Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The NEC PC-8401 Reexamined: Part 2

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RAM Expansion Cartridges

One of the shortcomings of the NEC PC-8401 is the lack of RAM. By default the computers base 64k is divided in half between file storage and system memory. While 32k is plenty for running the software available in ROM, this limits options when running other software that may require large amounts of memory. Conversely the remaining 32k of RAM dedicated to file storage as a RAM disk places similar constraints on user file and program retention.

Fortunately memory limitations could be alleviated with the addition of RAM expansion cards. These RAM cartridges were to be available in 3 sizes, 128k, 64k and 32k. Rather than adding directly to available application memory, the expansions are used as RAM Disks and must be formatted by the Operating System before use. Once the additional storage is available the PC-8401s base memory may be configured to use the full base 64k as application memory or you may keep existing 32k shared memory split.

No RAM Expansion Attached
32k: Applications RAM
32k: RAM Disk Drive A:

RAM Expanded Machine Option 1
32k: Applications RAM
32k: RAM Disk Drive A:
32/64/128k: RAM Disk Drive B:

RAM Expanded Machine Option 2
64k: Applications RAM
32/64/128k: RAM Disk Drive A:

The PC-8406A 32k RAM Cartridge

The PC-8406A 32k cartridge internals are relatively compact, containing 74 Series logic chips and 16 D446G-15 NEC 2K X 8-BIT SRAM chips mounted on both sides of the circuit board. The SRAM contents are maintained by a CR2032 lithium battery; during battery changes the carts can be powered externally via a 5v barrel jack. Interestingly for the time, just about all the chips contained on the PCB are SMD variants.

The PC-8406A 32k RAM Cartridge.

Unfortunately the PC-8406A 32k pack is on the smaller side of useful, and probably best as a temporary storage device for moving files around. It's not a serious contender as a mass storage device. Even by the file and program sizes of the 1980s it's small. You could for example install MS BASIC on the drive, but then you have very little storage space left for saving programs.

Underside of the PC-8406A 32k RAM Cartridge.

Niggling issues with the NEC PC-8401s overall design choices only increase from there, being that other mass storage devices available of the computer such as the PC-8431A Micro Floppy Disk Unit make no provision for using the RAM carts at the same time, and even the CRT adaptor precludes the usage of the RAM cart as the PC-8401's expansion port provides no means of connecting multiple add-ons.

Effectively there is no easy method of copying the contents of the RAM cart to less volatile floppy disk media. The limitations of the 32k cart apply to a lesser extent to the 64k and 128k expansions, however due to how the PC-8041's memory management works the higher rated cards are inherently more useful as storage mechanisms to begin with.

Severe limitations and all, the RAM carts do help turn the base unit into a more practical computer. Even the 32k cart certainly enhances the PC-8401 user experience, especially in its predicted role as a word processing and spreadsheet powerhouse.

See all entries for this project:  Part 1Part 2

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