Computer Collection


With the consoles all just about done now, I started looking at computers as they played a large part of my geeky formative years. As with the consoles, it's much easier and cheaper to emulate either on a PC, with a Raspberry Pi or something like a Mist FPGA. But there's something about using the real hardware that's not really quantifiable, it's just right.

A lot of the same issues arise when it comes to video connectivity, but the biggest problem by far I've found is actually with the magnetic media. Whether it be tape or disk. Many just haven't survived the 25-35 years they've been around, and that creates a new set of issues that have to be overcome. You seem to be ok if they've remained in use. But long periods of storage in lofts and garages seem to kill them. Certainly given the hundreds of them I've had to throw out.

My personal computing history started with the Sinclair Spectrum 48k. I had 3 of the things. Two 48k Plus machines (that both died) and a 128k 'Toast Rack' that actually kept on trucking until it was sold to fund it's replacement. It's replacement being an Atari ST. I've done pages for both of these as I've gone to town a little on the 'new' ones. But at the time I had the Spectrum I also coveted the Commodore 64 (that was vastly more expensive), so that had to be done. Also my brother had an Amiga, so that also got a lot of love.



Spectrum 48k

Instantly the first problem with this one is that it's only RF out. The good news is that it's actually ridiculously simple to get composite out from it. The RF modulator in the computer has two lines going to it. One is power, the other is composite video. Cut both, gut the modulator and just fit a single capacitor between the composite video pad on the board and the centre of the RF jack. Job done!

The software for the spectrum came mainly on cassette tape. Which not only took an eternity to load, but like disk, is unlikely to have survived. Thankfully there are many resources online to get images of the software. You can get the tape files, put them on your phone and run an app that turns it into a tape player. Likewise Zaxon (who made the Just Speccy 128 that I ended up installing) makes an external box that does just this also.

However there's another option in the DivIDE/DivSD/DivMMC system. These use their own front-end and allows you to load Spectrum images from an SD card very quickly indeed. It's not 100% compatible, but most things do work and it's the system I went with, albeit embedded in the JS128 board.



C64

The Commodore 64 was one of those systems I wanted back in the day but we couldn't afford. As such I don't know a great deal about it other than I used to play Bruce Lee on a friend's all the time.

Anyhow, another primarily tape based machine it also had a disk drive, though massively more common in the US than here. All have been replaced with an SD2IEC. What's super sweet about this is that it's done in the same style as the old Commodore disk drive, and made out of recycled C64 cases so is a perfect match for the console. Twinned with a fastload cartridge which greatly speeds up loading, it is a perfect modern media solution.

The monitor options depend on the monitor out port of the C64. If you have a 5 pin DIN on there the best you're getting is composite video. However if you have a 7, it likely supports S-Video (which mine does). Cables are easy enough to get from Cool Novelties.

The PSU's on Breadbin C64s are a bit different to the norm. They pump AC into the computer and when they let go, which old PSUs have a tendency to do, they can kill a C64 dead. I've replaced the caps I can get to in the PSU, but most of it is encased in resin and inaccessible. So I've purchased a C64 Saver from bwack on YouTube (send him a PM) which goes in line with the power cable and if the PSU borks itself, will stop the borkage murdering the computer.

As a final piece of mind I've removed the internal shielding and fitted some heat sinks to the hotter ICs in the C64. Which are inadequately cooled otherwise. Again, she's an old girl, gotta look after her.

All that was left to do with mine was a Retrobrite treatment as it was very yellow when it landed.



Amiga 1200

These are damned expensive now. The A600 and A1200 are probably the most usable Amiga's now as they both internally had IDE HDD interfaces. The A600 being the last iteration of the base Amiga, and the A1200 being the AGA base Amiga offering better performance and graphics.

The one I picked up came with a 1085S monitor and it was all very yellow, but seemed to be fully working. Everything, monitor, PSU, computer, keyboard and mouse was stripped and given the Retro-brite treatment. Coming out looking about 20 years younger.

The internal Connor hard drive was long dead, so that was swapped out with a IDE to Compact Flash adapter and I bought a legitimately Cloanto licensed CF loaded with Workbench 3.1. Which I promptly re-partitioned and installed Classic Workbench. Which comes pre-loaded with all the most useful Amiga bits and bobs.

However this, and me wanting to run WHDLoad games/demos required me to buy a 8MB memory expansion, which was not cheap. It's amusing that doing all this lets me run software I used to run on a standard Amiga 500 back in the day, but it does make it all way more funky.

This is where I thought I was done, sadly I noticed I had a problem. The sound on one of the channels was muted. Plug either in on it's own and it was fine, plug them in together and one goes quiet. Popping it apart again confirmed my fears; leaking surface mount electrolytic capacitors. Arses.

Now I'm handy with an iron, but SMD just isn't my thing and I didn't want to start on my new/old A1200. So I paid a man to re-cap and repair the board. These things happen with old electronics and it seems that re-capping a 1200 isn't actually an option, you really should do it whether you've got symptoms or not. Reading up on it, all the later Amigas with SMD caps in suffer from it (A600, A1200 and A4000).

The problems didn't end there. I noticed neither of my drives would read or write disks any more. This was traced to the PSU who's 12V line was fluctuating between 12V and 15V, not to mention ticking. They really shouldn't tick. Sadly both drives have been toasted. In the end I've binned the PSU and have taken the lead from it and made a new PSU out of a new PC ATX supply. It's much higher quality than the original Amiga item. At some point I'll need to replace the floppy drives also, though I don't use them often so that can wait.

All said and done, it's been costly, but this is the machine I most wanted to be right and do everything. So yes, it's cost double what a Playstation 4 would cost. But as my brother rightly said, a lot of the games on the Amiga are better so it's worth it.



Atari ST

I was really lucky with these. I managed to bag a 520 STFM from the guy across the road from Cleggy, and a 520 STE from a friend.

The FM was a mint, time warp example. However it ran for about an hour before the PSU died. I tried re-capping it but there was more wrong with it. A long story short, I swapped in the PSU from the STE, added another 512k of memory to it and gave it a bit of a service, then left it as is. It was too good to good and too complete to butcher.

The STE however had been used. Atari grey was now Atari green, it had a fair amount of warping to the case and it needed a bit of love to get it back right. More Retro-brite action and a clean/service got it back somewhere like it should be. But I had plans for this one.

As it had no PSU I needed to do something about that. In the end I made an adapter cable and ran an external PC ATX PSU. Total overkill for this application, but it gets the heat outside the case, it's silent, cheap and reliable. Plus it allowed me to fit the de-facto ST SD HDD solution inside the case (link) the bizarrely named UltraSatan.

It didn't stop there however. The STE had significant ghosting on-screen. A fix was found on Exxos' LaST Upgrade site. Also I was running TOS 1.06 which had a couple of annoying bugs in it, so I used it as an excuse to swap in TOS 2.06, also from Exxos. All of which has left me with a machine with an internal SD HDD that looks stock and is revertible to stock with a simple removal of the Ultrasatan and fitting of a standard PSU.

There's a whole page dedicated to the ST from HELL here.

Then I only went and got another... ST number 3 is a very early 1040STF. This did the same trick as the STFM by running perfectly for a few hours, then the next time it was powered on, the PSU shat itself. I decided in this case to drop in one of Exxos' uber PSUs. The FDD in this one has been replaced by a GoTEK floppy emulator, which I've fitted internally, and the whole thing once again got some Retrobrite love, because, as you've probably noticed by now, when I buy stuff, I tend to buy things that need a bit of work. Mainly because they're a lot cheaper (this was 20 with a monitor), and because I quite enjoy the process.

This one isn't without it's problems however, it seems to have a really obscure problem with an offset medium and low res image caused by the Glue chip not playing nice at 50hz. I've tried swapping it with one from an STFM but that just white screened. I'll try more to see if I can cure it as and when I can get my hands on them. But it's not completely debilitating as the Commodore monitor can offset the image enough to get it onto the screen.



Atari 65XE

I never owned an 8-bit Atari back in the day, which is a shame as it's the spiritual predecessor to the Commodore Amiga. Which is why I suspect they still have the following they have as it shares a lot of that same ethos. It also makes them pricey, so I was pleased to bag a rather worn looking 65XE for the best part of bugger all.

A lot of the reason for that was the condition. Like the C64 I knew that was something we could easily deal with and indeed, it's cleaned up shockingly well. To the point it puts the STE to shame in comparison.

Electronically it self tested ok, but showed problems with the two joystick ports. One direction on each wasn't working which all pointed to a faulty PIA. Got one of those from eBay and dropped it in there curing that. While it was apart we also swapped all the caps which was nice and easy.

The UK 65XE has a really rather nice advantage over the US model. The US model is a stripped down machine, missing a lot of parts the 130XE has. The UK machine is a 130XE just missing the extra RAM and a bank switching IC. It'd have been rude not to add those while we were in there.

The last of the fettling was to make a video lead to go to the Commodore monitor along with the C64 via a cheapy Chinese switch box.

Loading up software has a lot of options on the XE. I've gone a SIO2SD (a floppy disc emulator), but I'd like to add a an Ultimate Cart (a cartridge emulator) at some point.


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