Original Sony Playstations as high-end audio components?

I saw an MSNBC article this week about people using the original Playstations (not the later streamlined version pictured at the top of the article) as high-end CD players.I haven’t had time to try it yet. The model that you want, for a couple of reasons is the SCPH-1001. It’s easy to recognize because it has separate RCA jacks for audio and video. Later models, such as the SCPH-7501, use an odd cable that connects to a proprietary Sony connector on the back of the unit, and has RCA plugs on the other end. These days, that cable sometimes costs more than the unit, and the quality of the cable is open to debate–especially if it’s an aftermarket cable.

An SCPH-1001 unit lets you use high-end audiophile cables if you want the best sound, or whatever you have laying around, if you’re like me.

I’ll have to try it out. I have a couple of Playstations that I almost never use, and the thought never occurred to me to try one out as a CD player.

So, if you’re looking for a cheap but good-sounding CD player, look for a Playstation on, say, eBay or Amazon. If you’ve got a Playstation in the closet that you’ll never use again, if you want to sell it online and get the best possible price for it, make sure you mention the model number in your description–especially if it’s an SCPH-1001–and it may not hurt to play up the audiophile angle a bit.

How to get a Commodore 64 for $20

In 2006, Radio Shack sold a Hummer racing game based on Jeri Ellsworth’s C64-on-a-chip design.

A number of people spent time figuring out how to turn the Radio Shack game into a full-blown C64. There is a FAQ available.One cool thing about these is that it’s very easy to add a PS/2 keyboard to them. Having a C-64 with an IBM Model M keyboard sure sounds nice…

I also found a forum dedicated to this and other Commodore-related topics.

Ah, memories…

In defense of Atari

Well, the 20th anniversary of the release of the venerable Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) passed this week. And with it came discussion of how the NES saved the videogame industry after the disastrous Atari 2600.

I have to admit I was scratching my head as I read this stuff. Did the people writing it live through both of them? By what measure was the 2600 a disaster?

As someone who spent way too many hours after school in front of both of them when both of them were new, it seems to me like this is like arguing whether The Beatles were greater than Elvis Presley.So were the Beatles greater than Elvis Presley? When you compare the heyday of the Beatles with a doped-up, overweight Presley making a fool of himself in Las Vegas, sure. But it’s never fair to compare a predecessor’s worst hour with a successor’s finest hour. Sure, the Beatles had a broader and more lasting influence, but would the Beatles have existed if Elvis hadn’t blasted the door open for that type of music? Elvis wasn’t the first rock’n’roll star, and you can argue he wasn’t the most talented one either, seeing as he didn’t write his own songs, but he was in the right place at the right time with the right elements, and an industry rose up around him.

The Atari 2600 wasn’t the first home video game console, and it wasn’t even the first home video game console to use plug-in cartridges. But it’s the first one that people remember. It came out in 1977, and thanks to Atari porting its arcade hits to it and shrewdly licensing the mega-hit Space Invaders, it became a mega-hit too. And from 1977 to 1984, it was the biggest console in the world. It wasn’t the best console forever, but when Coleco and Mattel came along with their superior consoles, Atari had momentum. For a time, the market was big enough for all of them.

The biggest problem was that the Atari 2600 was 1977 technology trying to compete with 1982 technology. And the industry was advancing very quickly during this time. The 2600 was intended to play simple games like Pong, and the only reason the system survived past 1979 was because talented programmers figured out how to make the system do things it was never intended to do. The 2600 was only designed to have three moving objects on the screen at a time. Clever programming allowed you to reuse those three objects. If you ever wondered why the Ghosts in Pac-Man flickered, that’s why. You could draw the moving objects again with precise timing, but if they were in the wrong place, the system couldn’t necessarily draw the whole thing. The result was flicker. Later Nintendo games had the same problem, but the NES could have up to 8 movable objects on the same line of the screen without flicker, so the problem didn’t come up as much.

But the 2600 survived long past its intended retirement date, and while lots of good titles existed, a lot of bad titles came out too, particularly after the courts legitimized Activision, the first third-party console developer, which was founded by former Atari programmers.

While Activision put out a lot of good titles (Kaboom and Pitfall being two of the best-remembered), once other companies could enter the field without fear of being sued, a lot of bad software got rushed to market. The market couldn’t support all of the bad software, and the result was that stores were reluctant to carry the software, consumers were reluctant to buy it (at least not at list price, although they would buy deeply discounted titles), and the companies making software and consoles didn’t have the capital they needed to release good software. The result was what we call a market correction. The Atari 2600 usually takes the blame for the crash, but for the most part it took Mattel and Coleco with it, and consumers flocked to home computers, which featured newer technology and better software, and could be used for more constructive tasks too, such as word processing and programming.

Nintendo reacted to these market conditions by including circuitry in the NES to prevent third-party software, unless Nintendo approved it. It’s hard to call Atari’s lack of a lockout chip a mistake, because when the Atari 2600 was released, there was no such thing as third-party software.

Did the NES have better games? Define better. The story lines were more developed and it allowed much more complex games, yes. The NES hardware allowed 64 movable objects per screen without any special effects, compared to the 2600’s three. The NES could play three sounds at a time, to the 2600’s one. The 2600 was only intended to use catridges with four kilobytes of data. Special tricks could extend this to 8K or 16K, but it resulted in more expensive cartridges. The NES could use cartridges with a megabyte of data. This allowed much bigger, more complex worlds.

But did we have more fun playing Nintendo in 1986 than we had playing Atari in 1981? No. A well-designed game was fun when it was new and unfamiliar, no matter how simple or complex it was. The NES had a lot of wow factor, but every new technology does.

There were plenty of NES games that did a lot of shelf time once the wow factor wore off. The main difference between the stinkers for the NES and the stinkers for the 2600 was that the NES stinkers could hide, at least temporarily, behind flashier graphics. But both platforms struggled from a lack of originality in their available titles at some point in their life.

Taste in game consoles is a lot like taste in music, I guess. They’re all different, and everyone has their favorites, and the time period you grew up in will undoubtedly influence each individual’s faves. But arguing over which king of which era was the greatest seems futile in either case.

Windows 2000 in 32 megs of RAM

I can’t remember if I linked this before or not, so here’s Windows 2000 on 32 MB of RAM.

Of course I find this interesting. And his advice is pretty good. My first choice for an OS in 32 megs of RAM would be Windows 95, and probably Windows 95a at that (and gee, some idiot wrote a book about that), but if you need better reliability and stability, Windows 2000 is a good second choice.

One piece of advice worth mentioning that he didn’t mention: If there’s a modem on the system, lose it, especially if it’s a Winmodem. That’ll save lots of precious RAM and CPU cycles.

Total retro overload

OK, so first I find out that Quantum Link has been reverse engineered and resurrected, and then I find out there’s a darn good C compiler for 8-bit computers, including Commodore, Apple and Atari. It’ll even compile GEOS (the Commodore GUI) programs!Quantum Link, for those of you who don’t know about it, was the precursor to AOL. Imagine an AOL Lite running in text mode using 16 colors and character graphics, and you’ve pretty much got it. Trust me, in 1986 we thought it was the coolest thing around.

I first used it in 1986 but didn’t actually subscribe until 1989. By 1989, of course, its popularity was on the decline because Commodore 8-bits were in their waning days, but it had had plenty of time to build up a great software library. I remember using the free hour or whatever it was they gave you per month to download as much PD software as I could, then I uploaded it all for credits to local BBSs. I built a huge software library that way. And I remember exchanging e-mail with the people who wrote every month in the Commodore magazines, which I thought was pretty cool.

And as far as programming 8-bit computers in C, I never got all that far with it way back when (assembly was so much more efficient) but I imagine today, with the compiler running on a PC with seemingly limitless CPU power and memory, it could probably optimize the code pretty well and generate something comparable to what at least an average assembly programmer would do by hand.

I remember those marathon sessions on the C-128, staying up well past midnight on Friday nights and knowing the system inside and out from both a hardware and software perspective–knowing where the chip was on the board and where it resided on the memory map. It’s just not possible to know the whole system that intimately anymore. I could program them, repair them, and I even designed at least one plug-in board for them (it either added another sound chip or a high-speed RS-232 port), although I never built the board. I wasn’t that confident in my soldering ability.

Maybe someday I’ll dink around with that stuff again. Part of me would really like that.

How to connect a Commodore 64 to a television

It is less than obvious how to connect a Commodore 64 to a television, especially a modern television, and it’s even more difficult if your C-64 didn’t come with the cables or the manual.

There are, as it turns out, several ways to do it. The C-64 and 128 have an RCA jack on the back that matches the RCA jacks on most televisions, whether LCD or CRT. Confusingly, this isn’t the key.

Old-school switchbox
An Atari-compatible switchbox like this one will work with a Commodore too, but it probably doesn’t have the right connector for most newer TVs

That RCA port sends out a modulated RF signal, not a standard video signal. Originally that port was intended to connect to a switchbox that connected to a two-wire type of TV antenna connector that was common in the 1980s. Commodore used the same switchbox as Atari, so you may have one laying around or be able to find one in a box of ancient computer and videogame cables.

RCA/F connector adapter
This cheap part will happily connect a Commodore to most televisions today

If your TV has a round antenna connector rather than a two-wire connector–a fairly safe bet–you’re in luck. You need an RCA video cable along with a converter, which you can get from Radio ShackAmazon or Ebay. Ebay is likely to be the cheapest option, but be careful on Ebay to get something that looks like the picture to the left–it’s easy to accidentally buy the opposite. Incidentally, that same part also works with Atari consoles (Atari 2600, anyone?) and 8-bit computers like the Atari 400 and 800.

Using either the switchbox or the adapter, the Commodore video signal appears on channel 3 or 4 on your TV. There is a sliding switch on the back of the machine to choose which channel.

But that’s not your only option, and today, it’s not even the best option. Near that plug, you’ll find a round DIN-type plug. On most C-64s and the C-128, it has 8 pins. On the very early versions of the C64, it has 5 pins.

Commodore video cables have the proper DIN plug on one end and RCA plugs on the other. If your cable has two plugs, it’ll plug right into the composite video and audio plugs on most recent-ish TVs. The color codes should even match. If the video cable has three plugs, what you have is actually separated composite, an early implementation of S-Video. No problem; get a Y-adapter with a male connector on one end and two female jacks on the other end, plug the red and yellow RCA plugs from the Commodore cable into that, and then plug the adapter into the video plug on your TV. Or, if your TV has an S-video connector, I cover that in more detail here.

What if you can’t find a Commodore video cable? If you’re handy with a soldering iron, you can make your own cable with parts from Radio Shack. You’ll need a 5-pin DIN plug, two male RCA plugs, and two lengths of speaker wire. Shielded cable like RGU-58 would be better, but isn’t totally necessary.

Here’s the pinout on the Commodore video port.

    no connection -----8           7-----no connection
                             6---------chroma out
       audio out -----3             1----- luminance (B & W signal)

          audio in -----5         4----- composite video out
                             2----- ground

Solder one wire from each of your lengths of speaker cable to pin 2 on the DIN plug. Next, solder the other end of each wire to the outside post of each RCA connector. Next, solder the other wire of one cable to pin 4 and to the RCA plug, and label that wire pair “video.” Finally, solder the remaining wire to pin 3 and to the other RCA plug, and label that wire pair “audio.”

If you have a S-Video plug on your TV and you want a higher-quality display, I have instructions for connecting via S-video.

Way back when, a Commodore monitor gave a much nicer picture than a television. This was because the switchbox degraded the signal significantly. A modern-ish TV with standard RCA video connectors gives at least the same quality display that a Commodore monitor did, if not better. Picture tubes improved in quality during the 1990s. Display quality on LCDs varies, because LCD TVs tend to be a bit picky about composite signals and most consumers are more concerned about digital inputs than about the old analog inputs these days. As a general rule, the older the LCD TV, the better it’s likely to work as a Commodore display.

Now that you’ve succeeded in your quest to connect a Commodore 64 to a television, if you need help hooking up disk drives or loading games, I can cover you there too. And if you have a VIC-20, connecting a VIC to a TV is similar, but not quite identical.

The Commodore 64 Direct to TV is out

It’s out, and the entire inventory of 250K units was bought by QVC.

So much for getting one of these at Kmart. Anyway, it’s a C64 in a joystick enclosure with 30 games built in, similar to the Atari 2600 and Intellivision units you see in stores.The game selection is a bit disappointing, with an awful lot of obscure titles and, aside from the included Epyx titles, very few big hits. According to the designer, the problem is tracking down the copyright holders of some of these 20-year-old titles in order to get permission to use them.

Two of my all-time favorites are on there: Jumpman Jr. and Pitstop 2. But, alas, no Seven Cities of Gold, no Dig Dug, no Pirates!, no Giana Sisters…

I’d think about getting one, but I’m sure the main appeal would be turning it into a full C64, which is supposed to be possible.

Remember type-ins?

An article on type-in programs just showed up on Wikipedia. Ah, memories. There was a time when the programs listed in the back of a magazine were at least as important as the editorial content.I mentioned to the initial author of the article that type-ins became a bit of a bragging right. Soon after meeting someone else who subscribed to the same magazines as you, you’d ask about the longest program they’d ever typed in. I’m pretty sure in my case the longest would have been SpeedScript 128, which was a word processor published in 1987 or 1988. Another candidate is Crossroads, which was a 2D shoot-’em-up (and a really good one at that) published in 1987, but I may have bribed my sister into helping me type parts of that monstrosity in. You’d get cross-eyed after a while after looking at those pages of hexadecimal code.

The longest type-in I ever saw was a game called Vampyre Hunter, a combination text/graphics adventure game published by Compute!’s Gazette around 1986. I honestly don’t remember how long it was, but I remember it being huge. And I know someone who actually typed the whole thing in, all by himself. Naturally, I copied his rather than type it in myself. As I recall, he hadn’t typed in Crossroads, so it was a fair trade.

I still think Gazette had the best type-ins, even though its editorial content could at times be pretty weak. RUN had better editorial content, and RUN was the one to reveal the previously unknown graphics capabilities of the Commodore 128’s VDC chip, and Ahoy! was the first to show how to eliminate the VIC-II’s side and bottom borders and put graphics there, but Gazette had more type-ins, and certainly more games, which of course was mostly what interested me in the 1980s.

They’re completely impractical today, and even if they were I wouldn’t be willing to dedicate the time to keying in code, but I still fondly remembering the days of looking forward to the next issue and what goodies it would bring, and while typing in the programs wasn’t necessarily the most enjoyable thing to do, it did give a sense of accomplishment (and a curiosity about what that code actually meant) and I spent hours playing the games, or modifying them. And I used SpeedScript 128 to write the first thing I ever published for money, so that was a pretty good return on the investment.

Determining the age of electronic equipment

Determining the age of electronic equipment is fairly easy to do. There’s actually a secret code that allows one to do this and gain other insights into the history of such devices. This works for computers, of course, but also for most any other device that contains computer chips.

You just need to know how to read the code. Read more