Sunday, November 8, 2020

Review of Products Three for my Apple //e

A minimally-functional Apple //e requires very little in the form of upgrades.  Add an 64KiB memory expansion, a floppy disk controller card and a disk drive or two and you should be all set.  But a few upgrades can really improve the experience, and to allow my Apple //e to be the best Apple //e it can be, I purchased three modern upgrades for my newest vintage computer.  Here I will review each product, describe its features and caveats and indicate whether I recommend it.

Floppy Emu

There are several floppy drive emulators for the Apple II, but for me the choice came down to Floppy Emu or wDrive.  Both devices support nib and woz files, which I had to have.  When I built my Apple //e system last month, Floppy Emu was available and wDrive was not, so the choice was a simple one.  

The site which sells Floppy Emu, Big Mess o' Wires, offers several options when buying a Floppy Emu, but my advice is to get the Deluxe Bundle.  The Floppy Emu is rather fragile as a bare board with a display sitting on top of it, the Acrylic case looks good and gives the device the stability it needs as a daily driver for your Apple II experience.  

The Deluxe Bundle comes with a ribbon cable with an IDC connector on each end as well as an IDC to DB-19 adapter.  This allows it to work with the older Disk II Controller Card with the pin header connector to connect to Disk II drives or the newer 5.25" Disk Drive Controller Card which uses a DB-19 connector to connect to the DuoDisk or the later UniDisk/5.25" Disk drives.  

The Floppy Emu is powered by the Apple II's drive cable and two of them can be used on a Disk II Controller card.  I do not know of a way where two Floppy Emus can be used with the DB-19 connector the 5.25" Disk Drive Controller Card uses.  Floppy Emu can also be used with the 68K Macs as a floppy drive or a hard drive, the Apple Lisa as a floppy drive or as an Apple II Smartport hard disk drive.  With a //c+ or //GS it can also simulate an 800KiB drive.  To get a Smartport hard drive or a 3.5" UniDisk drive working in an Apple //e requires the Apple II UniDisk 3.5 Controller (Liron card).  There is an adapter to allow the Floppy Emu to be the "bootable" drive instead of the built-in 5.25" drive of the Apple //c.  

Floppy Emu supports .dsk, .do. po. .2mg, .nib and .woz images.  These are most of the image formats you will routinely come across.  Floppy Emu cannot write to .nib or .woz images.  You will need a hardware controller that works with a 3.5" floppy drive to use .2mg images.  Writes will have no effect on the disk image, so a program can write to a floppy but if it tries to verify the write, then you may be stuck.  Many games will allow you to copy over a save disk or make a save disk without copy protection present on it.  Floppy Emu cannot format floppy disk images, but the included microSD card has blank DOS 3.3 and ProDOS formatted images which you can duplicate and use.  

Floppy Emu expects the microSD card to have floppy images on it which it can load and unload as the user specifies.  The microSD card must be in FAT32 format, and even the small microSD which comes with the Deluxe Bundle can easily fit thousands of disks.  Floppy Emu is controlled by four buttons, reset, prev, select and next.  

The LCD screen is easy to read and is backlit.  File names are truncated if they do not fit on one row of the screen.  If you have many disk images with similar names it can be difficult at times to figure out which disk image to insert, especially if the game uses multiple disk sides.  The microSD card is organized in menus and submenus.  The amount of time it takes to go into a subfolder depends on how many items there are in it.  A folder with 100s of items will take several seconds to load the file list.  I would suggest organizing your disk images in many folders and subfolders alphabetically, aiming for around 50-75 disk images per folder for more frequently accessed folders.  Floppy Emu automatically sorts images alphabetically, but there does not appear to be an option to disable that feature, which may speed up disk operations.    

The prev, select and next buttons are used for your folder navigation.  When navigating folders, the prev button is used as "up" and the next button is used as "down".  The select button is used as an enter button to go into a folder and an insert button to insert a disk image into the simulated floppy drive.  The file list will not "wrap-around", so if you go all the way to the end of a directory, you must go all the way back up until you see the \.. folder to go back up a level.  The scrolling speed does not vary, ideally Floppy Emu would scroll the directory faster the longer you held down a scroll button.  

Floppy Emu will remember the last disk inserted into the drive if the system is powered down and the Apple II (Plus or later) will try to boot that image on the next power up.  If you do not wish to boot the current image, you can hold down the reset button on Floppy Emu to eject the disk and let you start from the root of the drive.  You can also do this anytime when the Apple II is on, just be aware that if the currently running program was in the middle of reading a disk, the program will likely crash or go weird.  The automount options can be changed as described in the user manual.  You can designate a favorites folder for the device to present when powering up instead of the root menu, the process is described in the user manual.

The reading speed of Floppy Emu is nearly identical to that of an original drive. It may be a little faster because there is no drive head to position and no sector seek time, but you are not going to get significantly faster disk speeds than an original drive.  Seadragon relies on 

Compatibility with the simple disk image formats is very good.  If a dsk, do or po image works with AppleWin (Windows) or Virtual II (macOS) then it should work with Floppy Emu.  nib image support seems OK, I have not had any failures.  .woz image support using images from the woz-a-day archive is a bit more hit and miss, most games will work but some (Bruce Lee) will not.  That a woz image will work in AppleWin is no guarantee it will work in Floppy Emu.

Why is woz so important?  The woz format takes a raw (and large) flux level image of a disk and uses analysis and heuristics to turn it into something an emulator can work with.  The Commodore 64 has .G64 images, the Amiga has .IPF  images, the Atari ST has .STX images, the Atari 8-bits have the A8R images and the IBM PC has Deluxe Option Board IMG images which serve similar functions.  The woz format can support virtually any copy protection used by original disks intact.  The Apple II image archives used to be littered with cracked games which had cracker group graffiti and intros all over the the original introductions.  Now with nib and woz images, we can enjoy more and more games as the developers originally intended.  It is unfortunate that the maker of Floppy Emu has stated that he has no intent to bring nib and woz writing support to the device, but fortunately many games have workarounds for the lack of write support.

If you are using Floppy Emu with a Disk II Controller card, one end of the ribbon cable should have the ribbon oriented that it moves away from the card.  This is the end you should use for the card end of the equation.  The other end requires a bit more work on the Floppy Emu end, but it is better and safer than trying to bend the ribbon cable against the Disk II Controller card.

Even though the Floppy Emu is not a perfect product, for what it does it does very well.  It will seem a liberation from writing images to disk using ADTPro.  Despite room for improvement, I would recommend the Floppy Emu as a good floppy drive simulator for the Apple II.

IBM 15pin to Apple 9pin Joystick Adapter


This little adapter was designed by Manila Gear and is sold by ReActiveMicro.com.  Although pricey at $40.00, it is very useful little box.  Apple II joysticks tend to be somewhat expensive on eBay and they also tend to be derived from the boxy Kraft-joystick design.  This design was very popular in the 1980s, and used by Tandy, IBM and Apple for their contemporaneous joysticks.  If you want a pistol grip or more substantial flightstick, then the Apple II options are more limited while the IBM PC 15-pin options are extremely varied.  This adapter allows you to use any standard IBM PC joystick with the DE-9 connector of an Apple //e, //c or //GS.  You can also use the Adapter with the DIP-16 Game I/O socket found in the Apple II, II+ and //e, but you will need a converter from the DE-9 connector to the DIP-16 Game I/O socket to use this adapter.

Many, many Apple II games support joysticks and some games even require them to play at all.  Many of these games do not rely on the analog nature of the joystick axes.  These games just look for a threshold value, and if its crossed, process that as a directional.  The Gravis PC Gamepad (and possibly clones of it) works very well with this adapter and I highly recommend the combination.  However, there will be games, like Little Brick Out, which require a true analog range of motion.  For these games a Kraft-like stick with the ability to disable self-centering is a very good substitute for pricey Apple II paddles.

If you use the adapter on a //e, be sure to put something underneath it to bridge the gap between the connector and a table underneath.  While analog joysticks have their own trimpots to enable you to center the joystick to 128,128 or 127,127, digital gamepads like the Gravis do not.  Games that rely on more digital control do not expect perfect centering, so being off a few digits is not going to affect game reads from the adapter much.  

ReActiveMicro Phasor Clone

ReActiveMicro Phasor Clone, courtesy of reactivemicro.com

This is by far the most difficult review to write of anything I have used in my Apple //e.  The Phasor was a sound card designed and released by Applied Engineering back in 1986.  It is compatible with the Mockingboard sound cards but supports twice the number of AY-3-891x music chips, 4 vs. 2, of a Mockingboard.  It also supports a pair of SC-02/SSI-263 speech chips and internal speaker input.  These cards are more difficult to find on eBay than a Mockingboard and tend to go for a fair bit of cash when they pop up.  

Applied Engineering Phasor, courtesy of reactivemicro.com

Clones of the Mockingboard were available from 2005 but the Phasor is a more complex sound card, including a pair of Programmable Logic Array (PLA16V8s) chips which do not lend themselves to easy reverse engineering.  In 2019 ReActiveMicro had fully reverse engineered an original Phasor card and released its clone of the Phasor.  ReActiveMicro made two changes from the original, first replacing the dual RCA jack output with a 3.5mm stereo jack connector and second replacing the two gain potentiometers with fixed resistors.

Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to the designer of the Phasor clone, the change from a variable resistor to fixed resistors caused me nothing but grief when I obtained my Phasor.  The design of the amplifier circuit is really finicky, requiring just the correct amount of gain to the amp on each side or things get bad.  The first card I had would show wavy lines in the video, but only when one channel was playing.  (This wavy video may not be apparent for software which only uses one music chip).  The other channel sounded very distorted.  This guy also complained of similar issues.  I contacted ReActive Micro tech support and they sent me out a replacement card.  I originally thought that a bad batch of amplifier chips were to blame.  However, the issues persisted when I replaced the included amplifier chips with ones I bought from Jameco.

At wits' end, I decided to restore the potentiometers.  That eliminated the issue of audio bleed but dialing up the gain on one side reintroduced the wavy video issue.  The other side presented a lot of machine noise unless the gain was increased to such an extent that the volume levels would never be equal without a lot of wavy lines.  A friend of mine also complained about ugly machine noise in one channel of his original card.  

ReActiveMicro had been very supportive of my efforts to try and diagnose the card's issues.  They sent me schematics of their design and images of the original board they depopulated as well as the clone board unpopulated to help me trace circuit diagrams.  I simply could not find any variances from the original design either with a multimeter or tracing out the circuit.  Finally a friend of mine suggested tapping the line out signal from the sound card instead of wrestling with the amplifier and its pots.  He told me to remove the amplifier chip and where to bridge the points and two pieces of wire later, I had a line out Phasor.  I did not realize that the AY-3-891x series audio outputs were strong enough to drive a line-level signal, but he told me they were and I trusted his knowledge.

When I was finished I was amazed at the resulting sound.  No wavy video, no machine noise out of one side, and surprisingly, no muffled audio.  With a good audio cable, the audio balances are nearly equal and remain so.  Here you can compare Ultima IV's soundtrack played back by the stock ReActive Micro clone with one which has been recorded from the clone modified for line out.  (I was also unknowingly suffering from a bad audio cable when I recorded the stock clone's output, so the distortion is worse than if I had used a good cable).

Unfortunately this mod eliminates the Phasor's ability to input Apple Speaker sound, but that input distorts the audio character of the sound, alternating between "pingy" and "warbly".  Some sounds, like the initial system beep, may be inaudible.  I cannot say I will weep too much, but it does make capturing Mockingboard music and Apple Speaker much less convenient at present.  I can capture both, one through the line in and the other through a capture device and hope it syncs up in OBS.  While I do not have a speech chip at the moment, this mod also disables its ability to be output.  However, I believe it can be re-enabled without too much difficulty.

The original Mockingboard and the Phasor sound cards implement a first order lowpass filter with a cutoff frequency of around 1.5KHz for their music output.  Emulators tend not to simulate this filter of the "Muffleboards".  I am not opposed to low-pass filtering of square wave sound, but the original cards use too low of a cutoff frequency.  The line out mod bypasses the filtering, which gives the Phasor a clean sound, perhaps too clean.  A friend of mine likes the 4.8KHz first order low-pass that the IBM PCjr. and Tandy 1000 PSGs use on their line outputs, and this can be achieved with a 330 Ohm resistor and a 100nF capacitor on the left and on the right outputs.  

The original Phasor was designed to drive headphones and passive/unpowered speakers with its amplifier chip.  The fixed resistors set the level to something which would be acceptable to a line level input, but the output is rather hot.  With the line out mod, I can comfortably set my line input level to 75% to capture a signal that is loud but unlikely to clip.  With the stock card, I have to set the input level to 20%.  The line out mod eliminates the ability to use passive speakers and headphones, but unless your only speakers are those connected to your turntable, this probably will not be an issue for you.

One way to check whether your card has distortion is to play sounds on the left and right sides of the card.  The Applied Engineering Phasor Disk 1 comes with a program called Sound Builder, #2 under the Sound Effects Programs option, #3.  This option allows you to test each AY music chip, with Channels 1A-1C and 2A-2C being sent to the Left audio output and Channels 3A-3C and 4A-4C being sent to the Right audio output.  Turn on Tone for Channel 1A, set the pitch to something like 440 (160Hz) and the volume to 15.  Then play the channel, stop it and record the result in Audacity.  Then repeat the process for Channel 3A.  If you hear a lot of machine noise, then you should find a way to reduce the gain to the amplifier.  You may also see wavy video in this testing, which also is a symptom of too much gain.

So can I recommend the ReActiveMicro Phasor?  A Phasor only offers two extra AY chips over a Mockingboard and I believe the ReActiveMicro Mockingboard offers a slightly less obnoxious Apple speaker passthrough and an option to have one speech chip output in dual mono.  (No software supported two speech chips and the Phasor's design assigns each speech chip to a separate channel.)  The only software which supports the extra music chips of the Phasor is its own included software and Ultima V.  Ultima V also supports two Mockingboard cards.  ReActiveMicro's Mockingboard clone also has fixed resistors instead of the original's potentiometers, so it may or may not suffer from similar issues.  Whether your card suffers from wavy lines or audio bleed or some other issue may depend on whether the resistors are at the ideal resistance for the amplifier design, which can vary given that the resistors used have 5% tolerance.  Having said all that, my answer is a qualified yes if you are willing to solder to fix issues inherent in the original and the clone's designs.

How to Restore or Modify your Phasor

To restore your Phasor to its "pre-clone modified" state, you will need a pair of 10KOhm linear potentiometers.  Something like these may be suitable, but the longer leads the better.  When you have those, start by removing the two resistors immediately below the white silkscreened LEFT and removing the two resistors immediately below the white silkscreened RIGHT on the Phasor's PCB.  Then connect each potentiometer with one of the outer legs in the hole which connects to the 10KOhm resistor below, the other outer leg connected to ground and the middle leg connected to the output trace, which is the thick trace on the front of the board where the 8.2KOhm and 1KOhm resistors each have one leg connected.

To implement the line out mod, first you must remove the amplifier chip, which is marked LM1877 from the Phasor's PCB.  Then connect a wire from the negative terminal of the electrolytic capacitor immediately below LEFT to the positive terminal of the electrolytic capacitor marked LEFT with small letters and has a thick trace which leads directly to the audio jack.  Connect a second wire from the negative terminal of the electrolytic capacitor immediately below RIGHT to the positive terminal of the electrolytic capacitor marked RIGHT with small letters and has a thick trace which leads directly to the audio jack.

If you wish to add Apple Speaker passthrough support, you must solder a pair of additional wires.  There are two points, one at the left side of the fourth dip switch (looking at the solder side) and one just to the left of it, which can be used to tap the speaker signal.  Connect one wire to each point and the other end of the wire to the capacitors marked LEFT and RIGHT.  You will probably need a larger blob of solder because you are connecting two wires to each point.

If you wish to add speech output to the mix, you will need to change the anchor of the music wires to the whole where the input into the pots would go.  This will decrease the output volume somewhat, you can easily use 100% of your line input level to record the speaker and music audio.  I do not have a speech chip, so I am not completely sure that this is the best option.  If I ever acquire one, I will revise this section.

As you can see, these mods are not too difficult to do, and hopefully they can be improved upon in the future.  Also, it is possible that a new run of Phasor boards may address some of the issues I found with the card.  This guy did an alternate fix.

I hope you have found something informative about these reviews.  I paid my own money for these products, so you'll get both the good and the no-so-good as I have experienced them.  Overall I am very pleased with the aftermarket upgrades I have purchased for my Apple //e.

2 comments:

  1. I assume the regular Mockingboard devices also have the low-pass filter issues? I've had trouble writing demos that sound awesome in the emulator and sound awful on real Mockingboard hardware when the music is bass-heavy.

    also have the problem where it's impossible to get good sound recordings out of the actual Mockingboard as the line level is too high and causes clipping, should see if I can put potentiometers there too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Mockingboards have similar low-pass filter issues. Those amplifier designs are not ideal for recording. Pots will help, but to bypass the filter you should tap the outputs directly from earlier in the circuit.

      Delete