Lyonsden Blog

Category - VIC 20

Eight Bit Magazine Issue #8 Out Now

Eight Bit Magazine Issue #8

I have to say the latest issue of Eight Bit magazine (issue #8) really caught my eye. There’s a VIC20 featured prominently on the front cover, a machine I have a real soft spot for as it was the first computer I ever owned. Most magazines tend to focus on its more powerful and popular sibling (the C64) so any coverage is more than welcome.

 

Eight Bit Magazine Issue #8

Cover featuring the Commodore VIC20

 

Inside there’s an interesting ten page ‘Collectors Guide to the VIC20’. It starts with a brief history of the VIC20 including that famous advert with Captain Kirk. It also looks at the machines hardware, the software available both back in the day and a few of the new titles released recently. It’s a good read for sure but it’s actually quite a short article and left me wanting more.

 

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Also in the issue is a really in-depth look at 8-bit baseball games. Unfortunately I have zero interest in baseball so I moved swiftly onto the next article which looks at IRATA.ONLINE. I must confess I’d never heard of this until now but it looks very interesting indeed and worthy of more investigation.

There’s also a look at ‘Retro Virtual Machine’ (a Spectrum & Amstrad CPC emulator) and a lengthy feature looking at the creations of Sir Clive Sinclair. To round off this issue there’s a couple of game reviews: Shockway Rider (which is available for the C64) and a Text Adventure called Tower of Despair for the Spectrum.

All in all the magazine offers a good read, though because it doesn’t focus on any single machine YMMV.

If this post has piqued your interest and you’d like to buy a copy then take a look at the Eight Bit Magazine website.

 

VS-7000 Joystick Review

VS-7000 Joystick

I recently picked up a super little arcade joystick off eBay for my Commodore machines. It’s brand new and made by this seller on eBay. He’s calling it the ‘VS-7000’. I’m really impressed with it so thought I’d share my thoughts.

 

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VS-7000 Joystick Construction

As standard it comes with a plain black plastic base with four sucker feet. However there’s a couple of retro styled vinyl VS-7000 stickers supplied in the box. These can be attached to the sides of the base if you want to jazz it up a little more. Additionally, if suckers aren’t your thing then they can be replaced by the included set of 4 rubber feet.

The seller also offers the same joystick in a couple of other colours. There’s one with a white base and another black one but with wood effect panels, presumably for people that want to use it with Atari systems. Sadly at the time of writing this he’s got no stock left of any variant but hopefully he’ll make some more soon.

 

VS-7000 Stickers and Rubber feet

The supplied stickers to go on either side of the base and a set of 4 rubber feet.

 

Both the buttons and stick are micro-switched and this makes for a really satisfying ‘click’ when pressed. In use I was never unsure whether a button had been pressed that’s for sure. The joystick unit itself is based on the Sanwa mechanism which is designed for arcade game cabinets. The shaft is made of metal with a nice chrome finish and it all feels reassuringly sturdy in use.

The joystick is available with either two ‘A’ buttons or an ‘A’ and ‘B’ button configuration (on request). It is straightforward enough to change from ‘AA’ to ‘AB’ yourself too. Unfortunately the A & B configuration of this stick is NOT compatible with 2 button capable C64 games like Super Mario Bros and Chase HQ 2. The C64 just doesn’t see the extra button at all.

 

VS-7000 Joystick

Here’s what the inside of the joystick looks like

 

Verdict

I have to say that this little joystick has really exceeded my expectations. It requires very little lateral force to move the stick around so it makes extended play sessions much more comfortable. I also found it enabled me to move around games more accurately or pull off those different moves in IK+ more easily. Puzzle games such as Vegetables Deluxe and Milly & Mollie suddenly became far more relaxing to play too.

I can’t overstate how much I love the stick movement on this thing. Selecting a direction only requires a gentle nudge which is immediately rewarded with a satisfying click. I can guide it in the direction I want using just my forefinger and thumb instead of needing to clamp my whole hand around it. Consequently, playing for hours no longer results in getting cramp in my right hand like I do with the other sticks (especially the Suncom). I should point out that this may well be an age related preference. I loved the ZipStick when I was a kid but fifty year old me? No so much.

The VS-7000 joystick does have one shortcoming though… the base is quite bulky and angular so is not the most comfortable thing to hold for extended periods of time. However I suppose that’s to be expected from a homebrew project like this. The joysticks of yesteryear were manufactured in large numbers and had custom, injection moulded bases, not something you can easily replicate on a small scale. Having said that this didn’t prove to be much of an issue for me as I use it mostly either resting on my knee or affixed to my desk with the suckers.

 

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Commodore 1501 Power Monitor MkII Review

Commodore Power Monitor

Whilst I was idly scrolling through eBay one evening a rather cool looking gadget caught my eye. The device in question is the ‘Commodore 1501 Power Monitor MkII’ to give it its full moniker. I’m a sucker for anything with coloured LED’s, VU meters, flashing lights, knobs switches etc. Basically anything flashy or mechanical in nature. This little device features both multiple colour digital displays and a big red nuclear launch button – how could I resist?

 

Commodore 1501 Power Monitor

Here’s what came in the box, the Power Monitor itself and a power cable.

 

The seller is in Australia so delivery to the UK took a few weeks. It arrived well packaged in a small cardboard box. Opening the box revealed the Power Monitor itself together with a short power lead. The device is constructed entirely from plastic but has a textured finish that makes it look like it’s made of metal. The Commodore 1501 label is very convincing and makes it look like a real commodore product (although obviously it isn’t).

 

Commodore Power Monitor

A big red ‘reset’ button screaming to be pushed!

 

Flip the box over and there’s even an official looking serial number label on the bottom. The overall presentation on this is top notch and really made me feel like I was back in the 80’s and had just purchased an ‘proper’ Commodore product.

 

Commodore Power Monitor

Serial number sticker.

 

So what exactly is it then?

This device does exactly what the label says – it monitors the power output of your Commodore PSU. In simple terms it’s basically a voltmeter and ammeter rolled into one. It is able to measure both the 5v DC and 9V AC PSU outputs and also measure the current being drawn by the computer.

In an ideal world your PSU should be outputting voltages as close as possible to the 5v and 9V levels that your Commodore needs. However this is often not the case, especially with old Commodore PSU’s. There are plenty of horror stories online about C64’s being fried by PSU’s that output higher voltages. It is supposed to work on the Commodore 128 and Plus/4 in addition to the VIC20 and C64 but as I don’t own either of those systems I can’t confirm this.

 

Commodore 1501 Power DIN socket

One of the two DIN sockets for attaching the power leads.

 

The 5V supply is used to power most of the chips on the mainboard and is the most sensitive to increased voltages. The unregulated 9V supply is used to power any attached C2N datasette, the user port and the SID chip amongst other things.

The seller claims accuracy is within +/- 0.1V for the DC meter and +/- 0.3V for the AC meter.

 

Interpreting the readings

The instruction booklet (available digitally) gives a handy guide to interpreting the voltage displays:

Voltage RangeDescription
4.95 - 5.1V Power supply functions normally.
5.1 - 5.2VMinor concern, measure the power supply
more often.
5.2 - 5.5VThe power supply is failing. Your Commodore
64 will not fail right away, but it is an
unhealthy situation. Replacement or repair of
the power supply is recommended.
5.5 - 6VYour Commodore 64 is in danger.
>6V In most situations where a Commodore 64
got killed by its power supply, the voltage had
risen above 6V. Usually the RAM memory
gets damaged first.

For some reason there were no instructions included with my power monitor. However after contacting the seller he kindly obliged and mailed them to me. Once more this is an amazing homage to the sort manual Commodore themselves used to produce back in the day, even down to the colour used, very nostalgic indeed.

The manual explains everything you need to know and is even quite funny in places. Tucked away amidst the instruction texts are lines like this; ‘This is NOT the time to practice your Kama-Sutra and experiment with how many different ways to insert your equipment’. There are quite a few more of these so the manual is well worth a read for these alone!

 

Power Monitor MkII User Manual.

Power Monitor MkII User Manual.

 

That big red ‘nuclear launch button’ is actually a reset button allowing you to reboot your Commodore without having to power cycle it, providing that is, your have it connected via the user port.

 

Commodore Power Monitor

Display seen when hooked up to user port.

 

How is the Power Monitor used?

It can be used in a number of different ways but the most straightforward way is simply to attach it to the user port. Used this way it will display the 5V DC voltage level in the upper display and 9V AC in the lower one. This is also the only configuration in which the reset button will actually work. However when connected this way it will not display the current being drawn by the computer.

 

Commodore Power Monitor

Using the 1501 to test my original Commodore PSU which is now almost 40 years old!

 

You can also use it as a simple PSU tester, to ensure a PSU is actually working or not outputting dangerously high voltages. To use it in this manner simply plug the PSU into either of the two DIN sockets on the Power Monitor. The displays will light up immediately to indicate the voltages being output by the PSU. Obviously used in this way there’s no load applied so the current cannot be measured.

 

Commodore Power Monitor

 

The final way it can be used is to attach it between your PSU and your Commodore VIC20 or C64. This is what the supplied cable is for. Simply plug your PSU into the DIN socket on one side of the 1501, plug one end of the supplied cable into the socket on opposite side and then connect the free end of that up to your computer. In this configuration you get the most accurate power readings as the PSU is operating under load. You can now also see how much current is being drawn indicated in the blue Amps display.

 

Commodore 1501 Power Monitor Verdict

I must confess I was initially attracted to this solely because of it’s appearance. However it’s actually an incredibly useful little gadget to have around. I have opted to leave it permanently connected up in-between my VIC20 and my 40 year old original Commodore PSU. This way I can always keep a watchful on eye on things. My C64 uses a modern Electroware PSU so I’m not overly concerned with that frying my computer…

 

VIC20 setup

Power Monitor MkII in use with my VIC20 setup.

 

I can use it to test PSU’s on the fly and also to give an indication of how ‘healthy’ they are. Granted I could do all this with a multi-meter but that wouldn’t be as convenient and it certainly wouldn’t look as cool!

The build quality is terrific and the guy making them has really nailed the whole ‘made by Commodore’ vibe. Of course it’s not an essential purchase by any means but it is a very useful one and gets a big thumbs up from me.

If you fancy getting one, I bought mine from this seller on eBay. I should point out that he actually does two versions. Mine is the MkII which can additionally measure current used. The cheaper MkI version only measures voltages but is roughly half the price.

Commodore VIC20 ‘breadbin’ Case Repair

VIC20 Case Repair

Whilst working on my VIC20 recently I noticed a number of issues with the case. The first thing was that most of the little tabs along the back of the lid had broken off. This meant that the case didn’t close properly along the back at all. The other issue I spotted was that a couple of the plastic screw posts that hold the keyboard in place had split. Not sure why, possibly as a result of over-tightening at some point or the plastic expanding and contracting over the years. It was pretty clear that my dear old Commodore VIC20’s case was in need of some repair and TLC.

By the way, even though this post is all about the VIC20 the contents would be just as valid for a Commodore 64.

 

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Naturally I want my VIC20 to remain in as good a condition as possible so I set about looking for a means to remedy these problems. My search concluded when I came across a company in the US called Soigeneris that 3D prints suitable repair parts. The product I ordered from them was the  ‘C64/VIC20 Case Saver Repair Kit‘. The whole thing cost me less than $20 including international shipping (which took about a week). *Note to self – get a 3D printer!

 

A look at what’s in the repair pack

 

Inside the pack there are actually 3 different parts to deal with common ‘breadbin’ case issues. New PCB standoffs (not needed here), replacement top case rear tabs and screw post repair sleeves. The drill bit is provided to help centre the PCB standoffs if you are using those.

 

Commodore Case Repair

From left to right: new PCB standoffs (with drill bit), replacement top case rear tabs and screw post repair sleeves.

 

 

There are several different case styles and they each have different types of hinge tabs. I had to check which variant mine was before ordering otherwise the replacement may not have fit. My particular VIC20 case needed ‘Type 2B’.

 

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Fitting the new hinge tabs

I decided to fit the new hing tabs to the back of the upper case lid first. This necessitated completely removing what was left of the existing ones to make way for the replacements.

 

Commodore Case Repair

Cutting what’s left of the existing tabs off with a craft knife

 

This was a simple matter of slicing the tabs off flush with the edge of the case. I used a sharp craft knife for this (and ended up slicing my thumb open) so do be very careful if you are following this post yourself. The plastic was a lot more brittle and softer than I expected so I applied way too much pressure…

 

Commodore Case Repair

Tabs completely removed allowing the fitment of the replacement

 

 

Before proceeding any further I test fitted the tabs to make sure they fitted flush to the edge of the case. Where needed I shaved some more skin plastic off my with knife.

 

Commodore Case Repair

Test fitting of replacement tab

 

The replacement tabs are well constructed and have been designed to align easily within the existing channels.

 

Test fitting of replacement tab

 

The instructions recommend using epoxy glue to fix them in in place as it sets rock hard. It also recommends roughening the surface of the case and cleaning it with isopropyl alcohol before gluing to ensure maximum adhesion.

 

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I applied a generous amount of epoxy glue and then held the tabs in position using some modelling clamps.

 

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Even though my epoxy glue is supposed to be quick drying I set the case aside for 24 hours to fully harden before going any further.

 

Commodore Case Repair

Holding the new hinge tabs in place whilst glue sets

 

Preparing the screw posts

 

Once I was happy that the glue had fully hardened I moved on to tackling the split screw posts. Thankfully only 2 of the posts were damaged but the kit includes enough replacement parts to fix all of them if necessary.

 

Commodore Case Repair

Broken screw post

 

Not only was the screw post split but it had also ‘mushroomed’ out at the top. This meant that it would need to be filed down to it’s original size before the repair sleeve would fit over it.

 

I used some of my wife’s emery boards to sand the post down. They worked really well too!

 

I used a few emery boards to sand the posts down to size but a small metal file would have done just as well. It took around 5-10 minutes to get it down to the correct size. I was constantly stopping and checking to see if the sleeve would fit. The last thing I wanted was to sand too much off and have the sleeve become loose.

 

Commodore Case Repair

Test fitting the sleeve. Note how the castellation allows it to slip over the post buttresses.

 

Eventually I found the sleeve would slide into place with moderate force so I stopped sanding. Then I just needed to repeat the process on the other broken post before gluing both sleeves permanently into place.

 

Gluing the repair sleeves

 

First I cleaned both the post and inside of the sleeve with isopropyl alcohol to make sure no plastic dust was left from the sanding. Then I mixed up a small amount of epoxy glue and applied it to the top of the post before sliding the sleeve down until the two top surfaces were flush.

 

Commodore Case Repair

Screw post fitted with repair sleeve after sanding it down

 

I smeared a little extra epoxy on the top of both the posts to fill the splits in the plastic too. There was no need to use any sort of clamp this time as the sleeves were a tight fit. The friction alone was more than sufficient to do the job.

 

Commodore Case Repair

An extra application of epoxy over the top helped fill any splits or gaps.

 

Once more the case was then set aside for 24 hours to give the glue ample time to harden.

 

Repaired commodore case

Top part of case with all repairs complete

 

Reassembly

Now it was time to screw the keyboard back into place and to reunite the top and bottom parts of the case.

 

VIC20 top case with keyboard fitted

Keyboard fitted back into the repaired top case

 

I must admit I was a little concerned that the added thickness of the sleeves might have prevented the keyboard from fitting correctly.

 

Commodore case sleeve repair

Keyboard re-fitted – just enough clearance with repair sleeve

 

Happily, although a tight fit, the keyboard slotted into place without any extra trimming needed.

 

Screw post repaired

Screw in repaired post

 

The screws went into the repaired posts without any issues and were held very securely.

 

VIC20 with lid hinged open

New hinge tabs seated in their corresponding slots on the bottom case

 

The two halves of the case also fitted back together perfectly. The hinged tabs were very securely held by the epoxy glue and the little tongues aligned perfectly with the grooves on the bottom half of the case. The back of the case was held tightly closed, a vast improvement from how it was before the repair.

 

VIC20 back of case

Back of VIC20 nicely demonstrating the tightly fitting case halves post repair

 

This turned out to be a very worthwhile, rewarding and cheap little project. The biggest cost was actually my time, both in preparing the case and making the actual repairs. The whole thing took me three evenings plus a couple of days of glue setting time.

Coupled with my heatsink project and keyboard repair my VIC20 is now in tip top condition again. Hopefully she will be able to take her upcoming 40th birthday in her stride as she marches on up to the big 50.

Cooling my VIC20

Cooling VIC20

Although my VIC20 is working perfectly I thought it would be prudent to take some precautions to help it continue to lead a long life. I’ve read about chips failing in the VIC, often due to excessive heat build-up. To this end I set about checking just how hot the various chips were getting and see if I could find a way of cooling my VIC20.

Here’s a diagram I knocked up identifying the main chips on my VIC20 motherboard. I made it for my own future reference but it may be helpful to others too.

 

VIC20 Motherboard chip identification

Commodore VIC20 Motherboard with main chips labelled. (Click for larger version).

 

The first thing I did was leave my VIC20 running a game for a couple of hours. I chose GORF as it continually runs in ‘attract mode’ which I hoped would give everything a good workout. I let this run for 2 hours before lifting the lid and checking the chip temperatures.

To perform the testing I used a cheap infrared thermometer that I picked up off Amazon. With this gadget I could simply point the laser at a chip to instantly read its temperature. I found that different areas on the same chip could give significantly different temperatures. The difference was often as much as 5C so I noted down the highest temperature measured for each chip.

 

Chip Temperatures

Perhaps not surprisingly the hottest chip on the board was the VIC running at 46C . The next hottest were the 2 VIA chips at operating at 40C. Running in joint third place was the Character ROM, BASIC, Kernal and CPU chips at 35C each. Last place and probably of little concern were the two large RAM chips in the bottom left which reached 30C. The rest of the chips were all below 30C so I felt these didn’t warrant any further attention.

 

Copper Heatsinks

Packs of Copper Heatsinks

 

I didn’t want to install a fan in my VIC20 so I decided on heatsinks to help cool things down. Because all the chips are different sizes a ‘one size fits all’ approach wasn’t going to work. To this end I took a few measurements and went looking for something suitable. In the end I settled on these copper heatsinks from Amazon and picked up 3 packs in total. I had already bought a pack of these in case any of the smaller chips needed cooling too.

 

Copper Heatsinks

Copper Heatsinks alongside the thermal tape fixing pads

 

Although they look square, they’re aren’t quite as they measure 10mm x 11mm. However they are the perfect size to both fit the width of each of the main chips and to be used in multiples to maximise surface coverage on the various chip lengths. They also came supplied with self-adhesive thermal tape which allowed easy installation.

 

Preparation

Before even thinking of installing the heatsinks I needed to do some cleaning. The chip surfaces needed to be squeaky clean to ensure good adhesion of the thermal tape. Also, besides a few blasts of compressed air I hadn’t got around to cleaning the motherboard since I rescued my VIC20 from the attic. A bottle of Isopropyl alchohol and a box of Lidl’s finest (i.e. cheap) cotton buds was the order of the day here.

 

Dirty cotton buds after the chips and motherboard had been cleaned with isopropyl alcohol.

 

All I did was gently wipe the surface of every chip, component, contact and the surface of the board itself until the cotton buds came up clean. Of course if the board was already clean I would have simply cleaned the surface of the main chips and stopped there. The whole cleaning process probably took about half an hour, maybe a bit more but i found it quite therapeutic. I also cleaned the base of the heatsinks just to be sure they were squeaky clean.

 

Cleaning motherboard with cotton bud

Cleaning up with an alcohol soaked cotton bud.

 

The next task was to carefully attach the thermal tape to the heatsinks. I simply peeled one square off the sheet and carefully aligned it with the edge of a heatink before pressing it firmly into place. It was important to get these aligned correctly otherwise it would have made placing them next to each other very difficult.

 

Heatsink with thermal tape applied

Heatsink with thermal tape applied

 

Once I was ready to attach a heatsink (I’d already loose-fitted them to check the best way to arrange them) I just needed to peel the protective film off the thermal tape. I found a sharp blade was very useful here if I couldn’t catch the edge of the plastic film with my fingernail.

 

Heatsink with thermal tape applied

Heatsink with thermal tape applied, protective film removed and ready to be stuck into place

 

Installation

This was the best part, sticking the heatsinks onto the chips. For the bigger chips like the VIA, VIC and CPU I used 4 heatsinks butted up close to each other. For most of the other chips like the RAM, BASIC and Kernal I just used 2. By this stage I ran out of the ‘not quite square’ heatsinks. Because of this I used 2 of the tall slim heatsinks to top off both of the RAM chips. These were only reaching 30C anyway so didn’t need serious cooling.

 

Cooling VIC20

Here’s the VIC fully covered by heatsinks.

 

I found the thermal tape stuck the heatsinks down really well which made it all the more important to position them correctly first time. Moving them around after they’d been stuck down was almost impossible.

 

Cooling VIC20

First VIA chip done… that ceramic capacitor bent over the lower part of the left VIA chip needed to be carefully bent away before heatsinks could be fitted

 

Cooling VIC20

From left to right, the BASIC, Kernal and CPU chip (not finished)

 

Did it actually do anything?

Here’s a photo of the completed project with all the main chips covered by heatsinks. It certainly looks the part now but did the addition of the heatsinks actually have any appreciable impact on cooling my VIC20?

 

Cooling VIC20

Finished project with all the ‘hottest’ running chips fitted with heatsinks

 

In order to see if the project actually made any sort of meaningful impact I repeated the same test as before. I popped the lid back on, slid GORF into the cartridge slot and let my VIC simmer for 2 hours. I measured temperatures in the same way as before, noting the highest recorded reading for each one.

I’m happy to say I found that the heatsinks did actually result in a decent improvement in temperatures across the board. The biggest improvement came from the VIC chip which went from hovering around 46C down to 38C, a drop of 8C which is fantastic. The VIA chips fell from 40C to 35C and the VIC Character ROM from 35C to 31C. The remaining chips showed drops of between 2-3C which whilst not as impressive is still an improvement.

I’m not really sure why the different chips exhibited different levels of improvement but nevertheless I’m very happy with the results. My VIC20 is almost 40 years old now and I’m hoping this little project helps it last a good few more!

Audio Tape Cassette Storage – Solution/Review

audio tape cassette storage

My audio tape cassette storage problem has been bugging me for quite some time now. Over the years I’ve accumulated a lot of cassette tapes (both music and games) and that number is constantly increasing. I’ve been storing a lot of them in those old drawer units (the ones usually covered in tacky looking wood effect vinyl). Whilst this is an effective storage method I’ve always found them a bit of a pain to use and also my tapes are hidden away out of sight. I’ve also got loads of tapes stacked on top of each other on a shelf and this is far from ideal too. Forty year old tapes are not something I want to risk playing Jenga with!

All this leads me to the reason for posting this article. After searching around for a while for a better solution I finally found one I’m happy with so I thought I’d share it.

 

This is a link to the racks featured in this post.


 

The Solution

The audio tape cassette storage solution I found is a purpose made wooden rack that can hold 60 cassettes in their boxes. It’s manufactured by a company in Germany called ‘Protected’ and are available for sale on . Delivery took less than a week by DHL.

 

The packaging the racks arrived in.

 

The racks came individually packaged. Opening the cardboard box (carefully to avoid cutting into it) revealed the nicely bubble-wrapped rack inside.

 

audio tape cassette storage

My cat loves it when I open new parcels!

 

All three of mine arrived in great shape. I must admit I was a little wary about ordering at first as I wasn’t sure if these were getting knocked together in someone’s garden shed. There is only one (poor) photo on the Amazon website and precious little info provided. However I was very pleased to discover a high standard of both manufacture and finish.

 

audio tape cassette storage

Nicely finished woodwork

 

A Closer Look

The racks are constructed from solid strips of pine wood and the back panel is made of plywood. All the strips of wood forming the slots are perfectly aligned and fit perfectly flush. There are no sharp edges or splinters to worry about as everything has been sanded smooth and edges rounded off. The back is a little rough but once in use you’re never going to see or touch it again.

There are 4 pre-drilled holes in each corner so you can wall mount the racks. Somewhat disappointingly plugs and screws are not provided. However this is not that big a deal and most people my age have probably got loads in a jam jar somewhere in their shed or garage. I would also recommend the use of a washer as the holes are quite big. Using a washer will also prevent you from driving a screw right through the thin plywood back panel.

 

width…

 

Size wise the racks are approximately 20″ (51cm) long and 13.5″ (34cm) tall.

 

height…

 

I opted for the natural pine finish but they also offer a white one too. I’ve not seen that in the flesh so can’t comment on the finish of it. I guess you could also either varnish or paint them to suite your colour scheme too. I’m quite happy to keep the bare wood finish for my setup though.

 

Closer look at the slot construction

 

The slots are perfectly sized and I’ve not found any cassettes that wouldn’t fit into the them.

 

audio tape cassette storage

A selection of VIC20 games slotted in nicely

 

The rack is slightly shallower than a cassette is deep (2″ or 50mm) which means tapes stick out about 1/2″ (12mm). This allows you to easily get your fingers around them when you need to get them out.

 

audio tape cassette storage

Top of rack makes for a useful display area.

 

You can even use the top of the rack as a small shelf for extra storage or display purposes. I’m still experimenting with what looks best but will probably settle for displaying double-cassette boxes or the odd big box game.

 

audio tape cassette storage

Racks filling up nicely…

Finishing Words

I have to say I really love these racks and I’m glad I’ve finally found a storage solution that fulfils my desire to display my stuff too. I filled my three racks straight away so have just ordered another three. With six racks I’ll have the capacity to store 360 tapes in total. That’ll allow me to store all the tapes I currently own and hopefully leave me with enough empty slots to accommodate future purchases, fingers crossed.

The racks are available from Amazon here:

 

Update: 1st April 2020

Fitted the extra three racks so as promised here’s a photo of the finished project. I still have a few empty slots left thankfully but how long for is anyone’s guess!

 

audio tape cassette storage

Finished project with enough space for 360 cassette tapes.

 

Hope you found this article useful!

Cassette Deck Maintenance: Demagnetising a Tape Head

Binatone Data Recorder - Demagnetising Tape head

In addition to regular cleaning another vital part of keeping your cassette deck running smoothly is demagnetising the tape head. This applies to both computer cassette decks and Hi-Fi ones. Over time a residual magnetic field can build up on the head. Not only can this adversely affect playback (more noise and loss of high end response) but it can also degrade the quality of any tape passing over it.

A cassette tape is basically a strip of thin plastic coated with a ferrous material. Music (or data in the case of a computer tape) is recorded onto it by using an electro-magnet to magnetise the tape surface to varying degrees. A tape can be erased by placing a strong magnet near it so even a weakly magnetised head will, over time, slowly erase any recordings passing over it. The more you play a tape on a deck with a magnetised head, the greater the cumulative effect will be.

TDK HD-01 Tape Head Demagnetiser

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So what can you do about it? Well thankfully there are a number of different ways you can demagnetise tape heads. Popular methods include a mains powered electro-magnetic wand and those cheap cleaning cassettes that contain a rotating magnet on a little disc. In the past I relied on an the latter; an old Maxell cleaner/demagnetising cassette. However just recently I stumbled across this TDK one advertised as ‘New Old Stock’. I’ve always trusted TDK as a brand, they make good quality products and know their stuff. It was a little on the expensive side due to me needing to pay shipping and import taxes from the US but I felt it was worth it.

 

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Although the box it came in was very tatty, the contents were like new. Inside there was a small instruction manual and the demagnetiser itself. The device is powered by a small 1.5V lithium battery which should be good for 500 uses according to the instructions.

Naturally I had to install a new battery before I could get it to work. The rear of the instruction manual is stamped with the year 1978 so this little gadget is now over 40 years old! Thankfully it takes a standard size A76/LR44 button cell battery that is still readily available.

 

How does it work? – Demagnetising the tape heads

So how do you use it? Well it really couldn’t be any simpler. You basically pop it into your cassette player and press play! There’s a small plastic micro-switch above the play head that is activated by the motion of play head moving upwards when you press the play button. A red LED illuminates at the centre of the cassette to demonstrate that it’s working and that’s it, job done! When activated the circuitry inside the demagnetiser generates a pulse signal which demagnetises the play head in a matter of seconds.

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There’s a little more to the process than that if you are using the device in a cassette deck that doesn’t have a mechanical play button. The device won’t work until the play button is pressed so if you have a deck that won’t allow you to press play whilst powered off then you need to take a few precautions. This is because of the strong signal it outputs which can damage amplifiers and headphones if you don’t make sure to fully turn down any volume controls first. My Hi-Fi has a fully electronic transport mechanism so I have to be careful when using it on that device for example.

 

Commodore C2N - Demagnetising Tape head

Commodore C2N – Demagnetising the tape head in progress!

 

Thankfully most older devices have fully manual play buttons and need no such precautions. With devices like the Commodore C2N Datasette I can simply pop the cassette in, press play and the get the job done in seconds. I would imagine virtually all Walkmans would be equally simple to work with.

The manual recommends demagnetising your tape head every 30 hours of playing time. Therefore, how often you need to do this will depend on what sort of tapes you are playing and how often you play them. For my Hi-Fi deck regularly playing C60 and C90 tapes this could be as often as once a fortnight. For my computer decks playing relatively short C15 tapes much less frequently, once every 6 months would be more appropriate.

Despite the cost I think the device is totally worth my time and money. Given how precious some of my old cassette tapes and games are to me, anything I can do to help prolong their lifespan is worth doing in my book.

Retrokomp Issue 2 (1) Out Now!

Issue two of the multi-format retro magazine has finally been released and I received my copy a few days ago. Just to confuse things slightly this magazine is actually named Retrokomp Issue 1. That’s because the first issue was in fact numbered ‘0’. This is a slightly odd numbering convention that can be found on their other magazines such as Amiga User too.

 

Retrokomp Issue 1

Retrokomp Issue 1 Cover

 

This issue is packed with even more Commodore content that the previous one and arrives with a hefty count of 76 thick glossy pages.

 

A welcome bias towards Commodore in this issues contents

 

As I mentioned in my look at the very first issue, this is definitely a magazine aimed at the more serious user. There’s a big emphasis on productivity and creative software rather than gaming. This is no bad thing though as there are plenty of magazines offering gaming news and reviews now. That’s not to say the Retrokomp doesn’t dabble with games though. This issue has the first part of really interesting series of articles delving into MicroProse F-19 Stealth Fighter, possibly their finest flight simulation ever in my opinion.

 

F-19 Stealth Fightrer

F-19 Stealth Fighter on the C64

 

Rocket Smash EX Review

Rocket Smash EX Review

 

Of course there’s no shortage of interesting articles to expand your retro computing knowledge either. I particularly enjoyed the LHArchie GUI guide that shows how to install a GUI for the previously shell only LHA archive utility.

 

LHArchie GUI

LHArchie GUI

 

Other stand-out articles for me were the Ray-tracing and Brilliance articles for the Amiga.

 

Amiga Ray-tracing

Amiga Ray-tracing

 

Brilliance

Everyone remembers Deluxe Paint on the Amiga but who remembers Brilliance?

 

A quick run-down of the Commodore-centric articles in Retrokomp Issue 1:

  • F-19 Stealth Fighter
  • Data compression methods on the PET
  • Truths and myths about the Commodore 64
  • Rocket Smash EX Review
  • Black Box cartridge: Assembler support
  • My personal games set for Plus/4
  • Raytracing on the Amia 500 with 1MB RAM
  • Amiga Vision
  • (True) Brilliance: 24-bit on Amiga chipset
  • Get to know AmigaOS: programs and processes
  • PowerPC software tips
  • LHArchie GUI

 

 

Plus/4 Gaming

Plus/4 Gaming

 

If you’ve never come across Retrokomp magazine before you might like to read through my preview of the first issue here.

Alternatively if you’d like to purchase a copy of Retrokomp Issue 1 for yourself then visit the publishers website here and show your support.

A look back at Pinball Spectacular and Raid on Fort Knox for the VIC20

Pinball Spectacular

Picked up another duo of classic VIC20 game cartridges off eBay to add to my collection this week. Pinball Spectacular and Raid on Fort Knox, both of which are in pretty good condition complete with their original boxes and instruction sheets.

As usual I spent some time scanning the boxes in and adding them to my ‘3D VIC20 Game Museum‘. It’s so much easier to do this as and when I get new games. If I leave it too long they pile up and I develop a kind of mental block that prevents me doing them!

I’ve never seen or played either of these two before so had no idea what to expect from either of them beforehand. Thought I would share my thoughts on each title in the form of some mini reviews…

 

Pinball Spectacular

I’d never even seen Pinball Spectacular for the VIC20 before so this was a particularly interesting purchase for me. The game requires the use of paddles which was another reason I was keen to pick it up. There weren’t many paddle games made for the VIC so I grab any I can find!

Once I loaded this up I quickly realised that this is not a pinball game at all. It might take a few cues from it but this is basically a version of breakout.

 

Pinball Spectacular

Pinball Spectacular Title/Player select screen

 

You control two horizontal bats that you can move left and right with the paddle. Once you launch the pinball with the fire button you need to keep batting it back up the screen to destroy the coloured blocks. This can quickly get tricky as the ball ricochets, often at high speed, at all sorts of angles due to the design of the ‘table’. The goal here is to clear all the blocks and release an alien which you then destroy by hitting it with the pinball.

So far, this has far more in common with breakout than anything else. Here’s where the the pinball elements come in to play. You can hit the ghost at the top of the screen for extra points. Likewise if you can direct the ball to hit all the little faces (turning the frowns into smiles) you can gain another bonus. Light up the letters E X T R A and unsurprisingly you earn an extra ball.

 

Pinball Spectacular

Pinball Spectacular

 

It’s a very simple game but it’s presented attractively with a great use of colour and some decent sound effects. Best of all it’s actually really good fun to play, helped in no small part by the use of paddles to control the bats. I can see myself coming back to play this often, trying to rack up higher and higher scores.

 

Raid on Fort Knox

This game has a lot in common with other games such as Pacman or Radar Rat race. The aim of the game is to steal gold bars from the vaults in Fort Knox and escape back to your hideout with them. Fort Knox is represented as a maze of corridors and for some reason there are black panthers patrolling that you must avoid. Not sure why there’s panthers around instead of guards but no matter. If one touches you,  you lose one of your three lives, lose all three and it’s game over.

 

Raid on Fort Knox

Raid on Fort Knox Title Screen

 

Whilst you are navigating through the corridors to retrieve the gold, one bar at a time, there’s no time limit. However as soon as you grab a gold bar a countdown timer bar appears at the bottom of the screen. You must get back to your hideout, whilst avoiding the panthers, before the time limit runs out. The faster you get back to your hideout, the bigger the payout. If time runs out you get nothing for your troubles. If you steal all the bars you move on to a bonus vault before moving up to the next level.

 

Raid on Fort Knox

First level of Raid on Fort Knox – on the left are the gold bars. You’re the little blue guy top right.

 

The graphics can best be described as rudimentary, as are the sound effects. If it was a budget game on cassette I’d forgive these shortcomings but for a cartridge game it’s disappointing. I reckon it was probably written in BASIC. I’m glad I was able to add it to my collection but in all honesty it’s not a title I see myself coming back to in the future.

 

Raid on Fort Knox

Raid on Fort Knox Bonus Level – avoid those black panthers.

 

Retrobrighting with Just the Sun!

Retrobrighting with Just the Sun

Came across this idea of retrobrighting with just the sun on YouTube. I was highly sceptical so thought I’d give it a go myself! It’s a pretty simple idea. Instead of slathering your yellowed computer in peroxide, or immersing it in bath of bleach, simply stick it out in the sun for a few days! Sounds too good to be true right?

Enter the VIC

My VIC20 had some pretty unpleasant yellowing to it so I used that as my test subject. For 4 days straight I put it outside on a south-facing bench in the garden. I’d place it there before I left for work in the morning and bring it in once I got home in the evening. Today was the 4th and final day.

I’ll let the results below do the talking. I used the same white cotton bud in each photo as a frame of reference to judge the level of yellowing. I also took the photos in the exact same location at the same time of day to keep the lighting as similar as possible. No flash was used in any of the photos.

Before & After Results

I’m extremely pleased with the results. The overall yellowing has vanished, even the quite pronounced yellowing around the grill area has gone too. The beauty of this method is that I literally did nothing – the sun did all the work for me. I didn’t even need to dismantle the computer!

Conclusion

I’ve had some disastrous results using peroxide gel in the past. On one occasion I ended up with an appalling marbling effect on a rare C128D keyboard. After that incident I had vowed never to try my hand at retrobrighting again, however this test has changed my mind. It looks like it’s the safest and easiest way imaginable to brighten up yellowed plastic. It’ll be interesting to see if the brightening effect lasts. If the yellowing comes back in future I’ll update this article.

Three Classic VIC20 Games Remembered

Race, Skramble & Blitz

Picked up a few nice games off eBay recently for my VIC20. Although I’ve had all of them in past, this is the first time I’ve actually owned the retail releases for each game. The copies of Blitz and Race I had as a child were part of a compilation tape I got with my VIC20. I only ever had a pirated copy of Skramble so now at long last I have the original game in my collection.

Although the cassette tapes and ‘J’ card inlays were in terrific shape, the boxes on all three were extremely tatty and well worn. The very first thing I did was replace them with new ones and as you can see the games all look as good as new now.

 

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Like many people I got my copy of ‘Blitz’ and ‘Race’ on a compilation tape that came with my VIC20 computer.  I still have this tape (pictured below) of course but thought it would be cool to own the original, stand alone copies of the games too.  It’s holding up pretty well considering it’s now 37 years old!

 

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A brief look at each game

 

As I’ve done on previous occasions,  I’ve taken some screenshots of each game and written little mini reviews of each. Part of the fun of getting hold of these old games is to relive the whole experience of loading them and seeing if I even remember what they used to look like correctly after all this time.

 

Race

 

Despite some horrendous squeaking noises this loaded after a few tries. It’s a pretty spartan game with a brief text introduction and then on to the game. Despite the name and screenshot on the front of the cassette case this is not a racing game. No, this is a dodging game. Move your bike left and right to avoid the other bikes scrolling up the screen. The are four difficultly levels and it gets faster as you progress until you either reach the end or crash. Needless to say it’s not a very entertaining game, and probably never really was. The whole thing is very rudimentary, but then again it looks like it was written in BASIC so you can’t expect too much. Still, it’s a nice little bit of VIC20 history.

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Blitz

This is also a 3.5K game written in BASIC for an expanded VIC20. However this one manages to have a lot of charm and character and is quite fun to play.

The idea is simple, fly your little bi-plane across a randomly generated city as you bomb it into oblivion so you can land. Every time you reach the edge of the screen your plane drops down a row, getting ever closer to the skyscrapers below. You can only drop a single bomb at a time so there is an element of strategy (and luck) to it if you want to succeed. If you time it well you can often drop two or more bombs in one pass which is crucial to clearing the city. Fail to bomb even the smallest bit of rubble away and you’ll crash into it and it’s game over.

I played this quite a lot as a child, the graphics are really pretty good for what it is and the sound effects  work really well too. It’s still actually fun now and a worthy addition to my collection.

 

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Skramble

 

I thought this tape was faulty at first as every time I tried to load it I was getting an ‘out of memory’ error. After a spot of RTFM I tried just typing ‘LOAD’ instead of the customary ‘SHIFT & RUN/STOP’ as it suggested. Hey presto – it worked! The screen turned white and the text red and several minutes later the game greeted me with a very colourful  title screen.

I have to say this is by far the best game of the bunch, the extra 16K of RAM really allows the VIC20 to show what it is capable of. Fantastic, colourful graphics, slick side scrolling and punchy sound effects made this one of the best Skramble clones you could play at the time and it still looks great even now. It’s definitely the best version of Skramble you could play on the VIC. Just a shame so few games actually took advantage of the 16K RAM expansion back in the day as the VIC20 was capable of running some great games if given the chance.

It’s was very difficult trying to play this whilst reaching for the phone camera, games back then didn’t have a ‘pause’ feature! I’m looking forward to playing this a lot more now and reaching the end. If my memory is correct there were 6 levels in all with the final one being pretty torturous. I completed it many times over as a child and won’t rest until I do the same now as an older and wiser, albeit probably slower adult!

 

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Pi1541 Disk Drive

Pi1541 Disk Drive

Little bit of background

I’ve been aware of the Pi1541 disk drive or Pi1541 ‘hats’ for several months now. This project was undertaken to create a ‘cycle exact’ emulation of a Commodore 1541 floppy drive using a cheap Raspberry Pi computer. The idea behind it is that by fully emulating the 6502 CPU and 6522 VIA chips you would have a 100% 1541 compatible ‘disk drive’ capable of reading any disk image, even ones with custom fast loaders and exotic copy protection schemes. By contrast the ubiquitous SD2IEC devices don’t emulate either chips but rather simulate some disk protocols and use some clever code to try to blag some fast loaders into working. This is why special versions of some games need to be created to work on SD2IEC devices.

In a nutshell a Pi1541 Disk Drive utilises a Raspberry Pi B computer running custom software along with a daughter board or ‘hat’ which sits on top and connects to the GPIPO pins of the Pi. This ‘hat’ adds the standard IEC connectors and handles the stuff that is required for the Pi to successfully communicate with the attached Commodore computer. The project was created by a guy called Steve White and if you want to know the technical ins and outs then check out his website here.

Pi1541 Disk Drives can be picked up very cheaply on eBay. In fact the whole point of the project was to create something better than an SD2IEC but much cheaper than FPGA based offerings like the 1541 Ultimate II+. Of course another option is to build your own but I have neither the time nor the inclination to attempt that. The other big turn off with both of these options is that quite frankly, the devices are just plain ugly. Which brings me neatly on to my latest acquisition…

Pi1541 Disk Drive

As I mentioned earlier I’ve been aware of this project for some time, but for the reasons I mentioned above it just didn’t appeal to me. Until that is, I saw that Tim Harris who runs sharewareplus was offering a super slick, plug and play, cased Pi1541 Disk Drive complete with OLED screen. I just had to have one and after several months of waiting it has finally arrived!

 

Pi1541 Disk Drive

Pi1541 Disk Drive

 

This really is a thing of beauty, modelled closely on the first generation Commodore 1541 floppy drive. There’s so many little design cues taken from the original case. The Micro SD card slot encased in black plastic housing complete with scaled disk ‘slot’.  The red drive activity LED and green power LED. A chicken logo moulded into the casing top. The Commodore label complete with rainbow colours and a 1541 logo where the trailing 1 is actually a letter I. It even has a built in speaker to emulate the drive sounds of the original drive!

It came supplied with a Micro USB cable (to power it) and a single instruction sheet explaining what the ports are for and what the buttons do. Disappointingly it did not include a Micro SD card, IEC cable or even further instructions.

 

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The casing is approximately 5″ (13cm) deep, 3″ (7.5cm) wide and 1.25″ (3cm) tall. On the front there is a MicroSD card slot, a green power LED, a red drive activity LED and a ‘Select/Start’ switch. On the rear there is a power on/off switch, Micro USB power socket and a standard CBM IEC drive connector socket.

 

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On the top of the device is a lovely 1″ x 0.5″ (128×64 resolution) blue OLED screen along with four navigation buttons. When the device is first turned on it operates in SD2IEC mode which allows you to browse through the contents of your Micro SD card and select an image (or multiple images) to use. In this mode all 4 top buttons have a function: ‘move up’, ‘move down’, ‘exit folder’ and ‘add disk’ (for multi-disk games). In this mode the button on the front acts as a ‘select’ button.

Once an image has been selected on the device and a ‘load “*”,8,1’ (or similar drive command) is issued from the computer, it switches to full 1541 emulation mode. In this mode only the first 2 buttons on the top have a function: ‘previous disk’ and ‘next disk’. In this mode the front button acts as ‘start’.

 

Setting it up

I was advised that this Pi1541 Disk Drive worked best if you use an 8GB Micro SD card so I just picked up this [amazon_textlink asin=’B00OO1489A’ text=’generic card’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’lyonsden-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’2cfd7b41-fa87-463d-8193-fa88db2fcc6e’] off Amazon and it has worked perfectly.

 

Pi1541 Disk Drive

8GB Micro SD Card

 

Unfortunately I did not fare so well with the Micro USB power supply. The device came with a Micro USB A-B cable so I plugged it into a free port on my power strip extension lead. The drive powered up and appeared to work fine until I tried to actually load a directory listing or a program and then it would just lock up and my C64 would freeze. Thinking the device was faulty, I got in touch with the guy selling it and was advised this was likely a power issue. The Pi needs a beefy PSU, especially when it’s also powering an additional board plus OLED screen. Long story short I tried several USB chargers from phones and such like but none of them fixed the problem. In the end I ordered an official [amazon_textlink asin=’B01CO1ELT8′ text=’Raspberry Pi PSU’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’lyonsden-21′ marketplace=’UK’ link_id=’5f2082ed-bb79-4d0e-a527-0c957f374c26′] off Amazon and the problem just went away. Moral of the story? Don’t be a cheapskate and buy a decent power supply for it!

 

Pi1541 Disk Drive

Official Raspberry Pi PSU

 

In use

Once I’d properly sorted out the Micro SD card and PSU the Pi1541 Disk Drive worked perfectly. It loaded everything I threw at it including .G64 disk images that that won’t work on my SD2IEC device (but do work on my 1541 Ultimate II+). I also tried it with turbo load cartridges such as the Epyx Fastload and Action Replay VI’s Fastload. It worked perfectly and as you would expect loading times were significantly reduced using either cart. It is claimed to be 100% compatible with Jiffy DOS too but at the moment I don’t have the hardware to put that to the test.

There are a few other benefits that the Pi1541 Disk Drive has over it’s rivals. It doesn’t hijack the cassette port or user port for power like an SD2IEC device would as it’s powered independently from the host computer. Nor does it occupy the cartridge slot like a 1541 Ultimate does. It also works with my VIC20, something even the mighty 1541 Ultimate cannot do. I believe it will also work with both the Commodore 16 and plus 4 but I own neither of these machines so cannot confirm this.

There are a few niggles, the first being that the Micro SD card doesn’t have the ‘push to eject’ feature. When you want to remove it there is only 2mm of card protruding to grip onto and I found it difficult to pull out without using some needle-nose pliers.

My other gripe is that it didn’t come with an IEC cable, memory card or PSU. For a device costing £150 I would have expected these to be included and it would have saved me messing around trying to get a working power supply.

The sound produced is a little disappointing too. More a series of beep’s than a true emulation of drive noises (sounds a bit like what you get with a Gotek that’s had a sound mod fitted). My 1541 Ultimate II+ does a much better job of reproducing drive sounds.

Verdict

This is a terrific product and probably the best and most accurate emulation of the Commodore 1541 drive there has been to date. It also looks the part and will work across almost the entire range of 8-bit Commodore machines.

 

Pi1541 Disk Drive

Pi1541 Disk Drive next to 1541-II’s and a 1571

 

It’s definitely a luxury peripheral in my eyes though rather than an essential purchase. In this particular form it cannot compete on price with either the SD2IEC or the 1541 Ultimate II+ cartridge (which has many more features). However if you were to choose one of the more modest Pi1541’s you can find on eBay then it trounces the Ultimate on price and beats the SD2IEC on compatibility for a similar cost.

Another thing to bear in mind is that although, strictly speaking, SD2IEC devices are nowhere near as compatible as the Pi1541, they ARE ubiquitous. Because of this most games have been tweaked to make them work within the confines of the system out of necessity, so in most cases compatibility is often a moot point.

Bottom line is this; if you want the most compatible and by far the best looking modern 1541 Drive implementation there is and you don’t mind paying a premium for it, then you won’t find a better product than this.