386 ZIF Socket Adapter

After a long wait, I decided to bite the bullet and order a ZIF (Zero Insertion Force) socket adapter suitable for 386 CPUs through Digi-Key. The manufacturer is Aries Electronics and the part number is 196-PRS14001-12, as established some time ago. The main motivation was plug-testing of a pile of 386 CPUs, which is not much fun with standard 386 LIF (Low Insertion Force) sockets.

To be precise, this is an adapter which plugs into a conventional LIF socket and provides a ZIF socket with a classic lever for a PGA chip.

386 ZIF Adapter

The one big downside of the product is price. The adapter cost me 65 Euro plus VAT, and the minimum order quantity was two units. That adds up quickly. In addition, the item isn’t stocked and it took well over a month to arrive.

The primary upside on the other hand is that the adapter really works, and it saves a lot of time, frustration, and bent pins. Testing twenty 386 CPUs is a matter of minutes and requires no tools, no force, and if anything, straightens the pins of the processors. Continue reading

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Upcoming Fun

Finally got one of these:

386 ZIF

There are pluses and minuses. Detailed report later.

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Something Happened

My first experience with the Windows 10 media creation tool was, in a word, terrible. After 20 minutes or so of downloading, the tool told me that “Something happened” and the only option was to exit. That’s probably what passes for error diagnostics at Microsoft nowadays. Don’t overburden the user with information in case it might be helpful, at most tell them to try again because errors magically fix themselves (and if not, they’re SOL anyway).

After applying some common sense, I guessed that the tool was probably running out of disk space and made more room on the system drive. Lo and behold, the media creation tool worked and spat out a functioning ISO image!

It should be noted that the target for the ISO image was a drive with tons of free space, but drive C: only had about 3GB free. The tool seems to need roughly twice the size of the final ISO image on the system drive before the image ends up on the target filesystem.

In the bad old days of dark 1980s, it was considered standard practice to check available disk space and if it ran out, report that that’s what happened. Apparently the old generation of programmers at Microsoft died out and the new one hasn’t learned this advanced technique yet.


Posted in Bugs, Microsoft | 16 Comments

OPL3 Copies

A while ago, a reader commented that in certain circles, it’s well known that there were “fake” OPL3 chips. This does not appear to be widespread knowledge. After a bit of digging, an interesting chapter in the history of PC hardware unfolds.

First let’s remember that the Yamaha OPL3 FM synthesizer, typically an YMF262 or an YMF289B, was an essential part of a Sound Blaster compatible sound card (let’s forget about exceptions like Ensoniq SoundScape and its bizarre OPL3 “emulation”). At the same time the Yamaha chips were somewhat expensive, and protected by a patent.

It is apparent that someone manufactured OPL3 copies, disguised them as nondescript chips, and sold them to many more or less reputable sound card OEMs. It is not clear what exactly these chips were. However, the sound they produce is normally close enough to real Yamaha chips that they were likely manufactured based on stolen “blueprints” of the originals. And the fact that companies like ESS, Crystal, OPTi, or Aureal couldn’t produce 100% accurate OPL3 clones strongly hints that there’s something fishy about these chips. Continue reading

Posted in PC hardware, PC history, Sound, Yamaha | 1 Comment

Summer Slowdown

Once again it’s summer and the frequency of site updates will slow down somewhat. In the next two weeks I’ll be gone with very limited or no Internet access. So if you don’t get an answer right away, please be patient…

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UINT32_C Macro Considered Harmful

The C99 family of INTN_C and UINTN_C macros fills a real gap in the language, but it also lays extremely nasty traps for the unwary. The evolution of how the macros are defined in the C99 language standard shows that they were poorly defined from the beginning.

Consider code such as this:

unsigned x =  1024 / UINT32_C(1 << 8);

Depending on how the UINT32_C macro is implemented, the value of x might end up being 262144 or 4, or perhaps something different altogether.

That’s not how the macro is supposed to be used you say? That may be true, but why does the compiler not complain then? No error, not even a warning. Or were the language designers really so foolish as to expect every programmer to know the entire text of the Standard by heart? Say it ain’t so… Continue reading

Posted in C, Development | 2 Comments

Broken Spigot

While searching for an unrelated piece of hardware, I came across an old video capture board. Alarm bells started going off when I heard something rattling in the anti-static wrap.

Sure enough, one of the large capacitors fell off… because it had started leaking and corroded its own solder points as well as some of the surrounding components. Another capacitor only needed a gentle prod to fall off as well. The bad caps used to be C62 and C64. The third capacitor of the same type (C71) is still attached, but it may be beginning to leak as well and probably needs removing:

Damaged Spigot

So what exactly is this card? Let’s see.. Continue reading

Posted in Graphics, PC hardware, PC history | 3 Comments

44-Voice MIDI on Yamaha OPL4

In 1994, sound cards with wavetable synthesizers were all the rage. Typically these supported 24-voice or at most 32-voice polyphony. So 44-voice synthesis sounded fancy. The following text can be found in a README file in the driver package for the MediaTriX Audiotrix Pro sound card:

Now includes 44 voice MIDI compositions FIDLING.MID and TECNOVOX.MID by Gerard Jones and EUROMAN.MID by Henri Chalifour. Combined Wavetable/FM compositions expand General MIDI horizon into imaginative territory. Game developers and amateur musicians take note! Only the Jukebox for Windows is able to play these 44 voice compositions.

The Audiotrix Pro was based on Yamaha’s OPL4 synthesizer (YMF278B plus DAC). The OPL4 wavetable synthesizer supported 24-voice polyphony. That’s a lot less then 44. But the OPL4 also included the OPL3 core, which provided up to 20 voices using classic FM synthesis. 24 + 20 = 44.

The MIDI files mentioned above can actually be found in the Audiotrix driver package. Finding an Audiotrix Pro board is however a lot harder. What to do if you’d like to listen to the 44-voice MIDI files but don’t have an Audiotrix Pro and aren’t satisfied with existing MP3 recordings? Continue reading

Posted in MIDI, Sound | 6 Comments

Bad Month for Laptop Disks

Instead of writing new articles, I recently spent a lot of time fighting laptop hard disks going bad.

The first was a Seagate ST1000LM14 (apparently originally a Samsung design), a hybrid 1TB 5,400rpm disk with 8GB flash. The disk was installed in a Lenovo Z50-75 laptop and started failing after only about 7 or 8 months. The interesting thing is that the disk didn’t have bad sectors but rather CRC errors on the SATA interface during transfers.

The disk was set up for dual booting with Windows and Linux, each using close to 500GB. Linux (Ubuntu 14.04) could somewhat deal with the transfer errors by reducing the SATA transfer speed and retrying very hard. Windows 8.1 on the other hand wouldn’t even boot, couldn’t repair itself, and entirely failed to produce any kind of useful diagnostic. Boo. Continue reading

Posted in PC hardware | 5 Comments

Do You Know This Sound Card?

The guessing game is back, this time with a twist: I don’t know the correct answer. A generic-looking 1997 vintage sound card recently showed up:

Unknown OPTi 931/941 Card

This is what I call a high-end low-end card… it’s a standard low-end sound card, except it also includes a low-end wavetable synthesizer, which makes it a better class of a Made in China cheap card.

The board has more or less zero distinguishing marks. There is no FCC ID, no obvious model number, no manufacturer designation. A tiny ‘S6159′ near the ISA connector may or may not mean something. Continue reading

Posted in PC hardware, Sound | 13 Comments