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New Firmware for Floppy Emu

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After a long period of hibernation, today I’ve released a set of firmware updates for the Floppy Emu disk emulator. These updates provide a few user interface improvements taken from customer suggestions over the past year, and also fix a couple of small bugs. Enjoy!

Ellipses in Long File Names – Don’t you hate it when you’ve got several disk images with very similar names, like Operating System Install Disk 1.dsk, Operating System Install Disk 2.dsk, and Operating System Install Disk 3.dsk? On the Floppy Emu’s built-in display, while browsing the contents of your SD card, the end of those long filenames were all cut off. You couldn’t tell which one was which when selecting a disk image from the menu. With today’s firmware update, the middle of those long filenames will now be replaced with an ellipsis, retaining the beginning and end of the name. Several people have been asking me for this feature for at least a year, so here you go.

Obvious Errors for Unsupported Disk Image Types – The Floppy Emu is always running in a specific emulation mode, like Apple II 5.25 Inch mode or Macintosh HD20 Hard Disk mode. When you’re browsing the contents of your SD card, the Emu knows which disk images are supported by the current mode, and which aren’t. The old behavior was to only display supported disk images and hide the others, but this seems to have confused everybody and left them wondering why their files disappeared. The new behavior is to list (mostly) all the files on the SD card, then show an error if the user selects something that isn’t a disk image supported by the current mode. In this case, you’ll see “disk image type is not supported in the current emu mode”.

Emulation Mode Highlight – Speaking of emulation modes, many people didn’t seem to realize that they exist, resulting in confusion when using the wrong mode or not knowing how to change modes. I can ask them to RTFM, but it would be nice if the UI made it more obvious. I’ve changed the Emu’s startup screen to display the current emulation mode right at the top, in inverse text, so hopefully it will now be impossible to overlook. I also fixed a subtle problem that affected people who switched from the Apple II firmware to the Mac/Lisa firmware: the Emu was defaulting to Lisa 3.5 Floppy mode after the firmware update. Quite a few people didn’t notice, and then couldn’t understand why floppy emulation didn’t work with their Macintosh. I’ve changed the behavior so it will now default to Macintosh 3.5 Floppy mode after the firmware update.

 
Get the new firmware here:

Macintosh and Lisa, for all Floppy Emu models: hd20-0.7G-F14.5
Apple II firmware, for Floppy Emu Model B: apple-ii-0.1R-F8
Apple II firmware, for Floppy Emu Model A: apple-ii-0.1R-F6

With any firmware update, there’s always a chance that I’ll accidentally break something, so please give me your feedback on whether these new versions work for you.

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Floppy Emu on the Apple III

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The poor sad Apple III never gets much love. It wasn’t popular in its time, and had a short lifespan, but today it’s a sought after collector’s item. My Floppy Emu disk emulator for vintage Apple computers supports just about every machine Apple ever made except the Apple III – or does it? The enterprising Patrick Longinotti reports his success using the Floppy Emu to boot and run his Apple III system, using a custom cable and the stock Apple II firmware on the Emu.

How is this possible? The Apple III uses a 26-pin rectangular disk connector that’s physically incompatible with the 20-pin rectangular connector of other vintage Apple computers. But it turns out that Apple didn’t innovate much in their Disk III design, and the leftmost 20 pins on the Apple III disk connector are the same as the 20 pins of the standard Disk II connector (the remaining 6 pins are used for daisy chaining and auto-sense). All that’s necessary is an appropriate 20-to-26 pin adapter cable, and this guy on Tindie will make it for you!

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Patrick reports that he’s been successful patching in the Floppy Emu as the Apple III’s internal drive, as well as using it as the sole external drive, and also daisy chaining it behind another Disk III external drive. It can be set up as drive 1 and boot the Apple III without any real floppy media, or set up as a higher numbered drive, and used after booting the Apple III from a real floppy in drive 1. According to Patrick, there occasionally will be errors, because the Disk III drives were either slower or faster than Disk II, but for the most part it works with very little issue. (Can anyone confirm this? I thought the drives were the same speed.)

Lots of Apple III software is available at apple3.org.

The only tricky part is getting the correct gender of connector on your adapter. I’ll admit that I’m confused by the Tindie seller’s description of the gender on his adapters, because they seem backwards to me. Maybe he’s referring to the gender of the connector shroud, which is the opposite of the actual pins? To be clear, this is what I mean by a female connector:

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And this is a male connector:

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The 26-pin connector on the Apple III logic board is male, as are the 26-pin daisy chain connectors on the Disk III drives. The Floppy Emu has a 20-pin male connector on its PCB. With a 26-pin female to 20-pin female adapter cable, you’ll be all set. The Tindie seller has these.

The female-to-female adapter cable isn’t necessarily the most convenient solution, however. Reaching the 26-pin male connector on the Apple III logic board is a major pain, because it involves taking apart the case, and removing the entire internal drive just to get access to the port. A simpler alternative is to disconnect the existing 26-pin cable from the internal Disk III, and then attach that cable to a 26-pin male to 20-pin female adapter cable to reach the Floppy Emu. The Tindie seller has these, but they’re only a couple of inches long.

A third alternative is a very short 26-pin male to 20-pin male adapter, combined with the existing 26-pin cable from the internal Disk III, and with the 20-pin cable that ships with the Floppy Emu. But nobody sells these.

In the end, you might need to make your own cable adapters. It’s not difficult, but if you experiment with homemade adapters, please be careful not to release the magic smoke from your valuable electronics!

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Laser-Cut Case Experiments

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While I continue experimenting with 3D-printed case designs for Floppy Emu, I’ve also been working on revisions to the existing laser-cut case design. These new laser-cut cases retain the same overall mechanical “box” as the original, but use a variety of materials, engraving, and opening cuts to give them new styles. Maybe one of these will become the new standard case, or an optional alternative. I’m interested to hear from readers about their opinions on these, so please leave a note in the comments below.

First, let’s review the existing case design that’s included in the Floppy Emu “deluxe bundle”. It’s transparent acrylic, and is great if you want to showcase the Emu’s inner chips and circuits. It looks like something an electronics fan would use with an Arduino or Raspberry Pi. The opening for the SD card is rounded, so you can reach in with your thumb and index finger to extract the micro SD card. The overall style is pretty spiffy, if I do say so myself.

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One drawback of the clear acrylic case is that it’s practically invisible. It’s 100% transparent, like looking through glass, so the etchings on the case appear superimposed on the contents inside, creating a visual mash-up that’s sometimes hard on the eyes. It’s not a huge problem, but maybe a modestly-tinted acrylic case would be better than full transparent. This one is about 25% gray tinted, which is fairly subtle. The tint is obvious when it’s placed side-by-side with the clear case, but less noticeable when viewed by itself. The opening for the SD card on the tinted case is also slightly different, with a more squared-off look.

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The clear and tinted cases both have a gloss finish, giving them a sort of future-tech look. Unfortunately the gloss finish also makes fingerprints stand out clearly, which is a bit annoying. But even if you don’t mind a few fingerprints, not everyone loves the see-through look. If you enjoy showing off the geeky internals, it’s great, but some people prefer a functional case that looks more like a standard peripheral than a science exhibit. To that end, I made two more case designs using matte acrylic that’s mostly or completely opaque.

The first of these is built from a “matte clear” material, which really isn’t clear at all. It’s like frosted glass, and you can vaguely see a blur of color through it, but no details. If hiding the internals is what you’re after, this will do it. The matte material has a very pleasing texture, and doesn’t show fingerprints at all, so the case always looks clean. This case uses the same squared-off opening for the SD card.

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The final case is built from a matte white material, and is my attempt to create something that looks more like a miniature Apple disk drive, using Apple’s “Snow White” design cues. It has a series of parallel grooves on the top plate, like the Apple IIc and IIGS and the Apple 3.5 inch external drive. The front opening even has a fake status LED and disk eject hole engraved in it, to make it resemble the front face of a real external floppy drive. The squared-off opening for the SD card is intended to give the feeling of the drive door from a 5 1/4 inch drive. This matte white case does a pretty good job of matching the style of the 3D-printed cases I posted last time, but is much faster and cheaper to make.

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The major drawback of the matte white case is that the engraved areas are difficult to see. It’s white engraving on a slightly different shade of white background. You can see from the photos how subtle the grooves and other engraved details are. Depending on the angle of the light, they may be slightly more or less visible, but they never really stand out. The title photo displaying all four cases was actually photoshopped to make the top grooves stand out better, but the other images of the matte white case were not retouched. Overall I think it’s still a direction worth pursuing, but I definitely wish there were a way to give those engraved areas more contrast.

An alternative that just occurred to me is to actually cut the grooves and fake front details all the way through the material, instead of engraving them. This would certainly make them visible, but then you’d be able to see through to the Emu board inside. That’s not really accurate – you can’t see the Apple IIc logic board through the grooves in its case, for example, because there’s a second layer of plastic under each groove. Hmmm.

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3D Printed Floppy Emu Case Experiment

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My clear acrylic laser-cut case design for Floppy Emu looks sharp, but doesn’t match the visual style of classic Apple II or Macintosh systems. It’s also a bit tedious to assemble. A few people have suggested a Floppy Emu case that looks more like a retro 3.5 or 5.25 inch Apple drive, with Apple design details and a beige/white color. In that spirit, my friend Allan recently did some experiments with a 3D printed white case for the Floppy Emu, and the results look promising.

3D printing has the advantage of making any shape possible, instead of being constrained to interlocking 2D pieces with laser cutting. This enables the case to be built as just two pieces, rather than the six pieces needed for the laser-cut version. It also enables the button plungers to be built directly into the top plate, so they can’t fall out, making the whole thing easy to assemble. If you’ve struggled with the button plungers in the laser cut case, then you’ll appreciate this.

With 3D printing, it’s also possible to approach the appearance of a retro computer accessory. The case can be matte white, instead of glossy acrylic. 3D grooves and other small details can be modeled directly into the case, instead of being limited to 2D etching. Nobody will confuse it with a 1984 Apple peripheral, but at least it will be a lot closer.

I’ve mostly avoided 3D printing until now, because I’ve found it to be slow, expensive, and imprecise. Each one of these test prints required many hours of printer time and baby-sitting. The large time sink wouldn’t an issue if I used a commercial 3D printing service instead of home printing, but initial estimates are that a 3D printed case would cost perhaps 3x as much to manufacture as the current laser-cut case design. Maybe that would still be OK if the improved appearance and ease of assembly made it worth the extra cost to customers, but it’s a lot to ask.

Imprecision has been my biggest concern with 3D printing. Using my own budget printer, it seems half the prints I make come out badly deformed. Even the “good” prints always have a smooshed corner or deformed detail or other minor problem. It’s not terrible if you’re making a prototype for self-use, but I’m not sure it would be acceptable if making hundreds of them for sale to customers. Allan’s first case experiments showed some of the same types of deformities, although he was able to improve it somewhat in later iterations by making adjustments to his printer settings. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

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Note how some of the grooves at left aren’t clean and even, and there’s a diagonal texturing across the whole surface that’s visible in some areas but not others. It’s hard to see in the photo, but the text and icons also have a slightly uneven appearance.

What surprised me was a test print made in Allan’s friend’s high-end 3D printer: it’s much more professional-looking, with very consistent print appearance across the whole case. That’s the print you see in the title photo above. I don’t know exactly what model of printer it was, or the cost, but I’ll try to find out. Here’s a close-up of the case from the better 3D printer, for comparison (click the image to see a high-resolution version).

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A question to readers: would a 3D printed “retro-style” Floppy Emu case interest you? What features do you think would be most important? What do you think would be a fair price for something like this?

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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!

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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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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

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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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