Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Zeal E/PASO Communication Tool - part 2

In the first post about the Zeal E/PASO, we saw a bit of the history of personal computer network, and some informations about this communications terminal. In this post we'll see its insides and if it is or not a "hidden" MSX.

And What Is Inside Zeal E/PASO Communication Tool?

This is the board of Zeal E/PASO, it's very compact.

Magic. Pure Magic. That's what is inside this machine released in 1993 and sold until 1998. It's very easy to spot the Yamaha V9958 and the four RAM ICs (totalizing 128KB of VRAM), which means the E/PASO have the same video than a MSX2+, as other appliances that we saw before in this blog.

Yamaha V9958 and 128 512KB VRAM (4 x Hitachi HM514256)
(the RAM chips are all 256K x 4bits, but were used as if they have 64K x 4bits)

Close to the keyboard connectors we can see the MSX-SYSTEM chip. This Yamaha S3527 implements the PSG, PPI, slot handling and some additional logic. With it and the VDP checked, the only important piece missing to make a MSX is the Z80 processor.

Yamaha S3527 at top left, Hitachi HD64180RF6X at bottom
middle and, at right, a MaskROM and a EPROM.

And it's there, just behind the 12.288MHz crystal. It's a Hitachi HD64180RF-6X. It's a 16-bits processor made by Hitachi that keeps the compatibilty with Z80. It can run in "Z80" mode, which is almost the same of Z80 running at high speed, but it also have additional modes and could support up to 1MB without doing paging.

If we confirm that E/PASO is a MSX, it will not be the first using an enhanced Z80 as main processor. The first that comes to mind are the MSX TurboR machines, with the R800. But the A1GT and A1ST are not the only MSXs and not even the first ones to provide another CPU in addition to the Z80.

Victor released two MSX2 machines, the HC-90 and HC-95. Both are amazing machines with RS232C, video editing features, more memory and, of course, the turbo mode with the enhanced processor. They are the ultimate MSX2 machines.

The first item of this advertising from MSX Magazine 1987-04 translates to:
"(1) Turbo Mode to achieve the high-speed arithmetic processing"
Then it says that using the HD64180, running at 6.14MHz,
you will have 2.2 times the performance of other MSX2s.

The faster processor used by HC-90/95 is the HD64180, the same used by E/PASO. What E/PASO did first, is to use *only* the enhanced Z80.

There are some programs in the wild that uses some "bugs" and undocumented instructions of original Z80. Being a Z80 compatible, the HD64180 follows only the documented behavior of Z80, so the programs that uses the undocumented instructions won't work (or will freeze at random).

To have a high speed mode and the access the huge program library that the MSX have, the HC-90/95 have two processors: the HD64180 and a common Z80. You can select which processor will be active by a switch, at boot time. Changing the switch will choose the processor and the BIOS that will be used.

Victor HC-95's memory map, showing the two sets of BIOS/SUB-ROM
(this picture is from USB Secret Base)

The MSX TurboR machines have two processors, too. With two advantages over HC-90/95: you can select between Z80 or R800 by software and at will, not only at boot time.

E/PASO was a appliance built to run only the built-in software. The upside of being a appliance was that it had no need to run all MSX software, which means that there was no need of a additional Z80 to solve any incompatibility between the some software and the HD64180. To save money and keep the design simple, the E/PASO can have only the HD64180 as its main processor.

At right of HD64180 processor, the E/PASO have a Hitachi HN62321 MaskROM, with 128KB, and a EPROM with a sticker saying "E/P ver1.00". I guess the Hitachi is the Kanji-ROM and the E/PASO software is in the EPROM. Good, that this EPROM is on a socket,  that makes it easier to dump this software. I am very curious about what is inside this EPROM.

There is also two ICs labeled as "E/P 1" and "E/P 2", which I don't have any idea about what they are. At their left side we have a RAM chip, a Hyundai HY62256 with... 32KB. Seriously? This machine have only 32KB RAM!?!? This is the downside of being a appliance. A huge downside in my opinion, considering that this machine doesn't have a lot of internal space to put more RAM and almost no external expansion possibilities.

The modem circuitry is at PCB's left side. Looks like a separated world from the rest of PCB, and deserves it's own silk saying:  "ZEAL MODEM". This world have a modem in a chip (IST SC11024CQ), which needs to be used in conjunction of a modem controller (IST SC11043CQ). This set have it's own clock and a 32KB RAM (another Hyundai HY62256). Next to the RAM there is another IC labeled as "E/P 3". Like the "E/P 1" and "E/P 2", I don't have idea of what the "E/P 3" is.

If we consider only the components used in Zeal E/PASO, it's a MSX based machine. But, as usual, we need to check the contents of E/PASO's EPROM, so we can confirm the MSX architecture.

And we will take a look on this EPROM in our next post.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Zeal E/PASO Communication Tool - part 1

I wrote this post some time ago and was waiting for the end of "MSX and video production" series or a special date to publish it. Well, the "MSX and video production" is still going, but this weekend is a special date for MSX users in Brazil: It's the MSX Jaú meeting, the biggest and most famous MSX users meeting in Brazil.

So, I hope you enjoy the Zeal E/PASO Communication Tool and can see it at Jaú.

Today there is a urge to put all appliances connected through network and some manufacturers pushes the access to network services using the television as video display, or by providing the computer capabilities in the television itself (the so called SmartTVs), or with the aid of dedicated appliances (like the many Android-on-a-stick-with-HDMI).

Although this last try seems to be the most successful, it is not the first one to make the TV the gateway to the network. The connected world is an old dream and, from the late 70s/early 80s, the network services were selling to user the possibility of online shopping, electronic mail, access to libraries, etc.

Another dream almost as old as the connected world using the TV, is to provide a low complexity access to the "common Joe". With this easy access, the network could be used by everyone and not only for the computer literate. By many years people thought this objective would be achieved using videotex dedicated terminals. Those terminals are appliances connected to the phone line and the television. When you power on the terminal, you can use the videotex network. No need to suffer to install software or memorizing arcane commands.

See? The videotex decoder gives access to everything!
(from Popular Mechanics - November 1982)

But the videotex services aren't the only kind of last century's network, taking a another path we had the "online services".  Those companies started renting computational power to their customers (usually other corporations), then they began to provide network services and, some time later to provide network applications (as electronic mail, file transfer, news, etc), using the information and communication infrastructure that they built.

Eventually those services began to be offered to consumer by the same companies that were doing the corporate services (like Compuserve) or by new ones (like Prodigy), dedicated to consumer market. Most of the users of these networks are microcomputer users. And that online services user base was much bigger than the videotex services.

Article about "Modems" in INPUT Magazine UK Vol.2 N.20, in 1984.
The article highlights the "armchair" shopping, electronic
mail, worldwide connection, videotex, bulletin boards, etc.
The videotex is only one of many options.

While in the last paragraph we used two USA companies as examples, the same dynamic happened in Japan, where Nifty-Serve, PC-VAN, ASCIInet and others grew in popularity and NTT CAPTAIN kept a much smaller user base.

Some of those networks had national presence, others were very small, some had a very broad scope with dozens of internal groups and others were highly specialized in one or few topics. To be part of this world usually you need a computer, a phone line, a modem and a paid subscription to play games, change messages with your friends, buy tickets, etc.

Answering the article's question, theLINKS is a network
exclusive to MSX computers, with games, message boards, etc.
(Article from MSXFAN 1987-04)

Zeal Corporation, at NTT's request, made a CAPTAIN terminal in 1992. Having the online services as a target and trying to avoid the complexity associated with computers, in 1993, Zeal Corporation releases the E/PASO, a communications terminal which have the computer and modem integrated in one compact unit. A new try to bring "common Joe" to the network.

"The race's information in your hands!"
(this pamphlet highlights the E/PASO access to JRA-VAN)

The selling point of E/PASO was "パソコンいらずのお手軽通信ツール" which translates to "Easy communication tool. No need of a personal computer". To have the world (and racing) information in your hands, you only need to connect the E/PASO to the TV, the power outlet and the phone line.

In the diagram you can see how to use the E/PASO

It's funny to see that Kobe Port CAPTAIN tries to sell more terminals telling to their users that CAPTAIN Multi-Station isn't only a videotex terminal, but a full fledged computer. Zeal goes the opposite way, trying to sell their terminals telling to their users that it's only a terminal and they won't need a computer.

The major providers had instructions to connect E/PASO to their network (these lists cames with my E/PASO unit, don' t know if they are provided by Zeal itself or by each provider):

ASCIInet instructions and phone numbers for E/PASO




The E/PASO was sold until 1998, when it got replaced by the DREAM TV Web Terminal, which, while uses the same cabinet, is totally different inside, with a MIPS PR31500 central processor and running Windows CE. With the same basic function, but instead to provide access to Online Services, BBS and Videotex, the "DREAM" was designed to surf in the World Wide Web. Another try to bring "common Joe" to the network using the TV as display device (if someone is counting, this is the third try).

DREAM TV Web Terminal - Not a MSX

Of course we don't care about Windows CE machines in this blog, so let's go back to E/PASO.

I bought my unit without knowing nothing about it's internals. I saw that it was a communications terminal, thought that this could be a interesting machine and bought it. I had luck:

It's a beautiful unit. It's not a surprise that Zeal keeps using this cabinet "forever"

The terminal is very compact and light. The keyboard have a modern look and have a nice "notebook" touch. The functions keys are renamed to functions specific to communications terminals: Configuration, Writer, Notes, Print, ID, Disconnect, etc.

Front view of Zeal E/PASO

Side view with the power switch

Rear view, where E/PASO have all its connectors: power connector,
printer port (Centronics 14-pin), expansion port (Centronics 24-pin),
Video/Audio (RCA) and two RJ11 to connect to the phone and line.

Nothing in this side

The connection's diagram that we saw before doesn't show the expansion port, probably to keep it simple to E/PASO's users. The product specifications says that an optional CD-ROM or disk drive are available to be used with E/PASO. If it's true, the expansion port is the only connector where those optional disk drives could be plugged.

When the machine is turned on it shows a list with many network providers and their numbers. Testing the function keys I found other screen to change those network configurations and another one with some kind of text editor.

That is what we see when we power on the E/PASO

The E/PASO can also works as a CAPTAIN terminal (the CAPTAIN phone number are in the second screen of network provider's list), but I can't test it as there is no CAPTAIN network available. Sadly this terminal don't have the CAPTAIN Tones capacity, a small drawback for a so clever appliance. This is the first CAPTAIN terminal that I saw who have a sound output and isn't compatible with CAPTAIN Tones.

Next post we'll see the insides of Zeal E/PASO Communication Tool.