Is it time for a Disk ][SB?

Update: added support/use within emulators to the wish list – that’s what you get rushing: you leave out something you always wanted to say!

There are a lot of very smart people in the Apple ][ scene.

Hardware and software products proliferate in a way I can’t recall being matched at any time since I got back into Apple ][’s in 1998.

And a large amount of time and effort is being spent on disk-related projects, especially hardware and disk content preservation.

For example, there are at least four active or semi-active disk drive emulation hardware products available at the moment: Nishida Radio’s UnisDisk, Rich Dreher’s CFFA3000, Пламен Вайсилов’s SDFloppy II, and Steve Chamberlin’s Floppy Emu.

On the software preservation side, 4am and Brutal Deluxe Software are amongst those involved in making old software, especially protected software, available for use by preserving the software, often via copy protection cracking (often detailing the cracks to allow them to be reversed or studied).

These preservation efforts often require a non-standard disk image file, such as a .edd file, made using an EDD+ card and software like Brutal Deluxe’s i’m fEDD up. These files preserve the stream of bits coming off the disk before they are decoded by the Disk ][ controller card, and this data can be captured down to a quarter-track resolution (can those in the know please correct me in the comments if I’m misrepresenting this?).

Occasionally a .nib file, which records extra track data (such as DOS volume number) beyond a standard 140K .dsk image file is enough to defeat copy protection which relied on this information.

So I’ve been thinking recently that it would be nice if we could use Apple ][ disk drives on modern computers, say via a USB-based device, to capture not only .edd files, but also .nib and .dsk files (ProDOS-ordered and DOS-ordered). Let’s call it the “Disk ][SB”.

I know I’m not alone in contemplating such a device: Apple ][ luminary Mike Willegal worked on an interface card in 2008 and 2009 with a view to having a final version utilising USB. Glenn Jones indicated on Mike Willegal’s site that he had worked on a similar device at some point in the past. Both projects are currently on hiatus.

Glenn pointed me to the Device Side Data FC5025, which connects a PC 5¼” floppy drive to modern computers via USB and is a currently active project – this is pretty close to what I’m suggesting, but can only create .dsk Apple ][ disk images, and can’t read “flippy” disks, which were not uncommon in commercial Apple ][ software, let alone in home use. Perhaps the most famous example of a flippy disk in Apple ][ circles is the original Karateka disk, which would allow you to play the game upside down if the disk was inserted upside down.

Further along the path to deep-reading of disk data is the KryoFlux, which reads the magnetic flux transition timing from disks and saves that data to modern computers. This is, perhaps, the bee’s knees of software preservation – but it’s also between €98 and €125 (plus the cost of a floppy drive), which for me is above my budget.

I envisage the Disk ][SB as operating somewhere between the KryoFlux and the FC5025 – not as low-level as magnetic flux transition timing, but higher resolution than the .dsk images the FC5025 will produce. Almost like an EDD+ card for modern computers. Having it Apple ][-specific meshes nicely with my computer model chauvinism. Perhaps the only “special” hardware required would be a physical Apple ][ disk drive.

And then, of course, there’s use in emulators. Charles Mangin, through his RetroConnector store, offers various adaptors for using legacy hardware on modern computers, and modern devices on legacy computers, such as his Joystick Shield for using Apple ][ joysticks on modern computers, including use within emulators. How cool would it be to be able to boot an emulator from a physical disk in a Disk ][?!

While contemplating such a device, my mind keeps returning to the Apple II Pi, which integrates modern hardware with ancient. On one hand, I wonder if the Apple II Pi could be utilised in some way in my grand scheme for modern disk image capture, while on another it makes me think that surely it would be possible to design a new USB-based solution for connecting Disk ][’s to modern computers (and I’m aware that’s just the certainty of ignorance passing judgement on the Disk ][SB’s feasibility – I’m no hardware or software engineer).

So, to summarise, my initial wish list for the Disk ][SB is:

  • allows connection of Apple Disk ][ drives (20-pin connector) to modern computers via USB;
  • allowing DB19-based drives to connect would be a bonus (and is SmartPort support too much to wish for?);
  • copy data/files to/from disks (perhaps via FUSE);
  • ability to use legacy drives and physical disks in emulators;
  • capture .edd disk images;
  • capture .nib disk images;
  • capture .dsk disk images;
  • capture other suitable disk image formats such as .2mg (see SmartPort meta-wish above); and
  • incorporating 4am’s cracks from Passport would also be a bonus to allow direct cracking of Apple ][ protected disks to .dsk image files on modern computers.

The division of labour between hardware and software would be at the discretion of the developer/s.

What do you think – am I hoping for too much?

9 thoughts on “Is it time for a Disk ][SB?”

  1. No, not hoping for too much, this is very doable. In fact you already had wheels turning in my head after you mentioned last saturday. Might just need a lot of input from the i’m fEDD up authors as this will be a hardware/software solution (more software than hardware really). The device will be replacing the DISK ][ controller (and EDD4 card). As such it may (or may not) need external power over what USB can provide.

    1. I was expecting it would need an external power supply, but I don’t know what the power requirements of the Disk ][ are, so if it could be bus-powered, all the better.

  2. Hi Sean,
    As I told you, I’ve been waiting for such a device for years now and I share a lot of your wishes.

    What I would like is a simple USB device that would be driven by a Java program (or another multi-platform language) to capture the flow of bits. The best solution to me, to keep the design simple, would be to create the different target files by means of software. It eould generate dsk/po/2mg/nib/nit:etc. from the edd-like file.

    IIRC, when we started that last year at the Apple 2 Festival France, the PI was not powerful enough to support the flow. What was fun was to see the bits in the screen of the electronic oscilloscope (whatever it is called)

    1. Sorry, I forgot to mention in my post the fact you’d mentioned some work began at last year’s Apple 2 Festival France – perhaps it can be finished this year?!

  3. Many of us have waited years for the perfect solution to this problem. But at this late stage another problem arises: How many people would want such a device? The prolific crackers/collectors get access to most of the images which need this level of sophistication and fidelity, and that is a small market. The average user who wants to migrate standard images can use ADTPro. So the solution would still be welcome, but might receive few orders.

    1. It’s always hard to know what the potential market would be – but with many thousands of programs out there, and only some percentage of them preserved, I’d love to see an easier way to preserve them getting into more hands. But the Disk ][SB may always remain a pipe dream or a collection of incomplete projects.

  4. I don’t think the device you described is very difficult to produce (depending on a few specifics). The only thing going through my head at the moment is not whether it is possible to do but how many weekends is it going to take me to knock it up. The way I see it is two fold. If you want to be a purist then you go the way of the KryoFlux (using hardware other then the Apple II disk drive). If so then why not just use the KryoFlux? It is going to be a costly option. If you want to go the EDD route and try to simplify that and make it more cost effective then you will be using the Apple II disk drive. The drive must of us already have anyway and the bonus is that you are going to be able to do 3.5inch disks as well as 5.25inch ones. It is going to be added cost if you want to build a separate power supply and control logic for it. I don’t see anything wrong with using the Apple II for these functions. I believe the user base is going to be very small so the cheaper the option the better. Using a logic analyser, I built a boot tracer of sorts a few years ago and that’s where I believe the best option may be ie in the chips that logic analysers are made of. Take the FX2LP. The development board is $5 from ebay and I used it to stream and process a 14MHz video signal with ease. How much simpler is is going to be process a signal 14 times slower? A streamer is going to be cheap option and it takes advantage of the storage and processing power of a modern machine. You’ll be able to incorporate the passport into the mix and not only use it to generate .dsk, .nib, .edd etc disks but also use to for boot tracing. Cheers, Alex.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Alex…now shut up and take my money! Seriously though, as a non-hardware guy, I’ve been wondering if it’s easy – and if it is, why it hasn’t happened yet?

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