Apples and Unicorns: A sudden rush of RetroComputing (Repost)

(Originally posted on LinkedIn Jun. 24, 2020)

Retrocomputing is a funny hobby. When you’re dealing with computers that are 20+ years old, most things tend to plod along at a stately pace. Maybe a new upgrade here. Maybe a new purchase there…

And then there are periods like that since my last post, where over the period of a fortnight I gained several new systems in a rush.

A Bunch of Apples

First up, as I have posted before, my Apple IIeuroplus is not a happy piece of fruit. I’d described changing the RAM, but I was despairing. I’d planned to use the Cassette port and use the rather nifty site here to download some diags disks, but it wasn’t even reliable enough to do that. I’d decided there was nothing more to do, so I packed it all away and got on with my life.

Then, almost out of the blue, the person who gave me my initial Apple II mentioned they knew of someone potentially interested in divesting themselves of an Apple IIe, the enhanced model of the Apple II. Was I interested? Ooh yes please!

I reached out to the individual with the Apple IIe, and offered to either pay or swap for a Commodore 64. They got back to me quite quickly and said that as they had got the Apple IIe for free, they didn’t want anything for it. It had been sitting idle for ten years and they wanted the space back. Oh, and did I want a couple of untested Apple II clones as well?

I was gobsmacked by this super nice offer! I took them up on it and arranged to collect the systems.

And then a Unicorn appeared…

In the context of collecting, a Unicorn is any super rare item. So rare that they may as well not exist. An item that, if you want one, you better be prepared to pay.

In my eBay “Saved Searches”, a super rare computer I really wanted appeared, and it was at a reasonable starting bid! This was the fabled “Dick Smith Wizzard” AKA the Creativision. I’d only seen two come up in 3 years of watching, and one of those was a $1500 “complete collection, in box” that I just couldn’t justify. I carefully put in a bid, with a maximum bid of $251.50, the odd amount being slightly over a $50 mark, as many people stop bidding at multiples of $50. I was the front runner at $199!

And that’s where it sat for the first four days of the 7 day auction. I was hopeful that maybe this time I’d get the prize, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up as surely I wasn’t the only hunter after this particular prize. Sure enough, with 3 days to go a rush of bids appeared and the price shot up to $210, then $250, where it sat for a few hours, and then a flurry up to well over $350. This was more than I could easily justify for a system with only a handful of games, even if I did have an emotional attachment to the system. Dejectedly I shut down eBay and mentally “walked away”. Some lucky hunter would get the prize and be happy. I consoled myself with the thought that in the next day I’d be getting some Apple IIs.

Collecting the Apples

At the arranged time I drove out to meet the collector. We chatted for a good half hour about all sorts of things in the domain of collecting old systems. They were primarily a Mac collector, and had got the Apples as an “Adjacent” system, rather than as part of their primary collection, thus their preparedness to give them up to gain space. It turns out that I knew the original owner of the systems, in a very “Perth” kind of way.

The haul included a CRT Greenscreen monitor, a DuoDisk twin 5¼” Drive and the three systems. I thanked them again, loaded up my car, promised to keep them in the loop on the status as I looked at the systems and headed home, as I had a meeting coming up.

I got home, unloaded the car and joined my wife on the couch to attend the meeting. (It was a video-conference)

About three-quarters of the way through the meeting I was idly checking my phone when I got a message from eBay. The subject line was “eBay Bid Change Notice”…

The Hunt Rejoined

I blinked, and carefully read the e-mail. “…The following item, on which you placed a bid has had a bid retraction or cancellation, and you are now the high bidder.”

Wait, what? I was the highest bidder again? Whoa! I nearly cried. I showed my wife who was suitably amused. Later that evening I got outbid again, but only by a slim margin.

Meanwhile I had cleaned up the first of the Apples (the IIe), inspected the power supply for correct voltages, and got it to boot to a prompt. An excellent start. I carefully added in a Floppy Disk card and Drive. It was now booting from floppy disks. I ran the onboard diagnostics and it passed all tests. Exciting! These tests also revealed that the IIe had a memory / 80 column card upgrade in place already. Nice!

I also inspected the two “Clone” Apples. (One of them had a handwritten note identifying it as an “Orange”, and sure enough, where there would normally be an Apple Key, there was a round Orange Key instead). One turned out to be a clone of the Apple IIe and the other a clone of the older AppleII+. Unfortunately there were no ROMs in the sockets of the II+ clone.

Moving back to the genuine IIe, my next step was to see if the serial card that had given me such problems on the II+ would work at all. If it DID work I would be able to use a serial link to read disks off my PC. In it went, no errors, no problems. This was looking really good! Next step was to get the transfer software over onto the Apple. This was one of those classic “Chicken and Egg” problems where if I had the disk, I could make more disks, but I’d need the disk to make the disk… or did I? Remember that useful site at the top of the article? I had seen people mention that they’d found it the most reliable way to get the needed first disk. What did I have to lose.

I grabbed my trusty iPad, found an audio lead and plugged it into the Cassette port at the back of the Apple II. I stuck a blank disk into the disk drive. I booted the Apple into it’s BASIC command line from the onboard ROMs and told it to “load” from tape. On the iPad I then played back the carefully constructed WAV file at full volume. It picked it up and proceeded to load a preloader! This preloader then formatted the floppy disk and copied over the rest of the disk image to the floppy. Was it that easy?

Why yes it was, and also fast. As someone used to the infamous C64 serial based floppy disk drives, the Apple II Disk is lightning fast. I booted off the freshly minted disk and it worked! Now what? My next obstacle involved me fossicking through my box-o-cables until I found a long USB cable. (Thanks past me for saving that 5M USB2 AtoB cable). I then dug out my USB Serial port and plugged it in. There was a bit of excitement when the server part of the software decided it didn’t like the serial port, but a reboot fixed that in short order. The next order of business was a simple one, but threatened to derail the project. I needed a 9 pin to 25 pin serial adapter. After a thorough look through my collection, I asked my housemate if he had one. He did! It was still plugged into a modem. 🙂

I had communications! The two systems were talking despite the 25 year difference in age between them. However, my initial attempts to transfer data all failed. There was one final obstacle would not be solved to the next day.

Meanwhile…

I had now been outbid on the precious “unicorn” system. I knew I could afford a bit more but didn’t want to push it too hard. The auction was due to finish the next day at 1:30pm. I decided to sleep on it and see if I still wanted the system in the morning. My wife was supportive (She puts up with SO MUCH) and when I got to work in the morning I had decided to up my bid to $327.50 and to leave it there. I’d either get the system or I wouldn’t. I put my bid in and the price jumped up to $311. I was still in the game. I spent a nervous day, occasionally checking eBay but otherwise trying not to get too excited. With an hour to go I decided to “cold turkey” out of eBay and just see what happened. All the excitement was infectious and I found myself working on my real work much more intensely than usual. And then… “You Won!” came through my e-mail. I had got it for $311. That evening I arranged to pay for the system, and the seller contacted me to say he’d ship it Wednesday morning. I haven’t yet received it, but I’ve already started researching what else I can do to improve the system.

Back to the Apples

Now I had the “unicorn” under control and corralled, I could get back to my Apple computers. That night I started playing around with my newly created Serial Link setup. Initially I thought it was related to the sources of media that I’d found, but then I realised it was my media. It turns out that a good percentage of 30+ year old disks are going to be unreadable. Finding some unused disks in my collection, I tried again and I had successfully imaged across a game that I wanted to try on the Apple.

Great! My game boots! I can play! Only one problem. It was all black and white. So I tried it with a different monitor (A Commodore 1901 CRT, designed for my Commodore C128D) and it was still black and white. I then tried it with an Apple Colour monitor. Colour! But why is the blue showing as pink and the red showing as green? It’s not like I’m splitting out the colour as RGB… That monitor started failing about that point so I put it aside for another day. (I hate working on CRTs. I have been working on them since the early 90s and I still hate them. So many ways they can fail in spectacular and antisocial ways. Even with the “right” tools like a proper discharge strap I just don’t wanna!). I also tried a Composite to HDMI adapter and only got black and white. Anyway it was time for bed so I put it aside for another day.

The next evening I had another window of time, so I decided I wanted to the bottom of my colour issue. Jumping on my usual Apple II forum, I did some searching to see if anyone else had hit a similar issue. Almost immediately I found a post of someone with a similar problem. Scrolling through pages of in-depth technical discussions on the differences between PAL and NTSC systems, timings, Capacitor values and other minutiae, I finally reached the bottom of the article. The original poster hadn’t solved their problem, but a year or so later a different poster had added “I fixed my colour problem by switching the switch on the motherboard from “mono” to “color”. Wait, what?

Sure enough, opening up the case and looking at the board revealed a tiny switch on the right hand side of the board labelled “mono/color” and it was in the “mono” position. Several minutes of swearing followed. A flick of the switch and I had colour in my games.

This was about the point (in between forum searches) where I also checked out the voltages on the clone IIe (Henceforth referred to as the Orange) to see if I could get anything out of it. Voltages checked out fine. I plugged it all in, turned it on. It beeped but no picture displayed. I re-seated all the obvious chips and tried again. Still got a beep then nothing. Oh well. It had been given to me as “not working” so that was fine. I figured I’d look at it later. Shortly afterwards I plugged the Apple IIe in to the same setup and also didn’t get a picture. Waitaminit. Sure enough the OTHER end of the video cable had come unplugged with all my video testing. Plugging it back in and testing again, my Orange IIe booted to the command prompt. Huzzah!

The Future

At this point I’m quite happy with the Apple IIe and Orange IIe that I have. I don’t have enough parts to add a Floppy drive to the Orange IIe yet, but once I’ve tested the cards from the Apple in the Orange, replacement cards are actually not too hard to come by. I also need to see if the ROMs from my Apple IIeuroplus work in the Clone II+. Maybe between the two I’ll be able to get a II+ working. There’s also a project afoot to make a replacement ROM set for the II / II+ family that would help get the system back on it’s feet.

Long term, the Apple II is very expandable. Upgrades I’d like to get in the coming years include a soundcard, a virtual Floppy Disk and a Z80 card so I can run CP/M. With the prices though, it’ll be a slow process.

As for my new “unicorn”, I think I’ll investigate a Composite mod for it, as well as some other “homebrew” kit. Options include a tape interface and some sort of “universal” cartridge.

Published by ilike8bits

I collect old computers and consoles

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