a:\20100709.txt

The Amstrad PPC640 and Modems

Weird, we just had a minor power-outage which knocked off the Amstrad and caused me to lose a few lines worth of work. I know it wasn't just the amstrad because the lights dimmed as well. Never mind - I guess I'm lucky in that power is so dependable (normally) in England. Must remember to manually save this file as I go along.

So, I'm typing this on my venerable Amstrad PPC640 which I rooted out from the garage earlier. It's a convoluted route as to how I got here, but please bear with me! My thoughts had turned to my impending holiday and how I was going to carry on my retrochallenge whilst basking in the warm sun in France (well, hopefully anyway). I could do like the other campers and hook into the wifi (although I'd be suprised if it's free) or, chatting quitely to myself, could I do this via a good old fashioned modem? Now, I still have two computers with a modem, and a friend on HECnet who's just implemented a dial-up service into his OpenVMS box. I tried the connection to his box using the internal modem of the IBM X60 thinkpad, cringing as I had to endure a brief session with hyperterm, before my thoughts turned to the PPC640.

This particular model was bought by me back in the day - must have been around 1988/1989. The first one I had went belly-up fairly shortly after collection and I had an agonising wait for Dixons to pull their finger out and find me another one. In the end only the main unit was returned, so I ended up with two of everthing else (manuals, discs etc.) If you want to know more about the PPC640 google it - the photos I took also give a good impression of the phyisical form factor. It's an 8086 based PC running MSDOS 3.3 with dual 720k floppies, 640k ram and an internal 2400 baud modem.

The first problem I had was finding some floppies. Last time I'd played with them machine I'd burnt a FreeDOS floppy and a Ketman floppy (which is an 80x86 assembly language programming environment (very good and very innovative too - worth checking out if that is your thing!) I found some images of the two floppies originally supplied with the machine and by digging out my Dell Inspiron 7500 laptop (which would qualify for retrochallenge in itself) I managed to download the images and the utility for creating disks from them (MSDOS based), format 720k floppies on the PPC640 (using the old 1.44MB and a piece of tape trick) then copy the compressed images onto those discs, load the disk into the PPC640 and run the decompress to the other floppy. I don't think this process would have worked had I only had one floppy drive.

So I then had the machine in it's originally shipped hardware and software configuration. Plugged in the modem, ran up Mirror II (the comms software) which is really user friendly (uses text based commands) and within another five minutes had dialled up my friends OpenVMS based Alpha box and was happily logging through that back to my machine via HECnet (wide area DECnet). What a fun time - you can see this happening on the video at the end of this post.

One thing I always loved about the PPC640 is the keyboard - it has a really nice feel (if a little on the sloppy side). Reminds me of some of the non-DEC terminals I used to connect to Hatfield Poly's VAX in their library. The machine initially wouldn't power up, and the battery in my test meter had gone flat so I resorted to the old tongue test to check the power adapter. Not sure whether it was just a dirty connection, but next time when I plugged power in it fired up no problem!

Once I'd determined that the 'organiser' software which comes on the DOS disk with the PPC640 was not capable of editing plain text files (I suspected as much) I hunted round and found 'rped' on the boot disk which is a full screen editor for text files (upto 750 lines in length!!!) It works quite well, except that the DEL key acts like Backspace does these days (although one may argue that backspace should do just that and not delete!) and I have to type Alt-M at the end of each line when inserting text into the middle of a document. There is no word wrap - I'm having to manually type return at the end of each line. Still, mustn't grumble...

So, next step will be to get hold of a modem cable for my very retro Nokia 7110 mobile phone and see if I can get either the comms software built into the Cambridge Z88 to dial out or alternatively the PPC640 (slightly less camping friendly) or possibly the Sparcbook when that arrives.

I will now attempt to upload this file onto BUBBLE (which is the VAX that hosts this website) by dialing up and pushing the file - failing that I'll have to boot up the Dell Inspiron and upload it from that. The Dell has a funny Imation LS-120 SuperDrive which is a floppy that could, with special discs, store upto 120MB. I had one in the Dell and one in a tower case and before USB it worked very well for transferring files. Linux still does a very good job of supporting the device which is a little odd in that it appears to the operating system as an IDE drive, not a floppy drive.

Wish me luck!

p.s. uploading via the modem worked a treat - absolutely no hassle whatsoever!