VOGONS


First post, by creepingnet

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Hi there and feel free to oogle stuff. I've been wanting to post a thread like this for awhile, but I have so little time, and so much stuff going on that it's been really hard for me to get things started.

Anyway, before we dig in to this first post, I might explain a few things before I get started. Some of the posts I'll be doing are actually of OLD builds. I've been messing with x86 IBM Compatibles since 1997 and really got serious about it in 2001 when most of the things popular now were "doorstops", "dinosaurs", and "Boat anchors". I've owned a lot of systems, so I figured outside of my website - which is limited to 100mb of space, no better place than here to go into details on my retro-computing madness than here.

Typically I tend to stick around in the realm of the very-old Pre-Pentium PC's (though there are some Pentiums and newer in here where applicable), with a huge focus on the 80486 era for the most part. Today, we'll start with my most recent aquisition - the NEC Versa M/75, which is a work in progress (most of my more recent machines are a constant work-in-progress). Some of these might span several posts as well since they have some pretty long histories.

1994 NEC VERSA M/75 w/ System 2000 Commpaq Words+

This is a good post because it's a good, concise, clear introduction to my methods to this madness. Let's start at the beginning, why the NEC Versa? Any why does one purchase an 80486 laptop in 2020?

Why the NEC Versa?

When I started messing with this stuff, laptop computers in the early 2000s, even 486's - so as long as they were color - tended to retain value. I was still seeing them for $70+, even back in 2003. Back then, one of the most expensive old 486-era laptops was the NEC Versa M/P/V/E and 20/25/33 models. They would go for $80+ usually on e-bay, and usually people were chipping in brand new batteries to sweeten the deal. However, at the time, I was not yet in my career, and kind of poor....I was 20. So I knew they must be a good one - so I always kept the NEC Versa in my back pocket as one of the "good" vintage laptops - for a time where they just might become cheaper.

Skip ahead to now. It's 2020, I've had multiple vintage laptop computers over the years (Twinhead SlimNotes, Duracom/Eurocom/Sager/NanTan/Prostar 486 stuff, AT&T Safari 3151 - which was a major determining factor for the Versa as I heard they were made by NEC or NCR, IBM ThnkPads, and a Zenith Data Systems SuperSport 286 at one point, and even a Macbook from the early 90's as well....whch I sold).....and I wanted to find one that fit the following criteria.....

- Was available for $50 or under (willing to go a little over) - I have a budget, my fun budget I set aside each month is $50 for my projects
- any serious flaws with the hinges are easily fixed with epoxy/jb weld/etc. (as almost all old laptops, that was the #1 problem with them) - see next part....
- Parts are still widely available and inexpensive, I remember having to FIGHT to get a Compaq 486C Portable a new screen, I eventually sold it to someone WITH a screen
- Could be dockable....should I choose to downsize again
- Must be capable of running the widest range of vintage software possible.

So of course I looked at a TON of laptops - I'll go into this process more on the post about the Versa 40EC, but long story short. I discovered through that purchase the following things about NEC Versa 486s based on the M/E/P/V/20/25/33 platform......

- They are available for $50 under in working order often with PSU for the same reason - tight hinges, and brittle plastic.
- There are still plenty of parts available, I replaced the power and motherboards in the 40EC for $25.00, batteries to rebuild are $10/ea, Ebay has lots of NL6448AC30 screens
- The battery life on the original batteries is on par with a modern laptop, at least 2 hours, and as much as 4 hours, and cells are availible (1.2v "A")
- Various models share parts with each other, especially the removable screens between the 20/25/33/40Exx/Mxx - want touch? TFT Active Matrix? Mono? Just 2 latches!

As much as I love my 40EC, I wanted something a little more beefed up, plus I wanted an extra screen so I could focus on doing the JB Weld repair/makeovers to the hinge assemblies (I'm trying to develop a good, permanant repair that looks good). I also wanted the ability to play sound. Well, the M/75 has that, and then some, and I'd only recently become aware via the retrobattlestations Reddit that the M75 came with a touch screen - which it turns out was also availble for my 40EC.

And I already had one picked out, an "untested" one with a System 2000 Commpac Words+ attached to the bottom of the unit - some kind of Augmented Speech thing as it turns out (very home-built looking I might add). It was almost $80 a few months ago, but this go around it had dropped to around $50 with shipping - $37.99 for the actual laptop. Cheaper than the 40EC was for me. The hinge had the usual Versa 486 hinge damage...except the top was not damage, and I could see the screen crack looked WEIRD - like it was a top layer of glass - like a Digitizer. Later research I found the bezels for the Versa with a long bevel on the right side are touch screens, and they have a 1/8" phono jack on the right of the screen for a cabled "stylus".

YESTERDAY - THE M75 ARRIVES - Unboxing + Initial Inspection

The computer arrived and it was a very different experience than I was expecting. For starters, that Commpac Words + thing was VELCROED to the bottom of the computer and appears to have been built out of hobbyist electronic parts. It was seemingly custom-built for this particular laptop computer. All the doors were ripped off except the one for the large docking station port. The Commpaq Words+ attaches to the laptop via the parallel port and via a modified Serial Port PCMCIA Type II card marked "COM 2" which may have had a "dongle" conector that was ripped out and a ribbon cable put in it's place. All ports were labled with what looks like the work of a modern labelmaker (jeeze, how recently were they using this thing). A sticker on the bottom of the Commpac Words shows it was "sanitized by Micro Computer Services" on 6/12/2019 with someone's name on it in barely legable cursive - so this computer seems iit was "decommissioned" right before it was put on E-bay.

The M/75, as it turns out, came with no Floppy Drive, which has made data xfers of smaller files and drivers much more challenging. In it's place instead are not one but TWO OP-570-4701 "Smart Batteries" - these are NiMH 7.2v 3800mah batteries with a speciial controller board inside. One had about 1.84v on it after running it in the computer for an hour, the other read 0v regardless. I'm thinking with this laptop I may just replace them and/or have them properly rebuilt rather than try rejuvinating them.

The Hinge fared the trip TERRIBLY, which pretty much the entire front plastic around the hinge being cracked off by this point - not the fault of the seller - just regular Versa age-related destruciton. The hinge was solid and tight, and appears to be a different design than the one in my 40EC, likely to support the extra electronics inside the screen.

Powering on the machine revealed that the LCD was fine and what was cracked was exactly what I suspected, the Digitizer. The screen also seemed slightly yellow tinted and I could see some flickering bars in the back that seemed to get better the more I used that screen (caps possibly?).

The computer came with all the software preinstalled and working, including several programs for the CommPac Words+ of course. It also has McAfee VirusScan for Windows 3.1 installed and it appears this thing never hit the internet once in it's life (until that day, hehehehe). Also got to try out AVI and WAV files on it, seems to do pretty good at both video and audio - so I might consider putting Windows 95 on it in the future and installing Cakewalk 5 Pro Audio for a retro-portable-DAW, esp, since Bandlab has been ticking me off lateley with latency issues.

MOVING PARTS OVER FROM THE 40EC

Immediately after initial assessment, I removed both batteries and took their voltages (one has 1.84v after running the laptop for 10 minutes, but it never completed charging, the other is still at 0vdc). I moved the following parts over from the 40EC....

- 16MB RAM Card (for a total of 24MB of RAM)
- Tried my other 2 HDD on it, the old install on the 40EC's HDD fails because the 40EC has a WD video card, and the M75 uses C&T, FreeDOS runs great
- Cisco LMC-350 Aironet WiFI Card - bottom slot
- My Drive with FreeDOS on it
- Installing the good LCD from the Versa 40EC

I put the M75 LCD on the 40EC for the time being while I decide how I'm going to approach dismantling the hinge and rebuilding or making a custom replacement hinge cover. I'm shocked how sturdy that screen is given how compromised the plastic is.

FIXING PROBLEMS/CHANGING BIOS SETTINGS

After doing the switching out of parts above.....the machine runs great, but I did find more plastic damage inside, the corner of the palmwrest is completely broken off on the upper right corner, there were chunks of plastic everywhere under the screen hinge assembly, so much I had to dump it out of the connector to switch the screens.

I tried fitting the 40EC floppy drive to the M75 but while it will fit, it won't work because something changed in the design. Thankfully NEC had the forethought to put some kind of protection in. Which means I'm going to have to rely on Internet, FTPSrv, and a USB to IDE adapter for data xfers (except on one drive, which I'll get to later).

Took a little break, and then decided to pop the original M/75 touch screen to assess the damage to the Digitizer. This thing had been thouroughly annihilated! Shards of glass everywhere. I took photos of the connector and part# so I can source one (though I kind of already did before starting - I'm finding NL6448AC30 Digitizers for sale from Hong Kong and China on E-bay already for under $90). The Part is a 3M Microtouch R2.2 (revision 2.2) Part# 63-4631-00-01. The screen itself is a NEC NL6448AC30-10 - which is what the E-bay ads are advertising their Digitizers as being for - I've found one for $78 and one for $83. I do intend to repair/replaced this feature and even get the pen (or build one of my own).

I found however, my Aironet card was not working, and was not being found, and I did not see any drivers in either the archive.org 6GB zip file of the entire defunct NECAM FTP server, or on NEC America's site for the Versa. What I did eventually figure out is the BIOS had PCMCIA power turned OFF - and that's why the card was not working. Not sure if this was for the CommPac Words+'s hacked PCMCIA serial card, or if they replaced the CMOS battery sometime recently and forgot to turn it on (maybe leading to it's decomission?).

Some BIOS tweaks later, Aironet was working properly, and I could run FTPSRV and move files to it. I was going to try and install the audio card drivers to the Versa so sound would work in FreeDOS - but big problems - L470SNDA.EXE and L470SNDB.EXE are self-extracting archives that format and write to a 1.44M Floppy Diskette - the problem with this is there is no floppy, so I had to bring up the Versa 40EC and my 486 Desktop to copy the drivers.

So initially I used my 486 desktop using FileZilla on my Win10 laptop and FTPSRV on the 486 to copy the files over, but it would not write the floppies because the floppies MUST be written on an NEC branded machine - sheesh. So I threw the 40EC's original drive back in in it, copied the files via floppy to the 40EC, and then used MS-DOS 6.22 on the 40EC to write the floppies to the floppies the source files were xferered on. HOwever, one floppy diskette was bad (corrupting the write), so I grabbed two unused AT&T Floppies and put them to use. Eventually I got the drivers over to the freeDOS machine, but problem is ALL of the files were for Windows 3.1, there were no DOS utilities.......no DOS Diagnostics....back to the drawing board.

By this point I'd moved to the patio......twas a nice day outside...

So I decided to go into the Windows 3.1 NEC setup that the M75 came with and see if I could get my hands on the IO Address, IRQ, DMA, OPL, and other parameters so I could use a "SET BLASTER" Environment variable in FreeDOS to attempt to direct games to the sound card. But all of the digging found that there was no OPL3 drivers installed in Windows, Windows Sound System was installed (never knew of that for Windows 3.1...till now), and the C:\CRYSTAL directory looked like the contents of L480SNDB.EXE's written diskette which does not have the OPL3 files. One thing I did notice was the branding was "Crystal Business Audio" for everything in Windows 3.11.

So I decided to try looking for DOS drivers. I eventually tried the driver repository here at Vogons and tried some 4235 chipset drivers. Diagnostics from Crystal fails everything except the Windows Sound System part. Tried loading the drivers from the disks as DOS drivers - just got "illegal opcodes" - so I booted in step-by-step in FreeDOS and skipped the drivers and removed them from FDCONFIG.SYS.

Back in the house I decided to tear down the M75 to try and find what audio chip this thing uses. As the only thing I could find was "Business Audio" - which I kind of fear means no OPL - but it must have some kindo f OPL capabilities if the driver diskette has it....go figure.

Digging did not reaveal anything about the sound system, but I did take some photos and get some chip numbers. One significant chip I read about was the NEC "HI-TOP" chip which I recall either Beige-O-Vision or someone else on youtube talking about at some point. The HiTop chip is attached to a daughterboard under the CPU board, which also has it's own daughterboard that I think may have a RAM expansion on it. I think the audio chipset might be underneath the PCMCIA slots - which I don't feel like digging under to find at this point.

Later research revealed that this may be a chipset that's a bit "neutered" because it was designed for Windows Sound System, and was marketed more toward the buiness market, but being as the driver disk does have an OPL3 driver and OPL3.ini file in it, I think it might be possible to emulate OPL on the card from DOS. Just need to do more digging for obscure knowledge (I'm good at that) before I proceed any further.

As a final attempt, I tried running the Disk drivers with OPL on them from the HDD, but I'm missing a DIsk 2. It was here trying to get the files ON that drive I put it on my Linux Mint Thinkpad and found out someone used Drivespace disk compression on the M75's HDD (DOH!!) so had to slap it into my 486 Desktop via the Mobile Rack (Drive caddy) and use floppies to write files to it for Aironet, MTCP, and the Sound Card. So now I can get files on/off the original HDD now despite the drivespace limitation.

I tried installing Monkey Island and Voyetra Sequencer Pro on the orignal drive and found that running Monkey Island and Voyetra from Windows, even forcing adlib, does not work. So I might need to get Disk 2 for the setup disk, and then install all the driver to Windows with the OPL Enhancements - maybe a custom OPL driver is in order for the card.

THINGS THIS LAPTOP HAS FIXED

The first problem with the 40EC was NEC emulation - I like using NESticle, and I like hacking roms with old tools like Hexpose and the original VGA version of TileLayer, and messing with shapes tables in NESticle. On the 40EC - running Nesticle in 256x256 caused the screen to repeat on the sides of the screen, which is just annoying. While 320x200 cuts off the bottom of the screen. It seems the C&T chipset does not have this problem. Also, RetroCity Rampage runs at full speed, and I can actually run Bolitare that comes with FreeDOS with it Games run better, and graphics are a lot more friendly.

FINAL ASSESSMENT

GOOD STUFF
- Screen behavior is a lot better and allows more apps to run or run properly
- I have audio now, I see some DAW potential in this setup (maybe Win95 and CakeWalk Pro Audio 5)
- The OG Hard Disk is in excellent shape
- The original screen still works, just the digitizer and hinge are damaged
- Performance is extremely good, almost on par with my DX4-100 desktop.
- despite compromised plastic the screen hinge on the original display is quite solid

BAD STUFF
- Digitizer is cracked, which means a costly gamble on Chinese replacements
- Can't find the pen for it (need part# or schematic)
- Having trouble with sound due to wonky Crystal Business Audio platform, diagnostics fails the MPU-401, OPL, and SB emulation parts, but passes Windows Sound System in FreeDOS
- Missing back cover to case for ports

TODO LIST FOR M/75

- Fix sound, get the supposed OPL3 emulation working in DOS, the drivers are listed as being for DOS
- Reproduce above on my 80GB drive
- install DOSAMP and some MP3s
- Replace the Digitizer on the original screen
- Diagnose flicker on original screen if it does not clear up
- Find part# and part for pen, or do some schematic study + research and design one of my own (I have a feeling the pen just allows for right hand clicks and what not)
- Replace/Repopulate the Batteries with some fresh NiMH cells
- Get Commpac Words+ working and try some things out, I will have to likely wait until AFTER touch is fixed since it seems to be a part of CommPac Words

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~The Creeping Network~
My Website - https://sites.google.com/site/thecreepingnetwork/home
My Youtube Channel - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc6sYw9FvwuKahBHE_06diA

Reply 1 of 2, by chinny22

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old laptops don't get much love but I've started using them for my non gaming retro builds, workstations for my reto server networks and the like. They take up less space and realistically won't get used very often.
But I wouldn't put that much effort in on a laptop, nicely done 😀