Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

Archive for March 28th, 2007

The crazy upside-down world of 8088 hardware programming

Posted by Trixter on March 28, 2007

I’m rewriting the 8088 Corruption player for the talk I’m giving at Block Party. No doubt this is a form of procrastination (I haven’t even done any PowerPoint slides yet) but I also have a fear of the player crashing when I’m showing it off, which would be a serious blow to my fragile ego. For one particular demonstration, I was going to wow the audience with a double-rate version of Corruption. Yes, 60 frames per second on an XT. The memory speed is there, but there’s so little CPU time left over that the poor disk can’t keep memory filled, and it rebuffers constantly — every four seconds, which is hardly fun to watch.

(This is going somewhere; trust me.)

Although it would be “cheating”, I have a hardware LIM EMS 4.0 board in my 8088 with 2MB of RAM in it. Last night I started to write a version of the player that buffered to EMS, then to system RAM where it could be transferred to CGA RAM. I figured, hey, maybe I can delay the rebuffering for a few more seconds for the presentation so I don’t look like an idiot.

I found that doing so was slower than simply reading the data from disk right into regular memory. You read that correctly: RAM buffering was slower than hard disk buffering. WTF?

I thought about why this might be, and when I figured it out, I started laughing. It’s a perfect example of just how wrong it is what I’m doing. Here’s the explanation:

  • Old IBM PCs have a DMA controller in them to move memory around instead of forcing the CPU to do it. On a PC/XT, it’s primarily used when reading from disk, because the slower the disk, the slower the transfer and the longer the CPU would be hung up. The DMA controller can move a byte of memory in one cycle, giving it a maximum memory move speed of about 960KB/s.
  • My hard disk, however, is not what the DMA chip was designed to help with — it’s a 340MB IDE drive connected to an 8-bit IDE controller. It’s about 5-10x faster than what was available in 1983. It maxes out around 300KB/s.
  • Moving memory around maxes out at a top speed of 240KB/s.

Do you see where this is going? I’ve put a hard disk in my machine whose transfer speed, thanks to copying help from the DMA controller, exceeds the CPU’s ability to move memory around. Let’s word that another way in case it’s not obvious: The hard drive is faster than the RAM.

That’s just wrong.

It is probably the only configuration in the entire IBM PC/compatible family where this is the case (where the hard drive is faster than RAM). Any 286 or higher, with its 16-bit memory accesses, would be faster at moving memory around. Crazy upside-down world of 8088 hardware!!

So I’ll use this newfound realization to write a DMA version of the player to keep memory filled while playing, right? Nope. The only way to do that is to switch to reading absolute disk sectors, and that means the player would work on my machine only. Not an option.

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Losing my memory

Posted by Trixter on March 28, 2007

In 25 years of personal computing, I have never once had RAM go bad on me. So when my Athlon box started to reboot randomly, I was initially at a loss to troubleshoot it. It was only after a few sobering minutes in memtest86 and switching sticks from slot to slot that I learned both of my KVR400X64C25/512 sticks were bad. No idea how they got that way; one was REALLY bad (half of it is trashed), and the other I probably could live with (only a few single-bit errors) but I filled out an RMA for both of them anyway. I don’t need my main desktop randomly flipping bits on me.

I learned two things from this experience:

  • Lifetime warranties are good.
  • With my Athlon out of commission for a week, it’s so… quiet in here.

Maybe I’ll finally get some console game-playing in.

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