Guide to Flash Storage for Vintage Computers

All of the popular games consoles of the cartridge era now seem to have very capable Compact Flass (CF) or secure Digital (SD) Card units that greatly enhance their use and can store a whole catalogue of games in one cartridge, but what about our vintage computers?  How do we preserve all of that fragile magnetic media for future years?  It turns out that almost all vintage computers have CF or SD units available if you search around.

The variety in storage card solutions available for computers is even larger than those for consoles as each platform may have a number of options for implementation meaning that the units vary wildly.  Some machines have cartridge slots and so can have similar units to those for the consoles, but often the connection of such a device will be through an expansion connector and these connectors are almost always unique to each vintage machine and operating system.  There may also be a decision to be made on the usage of the storage, some units treating the card as one or more hard drives, some using the media to hold a library of selectable floppy disk image files or cassette image files.

As an introduction, I’ll go through a few of the SD/CF card options for machines in my own collection and give an overview of the modern storage solutions I‚’ve used to reduce my exposure to the nostalgia of tape errors and floppy disk failures.  Most of the products are created in small production runs, so availability may be limited, but keep an eye out on the developers’ sites, retro computing forums or eBay and I’m sure they can still be picked up.

Commodore Amiga

The A600 and A1200 support CF or SD cards easily as they have built-in PCMCIA slots and adapters are freely available.  One issue though is that they won’t boot from the PCMCIA slot and of course only hard-drive installable software will work but check out the various hard drive installers such as WHDLoad.

For the A600, A1200 or A4000 you have a standard option as these machines have internal IDE connectors for ATA hard drives.  CF to IDE adapters are easily found for very little cost and can replace an existing drive for a faster, cooler and quieter performance.  Capacities are much higher than the old hard drives so you may need to partition the storage into a number of virtual drives but setup and use should be identical to a standard hard disk.  AmigaKit.com can supply an Amiga SD-IDE kit pre-formatted with software installed and it’s well worth checking them out for this and many other Amiga supplies.

Of course, not all Amiga games could be installed to a hard drive, so another option (and for the A500 possibly the only option for the basic unit) is the HxC floppy emulator available from Lotharek (www.lotharek.pl).  This hardware emulator of a floppy drive looks to the Amiga like two normal disk drives but the unit allows floppy disk images to be stored on SD Card and selected as the image to be currently mounted in the drive.   Even more impressively, the HxC emulator supports a huge range of devices including a number of other vintage computers that use a 34 pin floppy drive connector.

Atari ST

ST Ultra SatanThe HxC floppy emulator mentioned for the Amiga will also happily work with all Atari ST models and again will allow images of floppy-only software to be used.  However, the ST has it’s own particular disk interface connector (ACSI) and it’s own hard drive replacement – the UltraSatan.

The UltraSatan is an update of the earlier SatanDisk from Jookie (Miroslav NOHAJ) and provides two SD/MMC card slots acting as two hot-swappable hard drives.  For UltraSatan, ensure your TOS is 1.62 or newer as older versions have some problems.

The sad news if you’re lucky enough to own an Atari Falcon is that the Falcon does not have an ACSI port so the UltraSatan won’t work with it, however you’re in luck as the Falcon’s hard drive is IDE so it can be replaced using a standard CF to IDE adapter.

 

MSX

The MSX has a cartridge SD reader available in the MegaFlashROM SCC+ SD created by Kazuhiro Tsujikawa and Manuel Pazos.  The unit looks like any other MSX cartridge except for the one or two discrete MicroSD card slots and can hold up to 9 disk images or 511 ROMs.

The cartridge is not as easy to use as some other solutions, mainly because the commands to move ROM files from the SD card to the cartridge’s internal flash memory are implemented as MSX-DOS commands rather than a menu and this can be initially confusing for those unfamiliar with the MSX.  This makes switching ROMS a matter of knowing or finding the required file name, potentially mounting a partition in MSX BASIC and calling a utility program to flash the ROM.  The ROM is then forever in the cartridge until you select to bypass it on starting up the computer and re-flash it.

It is possible to create a multiROM by saving a text file naming the ROM files to copy.  Once you’ve created the text file and used it to flash the cartridge ROM from the command line, restarting the computer presents a selection menu allowing the required ROM to be selected.

One thing to bear in mind for disk software is that the disk images are in flash ROM and so read only.  It is possible to select to write to a different disk interface but of course this means that if you want to save data you need a physical disk drive.

Commodore 64

The C64 has an amazing SD unit in the Ultimate 1541 II device by Gideon.  The device is a cartridge that connects to both the cartridge and cassette ports, emulates two disk drives with disks mounted from disk image files on SD card and also supports cassette tape image files.  Selection of the disk files to mount is straightforward with a button on the unit bringing up a menu to allow the image to be selected and mounted in either drive, read only or write enabled – a very nice interface.

The Ultimate 1541 has many other abilities such as dual SID chip emulation and a real time clock, and a number of included cartridges such as Action Replay, and Epyx Fastloader.  It really is a device worth having for any serious C64 user, and for the win it also works on the C128, C16 and Plus4.  Batches of Ultimate 1541 II devices are created every now and then and you may have to put your name down early and wait a while to guarantee one as they are in great demand.

Another solution that is a bit less expensive is the SD2IEC 1541 device.  This is purely a 1541 drive emulating SD card device that is available widely on eBay and can be found in a small case resembling a tiny 1541 disk drive.  The SD card is treated like a floppy disk library and disk images are mounted to behave as a normal floppy in an ordinary 1541 drive.  No on-screen menus for this unless you run a file browser program but it is cheap and capable, although the same speed as a stock 1541 drive unless you use a fast loader cartridge or JiffyDOS replacement ROMs.

Atari 8-bit

The Atari 8-bit range has a number of SD card solutions, but the two favourites of mine are the SIO2SD and the MyIDE II.

The SIO2SD is a straight floppy drive emulator, with versions that are either installed internally or connect to the Atari’s SIO serial port that allows disk images stored on the SD card to be mounted into virtual drives seen by the Atari as real floppy drives.  The unit has a few buttons to control the mounted disks and select disk images and a usually a small LCD screen that displays the name of the disks to aid selection.  Up to 8 floppy drives may be assigned disk images and loading from the device is a good sight faster than a standard 810 or 1050 drive.  The device is compatible with all Atari 8-bit models though the ultra-fast loading won’t function on the 400 and 800 computers.

The MyIDE II is another superb retro product from Atarimax that allows the running of cartridge ROMs, executable files and the mounting of disk images from a compact flash card.  This is a wonderful unit, with it’s own BIOS ‘MyBIOS’ that provides a menu and fast loading and is a progression of the Atarimax Flash Cart units that had only built-in flash memory.

The MyIDE II does have an internal 512K flash memory that can be populated with executables or disk images using the Atarimax MaxFlash USB programmer (available separately) but also takes a CF card that can be divided up into a MyDOS partition and/or a separate FAT32 partition.  A PC can drag and drop executables onto the FAT32 partition for easy running from MyBIOS, disk images may only be loaded from the MyDOS partition so require the MaxFlash USB Programmer to copy them onto the SD card.  One minor downside is that MyIDE II requires 64K RAM so it’s no-go for the 400, 800 and unexpanded 600XL.

Sinclair ZX Spectrum

A number of producers make products for the Spectrum based on the open source DivIDE design originally by Pavel Cymbal that provides an IDE (ATA) interface to connect standard hard drives.  You can find such products around the web that provide slightly different facilities such as having a hard drive and CF card attached at the same time or RAM disks for instance (both provided in the RWAP Software DivIDE Plus product).

The model I went for was the DivIDE 2k11 from Lotharek, a small, compact CF unit that fits snugly against the expansion port of any Spectrum model but does not support an extra hard drive.  One thing to be aware of is that jumpers on the unit must be set to match the Spectrum model.  Any CF supporting DivIDE unit will provide similar functionality and allow tape image files to be read from the CF card using the usual Spectrum tape loading commands.  Even multi-load games will work as the tape access is re-directed to the DivIDE unit and the software loads extremely quickly.

Texas Instruments TI-99/4a

Adding a disk drive or extra memory to a TI-99/4a computer was not a straightforward option, requiring the purchase of a bulky expansion unit the size of an old PC base unit – the Peripheral Expansion Box (PEB).  This makes the CF card options for the TI an even better prospect.

In the NanoPEB / CF7+ the TI has a small unit that sits against the computer’s expansion slot providing the 32K extra memory and three emulated disk drives that would have cost a small fortune (at least in the UK) when the TI was in it’s heyday. The NanoPEB also has an RS232 serial or a parallel port to complete the usual set of facilities a user would require from the full size PEB while the CF7+ comes instead with a parallel port.

The NanoPEB and CF7+ are very similar uncased units, allow disk images to be mounted in the virtual disk drives using TI-99/4a operating system commands, but they don’t help to run cartridge software.  Both may be chained together with the speech synthesizer, though not the full-size PEB.  Availability is limited but they do appear regularly on eBay and usually require an additional not-included power supply but they are not usually expensive compared to solutions for other machines.  Both the NanoPEB and the CF7+ bring a great deal extra to the TI.

Sinclair ZX81

RWAP Software produced the ZXpand for the ZX81, an SD memory card interface including 32K of expansion memory to replace the notoriously wobbly RAM pack.  The ZXpand can load tape images stored on the SD card almost instantly and the files may be stored in directories for better organisation.  Tape programs are loaded and saved using the ZX Basic commands and additional commands are added to the ZX81’s repertoire that can list and delete files from the card.  My card came with no case, but handily it is designed to slip inside the cases for the fairly common Memotech memory packs.

RWAP Software mostly sell on the SellMyRetro auction / shop site, which currently contains auctions for add-on sound boards for the ZXpand.

Apple II

The CFFA3000 really is the device to have for the Apple II, it is an expansion slot card (so not for the Apple IIc) that works as a hard drive and/or virtual floppy disk drives using mountable disk image files.  The on-board  virtual floppy controller can coexist with an actual disk controller card making data transfer from your old floppies a breeze.

The expansion card uses a CF card on-board but can use any USB drive at the same time and with an extender cable this means the case need not be opened to swap the storage.  Set-up is very customisable as to which slots you wish to use, whether it is to co-exist with or replace a real drive controller and how you wish to use the storage so it’s worth reading the instructions!  CFFA300 menu accessible on boot or from a key press has a number of configuration options and disk image utilities available that make it plain that this is a well thought-out and mature product.

The CFFA3000 is produced in runs (there have been 3 after the previous 6 runs of the earlier version), so if the developer’s site states that the latest run is sold out it’s certainly worth putting your name down for the next production run.

Links

www.amigakit.com
Amiga IDE Adapters and much other useful stuff.

www.whdload.de
Amiga WHDLoad.

www.lotharek.pl
HxC Floppy Emulator, Atari ST UltraSatan, Atari SIO2SD, Spectrum DivIDE 2k11 and much more.

www.msxcartridgeshop.com
MSX MegaFlashROM SCC+ SD.

www.1541ultimate.net
Commodore 64 Ultimate 1541 II.

www.atarimax.com
Atari 8-bit MyIDE II and more for Atari computers, and consoles plus some other platforms.

www.rwapsoftware.co.uk
www.sellmyretro.com
ZX81 ZXpand Interface, Spectrum DivIDE Plus and other Sinclair-related items.

www.dreher.net
Apple II CFFA3000

Author: Trevor Briscoe

Started learning to program computers with the Sinclair ZX81, TI-99/4a and Atari 800XL which led to a career as a software developer he continues to this day. His techie heart belongs to video games though which has led to him becoming a compulsive hoarder of as many computers and games consoles as possible.

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4 Comments

  1. Sorry – I do have an Amstrad CPC6128 but unfortunately not with a flash storage unit otherwise I would have included it so if you know of a dedicated one please let me know! I do know that you can use the general HxC Floppy Emulator with the Amstrad.

  2. Heh… not really, apart from the HxC there are a couple of ROM thingies that support multiple ROMs, but HxC is the main thing. Still worth a mention though!

  3. You forgot the SIDE2 cartridge that uses CompactFlash memorycards. This SIDE2 card can run .XEX files (NOT ATR disk images), has a build in realtime clock and Spartados in rom. Loading times are about 16 x faster than the SIO2SD sollution.

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