Simulating days gone by

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The Apple II was never my machine. My 6502-based microcomputer of choice was the BBC Micro. And, to be honest, I think the Apple II was always more of a US phenomenon than a UK one.

And yet one can’t escape the fact that it was a hugely significant product in microcomputer history. It made Apple wealthy and famous. It brought computing into many homes and businesses. It was designed by Woz – and for that alone it will be forever iconic.

Every now and then I’d cruise the sordid back alleys of eBay eyeing up Apple IIs for sale. I confess I found myself tempted a few times. But it’s not just the machine, is it? It’s the monitor, the expansion cards, the disk drives … who knows where it would end?

Leather Goddesses of Phobos running on the Virtual ][ emulator.

And then, thanks to the wonderful Blondihacks blog – and in particular a post on Apple ][ development on OS X – I discovered the Virtual ][ simulator. This spectacular piece of work emulates the Apple ][, Apple ][+ and Apple //e. And you don’t just get the machine. If you have a floppy disk image file, just drag and drop it on the disk icon. You hear the disk being inserted and the latch closed, followed by the whirr of the drive. (If this sort of thing annoys you, though, you can turn it off.)

You can virtually plug and unplug various cards – for example, for additional memory or an 80-column display. You can create your own hard disk images (so-called Omnidisks) to hold lots of files at once. And there’s even a simulation of an Epson dot-matrix printer, so you can direct output to a line printer just as you would in real life. Better, in fact, because by pressing a button you can ‘tear off’ the page and save it as a text file.

Every Apple II disk image I’ve found on the net (and there are lots) has run as it should. So I’m getting all the fun – and frustrations – of an Apple II without the headaches, expense and explaining to the More Significant Other that accompany buying old and flaky hardware on the Internet. I’m also saving a lot of space in my office.

The cost is a significant factor. For the full benefits of Virtual ][ there is a small charge (and this is software that deserves supporting). But it’s as nothing compared to the real thing – and it’s a lot more reliable.

I was reminded of the latter point a couple of days ago when my BBC Master Turbo – bought fully refurbished about a year ago from a respected specialist in the field – suddenly developed a problem.

It won’t boot past the ‘Acorn MOS’ message. Well, sometimes I get the 1770 DFS welcome message and once I even saw ‘Basic’, but it won’t go as far as the main prompt. And there’s a faint but disconcerting warbling whine.

I’ve checked the obvious things – loose chips (not that the machine has moved since the last time it was used), replacing the CMOS batteries, removing the second processor – but all to no avail. It would seem that the machine I bought to help me stroll down memory lane has become a rescue project.

Chuckie Egg disk image running on the BeebEm emulator in a Windows 10 VM on OS X

I thought I’d be more upset. But there’s always Beebem to help me through the pain of my loss. Like Virtual ][, this is a faithful recreation of the original. And it provides me with far more options than I’d have with a real machine. I can, for example, virtually plug in a Z80 second processor and boot up CP/M. As it happens, I’m running disk images on the Beebem emulator in a Windows 10 VM running under OS X on my iMac. How’s that for layers of abstraction?

It took me a long time to sort out the keyboard mapping – and it still isn’t perfect. I still can’t use my Caps Lock key for anything – I have the Insert key mapped as Shift Lock. But it works. In fact, vintage computing is all about enjoying the quirks.

There are tools available to create and manage disk images, all of which seem to be Windows-only (hence the VM). So, aside from talking to external hardware – which I mostly don’t need to do – there’s little to be lost from not using a real machine.

Hmm. But maybe that little bit is important. There’s an indefinable pleasure in seeing decades-old computing hardware work. And I will miss printing out program listings on my real Epson dot-matrix printer, which I bought in 1982 and is still working fine. And I did get a genuine sense of achievement when I managed to get my assembly code program on the Beeb talking to my Python program on the Raspberry Pi over a serial cable I built myself.

And so, because I can’t afford to send the Beeb back to the specialist for repair (he’s in another country), I will start my way up the learning curve of fixing old hardware. And I’m sure it will be fun and educational. And isn’t that why we play with these old toys in the first place?


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