Sunday, December 1, 2013

Practical Retromoblogging II: Something Old Meets Something New

By special request, I'm posting an article I wrote for now-defunct retrocomputing magazine, 300 Baud (I also had an article in the first issue).

It's a sort-of companion piece to the original Practical Retromoblogging article I wrote back in 2009, which is also the second most popular article on my blog (second only to an article that included a passing reference to an English porn star).

I present, for your reading pleasure, the original unedited article.



Something Old Meets Something New

By Shaun M. Wheeler


Two of the most exciting computer enhancements I’ve bought in the last few years came to me via the Club 100 website.  They are the manly-named REX and NADSBox, respectively.  Both are recently released add-ons for Tandy’s nearly thirty year old Model 100/102/200 line of portable computers.

The NADSBox (designed by inventor/engineer Ken Petitt) is a modern replacement for Tandy’s aging Portable Disk Drive line. Connecting via the serial port of the Model “T” computer, it enables the use of common (and inexpensive) SD cards for mass storage.  It integrates seamlessly into most applications requiring a TPDD, works beautifully with Tandy’s TS-DOS, and (best of all) the SD cards it uses can then be read (or written to) by any PC/Mac with an SD card reader!

That, for me, was the selling point. It meant no more fooling with null-modem transfers, slow downloads off the net, or unreliable TPDD floppy reader apps on the PC. With the 512Mb SD card included with the NADSBox, it also meant not having stacks upon stacks of floppies cluttering my office, as all of my 200+ TPDD floppies fit on the card.

The NADSBox was truly money well spent. I’ve had mine for over a year now, and (at the risk of sounding cliché) don’t know how I ever did without it.

However, as good as the NADSBox is, it isn’t a hard drive.  Files must still be copied onto the Model 100’s RAM and used from there (there's also a command-line feature, but I have yet to try it out).  If you use a number of apps, you may find yourself running low on available RAM.

This is where Option ROMs came in.  Back in the day, some programs (or suites of programs) were released on ROM boards that plugged into the Option ROM socket in the back of the Model “T”.  The advantage to this is that software on an Option ROM was run directly off the ROM (and not copied to memory), thus saving precious RAM.  Many software packages
such as Tandy’s TS-DOS and Microsoft’s popular Multiplan spreadsheet were released as ROMs, and proved to be popular choices.

The disadvantage, however, was that the Model “T” could only hold one Option ROM at a time.  When you wanted to switch ROMs, you had to “remove” the link to the ROM from memory (in BASIC), then physically remove the ROM, put the new one in, then CALL it from BASIC.  Another disadvantage was the impracticality of carrying several tiny, flimsy, unprotected, easily lost ROM boards with you.

This is where our manly pal REX makes his entrance.

Designed by inventor/engineer Steve Adolph, REX is a Flash memory upgrade for the Model “T”.  It plugs into the Option ROM slot, and gives the Model “T” sixteen banks for Option ROM images, as well as up to sixteen RAM banks. REX essentially gives you up to sixteen virtual Model Ts, with the ability to switch between them on the fly, thanks to the well-written REX Manager app.

I preordered the REX from Club 100 as soon as they were announced, and within a month it too was in my mailbox.  So, how does REX stack up?

Next to the NADSBox, REX is the most useful computer upgrade I’ve purchased in years.  It’s nothing short of phenomenal... let me tell you how.

Currently, I have four “images” on my Model 100: one for blogging, one for work, one for fun, and one “master” image. They are laid out as so:

BLOG: contains an Ultimate ROM-II image (includes T-Base, T-Word, Idea, View80, TB-RPT), a basic program to insert a byline and boilerplate into my writing, a few articles I’m working on, and my Shortwave Log database. Used primarily for writing.

WORK: Contains at times either an Ultimate ROM-II image or a Multiplan image, plus a couple of format conversion apps in BASIC.  Usually used for quick & dirty sales quotes at work, or when I'm trying to prove a point about using what you have to great effect.

FUN: A few games, a few “serious” apps I’m playing around with (currently messing with an emulator for the HP-12C calculator), and the odd text file I downloaded to read. Used primarily for fooling around.

BACKUP: AKA MASTER, a backup of my system in its original state. Never touched.

Without REX, I would have to keep my Model 100 relatively clear of data.  Writing and works-in-progress would have to be shunted to my PC any time I wanted to play a larger game or download a sizeable app or text file.  If I had a lot of work to do for a customer (or managing my household finances), that might mean having to swap out my UR-II and Multiplan ROMs several times in one sitting, then transferring the results to my work PC.  Without my NADSBox, it’d be even more of a chore... Definitely not constructive use of my time.

So, were the NADSBox and REX worth the money?

Yes. I wholeheartedly recommend both... they were worth every penny!  The combination of the NADSBox and REX have made my life so much easier, and have kept my Model 100 a viable, secure, and eminently useful computing platform in these days of cheap Netbooks, and disposable PCs.  (CJ's note 12/01/13: Not to mention tablets!)

If you’re at all serious about using your Model “T” computer in a serious capacity, you’d do well to pay Club 100 a visit and pick up a NADSBox and REX.

Visit http://club100.org for more details.