Archive for October, 2010

October 29th, 2010 ~ by admin

Vintage Tech Ads from the days of lore.

Uneasysilence has a great post of vintage tech ads from the 70’s and 80’s. Back when technology was rather nerdy, and well, so were the marketing departments it seems.

Texas Instruments TI 9900 Processor - 1978

Check them out, and if you know of more, let me know in the comments


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Just For Fun

October 26th, 2010 ~ by admin

How The Newton And ARM Saved Apple From Death

Apple Newton 120 - 1994

Cult of Mac recently interviewed John Sculley, the former CEO of Apple.  The interview is long, and very interesting. Sculley presided over Apple during some rather rough times. Steve Jobs in fact still wont talk to Sculley.  This is interesting, as it was Sculley, and the result of a failure that ended up saving Apple, or at least significantly helping them stay in business.

The Apple Newton is known as one of Apple’s biggest failures, however, it ultimately brought relief to the company.  Apple began the Newton project back in 1987.  In search of a processor that could handle the OS, and run on batteries Apple turned to ARM, then a small British company known as Acorn, whose main business was computers and processors for Acorn computers and BBC Micro computers.

Acorn did not have the resources to design the processor Apple needed, so Apple, along with an Italian company called Olivetti took a 47% stake in Acorn.  This cash infusion allowed ARM to develop the processor for the first Newton.  The first Newtons, or MessagePads, as the ones made by Apple were branded, were powered by a 20MHz ARM610 processor.  It was made by VLSI (the first silicon partner for ARM) and called the VY86C610.  They were introduced in 1993 and continued production (in various forms) until 1997. Sharp, Motorola and several other companies also made Newton OS devices, but they enjoyed even less success then Apple’s.

VLSI VY86C610C 20MHz ARM610

In 1997 Apple releases the eMate 300, a classroom targeted laptop system.  It ran the slightly more advanced 25MHz VLSI VY86C710A ARM710A. The styling of the eMate seems to have carried over to the first iBooks with translucent, rounded cases.

The last of the line was the MessagePad 2000 and 2100, both of which were based on an ARM processor made by DEC and Intel called the StrongARM SA-110.  It ran at 162MHz and was at its time one of the highest performing designs for mobile devices available.  Intel later developed the XScale line of processors from it, which they then sold off to Marvell.

In 1998, among diminishing sales, Apple closed down the Newton division.  Some of the original developers of the Newton OS went on to create a company called Pixo.  ARM IPO’d that years as well as ARM Holdings.  Apple sold their stake in ARM for $800 Million.  This influx of cash came at a time when it was desperately needed by Apple, and gave them the time, and money they needed to ‘reset’ and return to profitability in a VERY strong way.

eMate 300 ARM710A - 25MHz

A mere 3 years later, in 2001, Apple ‘changed everything’ with the release of the iPod. The iPod ran on a dual core 90MHz ARM7TDMI processor made by PortalPlayer. It ran an OS designed by Pixo.  Apple subsequently bought Pixo, and likely returned a few old Newton employees to their old desks in doing so. All further iPods, iPhones, and iPads, and now the iTV run on ARM processors. From the lowly 20MHz of the ARM 610 to the 1GHz+ of Apple own A4. The company that Apple helped get started, is now at the foundation of Apples core business.

And it was all because of a ‘failure,’ the Newton.

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October 18th, 2010 ~ by admin

Before the PC, Before Apple, was the Xerox Alto

Xerox Alto-II XM

Just last month an Apple 1 computer sold on eBay for almost $23,000. Today, the father of the PC, and where Steve Jobs got many of his inspirations (as did Bill Gates and numerous other founders of the computer industry), sold on eBay for a bit over $30,000.

The Xerox Alto was really the first modern computer as we know it.  It was developed at the PARC research center, and had Ethernet, a mouse, a GUI, and assorted other things we are rather use to now.  The date? 1973. Xerox did not understand the significance of what they had.  They made over 2000 Altos of various configurations, but never sold them, most were simply given away to friends, workers, and universities.

Though never sold, the Alto’s value in the 1970s was $32,000  or so, not a far cry (disregarding inflation) of what a non-working one just sold for on eBay

The Alto was powered by a custom16-bit bit-slice processor consisting of 4 TTL 74181 ALU’s one of the first uses of the 74181, which was itself the first single chip ALU.

TI SN74S181N - Late 1973 - 90MHz

The 74181 consisted of around 75 gates, and could perform 16 arithmetic functions and 16 logic functions on a pair of 4-bit inputs.  It was, for its time, very fast, much faster then most of the single chip processors of the time.  A 74S181 like shown here, using Schottky technology, could operate at up to 90MHz or so.  Obviously in a computer like the Alto actual clock speed would be reduced to match what the memory could do, which in the Alto, with its 128K of RAM, worked out to 5.8MHz.

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Museum News

October 15th, 2010 ~ by admin

Zilog: The First Decade: Z80, Z8 and the Z8000

In 1974 Federico Faggin left Intel after working on the 8-bit 8080 processor.  He formed a company called ZiLOG and developed a much improved version of the 8080 called the Z80.  It was released in 1976 after only 18 months of design.  The Z80 was faster, cheaper, and simpler to build around then the 8080 and enjoyed extremely wide use.  ZiLOG designed the CPU but it was marketed differently then most at the time.  Any company could purchase a license to the design, and build them royalty free.  They were also free to do with the design as they pleased.  This resulted in dozens of companies making clones/versions of it. The Soviets made unlicensed copies as well. In fact other companies made more Z80s then ZiLOG did themselves.

Zilog Z-80 CPU 8400X CS - 1979 2.5MHz

The Z80 was not the only processor that ZiLOG made.  Some of the processors/part numbering can be a bit confusing so we’ll look at each family and part that Zilog made up through 1985.  After 1985 CMOS designs came out as well as dozens of variations.  We just want to look at the first ten years of ZiLOG.

Zilog Z8300-3PS - 1984 2.5MHz

The Z80 itself was, of course, similar to the 8080 but single voltage, and only required a single clock phase.  It was available in speeds of 2.5-8MHz.  ZiLOG also made a low-power version known as the Z80L (Z8300) that ran from 1-2.5MHz.  That’s really all there was to the Z80 family up through 1985.

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October 11th, 2010 ~ by admin

Soviet Beauties: Processors from behind the Iron Curtain

The Soviet Union’s electronic programs were mainly focused on copying and cloning Western devices.  Either by simple theft, or painstaking reverse engineering.  They made clones of devices such as the Intel 8080, and the AMD 2901 as well as simple TTL.  The Soviets also made many single and multi-chip versions of the venerable DEC PDP-11 computer system.  Many of these have no Western analogs, they were pure creations of the Soviet industry.

Soviet Kvantor 580VM80 - Intel 8080 - Milspec

While Western chips rapidly transitioned into mostly black plastic by the 1980s the Soviets did not.  The 8080 above was made in 1991 though looks like something from the 70’s. Black plastic is cheap, and easy to make, but it isn’t great looking. The Soviets on the other hand made some of the best looking (if not always functioning) processors of the time.

Soviet J-11 Missing the chips

Here is just the substrate (its a non finished example) of a Soviet clone of the DEC J-11 CPU. Not often do you see a brilliant blue processor.

Soviet Angstrem K1801VM1

This is a nice pink ceramic Soviet PDP-11 5MHz CPU. Again this was made in 1991.  Its a form of surface mount package that was used extensively for industrial and military designs.  Just as the PDP-11 was used by the American military throughout the 70’s and 80’s. the Soviets used it (and now Russians) in todays times.

Soviet era CPUs are very interesting to collect.  Each state run factory had their own logo which was typically (but not always) put on the chip. Many part numbers were made by more then one factory. Most chips have a western analog, but not all.  Soviet chips also were ever so slightly different sized then Western ones. The Soviets used a pin spacing of 2.5mm where as the West used 0.1″ (2.54″), rather noticeable on a 40 pin DIP. Reading/translating some of the Cyrillic  based characters can be a chore but really when you get to see things like this…

Electronika J-11 - Image courtesy of iguana_kiev

Can you really complain?

October 7th, 2010 ~ by admin

The Rise of the Vortex86: Embedded x86 Processors

Back in 1998 a fabless CPU company introduced the Rise mP6 x86 CPU running at 166MHz Later versions ran at up to 233MHz and were Performance Rated at a somewhat generous PR300.  Rise was a bit late to the party of desktop x86 designs, and had somewhat lackluster performance.  In the 90s they had to compete with Intel, AMD, IDT, and IBM/Cyrix.  VIA, who later bought IDTs Centaur (Winchip) division, as well as Cyrix from National Semiconductor was an investor in Rise, as they were wanting an entry into the CPU market as well.  The mP6 used 16K of L1 cache and an 8 stage pipeline capable of executing 3 integer instructions per clock cycle.  This at a time when most CPUs had 32K or even 64K of L1 cache, and better branch prediction crippled the mP6.  It was used in set-top boxes and other low power type applications.  Rise licensed the core to ST Microelectronics who used it in set-top SoCs.

1998 Production Rise mP6 200MHz

By 1999 Rise was losing money and losing sales.  In most areas this would have been the end, Rise would be a foot note in history (a smaller one then they are).  However SiS, known for their value chipsets and budget graphics cores, bought what remained of Rise and the mP6 core.  SiS wanted to develop an embedded CPU out of the mP6, and having a lack of experience took a while to make it happen.  In late 2001 they had what they wanted. The SiS 550 was at its core a 200MHz mP6 but now integrated audio, video and IDE controller all at 2/3 the power requirements of the original.

2004 Production 200MHz SiS550 CPU

The SiS550 found a home in several Thin Clients made by Neoware as well as various internet appliances.
We wrote about the SiS550 series many years ago here.

DM&P (aka Jan Yin Chan Electronics) eventually took over the design from SiS.  It is DM&P who took the lowly mP6 design into the powerful embedded CPU it is today.  The pipeline was reduced to 6 stages, and onboard 256k L2 cache was added.  The L1 cache was doubled to 32K, and the clock speed was increased to a rather quick 1GHz.

The Vortex86DX is a fully capable x86 processor.  It is perfect for very small PC applications and embedded designs where x86 code is required.  The PMX-1000 can run at up to 1GHz and adds IDE support, graphics, and HD-Audio (much like the original SiS550.

1GHz PMX-1000 - 2009

While technically an embedded CPU the PMX-1000 is fully capable of running Windows and other x86 programs.  eBox (part of DM&P) makes many small form factor, fanless, and sealed PCs based on it. It runs on a rather small 2.2Watts at 800MHz, a third the power, and 4 times the speed of the original Rise mP6.

DM&P Vortex86DX

Processor Date MHz Pipelines L1 L2 Process Watts
mP6 1998 200 8 16K 0.25u 7
SiS 550


2001 200 8 16K 0.18u 4
Vortex86SX 2007 300 6 32K 0.13u 1


2008 1000 6 32K 256K 0.09u 2

The original Rise mP6 design is going on 12 years old and is still in wide use.  While most CPUs have switched to a RISC like design internally. the mP6, and its Vortex86 variants retain the in-order CISC architecture of the 1990’s, and for what it does, thats just fine.  Thanks to DMP Electronics for donating the Vortex86DX and PMX-1000!

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