[vcf-midatlantic] How To Geek article on floppy data recovery

Herb Johnson hjohnson at retrotechnology.info
Fri May 8 11:45:10 EDT 2020

> There are a number of newer tools, for imaging of disks, for preservation.
> I've been closely watching this one [called Fluxengine]
> http://cowlark.com/fluxengine/index.html
> The author is working on support for a lot of common formats, and
> additionally, a number of the 80s-90s dedicated word processor formats.
> It's a simple and rather nifty solution.
> Also, of course, it's 100% opens source hardware and software, which always
> makes me happy! - Alex

This reply is long, because I'm arguing in opposition, and that means I 
have to make a case about, and explain about. But I'll save some people, 
some time. I"m going to fuss about these microcontrollers becoming 
obsolete. If you don't care about that, save time and stop reading here.


Well, I read some of the support information on the Fluxengine. Also I 
looked recently, at the Greaseweasel. Both these methodologies use some 
kind of $10 - $20 commodity microcontroller; and that's their problem in 
my opinion. Those interested can look up both and size them up, so I 
won't talk about details and features.

The Greaseweasel uses a STM32 microcontroller chip on a board called "a 
Blue Pill". Problem with that (in my opinion) is, that chip isn't just 
one chip produced identically. There's knockoffs and fakes, that is 
less-featured chip versions remarked or not remarked. And since that 
"product" is more than five years old apparently, it's somewhat out of 
favor (that's my conclusion, it seems hard to find except on eBay).

Bottom line, it's not now produced by bigger named hobby or industrial 
companies; they all seem to come from  ebay/Amazon small producers. At 
literally a few dollars each, the only way to make more money from 
these, is to use cheaper components or reduced feature components. For 
instance: the 3.3V regulators fail because they are undersized for 
power. When I looked around Amazon for these, the reviews per seller 
were all "these are fakes because".

This is not just Herb Johnson's problem. The Greaseweasel support page 
on github, has a section on how to recognize fakes with performance and 
visual tests. It does not have, a section on where to buy these. 
Apparently one has to join a Facebook group to get answers and further 
support. I won't do that, but someone offered to look there for me, to 
see if they discuss suppliers. No word yet on that.

"Why is this a problem?" Specifically: some of the knockoff boards fail, 
apparently, because their 3.3V regulators burn up. Others, lack some 
useful features or even critical features (enough memory for instance). 
And in the longer term, the ability to obtain these items at all, may 
end. In between, the means to (say) assemble the code or download the 
code into the device, may become obsolete or unavailable.

In general, the problem with end-of-production items is this: Because 
you and I are dealing with *vintage computing*. We deal with technology 
that's *decades* old, not last month. When products fall out of 
production, how do you get more? When things break, how do you fix them? 
When you can't get the programming debugging tools from the manufacturer 
(or producers), you have to find old archives of them.

In the real world, this stuff is normal. Things don't persist. You just 
move on to what's current and throw out the old. We in vintage 
computing, can't do that by definition. OK? If you disagree, stop 
reading here, sorry I wasted your time fussing about stuff getting old.


I described at length the problem with Greaseweasel hardware, because 
I'll make the same argument as a *prediction* for  Fluxengine. It uses a
"Cypress PSoC5LP CY8CKIT-059 development board" for $10. That's 
apparently some ARM processor with FPGA (programmable logic). At this 
point, Cypress (a leading chip producer) is selling them direct. Let's 
check... yep, $10 from cypress.com or $20 from major distributors, plus 
shipping. One expects delays due to Coronavirus disrupting manufacture 
and shipping except from USA stocks.

I have another objection, to programmable logic. All those PLD's are 
unique by model and brand. They simply don't stay in production for many 
years. Worse, the software tools needed to program those specific 
devices, become unsupported in several years. There's no standards for 
such tools and software, other than some data formats, so you are stuck 
with that brand's tool-set.

This is, of course, an intended consequence. Figure that out.

I checked the datasheets for the product: they date from early 2015. 
That's about the same age as the "Blue Pill". But this is still produced 
(or at least offered as current) by Cypress. Also: since this has a very 
particular programmable-logic set-of-features, it may be hard to 
knock-off the chip by an unlicensed company. That's my guess.

So: looking at Amazon, they only sell a book. Looking at eBay, There's a 
couple units from the UK for $28-$33 with shipping. I'd not buy from 
Europe right now...  a few are US sold but essentially it's left-over 

So: again in my opinion: while this product is still in manufacturer's 
production, it suffers from being too proprietary - Cypress will lose 
interest someday soon. Also, there's that unique-programming problem, 
figuring out how-to-program those PLA's. If you aren't gonna reprogram 
one of these puppies, I guess that doesn't matter, until there's a 
Fluxengine update you can't update.

And in closing ....

The reason I'm familiar with this kind of "these go obsolete" arguments, 
is because I've seen this show before. Over the last few decades, 
various modern means to read ancient floppy diskettes have been 
produced. They have become in-favor and discussed and distributed. Then 
the developers lose interest; then the users lose interest; and they go 
out of production and use. Over geologic time (several years), these 
things simply come and go.

So the vintage computers remain, but these modern devices do not. That's 
about as simple as I can put the argument.

Regards, Herb Johnson

Herbert R. Johnson, New Jersey in the USA
http://www.retrotechnology.com OR .net
preserve, recover, restore 1970's computing
email: hjohnson AT retrotechnology DOT com
or try later herbjohnson AT retrotechnology DOT info

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