit that was powering the set... making the whole process pointless...

xpt stickers

They weren't handed out at the same time... I just happened to have all of this in boxes and feel it's wasted there. More to come.

Filed under: AUS No Comments