As I explain in the first chapter of my book Commodork, the driving force behind writing down my memoirs was to document them before the memories had completely faded from my mind. In that same chapter I draw parallels between my aging memories and my aging Commodore diskettes, on which the data has begun to fade as well. Preserving one’s memoirs simply involves writing them down. Preserving old fading Commodore floppy diskettes? That’s a bit more complicated.

Commodore 64 emulators use D64 files which are snapshot images of actual Commodore diskettes. In theory, you can transfer real Commodore diskettes into D64 files using a special combination of hardware and software, and then store them on your PC where they can then be accessed by emulators — the difference being that D64 files can be stored forever and will never fade. They can even transferred back to real Commodore 64 floppies and played on the original hardware!

Even if you happened to still have a 5 1/4 floppy disk drive in your PC, it still wouldn’t read old Commodore diskettes. To create D64 images of real C64 disks, you’ll need a vintage Commodore 1541 disk drive and a special cable to connect it to your modern computer’s parallel port. As anyone who’s tried it will tell you, due to the amount of variables involved it’s a complete pain in the ass to get working. I just spent the last week trying to get it to work.

First off, there are different cables. The original was called the X1541 cable, but newer models include the XE1541, the XM1541, and the XA1541. You’ll also need the right type of parallel port on your computer. I never knew there was more than one type before this project, but it turns out there are at least half a dozen. Generally speaking it appears that the ones in older PCs work best, followed by those in new PCs. Ones in laptops seem to be the least compatible. And don’t forget, all of this has to be done with a real Commodore disk drive that is at least 20 years old or maybe older, so if it hasn’t been cleaned or aligned, forget about any of this working. Only certain cables work with certain software packages, only certain cables work with certain types of parallel ports, and even if you somehow manage to get all of this working you’ve got to make sure your old floppy drive is working correctly.

Oh, and I did I mention this all has to be done in DOS? The cables don’t work well in Windows.

In the back of my closet sits an old 486 DX4/100 that I used many moons ago as a workstation. I remember using this specific computer to transfer Commodore disks over to D64 format, but I couldn’t remember why I had stopped. Now that the book is out and I’ve archived my memories, I’ve decided to do the other half and archive my old disks as well.

Getting everything talking has taken me a solid week of trial and error. Let’s see if I can summarize my journey. The computer booted into DOS, but locked up booting into Windows 98. I could boot into DOS and Windows safe mode, but neither one allowed CD-Rom access, and the machine is so old that it won’t boot off of CD-Rom, nor does it have USB ports. After tracking down another machine with a floppy drive, I made a Windows 98 boot disk. The floppy drive wouldn’t read the disk, so changed out the floppy drive and the cable (neither of which fixed the problem) before realizing the on board floppy controller had gone bad. I added an ISA controller which got the floppy drive working and allowed me to boot off the boot disk, which eventually allowed me to use the CD-Rom drive — unfortunately, the drive would not read my CD-R backup of Windows 98. It would read original discs (and who knows where my original CD is), but not backups. I guess the CD-Rom drive is just too old. So, out came the old CD-R drive and in went a spare 52x With the drive in place I was finally able to reinstall Windows 98, but I could not get the network card to work. After hitting my patience level, I pulled the card out, stomped on it a few times for good measure, and replaced it with an old trusty 3Com card, which 98 actually recognized. From there it was just a matter of configuring the card to get the network to see it, which it eventually did.

This entire process took me a solid week to complete. Most of my boxes of “old parts” are out in the garage, while the computer in question is upstairs. That means every floppy cable, disk drive or controller card I needed involved a trip downstairs and through the house, almost always leading to some detour that kept me off the project for an hour or two. Another speed bump was Windows 98 itself. How quickly we forget what it is like to have to reboot every single time you change a network setting. The next time you curse Windows 2000 or XP, boot up a 98 machine and marvel at how far we’ve come in just a few years. Don’t get me wrong, I like 98, but I like how easy things have become better.

The end result is a dual-booting Frankencluster of a machine that creates D64 images in DOS mode, and allows me to connect to the network in Windows 98 in order to move the disks over to the network.

How is it possible to both love and hate old computers so much at the same time?

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1 comment to Frankencluster

  • Thanks for the nfo about your adventure of getting your XA1541 to work! I’m about to embark on a similar journey to get data from PC back to the real deal.