Wednesday, 31 May 2017

ATARI Portfolio

Atari Portfolio is from a time when Atari was beginning an expansion towards new fields (transputer computers, CD-ROM drives, STacy, 32-bit consoles and other near-vapourware), innovating with this portable "MS-DOS compatible" hand-held computer. Luggables had been seen before, laptops were nearing acceptable sizes and Sinclair's Z88 packed some nice functionality. But here was something, that for a brief period of time, seemed like the future.

The physical design is neat, a bit confused around the hinge when it's open and a bit thick when closed, but very cool styling altogether, a bit cyberpunk even. A slightly smaller footprint than I expected, a bit thicker than I expected, a bit smaller screen than I expected. Atari compares the size to a VHS-tape (a size comparison that's bound to become extinct) and that's a pretty adequate description.

The hinge gave a fright-inducing squeak when opening and the lid refused to close fully. Perhaps I broke the guard switch, or it was broken to begin with. On the positive side the hinge has not become loose at all over the years.

Silliest thing is the area around the screen which has no other purpose than to declare "16 bit personal computer", "Portfolio" and ATARI at various places. I can imagine that in concept stage the screen might have filled a bit more of the lid space.

Initial impressions

The keyboard is good for the size. The keyboard is buried, the keys are profiled to slant forward and they have that characteristic 45-degree sci-fi cut in them. These features altogether improve the typing sensitivity a bit, further enhanced by the subtle electric beeper sound. No fast typing, though, I was using maybe six fingers tops. I needed to change the keyboard layout to Swedish, this from the Applications/Set up/Keyboard.

Editing, well, the EDIT.BAT, to run the APP /e command
The apps are quite well thought out. The Address book does not make too many assumptions and the editor is low-key enough to be relatively quick. The Diary I suppose is more of a calendar, but I did not look into it too much. The calculator I found to be clear but a bit limited, no hex mode or even SIN/COS as far as I could learn from the manual.

The spreadsheet can calculate more complex things, and I suppose the calculator is more of an afterthought for simple immediate calculations. No hex though in the spreadsheet and sadly no string manipulation either.

I was a bit horrified with the DOS-style frame window space waster in these apps. Thankfully this can be switched on/off with F5.

Eight-bit pixel calculator in worksheet, without screen frames.

DIPping into DOS

The Portfolio boots up to a stripped-down MS-DOS called DIP DOS, with a plethora of familiar commands such as DIR, CD, COPY, PATH, PROMPT etc. HELP brings a shortlist of generic commands. Batch files such as AUTOEXEC.BAT are valid too. Thankfully the OS is in ROM.

The display shows eight text lines, and the active part of the display is even slightly smaller than the physical dimensions which are small to begin with. Old MS-DOS programs should in principle work with the Portfolio, but I doubt there are many that accommodate with the 40 x 8 character display and the limited 128K memory. Part of that memory is a RAM disk, too.

Form factor: sci-fi
It's possible to use a virtual 80x25 mode, and then scroll around that space, using the viewport as a window into that larger screenspace. The internal apps don't respond to this, but maybe it's wiser that way. In my understanding the screen is strictly text-mode, so no plotting of graphs or sprite graphics.

Given this is an MS-DOS environment, some omissions are a bit frustrating. I can't use EDIT to run the internal text editor, for example. There's a clunky APP /e construct, and although I can create an EDIT.BAT that runs the command, APP does not take a filename as an argument. At least the applications remember the last open file.

A whole Spectrum's worth of memory! The battery sled is a bit tight.
It's a pity the RAM cards need their own battery. It's also suggested the battery be changed every six months. The battery type is CR2016 type and should be only replaced when the card is inside a powered-up Portfolio, in case you're interested in retaining your data. I didn't try my 128K card yet as I don't have the battery. When the 4 AA batteries inside the Portfolio die, I guess it's goodbye to the internal RAMdisk files if they are not backed up.

I beam myself into the future

Strangely enough, for the 2010s, in some ways the Atari Portfolio from 1989 is a worse deal than the Canon X-07 handheld from 1983 I once wrote about. This has perhaps more to do with computing trends than actual hardware specs. The Canon had an integrated BASIC language and graphics commands, enhancing it's role as a calculator zillion-fold, whereas the PowerBASIC for Atari was sold separately. Given the esoteric nature of Portfolio's memory cards and connectors I have less chances of getting anything transferred to the Portfolio than with the Canon tape/serial interface.

BTW: Photographing the screen is annoying.
Obviously the MS-DOS connection gives Portfolio great generic potential, but this potential is difficult to put to use with an out-of-the-box device. There's no DEBUG, no file editor, of course no assembler. It's possible to hack up an executable file by ECHOing character codes directly to a file, though. A tiny program is created for slightly more handy file writing, then that file writer is in turn used for creating an even more complex program. This sounds intriguing and I'll be looking at this approach some time.

Although the Portfolio manages to cram in some nice software, this set is also very "office" oriented, showing that computing had begun to atrophy into imagined "tasks", paving way to boring PDAs. Later, high-end calculators like TI Voyage 200 better filled the niche that a Portfolio-type device might have been aiming at. (Note to self: write something about the Voyage)

Just like with all ye olde hardware, there are small existing communities, either for all things Atari or for the Portfolio itself. What I see there is no massive Portfolio cult, though, and modern additions are quite sparse. There apparently have been PCMCIA adapters for slightly more recent memory cards, and Wikipedia mentions a Compact Flash mod. If I've understood correctly neither work as a PC file transfer method as the cards will become Portfolio-specific. An SD-card adapter would be neat but I think there's none and might not be happening.

I thought I would refrain from mentioning it, as it's always brought up to the point it seems to be the only reference for this computer... But, of course Atari Portfolio is the device the young John Connor uses to hack an ATM in Terminator 2: The Judgment Day. There's some vague basis in reality for this, as the Portfolio can generate telephone dialtones from the Address book, something that might theoretically have found use in a phreaker's toolbox decades ago. However, the film clearly shows a ribbon connector.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Multipaint Metal Edition

Notice: The Multipaint site should be now ok.


It's time I gave this 8-bit paint program (works on PC, Linux, Mac) a public update.

Largest change is the new color model, which is perhaps now a bit more sensible. If there is no "room" for a new color inside a color resolution area (say 8x8 pixels), the color under the pointer will be changed to the current color.

The old mode, which prevented color changes if there was no "room" inside color area, is still retained as the 'b' mode, as it can be useful when painting fast or using the geometry tools. (it's the huge B icon at the bottom of the tool box)

Demoing the new preset dither patterns and adjustable offset:

Multipaint supported custom dithers ("rasters") before, but having these presets might come in handy. The offset can only be changed by using the bracket [ ] keys, for horizontal and vertical.

Using a loose dither and changing the offset as you go along can produce nice results quickly, as in the image above.

However I believe that almost all mechanical approaches to dithering are bound to be more or less exploratory tools, and the real work is nearly always about making pixel-level decisions.

The keysheet, highlighting the key shortcuts I think could be most useful to learn first:

u/U for undo/redo
g for grid on/off, G for grid size switch
c for grid constraint on/off.
j for spare page (alternative page for holding brushes, fragments etc.)
m for magnify=zoom
, for pick color (also middle mouse button)
ctrl for force color (change underlying 8x8 area)

A couple of tips I forgot to mention in the manual:

-This type of drawing can benefit from having a slow mouse setting. Personally, I can't draw with very fast mouse.
-I often use VICE for previewing C64 images every now and then, because it's able to predict the color blurring of a monitor. This is also why I'm not too keen to add a preview window, because it wouldn't do it's job properly. However, it may arrive one day.
-If you draw a circle with a loose dither, then grab it as a brush and draw with the dither off, you can get a kind of "airbrush".

In the future

There still remains many items and known issues on my to-do list. Preview window, aspect ratio (That MSX!), better CPC output, more flexible UI, etc., but they'll have to wait for some time yet.

Overall changes for this version:

-Changed the color behavior to a more straightforward model. Old behavior retained as ‘b’ mode.
-Overall color behavior is more uniform between formats, multicolor and otherwise
-Changes to mouse event handling should make the program a bit more useable across platforms and computer speeds
-Added preset dither (raster) patterns and offset adjustment
-A bit more visible grid (not in plus4 and CPC modes)
-Metal User Interface. Why? I wanted some program changes to be visual. Tiny adjustments to icon graphics and visual behavior. Visible dither on icon, visible spare page on icon.
-Bug fix: UI elements overlapped in CPC mode when using ZOOM=3
-Bug fix: Machine selection through prefs.txt did not really work
-Bug fix: In CPC mode palette changes could not be undoed (in loading pngs for example)

The website:

Monday, 15 May 2017

Raising the Dead 2: The Overclockening

Nah, this is not really about hardcore overclocking, just continuing with this PC upgrade project from 2015. I never believed there would be a processor upgrade, but here it is: Intel Core 2 Q9550 Quad core (2.83GHz)

Although it is not much of an upgrade. The tricky thing is that although this is a Quad, the previous processor, Intel Core 2 Duo E8400, is faster in a single thread, so it's a trade-off between some tasks faster with the new processor and some faster with the old. Video encoding with Handbrake is certainly faster with the quad core, reducing a 28-minute encoding nearer to 20.

But, mildly overclocking the Q9550 it does not even have to be much of a trade-off.

I nowadays have two brands of memory on the motherboard: The G.Skill (2X2GB) and Corsair (2X1GB) totaling to 6GB. They ought to play together, and for the RAM parameters I found someone with the Corsair:

I suppose I could trust the SPD parameters, too. The 1GB memory gap had to fixed from the BIOS settings, otherwise the total memory visible to the system remains at 5GB. (Edit: Wow, I keep on writing about MegaBytes. Fixed)

BIOS parameter experimentation may result in a non-booting computer. Then I have to use the ASUS P5B Deluxe board's CLRTC jumper to reset the BIOS entirely. Take off all power from the computer, including the hard switch. Then the jumper is changed from 1-2 position to 2-3 position for a period of 10-15 seconds. After this, the jumper is returned to the original position. Boot again and Bob's your uncle, the BIOS has been reset. (The BIOS settings menu is accessed with the DEL key)

ASUS P5B Deluxe board: The CLRTC jumper in the normal position.
I changed the FSB from 333 to 350 then to 360. I also reduced the chip voltage to a lower setting (1.2V) so the stressed cores keep around 65C (max 71.4C from the specs). Taking the voltage  above 1.2 very quickly changed the situation to 74+, at which point I closed the burnP6 running in four terminal tabs. With the voltage in the default auto-setting the result was 80 degrees Celsius when strained.

I generally use roughly the same video encoding task (~20min task duration) for Handbrake to test the stability. The burnP6 software can show how much heat the cores can generate under stress, but it does not seem to reveal all stability problems. With FSB at 370 the system became unstable, for example the Handbrake video encoding task would not be finished.

Increasing voltage in turn tended to bring back the heating problem at least with this fan configuration so I could not test the stability with great confidence. So far I have never been able to get the fan to change RPM, Windows or Linux. Pwmconfig does recognize if the Q-fan control from BIOS is on or off, so there is some connection, but it does nothing to the fans during the tests.

So I'm keeping the clocking modest for a moment.

Q9550 at Intel's website