Category Archives: Hardware

On this day, the TRS-80 was born!

Today, August 3rd, is the 40th anniversary of the TRS line of PCs, manufactured by Tandy and sold through Radio Shack.

Ah, Radio Shack. My eulogy for your passing continues to this day. When you were actually a ‘radio shack,’ a place I could go to buy electronics, transistors, capacitors, soldering irons, when you catered to the people who made you what you were. At one point, Radio Shack was so ubiquitous, one could be found within three miles of almost all American households. Now, however, they were reduced to this before disappearing completely. Even with 70 stores apparently remaining, for all intents and purposes it is gone, considering it lost its way and identity long ago.

But I remember quite fondly the Radio Shack of yore. When I started college at my mostly-beloved Alma Mater UMBC, my significant other at the time worked at a Radio Shack right around the corner. They sold electronics for real enthusiasts and hobbyists, and even PCs from their Tandy line. Tandy, a leather company that still exists today, bought the struggling Radio Shack back in the 60s in attempt to diversify. In fact, the TRS portion on many of their computer model names was an acronym for Tandy Radio Shack. It was glorious for me to go in to the store on a dark and snowy winter night, when the store was open but no customers were about, to play Space Quest One on one of the Tandy machines they had on display.

But my affinity for the TRS line goes back much, much further than that. I actually learned to program, using line-number basic no less, on a TRS-80 model III. I actually took programming classes using this machine, which would have been around 1981 or so. Normally I would just hyperlink to a page about it as I have indeed done, but I feel it is important enough that I must also include an image whose glory in which you should bask (The header image is a Model III as well).

TRS-80 Model III

TRS-80 Model III

Isn’t it beautiful? It was a great machine for the time, with a speedy 2MHz Zilog processor, the same one found in all TRS-80 desktop models, however its 4K of ram could be boosted to 48K which was ludicrous overkill at the time. Even though it had dual disk drives, which was a feature shared by the Apple IIe, it also had external cassette storage, which is what I mainly used. $600 would get you the whole shebang, cassette storage and monitor included.

I also find it strange that model numbers are often left off when people describe these machines. Earlier models had all components as separate items, and less memory, and a slower processor, and reduced functionality. When referring to the TRS-80 line, the model number is very important.

I programmed my first game on one of these very machines, a model III. It was a text adventure through a haunted house from which you were trying to escape. You had to find items, using some and combining others. I even went out of my way to have everything make logical sense, if not be overly challenging; for example, at one point you come across a skeleton who is searching for his lost femur. You later discover a dog trying to bury a bone. Hmm. I must say it was pretty fun! I would save the code to cassette – that’s right, audio cassette – and load it to play or edit. It was also because of that that I learned another valuable lesson which was not taught in programming classes at that time: save your work. You see, to save onto a cassette, you had to manually wind the tape past the leader tape that was not magnetic and can’t hold data, or else the computer would try to save some of what you were doing to that, and the whole thing would fail, of course.

Valuable lesson to learn, that.

So it bears repeating: as the headline states, the reason I am telling you all about one of my favorite vintage PCs (an honor shared with the Commodore Pet and Apple IIe), is because today, August 3, is the anniversary of the TRS line of PCs! They were first announced in 1977. This is one of the machines that had a major impact and influence on me, and amplified my love of and interest in technology. I’d like to get one and do some tinkering once again. Unfortunately, TRS-80s have also, along with others including the aforementioned Commodore Pet, become sad victims of the Ebay economy, in which everything is worth a fortune if you’re selling it on Ebay. Here’s the going rate for a Model III, which isn’t as bad as it has been in the past (remember this post from 2014? Of course you do!). For good measure, here’s a Commodore Pet and an Apple IIe.

Even so, I’ll keep an eye out for a chance to relive my childhood, and celebrate this day. If anyone finds one cheap, let me know!

Panasonic introduces a transparent TV

Transparent screens are nothing new, at least not in science fiction. The most well know, I would argue, is the interface from Minorty Report, as seen in the header image, but there have been many others. Consider, for example, the PADD (Personal Access Display Device) from Star Trek, which was only made transparent recently. Also, they weren’t very good at naming things.

PADD from Star Trek

PADD from Star Trek

There is also the tablet being used by Liara from the popular video game Mass Effect 3.

Liara using transparent tablet

Liara using transparent tablet

 

And let’s not forget Avatar. Or The Avengers. Or The Empire Strikes Back. Or Futurama. Or even this thing that lets you interact with the screen from the front and the back. There were even rumors floating around that Apple was going to be introducing a transparent iPhone and iPad, with some going so far as to render their interpretation of it.

Transparent iPad

Transparent iPad

Transparent phone that was apparently supposed to be a real thing but then wasn't

Transparent phone that was apparently supposed to be a real thing but then wasn’t

It seems the main point behind these is to make them look more future-y, however while they are certainly technically feasible, their practicality is open to debate. A transparent screen leaves open whatever you’re doing to the eyes of everyone around you, there would be no privacy and a serious lack of security.

But what about a TV? A transparent TV that you use for watching, but when you’re not watching it, it just…disappears? Fades into the decor of the house, perhaps, without actually having to motorize it or hide it somewhere.

Panasonic has done just that, developing a TV using OLED technology, in which pixels give off their own light, in order to create a TV that is legitimately watchable while in use, and almost completely transparent when not. The catch is that the screen is made from a fine mesh which is then overlayed on actual, transparent glass. You don’t see the mesh when it is off, and you don’t notice it when it’s on. Genius.

Panasonic transparent TV (Photo credit: Techspot)

Panasonic transparent TV – can you see it? (Photo credit: Techspot)

It’ll be a few years before we see any type of commercial availability, but in the meantime, enjoy a gif of the process as seen on The Verge, who, I might add, really don’t want you downloading their gifs.

Destroy your stuff with just a USB stick

usb killer

Hey, now this sounds fun! Want a simple, effective, and inexpensive way to destroy your expensive stuff and all the data on it? Well do I have good news for you! Now, with just a simple USB stick you can blow up damn near any digital device with a front-facing USB port (meaning publicly accessible, it doesn’t actually matter which direction the thing is actually facing. An important distinction).

The USB Kill will charge itself from the USB’s power supply, then discharge itself back into the port, over and over again until the host device is broken. Of course they say don’t use it for malicious purposes, but come on…why else would we want one of these things? Oh right – ‘testing’ purposes.

To be fair, everyone knows USB ports are a haven for malicious attacks, they’re the mosquito-breeding stagnant pond of digital devices, a very easy way to infiltrate a system or exfiltrate (steal or lose) its data.

It’s a pretty nifty device, in and of itself, and another interesting point they make is that only Apple devices are protected against this type of attack out of the box. Everyone else, well, look out (also, it might not destroy the data, and if it doesn’t, then NSA-approved bulk erasers are for you!).

Microsoft’s smartphone division hit hard in upcoming layoffs

Windows Phone

After having already laid off 7500 workers last year, and currently trailing badly in the smartphone market, it appears Microsoft is one step away from throwing in the towel in the smartphone market.

If you’ve ever taken a college-level accounting class, then you’re familiar with regulatory filings that lay out a company’s financial strength and weakness both in written and spreadsheet form. In this case, we are talking about a form 10-K, and the one just provided by Microsoft shows that while their personal computing, cloud, gaming and enterprise divisions are doing well, their smartphone business is not.

When news sites inform you of this, though, they never tell you where exactly you can find the specific numbers indicating how many are being laid off, and the report is 103 pages of tables, explanations, credits, debits, and analysis!

But never fear, I am here to help you weave through it all. You can view the whole thing at this link, and if you would like to see the specific mention of the layoffs you will want to look at page 84, under the heading 2016 restructuring. The first  paragraph lays it all out. In fact, all of page 84, under the main heading ‘Restructuring Charges,’ is interesting yet sad to read.

If you don’t mind heavy accounting and corporate speak, the document is really quite interesting to read overall. It goes into detail about all their divisions, how well they’re doing (or not), their unclaimed revenue, profits and losses, writeoffs, even their acquisition of Minecraft. It’s not an easy read, but it’s informative.

Even I, the most diehard fan of Microsoft and their phone (Mine was an original Nokia, and I even still have a Zune!), finally had to break down and get an Android-powered Galaxy Note. I still wish Microsoft the best and hope, somehow, miraculously, that they can turn it all around.

It’s all gone

Finally done

(UPDATE: Many more pictures of the collection itself and some additional narrative can be seen at this Imgur post)

Actually, it’s not really gone, it’s just gone to a better place. It was finally time. I have donated my entire 40+ year collection of video games, consoles, manuals, displays, advertising and other miscellany to the Transformative Game Lab in the Department of Informatics at The University of California, Irvine.

I had been thinking about what to do with it all for a number of years. I have been collecting these things for decades, and while I love them all, most of the collection has been sitting in a garage in Las Vegas for the past six or so years, baking summer after summer in the brutal Vegas heat.

I wanted it all to go somewhere where it would be of benefit and use. Somewhere where it would be appreciated, where the games would be played and the manuals read, where they would be studied and researched as the works of art they are. I had thought about willing them to the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester NY, however the problem there is I would have to be dead to see my dream realized.

While I was thinking about it, I took a position in UCI’s Department of Informatics, where I learned quickly they do games research, they have a game lab, and most importantly of all, they consider it a valid field of study and give it the respect it deserves. I spoke with Joshua Tanenbaum, the professor who heads it all up, and serendipitously it turned out he was looking to expand the lab into retro gaming! An earlier attempt at getting an eBay seller to donate his collection hadn’t worked out, and although my collection was nowhere near what that seller had, we both knew this would still work out perfectly.

It wasn’t easy. My collection is big and random. It didn’t lend itself to easy packing and storing. Having sat in the garage all these years, it was also covered in a layer of dust, not to mention spider webs, dead bugs, and other detritus that is unpleasant to say the least. Having lived in Vegas for so long cleaning it up wasn’t a problem, but it was a big part of the project. Not to make anyone uncomfortable, but here is a picture of one of the webs when I first opened the garage door. You can also see in the background how disorganized it all is. Under that is a (poor iPhone) pic from the other end. It’s the loosest, most disorganized collection you can imagine.

Webs

Webs

Garage View

Garage View

Even my beloved Genesis Collective went into the donation. I was surprised to receive some backlash from friends and family over that, and resistance to it. I didn’t realize how important it was to not just me, but others as well. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, that reinforced my belief I was doing the right thing, that they held meaning and importance and needed to be somewhere they were appreciated.

Also, meet Walter.

The Genesis Collective

The Genesis Collective

As is true of any collector, however, I had some duplicates, and it turned out my friend only wanted Aladdin anyway, so I have already restarted the collection and they got what they really wanted. Win-win!

Rebirth!

Rebirth!

There was much more than that, of course, so here are some non-exhaustive pictures of the other fun stuff that was donated. From the top: Sega Dreamcast (and some PS2) games, Sega Master System/Jaguar/Atari 5200/Sega Game Gear titles, Nintendo Virtual Boys (also notice the adults-only Mystique titles for the Atari 2600 on that lower right-hand shelf), and PC games.

A lot of Dreamcast, a little PS2

A lot of Dreamcast, a little PS2

Master System, Jaguar, Game Gear, 5200

Master System, Jaguar, Game Gear, 5200

Virtual Boys

Virtual Boys

Can't forget the PC!

Can’t forget the PC!

It took days to get it all packed up. And when it was, it was just as chaotic as before. There was simply no way to organize everything into a cohesive package, and I gave up on the idea pretty early in the process.

Here’s how it looked when all packed and ready for loading into the U-haul.

Garage

Garage

Hall

Hall

There’s a lot there. The next step was to finally load it all into the U-haul. My dad flew in from Central California to help, and my dear friend Shauna even pitched in.

Progress

Progress

Some boxes, my dad, and the arcade machines

Some boxes, my dad, and the arcade machines

It was so hot on loading day (105 degrees, which for Vegas is actually considered a cooldown) that when the truck was finally loaded with boxes and other fun stuff, we had to leave the door propped open or it would have roasted the contents beyond repair. We left it open for about 4 hours, until around 7, until it was cool enough to finally close it up.

Because of the heat

Because of the heat

The next morning at 6am, we were off.

It’s a long, mostly uneventful drive through the desert and down the 15 until you hit SoCal, but I like the desert and its vast open plains. We saw the massive reflector fields, formally known as the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, near Primm, and this picture is only one of them. They’re an impressive thing to see!

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System

And to be fair, when you’re driving through the desert, EVERY road is a ghost town.

It sure is

It sure is

We arrived at UCI around 11:45, and began the unloading process. Josh Tanenbaum, who I introduced earlier as the main man doing game studies in the department was there, as well as just-hired Aaron Trammell and others who agreed to pitch in. While it took three and a half hours hours in the blazing heat to load the truck in Vegas, with the help of 10 people it took about ninety minutes in not-too-bad heat to unload, and that even means carrying everything – including three arcade machines – to the sixth floor and through a labyrinthine maze of doors and halls to get to their final resting place. Well, it’s not actually their final resting place, but they’ll all be here for a while until we find them a permanent home in the building. Thanks to Josh for providing these pictures, as I was too exhausted and excited and neglected to take any!

The first is the truck right before unloading, the second and third are a couple of celebratory poses after a job well done, and the rest are some pictures of the room after it was all loaded.

The truck before unloading

The truck before unloading

Finally done

Finally done

Cheer!

Cheer!

Storage Room

Storage Room

The storage room

Storage room

Storage Room

Storage Room

To say it’s bittersweet is an understatement. I have carried some of these items with me for what seems like my whole life, having received them as birthday or holiday gifts when I was still in the single digits. I distinctly recall the specific moment when I acquired many of these things, whether it was the subpar Fighting Masters for the Genesis I picked up at the Annapolis Mall in Maryland or the Genesis collection I found in a flea market in Edmonton, Canada; Adventure for the Atari 2600 I received for my Bar Mitzvah at 13 or the ColecoVision controllers I had to wade through a warehouse in a seedy part of Baltimore to find. The Atari Lynx games I’d buy at the very same Toys ‘r’ Us at which I worked or first discovering the original GameBoy, each one carries significant memories with it, and it’s all a major part of my life. I did not give it up lightly.

I by no means have lost interest in the hobby, I’m still very much interested and very much vested, however changes have occurred both within and without the industry that moved me in this direction, however those are issues for another post. I would just like to say PC Master Race. PC MASTER RACE! Also, Steam, GOG, and emulation (don’t judge!).

I kept a couple of things. A Dreamcast VMU that has a fully unlocked Hydro Thunder Save, The World of Warcraft server (Bloodscalp) I used to play on, a soundtrack for the PlayStation title Road Rash: Jailbreak that my band was featured on, and the promotional Christmas Nights Into Dreams for the Sega Saturn. But everything else went in the truck.

At the same time, I have no regrets and had no hesitations. Where the collection is now is where it belongs – with people who will truly appreciate it, where it will be treated with dignity and respect, where it will be used and enjoyed. It wasn’t right to keep it in the garage for years on end, and although they’re just inanimate objects, well, I think they’re happier here, and we all are, too.

As the collection is inventoried and catalogued, as a final location for its display and use is selected and brought online, as the catalog and apps and everything else are created, and as any other milestones are reached, I’ll post updates. I’m excited for the future of it all.

Public service announcement

GTX 1080

Reading an article on Destructoid of all places, I was made aware of a bizarre situation involving video cards, and thought I would pass it along here.

NVidia recently released a powerhouse graphics card known as the GTX 1080. Before this card, their flagship was the Titan, a very powerful card that ran about $1000. The new 1080 is significantly faster, quieter, and most importantly, much cheaper at around $699. That’s still a lot, I know, but it’s a beast of a card. I have one in my office machine, which is beyond overkill. I can run Word documents So fast!

A post from the new phone

Just a couple of posts ago I wrote about how I  was feeling rather melancholy over having finally given up my beloved Windows phone, which I have used for many years and did so with pride. It had served me well, and I actually am still using it for some of its offline functions, but I broke down and finally jumped ship to the Android-powered Galaxy Note 5.

Why am I telling you this if I already told you a couple of posts ago? Along with the vastly improved selection of apps (confession: I’ve been playing Pinball Arcade – almost perfect recreations of actual pinball machines.  Don’t miss out!), I discovered a WordPress app that lets me post from my phone. I can’t imagine I’ll be doing that a lot, but I figured I may as well give it a try. Incidentally, those links should link to the Google Play store which was a test of this platform and my ability to use it, but depending on how you’re reading this they may not work. So be forewarned!

Today I am sad (over a phone)

Hello there

It finally happened, and how bittersweet it was. After having been a champion for Windows phone and the potential it had, and as a rebuke to the cult of Mac and unquestioning expansion of Android, it was finally time to say goodbye and put my beloved Nokia Lumia (that’s right – it’s an original Nokia phone from before the Microsoft buyout) out to pasture and become an Android myself. Hello Galaxy Note 5.

The Lumia still worked, sort of, but it was starting to experience freeze-ups in both the hard buttons and the screen. Additionally, the quality of the images taken with its camera, once ranked as the best phone camera in existence as you can see with the picture of my parent’s back yard below, were not as high quality as they once were, and let’s face it – although I’m not an app junkie, the app selection is anemic at best.

Taken with Nokia Lumia

Taken with Nokia Lumia

This is so very strange

Corsair Strafe

I recently built a new PC, and decided I wanted some flash to go along with it. I put in a motherboard and fans that have some LED elements, and kept the inside to a generally red theme. The nice thing is, the fans are RGB so I can switch them to any color I want, or even have them cycle through colors. No functional application, but nifty to look at.

I’ll be doing a video walkthrough of it soon, but here’s a picture to hold you over until then. And yes, that’s a reference GeForce 1080. It’s by Zotac, a brand I’ve never dealt with before, but it seems to be doing fine so far. Of course, it’s only an office machine.

The new PC

The new PC

Designer Prosthetics

Jensen hand (credit: Engadget)

Everyone who knows me knows I’m big on design, a proponent of the interdependence of form and function. Strict utilitarianism just doesn’t move me, or anyone else for that matter. Working well and looking good are not mutually exclusive, and if something achieves both goals then that’s a triumph of both form and function.

Now, we’re seeing design principles applied to the development of prosthetics, and it absolutely beautiful. The latest example I’d like to present is form a company called Open Bionics, who is making prosthetics that are not only especially functional, but easy on the eyes as well.

We can even bypass the neat prosthetics they make for kids that are modeled after superheroes or movie characters. You can see in the image below they have designs from Iron Man, Disney’s Frozen, and Star Wars. What’s really significant about designs like these is not that the designs themselves or even that they can be applied in such an interesting way, but that kids who are missing a limb are no longer the target of teasing or ridicule because of their condition, but rather a source of interest and awe, perhaps even some envy of the other kids. How the times have changed!

Themed prosthetics

Themed prosthetics