Friday, November 23, 2012

PX-8 virtual disk drive - the New Adventures

Back to the drawing board!  Let's get 'er done this time!

Batteries Plus made me a new, custom battery pack for my Epson PX-8 laptop.  It was fashioned after the old, tired battery pack.  Now my PX-8 is working better than ever.

With that, it's time to get back to the project idea for a portable PX-8 virtual disk drive.  I would like such a device to have the following features:
  • Use SD card media for storage of virtual disk images
  • Run from batteries (maybe rechargeable, TBD)
  • Have a decent case for transport (not just a bare PCB)
  • Have an interface which allows the user to change virtual disk images without the use of an external device (like a computer hooked up to it)
Those of you who have tuned into Retrobits know this has been a long-term goal for me - I've wanted to make this happen for several years, and have made a couple of fledgling attempts at it.  This time I'm determined to see it through to either Epic Success or Abject Failure.

A slice of Pi with your PX-8?

Given the time that has lapsed since I first started thinking about this, new opportunities have arisen for a solution.  For instance, it seems like the Raspberry Pi may be a suitable, low-cost platform for hosting a virtual drive.  It just so happens that the coolest software for emulating a PF-10 (the 3.5" portable drives for the PX-8) is vfloppy, and it runs on Linux - as does the Pi.  Two challenges might stand in the way, though - the need for a serial port, and battery life.

I've read some reports on the web that the Raspberry Pi might have issues with USB to serial devices, including ones based on the common chipsets from FTDI.  I've heard it's possible to wire a serial port to the GPIO pins on the Pi, and run this through a line driver/converter like the MAX3232 (newer version of the MAX232) to provide a serial port without using a USB device.  Maybe that's the way to go.  In any case, the FTDI issues may be solved in the latest kernels - I don't know.

Another question is how long the RasPi would run from batteries.  High-end current consumption on the RasPi is around 700 mA from my reading.  Running the USB serial device might push that up.  Apparently, Duracell AA alkalines have about 2200 mAH of capacity, which would give you just over 3 hours on a set of batteries.  That would get pretty expensive.  Rechargables would be better.  Even better, someone was running their RasPi from a Newtrent iPhone charger, which has 12000 mAH.  That would last a LONG time, but would add weight, and it is over $50 on sale.

More RPMs on the Propeller

Another not-quite-new but enhanced option is the original platform I considered, which is something based on the Parallax Propeller chip.  When I started thinking about this years ago, there wasn't a good way to write in C for the Propeller, and extended RAM options were limited.  Now, both those problems have gone away.  There are two good C compilers for the Propeller - my favorite is the Catalina C compiler.  Also, there are many circuits available, some available as off the shelf products, which extend the RAM of the Propeller chip.  The one I purchased was the Flash Point RamPage, which has both flash and RAM memory on board, and is supported by the Catalina compiler (and costs only $15.99!).  This should make it easier to port the code from vfloppy, which is written in C also, and is GPL-licensed.

Virtual Virtuality

For testing, and for the time being, I wanted to have a vfloppy setup to play around with.  My main laptop runs Windows 8, and vfloppy needs Linux.  Running Linux in a virtual machine would be cool, but would the serial port redirection work?  Maybe, but I wanted to try something more exotic anyhow - I wanted to test my FTDI-based USB to serial converter.  So I installed Ubuntu 12.04 in a virtual machine, hooked the FTDI device to the Windows laptop, and got the right Windows drivers for it.  Then, I told VMWare Player to connect the USB device to the Linux virtual machine (which saw it, and loaded the right drivers without issue).  I ran vfloppy on the Linux VM, and the PX-8 saw the virtual drives!  Voila!  That was simple, and all with free software.

By the way, to do any of this, you need the proper cable to connect the PX-8 to a PC (or other device).  Information on how to make that cable can be found here.

I'm back in the saddle.  I've got 3 days off, and I'm not afraid to use them.  Out comes the Propeller - and saving my pennies for a RasPi!

- Earl


Wholly said...

Fifth time's the charm!

aliennerd said...

It would be very cool if you can pull this together Earl. I've got PX8VFS running on a mini-ITX system which works well but is obviously still quite large.

epooch said...

What about an MP3 player connected to a tape adapter with a head phone jack? You would need to make the tape adapter out of an old micro-cassette and a tape head for the micro-cassette player. There are many SD card MP3 players. You could use a the MP3 player to browse files, etc, and your battery concerns would be handled.