Category Archives: Retrotech

Hotel Dusk: Room 215

When I owned a DS console many years ago, I remember playing a game called Hotel Dusk: Room 215. It was more like an interactive book than a classic adventure game. At times a little tedious, it had a super gripping storyline and I couldn’t forget.

In the story, protagonist Kyle Hyde, former NYPD detective, has left the force and is now a door-to-door salesman. He’s still trying to find out what happened to his former partner. When his employer sends him to Hotel Dusk in LA, he finds a host of characters that all tie together into a larger plot, which appears to be connected to the disappearance of Kyle’s former partner.

When I discovered the DesMuME emulator for the DS recently, I thought I’d try running the game on my Surface Pro – and it’s almost exactly like having a super sized DS, complete with stylus.

Since the game has it’s tricky moments, I’ve made list of questions I had while re-playing the mysteries of Hotel Dusk: Room 2015.

Continue reading Hotel Dusk: Room 215





How to setup the Xbox 360 controller for Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb on Windows

I’ve bought another classic retro title from GOG.com the other day: Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb (from 2003 I believe). I greatly enjoyed this game on the original Xbox and I had no idea that it had even been released for other platforms.

Turns out the game does support a (more or less) mappable Gamepad profile, but it was written many years before the Xbox 360 Controller for Windows was even invented, and as such not all buttons can be mapped.

Which means the gaming experience sucks – especially for a game with so many commands.

Luckily I found a very helpful forum post discussing these very issues, and of course someone cleverer than you and me has figured our how to get the Xbox controller to (mostly) work in this game. I did have some success following that post, but to make this thing work 100%, there are a couple of things we need to do.

I thought I’d share them in this article, in case you too would like to help Indy fight against the evil Nazis.  Continue reading How to setup the Xbox 360 controller for Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb on Windows





How to run Might and Magic III (from GOG) on your Mac

I’ve recently discovered GOG.com, the service that provides “good old games” from yesteryear to retro connoisseurs like myself. Games that used to run well on DOS and other long forgotten platforms are getting a new lease on life by being packaged up to run on today’s technology.

Many games run on Windows, Mac and even Linux – but some are only available for single platforms, mostly Windows. The Might and Magic 6-pack is such an example, available for only $9.99 (a total bargain, considering it’s 7 games).

I remember getting “Isles of Terra” free with a computer magazine in the nineties. I’m not usually into role playing games, but having enjoyed Bard’s Tale III on my C64 many years before, I gave this one a shot and loved it – just like its sequels (Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen, together making up a whole new game called World of Xeen).

I wanted to find out if I’d still enjoyed this game today, so I tried installing it on my Mac using a Windows 7 VM with Parallels Desktop. However, it didn’t run well and the mouse is interpreted rather weirdly. That’s no surprise really, because it means I’m running an emulator inside another emulator. Of course things will go wrong!

Might and Magic is installed using the DOSbox emulator under Windows, and as soon as you click the launch icon, DOSbox is launched, and within it the actual game. Thing is, DOSbox is also available for Mac, several Linux flavours and some other exotic platforms – so I was wondering if I could somehow just run DOSbox on my Mac and launch the original files from within it.

To my surprise, it works great!

Let me show you how I did it in this article. Continue reading How to run Might and Magic III (from GOG) on your Mac





If you can’t see your Kindle content on another device

I have several Amazon accounts: one in the US, one in the UK, and one ein Germany. Every now and again I de-register one of my Kindles from one account and register it with another one. Depends on what content I’d like to read and on which account it’s available.

The other day I switched my Kindle Fire from my German Amazon account back to my US account, my main account, containing all my my english content. To my surprise, the device registered fine, identified itself as “Jay’s Kindle”, but none of my content was showing up. Likewise, the device was not showing as registered on my web interface.

What was going on? Where was all my content? This had worked not too long ago!

I tried installing the Kindle iOS app on my iPhone and registered it too – only to find it behaved exactly the same way: no content, and the device was not showing itself on my Amazon account.

After getting in touch with Customer Service, I can now tell you what happened – and a neat trick of avoiding it, should it happen again. Interested? Read on! Continue reading If you can’t see your Kindle content on another device





How to cure Kindle Fire sync issues

Back in 2011 I bought a first generation Kindle Fire in the US. It hadn’t been released anywhere else, and this device started the whole Kindle Tablet business for Amazon.

It’s still working, and I’m still using it as a “bedside” Kindle (my Kindle 3, or Kindle Keyboard, doesn’t have a backlight, so the Fire is my “reading in the dark” companion).

Trouble is, the Kindle Fire doesn’t always sync my books with other Kindle devices. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it does not – and I never really knew what to do about it.

Until some online research gave me the solution that I’d like to share with you. Just in case this happens to your device.

This fix may work with other (Android based) Kindle Fire devices too, but I’ve only tested it with a first generation Fire (serial starts with D01E, Firmware 6.4.3).

Continue reading How to cure Kindle Fire sync issues





How to use the Grappling Hook in XIII for GameCube

unknownI was playing XIII again the other day. The US GameCube version this time. I remember enjoying XIII on the original Xbox back in the day, as well as on PC.

Even today, there’s nothing quite like playing these old style shooters with blurry textures and blocky unsmoothed 3D objects.

That aside, I had a tough time making the Grappling Hook work, mainly because the controls on the GameCube version must be the most terrible in the history of console gaming. Sadly my copy did not come with an instruction booklet, but at $4.99 with free shipping I’m not complaining. I found no instructions on the internet either, I’m probably a lost cause and too late for the XIII party anyway.

For future generations, and my future self, here’s how the XIII GameCube control work (from what I could figure out). Continue reading How to use the Grappling Hook in XIII for GameCube





My new HP Z600 Workstation

photo-sep-24-16-22-52I’m as excited as a kid in a candy store – because last Monday my new (old) HP Z600 Workstation has arrived! Built and sold to the government in the summer of 2009 for roughly $5000 (give or take a grand), it came to me via an eBay auction for $171 plus postage some seven years later.

Equipped with two Intel Xeon 5560 processors, no hard drive, 4GB of RAM and only a COA sticker for Windows Vista, I had a little bit of work to do to get it all going:

  • get a USB keyboard
  • get a power cord
  • get a graphics card
  • perhaps grab some more RAM
  • find a network cable
  • download a copy of Windows Vista (not easy to find in 2016)

I wanted to use this machine for 3D rendering in both Carrara and DAZ Studio, so for the latter I decided to buy an NVIDIA GTX 970 graphics card. I had to do a few internal modifications to the machine to make it work – but work it does, and it was a lot of fun to get this rig going.

Without further ado, here’s my Z600 story.

Continue reading My new HP Z600 Workstation





ARM: Rise of the low-cost CPU

The other day I was looking at Samsung Chromebook laptops. It’s the latest fad in giving laptops something to do in the post-PC era. They’ve largely replaced netbooks for “surfing with something that’s not a tablet”.

I’m a fan of open source operating systems, and Parallels Desktop offers to install Chrome OS as VM too. Never having experienced what these puppies could do, I gave it a quick whirl. Here’s what it looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 14.51.29There’s really nothing to do here, except for launch the web browser – which is precisely what a Chromebook is supposed to do: you don’t install anything, you don’t maintain anything. You can just about edit some super basic settings, such as the background picture and which Gmail account you’re using for all this, and even those settings are presented in a web browser.

It’s Chrome if you hadn’t guessed:

Screen_Shot_2015-02-27_at_14_51_08

What’s interesting about these types of devices is the price point: at anywhere between $200 and $300, the entire Chromebook costs as much as an Intel i5 CPU, without a keyboard, screen, battery or anything else.

The device has very limited storage: nothing like your 500GB hard disk. Instead it has 16GB of internal storage, sometimes a little more – much like an SD card. The RAM isn’t anything exciting either: while Windows and Mac really need 4GB minimum just to check your email, a Chromebook only has 2GB tops, sometimes even less.

I know this sounds ridiculous because we’re so used to large hard disks, huge amounts of memory and beefy graphics cards. But it’s the operating system that asks for those things in quantity – it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. We’ve been conned into thinking that such powerful hardware is necessary to accomplish basic day-to-day tasks.

 

The new era of laptopping

What Samsung have done here is very interesting, and it appears to be an emerging trend in the gadget industry: they’ve taken their own Exynos chip and attached some different peripherals. The Exynos is an ARM based system on a chip, commonly found in Samsung’s mobile devices such as the Galaxy phones and tables.

The Exynos is the equivalent of Apple’s A-series of chips found in iPhones and iPads: it provides not only the CPU, but also graphics and network capabilities, all with a very small footprint. Using this approach for laptops rather than small mobile gadgets is something we haven’t seen before. Up to now, everything in a laptop was Intel or AMD based to be anywhere near useful.

All these ARM based systems are less power hungry too, much cheaper to produce, and up to now less beefy in regards to performance. The Raspberry Pi uses one for example, as does the iPhone (that A-series is indeed based on an ARM chip too).

Over the last few years, two interesting things have been happening to the way we humans to stuff on the web, which makes Chromebooks and this philosophy such an interesting choice:

  • we do more powerful things “in the cloud” rather than locally
  • and we use more web interfaces to access such services

At the same time, these cheap ARM devices seem to be getting faster and faster and will very soon be an alternative for running more power hungry desktop applications. I hear for example that the Apple A8x chip in the iPad Air 2 is now as fast as the Intel i5 chip found in a 2013 MacBook Air.

So the question is: does the average user NEED a super fast device just to access email and web applications?

 

What’s next, Desktop?

It’s all up to the operating system to make use of these chips – and of course Windows and Mac OS X won’t be able to run on those devices at the moment. But Linux – that’s a different story.

There are distributions like Fedora and Ubuntu which are just as happy running on an x86_64 system as they are running on an ARMv7 and above. It’s a frightening thought, but I’m currently running Fedora 21 on my Nook Tablet from 3 years ago! Sure it’s super slow, but I can speak to it just as if it was a powerful server in a data centre.

What Samsung call Exynos, and what Apple call the Ax series, Intel call the Atom series. It’s the same idea, providing a system on a chip based on an Intel CPU. These first debuted in Netbooks in 2009 and have since been used in some Android phones too. Will these low-cost chips change the world? Will they soon overtake the power of the Xeons?

Will we one day go back in computing power and instead be happy with something slower than what we had before? Is that why the 2014 Mac Mini is already slower than its predecessor? Will we soon see a MacBook Air powered by an A9 chip? Or instead tablet devices that are faster than our desktops and laptops?

Who can tell. It’ll be exciting to watch what happens next. At least one of the big companies is preparing such an eventuality: Windows 10 will be available for ARMv7 processors.

 





Broadcast Memories: Das Eurosignal

My first radio in the late around 1980 was a Palladium Mono Tape recorder with 4 band radio. It had a big dial on the right, a display with a moving stick, and four buttons to select FM, AM, Shortwave and Longwave bands. Even with its many limitations I loved this thing!

The FM band was always the strongest. We used to call it UKW in Germany, as in Ultra Kurzwelle (very short wave), a much more accurate description of this band. FM sounds much cooler and more “American”, but it really means Frequency Modulation which is mainly what this band is used for today, rather than describing the band itself. Anyway…

As I explored the FM band I inevitably came across two things that are difficult to forget for a young child: East German Number Stations, the monotonous voice of a woman reading strings of numbers, and something rather undecipherable like polyphonic tones (see video above).

The latter was on 24/7 at the upper end of the spectrum, at around 87 MHz. Mysterious, yet everpresent. Creepy. Much like Eastern Germany.

I never found out what this thing was – until today while browsing through a German Wikipedia article about the UKW Rundfunk (or FM Broadcasting in English). The article mentions something called the Eurosignal, and it turns out that this polyphonic shite in the eighties was indeed that very signal. Totally legit after all – who would have known! I always assumed it was in some way connected with the number stations or the Stasi!

 

So what’s the Eurosignal?

First of all it’s a thing of the past. It was switched off in 1998 and only ever existed in Germany, France and Switzerland. Other countries were thinking of using it, but it took them several decades to decide – by which time there were better technologies out there.

The idea was this: you paid a monthly fee for the precursor of “beeper”, and if someone wanted to reach you, you could leave your number with the Eurosignal service. But because it used the FM band, it needed a rather long antenna to receive things – so it wasn’t something you’d clip onto your belt.

Your device would constantly listen to a given frequency, and if it finds a message for you, it would display it. When I say message I mean a 10-digit string of numbers, nothing fancy or descriptive. Those could be either phone numbers that you would call back, or pre-defined codes between two parties (for example, 23 could mean”put dinner on”, or 37 could mean “assassinate El Presidente at 23:00”, that sort of thing).

According to the radio broadcast below, in its heyday the device itself was DM 1000 (about £300), and the monthly fee to use the service was DM 25 (about £7.50).

This Eurosignal was used way before other beeper systems and mobile phones as we know them today. Germany were the first to introduce it in 1975, France came in a year later, and Switzerland sometime in the eighties. Even by the mid nineties the German company EuFuRD who operated it had 90.000 subscribers.

Many other beeper services were introduced in the early nineties in Germany (Scall, TeLMI, Quix), all of which seized operations when mobile phones took over  less than 10 years later. By 2002 those were all gone.

 

I personally skipped the hole beeper thing and went straight to a Nokia 2110 sometime in 1996/1997. In fact, I probably abandoned personal one-way radio communications a few years earlier when I realized that listening to adverts and commercial ntss-ntss wasn’t really a pastime I could enjoy without brain pain.

Not until today, in December 2014 I’m beginning to develop a healthy interest in the radio spectrum again (read: obsession). I’m fascinated by being able to receive something without the internet being involved, like back in the good old days. My latest gadget, the Tecsun PL-880 has arrived – a world band radio. It’s wonderful! I had no idea shortwave and AM broadcasts could sound THAT good! The PL-660 is on its way already, bringing the total radio count in our household up to 4.

Too many radios you say? Well I see it this way: shortwave transmissions are getting fewer and fewer. Numbers stations used to be so common, but they’re being phased out. Technology is moving forward, and some may argue that analogue is so retro it no longer has a place in our high-tech world. There were talks to switch off all analogue radio services on the FM band in Germany since 2000 and replace it with DAB – unsuccessfully mind you, but sooner rather than later we won’t be able to listen to analogue stuff on the airwaves anymore. It’s already happened to television, and undoubtedly radio will be next.

And until then, I’d like to play with it for as long as I can.





Machine Language, Assembly and Assembler, Interpreters and Compilers

I finally found out what the difference is between Machine Language, Assembly and Assembler – and how it fits in with Interpreters and Compilers. For those of you game enough, let me explain what these cryptic terms mean – and how they span computers from the early C64 to today’s high-end laptops.

Interpreters

Something that has plagued the early computers was their speed of how they executed things in BASIC – or rather the lack thereof. As nice as BASIC is, sifting through an array of variables can compare them with a known value does take some time.

That’s not BASIC’s fault though – it’s rather the way it is executed. You see, BASIC (on the C64 and his comrades) is an interpreted language. This means that while the computer is working, it’s translating the BASIC statements into something it can actually understand – which is of course not BASIC. All a computer really knows is if something’s ON or OFF. Computers are truly binary machines – no matter how old or how new they are. So if you tell them to PRINT “HELLO” then some translation work needs to happen for HELLO to appear on the screen – and that takes time.

That’s what an interpreter does: translate one language into another on the fly – much like people can listen in Spanish, and speak the same thing in English, for the benefit of an audience (usually not for their own pleasure).

The great thing about interpreted languages is that the source code always remains readable. As you can imagine, ultimately the interpreter will throw some ones and zeros at the computer. There’s no way you could make a change to that as it bears no resemblance to your source code.

One alternative to speeding up the programme in question would be to have the something like the interpreter to go to work BEFORE the programme is executed. Ahead of time, and in its own time. Then we could present the translated result to the computer right away, taking away the “on-the-fly” translation and saving some CPU power. I guess it won’t come as a big surprise that this is done frequently too: it’s called compiling, and a Compiler does such a job.

Continue reading Machine Language, Assembly and Assembler, Interpreters and Compilers