Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The Zire, Gateway to the Palm-Verse

In the early 2000s, the Palm corporation was riding high. Palm OS devices were selling well and the OS had matured significantly since it's inception. However, Palm handhelds were generally known as business devices - and Palm decided to enter the general consumer market.

In November 2002, I was a 7th grader who was constantly envious of the Palm devices I'd seen in business supply catalogs that my mom would bring home from work for me to look through. Unbeknownst to me, the Zire - Palm's entry-level handheld released under their new consumer branding - had just released for $100 USD, and I was to be a lucky kid, gifted the handheld by a mentor who I was meeting with through the school system.

A Zire in it's original packaging

For the uninitiated, the design of the Palm OS platform is comprised of two parts: the handheld, and the desktop software. Users are meant to synchronize the handheld’s data with the desktop on a regular basis, and this process (known as HotSync) is also how new apps are installed to the device. I spent a month or two unable to do any of this, because while the PC we had at home had USB ports for the cable, it also still had Windows 95, which was incompatible with the copy of Palm Desktop included on CD-ROM with my handheld. Thankfully, after some of my own mishaps, a friend of my mom installed Windows 98 on our PC, and at long last I had access to the games Palm included on the CD - and thousands more on the Internet. I would use a little free time at the end of the school day to download programs from various websites, including PalmGear and FreewarePalm, and store them on floppy disks  in order to install them on my little handheld. As a teenager, I mostly stuck to games, while my guardians took care of the actual scheduling (though I did still use my Zire’s Date Book and Address Book to some degree). I simply didn’t have much going on outside of school.

A Zire showing the Versions tab on a settings screen.A blue Zire showing the Applications Menu

The Zire had a humble two megabytes of memory - not storage, just RAM, and nothing more. If the battery died, the contents of RAM would be lost, including programs and user data. (This was why HotSyncing was not just a useful tool - it was necessary.) This was still better than the original Palm lineup, but the then-current business models, the m500 line, included 8 MB of RAM and an SD card slot. New software, such as Documents to Go, was written to take advantage of this larger amount of memory, including larger, more complex graphics, among other niceties; this resulted in me often swapping out programs to make room for new things to try. Being a broke grade school student also prevented me from purchasing commercial software, so I was only able to use them for trial periods or with "demo" limitations in place. Thankfully, there was a ton of well-crafted freeware available for use, and eventually I would learn about the cracking scene. I took the handheld to school, on trips, and virtually everywhere with me, mostly to enjoy games, but I tried countless different programs and wanted to explore the OS to the fullest.

But I still had lots to discover. In 2006, I was gifted a Zire 71.

A Zire 71 with RealOne Player open, playing a Chrono Trigger OCReMix songA Zire 71 with the camera open

The 71 offered numerous upgrades over the original Zire, including a faster processor built on ARM instead of the lower-powered m68k, video and audio playback, a higher-resolution and color screen, and even a camera capable of capturing 640x480 digital photos, plus 16 MB of RAM and an SD card slot. It immediately became my new music player (replacing a 256 MB Craig thing), and I loved it gratuitously. I would soon discover file managers, the freedom of apps with SD card support, and the necessity of keeping a backup program on hand for those rare disasters (I once had a nasty hard reset happen in the middle of a school trip, erasing my music player program!). I would encode TV shows I found on YouTube for the 71 and watch them in the middle of the night (some of them were shows I was too embarrassed to be seen watching, at the time). I would read, write, sketch, and snap photos - the 71 had the power to enable a plethora of creativity, and it didn't even have any wireless features other than IR Beaming, a staple of Palm handhelds (and it was fun for trying out IR remote control apps).Of course, it was my mobile entertainment center, too, and besides music and video, I played lots of video games on it - some Palm natives, some ports, and some through emulation. It was sometimes tricky and frustrating, as some apps just couldn't receive the polish that professionally-made software had access to, but it was worth it to me, and fun, and it felt like I was sometimes doing things with my handheld that it wasn't meant to do; I even had to install a hack to make the emulation stuff work (the technical details of which I hope to dive into in a future article).

A Zire 71 playing Bejeweled.A Zire 71 emulating Super Mario Land 2.

The Zire 71 was my launchpad to a wider world of Palm, when in 2010 I was gifted a Palm T|X, but that goes beyond what I want to cover here, for now. The Zire was my appetizer, and  the 71 was my first full course, and I will always have fond memories of the blue handheld that could, no matter how much nicer it's successors were. <3

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Trials, Tribulations, and Clamshells

I am an unapologetic fanatic of Apple’s most colorful notebook computer, the first generation iBook (colloquially referred to as the clamshell). Everything about it exemplifies Apple’s brilliant leadership of the time including striking design, powerful performance, and some level of upgradability. These factors have led to it becoming a desirable collector among Apple enthusiasts and I’ve been lucky enough to obtain four of the five colors it came in.

Featuring a unique rounded design never seen before, or since, Apple positioned the iBook as their consumer level notebook starting in 1999 to complement the more expensive PowerBook G3. Taking inspiration from the wildly popular iMac, the original iBooks feature translucent plastic cases with either blueberry or tangerine accents while later releases would also come in indigo, graphite, and key lime. Port selection includes a 56k modem, 10/100 ethernet, one USB 1.1 port, and a combination headphone jack/composite video out. The second revision iBooks would also feature FireWire 400 for digital video transfer. Optionally available was an 802.11b Wi-Fi card, one of the first laptops to offer this feature. Finally, each iBook included a passively cooled PowerPC G3 (750) running at either 300, 366, or the elusive 466 MHz.

But that’s enough general info. I figure I should talk about my personal experience with them.

I fell in love with the iBook immediately upon seeing one for the first time. Like many others, my eyes were attracted to its striking design and I knew I wanted to have one. I was able to buy a blueberry model during my senior year of high school in 2015, however it came with a dead hard drive and I didn’t yet have the tools or knowhow to deal with the problem, so I was forced to return it. It wasn’t until I was nearly finished with college that my opportunity finally came up again. I was lucky enough to find a key lime model (my personal favorite color) for a decent price so I took a chance on it. The gamble paid off as it not only worked, but ended up being the high-end 466 MHz edition!  In the years since I’ve gotten blueberry, tangerine, and graphite models leaving only the indigo out of my collection thus far.

Now, owning these laptops is one thing but maintaining them is another. As much praise as I’ve heaped upon the iBook I do have to admit their design is tragically flawed in several ways. First and most noticeably is that plastic case design. Like many computers of the era, the case plastics have proven to be extremely prone to cracking over the years. Fortunately this doesn’t affect the main body of the laptop too severely, but it is quite obvious on the screen bezel around the Apple logo as well as the clips holding the decorative bezel for the optical drive. The second main flaw is the amount of effort required to swap the storage device. The memory and AirPort card are easily accessible by flipping the keyboard up and removing two screws. The hard disk, however, taunts you by hiding just out of reach underneath the machine’s EMI shield.

The hard disk removal and replacement was something I always dreaded upon getting my iBooks, and I’ve begrudgingly become intimately familiar with the disassembly process. One must remove dozens of screws, the keyboard, the fragile top case, the entire display assembly along with its weakened plastics, the modem card, and finally the EMI shield just to even expose the hard drive. As if that wasn’t enough, its bracket is held in place by hexagonal standoffs! So much effort just to swap to more reliable storage. To this point I’ve only swapped out the hard disk on my blueberry machine, though I will have to do it again soon to swap out the logic board on the tangerine one. Sigh…

Another issue with the iBook, though not exclusive to it, is the problem of vinegar syndrome on the LCD display wherein the adhesive holding the polarizer begins to deteriorate and leave ugly streaks across the display along with an acrid acidic scent (hence the name). I did attempt to replace the polarizer on one machine which displayed this problem, and while the removal went well, I utterly failed at applying the new film correctly. Having learned my lesson, I just picked up a spare, issueless, display to swap in.

When the iBook is up and running properly, it is a fantastic machine of its time. It’s capable of running between Mac OS 8.6 up to either 10.3.9 Panther or 10.4.11 Tiger depending on the model. This also allows for the typical early 2000s experience of either dual booting classic and OS X, or utilizing the classic environment from within OS X. One of my favorite programs to try out is Connectix Virtual Game station, a commercial PlayStation emulator. It runs excellently on the clamshell from real PS1 game discs, and using a modern PlayStation controller via USB makes the experience all the more authentic. The iBook also makes for a fairly decent retro web browsing machine. Please stick to sites the poor G3 CPU can handle though! I’ve also been able to use the special edition as a portable movie player thanks to the inclusion of a DVD drive. All in all, I’m using the iBook for what Apple always intended: having fun with computing.

It may not be the most powerful or expandable Apple computer ever made, but it is one of the most innovative. From introducing wireless internet to the masses, to bringing a stylish flair to school laptops, and being one of the first latchless laptops, the iBook Clamshell continues to leave a mark on personal computing history more than 20 years after is discontinuation.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

The Wonderful World of Eamon

 This article was originally published on a now-defunct furry news website from 2018 called That Fuzzy. I wrote this article back when I was a contributor for the site, and since no archive exists, I've had the blessing of the original editor to re-publish it here. Enjoy! 

Freeware has a tendency to pervade computing society. I’m hard-pressed to find a technically-minded individual who hasn’t edited an image in GIMP, watched a video using VLC, or played a game of NetHack. Free games have been around for as long as programmers have been able to write them. Today’s story is of one public-domain piece of software that, despite having a strong cult following for almost 40 years, never seemed to catch on with a large user base.

Eamon was the brainchild of Don Brown, a programmer from Iowa, who created the concept and first game disks in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before moving on from the project. Crediting the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien and Larry Niven for inspiring the universe, the game manual describes it thus: 

“Far away, at the dead center of the Milky Way, is the planet of Eamon. It doesn't orbit any suns - all of the suns orbit it. The shifting pulls of all of these great bodies bring strange forces to bear upon this planet; … Strange things happen there, and the citizens of Eamon must always be adaptable, for things are rarely what they seem, and even more rarely what they were yesterday!” 
The title screen for Eamon was adapted from 'Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure' by Synergistic Software. 

Both the manual and title screen proclaim that non-commercial distribution is encouraged. It is entirely text-based and you interact with the game with typical interactive fiction commands, such as GET SWORD, EXAMINE POTION or ATTACK TROLL. While for the most part the actual gameplay is unremarkable, it’s hard to describe Eamon as just a game - rather, it’s a game system, like Dungeons And Dragons, and countless adventures can be crafted on top of it, and therein lies the real appeal of the game. You don’t play Eamon for Eamon’s sake, you play it to read the stories built up over decades of community input. Settings aren’t just fantasy, either - Even Don Brown himself released sci-fi stories as part of the original few adventures.

The most basic of Eamon collections begins with the one master disk with the Main Hall and Beginners Cave on it. Each subsequent adventure is then loaded from additional disks, almost all of which were written by fans. The numbered selection curated by the Eamon Wiki reaches almost 300. However, before online distribution was feasible or commonplace, getting hold of Eamon disks was an esoteric ritual akin to trying to join a secret cult. A Creative Computing magazine article from 1983 notes that the ‘official distributor’ named by Don Brown had no known address to write to and the Apple Avocation Alliance, which specialised in distributing public domain Apple software, accepted payment in the form of programs they didn’t already have! You had to be ‘in the know’ to get on the distribution lists such as The Eamon Adventurer's Guild Newsletter, which managed to last from 1988 to 2004.

Upon booting up the first disk and running the main programme, you find yourself in the Main Hall, which serves as the overall world hub, allowing you to restock, repair and retrain in relative safety before heading out on another grand excursion to kill a dungeon full of orcs. Once you’ve registered your character with the Guild Of Free Adventurers and given them a witty name, you can start off adventuring. The Beginners Cave has apparently been set up by a local warlord for all aspiring adventurers (“Let us all toast the Warlord for restocking the cave daily!”) and, while a little sparse, is a fitting introduction for the absolute beginner. You confront a hermit, a gorilla and other low-level enemies, collecting treasures such as coins and diamonds. If you make it all the way through the cave, you emerge at a sea cove where you can defeat a pirate to take his magic sword, named Trollsfire, which you can keep for future dungeoneering.

In an era where you can make outstanding and highly portable interactive fiction with editors like Inform, Quest or Twine, Eamon’s Dungeon Designer may seem a little superfluous but is a welcome addition to the programme suite and can be worked by someone with a knowledge of languages like BASIC or C.

eamon-remastered.com hosts a few classic adventures rendered in more modern form. 

If you’re keen on trying Eamon out for yourself, you have more options than just the original Apple II release; there were ports to the Atari ST and DOS made by the community, though I highly recommend downloading Eamon Deluxe, an all-in-one app using a DOSBox shell, that conveniently organises everything Eamon in one bundle. There’s a built-in catalogue of all the numbered classic adventures for the system and the Main Hall has even been replaced by an Ultima-esque graphical affair. The Eamon Adventurers Guild Online is well worth a look for other resources. Another interesting take is eamon-remastered.com, which is an in-browser rendition of a selection of adventures with considerably less antiquated fonts and backgrounds.

In 2010, Leadlight was published to the Internet. It was an amazing, unique horror game where you take on the role of a 15-year-old girl in a nightmarish corruption of an Australian high school, but was implemented using an in-browser Apple II emulator and a copy of Eamon. There is, it seems, still life in the old game yet.

What do we consider retro ?

We just ran around a question on the Discord server (you can join it here https://discord.gg/xZgEh3Bzvu ) and we started talking about retro things and a question come in my mind : what is retro anyway ?

For me, personally, i consider Windows Vista being retro but not Windows 7, even tho they are 2 years appart. But also i consider Android 4.4.4, or even 5.0 being retro but not 5.1 or 6.

The more we have talked, we found a consensus that things (for us) could be considered retro if they are 15 years old or more. For mobile devices it's a bit more complicated cuz i personally consider Android 4.4.4 definitely retro, Android 5.0 maybe and 5.1 not retro. They were released in summer 2014, late 2014 and early 2015 respectively. So anything mobile before 2015 is retro ?

But then i consider the iPhone 5 definitely retro, the 5S i have doubts about it and the 6, not at all (released in late 2012, late 2013 and late 2014 respectively). So anything before 2013 is retro then ? I would say yes but i feel like there is more recent things missing that could fit in retro. Maybe i have this impression because Apple has this tendency to support well their products (recently tho, because if we go some years back, the iPhone or some Macs were getting 1 or 2 years of support max)

And in terms of consoles, the Xbox 360, the Wii and the PS3 (released in november 2005 for the former and november 2006 for the two latter) definitely fit the retro case now. No more games are released for them (officially, for me the last game released for the Wii was Just Dance 2020 in november 2019 and i didn't see anything that recent for the others two) and their online support is about to close (Sony tried to close the PS3 and PS Vita store recently, they delayed it due to backlash). And the Xbox One and PS4 are still supported today even tho they were both released in november 2013, so for me home consoles fit the 15 years old rule for being called retro

And once again, if we go in the handheld territory, i consider the PS Vita retro even tho it's been released in early 2012 but not the Nintendo Switch released in march 2017 (i mean, it's still the last console of Nintendo and well supported but there is nothing else in the handheld gaming space that is at least 5 years old)

So bottom line, i think we can make that for home things like computers and home consoles, 15 years old or more can be considered retro and for mobile/handheld things, aproximatively 10 years is a good start (may vary on the support those product may have received)

Also i want to remind that it's only my point of view, we discussed a bit about that in the Discord server but everyone has it's own definition of what is retro. I wanted to write this to set a bottom line of what will be talked here in terms of time frame to expect

Hopping that you will enjoy what this space will have to offer ^o^

Btw this blog has a Atom feed, feel free to subscribe to it to be notified when we will post something :3

Monday, June 12, 2023

The start of something new

Inspired by other similar sites I came with the idea to create a new publication that covers all different topics and subjects in the retro technology field, putting an emphasis on long form essays covering the niche and lesser touched upon aspects of everything retro, after discussing it in my server I pooled together some of the communities ideas and began preparing to get this site up and running 

What you're seeing right now is a culmination of those ideas, first and foremost this was meant to a community project instead of just being something of my own, the name "Digital Train of Thoughts" plays on the name of my server "The Digital Bowtie Lodge" where this project spawned from, it was picked by the community out of a small selection of other names - before deciding on this name CyberRetro and Retro Feed voted highest out of a small poll we ran

So now that this site is ready and the concept behind it has been finalized people are now free to contribute and start publishing articles, anyone in the server is welcome to pitch in wherever they can, even if you're not confident in your writing you might be able to help out with other aspects such as coming up with article ideas or proofreading 

Not a part of the community and interested in contributing? come stop by our server and poke your head in the dedicated channel for the site (https://discord.gg/xZgEh3Bzvu)