Archive for August, 2014

August 30th, 2014 ~ by admin

Improve Technologies Make-it 486 – 286 Upgrade

Cx486SLC/e-33MP Based Improve Technologies Make-It 386 for a 286

Cx486SLC/e-33MP Based Improve Technologies Make-It 386 for a 286

Improve Technologies (IT) was a company that existed from 1991-1997.  They were one of the many (to include Cyrix, Evergreen, PNY, Gainbery, etc) that made processors for upgrading 286, 386 and 486 computers.  Processor upgrades are no longer commonplace, becoming nearly non-existent (except for such things as 771 to 775 adapters).  Today computer hardware has become so inexpensive that upgrading more often just consists of purchasing a whole new computer, or at least new motherboard, RAM, and CPU, all at a price of a few hundred dollars.

In the early to mid-90;s however, a computer system cost 2-$3000, so replacing it every few years was not financially viable for many people.  Thus processor upgrades, they were designed to replace a CPU with the next generation CPU (with some limitations) at a price of a few hundred dollars.

In 1976 TranEra was founded in Utah. TransEra is an engineering solutions company, they are built on seeing a technological problem, and engineering a solution, whatever that may be.  They began by making add-on for Tektronix test gear and HP-IB interface equipment.  In 1988 they released HTBasic, a BASIC programming language (based on HP’s Rocky Mountain BASIC) for PC’s.  This is what TransEra became perhaps best known for, as they continue to develop and sell HTBasic.  It was TransEra who developed the Improve Technologies line of upgrades.  They saw a problem, and engineered a solution.

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CPU of the Day

August 25th, 2014 ~ by admin

National Semiconductor COP2404 – Dual Core Processor from 1982

National Semiconductor COP2404N - Dual core processor

National Semiconductor COP2404N – Dual core processor

National Semiconductor introduced the COPS series of 4-bit processors in 1977.  COPS came from National’s calculator line of chips, and for a short time were known as Calculator Oriented Processors, however this was rapidly changed to Control Oriented Processor System (COPS).  These 4-bit microcontrollers, as their name suggests, were for controlling various consumer devices.  They were used in all sorts of devices from game consoles, to dishwashers.  In the early 1980s National began producing them in CMOS versions, and in 1988 they extended the line to 8-bit (the COP8 family).

COP2404 Block Diagram - 2 Cores with shared memory. - Click to enlarge

COP2404 Block Diagram – 2 Cores with shared memory. – Click to enlarge

In 1981 the COP2404 (and 2440) were announced, with availability beginning in 1982.  The COP2404 was on the top end of the COPS line, it was found that some real time control operations were better served by 2 microcontrollers, so why not design 2 into one.  The 2404 is a dual core processor, with two complete COPS404 cores on one die, sharing I/O and RAM. (The 2440 also included ROM).  True to multi-core form, the memory was shared, meaning the processors could work independently or pass data to each other, including task handoffs if the programmer so desired.  This wasn’t implemented in hardware, but it wasn’t forbidden either, meaning a programmer could do some pretty complicated task management with the dual CPU cores.

The 2404 was packed in a 48 pin PDIP, and was designed as a development device for use with external program memory (EPROM typically).  Production devices were the 2440 (40 pin) 2441 (28 pin) and 2442 (24 pin) which all had 2K of ROM on die.  All included 160×4 bits of RAM and had an instruction cycle of 4usec (using a 4MHz clock, as each instruction took 16 cycles).  They were manufactured on a 3-micron NMOS process (originally, likely shrunk over time).

As technology progressed it became easier to handle multiple real time tasks with a single, faster controller, with good hardware interrupt handling, but for a time, their was a dual-core processor.  The COPS series continued to be sold by National until 2011, when they were bought by Texas Instruments.  While no longer actively marketed, several members of the COP8 line are still being sold.

August 15th, 2014 ~ by admin

Four-Phase Systems AL1 Processor – 8-bits by Lee Boysel

Four-Phase Systems AL-4 - 1000+ gates 8-bits

Four-Phase Systems AL-4 – 1000+ gates 8-bits

In today’s tech economy there are companies that serve as incubators for startups, such institutions as Y-Combinator and Techstars entire purpose is to help develop emergent tech companies.  In the 1960’s there was also tech incubators, perhaps the best known is Fairchild.  The difference is that Fairchild was not designed to be an incubator, nor were they trying to be.  The bureaucracy of such a large corporation allowed many engineers in somewhat marginal positions to work extensiely on projects of their own. Projects that perhaps were not directly beneficial to Fairchild, but close enough related to slip under managements noses.  Many of the ‘great’ semiconductor companies were started by former Fairchild employees, Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, being perhaps the most famous.

Lee Boysel started work at Fairchild in 1966 after working at several other companies semiconductor departments.  Boysel had one main focus, MOS.  MOS (Metal-Oxide-Semiconductors) were very new in the 1960’s and their potential was not well understood.  Most IC’s were designed using Bipolar technology but Boysel saw the potential of MOS and worked at Fairchild to perfect its processes.  He designed a 256-bit RAM in MOS< as well as an 8-bit full adder, as well as the first MOS IC with over 100 gates.  None of these designs were of great commercial success, but that was Fairchild’s problem, not Boysel’s. Boysel was building the foundations for his greater plans, plans that would be realized only after leaving Fairchild.

Boysel left Fairchild in 1968, to build a new company known as Four-Phase Systems.  Four-Phase was named after the 4-phase clocking system used in the MOS logic Boysel had designed.  Boysel’s goal was to build a single chip computer using MOS and use it to power systems to rival the likes of Data General and IBM.  Initial funding of $2 million was provided, somewhat ironically, by Corning Glass works, who also owned a large portion of Signetics.  Initial production of Boysel’s designs was by yet another Fairchild incubated startup known as Cartesian inc.  Cartesian was offered foundry services that duplicated Fairchild;s MOS process.  This saved Four-Phase from having to build there designs for a completely new process.

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August 13th, 2014 ~ by admin

What’s Missing?

Four-Phase Systems: 1969-1981

Four-Phase Systems: 1969-1981 (click to enlarge

What’s Missing from this Four-Phase Systems family portrait?  Hopefully the lost member arrives this week.  Anyone remember Four-Phase?

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Just For Fun

August 10th, 2014 ~ by admin

An Interesting Fujitsu MCM Pentium Module

Fujitsu MRN-3545 (100) 100MHz Pentium with no L2 Cache

Fujitsu MRN-3545 (100)
100MHz Pentium with no L2 Cache

We have seen Fujitsu MCM Pentiums before.  120MHz, 133MHz 150MHz and MMX ones.  One is pictured in the article on the MicroModule Systems Gemini here.  The 100MHz module is similar, though it is missing the L2 cache tag RAM (256 kbit chip on the top of the package) as well as the 2 cache RAM chips normally installed on the backside of the module.  It would appear that Fujitsu offered these modules with the cache being optional.  There was a 133MHz version (MRN-3548) with cache, and one (MRN-3549) without cache.

These processors were typically used in environmentally challenging environments.  Panasonic famously used them in their ToughBook CF25, the beginning of a line of highly durable laptop in 1996.  Some of these applications were sealed environments, they did not have vents, or active cooling.  This obviously  makes cooling a challenge.  Removing the L2 cache, while causing a significant hit in performance, would alleviate some of the heat generation.

We consider L2 cache to be essential, but many applications do not require it.  Intel infamously removed the L2 Cache completely from the first Celeron processors and while they worked, they were not particularly competitive performance wise.  When competing against wind, rain dirt, and droppage? L2 cache may not be so important