Monthly Archives: June 2006

This Old Commodore

The L.A. Times did a story on devotees of the old Commodore 64 and VIC-20 computers pegged to a user group in Fresno. That’s even farther back than This Old Mac:

In an era when a home computer’s power is measured in gigabytes, (Robert) Bernardo still counts kilobytes as a devoted Commodore user 12 years after the last machine was assembled.

Once the largest personal computer maker in America, the company behind the VIC-20 and the Commodore 64 introduced millions of people like Bernardo to the digital age. The company went out of business in 1994, but its legacy survives in dozens of Commodore clubs around the country.

Bernardo presides over the Fresno chapter.

Never mind that the VIC-20 has so little usable memory — just 3.5 kilobytes — that it can store only a couple of pages of text in its buffers. Or that Commodore hardware was notoriously clunky and buggy. Bernardo still manages all his e-mail on a 1980s-vintage Commodore 64.

“I’ve never considered the Commodore obsolete,” Bernardo said. “I can still do many things with it — e-mail, browse the Web, word processing, desktop publishing and newsletters. I still do games on it: new games that are copyright 2006, ordered from Germany.”

Web browsing on a Commodore 64? If that’s possible, anything is. Here’s one way to do it on the C64 and lots of other 8-bit hardware, including the Apple ][, VIC-20 and even Game Boy. Here’s another place to start for those who want to resurrect and/or trick out a C64.

It makes This Old Mac seems so … newfangled. And there must be millions of C64s lying around in closets, garages and who knows where. It reminds me of my first computer, a Sinclair ZX81, which actually sold for something like $99 back when “real” computers were still going for $1,000-plus. True to its name, the ZX81 came on the market — in both preassembled and kit forms– in 1981. The whole Sinclair computer phenomenon was huge in England, but it did have some impact here, too. Start here for some Sinclair history. I kept my Sinclair stuff — including the crudely printed magazine I subscribed to that featured programs you would type in line by tedious line. At some point, I sold the whole lot at a garage sale for about $10. As you can see, they’re still big in Germany, and you can still buy one and build it yourself for $99.

This Old CMOS Battery

I suppose that if you only keep a PC for a couple of years, you never have to even think about the battery on the motherboard that keeps the CMOS settings saved when you have it turned off.

But if you have an old PC, those batteries will go dead.

On This Old PC, the clock speed was very slow. It would lose whole days of time, not just minutes or hours.

I pulled the cover and found the battery, a typical button cell. I actually had a replacement in the drawer — who knows how long that had been there — and reinstalled. First of all, those batteries are a whole lot easier to get out than to get it, but I did manage to do it.

Did I forget to write down my CMOS settings, which I lost when pulling the battery?


It booted anyway — somehow this BIOS can deal with the hard drives from scratch. The CMOS on this computer was pretty complicated — there are pages and pages of settings. I tweaked something having to do with the sound card, and everything worked fine.

But the PC kept losing time. Perhaps my replacement battery, old as it is, was too dead to use. Bruce suggested that the crystal in the time clock was bad, but I find that very hard to believe. A crystal is a hunk of rock — what could go wrong?

And the thing went totally dead — my clock went back to 1998 the last time I turned it on. I had to hit F1 to complete the booting process, but without doing any CMOS tweaking, it’s running fine.

Still, I’ll have to remember to get a new battery from Fry’s or Target. At least a $3 battery will do it. The PRAM batteries in Macs can run into some serious money, I’ve learned, and it’s refreshing to be able to get the PC battery at any reasonably equipped drug store.

Free antivirus software

I tried to install the Symantec antivirus software after I made the Windows 2000 upgrade, but when trying to do the install, Windows answers back that I needed a Service Pack before it can be done. That had to wait until I could get the DSL modem, which was connected to the Mac via Ethernet, going through the wireless router.

In the interim, Bruce told me that Avast was better than Symantic/Norton. And Avast is free for home users.

Once I got the router hooked up and had Internet coming to the PC, I installed Service Pack 4 for Windows 2000 anyway, and I didn’t opt to save my configuration, should I want to go Service Pack-less. Hopefully all will work fine.

I did get a message about a lack of virtual memory, but Windows said it was somehow adding to virtual memory, but some programs might not load. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. I do have the machine stuffed with RAM, maxing out for some reason at 262 megabytes.

I did the Avast install, and it seems to be running fine. You have 60 days during which to license the software, although it’s still free, and I think you have to re-up every 60, for what reason I don’t know, but maybe it’s so they can keep a tally on how many people are actually using it, as opposed to downloading and forgetting about it.

Comments turned back on

I’m not sure how they got turned off, but now they are back on. On Blogger, it appears that switching comments on or off only affects NEW posts, so the two below will be commentless, unless I repost them.

Wi-Fi vs. cordless phones

The Wi-Fi was going great .. until we made a phone call with the cordless, and then the signal from the Netgear router would drop from the iMac until the call was done. I had heard that 2.4 GHz cordless phones had the potential to interfere with Wi-Fi, which also operates in the 2.4 GHz frequency range.

I went into testing mode. I took the cordless back to The Back Room, where This Old PC connects to the router about 9 feet away via an internal Wi-Fi card (Airlink Plus from Fry’s). No trouble there to stay connected to the router while making a phone call (cordless phone base station is in the house about 30 feet away).

Could it be the weaker wireless connection in the house just can’t take the telephone interference? I got a 900 MHz phone, hooked that up in the house. No interference. Would I have to get rid of my Panasonic 2.4 GHz just to achieve Wi-Fi nirvana. I noticed on the display for the 900 MHz handset that I was on Channel 01. You can change channels on a cordless telephone? My Panasonic 2.4 GHz doesn’t have a display at all … but it DOES have a channel-changing button.

One click on the channel button, and my Wi-Fi interference problem was gone.

Here’s where the problem begins:

  • 802.11b/g frequency range in the U.S.: 2.412 GHz to 2.462 GHz
  • Cordless phone frequency range: 2.4 GHz to 2.4835 GHz
  • So they’re pretty much right in the same place — and that could mean trouble. Since both the router and the telephone have a number of different channels available, it is a matter of changing the channel on one or the other to reduce or eliminate the interference. I believe you can change channels on the router by logging onto the admin page. On the phone, as I say above, it’s as easy as hitting the Channel button.

    One thing that tipped me off to the problem was the marketing for the new cordless phones, which operate in the 5.8 GHz range. The boxes say, “won’t interfere with Wi-Fi” … yeah … unless you plan to use the new 802.11a standard:

  • 802.11a frequencies in the U.S.: 5.170 GHz to 5.320 GHz
  • Cordless phones: 5.725 GHz to 5.850 GHz
  • Now, there’s no direct overlap there, so it might not be a problem, but some real-world testing is needed to make sure — and I suspect there will be 2.4 GHz phones on the market for awhile.

    Interestingly enough, in my research (yeah, it’s Web surfing, but I call it “research”), I found out that most 2.4 GHz cordless phones transmit one way at that frequency, the other way at 900 MHz, to avoid interference: You see, since a telephone call is what’s called “full duplex” — meaning you can talk and listen to the other caller at the same time (and hear your own voice simultaneously through the earpiece) without saying “over” like a radio operator — the phones need to operate on the different frequency bands to a) avoid interference and b) extend battery life of the telephone handset (which I imagine transmits with 900 MHz and receives at 2.4 GHz for that reason).

    An interesting quote from Hello Direct:

    To keep neighbors from constantly hearing each other’s conversations, the FCC initially limited the output wattage for cordless phones to just .001 watt. But when digital and spread spectrum technologies (SSTs) made eavesdropping a less
    valid concern by scrambling signals or dividing them across multiple bandwidths,
    the allowable wattage for cordless phones was increased to 1 watt. This action made for clearer calls and increased a cordless phone’s range three- to fourfold. Meanwhile, the increased wattage covered up the fact that higher-frequency signals require more power to transmit.

    When 5.8 GHz phones were introduced, the allowable wattage was not increased—and here is where the buyer must beware. Because transmitting signals at a higher frequency requires more power, some 5.8 GHz phones use the new frequency only for the
    base-to-handset transmission. Then, to make sure a handset’s battery has a reasonable life, handset-to-base transmissions are sent on the older 2.4 GHz frequencies.

    2 Although it will be some time until it is introduced, a protocol using 5.8 GHz technology is in development. This new protocol, 802.11a, will be able to send high-quality video. It will also interfere with the new phones.

    This Old Router

    I got a free router from Bruce some months back — a Netgear MR814 wireless that delivers 802.11b Wi-Fi, which means it runs at 11 megabytes per second, not the 54 Mbps of 802.11g. Since the whole point of this is to get Internet both in the house and in the converted garage-turned office, which are in no way attached, it was a little dicey figuring out where to install the router and DSL modem for complete coverage. I determined over the course of testing (you can sniff out a wireless router with your wireless card- or adapter-equipped PC, even if the router doesn’t have a modem connected) that at a distance of about 60 feet or so (no, I haven’t measured it), it just wasn’t happening — the connection faded in and out — mostly out.

    Finally I figured out that the converted garage, which we refer to as The Back Room, was probably built with some kind of metal mesh surrounding it, making it pretty hard for the RF to get through. So I placed the router in The Back Room on a small footstool in front of the stationary part of the French-door window — and there’s a signal in the house.

    Once I got the modem out of the house and into The Back Room, I did some speed tests at DSL Reports (I always get there through my ISP DSL Extreme’s support page, but you can go direct, I imagine. As Bruce predicted, there really isn’t much difference between the 802.11b connection and the wired Ethernet, nor is there much of a speed issue vs. the more-robust 802.11g. And did I mention that the router was free?

    That’s the beauty of working on all this old crap — free router, $9 internal PC wireless adapter (I could be connecting to this computer with Ethernet, as I’m only about 9 feet from the router, but why run the cable when there’s already a wireless card installed?)

    One problem — on the iBook in the house, the wireless connects, but it drops when we use the cordless phone. Guess that the 2.4 gHz phone and 2.4 gHz of 802.11 don’t really like each other, especially when you don’t have the router and PC in the same room. This is something I’ll have to look into. There’s some kind of interference button in the Mac software — I’ll have to try that. And there’s always NOT using the cordless phone (there is a wired phone in that room) or getting a new cordless that runs on 5.8 gHz. These new phones are marketed as “not causing interference with wireless Internet, and I can really see the point of all that.

    But phone callers be damned, we have wireless Internet, Ilene is on one computer, I’m on the other, and while it’s not exactly rocket science, I am prepared to say it’s computer science.

    In closing, BLOGGER SUCKS with Internet Explorer 5.0. I’ll have to download Firefox.

    Is your blog backed up?

    Ilene brought this up recently, and I have started to look into how you can back up a blog. Of course you could just go through the archives and save each page, month by month.

    But there are services that will take care of it for you, including BlogCollector and Backupmyblog.

    And for users of Blogger, there’s How do I create a backup of my entire blog? but sheesh, that looks complicated.