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Archive for the 'Floppy Emu' Category

DB-19: Resurrecting an Obsolete Connector

Oh man, this is good! You’re looking at the first DB-19 connector to be made in the 21st century:

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This is a happy story about the power of global communication and manufacturing resources in today’s world. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you’ve certainly heard me whine and moan about how impossible it is to find the obscure DB-19 disk connector used on vintage Macintosh and Apple II computers (and some NeXT and Atari computers too). Nobody has made these connectors for decades.

I’ve got a disk emulator product called Floppy Emu that attaches to an Apple DB-19 port, so I need a steady supply of these connectors to build my hardware, and that’s a problem. Over the past couple of years, I’ve scrounged what seems like every warehouse and basement on the planet, and bought up nearly the entire world’s remaining supply of new-old-stock DB-19 connectors. My last few product batches included DB-19s from some very obscure international sources. It was clear I’d reached the end of the road.

This wasn’t a surprise. The DB-19 shortage first became obvious to me about a year and a half ago, when a manufacturing error forced me to replace all the DB-19 connectors in a batch of boards, and replacements couldn’t be readily found. Since then I’ve written a dozen times about the impending DB-19 doomsday. I also made several attempts to design a DB-19 substitute using a small PCB and suitably-arranged header pins, but while they more-or-less worked, I wasn’t satisfied with the result.

The specific part in question is a D-SUB DB-19 male solder cup connector, sometimes called DB-19P. It’s very similar to the more familiar DB-9 (old style serial ports) or DB-25, but with a different width to accommodate the different number of pins. “But wait!” says the well-intentioned blog reader, “this web site over here has DB-19P connectors for sale right now!” They may claim to have them, but trust me, they don’t. Electronics parts suppliers seem to make a habit of listing available items that aren’t actually available, whether out of laziness or as an intentional bait-and-switch, I’m not sure. But if you call them or try to actually order the parts, you’ll find they don’t exist.

 
Custom Manufacturing

About 15 months ago, I first started looking into the idea of manufacturing new DB-19 connectors. So here’s the thing – how do you go about having something like this made? I had no clue, and it took me over a year. How do you find factories that might possibly build something like this, and then how do you find a contact person to whom you can explain your needs? Almost all the manufacturers that I talked to blew me off, or wouldn’t even talk to me at all. The US-based manufacturers weren’t interested, or couldn’t do it. In the end, I went through Alibaba listings for companies that make other types of D-SUB connectors, and emailed several dozen of them to ask if they could make a DB-19. Only a few even replied, and only two said they could, both located in China.

The estimated cost was eye-watering – a minimum order size of 10000 pieces and a total cost well into five figures. I had naively assumed that somebody might still have old DB-19 molds they could reuse, or that DB-25 tools could somehow be easily adapted to make DB-19 connectors. Nope. I did a lot of research into possible alternatives like 3D printing or alternate materials, but nothing looked viable. And given the tiny scope of my disk emulator business, I couldn’t justify spending tens of thousands of dollars for making new DB-19s.

So nothing happened. A year passed, and the DB-19 shortage grew more dire still. I made another attempt at designing a DB-19 substitute, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. Out of options, I reluctantly circled back to the manufacturing idea again. I tried to calculate how many years of future sales it would take before I could earn back my investment, and it was a depressingly large number.

But just as I was getting discouraged, good luck arrived in the form of several other people who were also interested in DB-19 connectors! The NeXT and Atari communities were also suffering from a DB-19 shortage, as well as others in the vintage Apple community, and at least one electronics parts supplier too. After more than a year of struggling to make manufacturing work economically, I was able to arrange a “group buy” in less than a week. Now let’s do this thing!

 
Let’s Build It!

db19-mechanical-drawing-crop

Early on, it became clear they’d need more specific directions than simply “make it like a DB-9 but with more pins.” They wanted mechanical drawings and specifications for the part. Umm… They asked for information from my engineering department. Er… I was stumped by this for a short while, but then I found an old mechanical drawing of a DB-25. I photoshopped that sucker, edited some key measurements, and that was what they used for the very expensive mold-making process. I’m still kind of shocked that this actually worked.

Payment required wiring a Very Large Amount to a bank in Hong Kong – no PayPal accepted here. I’m sure the people at my bank thought I’d been duped by some kind of Nigerian 419 scam. Maybe it’s more common elsewhere, but transfers of this type are rare at US retail banks. In my case, it took the branch manager and 30 minutes of paperwork to get the transfer done.

Two months passed, and a round of prototyping. Progress was slow but steady, and I received updates from the manufacturer every few days. I kept waiting, eagerly anticipating this DB-19 bounty. At the end of May the product finally shipped, only to disappear into a US Customs black hole somewhere for a couple of days. Then at long last, after what felt like an infinite wait, I came home to find 10000 of these beauties stacked on my doorstep:

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20160603_180001_Richtone(HDR) copy

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For the moment at least, I have nearly the entire world’s supply of DB-19 connectors, stacked in my living room. I think I’m going to fill the bathtub and swim in them.

Next step: re-ship the majority of these DB-19 connectors to the other people in the group buy. They should start becoming available in small quantities at electronics parts suppliers in a couple of weeks.

Assuming Floppy Emu sales continue apace, I’ll eventually make back my investment in a couple of years. If not, it will at least make for a good story. :-) Now, let the retro-hardware celebration begin!

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The End of Things

DB19MS

After predicting the end of the DB-19 connector supply for over a year, it’s finally happened. I recently sent my last stockpile of new-old-stock DB-19s to the board shop for assembly of more Floppy Emus. I have two left that I’m keeping as souvenirs, and that’s it. I’m sure there are still a few left somewhere in the world, hiding out in some obscure surplus warehouse, but they’ve become so difficult to find that they may as well not exist.

This also means the end of the Universal Adapter for Floppy Emu Model A, because building one requires a DB-19. I think I have two or three left, and when they’re gone that will be the end.

My stock of Floppy Emu Model B boards is nearly exhausted as well. I still have enough of the older Model A for the time being, but I expect the Model B will be sold out within a week. If all goes as expected, it will hopefully only be a short sell-out, since I’m expecting a new batch of Model B’s from the board shop in a few weeks. But later this year when those are all gone too, things will get interesting.

I’m working with a group of other vintage computer collectors and parts dealers to manufacture a large run of new DB-19 connectors. As far as I’m aware, these will be the first new DB-19s made anywhere in the world in the past couple of decades! More details on this soon.

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Floppy Emu Firmware Update: Mac HD Menu

HD20

I’ve added a new feature to the Macintosh/Lisa firmware for the Floppy Emu disk emulator: a menu for selecting disk images while running in Mac hard disk emulation mode. This is the mode that enables Floppy Emu to function as an HD20-type hard disk with compatible Macintosh models, with disk sizes up to 2 GB. Previously the hard disk image was always taken from a file named “HD20.dsk” on your SD card. If you had a few different hard disk image files, and wanted to select the right one for a given situation, you had to put the SD card into your Windows/OSX computer and rename the desired file to HD20.dsk. While this wasn’t a common need, it was not especially user-friendly.

Get the new firmware here: hd20-0.7F-F14.5

With the new firmware, the first time you run it you’ll see a hard disk image selection menu. The name of the chosen disk image file is saved in EEPROM memory, and will be used for all future sessions. If you later want to choose a different disk image file, the NEXT button will return you to the selection menu.

After choosing a new disk image for hard disk emulation mode, the Mac needs to be turned off and on (Floppy Emu will prompt you to do this), or you need to press the Mac’s hardware reset switch. That’s because the Mac doesn’t expect HD20-type drives to be removable media, and doesn’t recognize when the disk has changed. Without a reboot, it will blindly continue as if the original disk were still present, leading to unpleasant results.

I welcome your feedback on this change. Let me know if you run into any trouble.

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DB-19 Group Buy

DB19MS-2

Holy cow, this is actually happening! After over a year of searching what seems like every warehouse and basement on the planet to scrounge for DB-19 connectors, I’m finally moving forward with the manufacture of new ones. As far as I’m aware, these will be the first new DB-19s made anywhere in two decades, since the days of the Macintosh II, Atari ST, and NeXT.

To make this work, we need to place a BIG order. Right now that looks like 10,000 pieces. If anyone else in the vintage Apple, Atari, or NeXT communities might be interested in joining this group buy for a minimum of 500 pieces or more, please contact me by Monday, March 21. For a male DB-19 with solder cups as pictured above, the price will be about USD $1.41 each, plus or minus a few percent depending on the final tally for shipping and other fees. If you’re interested in a smaller number of connectors, or just one, stay tuned. Other participants in the group buy will be selling individual connectors at retail once the manufacturing is done. More details soon…

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Floppy Emu Firmware Update: Disk Automount

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By popular demand, I’ve added a new feature to the Apple II firmware for the Floppy Emu disk emulator: auto-mounting of the previous floppy disk image. If you turn off the computer while a disk image is inserted in the emulated floppy drive, the next time you turn the computer on, Floppy Emu will skip the menus and immediately load that same floppy disk image. This is a nice time saver if you tend to use the same disk image every time, but it’s buried in a sub-sub-directory on your SD card. It also makes it possible for an Apple IIc, IIc+, or IIgs to cold boot directly from a floppy disk image. Previously it was necessary to select the desired disk image from the Floppy Emu menu, then soft-reset the computer by pressing control-apple-reset.

apple-II-0.1P-F8Apple II, for Model B
apple-II-0.1P-F6Apple II, for Model A

I welcome your feedback on this change. While the convenience is undeniable, I’m not completely sure I like the new behavior. After the power is turned on, if the Floppy Emu is going to auto-mount a disk image, there’s a very short window of time during which it can be done. In order to auto-mount the floppy image quickly enough for the computer to boot from it, the Floppy Emu must skip the normal self test (smiley face logo) and version info screen (diagnostic info, and emulation mode selection). This may be a little confusing for people who are looking to verify their current firmware settings, or change the emulation mode. They can eject the auto-mounted disk to restore the normal startup screen flow. What do you think?

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New Demo Video

I put together a new demo video for the Floppy Emu Model B, since the old videos had become hopelessly out of date. Enjoy!

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