Saturday, December 30, 2006

Old Vs. New

Manufacturer: Apple Computer
Model: Black MacBook
CPU: Intel Core2 Duo, 2.0GHz
RAM: 1GB, PC2-5300, 667MHz, Dual Channel

I know, I know. Anything but retro. I have to show it off, though. You see, this is the first NEW computer I've personally owned since buying my NEC Versa 550D back in 1995. I usually buy used computers or accept free, used, unwanted components from people who are upgrading.

Anyhow, here it sits next to its 8-year-old brother, the G3 PowerBook.

I've had this MacBook for a week now, and I must say that I'm thoroughly impressed. Apple still "has it" for sure. This machine has an excellent fit and finish. It's relatively light weight, pretty thin, but doesn't feel cheap or chinsey at all.

I still plan on using the G3 PowerBook on occation. There's a lot of things it's still useful for, including WarDriving (the MacBook doesn't have a PCMCIA slot for my 200mW card). I'll try to keep the non-retro posts to a minimum, but I had to show it off.

Monday, December 18, 2006

WinTerm 2315 thin clients

Manufacturer: WYSE
Model: WinTerm 2315SE Thin Client
RAM: Unknown
HDD: On-board Flash
Release Date: 1999

I suppose it's time for an update?

I picked up a pair of these for $10 a few weeks ago. Initially, I got them because the guy running the counter at Surplus Exchange thought that they'd probably work with Windows Terminal Server (RDP Protocol) but it turns out that they only play nice with Citrix ICA servers.

Not all hope is lost, however. There is a PCMCIA card slot, and people have reported success booting off of a PCMCIA Flash drive. There are 2 dormant projects out there, one to get NetBSD on this model of WinTerm, the other is a Linux effort. Essentially, the ELAN is a 486 clone without a math co-processor (essentially a 486SX). The board is very tiny, and has VGA, 2 PS/2, 10Base-T, audio, parallel and 2 serial ports. The power supply is 12VDC.

I'm still not sure what I'll use them for if I can get them to boot something useable.

Friday, September 01, 2006

InternetNews: Old PCs a Growing IT Headache

I ran across this article on today. It talks about the woes of getting rid of end-of-life PCs. As the growing threat of corporate espionage looms, and as data recovery tools become cheaper and more widely available to everyone -- criminals included, IT departments are faced with some tough decisions on what to do with old hardware.

On a side note, most places I've worked at have come to the conclusion that media (hard drives, floppies, backup tapes, old CDs and DVDs, etc) should be destroyed securely by a company like Iron Mountain, and the PC should then be auctioned as surplus without any media. License keys that are affixed to cases are also removed and/or destroyed. The good news with this solution is that people like us can score hardware that's sometimes less than 5 years old, for next to nothing if the stars are aligned correctly.

How to host a website on an old PC

This Page goes into pretty good detail about what all you need to run your own web server using one of your older computers laying around.

Keep in mind, the page that hosts this information IS running on an old PC, and it hit the Digg Front Page. This poor old computer is certainly getting a workout!

Sorry for the lack of updates lately. Not only am I pretty much out of functional 80s- and 90s-era computers of my own to write about, but work is catching up to me right now, and I don't have a lot of free time.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Macintosh SE/30

Manufacturer: Apple Computer
Model: Macintosh SE/30
CPU: Motorola 68030, 16MHz
Release Date: January 1989
(Shown: my "Blackintosh" SE/30)

The Mac SE/30 lands itself nicely towards the more powerful end of the compact Mac spectrum. The pre-cursor to the compact Mac was the Apple Lisa, released in 1984. The Lisa was a foreshadowing of Apple's compact design. On the Lisa, Apple placed the drives to the right of the CRT instead of below it. What followed was a form factor that would remain largely unchanged for nearly ten years. Also Introduced in 1984 was the nearly un-usable Macintosh 128k. To the untrained eye, a vintage '84 Mac 128k and a Mac Classic II appear nearly identical, despite the last Classic II shipping out in October of 1993.

Like the SparcStation 5, the Mac SE/30 is another one of those rare gems that absolutely refuses to show its age. It's more portable than many of the "portable" computers of its time. Although it's capable of 1-bit monochrome graphics (black or white, no grays) or 256 grayscale with an expansion card (color with the card and external monitor) there really isn't a point to it.

With the help of Mode32, the SE/30 can operate in 32-bit mode, which makes it a perfect candidate for a UNIX variant. I usually choose NetBSD for 68k-based Macs. As a NetBSD machine with a text-only console, it provides a very robust and tolerable computing experience considering that the first SE/30s rolled off the assembly line almost two decades ago. It's capable of low-CPU tasks such as being a file and print server for a small office or home, providing centralized logging, or even for use as a network administration console when loaded up with pre-compiled tools from the NetBSD package system.

The Mac SE/30 has 8 slots for RAM. You must have Mode32 enabled before upgrading the SE/30 past 8MB of RAM or you might have problems. 4 RAM slots have to be loaded at the same time, so you must use 4 or all 8 slots. You can't use 2 slots or 6 slots.

One thing I did was attach a hard drive power splitter and longer SCSI cable. It's a tight fit, but I was able to squeeze two half-height SCSI drives into the case below the CRT. I also added an Asante NIC. The SE/30 was one of few compact Mac models to include an expansion slot on the back. The added touch of a network card is what makes this machine worthwhile.

In 1998, I took my SE/30 completely apart before painting the case a beautiful gloss black. I also painted the entire keyboard except for the very tops of the keys and sanded the old, sun-yellowed textured mouse and "programmer buttons" to a smooth, light grey finish. I took this machine with me to DefCon that year, and used it in Capture The Flag as my attack platform. I didn't win, but I turned quite a few heads. Most people didn't believe that it was a real SE/30 but thought it must be a 486 and greyscale monitor inside a compact Mac case. I eventually opened the back up so people could see it was the real deal.

I also posted a how-to for teardown of my "Blackintosh" complete with (Crappy) photos on my website some time ago. Enjoy!

Mac SE/30 Teardown

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

IBM PS/2 Model 25 used as a serial console

Manufacturer: IBM
Model: PS/2 8525
(a.k.a. PS/2 Model 25)
CPU: 8086, 8MHz
RAM: 256kB Base, 768K loaded
HDD: None
Release Date: Aug 11, 1987

The Personal System/2 was one of IBM's longest lasting desktop product lines. Although USB has recently become the more popular human input device (keyboard/mouse) interface, the IBM PS/2 computer is the namesake of the older PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports found on most IBM PC Compatables in the 90's and through today. The 8525 was one of the first machines to use 72-pin SIMM memory modules instead of the older 30-pin SIMMs. the 72-pin layout would also set a long-running standard in the computer industry, lasting well into the late 1990s on many computers even beyond the PC/XT compatible realm (Macs, Sun, RS/6000 and others)

The PS/2 8525 borrowed the "all in one" design from Apple Computer, placing the monitor, motherboard, internal peripherals and drives into one case. The end result was a machine that's about as bulky as my Performa 550 but the same age as the Macintosh SE. The screen is much larger, and the later revisions of the 8525 offered a 16 color MCGA display. The first batch shipped with monochrome monitors.

Inside, the MicroChannel Architecture motherboard and riser card provided 2 MCA expansion slots. The most common drive configuration was two 720k 3.5" floppy drives, however a spendy option package replaced one of them with a miniscule (by today's standards) internal hard drive.

Ultimately, the 8525 found its role in education, much like Apple computers of similar vintage. A few companies dared to offer upgrades targeted just for this family of machines. IBM itself eventually released a 286-powered version, and from there, companies begun selling 386 and 486 upgrades, some of which involed completely swapping motherboards. As this system had built-in video and a small internal form factor, there was no hope for simply buying another generic motherboard. As a matter of fact, the "generic motherboard" and "build your own PC" concepts wouldn't show up until several years after the 8525 was announced.

My last weekend edition post talked about thin clients, and even mentioned "green screen" terminals of days gone by. This system has pretty much been a "thin client" of sorts ever since I purchased it in 1995. For the longest time, it was used only as a BBS terminal. Paired with MS-DOS and TeleMate, a modem/terminal emulator program, my girlfriend (now wife) and I would use it to connect to BBSs, MUDs, UNIX servers and other dial-up resources.

Later on, I used telemate in a less traditional role to turn the 8525 into a text terminal for my Linux box, in essence, it was a very primitive thin client, used for reading my e-mail, writing for my old e-zine, and doing remote system administration work.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Power Macintosh 7100 A/V

Manufacturer: Apple Computer
Model: Power Macintosh 7100 A/V
CPU: PowerPC 750 (G3), 400MHz
RAM: 384MB
Release date: March 1994 (80MHz A/V version introduced January 1995)

Souped up and ready to rock... This ain't your father's 7100... It's *MY* father's!

The 7100 A/V was certainly a diamon din the rough. The standard 7100 (and the 6100 I wrote about last week) share the system RAM with the on-board video. This can be fixed by adding an aftermarket video card, but the 7100 A/V came with a Mach64-based SVGA card already installed. To top that off, the A/V comes with composite A/V out, just like a VCR. This system started life looking a lot like the 6100 in a more modern case. Performance wise, there wasn't a lot of difference aside from more RAM and a slightly faster PPC 601 CPU at 80 MHz. I purchased a 400 MHz G3 upgrade card from a friend of mine, and packed as much RAM into it as I could muster up. I think it goes without saying that this is far from your average vintage 1994 Mac.

Sadly, even with the G3 upgrade processor, the 7100 is incapable of running OSX. I handed it off to my dad to use with his NTSC telescope eyepiece, which basically turns any telescope with moduar eyepieces intoa really huge telephoto video camera. During the day, it sees occasional use as a TV in his office. Using the built-in A/V inputs and the software that came with MacOS, he's able to take full motion video or digital stills of the cosmos or from the cable box. NTSC resolution (US TV quality) is kind of crappy and lower resolution than even the 640x480 VGA standard, but the detail through the A/V input is excellent, especially when paired with a high-quality telescope. You won't be getting high-res desktop wallpapers out of it, but they're the perfect size for web galleries, YouTube videos or e-mail attachments.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Weekend Edition - Thin Clients

"Thin client" is a term that refers to a compter, terminal, software program or device which handles user interaction with applications, but does as little processing as possible in and of itself.

The opposite, a "thick client" handles not only communication to the server and interaction with the user, but processing, rendering images or text, and other computationally non-trivial tasks. Examples of thick clients are web browsers, e-mail programs, and the like.

Thin clients are often nothing more than remote access to another computer. The programs run on the application server, but rely on the thin client for user interaction. Examples of software Thin clients (that run within a desktop computer's host OS to provide connectivity to an application server are Citrix, VNC, PC Anywhere, Microsoft Remote Desktop and Remote X11. There are also hardware thin clients such as WYSE WinTerms, SunRay terminals, and even those old orange or green-screen VT text-only terminals you used to see in businesses and libraries in the 80's. Usually, the monitor physically attached to the application server doesn't show any sign of the applications being used via thin clients. Exceptions to this rule are RDP Console connections, VNC Server and PC Anywhere on Windows, or X0 VNC on Unix platforms, all of which take control of the "console".

Windows 2000, 2003 and XP can readily accept RDP connections. Server editions of these OSs allow more than one person to login at once. An RDP client ships standard with most MS Operating systems, including PocketPC, Windows CE and Windows Mobile on newer PDAs. You can also get RDP Clients for Windows 95/98/ME, UNIX/Linux, and MacOS. Certain hardware thin-clients, such as WinTerms can also connect to RDP hosts.

You can easily get VNC server (an open-source cross-platform remote control suite) installed on Windows, Mac or UNIX. Client software is available for almost every modern operating system, including certain PDAs.

X11 Servers are also available for most platforms, allowing you to run graphical UNIX apps on a server while "beaming" the windows the applocation creates across the network onto your X11 Server display. The term "X11 Server" is somewhat confusing, in that one typically associates "server" to be the host. In a sense, the X11 protocol runs as a "service" on the X11 client system, allowing applications on UNIX servers to draw their windows onto the thin client's display.

The beauty of thin client software is that you can breathe new life into an old 486 or Pentium simply by installing Windows 95/98, or some BSD or Linux variant. Simply install the thin client software packages of your choice. With X11 or VNC Server on a UNIX host, or remote desktop on a Windows server, you can theoretically have many users logged in simultaneously on their own session, sharing one really powerful computer and relying on the old, seemingly useless computers to provide the interface.

Where there's no way that the latest versions of Windows server 2003, Office XP, Mozilla firefox and thunderbird would run on a pentium 60 with 32MB of RAM, you can just set up Remote Desktop, and turn this old PC into a second monitor, keyboard, and mouse to an existing machine. Since most thin client programs work over TCP/IP, you can put this terminal in your study, in the kitchen, or even in the kids' play area. With a properly configured network connection at home, you could even use thin client software to remotely control your home computer from the office, coffee shop, while vacationing in Barcelona, or anywhere you can get adequate Internet access. Note: employers are starting to crack down on thin client and VPN use from work because of its potential as a malware vector or productivity threat.

Due to the climate of the Internet today, I'm not an advocate of putting Internet-facing computers in kids' bedrooms or other places where they can remain un-supervised for long periods of time, but that choice is yours to make, and there are many other places in the modern home where a thin-client system could come in handy.

Apple Power Macintosh 6100

Manufacturer: Apple Computer
Model: Power Macintosh 6100
CPU: PowerPC 601, 66MHz
Release date: March 1994

The Power Macintosh 6100 (a.k.a. Performa 6100) was essentially a PowerMac architecture machine stuffed into a Quadra 610 case. I originally purchased this Mac so that I could tinker with MkLinux Developer Release 3. MkLinux was one of the first projects aimed at making a friendly Linux distro for PPC Macs, and the installation procedure was eerily similar to RedHat 5.x's once you had the hard drive properly partitioned on the Mac.

I never was really a huge fan of the old MacOS (pre OSX), so to me, this was a cool way to get a somewhat useful OS loaded onto a neat machine. For about a year, MkLinux running on this computer was my main desktop system, my workhorse if you will. DR3 was the last official release of MkLinux for quite some time, and as it started to fall behind further and further, I eventually abandoned it (and this computer) completely. I formatted it, re-installed MacOS 9, and handed it down to my sister for school work. MkLinux did eventually start back up again but never got too far. Their page hasn't seen an update in close to 2 years.

Once my sister graduated high school and picked up a laptop for college, she gave the 6100 back to me. I've since installed Firefox, fetch, AIM and a few other packages on it, and it's "the bastard workstation" that I let people use when they come over and want to check e-mail. The original 15" monitor it came with is in use by my wife's BBS/Mud server, and the 6100 stays tucked away most of the time. I still somewhat loathe MacOS "Classic", but the PowerPC 6100 is still useable if you can stomach a user interface that's showing its age more than 20 years after its introduction.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Axis StorPoint CD-E100 Server

Manufacturer: Axis Communications
Model: StorPoint CD-E100
RAM: 2MB Flash
HDD: None built-in
Release Date: Late 1999

Shown inside a Procom CD server tower at night, illuminated with multi-color LED bars.

The Axis StorPoint CD-E100 is actually an embedded server in a case the size of your average CD/DVD drive. It's built to be installed inside a case along with other CD-ROM drives, and the embedded OS shares all the attached drives over the network, via FTP, NFS, Novell Netware, Windows Network Neighborhood (Samba), AppleTalk, and HTTP. On the back of the case is a typical 4-pin Molex power plug (same thing you see on internal CD-ROM drives), two 50-pin SCSI ports, and a 10/100 Ethernet port. You can attach up to 7 devices to each SCSI port, for a powerful combination of up to 14 devices.

The procom CD tower I am using can hold up to 16 drives - 8 slots side-by-side, so I have 14 drives (3 DVD, 1 HDD, 2 CD-RW and 8 CD-ROM) within, using one of the remaining two bays to hold the CD-E100 itself. On the last remaining bay, I mounted the control switches for the LED bars. A locking metal door with a dark-tinted plexiglass window adorns the front of the CD tower.

The CD-E100 allows you to attach CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW or Hard Drives.

Hard drives are used only for storing images (or caches) of inserted discs. You can insert a CD or DVD, copy the image of the media to the hard drive, and remove the disc, but the files will still be available on the network. I have a 73GB hard drive installed on one of the SCSI ports.

CD-R and CD-RW drives show up as "writable" storage. Using the administrative web interface, you can UDF-Format blank media, then upload files to the CD. This effectively turns the drive into a network-attached cd burner.

Discs inserted into ROM drives simply show up as individual file shares on the network. The web interface allows you to specify what network sharing protocols are enabled, and allows you to lock, password protect, and change the share name of each individual disc or cached image.

I burned my entire MP3 collection onto DVD-ROMs and mirrored them to the internal hard drive and shared to all the computers in my home via NFS and network neighborhood. I also regularly drag files to the CD-RW drive, then back the image of the CD-RW up to the hard drive and use the web interface to erase the CD-RW media once I'm done uploading. Sadly, this is the only way to get files directly from your computer to the CD-E100's attached hard drive. There is no way to simply upload files to the free space.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Network General Sniffer

Manufacturer: Network General
Model: Distributed Sniffer System Server
CPU: Pentium MMX, 233MHz
Release Date: Late 1997

Shown here under my RS/6000 Model 250

Network General merged with McAfee in 1997 and became known as Network Associates (Briefly called NAI). In 2004, a re-org split things back up again, the McAfee name re-appeared, and several product lines were sold, spun-off, or discontinued. As a result, Network General is its own entity, once again focused on the Sniffer product line.

I acquired this machine in 1999 at a surplus auction. The Distributed Sniffer System was a unique solution to the problem of monitoring traffic in the enterprise. Prior to this, a netadmin needed to haul a specialized network monitoring system to various network closets in order to monitor traffic on that network segment. This was often a powerful laptop (for the era) with special protocol analysis software (affectionately known as a "network sniffer"). Network General had a solution for this problem that involved placing a sniffer node on each network segment, then providing a way for the netadmins to gather data from all of the segments at once. They called this the Distributed Sniffer System.

As far as hardware goes, there wasn't too much that made this machine unique among its desktop peers. It wasn't even built in a rack-mountable case. It was, for all intents and purposes, a run-of-the-mill desktop PC with a few extra expansion cards to try to cover all the different network types that might be encountered at the time (10/100 twisted-pair ethernet, AUI, and coaxial) as well as having two PCMCIA ports via a generic 16-bit ISA card. It was then loaded with NG's proprietary software.

Alone, this sniffer machine isn't capable of much. One also needs to have the software to gather the data from all the nodes. I didn't have it. Since this was just a pretty normal PC, I had other plans for it! I installed Red Hat Linux (now basically known as Fedora), vgetty, and Penguin Power, an X10 home automation program that runs on Linux.

Penguin Power is made to interface with the 16-Channel X10/SmartHome CM11A computer control interface. This is a simple white box that plugs into the wall, and then into your computer via serial cable. It allows your computer to not only send X10 commands to home automation devices (light switches, appliances, motorized curtains, sprinkler systems, garage doors, you name it), but it can also recieve X10 commands from an X10 remote and act on them. You could make a macro that, with the touch of a button, shuts off every light in the house. You could launch commands to make your computer play music or adjust the volume. Paired with cron, a program scheduler that's standard with almost any UNIX-like OS, one could easily schedule the sprinkler system, coffee maker, or outdoor lights as well.

On top of appliance, light switch, alarm system and accessory modules to attach to your household electricals, X10 sells several sensors that act like single-channel remote controls on the X10 network. Motion sensors, door or window sensors, light sensors and others can send a signal to your X10 system. This can be an X10 emergency alarm telephone dialer, a chime or loud klaxon, or it could simply turn on a light (a motion sensor could automatically turn on the closet light or your driveway flood lights for example). Similarly, you could have PenguinPower run a set of commands to log the sensor activation, sound an alarm, flash all of the house lights on and off, or any other action you can think of.

With a 16 channel remote, 2 serial ports and 2 CM11A's on different home codes, you could theoretically mix and match 32 channels between devices and remote control macros for a really powerful home automation configuration.

I also paired this setup with a voice-capable modem and the vgetty package for Linux. Vgetty is a daemon that can answer voice-capable modems, turning your properly-equipped Linux box into a multi-mailbox answering machine. On top of that, though, vgetty offers a powerful DTMF (touch tone) recognition system which allows vgetty to run commands based on what phone buttons you press. I configured it to require a passcode before accepting commands, and then I gave each controlled device in my house a 2-digit number.

If someone calls and no one answers our phone after 6 rings, vgetty answers like a normal answering machine. If the passcode is dialed during the greeting message, the greeting stops and I'm free to enter commands. The commands I chose were the 2-digit device number followed by a 0, 1, 7, or 9. 0 sends an "off" signal to the device, 1 sends "on", 7 sends "dim" and 9 sends "bright". Thus, on my way home from work, I can set the mood in the kitchen, put some music on, or kick on a pot of coffee. I could also close the garage door from anywhere I could get a cell phone signal if I forgot to do it in my haste to get to work.

Once all's said and done, this wasn't exactly a cheap project. All the X10/SmartHome hardware was kind of expensive but well worth it in Geek factor. The voice capable modem set me back $120 back in 1999 but I'm sure you could find a cheaper one now. You could duplicate it on any old, slow PC. It doesn't even need a keyboard, monitor or mouse once you're done setting it up. Maybe someone wants to try a similar setup on a Soekris appliance (486 CPU in a modern network appliance shell) and tell us about it. That would seriously rock! Consult the vgetty documentation for details.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Apple Macintosh Performa 550

Manufacturer: Apple Computer
Model: Macintosh Performa 550
CPU: Motorola 68030, 33MHz
Release Date: February 1994

Shown: Stock Photo courtesy Low End Mac

Greetings, fellow enthusiasts! Sorry for the delay in posting. I had a crazy weekend that bled over into Monday. With that out of the way, here comes a heaping spoonful of the 90s! I miss the 90's. Sometimes.

This was one of the last all-in-one macs built off the motorola 68k CPU. It was pretty feature rich at the time, boasting built-in ethernet, a 64k color-capable display, and stereo speakers. Enough with the frills, though. Mostly, the Performa 550 (and similar all-in-ones) were known as being proprietary, difficult to upgrade, and somewhat childish looking. Therefore, it makes sense that when I was in middle school, these things lined the computer lab and filled the library.
This was essentially an upgraded Mac Color classic. As a matter of fact, the motherboard swaps between them with little effort. One could buy a pricy upgrade card to add a PowerPC CPU. Forget that noise. NetBSD runs great on it. Once you install System 7 onto a tiny partition and copy the necessary files over, installing is pretty easy as long as you use the documentation (especially Matthew Theobald's installation notes!).

NetBSD is a lot like OpenBSD in how it handles cross-platform software. Like all BSD's, NetBSD has a package system that revolves around source code and automatic dependency resolution. OpenBSD and FreeBSD call this "ports" but NetBSD calls it "pkgsrc". The concept is very similar though.

I haven't put a lot of heartfelt effort into making a GUI work yet. I originally installed NetBSD 1.4.3 on it back in the day. NetBSD is up to 3.0 now, so that was quite some time ago.

I was using this setup as kind of a network management and centralized syslog system, but it was recently shelved to make desk space for other projects. It would hop right online if I plugged it in, though.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Weekend Edition - PC World's 25 Greatest

I ran across this article on Digg today. It's PC World's opinion of the 25 Greatest PCs of all time.

The article is located here.

Several systems don't qualify as "retro" by any means. Second Gen iMacs were introduced in '02. Most of them, however, are either retro or just plain old-school. Some of the systems on their list are older than *I* am! I'm somewhat disappointed that the sub-$100 Timex Sinclair 1000 (my first computer) wasn't on the list, seeing how it was the first really affordable home computer. On the flip side, it was kind of difficult to use, but not much worse than the Tandy TRS-80 which didn't sell nearly as well.

The HP100LX, a dos-powered precursor to the HP300 series I wrote about last week made the list, and several other systems that were ahead of their time did as well. I won't spoil too much for you, though. You really should check out the list. It's a good read but with a few paragraphs for each item on their list, you should prepare for a bit of a read, or bookmark it for later.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Retro Computing at work!

Manufacturer: IBM
Model: PC Convertible
CPU: 80C88
RAM: 256kB
HDD: None (Two 720k Floppy)
Release Date: April 1986

Shown: Stock Photo with Parallel/Serial module attached. (I probably shouldn't take pictures of my office environment but they probably wouldn't mind)

I just started a new job a few weeks ago. One of the first things that caught my eye was an un-occupied cubicle with a few pieces of vintage, old-school hardware within. This IBM PC Convertible is easily the crown jewel of the collection. Being a retro geek, I have to write about it, even though it's not mine. I might start writing about other people's hardware anyways. This is about making good use of old hardware, not just about MY old hardware.

The PC Convertible was definitely a groundbreaking machine. Not only was it IBM's first crack at the portable market, it was one of the first portable computers that aspired to achieve desktop usability in a fashion similar to what we know as docking stations today. Instead of a docking station, however, this computer relied on snap-on modules that added traditional desktop functionality. This included a serial/parallel module, display module (for an external monitor) and a printer that could attach directly to the portable without a cable.

The PC Convertible at my office doesn't have any of the frills and the battery no longer holds a charge. The "squished" screen offers monochrome CGA resolution, not far behind the 4-color "bluescale" CGA display on my ZDS SuperSport. Surprisingly, the one we have here still works rather well. Since it's attached via serial cable, one can hop right on it and access the mainframe, which is an often-used resource here. You won't see people lining up to work on it, though.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Compaq Armada 6500

Manufacturer: Compaq
Model: Armada 6500
CPU: Pentium II Mobile, 400MHz
RAM: 512MB

Shown: stock photo

This was yet another "hand-me-down" from a friend. It competes rather well against any other portable I have (aside from the SuperSport, if you consider it portable) for battery life. I've been running OpenBSD on this, and it's my web/PHP design platform and security battlestation. It's loaded with tons of net-sec tools. If I'm out and about, you'll often see me using this laptop for internet access, because it offers a good balance of weight, run time, and processor speed.

When performing network vulnerability assessments, I usually use this laptop to do most of the testing, and rely on other machines for compiling the results and writing up the final reports. OpenBSD, X.Org, WindowMaker, and AbiWord work great together on it, but OpenOffice is a tad sluggish. Overall, it's a great workhorse despite it's occasional quirks (such as refusing to boot unless I disconnect the battery and boot it up off of A/C power only, once in a while). I wouldn't go out of my way to buy a used Armada 6500, let's put it that way. That said, it's been reliable for the most part, and well-supported by OpenBSD.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

HP Jornada 680e H/PC

Manufacturer: Hewlett Packard
Model: Jornada 680e
CPU: Hitachi SH3, 44MHz
Release Date: 1999

Shown with Linksys WiFi card
And in PocketIE

I was at DefCon 6 the first time I saw a full color clamshell
HandheldPC (H/PC). It was, at the time, the latest evolotion
of my 300LX, the 600LX. It had the same chicklet keyboard,
some extra function buttons, and a 256 color screen. I was
in awe, and slightly jealous.

It wasn't long after that when HP switched their HandheldPC
line over to their "Jornada" name in 1998, which also covered
their PocketPC form-factor models. H/PCs born of this
generation are still highly desireable. I bought mine in 2004
as a refurb from TigerDirect.

Wherever I go, I'm constantly barraged by questions about my
"little laptop" and where one can be found. As usual, I'm
writing this post using the system I'm blogging about. I
happen to be on a bus on my way to work (I'll post it later
tonight when I get home) and there are no less than 3 people
staring at me with curiosity in their eyes. Yesterday, I was
catching up on the latest Digg headlines while waiting for my
lunch, and I ended up having a conversation with a waiter
about my Jornada.

The 680, 680e, 690, and 690e are all fundamentally the same
machine. The "e" models lack a built-in 56k modem, and the
690 models have 32MB of shared RAM/Storage instead of the 16MB
found in the 680 models. Otherwise, all of them have a 640x240
(1/2 VGA) touch screen capable of 64k colors, 11 programmable
function keys across the top of the keyboard, 3 sound recording
and playback control buttons on the front edge of the keyboard,
4 programmable "hard icons" which are designated areas off the
end of the touch-screen, as well as a PCMCIA slot and a
CompactFlash reader built-in. There's also a button that's
visible in the clamshell hinge whether the H/PC is open or
closed, which blinks to alert you to a calendar item with a
scheduled reminder. You simply press it to stop the alarm (if
set) and to dismiss the calendar notice. Finally, there's a
docking station port on the bottom, a charging/power port on
the side, a serial port and IRDA. On top of being a run-of-the
mill PDA with a calendar, e-mail, to-do lists, and contacts that
synchronize with MS Outlook, these models ship with "pocket
office" versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access.

It wasn't too difficult to get one of my old Prism-based WiFi
cards working. Armed with vxUtils for network diagnostics,
PocketIE, built-in e-mail, and mobile versions of VNC,
SSH/SFTP, and MS Terminal Server Client, the Jornada is
everything I need in a pinch. It lasts an impressive 2+ hours
while using the power-hungry WiFi card, but when I don't need
to be leashed to the 'net, it somehow maintains the same 20
hour run-time I came to expect out of my older and less powerful
H/PCs. This is probably due to the loss of AA batteries in favor
of a real Lithium Ion battery pack.

All I can say is that if the 300LX Series H/PCs are still viable
today (they are) then the Jornada 680e is a flagship of ultra-
mobile retro-computing.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sun Microsystems Ultra 5

Manufacturer: Sun Microsystems
Model: Ultra 5
CPU: UltraSparc, 400MHz
RAM: 128 MB
Release Date: December 1997

This is currently my main workstation. I actually bought 2 of them for $10 each a while back ago, and gave one away after I was done playing with different OSs on it. While OpenBSD suits my SparcStation 5 rather well, Solaris is my OS of choice if you have a Sun workstation powerful enough to run it.

This was one of my favorite non-mainstream workstation offerings ever. It's sleek enough, small enough, and powerful enough to not be entirely out of place as a modern workstation. Coupled with the very feature-packed Solaris 10 operating system, this computer is great for the casual user.

Yes, it still uses Netscape 4.7, but it's been revamped by Sun with integrated Java, and it's not nearly as anemic as Netscape 4.03 that shipped with AIX. As with most desktop systems, the Ultra 5 comes with decent video, built-in ethernet and audio, sufficient hard drive space, a CD-ROM and Floppy drive.

For only running at 400 MHz, the speed isn't as horrible as one might expect. online java games like those found at Yahoo! play nicely even though it takes a while for java to load. Full-blown java apps like JiGLE and OurTunes also work great. Ah, the beauty of native Java.

Solaris comes with StarOffice, which is painfully slow to load, but works fine once it's finally shoe-horned itself into swap. I'm pretty sure that 512MB of RAM would make this machine seem a lot more responsive. As-is, though, I'm really happy with this machine. It's quite possibly the best bang-for-the-buck I've ever gotten out of a computer that wasn't 100% gratis. As seen above, I fitted it with a blue-into-red cold cathode tube to spice it up aesthetically a little bit.

Monday, August 07, 2006

RS/6000 Model 7248

Manufacturer: IBM
Model: RS/6000 7248
CPU: PPC 603e, 90MHz
Release Date: July 1995

Shown: AIXWindows Login Screen

The Model 7248 was designed to be a desktop UNIX workstation, featuring on-board sound, network, and decent video built-in from the factory. It was direct competition with some of the Sun desktop models at the time. Just as Sun workstations integrate pretty well with Sun servers for authentication, network-booting and resource sharing, so AIX workstations do with AIX servers.

I just recently acquired this machine, and haven't had too much time to really do a lot with it yet. The RAM was too miniscule to install AIX 5L so this one is running AIX 4.3.2. As a workstation, it runs CDE by default, the same environment used by Sun's Solaris OS. This gives AIX's GUI mode a familiar feel.

I'll be tricking out both of my AIX installations with scads of freeware available from BULL AIX Freeware and the AIX Public Domain Software Library hosted by UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science. These two sites are a godsend for AIX administrators seeking the software they've come to love on Linux and BSD.

The GUI is a tad slow, and AIX 4.3.2 ships with Netscape Communicator (Navigator, Mail/News and HTML Editor) version 4.07. In case you're wondering how Netscape 4.x works in a Web 2.0 world, rest assured it doesn't work at all. I can't even post today's blog entry from it. Even with its weakness as a modern-day workstation, I'll find a role for it soon. It just won't be for surfing the web.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Weekend Edition - You can go Retro!

I usually take it easy on the weekends, but I'll try to make a quick weekend edition post when I have the chance. I'd like to take this chance to remind you all that many computers from the 90's are still useable today.

Chances are, many of you have an old computer stashed away that's close to 10 years old. By 1998, PC Desktops were already approaching 500 MHz. I have several machines like this. You might think they're sluggish, outdated, or whatever, but they're probably just not up to all the tasks that you're used to doing now. Computers of old are not geared for playing the latest and greatest games, playing high-res content from YouTube or Google Video, or things like that.

Think back to what you did with them. Think of what the Web was like back then. If you want, check out what Yahoo!, CNet and JPL websites looked like in '97 (click the links to see). While websites have come a long way, realize that these were cutting edge back then, and didn't demand much from your system.

Windows 2000, Fedora Linux, Ubuntu Linux, or FreeBSD are operating systems that should run pretty well on anything down to 400 MHz, if you stick to simple web browsing, word processing, and e-mail. They also happen to make great computers for students. They won't be able to play the latest and greatest games, but it's likely you won't want them doing that in the first place.

Most of the systems I've covered so far are a little "exotic" so to speak. I could go on writing an article per day for 2 months straight if I went into details about every bland 1980's/1990's PC I've got scattered about. The fact remains, however, that older PCs can still be useful these days, even if it requires finding a new hard drive or a network card to bring it up to some standard of functionality.

Keep your expectations reasonable, and keep in mind what they were capable of back in their day.

Friday, August 04, 2006

HP 300 Series PDAs

Manufacturer: Hewlett Packard
Model: 300LX and 320LX
CPU: Hitachi SH3, 44MHz
HDD: 64MB CF Card
Release Date: June 1997
Shown: Stock Photo (crappy)

HP Palmtops have been around for quite a while now. It began with the "tiny wide-screen laptop" form factor 95LX, 100LX and 200LX models which ran DOS. In 1997, HP was one of the pioneers for Microsoft's Windows CE operating system which is currently called "Windows Mobile" and runs on iPaqs and other PDAs In early 1998, I was in a bit of a bind for mobile computing. I had an un-reliable NEC Versa 550D laptop and hadn't purchased the Versa 4050 yet.

There was a floor-model 300LX for sale where a friend of mine worked, and I snagged it up for a fraction of the original price. The down-side is that I got none of the accessories. No power cord, no docking cradle or serial cable, or even the manuals.

The 300LX was my primary away-from-home computer for quite a while. Partnered with a PCMCIA modem or a PCMCIA network card, it was Internet capable. In the middle ages of Web 1.0, the anemic PocketIE browser actually worked pretty well as long as you stayed away from JavaScript pages. Built-in mini-versions of Word, Excel, Outlook et. al. provided ample functionality for me. Most of the time, I was writing for classes or for an Electronic Magazine that a few of my friends worked together on. With the PCMCIA slot, I was able to move files
from it to other computers via a compact flash card and CF reader. The RAM is able to be dynamically adjusted on-the-fly to be split between traditional program memory (what we know as RAM) and file storage (the equivalent to a hard drive). 2MB is almost nothing, so I relied on the CF card (and PCMCIA adapter for it) to store most of my programs and documents. Fortunately, most Windows CE programs are small and don't require much RAM or storage.

The clamshelled HP palmtops are very rugged, but my HP 300LX eventually started to act up on occasion after being dropped a few times. In 2000, I replaced the 300LX with a 320LX that I found on eBay. The 320LX has both PCMCIA and a direct compact-flash slot, as well as twice the memory (4MB opposed to 2MB, which isn't saying much) and a soft green LED backlight.

Both the 300LX and 320LX run on 2 AA batteries, and both are capable of re-charging NiCd and NiMH AA's when attached to a power source. Both of them feature unprecidented run-time on rechargeable batteries. I would often go 3 days of heavy use before they needed to be recharged. HP's whitepapers confirm this by quoting 20 hours of run-time. Considering that these devices don't "reboot" but merely go to sleep, it allows you to get a lot of work done pretty quickly. The "chicklet" style keyboard leaves something to be desired however they offer a nice tactile feel and the familiar layout lends itself to quick typing once you've gotten used to it. After all, I did type whole papers for classes on it!

I eventually found a great deal on the newer (1999) Jornada 680e which features even more RAM, a larger and more laptop-esque keyboard, a real battery pack and a full-color screen to supplement the newer version of Windows CE. More on that later. Both my 300LX and 320LX are still functional and see occasional use. The 300LX is still flaky and prone to lock up if you hold it just right. As far as I'm concerned, though, the HP 300 series of palmtops is still a viable option for those who want more traditional office computing functionality from a PDA despite its age. While it's a little on the bulky side, it's still orders of magnitude smaller and longer-lasting than a laptop and offers the essential PIM and organizer functionality that modern PDAs are most often used for.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

ZDS SuperSport "Laptop"

Manufacturer: Zenith
Model: ZWL-184 SuperSport
CPU: 8MHz 8086
(With 8087 Upgrade)
RAM: 640kB
Release Date: Mid 1980's

Shown attached to my cordless phone via acoutstic coupler. Is this the oldest computer to have "Wireless Internet?"

Zenith Data Systems released the 8086-based "SuperSport" in the mid 1980's. I honestly don't know what date it was manufactured, or what year exactly. Much like the Mac Wallstreet, I've owned 3 of these. The first one was my first laptop as a sophomore in high school. Again, it was significantly dated by the time I got it. The original one had only a pair of 720k floppy drives and no hard drive. I used Telemate to connect to BBS's with the built-in 2400-baud modem, and LotusWorks for almost everything else. LWorks is a DOS word processor with spell check, a spreadsheet app, and communications suite all in one. I paired it with my OkiData ML182 printer to run my papers for class. The huge battery which snapped onto the back and weighed more than the laptop itself would net me more than 6 hours of run time if I left the screen brightness turned down. I took notes in all my classes with this thing.

It can play some old DOS games (MS Flight Sim 4.0, California Games, Test Drive etc) but now it shines as a serial console for routers and my "headless" UNIX servers. To do this, I break out the venerable Telemate, which is a blast from the 90's, my favorite DOS-based terminal emulator. Once connected to one of my UNIX boxes, I can use it just like I'm running text-mode UNIX on it. It also comes in handy in a pinch if I need to make some tweaks to my router. Just hook up the serial cable and go to town.

Below, there are some more screen shots (sorry about the crappy quality). One is of me surfing DIGG with links. The other is me connected to my NetScreen router/firewall.

The Zenith shipped with a custom version of DOS, and at the heart of it was an enhanced "MODE" program. In MS DOS, MODE can be used to control serial ports and whatnot, but Zenith's DOS "MODE" program controls power-saving features and can activate the on-board modem. I have a page of resources and more pictures of the SuperSport on this page. There's quite a story behind the SuperSports that I've got, but I won't get into that here.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Macintosh "Wallstreet" G3 PowerBook

Manufacturer: Apple Computer
Model: PowerBook G3 Series
(A.K.A. "Wallstreet Edition")
CPU: PowerPC 750, 266MHz
RAM: 384MB
HDD: 40GB 2.5" IDE
Release Date: Late 1998

Shown: Customized with Decals

This is a daily use computer for me. Matter of fact, this post is being made from it! It can only run MacOS X 10.2, so I'm running 10.2.8. The massive amount of RAM crammed into this laptop makes it peppy enough for my usual daily tasks of system administration, web, word processing and e-mail.

This is actually a borg of 3 different wallstreets. The first one was a somewhat functional Wallstreet missing a CD-ROM drive, battery, and power adapter given to me by my long-time friend, fellow technical writer, and partner in mischief, Asmodian X back in 2002. I bought a broken mess of another Wallstreet to reap for parts. The resulting Wallstreet was 233 MHz with a 12" screen and didn't have sound, but that was okay with me. I later found a "non functional" Wallstreet 14" 266MHz on eBay for $50. I bought it and reset the PMU (Hold Ctrl, Fn, Shift and the Power button at the same time) and it worked like new. It had been stripped of all its batteries and drives, and came with a measly 64MB RAM. After swapping some parts from my lesser Wallstreet. Battery life is about 1.5 hours. Down from 2.5 or so when the battery was newer.

Internet access is gained via a Linksys WPC11V3 PCMCIA card using the IOXPerts 802.11 driver ($20 or so well spent!) I round off the functionality with the official Apple X11 package, Fink for installing lots of Open-Source Linux/BSD goodies, and some OSX-Native apps such as Thunderbird, Firefox, Audacity, KisMAC and Adium X.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

NEC Versa 4050 Laptop

Manufacturer: NEC
Model: Versa 4040C
CPU: Intel Pentium, 90 MHz
RAM: 40 MB
HDD: 4GB 2.5" IDE
Release Date: 1995

Shown in the back of my 1995 Ford Escort. 11 years ago this was as cutting edge as it got!

You'll soon come to find out that much of my success in using old computers for modern tasks comes from OpenBSD. It's a very lightweight yet functional operating system with quite a bit of hardware support.

I bought this laptop used in 1998 to replace my dead NEC Versa 550 of about the same vintage. It came with a 540MB hard drive and 40 MB of RAM. I promptly upgraded the hard drive. This machine went to the DEFCON 6 and 7 conventions with me. I had been running Red Hat Linux 5.something, but at DEFCON 7 I installed OpenBSD 2.5 and never turned back. Hardware support wasn't nearly as good as it is now, but I was hooked. I spent many an hour with this laptop tehered to an acoustic coupler and payphone, accessing dialup BBS's and PPP Internet from various cities.

Now, the Versa 4050 regularly finds itself in the back window of my car, attached to an inverter, GPS and Wireless ethernet card and used for "War Driving". It's not open like it shows in the photo while I'm driving around. I hacked it to stay on when you close the lid, and removed the floppy/CD drive, leaving enough of a hole in the case to keep it running cool. Recently, I ran across an excellent deal on a new battery for it. It runs for about 3 hours on a full charge, and runs X.Org at 640x480, 64K colors. Not awesome but very useable. I typically use BSD-Airtools in text mode for wardriving. If I must use it to get online, I use links (not lynx) in text mode to surf the web, unless I really need graphics.

I also have done quite a bit of word processing with it. I usually stick to vi for text files, but AbiWord runs like a champ. Sure, this one doesn't have as glamourous a backstory as some other machines in my collection, but it's easily one of the most versatile and reliable arrows in my quiver.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

OpenBSD on a Sun Microsystems SparcStation 5

Manufacturer: Sun Microsystems
Model: SparcStation 5
CPU: MicroSparc II, 80 MHz
RAM: 64 MB (Upgraded from 32 MB)
HDD: SCSI 73GB (Upgraded from 2GB)
Release Date: Mid-1994 (Most likely August)

(Stock photo shown)

There are a few of the hardware underdogs that I admire. Sun Microsystems has always been on my short list. Those of us who are sysadmins and have been for a while might not understand me calling Sun an "underdog". The general population has no idea they exist, though. Mention Dell, Apple or IBM and normal people know what you're talking about. Talking about Sun, Silicon Graphics, or Cray will certainly draw a few blank stares unless you're in the presence of geeks.

Historically, the SS5 wasn't truly groundbreaking. It was designed to be a compromise platform, nestled neatly between the rather inflexible entry-level SparcStation 4 and the more feature-packed and expensive SparcStation 20.

I actually acquired my SparcStation 5 from a table of "free" stuff at one of my old jobs about a year ago. It's easy to tell that this was already a dinosaur by the time I'd rescued it. It had Solaris 8 already installed, but it had an unknown root password. That doesn't stop me, but I had already decided that Solaris wasn't this machine's destiny. I have a somewhat newer (but still 90's era) Sun Ultra 5 for running Solaris. More on the U5 later on.

I originally installed OpenBSD 3.8 on the original 2GB SCSI hard drive. I used it as my primary "gateway" machine; My firewall would pass all SSH traffic to my SS5. Even after a fairly minimal installation of OpenBSD, there wasn't much in the way of drive space left. X.Org didn't work with the on-board video card, which required a 13W3 VGA adapter anyways. I left well enough alone and it was used as a headless terminal.

When OpenBSD 3.9 was released, I thought about upgrading it. I decided that along with upgrading the operating system, I would upgrade the RAM and HDD as well. I slapped a 73GB drive in (the SS5 requires SCA80-style drives) and doubled the RAM to 64MB. The newer X.Org that shipped with OpenBSD 3.9 functions well at 1024x768 at 256 colors, so I went ahead and installed it as well as some normal GUI utilities that I use. I also purchased a 13W3 adapter so that I could use the video.

The SS5 is still my front line of ingress to my network from the outside. In this age of multiple GHz of processing speed, 80 MHz seems to do just fine for quite a few mundane tasks. I won't be watching video podcasts or even editing graphics with GIMP on it. It currently runs as my primary testing environment for PHP, MySQL and NewLISP.

OpenBSD is just about as cutting-edge as you can get. This system is more than a decade old and yet remains just as functional as the day it was released, running applications and services that were just released weeks ago on a modern operating system. It's by no means the oldest functional computer I own. That said, if my incessant rambling about using old computers in a modern world had to be defined by one system in my posession, the SS5 would be it.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Old meets new(er) - AIX 5L on a 13-year-old machine

Manufacturer: IBM
Model: RS/6000 7011-250
RAM: 64 MB (Upgraded)
HDD: SCSI 18GB (Upgraded)
Release Date: October 1993

Shown here atop my NG/NAI Sniffer. Above it, the external CD/ROM and my Cable modem.

To put things into perspective, IBM Released the RS/6000 Model 250 about the exact same time Apple announced the Macintosh PowerPC line, and about the same time Intel released the original Pentium CPU. The POWER architecture, a mainstay of IBM's server line from the late 80's forward, has roots back to some of IBM's first RISC processor R&D in 1982.

This particular system was originally shipped with IBM's SystemV-based AIX operating system version 3.2. When it was released, the RS/6000-250 would run circles around many other modern machines. Designed to be stable as well as powerful, most RS/6000 systems work very closely with AIX to provide a darn-near bulletproof environment with automatic hardware failure detection, extensive logging facilities far beyond most other UNIX servers, and security features that met strict government standards.

I acquired this machine at a local surplus auction in 1998. It was already 5 years old and showing it. There was 64 MB of RAM in it, and no hard drive. I picked up a 4GB SCSI drive which lasted quite a while but died in 2001. The only network interface was AUI so I had to purchase an ethernet transciever for it. I found some AIX 4.3.2 media that my work was disposing of and rescued it from the garbage. It installed flawlessly and I've used this machine off and on for close to 8 years now.

Fast forward a bit. AIX 5L (the L means Linux Affinity) was released in 2001. I wasn't aware of it, but Version 5.1 SHOULD work on the trusty Model 250. I found a new unopened AIX 5.1 box on eBay and snatched it up. It's currently installing.

I'll update this tomorrow sometime after I've given AIX 5L a test-drive. The way I look at it, what better way to open up my Retro Computing blog than to toss a 5 year old operating system onto a 13 year old computer? Wish me luck!

Welcome to Retro Computing!

I'm Noah (A.K.A. Axon). I'm obsessed with old computers!

This is where I'll chronicle my adventures in retro computing. Retro can mean a great many things, but most of what I do revolves around workstations, desktops, and servers from the 90's. The older, the better!

I've already got quite a bit lined up to post here. Keep your eyes peeled. I'll try to keep my posts frequent so you can stay up to speed with what I'm working on this week!