Thursday, March 28, 2019

Vectrex in 2019

"But do you have a Vectrex?"

When someone learns that I'm a retro game enthusiast and have meticulously collected nearly every post-crash video game console released in the United States, more often than not someone carrying around a nugget of trivia that Vectrex is a rare console, despite the fact that they often don't even know what it is, will ask me about it and I'll have to admit, that no, I don't have a Vectrex.  It doesn't matter that Vectrex is pre-crash and I don't really collect pre-crash - I also don't have Pong, an Odyssey, a Commodore 64, an Atari 5200, or an Atari 7800 either, but those never come up.  What always comes up is the Vectrex.

Twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to buy a Vectrex from a now-defunct local used game retailer for around $100.  At the time I didn't know anything about the Vectrex and the awful buzzing noise the entire time it was switched on made me think something was seriously wrong with it so I passed.  Come to find out that's perfectly normal operation.

About a month ago, a friend of mine who was anxiously awaiting pre-orders for a GDEMU asked me what the heck a "Doc Brown" was which lead to a conversation about the FM Towns Marty.  He asked me if I had one of those and I told him that I did not, but I did have an FM Towns 20F PC which can play any of the games the Marty can and then some.  He wondered out loud if there were any consoles that I didn't have and this time it was I who volunteered that a Vectrex was noticeably absent from my collection.

Well, I finally went and did it - I bought a Vectrex.  I thought it would be fun to describe my experience with it and what I've learned so far.

Buying A Vectrex

I'm sure there are other places for those in the know to get a Vectrex, but for me Ebay was my only realistic avenue.  At any given point there are always plenty of Vectrex consoles available and the price range varies pretty wildly.  $300 to $350 seems to be normal for a fully functional console with a fully functional controller, add about $50 to $75 for one with a box, maybe another $100 for one with a box in good shape.  Of course there are always plenty of listings from people pricing the consoles into the stratosphere but if you spend any appreciable amount of time browsing on Ebay you'll learn to mentally filter those out.

Saving the Box

I managed to get one with a ratty box and about 3 original cartridges for a reasonable price.  According to the seller, he had gotten it new when he was a kid.  He was well meaning and pleasant to talk to but he definitely wasn't a collector and didn't really understand our ways.  When he packed the box for shipping, he used shipping tape on the console box to keep it shut.   It took me 30 minutes of carefully peeling the tape off with a hair dryer to remove it all without causing additional damage.  The box was perfectly dry but had clearly been stored somewhere damp for a long period of time because the heat from the hair dryer filled the room with the smell of decades-old mildew.  Fungus and my body don't get along so well so this did a number on my lungs for a week or so.

The Vectrex box was in pretty bad shape to begin with, but I still wanted to make every effort to preserve it.  The styrofoam was washable with soap and water, but the box was another story.  After confirming that there wasn't any actual mold or mildew growing on it - just some obvious discoloration from water stains, I put the box in a big trash bag and left it outside in -20F over night to kill off anything else that might be clinging to life on it.  Then in the morning I smoked the box inside and out with myrrh.  It doesn't leave a visible residue unless you overdo it.  It has a pleasant smell and it's anti-microbial so it should have killed off any mildew that was still trying to cling to life.

One of the flaps of the box had been torn off, and about a 4-inch section of the print from front of the box had been torn off with it - most of the "Vectrex" logo was missing.

In searching for a solution to "repair" the box, I came across this thread:

To summarize, someone was trying to make their own reproduction box for the Vectrex console and asked for help with box dimensions and so forth.  Someone was kind enough to take a pristine box and provide measurements for all of its dimensions.  The original poster also followed up with the image files he ultimately used to print the new cover for the box.  I was able to use those image files and measurements of the actual box to print a new Vectrex logo onto a sheet of sticker paper and apply it over top of the box where the logo was missing.  I was also able to make a replacement flap from a box in my recycle pile, and print a cover for the flap as well.  It's far from perfect, but it's good enough for my needs.

Impressions of the Console

Unlike a traditional game console which requires an external display like a television or monitor, the Vectrex is self-contained and has its own built-in black and white monitor.  Although it pre-dates the Apple Macintosh by several years, the original Mac is probably the closest thing it can be compared with which most people will recognize.

Unlike a traditional CRT which is configured for "raster" graphics, the Vectrex monitor is configured for vector graphics (thus the name of the console).  This CRT type is also sometimes referred to as an XY monitor because of the way it receives signals.  Instead of drawing a picture on the screen with dots in a series of horizontal lines, a vector monitor moves the electron beam in direct lines from one x/y coordinate to another.  Rather than being made from a grid of pixels, vector objects are made from clean lines making them appear much sharper and more detailed than anything drawn on a raster-based CRT.  Most of the lines are perfectly straight, but I've seen one or two games cleverly bend and curve the lines as well.

The controller is pretty interesting for a couple of reasons.  It consists of a fully analog joystick and 4 buttons.  The analog stick is impressively accurate (in my experience), though from what I understand it's even more accurate when two joysticks are plugged in together.  It *looks* like both controllers share a common ground port and without both plugged in, it's left floating.  (I could be mistaken - I didn't really study the phenomenon in too much depth).  One of the coolest things is the way the controller latches into the front of the console and folds into it for storage.

The Vectrex console also has a single built-in game.  When the console is powered up without a cartridge installed it loads a game called "MineStorm".  MineStorm is essentially an Asteroids clone that serves as a pretty decent tech demo, showing off scaling and a good number of on-screen objects.  It's also a lot of fun.

Lastly, the monitor is monochromatic (a.k.a. black & white). A color vector monitor would have, no doubt, been too expensive to include.  Their solution: place colored translucent overlays in front of the screen.  It sounds cheap and gimmicky, but I have to say that it actually works pretty well.

Giving the Vectrex a Tune-Up

For a 37 year old console, the Vectrex worked pretty well as-is when I received it.  The volume knob was a little scratchy, and of course the console made a constant buzzing noise.  The buzz is, unfortunately, normal function for a Vectrex - it's a design flaw rather than a failure.  As far as the monitor, the purity (the squareness of the overall image) seemed a little off - nothing drastic, and arguably within an acceptable margin.   Sometimes as capacitors age CRTs will start to drift out of calibration so I took the opportunity to do a complete internal cleaning, re-cap and see what could be done about that buzzing.

Inside the Vectrex are a logic board, a power board, a transformer block and a CRT.  Predictably the insides of the console were covered in a thick compacted layer of dust.
The Vectrex logic board covered in 37 years of gritty dust.


Read anything about working on or around CRTs and you'll know that they're essentially gigantic glass capacitors that will happily discharge lethal amounts of electricity through you if you don't show them the proper respect.  In order to completely tear down the Vectrex among other things it's necessary to disconnect the anode cap.  To do that safely, most people recommend wiring a screwdriver the chassis ground and carefully pushing the blade of the screwdriver up under the anode cap until it makes contact with the anode.  There are plenty of videos on YouTube explaining the process (it's essentially the same thing regardless of the CRT you're using).  The one thing they don't tell you is once it's discharged how you get the anode cap physically disconnected from the CRT.  There are evidently lots of different styles of connector - even among variations of the Vectrex.  The one on my particular Vectrex looked different from the ones in the videos I found.  Mine consisted of two back-to-back "L" shaped prongs that needed to be pinched together to unhitch them.

Getting the rest of the Vectrex apart requires not only a screwdriver, but also a soldering iron to disconnect the power wires between the logic board and power board and clippers to cut the zip ties fastening the CRT neck board and the ferrite core on the power wires coming from the transformer block.  If you're going to disassemble a Vectrex, it's probably a good idea to have some zip ties on hand first and take pictures before you remove the old ones so you can replace them properly during reassembly - the ferrite core is particularly tricky to get back into its exact original position, and you have to get it back in it's original position to get the Vectrex to go back together.  Just trust me and take pictures.

Once I had the console disassembled, I used an air compressor to blow as much of the dust off the boards as possible, then cleaned them the rest of the way with static-free brushes.  After the boards were pretty much free of dust and fluff, I gave the logic board a shot of Deoxit.  Most of the IC's are socketed so it's possible for oxidation to creep in and interfere with connections.  My thinking was if the Deoxit can get in-between the IC legs and the sockets, then the Deoxit was helping, if it couldn't get in-between then it wasn't hurting anything.

Getting some of the larger power capacitors off of the power board without causing damage was a bit challenging as large portions of the ground plain of the power PCB had separated and bubbled up like bad paint.  The large capacitors are fixed to the PCB with glue as well as solder so I used a hot air station to heat the glue while de-soldering the capacitor legs.  With a little patience I managed to get all of the old capacitors off without causing any damage.

After installing the new capacitors (which I purchased as a kit from Console5.com) I also replaced thermal grease on the power board heat sink with Arctic Silver.  

In addition to replacing the electrolytic capacitors, I also replaced the styrene integrator capacitors with modern equivalents (which I also purchased as a kit from Console5.com), de-soldered the power-volume potentiometer to clean it out with Deoxit and pack some dielectric grease into the wiper, and finished it off by installing a "Buzz-Off" kit (purchased from this seller on Ebay) to eliminate about 97% of the buzzing noise that is part of the original flawed design.

With the whole thing cleaned, recapped and reassembled I fired it up.  The improvement made by replacing the capacitors and cleaning was marginal.  Old though they were, those original capacitors must have been pretty high quality because they were still working fine.  Volume was no longer scratchy and the vectors were perhaps just a hair cleaner.  With the capacitors no longer a factor, it was time to try to dial everything in.

I found a good reference for adjusting the internal potentiometers here and the centering rings here:
http://vectorgaming.proboards.com/thread/1705/tutorial-vectrex-adjustment

The multi-cart I purchased (detailed below) had a test cart program which draws test patterns for making the adjustments easier.

But after turning all the knobs I came to the conclusion that even after 37 years, the factory settings were still pretty much spot on so all of the pots ended up pretty much back where they started, however the centering rings did need a little tweaking.  The purity issue I mentioned where the screen isn't 100% square requires the adjustment of magnets around the CRT, but the factory magnets were solidly glued in place so it just wasn't worth messing with.



Available Games

The list of officially released Vectrex games is pretty short, and there are a handful of different multi-game cartridges available which contain most or all of the official games as well as nearly as many or more unreleased prototypes and homebrew titles.  A lot of these multi-carts are old news in 2019 and are no longer being made, but there are at least a couple of people still producing and occasionally updating them.


So your options for getting games are basically Ebay for the originals, or going to one of a couple places for multi-carts.  One advantage of going with the original games is that you can very often get the corresponding color overlay for that game.


Multi-Cart Options:

Probably the most well-know is Sean Kelly:

Madtronix also sells two different varieties of multi-cart, each one a little cheaper than Sean Kelly's, but notably includes the one officially released game Sean Kelly does not - Animaction:



About Overlays:

The overlays aren't strictly required to enjoy the games, but they often function like arcade marquees - not just tinting the screen with colors but providing a handy reference for what each button on the controller does.  Of course, there are options for getting reproduction overlays - more than I'll try to list here, but as of the writing of this article one of the most reasonable seems to be this seller on Ebay:

https://www.ebay.com/usr/retrosounds2013

Accessories

For only being produced for about two years, the Vectrex was a pretty innovative console and wasn't content to just make games that could be enjoyed with the controller.  Just having a multi-cart isn't enough to allow you to enjoy the entire small library of official releases.  For that you'll need a couple of accessories.

Light Pen

The Light Pen accessory is basically a stylus for your Vectrex, allowing you monitor to function somewhat like a touch screen.  This can be used to draw on the screen, and as an additional form of player input.  The original light pens are pretty rare and relatively expensive but the technology is simple enough that you can make one yourself with some easily available parts, or if you'd prefer not to go the DIY route, there are a few people who will happily sell you one.

DIY

Madtronix

3D Imager

Not only does it produce a 3D effect, the 3D Imager also colorizes the images on screen.  The 3D effect works on a similar principle to active shutter glasses.  The player wears a pair of goggles with a spinning disc fitted in front of their eyes.  The disc is half transparent, half opaque - so just like active shutter glasses do with LCDs, when the image for the right eye is being drawn on the screen, the left eye is being blocked, and vice-versa so each eye sees a different, offset image.  The colorizing effect is very similar to the color wheel of a DLP projector - the transparent portion of the disc has colored areas and synchronizes the drawing of specific lines with when that color is in front of the player's eyes.

There's a great overview and review of the Imager here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCQ-L12g8c4&t=607s

The "3D Imager" is worth more than the console itself.  When you can find one, they seem to be priced between $500 and $1000 and those are real prices not wishful thinking like the sellers trying to get $1000 for a broken Vectrex.  However, thanks to a very enthusiastic and capable fan base, there is a reproduction available that will let you experience those 3D games much more affordably:

Madtronix 3D Imager

I really enjoyed reading about how he came up with the design for the reproduction 3D imager:



A note about ordering from Madtronix: this is boutique vintage gaming equipment.  The guy who makes this stuff is a talented and thoughtful engineer but not necessarily great at the e-commerce side of things.  Things took considerably longer to arrive than initially promised and communication was inconsistent to say the least, but the products he sells are awesome and well worth the wait.

Playing Games on Vectrex

So with my Vectrex cleaned and re-capped, a Madtronix Light Pen, a Madtronix 3D Imager and a Madtronix "Classic" multi-cart, I decided to sit down and work my way through the Vectrex library.

Light Pen Games:

I tried the light pen games Animaction and Art Master first as I found the whole idea fascinating.  I had trouble getting the pen to work at first and started to worry that it might have been defective, but after reading one of the light pen game manuals online, I realized that I had the brightness on my monitor way too low.  The advice from the manual is to turn the brightness all the way up until you see a bright dot in the center of the screen, then back it down just until that dot disappears.  For normal use that feels way too bright to me, but when I did this the pen started working normally, so I turned the brightness up for the pen and back down for everything else.  After I got it working, the novelty of the light pen wore off pretty quickly.

3D Games:

As pricey as the 3D imager is, I would have expected there to be more games that used it, but there are really only 3 official titles.

The 3D Minestorm game changes the Minestorm formula a bit.  It increases the fidelity and animation of the "mines" you have to destroy at the cost of fewer objects on screen.  The 3D effect is interesting but not really essential to the process.  The Minestorm/Asterioids gameplay is compelling enough by itself that it is a really fun game despite 3D not adding much to the experience.

3D Crazy Coaster is evidently a roller-coaster simulation of some kind, but gameplay is not intuitive and while hurdling to your death by presumably falling off of a roller coaster is good for a couple of laughs, the game didn't really offer a compelling reason for me to put any more time into figuring out how it's supposed to be played.

3D Narrow Escape was the real gem in this collection.  One of my fondest early childhood memories was discovering the original vector-based Star Wars Arcade game, and while it is nowhere near as kinetic or impressive, Narrow Escape makes great use of the 3D effect to deliver an experience that is vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars Arcade.  Though the gameplay itself reminds me more of Hal's Hyper Zone on the SNES, Narrow Escape kept me playing for considerably longer than the others.

The Rest of the Games:


I should probably have taken notes as a parsed through the list, but instead I'm just going to give my impressions of the library and maybe mention what were the stand-out titles to me.  With so few games I was a tiny bit disappointed at how many games are basically just Minestorm - in addition to Minestorm II and Minestorm 3D, there's also like Space Wars and Solar Quest which were essentially minor variations Minestorm.  I suppose in fairness the same could be said of modern Battle Royale games, but I know this much: if I was a kid and saved up all my pennies to buy a new game and wound up with Space Wars, I would feel pretty ripped off considering it's nearly identical to the one game that every Vectrex owner already has.  

Pole Position is particularly interesting in that it featured curved lines for the edges of the road where most other vector games consist exclusively of straight lines. 

Clean Sweep is a blatant Pac-Man clone where you control a money/treasure sac instead of Pac-Man and it adds a dimension of challenge in that the sack will fill up and you have to return to the center of the field to empty it before continuing to gobble up coins/pellets.

Rip Off is ironically the one Minestorm-like title that actually adds enough of a twist that I wouldn't call it a rip-off.  Your ship controls and shoots basically the same as in Minestorm, but instead of trying to blow up "mines" you have to blow up the critters before they can fly off with the goodies in your pile of important objects.

Scramble is a thoroughly enjoyable side-scrolling SHMUP with a non-coincidental similarity to Gradius.  Developed and released by Konami 4 years prior to Gradius, Scramble is clearly Gradius's big brother.  Easily one of the best games on the system.

Armor Attack is essentially a very refined take on Combat for the Atari VCS only a lot more fun.  Very tight controls and very entertaining.  Shooting a tank once will break its tracks but it can still shoot at you for a while from a stationary position unless you hit it again.  I found myself playing this one for quite a while.

Berzerk is a fun port of the arcade game, but I can't help but be a little disappointed that the awesome voice synthesis wasn't included.  The game "Spike" proves that the Vetrex is more than capable of voice support, and indeed a "homebrew" hack of Berzerk called "Verzerk" exists which restores this functionality.

Spike is a very unique spin on the Donkey Kong formula, taking advantage of the Vectrex's ability to scale objects to present a diagonal perspective of the playing field.  It's a single-screen platformer - and pretty much the only platformer on the Vectrex.

Fortress of Narzod is a great take on the Space Invaders formula.  Instead of shooting enemies in an largely open field, you attempt to shoot at them while hemmed in by a canyon.  Your shots bounce off the walls and if done correctly the ricochet can be used to hit enemies around corners.

Dark Tower - finished in 1983 but never commercially released, Dark Tower is the lone "Adventure" game on the Vectrex.  It makes full use of the the Vectrex scaling to give you a third-person over-shoulder view of walking around the landscape - very reminiscent of Drakkhen on SNES.

Conclusions

The Vectrex definitely offers a unique experience.  Advancements in the resolution of modern displays are making it more and more possible to accurately simulate the look of vector graphics on fixed-pixel displays, but for ease of use nothing can beat the real thing just yet.  The Vectrex was definitely ahead of its time, and I have to think it would have lived a longer and fuller life had Atari not destroyed the video game market in the early 1980's.  I can't really claim nostalgia for something I was unaware of in my youth, but I can say that I think I get the enthusiasm behind the Vectrex community.  This console had so much potential, and lived up to a good deal of it in its short life.  It's exciting to think of what could have happened if it had kept going.

Is it worth the price of admission?  If you grew up with one, or fantasized about one as a kid, maybe so.  For myself I'd have to reluctantly answer "no".  You're unlikely to be able to obtain a working Vectrex and decent games for less than $400, and I can think of a lot of better ways to spend that amount, nostalgic or otherwise.  I think my personal investment sits somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 all told for a boxed console, modding/restoration parts, a light pen, a 3D imager and a multi-cart.

I think it's perfect for someone who entertains a lot of guests. Setting it up basically involves plugging in the power and placing the console on top of a table or counter, so it's easy to bust out when you're planning a get-together.  The console is rare and interesting enough to function as an interactive conversation piece.



Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Casio TS-100 Repair Log


Story Time

Half a lifetime ago I was at school.  It was the 10th grade and I noticed something unusual about the digital watch the kid sitting next to me in shop class was wearing.  Below the display was an indentation with a round aluminum disc.  Being a total digital watch geek I had to ask him about it.  That's when I learned that the aluminum circle on the face was a temperature sensor.  It has been so long that I honestly cannot remember the particulars but I ended up trading something with him to get that watch.

At some point in my 20's the watch stopped working and I took it apart to try to fix it - what I thought I could accomplish is beyond me.  Predictably I wasn't successful in my attempts to get it working.  Rather than put it back together, I placed all of its pieces into an empty margarine tub and promptly lost track of it for nearly 20 years.

Fast-forward to last week when my wife was clearing out one of our many catchalls (you know when you've spent all day cleaning and you're down to that last pile of miscellaneous crap and you just want it to be over so you just dump it all into a box and stick it somewhere).  She left me a pile of stuff she thought I might want to keep and among it was the partial remains of my TS-100 - basically just the watch module and housing.  Evidently the margarine tub I had placed it in had shattered at some point and its contents were spilled everywhere.  By the time I recognized what I was seeing, my wife had already emptied the dregs at the bottom of the box into a trash bag.  Fortunately it had not been picked up yet so we dumped out and sifted through the contents of the bag to find what we could.  We managed to recover the back, three of the four screws, the battery clasp and the remains of the gasket and the band.    We did not find the last screw or the coil spring for the beep membrane.

Assessment


I can only speculate as to what kind of weathering the watch had been subjected to since I put it away, but the band had hardened and become brittle, the gasket was brittle and had broken in two.  This suggests some seriously extreme temperatures - might have been left in the garage over the course of several summers and winters.

I took a screw from another non-functional Casio watch to replace the one that was lost.  It's still possible to order new screws from Pac-Parts but they're $2.50 apiece.

I had no idea what functional condition the watch was in, so the first thing I needed to do was put in a new battery and see what happened.  CR1620 is not a very common size but fortunately Walgreens does carry them - well they carried one of them and I bought it.

The First Issue - Swollen Zebra Connectors

When I put the battery in the watch, the display showed numbers and appeared to work at first, but when my finger slipped and I had to re-insert the battery the display ended up all garbled.   It's never a good sign when putting the battery in the watch causes the light to come on - it means something is shorted somewhere.

The next step was to dismantle the watch module to see what might be going on.


TS-200 LCD Holder - something has caused the zebra connectors to swell and warp

I don't have a ton of experience with zebra connectors so it may not be terribly significant but I've never seen anything like this.  The zebra connectors which transmit electrical signals from the watch module to the LCD had somehow swollen in place causing them to warp.  I've read about these connectors shrinking with heat, but I don't know what could make them swell up like this.  Temperature, moisture?  It's hard to know.

When I removed them, I found the compression of being inside the slot when they swelled had caused them to expand unevenly and they ended up with a very pronounced curve.   The slot where the connectors are supposed to rest is 20mm wide, but the connectors had each swollen to over 25mm!

Because I knew that these connectors are prone to shrink with heat, I set my hot air workstation to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (its lowest setting) and gently heated the zebra connectors to see if they would shrink.  Not only did they shrink back to what appears to be their normal size, they also straightened out in the process.

In the image below, the top connector is what they both looked like when I first removed them from the watch, the bottom shows what the connector looked like after applying 212 degree heat to it for about 45 seconds. In hindsight I think placing them in boiling water would also bring them back down to size.

Top - a swollen and curved zebra connector as it was when first removed from the watch.  Bottom - a zebra connector heated with hot air and restored to almost normal size and shape.





















After heating both of the zebra connectors they reduced in size back down to about 21mm across which I think is probably their original size.  It's a bit of a tight fit getting them back in, but the curving was nowhere near as dramatic as when I first opened the watch, and unlikely to cause any shorts.


When I reassembled the watch and pressed the battery into it, it came to life, but again when I let go of the battery to try re-insert it with the clasp, the display was garbled.  I had to take a moment to pray about what to do next because it seemed like the watch might just straight up be damaged despite the fact that it would randomly seem to work and then not.

It might seem goofy to insert prayer into the middle of a repair log but it's been hard to argue with the results.  I had the thought that even though I had restored the zebra connectors to their original size and shape, I still hadn't cleaned them.  I disassembled the module again and took a Q-tip and alcohol to all of the pads on the module and to both of the zebra connectors, reassembled the whole thing, prayed again, and glory to God the thing worked perfectly when I re-inserted the battery.

I fastened the battery clasp, inserted the module into the casing and here's what I got:




So far so good.

Second Issue - Missing Coil Spring

Now the next item on the agenda was what to do about the missing "coil spring".  For reference the coil spring is a tiny spring that sticks out of the back of the watch module and makes contact with the piezoelectric pad on the watch back creating a circuit that allows the watch to make beep sounds.  The original coil spring had been lost when the parts were scattered.  I figured it had to be a pretty common part - pretty much every digital watch that beeps uses them, but after searching with Google and a phone call to Pac Parts (the official parts supplier for Casio) I could not seem to find these parts anywhere.  I went back to that donor watch that I pulled the missing screw from, but its spring was too shallow to work.

I'm sure that with a little more time and maybe calling around to watch shops I might be able to find a suitable replacement, but it's just a simple conductor - surely I had something on hand that would do the job.  Eventually I decided to just snip off a tiny length of solder - the metal is soft enough that it's easy to cut and will give a little when pressed.  Turned out to work perfectly - now I've got beeps.

The TS-100's missing coil spring replaced by a small strip of .22" diameter un-melted solder.

Third Issue - Inaccurate Temperature

To my recollection, the temperature sensor on this watch was always more of a novelty than an instrument of accuracy, but I do remember it it at least being somewhat close to reality once upon a time.  With everything back together I noticed the temperature reading was way off - registering about 10 degrees above the actual temperature in the room.  That kind of jarred my memory as being the main reason I took it apart in the first place, but I'm 20 years older now and hopefully a little wiser so I figured I might have better success this go around.

There's no setting you can access from the display that will allow you to offset the temperature displayed on the watch.  Calibration requires taking the back off and adjusting the potentiometer (pot) concealed underneath the sticker labeled "DO NOT TURN".





Turning the pot clockwise will increase the displayed temperature, counter-clockwise will decrease it.




Calibrating this watch to the correct temperature can be a tedious process.  Firstly you have to decide whether you want it to display the correct temperature when worn, or when left on display.  Despite the fact that the thermocoupler's primary source of heat is the aluminum pad on the front of the watch, body heat is enough to raise the temperature of the watch about 20 degrees.

Temperature Calibration Instructions

These are the steps I followed to calibrate the temperature to be as accurate as possible while wearing the watch.  (To calibrate it to be accurate when on display, I suspect all you really need to do is set the watch next to a reference thermometer and turn the pot until the displayed temperature matches the reference thermometer.)

Step 1: Remove the watch back and expose the potentiometer.

Step 2: Try to figure out the ratio of turn to temperature change on the watch display.  I recommend looking at the temperature displayed on the watch face then turning the pot 45 degrees and immediately re-checking the temperature.  What's tricky about this is that with the back exposed the air moving back and forth over the sensor as you turn it is also changing the actual temperature being measured. You'll probably need to check this a couple of times to make sure your results are consistent.  When I did this I found that every 5 degrees of turn was roughly 1 degree of Fahrenheit temperature change.  Your mileage may vary.

Step 3: Find a reliable digital thermometer to use as a reference.

Step 4: With the back securely screwed on, put the watch on your wrist and rest your wrist next to the reference thermometer.

Step 5: Wait until the temperature on the watch stops rising in reaction to your body heat.

Step 6: Continue to check the temperature on the watch every minute to ensure that it's still steady.

Step 7: Note the difference in temperature between the watch display and the reference thermometer.

Step 8: Remove the watch back and expose the potentiometer.

Step 9: Turn the potentiometer (clockwise to increase, counter to decrease) according to the temperature difference you recorded in step 7.  For example, if your temperature was 2 degrees Fahrenheit too high and you got the same 5:1 ratio as I did, you'd try to turn it about 10 degrees counter-clockwise.

Step 10: Replace the back and repeat steps 4 through 9 until you get to step 7 and find that the reference thermometer and the watch are showing the same temperature.


Finishing Touches

A New Band

The band for the TS-100 is an unusual size - 17mm wide at the hinge, but amazingly as of the time of this writing, the original genuine Casio resin band is still available to buy on Amazon - just search for TS-100 band.  Unfortunately the band does not come with the matching spring bars to attach the band to the case.  Since it's such an odd size, not may people sell them.  I ended up having to buy an assortment of over 100 spring bars just to get a pair of 17mm ones.

A New Gasket

And finally it would be the icing on the cake if I could somehow replace the gasket that provides water resistance.  Without a good way to measure the circumference of the gasket (the original was swollen too large to fit) I ended up ordering an assortment of gaskets from Esslinger & Co.  I'll update this post if I have any luck finding a gasket and somehow getting it into the weird shape required to seal up the back of this watch.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Sega CD Model 2 Repair Log (Revisited)


A while ago I wrote about firing up my Sega CD Model 2 and finding that it did not work.  Not only did it not work, but it was broken in more than one way.

To recap, first discs were making a terrible scraping noise and getting rings scratched into them.

I discovered that this was due to the shock dampers having cracked and collapsed.

Page 11 of the Service Manual courtesy of the Console5 Tech Wiki


The dampers deteriorated with time and use.

When the shock dampers fail like this, the CD drive sits too low and the discs will scrape the tray as it tries to spin the disc.

My first solution was to add some home-made washers to prop up the collapsed dampers.  While this did work, it had two major problems.  Firstly, with the CD drive rigged like this, the CD spindle was not properly level.  While the magnetic clamp holds the disc in place anyway, it seemed like being off balance like that might be putting extra wear on the spindle motor.

As far as I can tell, direct replacements for these "Rubber Dampers" are no longer made.  After at least a dozen hours of searching off and on I finally found a substitute part that seems to work pretty well.

Based on rough measurements of the original part this was the closest substitute I could find anywhere on the web.


At first glance they do appear quite different, but the inner diameter and the neck are pretty close.  There were a lot of other similar "damper balls" but most of them had too wide a neck or the wrong inner diameter.  Although the original part has a much wider outer diameter, the outer diameter doesn't really make much difference.  As far as support, the original part is hollow whereas the substitute I found is solid and actually a bit sturdier.

The original part is installed by slotting the damper into the CD drive assembly, then lowering the drive assembly onto the pikes.  The substitute part will ride too high if installed in the same way as the original.

One small issue with the substitute part is that the inner diameter is a single size, whereas the original damper has a larger opening on the bottom to match the two different diameters of the pike.  If you try to just drop the new dampers in like the originals, the CD drive will end up riding too high.  Fortunately the different dimensions of the new part mean that there's an alternative method of installation.


With the substitute, it's necessary to install the dampers onto the pikes first, then use downward twisting motion to stretch them over the lower portion of the shaft as shown here:



With all four dampers in place and pushed down, you can lower the CD drive onto the pikes, then push down.  The top ring of the new dampers are small enough that they should be able to push through with a little gentle encouragement from a pair of tweezers.



With the new dampers installed, you should be able to re-assemble the shell.

The red arrows show where there should be height differences.  The CD drive shield should sit about half-way between the disc well and the back edge of the tray.

With all six screws back in place, inspect the height of the CD drive shield.  It should be raised above the disc well.  There should also be a gap between the CD drive shield and the back of the disc well.

To make sure everything came out level and balanced, connect the Sega CD to a Genesis, power it on and put a disc in (you might want to test with something unimportant or easily replaceable first).  Wait until you hear the drive spin up, then open the lid while the disc is spinning.  If everything went well, the disc should continue spin levelly without any wobble.


The next issue I had to re-visit is the grinding noise during seek operations.  Sometimes this is a momentary buzz, others it's a constant noise that won't stop until you power the unit off.  This happens because the limit switch for the "home" position of the laser pickup is not correctly registering the end of travel.  You'll probably find half a dozen guides online of people describing gently bending the limit switch back toward the pickup.  While this did work for me, it wound up only being temporary - after a few hours it was right back to doing it again.  The problem is, I believe, that the drive likes to park the laser pickup in the home position which causes it to push against the limit switch for extended periods of time.  After a while the switch just bends into the shape of being pushed back.

The best solution I found was to wedge a tube of heat-shrink tubing behind the limit switch to provide a small amount of constant forward pressure.


With this fix in place the system has been working normally.  Time will tell if it continues to help.  A good game to test this with is Heart of the Alien - the drive always seeks to home when it goes to the continue/password entry screen.  

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Technics SL-10 Turntable

An image of the SL-10 taken from Technics' archive
Chasing a better experience with vinyl can be a nigh endless tumble down the rabbit hole if you let it.  Although I've been collecting vinyl itself since the late nineties, I didn't buy my first turntable until 2013, and I really had very little idea what I was doing.  For example, I went out of my way to get a deck that would support 78 RPM because I didn't realize that even in the unlikely event I ever came across a 78 RPM disc I still wouldn't be able to play it with a simple flick of a switch.

One of the first things you learn about setting up your your first turntable is cartridge alignment.  When installing the cartridge, it is necessary to adjust the angle of the stylus relative to the tonearm so that as it rides in the record groove, it rides as straight as possible.  In the process of doing this I learned that it's not possible to actually keep the stylus straight the whole way through the record - at least not on a traditional turntable.

In a traditional turntable, the tonearm pivots which means that as the stylus travels across the radius of the disc, it does so in an arc which means that the tip of the stylus pivots as well and can not always be perpendicular to the groove. In other words the stylus will only be at the correct angle for a portion of the record playback, not all of it.  There are different approaches to alignment which all seek to maximize the window of accurate tracking, but they're all compromises.

When I learned about this, I thought "Well, why don't they just make a tonearm that moves the stylus in a straight line across the radius of the record?"  The answer is, of course, they DID - it's called a "linear tracking turntable".

A linear-tracking tonearm moves the stylus in a straight line across the radius of the record while playing so the stylus is always perpendicular to the groove.  Since the lathe that is used to cut the groove into the original masters also uses linear tracking this means that in technical terms, linear tracking is the most accurate method of playback.

That is not to say that linear tracking is not without its own problems.  The arm has to move across a shaft or bar which increases the frictional surface area, and it has to be moved by some kind of motive force.  The mechanism used to move the tonearm is considerably more prone to unwanted vibrations than a pivoting tonearm.  These extra vibrations could theoretically affect the sound.  Personally I've not been able to detect them - but by the same token I've never been able to hear the distortion from a pivoting tonearm not being perpendicular to the groove either.

The complexity of engineering and producing a good linear tracking system and the relatively in-discernible benefit from it means that we'll probably never see a modern turntable employ this approach again.  Unless your turntable budget is in the 10's of thousands of dollars, your only option for getting a linear tracking turntable is to find an old one that still works. 

I've had my eye on a Technics SL-10 for a little over a year now - I believe it was the first image I saw when putting the term "linear tracking turntable" into Ebay, and after looking at a dozen or so other units I kept coming back to the SL-10. 

There is a really wide price range for these which seems to be based more on opportunism than condition.  That is to say that I've seen these in perfect condition sold for about $300, and others with the chrome worn off the buttons and covered in deep scratches or broken clamps going for $600 to $700.  And of course there are the handful of wishful thinkers on Ebay trying to hawk them for upwards of $1100 (as far as I can tell, no one has ever actually sold one for so much).

In the lead-up to my purchase I learned a good deal about what defects to look out for and what the most desirable elements are.

On the topic of defects:

  • The rubber in the feet of the decks has been known to deteriorate
  • The lid clasps have a tendency to break

As for completeness, the SL-10 originally shipped with a specially designed AV cable with a custom-shaped plug which incorporated chassis ground as part of the socket.  It's not a huge deal, but definitely more desirable to have the original accessory.

Next, and probably the biggest thing to look out for is the cartridge.  The SL-10 originally shipped with a Technics EPS-310MC cartridge.  The "MC" portion of the name refers to a "moving coil".

EPS-310MC "nude diamond" stylus.
All phonograph cartridges work on the principle that motion between a magnet and a copper coil produces an electrical current which is equivalent to the motion - the physical vibration becomes an electrical signal.

The difference between the "MM" (or "Moving Magnet") and MC cartridges is which element is attached to the stylus/cantilever.  In the case of the MC cartridges, the stylus/cantilever moves the coil and the magnets are stationary.  Evidently the MC cartridges are harder to make, but produce cleaner sound with less distortion - at least that's what I've read.  If I had to guess why, I'd say it's because the coil isn't as dense and therefore not subject to as much inertia as the magnet.

Inertia is a big deal because it can exaggerate the motion of the stylus - and remember the motion of the stylus is what reproduces the original sound.  Ideally the cantilever should only move exactly in the shape of the groove without any motion added or missing.  To that end the most desirable styli are those with the lowest "moving mass".

EPS-310MC hollow boron cantilever.
You can also see the moving coils in the background.

Finally there's the additional factor of harmonic resonance.  I'm not terribly well-studied on the topic, but the gist of it is that each material has a resonant frequency - that is to say that if the material is vibrated at that frequency by an outside force it will tend to continue vibrating by itself after the outside force ceases to be applied.  This is the basic principle of a tuning fork.  It will also produce distortions in the playback of a phonograph record.  Some of the more inexpensive cantilevers use aluminum which can, supposedly, create distortions in the high end of the human audible frequency range because of its resonant frequency.

The EPS-310MC cartridge uses a hollow boron cantilever and boasts the lowest moving mass of any cantilever ever made.  Boron is a very rigid material with a resonant frequency well outside of human hearing. For that reason it is still used in high-end cantilevers today. Boron is already very light on its own, but Technics further reduced the mass of the cantilever on the 310MC by making it hollow.  They did this by some proprietary crystal-growing process which no one has ever duplicated and they stopped manufacturing their own cartridges not long after.

From my own personal experience I can definitely detect a little more detail with the 310MC than with my Shure 97x on my traditional turntable, but not much, and I couldn't guarantee that the difference wasn't because of some other factor.  I'm not an audiophile and I don't really go in for debates over subjective minutiae like "warmth", but I have enough of an ear to hear the clarity and detail of a quality recording played back on a quality turntable. Regardless of how much better it is, the desirability of the EPS-310MC cartridge accounts for as much as half of the value of the SL-10.  In other words, don't pay full price for one that doesn't come with the 310MC.

One of the coolest things about the SL-10 is that it doesn't rely on gravity for its tracking force.  The tracking force is controlled by an electromagnet that moves the tonearm down and measures resistance to keep the force consistent.  The upshot of this is that the player doesn't have to be horizontal to play - in fact it can be played in a completely vertical orientation or even upside-down if you are crazy enough to attempt it.  Because of this Technics released an optional set of feet for the player that allow you to prop it up at an angle.  Unfortunately the feet are somewhat uncommon and Ebay sellers seem to expect to get somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 for them.  However thanks to a forum post I stumbled across when looking up information, I was able to purchase a very good substitute for considerably less.

This laptop stand is sturdy, durable, exactly the right size and even matches the turntable's color and brushed aluminum look:



When my player first arrived, I unpacked it, set it up, inspected it and then tried to play a couple of records.  It would get about 3/4 of the way through the record and start skipping.  One touch of the tonearm rail told me what the problem was - the 40 year old grease had gone sticky and the tonearm was getting stuck.  I had to disassemble the underside of the lid, clean off the old grease and freshen it with some modern lithium grease.  There is one tricky part when taking the lid apart so if you have to do this, make sure to watch it done a couple times on YouTube before trying it yourself.  While I had the lid off, I noticed that the drive belt had hardened a little and replaced it.  Turns out this takes the exact same drive belt as the Sega CD Model 1 which you can buy very inexpensively from Console5. Since that this turntable has been smooth as butter.

What a difference being automatic makes!  In addition to being a linear tracking turntable, the SL-10 is about as fully automatic is it can be.  Living in the age of digitally distributed music, smartphones and bluetooth it may not seem impressive to have a music playing device that "just works", but if you've invested any serious time or effort into vinyl, you probably know it's normal for the process to be a little involved.  Setting up the player for the first time usually involves the afore-mentioned alignment as well as tracking force, anti-skating force, and leveling the turntable itself.  With this turntable all of those factors are either unnecessary or handled automatically.  It's essentially the same level of convenience of playing a CD.  Just put a disc of any size onto the platter, close the lid and push "Start".  The player even automatically mutes the first second of playback to silence the "pop" of the stylus making contact with the record for the first time.


Most of the automatic turntables I've seen use little mechanical sensors which push up through holes in the platter to detect disc size.  The SL-10 uses LEDs and photo sensors.  While this is really cool tech - especially for 1979 when this turntable had its debut, it does present a challenge when trying to play transparent vinyl.  I wound up having to cover up the photo sensors on the underside of the lid with a strip of electrical tape - otherwise the led light would pass through the record and tell the photo sensor that the platter was empty.

If you can find one in decent shape I can't recommend this turntable enough.  When I first got seriously involved in collecting and listening to vinyl the manual process was fun, but now that I've been doing it for a few years, sometimes I just want to pop a record on and listen to it without the associated hassle, and this turntable lets me do just that.





Wednesday, September 19, 2018

FM Towns 20F Repair Notes


The FM Towns PC was one of the very first 32-bit gaming platforms.  Its visual design is a striking portrait of everything that was cool about Japanese technology of the late 80's and early 90's.

Ever since getting a first glance of the futuristic gray PC in Electronic Gaming Monthly #4, I have wanted one.

I must have read this page out of the magazine fifty times:
The article that inspired my obsession with the FM Towns when I was a kid.


About 11 years ago someone offered a broken one for sale on Ebay.  IIRC, it was just the PC itself, without a keyboard or monitor.  When I reached out to him to ask about the potential of repairing it, the seller did not want to let me buy the broken one.  He was an Australian living or visiting Japan, and he was evidently trying to make a little money on the side by selling what were common items in Japan but rarities in the rest of the world.  He told me he'd get back with me when he had sourced a complete and functional FM Towns 20F PC.  About a week after our first conversation he posted a video of the PC, Monitor, Keyboard, Mouse and Control Pad all connected and playing a game.  He quoted me a price, I paid it without hesitation, he boxed it up and then I waited the interminable 2 weeks for it to arrive.

As is the case with almost every large item I buy from Japan, the shipping box was just demolished.  The monitor had a tiny bit of cosmetic damage that might have been from the shipping.  Otherwise everything arrived intact and seemed to work normally when I finished setting it up.  The monitor was crisp and clear, the PC booted CDs without any fuss, the mouse, keyboard and joypad were all working normally.  After my initial relief that it was all good, I noticed that unlike the video the seller posted, the CD access light and volume LEDs weren't lighting up when the system was working.

I posted about the problem on Assembler Games and possibly one other place hoping this was some common problem, but that never really went anywhere.  At the time I tried to disassemble the PC to see if there was any obvious physical damage, but I couldn't get very far before I was stymied by an incredibly intricate system of interlocking panels.

Every couple of years my thoughts wander back to my FM Towns PC and how it's *almost* perfect, and I think about trying to fix those lights.  And occasionally I would sit down with the PC and see if I could figure out how to get it apart without breaking it.

Thanks to a helpful reply on the FM Towns Facebook group, I was finally able to get over that hurdle and get the silly thing apart.  The outer case is comprised of about 7 sections, each of which needs to be taken apart in a certain order.  Some of the sections are held on with tension clips alone, others are a combination of tension clips and one or two cleverly hidden screws.

After wiggling, checking, finessing, popping, checking wiggling, unscrewing, checking wiggling etc... the FM Towns finally gave up its secrets.

The two most annoying parts were 1) getting the floppy drive cover off - there's a screw hidden under a panel on top which is somewhat obvious, but the piece's tension clips have a death grip and it doesn't want to come loose without considerable force - it just has to be pulled straight outward from the front and 2) the front CD and control panel is fastened by a screw hidden under the floppy drives.  The floppy drives are only secured by the two tension clips which have to be pushed down while the drive is pulled out and forward, but the connector usually has such a good grip it almost feels like there's a screw back there.  There are two tension clips over the CD door that you might be tempted to try pulling loose, but the front panel is actually screwed into the CD/control panel assembly so you have to get that whole module off before being able to remove front panel.

There are six screws on the back of the CD/control panel assembly, but only these two need to be removed.  Then the front panel can be taken off by releasing the tension clips on the top.


Once the CD/control panel module is safely detached, there are only two screws that need to be removed to get the front panel cover off.  The rest of the screws on the yellow plastic piece are used to hold the CD drive assembly together.



The LED's not lighting were the source of much speculation and brainstorming.  The two most likely causes were physical damage which occurred in shipping, or component failure.

What I found, 11 years later was this:

A ripped ribbon cable preventing the front panel LEDs from lighting.

Under the circumstances I felt very fortunate to have such an obvious problem to sort out.  This definitely appears to be at least partly due to poor design as the ribbon is taped down with a lot of tension on that one edge.



The next step in breaking things down was to remove that strip of black fabric tape.  It's very old and sticks very well.  Trying to just rip it off could result in further damage to one or both ribbon cables.  The tape was heated with a hair  drier to soften the adhesive and was very slowly and gently peeled off.

The LCD panel, just like the rest of the FM Towns was a bit of a puzzle to get detached.  Fujitsu must have saved a TON of money not putting screws into things.

Another view of the torn ribbon cable


Fortunately only the two conductors on the edge were damaged.  I tested the third for continuity to make sure.

The insulation is scraped away from the damaged traces


To repair this, I started by scraping away sections of insulation from the damaged traces.


A strip of Kapton tape is used to give the ribbon a little extra support and resist future tearing.  It's not a miracle solution, but every little bit helps.


Then a strip of Kapton tape was used across the back to hold it together and re-enforce the integrity of the rest of the ribbon.




30AWG wires are soldered to the exposed ribbon, reconnecting the traces


Two short lengths of 30AWG wire were soldered to the exposed conductors to repair the torn traces.  The ribbon was gently flexed a couple of times to ensure the wire would bend without separating.  Another strip of Kapton tape was placed over the other side to protect the patch. After testing conductivity, the LED and front control panel was re-attached.


The panel is reattached.


After reinstalling the panel, one last continuity test was performed to ensure that the patch was still holding.





And what a beautiful sight to behold! 






Even with the lights working now, I still suck at Rayxanber...

Sunday, September 16, 2018

3DO FZ-10 USB Host Controller Review

What is a 3DO FZ-10 USB Host Controller?


If you know what an "Everdrive" is, that's basically what this works out to being for the 3DO.  This type of device is most commonly referred to as an Optical Drive Emulator (ODE).  It installs into a 3DO game console in place of its CD drive which allows you to load games from a USB device.  The main advantages to this are that there are no moving parts to wear out, and more importantly you can have the entire library of 3DO games loaded onto the console at once.


Overview

Back in June of 2018, I wrote about a 3DO FZ-10 that I "rescued".  It had a broken latch, and literal dirt and dead bugs in its innards.  The CD drive spindle was seized, and the power and access lenses were missing.

My main motivation in purchasing an "as-is" 3DO FZ-10 was to install the 3DO FZ-10 USB Host Controller by MNEMO (http://3do-renovation.ru/USB_Host_for_FZ10.htm).

It was quite a fun journey, at times feeling like some kind of cloak-and-dagger mission fraught with uncertainty and intrigue.  Most of my adventures in modernized retro gaming have been mostly straightforward affairs or at least had shallow easy learning curves with a thriving responsive community ready to weigh in when things get troublesome.  This one device, however is shrouded in more obscurity than usual.



Ordering

Compared to buying something on Amazon, buying handmade "botique" retro gaming components like this can be astonishingly complicated.  Instead of browsing for something, deciding to buy it, popping it in your cart and checking out, these things are usually in short supply and made by people with a passion for the technology, but no aptitude for the business/e-commerce end of things.  I've pre-paid months and even years in advance, used informal email messages, forum posts and private messages on Facebook to place orders, brokered purchases through private and professional proxies in foreign countries and paid in at least four different currencies to what feels like the four corners of the earth - all of which is pretty normal.  This one, however took the cake.  For a while it felt like being in one of those cold war movies I watched as a kid, trying to get the mission-critical MacGuffin from the aloof Russian contact, including it's own cliffhanger where the protagonist loses his edge of control and has to give the Russian all of the diamonds and just hope he doesn't decide to disappear with them then the audience hangs in suspense wondering whether the hero has been left high and dry.  Well, okay, it wasn't quite that dramatic, but I did nearly gasp with relief when the thing finally showed up in my mailbox.

As I mentioned, this adventure started in June when I cleaned, repaired and modded an FZ-10.  As soon as I was done testing things and sure that the console was in good working order I went to the "how to buy" section of MNEMO's website (http://3do-renovation.ru/How_to_buy.htm).  The FZ-10 model was listed as "in-stock" and the "last update" time was less than a month old, so it seemed reasonable to expect they were actually available.

To place an order, you are asked to complete a really simple web form then click "Make Order".  Once you do that your order disappears into the ether.  No order number is provided, no confirmation email is sent to you.  There's no email address anywhere on the website, no way to reach out and ask about it.  You just wait.

After a couple of weeks with no response, I thought I might just need to re-submit the order, but there was a message on the website (which has since been removed) that said "I am swamped with orders, don't send your order a second time." 

I tried to be clever and use the Way Back Machine to see if a previous version of the website included an email address.  Sure enough I found a version that did.  I sent an email to "dr.mnemo@gmail.com" but never received a reply. (Although after installing the unit and sending a question about its operation, I did get a reply within a day, so YMMV).

On August 24th, A little over two months from when I first submitted my order, I received an email with the subject "3DO FZ-10":
hi
Sorry for delay.
USB FZ10 was out of stock.
Now available, and I can accept your order.
Send me payment 165 usd without fee
to account

Here is direct link https://www.paypal.com/myaccount/transfer/gift
notes not nessesary
I know your Paypal account and all data of your order.
The PayPal address in the request didn't seem to have anything to do with MNEMO at all, and I had no way to verify who I was communicating with.  (I have not included the email address in this article because MNEMO doesn't publish it anywhere and I'm trying to be respectful of his privacy).  It's fairly common practice to side-step PayPal fees by sending money as a "gift", but the downside of that is that you don't have any purchase protection whatsoever.  If the transaction comes across as a purchase of goods or services, there's a fee, but if something goes wrong, the recipient doesn't get to just walk off with your money. 

Trust is a beautiful thing, but it seemed foolish to go forward like that.  While the opportunity to purchase one of these adapters is tenuous at best and the last thing I wanted to do was to offend the one guy on the planet selling them, that was a little more risk than I was up for.

It had been so long since my original order was placed that my old PayPal email address was no longer valid.  I replied to the email I received and gave my new PayPal email address and explained that I could not send the money as a gift, but would be happy to cover the fees myself.  I got a response within a couple of hours:
At next week I will sent you Paypal Invoice
I forwarded the email from my old account to my current account and then replied - my thinking was that this would move the conversation away from my old account and eliminate any confusion.  That response was on a Friday.  Monday rolled around and I didn't hear anything.  On Wednesday, I sent an email response asking when I should expect the invoice.  I waited until Thursday for a reply, and when I didn't get one, I sent the message from my old account and received a response within a couple of hours.  The gist of the response was that the Invoice would be sent on 9/1.

True to his word the invoice was sent on 9/1, though now it included not only the PayPal fees, but an extra charge for shipping as well.  Instead of $165 it was $187.  Fair enough.  I made it formal, so he made it formal.

Right after I paid the invoice I sent an email to the same address asking to be notified when the adapter shipped and for an electronic copy of the installation instructions so I could get started.  I never heard another word.  The instructions are not published online as far as I was able to find.

The adapter arrived in my mailbox on 9/13, which is only about 8 business days from when I placed my order.


Installation

The adapter arrived with a wire harness for the IDE interface, a wire harness for power, an extra-thick ground wire, PCB spacers, a black-and-white instruction booklet and an un-sharpened pencil (which the instructions referred to as a "wand", lol).

All in all, it's a pretty great kit - the wires were already pre-cut to length.  Despite a little broken English, the installation instructions were clear enough.  The only criticism I have is that if you're going to go to the trouble of pre-cutting the wires, it might be helpful to provide some advice on how to orient them during installation.  There's a single picture toward the end of the instructions where you can see some of the data wires attached to give you an idea of the expected orientation.

To complete the installation, I used:
  • Hot Air rework station
  • Hair Dryer
  • Tweezers
  • Aluminum Foil
  • Kapton Tape
  • Liquid No-clean flux
  • Solder (I really prefer 62/36/2 silver-bearing)
  • De-soldering braid
  • Fiberglass pen
  • Automatic Wire Strippers
  • Digital Multi-Meter
Firstly you should read the instructions all the way through.  Not only to make sure you understand the procedure, but because some of the stuff is oddly out of order.

Disassembly is mostly self-explanatory - just unscrew and pull apart.  The one exception is the CD Drive which is attached by two plastic tension pegs.  The instructions illustrate inserting the pencil (a.k.a. "green wand") into the holes underneath the pegs and pushing up.  I recommend holding your hand over the top as you push the pegs out as they tend to pop out rather forcefully and can fly across the room.

The most difficult part is getting the drive controller IC off of the motherboard. 

To prep for the hot-air gun I used sheets of foil and Kapton tape to mask off the IC from the other components.  Basically I left the IC exposed, but the rest of the motherboard was covered in a foil shield, held flush to the motherboard by the tape to make sure that hot air did not pass under the foil to the rest of the board. This is especially important as there's a plastic socket just below the IC that will melt under the hot-air gun if not properly protected.

The next step was to take the hair dryer to the underside of the motherboard.  I don't have a dedicated warming oven.  The idea here is that you want to pre-heat the board to lower the temperature differential when you start applying the hot air.  It's supposed to reduce the likelihood of micro-fractures of the PCB from rapid heating and cooling.  I don't know if it actually makes a difference but it's an easy step to take.

Next, I covered all of the IC pins in no-clean flux, and applied some fresh solder to all of the pads.  Old solder has a tendency to resist being re-heated, so freshening it a bit helps it to conduct heat a little more readily.

From there it was a matter of patience, applying hot-air in a back-and-forth motion as uniformly as possible to the IC until the solder on all of the legs was hot enough to let go.  When it was ready I simply nudged it with a pair of tweezers and it slid right off.

With the IC off, I cleaned all of the pads with a little more flux and a de-soldering braid.

After reading through the instructions about 3 more times to get a feel for where everything would  go, I stripped separated and tinned all of the wires on the provided ribbon connector, then tried to loosely hold them in place with my fingers to get a feel for how it was all supposed to fit.

The ribbon wires are connected in three places - the gray wire goes to the reset switch, and the rest go to the pads of an unpopulated IC below the drive controller, then to drive controller pads.  I started with the gray wire, then the lower IC and then the upper.

A note on the installation diagrams: The instructions helpfully point out alternate connection points for lines that are very close together.  These points are usually little circles used for connecting between the PCB's layers, and they're not meant to be soldered-to.  The board is coated in a lacquer which will prevent solder from sticking to those points.  You'll need something to scrape through the lacquer.  In my case I used a fiberglass pen to gently rub off the coating.  With the coating worn away the pads are considerably brighter and will readily attach to hot solder.

After making sure all of the ribbon connections were soldered securely to the motherboard I used a DMM to test continuity to make sure there weren't any solder bridges between adjacent pins.

The instructions very properly encourage you to test everything BEFORE you fasten the controller board to the 3DO.  If you have any cold solder joints, or anything else is wrong it's a lot easier to check before you put it all back together.    In my case it worked perfectly on the first try.

The instructions tell you to remove the rubber shock absorbers from the CD drive unit, and re-use them along with the spacers to mount the host controller securely where the CD drive used to be but I went a slightly different way.  If you've ever tried to source those little rubber shock-absorbers you'd know just how impossible they are to replace.  Using them to mount the host controller will eventually ruin them because they'll be permanently compressed.  As unlikely as it is that I'll ever re-install the original optical drive, I'm also not going to ruin a perfectly good component.  Instead I had some replacement memory foam ear pads (this kind, if you're curious) laying around which worked perfectly in their place and didn't even require the included spacers.



Usage

Here's where things get obscure. The instructions for installing the unit were about 99% of the way there.  The instructions for using it, however, are missing a few key components. 

What IS Explained

The printed instructions provide a tiny bit of guidance.  
  • To Launch a Normal Game press "A"
  • To Launch an Unencrypted Game press "B" I'm not an expert on the subject, but I believe the 3DO required executables to be encrypted to prevent unlicensed software from being distributed for the system.
  • Use "RS" (right shoulder) to page down through the file list
  • Use "LS" (left shoulder) to page up through the file list
  • To copy the contents of the 3DO's NVRAM to a file on the USB drive press "Right+C"
  • To copy the contents of an NVRAM file on the USB drive to the 3DO's NVRAM press "Left+C"
  • To make the 3DO memory manager accessible, write a blank file to the USB drive.  Basically any file you try to launch with "A" which isn't a valid game disc image will make the 3DO think there's no disc in the drive and give you access to the storage manager.  So if you create a blank text file and name it "Launch Storage Manager", selecting it from the menu and hitting "A" will bring you to the "Insert Disc" prompt, from which you can hit "X" or "Stop" to open the Storage Manager.

What IS NOT Explained

  • Supported File Format For Games.  Games need to be in "ISO" format - that is to say "MODE1/2048".  It does not matter what the files are called - so you can save them to the USB drive without a file extension and get a cleaner look for your loader menu.  See "More on Disc Image Formats" below for more info on my experience.
  • How to Create an NVRAM file. In order to copy the contents of NVRAM to a file, you have to already have an NVRAM file on USB drive, and there's no option to just create a new one.  There IS a tiny tiny breadcrumb on the product page, though.  There's a note on the page: "For quick select of the game Image - extract that file to USB"  What "that file" actually contains is an example directory structure along with some example NVRAM files.  Now you could just copy those files, rename them to whatever you want and use them directly, but with a little trial and error, I figured out any file that's exactly 32k in size can be used.  You can create blank 32k files in Windows using "fsutil", or in Linux using "fallocate".  Examples below.
  • If/How Multi-Disc Games are Supported I reached out to MNEMO about this and his reply was "it works the same as with a CD".  Evidently all of the multi-disc games expect the console may be cycled between disc swaps.  The only one I've tested so far is D.  When the game asks for Disc 2, open and shut the CD lid, and the 3DO will load the USB loader, select and boot Disc 2 and it just works. I believe it writes a temporary file to NVRAM an deletes it upon load.  One of the example NVRAM backups in "that file" is labeled as "D disc 2".  I think if you write the NVRAM to a file when you're between discs you can capture this temporary file.
  • How to Navigate Directories.  This one isn't rocket surgery or anything, but unlike every other similar device I've ever used, there is no "back" button.  To descend a directory, highlight the directory using the D-pad and press "A".  To ascend back to the parent directory, use the D-pad to highlight the ".." at the top of the directory list and press "A".



More on Disc Image Formats

The CDRWin "bin/cue", and Clone CD "ccd/img/sub" formats are NOT supported by this device.  Nor are the more exotic DiscJuggler ".cdi", nor the Nero ".nrg".  If you have ripped your games in bin/cue or ccd/img/sub, you'll need to either re-rip the or convert them.  There are probably a dozen and a half ways to go about this, but I'll go over what I used and can confirm works.

ImgBurn (www.imgburn.com)
This is a free tool that runs on Windows and will rip original 3DO CDs in the correct format without any extra tuning or configuration.  Simply insert the disc, launch ImgBurn, select "Create Image File From Disc", select your drive and click disc-to-file icon.

Converting bin/cue to ISO
I had okay luck with bchunk, but I'm running a mixture of Windows and Linux in my environment and I used the Linux version.  Some files came across as 0bytes for some reason, but I was able to find alternative copies that worked just fine for those.

Converting ccd/img/sub to ISO
To do this conversion, I used Virtual Clonedrive (https://www.elby.ch/en/products/vcd.html).  It's free and made by the same company that invented the format.  I mounted the "ccd" image as a virtual disc, then used ImgBurn to rip it like any other CD.

What do I do with iso/cue?
If you run across any images that come as a .iso and a .cue pair, open the .cue file with a text editor and just confirm that the section with the .iso file notes "MODE1/2048".  If that's the case you can just discard the .cue file and use the .iso file as-is.

If all else fails and you can't lay hands on the original disc, you can always try burning the image to an actual CD-R then re-ripping it with ImgBurn.


Creating New NVRAM files

Just like with the game images, the name of the NVRAM file doesn't matter, so you can leave the extension off of the filename for a cleaner look to the menu.

Windows 7/8/10:
Assuming 
  • USB drive is "G"
  • Backups are in a directory called "NVRAM Backups"
  • You are running "CMD" as an administrator
fsutil file createnew "g:\NVRAM Backups\slot 01" 32768

This will create a file called "slot 01"

Linux:
Assuming


  • Your USB drive is mounted at /run/media/user/USB_DRIVE
  • Backups are in a directory called "NVRAM Backups"
  • You have write-permissions to the drive

fallocate -l 32768 "/run/media/user/USB_DRIVE/NVRAM Backups/slot 01"

This will create a file called "slot 01"