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Commodore 1541 vs clones

The battle of the Commodore 1541 vs clones existed because Commodore’s early track record was rather imperfect.

Commodore’s 1541 floppy disk drive was the first consumer disk drive that cost less than $300, so it has an important place in computing history.

What some people forget is that while it broke new ground, its early owners loved to hate it. It was slow, it was loud, and ran hot. Early units were unreliable too. And to add insult to injury, in 1982 and 1983, Commodore couldn’t build them fast enough to keep up with demand. Even though it had problems, people were eager to buy it. (Disk drives for other computers tended to be problematic too, in this young industry.)

The 1541’s problems led to a number of clones that tried to be a little bit better.

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What did a Commodore 64 cost?

It’s pretty widely known that the Commodore 64 was the first 64K computer to sell for under $600. But what did a Commodore 64 cost over time?

At its introductory price of $595, the price was revolutionary. In December 1981, an Atari 800 with 32K of RAM cost $1,000.

Not only that, Commodore dropped the price very aggressively. The reason was that Commodore expected the Japanese to enter the computer market and undercut prices.

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What to look for in a monitor

Most buying guides for monitors assume you’re buying a really expensive monitor for gaming. But there’s a lot more to look for than refresh rate and response time.

A good monitor can last 10 years and multiple computers, so it pays to make a good decision when buying one, even when you’re not spending $500. There can be a significant difference even between two $100 models, or between a $60 model and a $70 model, that will save you money in the long run.

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Commodore 64 vs VIC-20

How do you compare the Commodore 64 vs VIC-20?

The Commodore 64 and its predecessor, the VIC-20, look a lot alike, and the VIC-20’s design certainly influenced the 64. The 64 is the best selling computer model of all time, and I argue the VIC-20 was the first really successful home computer. The success of the two machines allowed Commodore to surpass Radio Shack as the sales leader in the computer industry. Yes, both Commodore and Radio Shack outsold Apple.

But even though the two machines are closely related, there are significant differences between them. It’s important to remember that in the 1980s, two years was a comparatively long time because the market was moving so fast. Plus, the VIC-20 was always supposed to be an entry-level machine. In 1982, the 64 was supposed to be fairly high-end. Let’s compare and contrast the two venerable machines.

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Review: Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor

My 15-inch Dell LCD died this weekend. Its date of manufacture was October 2001, so I can’t complain. I bought it used a number of years ago and paid a pittance for it. It had been acting up for more than a year, and at least it had the decency to wait until a potential replacement was on sale before dying completely.

Best Buy had its house-brand 20″ LED monitor on sale for $90, and I had a gift card with a few dollars on it, so I braved Best Buy again, and found a good low-end monitor for the money.Read More »Review: Insignia NS20EM50A13 monitor

How to connect Commodore disk drives

Connecting a single drive to a Commodore C-64, 128, or VIC-20 is pretty easy: Plug a 6-pin serial cable from the port on the back of the computer to one of the two ports on the back of the drive. It doesn’t matter which port you use. The second port is for “daisy chaining” additional peripherals, such as a printer, or multiple drives. And even though a fast load cartridge speeds up the drive, it plugs into the computer.

Older drives like the 1540, 1541, and 1571 are self-contained. Plug a power cable (which, conveniently, is no different from the power cable used on a most desktop PCs) into the back and power it on. Later 1541-IIs and 1581s use an external power brick. The two drives’ power bricks are interchangeable; however, they do differ from the power brick used by the computer itself. Fortunately, the original power bricks are labeled with the compatible devices, either on a silver sticker on top or molded into the underside.

It’s multiple-drive setups that get trickier.Read More »How to connect Commodore disk drives

Testing a blown AC adapter

All too often, people plug the wrong AC adapter into an electronic device. People just plug in the first adapter that fits, and usually when they do this, if the equipment wasn’t blown before, it is now.
They’re known by many names, most of them not affectionate: power bricks, wall warts… But you miss them when they’re gone.
Read More »Testing a blown AC adapter

Utility infielder

My phone rang early Thursday morning. It was my boss again.
“Can you take a look at the RAS server? I’m tied up in meetings all day so I won’t have a chance to fix it myself.”

The RAS server is a small beige Lucent box. I’d dealt with it on the client side far too many times. I don’t understand the appeal of 28.8 dialup with only five lines, but I guess if you don’t want to pay for Internet dialup, it must just be the greatest thing since Linux.

So he e-mailed me the configuration of the machine, told me the root password, and I was off. It seems to run some kind of embedded Unix, but the command set is extremely limited. Since people were having problems dialing in, I didn’t want to find it was a hardware problem. Using US Robotics Sportster modems, I wasn’t going to rule that out. The Sportster was the best consumer-grade modem out there, but the Courier was professional. Nothing compares to a Courier.

I knew of a couple of US Robotics Courier v.32 modems in the back room. So I plundered them, brought them back to my desk, and started configuring. Then I realized why those modems were in the back room. The v.32 standard was 14.4. It didn’t matter if those old Couriers connected every single time–nobody was going to be happy with 14.4 dialup. So I piled the Couriers–each about the size of a modern laptop, along with a good-sized external power brick–on a corner of my desk and started looking at what I had.

After playing around for an hour or so, I was able to figure out how to get the status and configuration of the modems. And I almost immediately found the problem. The first person to dial in always had problems. Well, the modem on port 0 wouldn’t hold its configuration. I plugged my laptop into an analog phone line. It connected, first try. My modem just didn’t seem to care. I disconnected, and went into the back room. I checked to make sure all the modems were identical and had identical DIP switch settings. Indeed they did. I traced the cables. Nothing looked bad. The modem lights looked fine too.

I played with it all day. It was a true misadventure. Eventually I figued out the modem on port 0 wasn’t responding because there was no modem on port 0. I dialed in and stayed dialed in for a couple of hours. Catching up on e-mail and going to random Web sites at 28.8 wasn’t exactly a delight. Eventually I figured out that we were using an init string for USR v.32 (14.4) and not v.34 (28.8/33.6) modems. The difference was slight: the 14.4 string set register S0 to 1. The 28.8 string didn’t. I had someone who’d been having problems dial in. No problems. And she got better speed than ever before. I couldn’t believe it. Over the S0 register? Why would that make a difference? But if anyone knows modems inside and out, it’s Lucent. Not only do they make tons and tons of modem chipsets, they also make the equipment that all of them have to use to communicate, so while no one’s seen everything, they’ve probably seen more than everyone else. And init strings have always been a black art.

So I left, satisfied. I played out of position, but I found the problem. At least I found a problem, and my solution sounded plausible. My first day troubleshooting a piece of networking infrastructure looked successful.