Articles by Frank P. DeCandia

  • The Ultimate Keyboard?
  • A Stroll Down REM-ory Lane- Fond memories of the TI-99/4A
  • MAME- Classic arcade game emulator software
  • Should you put it out to pasture?- How to decide if your should upgrade your PC or dump it

    The Ultimate Keyboard?

    Windows certainly gives challenging choices to the user and gamer alike. "Do I use a standard keyboard and mouse?", "Do I use a standard keyboard and trackball?, "Should I get a touchpad instead?", "Will it fit in my keyboard tray?", "Will it fit on my desktop?", "Should I get a keyboard with built-in pointing device?" "ARRRRGH!!!!" I miss the DOS joystick days.

    It seems the only thing bigger than your selection of keyboard/pointing devices is the number of Windows 95 desktop themes available. No one, and I mean NO ONE, makes a keyboard/pointing device combo without significant sacrifices and/or compromises. Lack of separate cursor keys comes to mind. Or how about those maddening "ergonomic keyboards" that don't fit in a keyboard tray? Finally, an oxymoron better than "jumbo shrimp". "That's so-ooo stupid!", you think loudly seeing obvious design flaws. "I could've done better than that!". These design engineers don't know their ASCII (ask-kee) from their elbow.

    Months ago I submitted a "near perfect" keyboard/pointing device design to an invention marketing company. It was simply brilliant and they wanted to pursue it. (I've since perfected it.) They required money up front (from me) for the legal research. I eventually declined and had them return my materials. Every invention marketing company is the same. So-ooo, unless I find a company willing to do business with me, it remains a gamers pipe dream. Thus, this is the closest we'll ever come to the "ULTIMATE KEYBOARD". But it is still very far from perfect.

    I'm sure Bill Gates could solve this problem with standard Microsoft rhetoric. "It doesn't matter since faster computers and better voice recognition are here.", I presume to be his ultimate muse. Microsoft can't even recognize the users needs. I hope they don't write voice recognition software. Windows' default marquee screen saver says, "Where do you want to go today?". But we still get there via point and click.

    If you are a mouse mogul, or tenacious touchpad user, read no further. The "Big Track", as I affectionately call it, is a trackball lover's delight. Standard keyboard dimensions fits in even the tightest keyboard tray. However, make sure the height clearance is 2-3/4" (3-1/4" with legs out) for the trackball.

    Playing with a big ball is clearly the most pleasurable aspect of this device. Solid, steady strokes is what you want and is what you get. (No, you didn't stumble into a nudie site!) Clicking the first mouse button with your thumb is easily done, but you need to reach down a little for the second and third buttons. A forgivable flaw since second and third buttons are rarely used. (But this flaw doesn't exist in my design.) Some games are simply made for a trackball. This one is sheer joy in those instances.

    A not so forgivable flaw is the spacing of the [Esc] and 12 function keys. Instead of the spacing layout we've come to know and respect, all 13 keys are laid out consecutively. Apparently to accommodate the "Num Lock", "Caps Lock", and "Scroll Lock" lights in the upper LEFT HAND corner. Simply ridicules when room clearly exists above the trackball to the right. Trust me, peering to the right to see these lights are more instinctive than you might think. Not to mention, function key overlays you use are rendered useless.

    I personally don't care for the new Windows 95 keys. I prefer playing some games with my keyboard. I frequently use the left [Ctrl] and [Alt] keys. Sandwiched right between is that blasted "flying windows" key. Many of us have played games only to hit that key by mistake. "Why can't they move it?" "Why doesn't Windows let you disable it?" "Why didn't I build my ultimate keyboard and solve this problem forever?" To make matters worse, an extra one is placed next to the Windows file key on the right side. This makes the space bar even shorter so I hope you space with your left thumb.

    Clearly the most crowded aspect of the keyboard is the numberpad. The layout is identical except for the shortened zero [0] and plus [+] keys. Niceties such as "Insert", "Delete", etc. normally placed above the cursor keys are placed squarely above the numberpad. Unless you switch numlock off to cursor around, you'll find editing maddening. Clearly not a keyboard meant to multitask a spreadsheet, and word processing document. The cursor keys are curiously sandwiched beneath and under the [Enter] key and number keys. (Hence the shortened space bar and zero [0] key.) They are a bit more cumbersome to use without sufficient wrist rest, but I prefer them to no seperate cursor keys.

    In conclusion, the big track is nothing we can't get accustomed to with some time and patience. A little hunt and pecking never hurt anything but productivity. But the spacing of the function keys is what keeps me from buying one. Standard keyboard and serial mouse connectors are used, but the inclusion of PS/2 adaptors makes setup easy. The tactical feedback is respectable and it clearly is built tough enough to merit a $85.95 price tag. Tell your friends you stopped mousing around.

    Available through Global Computer Supplies.
    Customer Service #: (800) 227-1246
    Obtain a catalog if you want to see it first.
    Their stock number is TBC27580

    A stroll down REM-ory lane

    I have such fond memories of my first home computer. A TI-99/4A. A beautiful black and silver wedge that far exceeded the 8088/PC of the day. Instant on, 16 colors, 16 bit cpu, 16K RAM expandable to 48K, and the BEST sampled Speech Synthesizer in its' time! The text-to-speech abilities sounded better than more expensive computers, if they had it!

    I bought it December 23, 1982. It sat on my lap all the way home as I read the box in premature envy of periphials I wanted. I remember trembling as I hooked it up. Out with the ol' Atari 2600! Fortunately, the Atari had the tv properly tuned to display the opening TI screen. I flipped the switch and "tink!", there she was in all her 16 color glory. My brother and I hugged, rejoicing. Um, I WAS only 17 at the time.

    What followed may seem dull, but for a guy who litterally dreamt about having a computer he couldn't touch, it was a dream come true. I devoured the BASIC programming book. Still the BEST book I've seen on learning the BASIC language. I must have gone through it at least 10 times learning it like the back of my hand.

    There it sat on a wooden kitchen chair attached to the big family TV. I slumped over it tirelessly for hours learning how to exploit it. I did with it as I would with DOOM almost 11 years later. It was after midnight and decided only a few more minutes of programming. About 3:30 am I realized my body was crying for sleep. Thank God for Christmas vacation!

    Not being able to afford a cassette recorder at the time, I decided to write down my programs in a notebook I still have. "What was your first 'keeper program'?", you ask? A graphic of the Star Ship Enterprise at a friend's request. Took me three days. Could have been done sooner, but all my daydreaming about it delayed the project.

    For a guy who was never "artsy" I reigned supreme in graphic detail. Everyone agreed my graphics were better than what we saw on the clunky Atari 2600. It was my forte' for a while. I even tried to program PAC MAN in Extended Basic. Alas, my programming ability was still a little too limited and the language much too slow. But still, an absolutely faithful reproduction of the original maze squashed to fit a TV screen. Some time later Atarisoft titles had PAC MAN, and I bought it.

    Being as advanced as it was, it can't compete with Intel of today. Starting with the 386 you can access 4 Gigabytes of RAM, plus 64 Terabytes of virtual memory. Pretty adequate since it remains the same on the 486 and Pentium. No need for more, right? Wrong. The Pentium Pro can access up to 64 Gigabytes of RAM and 64 Terabytes of virtual memory. Someone PLEASE tell me this isn't in anticipation of some Microsoft O/S!



    Father, forgive me. The graphics are out-dated, the sound effects can be cheesy, and installation is difficult. But I can't stop playing these games!

    Jurassic Classics - The Revival

    In the beginning, there was Pong. And it sucked. Now, there is the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, or MAME for short. Development began January of 1997 by Nicola Salmoria. He has since left the priesthood and is replaced by the "Monks of Mame". MAME, a sometimes fitting name, makes "lame" arcade favorites of the 1980's to "walk again". Games that are faithfully and religiously produced. Return to an arcade experience so real you need quarters to play. Back to the time when you had youth, you had money, you had HAIR! You'll think you died and went to heaven. Own the original BIG MACHINE classics you desire without clearing out the living room, or stealing from the "church poor box" to pay for your addiction. (C'mon, you know that's the only reason you stayed an alter boy. It wasn't for the chicks!)

    MAME runs the classics with the arcade's "original program code, graphics, and sound"! I really do love it. These are not re-makes or "sinful" theme knock offs. You'll exclaim, "This is just like the original!" DUH - it IS the original! I wasn't joking about using quarters. Pressing the 3 or 4 keys simulates dropping quarters into the "collection basket". Press 1 or 2 for the respective number of players. In a good way, the nostalgia factor is like Matzo bread. It just doesn't get any thicker! You almost expect a Rabbi with Jackie Mason accent to tap your shoulder saying, "Oo, oo. Shouldn't you be in school, my son?". "Oy vey, the guilt!" Hey, wait... I'm Italian!

    Emulators aren't a new idea. Emulators have run PC software on Mac's, for example. The down side being programs run slower unless you have powerful hardware. I must "confess", my first emulator experience played Coleco-vision (and ADAM computer) games on my PC. I didn't love it. I "used it" because I longed to play my favorite games. Does THAT make me such a bad person? (SOB!) "DOS made me do it!"

    Surprisingly, these old games are designed to run at 30 or 60 frames per second. A feat modern games struggles to achieve on expensive hardware. You may need the SCI-Tech Display Doctor [] to "convert" your video's "religion" to the VESA 3.0 video standard.

    So, being a responsible man of faith (and anal compulsive) I tested MAME on a variety of hardware. Let me say with no degree of uncertainty, "Ain't no way in HELL this performs on a souped up Packard (cow) Bell 486DX-'anything' with built-in video." I did all I could but 15 frames per second would be a "miracle". I administered last rites. A 486DX2/66 with a "good" ISA video card gets you some time off in "purgatory". Why would anyone want to go to purgatory? Just to see their 3rd grade teacher? Again, many games even work on a 486/33 providing you have VESA 2.0 video, but I don't recommend it.

    You say you like 3D games? Well then, praise unto its' maker. Zaxxon, by Sega! Pulse pounding action, detailed graphics, the sound of the wind in your hair... Wait a minute, do I still have hair? Besides, I don't hear the wind. In fact, I don't hear anything. Zaxxon, like a few others, "took a vow of silence" and have no sound (yet). Q*Bert no longer "speaks in tongues". But the programming priests are still "exercising the demons". It's likely we will see "healed" versions in the future. If your computer starts to bleed, back away slowly and "GET OUT.".

    Before Mech Warrior 3, even before the Borg on Star Trek, man and machine melded in TRON. You are programmed (like a Moonie) to ward off grid bugs, destroy program tanks, defeat lightcycles, and enter the Master Control Program (MCP) cone. If you fail, you will be de-rezzed and wiped from disk. If so, move on to Disks of Tron and swipe your opponent Sark like a bad credit card. (Charge the half-dead Moonie flowers to him.) Both are superbly ported as far as my "memory" serves.

    Fear God, don't piss off a User. "You piss off, Wang. Now Wang piss on you!" Uh, sorry - my Shadow Warrior review must have slipped a disk sector.

    Unfortunately, manual installation can be difficult (like a Moonie) for many reasons. (It must be a form of penance.) Call a friend with the patience of Job (pronounced Jobe) to help. I won't give exact instructions, I'm too lazy. (I know - idleness is a sin. So are hot fudge sundaes.) Besides, if you can't install the software you may lack the savvy to configure it. If your I.Q. equals your body temperature you should do fine. (Hint: If you didn't understand the joke, I'll pray for you! ...And go put on a sweater.)

    First download the MAME program for DOS or Windows 95. [] As of this writing 0.30b is most current and Windows 95 requires the Direct-X files. DOS requires the memory manager, CSWDPMI. [] Now download some of your favorite game ROMS. [] The great thing is most game files are under 50K! I installed 34 games. Those games, MAME, and CSWPDMI software uses a grand total of only 6.5 MB disk space.

    >From C:\ or C:\GAMES\ create a \MAME\ directory and use the pagan saint "PKUNZIP" to load MAME and CSWDPMI into \MAME\. Each game must be a sub-directory of \MAME\. Ex. C:\MAME\TRON\. Again, unzip each game into it's respective directory with "Saint Zippy".

    The game's directory name is USUALLY the same first 8 characters of the ZIP file name. But I quickly learned that DNKYKONG.ZIP actually belongs in a directory called \DKONG\. This "lie" is annoying and prevents a "true" game from running. Though most ROM sites have corrected this oversight, check the documentation for the correct directory listing and print it out. MAME doesn't support games not listed (yet) so don't bother getting them.

    Type: MAME TRON and you're off! Well, maybe. Some games run better with certain software switches. Using your favorite editor, create RUN.BAT and RUN486.BAT listed below and write it in ASCII/TEXT format. Now save it in the \MAME\ directory. ("You are saved!") Read the MAME "bible" to interpret the software switches according to your needs.
    Each .BATch file presumes the use of a Sound Blaster card.




    REM * For Pentiums. Type: RUN [Game Dir-name] *





    REM * For 486/66+. Type: RUN486 [Game Dir-name] *

    REM * -NODOUBLE can improve framrates with a smaller picture *


    As "prophesized", you should succeed in starting the game. Press [ENTER] twice and pass the opening hymns, uh - screens. Wait a few moments. The gobble-de-gook that follows ISN'T your Gateway crashing. (For a change!) That's how arcade machines initialize. (Pretty neat, huh?) Press the [TAB] key to change various settings. Changing controller configuration is a snap. "DIP switch" settings changes stuff like difficulty, or increasing the number of lives per "quarter". (It's not the Mark of the Beast, every machine has DIP switches on the back.) Press [ESC] to leave the game. That will save the settings. (You are saved!) Beware! "Some are deceitful and won't save you." You'll get an error message, and go to hell. (Translation: Sometimes the new configuration won't save due to software errors. You'll still go to hell, though.) If you've played DOOM you already know your way around.

    I wish I could run more of the games available. However, the usable selection certainly is choice from a current palette of 346 games. I remember Gyruss, a 3D spin off of Galaga, dizzied the boardwalks of Sea Side, NJ in 1983 with 360 degree action. At least one in every arcade and I couldn't get near one. Pressing throngs of people behaved like it was the Savior. Like a phoney faith healer, no one was cured but a lot of money did exchange hands. (Gyruss, not God.)

    Walk a little further and witness false prophets - not the Psychic Friends Network again, but boot leg versions of Pac Man. Yes, boot leg versions of many games are available. (The work of Satan, I'm sure.) Reunite with the entire Space Invaders, PAC MAN, and Donkey Kong game families - among others. (I doubt the Red Cross has this much success.)

    Test your memory verses and circle the games in this story. (Print the article first you nit!) It was 1942, or was it 1943? Mario Brothers went Berzerk and did a Sinistar deed. They sent Mr. Do on a Jungle Hunt to find Satan's Hollow. Being a Defender of the faith he fought the Wizard of Wor. With a Rush -n- Attack, he did a Joust making for an easy Punch Out. Fortunately, Mr. Do's Wild Ride didn't get him turned into a Frogger. "It was like a Battle Zone.", he exclaimed.

    In conclusion, "good works" and patience rewards you with good, clean fun. Hardware requirements can be high to achieve best game play. A necessary evil in emulator technology. Every "drop of the coin" is like returning to your mis-spent youth. Losing track of time you'll play into the wee hours of the night. But wake up for the church sermon Sunday morning. You should give back all that change you took.

    Minimum Requirements: 486DX4/66, VESA 1.0 VIDEO, DOS, Recommended Requirements: Pentium/90, VESA 2.0, Windows 95, Direct-X.

    On average: GRAPHICS: 7

    AUDIO: 6




    CONTROL: 8

    VALUE: 10



    "I'm sorry, but your computer is not upgradeable." At least, the manufacturer says that when you call. I'm sure many of our loyal readers still use "not upgradeable" 486's. The CPU is not soldered in, and there may be an upgrade slot, so it's BULL. Some people are told their computer is only upgradeable to a 486DX2. But don't have a cow, there are 'udder' alternatives to a new Gateway system. Upgrading doesn't have to mean buying a new computer. In fact, it doesn't. "Know wot I mean, Vern?"

    Please remember, to consult your computer owner's manual (Remember that?), or tech support person if you aren't sure of something. Upgrading can be fun but don't play with it, farm boy. You'll go blind. Keep in mind this article intends to get your 486 (and older Pentiums) up to reasonable gaming speed at minimal cost. So you don't have to mortgage the farm to pay for a new computer. Basically, if you have trouble running newer games like Redneck Rampage, and Shadow Warrior this is for you. It helps performance on some older games as well. Your 486 computer should meet the following criteria.

    * VESA or PCI slot for video. (You may need to disable built-in video.)

    * Bus speed of 33, or 40 MHz, or have jumpers that change it.

    * Must be able to take SOME kind of processor upgrade.

    * Ability to install at least 16 MB ram.

    On a gaming system CPU power is important, but video speed is absolutely critical. If you don't have a VESA slot don't bother upgrading for games. Newer 486's may have the better PCI slots. (With old ISA motherboards you may as well kill the cow, sell the meat, and buy new.) Basically, you want a fast video card for both DOS and Windows. It must have 1 or 2 MB and built-in VESA 2.0 is preferred. (I bought a Matrox Mystique.)

    PCI cards are available anywhere. You may have to ride the horse into town to find a VESA video card. Don't go 'hog wild' buying a 3D accelerator. Not worth it at this point. On a 486 bus you end up with minimal return on your investment. If your video is built-in, see if it can be upgraded first. The latest SciTech Display Doctor [] has VESA 3.0 support and REALLY improves frame rates on many video chipsets. The shareware version is included on many game CD's. Did wonders on a friend's Packard (cow) Bell computer.

    "No, farmer Bob! No! Don't plug the CPU THERE! ... OW-ch. Betsy may be a cow but she kicks like a mule. Disc problems, Bob? Go lay down a while." After years of experience, I've concluded there are only 3 types of CPU upgrades to consider for a 486 computer. (To a lesser extent, a 486DX2/66) Otherwise choose a, 486DX4/100, Pentium/83 Overdrive, or a Trinity Power Stacker 5x86/133. We'll focus on the latter three. Find out what voltage your motherboard CPU needs. Most have a 5v slot, others also support 3.3v. A "5v only" motherboard requires a CPU with a built-in voltage regulator. The 486DX4/100 comes in both 3.3v and 5v flavors. The Trinity Power Stacker 5x86/133 uses a 5v slot.

    I've said on many occasions I bought my 486DX/33 LONG before there was such thing as a 486DX2, let alone VESA slots, or the Pentium ZIF socket. It was never meant to run faster than 33 MHz. However, with the right Overdrive I "branded" it as a 486DX2/66. It currently "grazes" along as a 486DX4/100. The Trinity Power Stacker 5x86/133 worked as well! The manufacturer may say you can't upgrade your computer. The truth is, A: Tech support doesn't know what I know. Or B: "Dat's wut we tells 'em so they buys our new 'puter."

    "Buy ANOTHER one of YOUR computers? Like I have no other choices! Who do you think you are? Microsoft?!"

    There are two kinds of 486 Overdrives. The original increases its' own speed 2-3 times that of your motherboard clock crystal. The second gets its' speed strictly from the motherboard clock crystal. The latter is the only one many "technical support" people are taught to understand. Which is why I say technical support (computer sales) people are like dumb terminals. They are unattached to the real world in a Far Side/Dilbert sort of way. It's why farmer Bob wears dirty overalls and talks to his cow while Dilbert talks to his dog.

    They say your original 486DX can't be upgraded. All they preach is, "The mudder-board tain't got no higher speed.". Mention the original Overdrive and they'll say, "We don't recommend it for our system." "But does it work?" "We don't recommend it for our system." Hang up. They must be full of cow pie.

    Several computers at my job were originally 386DX/25's. The technical specs show they could be upgraded to a 486DX2/66. (Yes, hybrid 386's became 486's via CPU and jumper changes!) I set the motherboard for a 486DX40, and put my clock-tripled 486DX4/100 on it. Viola! A 486DX4/120! Older proprietary cow- puters, like Betsy's Packard (cow) Bell, don't accept Overdrives of any type. Fortunately, like an unspotted Holstein cow, they tend to be rare. A BIOS
    upgrade may solve the problem.

    For those of you with a Pentium Overdrive slot, be careful. Many cow-puters can't use the Pentium Overdrive without a BIOS upgrade. You have to oink up about another $80. Call the manufacturer shouting, "Suuu-ee! Suuu-ee!". A 486DX4/100 has roughly the performance of a Pentium/63 made for 25 MHz buses. But the Pentium/83 is made for 33 MHz buses and is the preferred choice to a cow chip.

    The Trinity Power Stacker 5x86/133 is the most incredible CPU upgrade I've een. A true clock quadrupled 486 with an option to use its' 16K cache in "write back" mode (Enhanced performance of the 16K cache.) for added performance. It benchmarks as a Pentium/75 in standard mode, or a Pentium/83 Overdrive in write back mode. No luck with a Pentium Overdrive? It is likely the "Trinity" will answer your prayers. TIP: Set your motherboard for the best CPU setting it supports and use the appropriate Overdrive supporting that speed.

    If you have a Pentium 60, 66, or 75 there are different Overdrives you can buy. Overdrives for Pentium 75's aren't worth "horse fertilizer" because they still run on a 50 MHz bus. If possible, set the "mudder-board" to 66 MHz. Newer motherboards let you multiply the bus speed 1.5 or 2x. Again, set the motherboard to the highest speed it supports and buy the best Overdrive. MMX preferred.

    Upgrade to at least 16 MB of RAM, 32 MB for Windows 95 users. Some questions you need answered: Total number of SIMM slots? Do you use 4, 8 or 16 MB SIMMs? 30 pin, or 72 pin? 60, 70, or 80 nanoseconds? Parity, or non-parity? 72 pin is preferred mostly because of lower cost. The 30 pin SIMM pool is drying up faster than a cattle water trough, leading to higher cost. TIP: If your 486 supports EDO memory, use it. The performance boost could push a Pentium/83 Overdrive to perform like a Pentium 90, or better!

    "Only you can prevent forest fires." Uh, I mean, only you can determine if you need more hard drive space. Inexpensive "1 Giga's" should "take a byte out of drives" until McGruff fetches you a new computer system. Buy the smallest of what you need. Don't plan to put it in a new computer. Bigger, faster, less expensive hard drives will be available by that time. Keep a
    technical balance. Who puts a 2 GB drive in a 386?

    BIOS/CMOS tips:

    This works for newer 486 BIOS's. In the "BIOS" page be sure to enable any video cache. The "Chipset" page has a setting that typically reads CLK/4. Believe it or not, Ripley, this reduces bus speed to your ISA/VESA slots to remain compatible with older ISA technology. Your ISA slot speed runs 6 to 8 MHz as a result.

    "Give a hoot, let's compute" your ISA/VESA speed. Motherboard speed (not the CPU speed) divided by CLK/# equals slot speed. Ex. 33 MHz bus divided by CLK/4 = 8.25 MHz slot speed. OK for video. 33 MHz bus divided by CLK/3 = 11 MHz. A video of "Woodsy Owl" soars up to 33.3% faster! (Hard drives on a controller card may improve as well.) This alone may save the cost of a new video card. Plain vanilla, or old video cards may not show significant improvement.

    Wait states is the time your CPU waits to access memory. Most computers can be set to 0 with no problem. Select the lowest your CMOS supports. Don't forget to save the settings!

    After "square dancing" several hundred dollars you saved the old barn! Sure beats being 'milked' for $1,800 on a new low-end cow-puter. If you need advice, or just have a comment, click on my name below to send an e-mail. But please consult your manuals or call tech support first! Remember, if your computer screen saver is a space cow, you might be a redneck.

    [email protected]

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