VOGONS


The Great Floptical Debacle...

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First post, by evanevery

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I'ld like to start a thread which acts as a source of as much info as possible regarding the Insite I325VM Floptical Drive and the associated controllers used with it.

I had one of these in a PC a very long time ago. In pulling together a lot of the old hardware I have collected over the years I came across a bunch of my 21MB Floptical disks and I really wanted to see what was on them. No luck locating my original floptical drive (I expect its somewhere in a landfill now. 🙁 ) so I proceeded to try and acquire ONE just for the heck of it. Anyway, I now have FIVE of them in various states of functionality. I also have a bunch of disks and a collection of "floptical Compatible" controllers. I still have not been able to format, read, or write to any of the floptical media, but I expect I now have the "World's largest collection of floptical hardware, software, and associated EPROM images". I currently have a Motherboard with ISA support which I have been using for testing (DOS 5.0 for simplicity) but I think I may be having issues with some of the older ISA controllers perhaps due to BIOS Shadowing (which apparently can't be turned off).

Anyway, here is a quick recap of what I have now in my "Floptical Inventory":

5 x Insite I325VM Floptical Drives:
3 from SGI Indy machines, 2 from "elsewhere"
1 Does Not respond at all on the SCSI BUs (4 Flashes), 2 don't seem to be able to reliably read standard 1.44 MB media, 2 CAN Read/Write/Format 1.44 MB media
None have been able to low level format or Read any 21 MB Media

28 x 21 MB Floppy Media: 20x 3M (Black) + 5x Unbranded (White)

6 x Floptical Aware Controllers (w/Floptical Boot BIOS)
1 Grassroots SCSI Floptical Controller (BIOS V3.50)
1 Rancho Technology SCISI Controller (BIOS Versions: RTBios v8.2.0R, RTBios v 8.10R, SYSGEN v8.11R, ValueStor v8.20R)
2 Adaptec AHA-1542CF (BIOS/MCode versions: B402/2CD3, C38D/563D)
1 Adaptec AHA-1522FS
1 Adaptec AHA-1535 (1542CP)

The system I am using to test these controller/drives is a Core2 Duo, Intel 945G, with 1xPCIe, 5 PCI and 2 ISA but I'm think that this relatively "new" machine is juggling too much magic for good backward compatibility. The AHA-1542CF and AHA-1535 cards will not work at all in this system regardless of what BIOS settings I tweak (IRQ/DMA Reservations, BIOS Cacheability, etc) or even allow their ASPI driver to load if their BIOS is disabled. I am also seeing issues where some of the drivers and utilities refuse to acknowledge that the associated BIOS for their corresponding card has not been loaded (even though I can see the ROM signatures at the expected address using DOS DEBUG).

I have a "new" 486 motherboard coming in and I will be outfitting it in the next couple of weeks just to try and see if I can get past some of these issues. Maybe this older/simpler motherboard will work better with the older Adaptec Cards.

I have collected what I believe to be the definitive collection of software for these devices as well. This includes full driver sets and utilities from Rancho Technology, Grassroots, Adaptec, Sysgen, Valuestor and Insite. I also have all the associated ROMs preserved (See Above) from those controllers which would let me remove the chips and read them. (I got an EPROM Burner just to be able to read, write and swap ROM images on some of these cards) I have designed a 3D print file for a faceplate (with hinged, spring-loaded door) for the Insite I325VM (for those "faceless" drives being pulled from an SGI Indy). I also scanned/PDF'ed a copy of the Grassroots controller manual as well as a newer version of the Rancho Technology Controller manual than was available online. I'm happy to bundle up the full collection of docs, firmware, drivers, utilities, and other software into a nice tidy archive and post it (62MB Zip File) for anyone who would like to join me in this quest!

Yeah, its kinda grown into an obsession at this point. At least it keeps me off the street....

I have lots of notes of what I've tried and what the results were. I'm still not 100% sure that ANY of my Insite I325VM drives are FULLY functional. However, I am still getting various errors about controller specific software not believing that the associated controller was actually running in my system (despite successful ROM Boot Messages being displayed). So all bets are sorta off until I can at least get the various formatting tools in agreement that their controller is actually accessible. (Flopticals use a special SCSI Sense Mode command to unlock the formatting, and possibly writing, capabilities - so if the controller can't be located then perhaps the "special" SCSI commands are not unlocking the drive for writing/formatting.)

So, I'ld like to get a discussion going for anyone/everyone interested in these drives. I'm pretty much out of ideas until I can get that retro 486 system built but I'm happy to run down any tests/suggestions in the mean time. I'm also interested in anyone who is willing to send (or loan) a known-good I325VM drive...

Who's in?

Reply 1 of 27, by davidrg

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I've got a couple of Indys and I've never seen a flopical drive before - they've all got nothing (or a hard disk) behind the floptical drive opening. I've thought for years I should really have at least one Indy with a flopical drive in the flopical drive slot - were these at all hard to find? Have any photos of what the ex-SGI drives look like?

I also wonder if these drives are as sensitive to cleaning disks as the later LS-120 drives were. Putting a regular cleaning disk in an LS-120 drive destroys the heads and the original proper cleaning disks are unobtainable now. Perhaps Floptical drives are in a similar uncleanable situation now

Reply 2 of 27, by Tetrium

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Feel free to add pics! 😁
Also feel free to upload the software.

I'm afraid I won't be able to help you much. I got only a single drive but none of its disks. I never tried the drive partially because (since I only have the one drive) I didn't want to ruin it due to my lack of knowledge of these drives.

It is SCSI, but I don't know if these really need special controllers or if generic SCSI controllers can work. Don't know from top of my head which OSs support this medium.
I've had more luck finding PC compatible 2.88MB floppy drives and disks, the floptical was virtually impossible to find back when they were considered trash.

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Reply 3 of 27, by evanevery

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1. Yes they SHOULD NOT be cleaned with a floppy cleaning disk. (No need to ask me how I know this). The heads will literally tear the poly fibers off the cleaning media and can result in a head failure. The heads are not square like a floppy, they are "U" shaped with the two prongs of the U facing the direction the media so it has a tendency to tear things up. Best case, cleaning fibers collect on the heads. Worst case you tear up a head. I believe the U shape was to allow the laser to track between the TWO upper heads (and two lower heads). There appears to be an independent mag head on BOTH legs of the upper and lower "U" (with a laser shooting in between them).

2. The SGI Drives (3) were easier for me to find (eBay) than the PC Drive (1) or the Atari Falcon Freedom Drive (1). But it does take time. I missed one a while ago as they were asking what I thought was "too much" but given all the time and money I have rolled into this quest I should have grabbed it.

3. I'll see if I can get some photos of the drives tomorrow. The "SGI" Drives look completely different than the "PC" drives. (Although they all say "Insite I325VM"). The "SGI" drives use only a single PCB while the "PC" drives have both an upper and lower PCB. I've taken them all apart to clean them so I'm pretty familiar with the similarities and differences of these two variants.

4. Yes, they generally require special SCSI controllers. Especially for bootability. They require a special SCSI Mode Sense command to enable formatting (and maybe even writing) so the controller needs to patch this on the fly - or TSR software needs to patch the associated operations in memory. I'm pretty sure you can read/write 1.44 MB floppies with pretty much any properly connected SCSI adapter (as drive D:, E:, etc), but I think you may need the "special" companion adapters if you want to format and use the 21MB media properly.

5. The archive I've collected is about 65MB Zipped so it won't upload to this forum. However, I'll see if I can post it on one of my web sites tomorrow and include a link here.

6. I'm also working to see if I can pull the PLCC-32 CMOS ROMs on each of the drives to read and preserve a copy of each devices firmware.

Here is some data on the drives I have. Before disassembly and cleaning only Units C and D (SGI) would reliably read/write 1.44 MB floppies (with pretty much any of the controllers I have). I will also roll through another set of tests tomorrow (now that I have them all cleaned and inspected). Again, I can't get ANY of them to read/write 21 MB Flopticals. But I don't know what is on ANY of the 21MB media I have - so they might not even been formatted - and if I can't format them, then its hard to know what is going on. I'm hoping that assembling a simpler 486 class machine might help all the associated formatting software properly communicate with the corresponding controllers. (The formatting software all seem to be controller specific and none of them seem to be able to tell when their controllers are actually installed in my current test system).

Unit A:

Source: Atari Falcon Freedom
Cover #: 930102204001
S/N: 209020021929
Upper PCB: 40-01185-001 Rev B
Lower PCB: 40-01187-001 Rev D
ROM Chip: National E9142 NMC27C512AV 150
ROM Version: 385A-006

Unit B:

Source: PC
Cover #: 930102202001
S/N: 111290004286
Upper PCB: 40-01185-001 Rev A
Lower PCB: 40-01187-001 Rev B
ROM Chip (PLCC32): Microchip 27C512-15/L 9133 CBA
ROM Version: 381A-002

Unit C:

Source: SGI Indy
Assembly #: {None}
Part #: 9410102
Side #: 930103003202
S/N: 40318C032015
PCB: 40-01214-002 Rev D
ROM Chip (PLCC32): National E9142 NMC27C512AV 150
ROM Version: 3.87 GF

Unit D:

Source: SGI Indy
Assembly #: 013-8744-001
Part #: 9490811
Side #: 930103003202
S/N: 60404C080331
PCB: 40-01214-002 Rev Gb
ROM Chip (PLCC32): National E9142 NMC27C512AV 150
ROM Version: 3.87 GF

Unit E:

Source: SGI Indy
Assembly #: 013-8744-001
Part #: 9490811
Side #: 930103003202
S/N: 40620C043321
PCB: 40-01214-002 Rev Eb
ROM Chip (PLCC32): National E9142 NMC27C512AV 150
ROM Version: 3.87 GF

Reply 4 of 27, by Tetrium

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I checked mine and apparently it has 930102293001. This number is located a bit below the "I 325VM Made in Japan" part.
Apparently I got mine from a thrift shop, the price sticker was still attached to it 😜
Sadly I have no idea where they got this drive from other than it was definitely not present there when I visited there and then because I would probably have noticed it.

And you also mentioned some having 2 PCBs.
It has a 2nd PCB directly below the top cover?!?? I've never seen that and I would probably have never noticed it if you hadn't mentioned it 😋

I'm not at all surprised that a standard floppy cleaning disk can damage this kind of drive. Same thing for any "super floppy drive" like Superdisk and ZIP (especially ZIP). Actually, I can't remember any situation in which a standard floppy cleaning diskette is compatible with one of such drives.

EDIT: One other thing I noticed is that the faceplate of mine is pretty badly yellowed.

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Reply 5 of 27, by Lennart

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Thanks for all the information and welcome to VOGONS! 😀

Would be awesome if you could upload your ZIP file somewhere! Not sure how to get something uploaded there, but perhaps https://www.vogonsdrivers.com/ would be a good place?

As for your PC not working with the Adaptec cards, I believe this has to do with your motherboard chipset lacking ISA DMA support. IIRC that is only supported up to the Intel i8xx series chipset. I don't know if the other SCSI adapters that you have make use of DMA, but at least the Adaptec cards do. That's probably why you're having issues with those. Using them in a 486 system should work fine.

As you read in my other thread about Floptical drives and BIOS support, I have an Adaptec AHA-1540CF with the right BIOS/microcode version (C38D/563D) to support Floptical drives. Other BIOS versions for the AHA-1540CF or AHA-1542CF seem to lack support. When I enable the Floptical BIOS support it's recognized as drive A or B, depending on whether there is already another floppy drive in the system. I've been able to read/write/format regular floppies just fine, but I also ran into issues with the 21MB Floptical disks. Most of the time the drive, which is an Iomega Io20s rather than an Insite I325VM, fails to read/write/format them, but sometimes it works all of a sudden. I can then low-level format the disk using the Floptical low-level formatting tool from Adaptec. Afterwards I can write files to the disk and read them just fine. However, the same disk usually fails once I reboot, even after a soft reboot. Probably the drive alignment is off or the disks have degraded. I have this with a number of LS-120 drives as well: regular floppies are no problem, but LS-120 floppies don't work at all or only occasionally after many retries.

I actually should have an Insite I325VM somewhere as well. I can try to dig that one up and test it with the AHA-1540CF and Floptical disks that I have.

Reply 6 of 27, by evanevery

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Here is a link to download my "Floptical Archive": https://haute-solutions.com/downloads/Floptical.zip (I'll update the archive to include the photos I'll also poste here later - and as any other associated info becomes available...)

(Tetrium:) Sounds like you have a "PC" style drive. The serial number seems to agree and if it has a faceplate, it almost has to be a "PC" drive. The cover is very easy to remove and not a risky operation. The top PCB (and side rails) can be removed with only 4 very obvious screws (and then carefully tilted to one side to not upset the flex cable). It would be worth looking inside to see/clean any dust balls which very well may have collected! I'll post a bunch of photos soon. You can also recondition your faceplate quite easily by simply putting it in a hydrogen peroxide solution and let it sit in the sun for a few hours (JUST the faceplate).

(Lennart:) I don't think my current ISA motherboard is lacking anything. 😉 In fact, I think its just the opposite. I think its trying to do too much of everything. Its a relatively modern Industrial MB with PCIe, PCIX, and ISA slots: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07G7BB8RD (I can assign/allocate both IRQ and DMA channels to the ISA slots which doesn't seem to matter). Anyway, Hopefully I'll know more when I get a true retro 486 motherboard in-house in the next couple of weeks... I've also tried various combinations of turning on/off the MB floppy controller and turning on/off the Adaptec controllers but again, none of this seems to matter... (I've also got multiple LS120 drives - and even an LS240 - as well as ZIP 100/250/750's)

I think my biggest hurdle right now is:
- The I325VM requires special software for low level formatting (Because it requires a special Mode Sense command to unlock it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floptical),
-...and the special low level formatting software is only included with specific controllers (Grassroots, Rancho, Sysgen/Valuestor) or directly from Insite
-...and THAT software requires detection of the associated controller card before it will even try to run.

None of these utilities are detecting their respective cards in my test system. So, yeah, "motherboard" is where I'm at...

If you have a "Floptical low-level formatting tool from Adaptec", please post it here. I'ld love to try it (My AHA-1522FS DOES work in my current test system). I'ld also like to include it in my archive. I will say, that the onboard formatting function in the AHA-1522FS FAILS with a general "write protect" error as I don't think its "Floptical Aware". (I also get similar "Media Write Protect" errors when trying to high level format the drive using standard tools.) So, yeah, "Media Sense - Write Ptotected" seems to also be the case.

Reply 7 of 27, by Lennart

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evanevery wrote on 2022-04-20, 14:18:

Here is a link to download my "Floptical Archive": https://haute-solutions.com/downloads/Floptical.zip (I'll update the archive to include the photos I'll also poste here later - and as any other associated info becomes available...)

Thanks for the upload, I'm downloading it now! By the way, I got a certificate security warning from my browser, so you might want to update that link to https://www.haute-solutions.com/downloads/Floptical.zip.

evanevery wrote on 2022-04-20, 14:18:

I don't think my current ISA motherboard is lacking anything. 😉 In fact, I think its just the opposite. I think its trying to do too much of everything. Its a relatively modern Industrial MB with PCIe, PCIX, and ISA slots: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07G7BB8RD (I can assign/allocate both IRQ and DMA channels to the ISA slots which doesn't seem to matter).

It's a very complete motherboard indeed, but it *does* lack ISA DMA support. 😉 Someone in the comments on that Amazon page even says so: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R2 … ASIN=B07G7BB8RD Newer motherboards like this one need an ISA bridge chip and without native ISA support in the chipset there is no way to get ISA DMA working. So testing the Adaptec adapters on the 486 you're about to build is your best bet.

evanevery wrote on 2022-04-20, 14:18:

If you have a "Floptical low-level formatting tool from Adaptec", please post it here. I'ld love to try it (My AHA-1522FS DOES work in my current test system).

It's a simple DOS utility called vhdfmt.exe and was part of their EZ-SCSI software suite at some point. I'm not near my retro computer at the moment, but I got it from here: https://www.idealine.info/legacydrivers/scsi/ … ptec/aha/disk2/ It's a compressed file, so you need to expand it first using expand.exe (also found there if you don't have it already)

Edit: you can also find it in this archive: https://www.driverguide.com/driver/detail.php?driverid=7698 It also includes the other Adaptec Floptical utilities called vhdcomp.exe, vhdcopy.exe, and vhdmode.exe.

Reply 8 of 27, by evanevery

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Yeah, I saw that too... I'm getting my certs from Lets Encrypt and they SHOULD have auto-updated.... I'll get it resolved in a bit. Right now I'm taking photos (which will ultimately end up in the archive as well)... 😉

Well, it APPEARS to provide ISA DMA support in the CMOS config, but you'll also see a review from me on the MB in the Amazon listing stating some other stuff they didn't get quite right either...

I have several archives of the EZ-SCSI software made off my own disk sets. Let me see if I have that file. I know about their SCSIFMT utility for low level formatting but I did not recall VHDFMT. If I can't find it, I'll download from that link (thanks!). However, if all it does is call the firmware on the board (like SCSFMT), and if it is not TRULY floptical aware (re: The required Sense Mode Command), then its not likely to work. But I'll give it a try. Once I get my photos done... 😉

Thanks!

Reply 9 of 27, by evanevery

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Here, you can see two very distinct types of I325VM Flopticals:

Here is a shot of my Flopticals from "PC" platforms:

Flopticals (PC).JPG
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...and those from "SGI" Platforms

Flopticals (SGI).JPG
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Reply 10 of 27, by evanevery

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Comparing the differences between PC and SGI Flopticals (Both are "Insite I325VM"):

Top:

Flopticals (Top).jpg
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Bottom:

Flopticals (Bottom).jpg
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Rear (Note that the PC Version uses three 8 pin terminators and the SG version uses two 11 pin terminators):

Flopticals (Rear).jpg
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...and here are the drives with the covers removed:

Flopticals (Top - Cover Removed).jpg
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Reply 11 of 27, by Tetrium

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evanevery wrote on 2022-04-20, 14:18:

(Tetrium:) Sounds like you have a "PC" style drive. The serial number seems to agree and if it has a faceplate, it almost has to be a "PC" drive. The cover is very easy to remove and not a risky operation. The top PCB (and side rails) can be removed with only 4 very obvious screws (and then carefully tilted to one side to not upset the flex cable). It would be worth looking inside to see/clean any dust balls which very well may have collected! I'll post a bunch of photos soon. You can also recondition your faceplate quite easily by simply putting it in a hydrogen peroxide solution and let it sit in the sun for a few hours (JUST the faceplate).

Well, I'm glad to hear this since I basically only work with PCs 🙂
Ever since I got it, it's been kept in its own shielded antistatic bag which itself was inside a closed box, so any dust in there will be from before I got it 😋
I only took it out a couple times if I (for whatever reason) wanted to look at it or check something.

At some point I will be doing some work on my collection and will be going through some of my older stuff. As my collection grew, I gradually got more and more serious and knowledgeable about storage and organizing and I intended to do some work on it this spring and summer now that (hopefully permanently this time!) covid has gone down.

I'm aware of retrobright, but I'm probably gonna leave it as is as the yellowing doesn't really bother me and I probably won't be seeing much of this drive anyway since I have virtually no practical use for it (which doesn't mean I don't care about this drive because I find this technology interesting).

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Reply 12 of 27, by evanevery

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The PC Drives have TWO PCBs (Top/Bottom) while the SGI Versions only have ONE (Bottom). Here are some more photos of an SGI style drive which I have partially disassembled:

Photo with the Bottom SGI PCB removed (focus favoring the PCB):

Floptical Bottom (PCB Removed - Favoring PCB - SGI).jpg
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Photo with the Bottom SGI PCB removed (focus favoring the Drive). Note the large laser assembly:

Floptical Bottom (PCB Removed - Favoring Drive - SGI).jpg
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Here is a relatively decent photo of the lower head on an "SGI" drive (from the top of the drive). (SGI and PC heads seem to be relatively similar). Note the TWO heads on either side of where the laser passes (I assume). This is why you don't want to use a floppy cleaning disk as these narrow heads will catch the fibers. Looks like two heads on top and two heads on the bottom with a laser shooting between them for alignment:

Floptical Head (SGI).JPG
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Photo of a PC Drive with the top PCB removed (focus favoring the PCB):

Floptical Top (PCB Removed - Favoring PCB - PC).jpg
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Photo of a PC Drive with the top PCB removed (focus favoring the PCB):

Floptical Top (PCB Removed - Favoring Drive - PC).jpg
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Reply 13 of 27, by evanevery

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GrassRoots Floptical Controller and Manual:

GrassRoots with Manual.jpg
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GrassRoots Floptical Controller:

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Rancho (Sysgen/ValueStor) Floptical Controller and Manual:

Rancho with Manual.jpg
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Rancho (Sysgen/ValueStor) Floptical Controller:

Rancho.jpg
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Reply 14 of 27, by evanevery

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...and a shot comparing the 3D Printed faceplate I designed (Posted on ThingaVerse) for the SGI Drives (With PC original for comparison) :

ECV_Faceplate.jpg
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Reply 15 of 27, by evanevery

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As these are SCSI devices, I doubt it actually matters which type of equipment the I325VM was sold for or included with. I fully expect that an "SGI" device will work on a "PC" and vice-versa provided a properly configured floptical controller and corresponding software is available.

I notice no differences in using the PC drives vs SGI drives when reading writing standard 1.44MB diskettes using my DOS 5.0 test system. Its the 21MB media I can't get working regardless of which style I325VM I use.

Reply 16 of 27, by evanevery

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I just updated my floptical software archive at: https://haute-solutions.com/downloads/Floptical.zip

to include the photos just posted here and the Adaptec VHDFMT (and other utilities) mention by Lennart (Thanks!)

I think I also got my SSL certs sorted out so if anyone is still seeing a certificate failure please let me know here! (Apache just needed to be rebooted to load the most current "Lets Encrypt" certificates that Certbot has actually been updating)

Reply 17 of 27, by evanevery

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Here are some photos of the hardware in the Atari Falcon "Freedom Floptical" enclosure I recently acquired. Someone had bastardized the enclosure along the way to completely sidestep the internal electronics and just ran a flat SCSI cable out of the box instead. It appears that this board is just likely some sort of generic SCSI converter (DB25 - HD50), but but as the PCB is from Sysgen (a Floptical distributor), I figured it might be worth a couple of photos for the archive.. When I got this, the only connections to the PCB were for power and SCSI ID (which was SOLDERED). (Somehow the eBay seller never mentioned the device was modified in any way and curiously avoided any photos which might show the "new" cable protruding from the case...)

Freedom Floptical PCB.jpg
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Freedom Floptical Backplane.jpg
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Reply 18 of 27, by evanevery

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Good News!

I just received a VERY WELL MAINTAINED Gateway Pentium desktop (from eBay) to use for testing (as my "new" MB appears to have DMA issues on the ISA bus).

I just started run some experiments with the new (old) MB and I now have a floptical drive up and running! I can read old flopticals (I had written to a very long time ago) and I am also able to format unused flopticals to the full 20 mb capacity!

I have isolated a known good floptical (from an SGI box) to use for testing and I managed to get it working using the Rancho Technologies Floptical (SCSI) controller under DOS 5.0. I had some issues with The Grassroots controller, but now that I have a known good drive and floptical diskette I am going to circle back to test it again. I am going to document which controllers and what software were required if they prove successful. My plan is to fully document settings/software I am using with the Rancho controller (RTBios v8.20), go back and re-test the Grasroots controller, and then try using the Adaptec 1522FS and 1542CF controllers.

Reply 19 of 27, by Tetrium

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If you want, you could film using these drives and put the vids on youtube or something.
Do they sound the same as regular floppy drives or are they more similar to Superdisk?

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My retro rigs (old topic)
Interesting Vogons threads (links to Vogonswiki)
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