Archive for July, 2010

LaserDiscs – The Blu-Ray of the VHS Era

July 22nd, 2010 No comments

Looking back, in my geeky opinion, LaserDiscs are kind of the Blu-Ray of the VHS era. VHS video tapes were one of the first mainstream consumer video recordings. Sure before these there were old Super 8mm films and even BetaMax, but VHS was the most common and after winning the format war it would go onto dominate the market for years until finally being defeated by the digital DVD.

Above is a LaserDisc copy of Toy Story, which looks like a giant compared to it’s modern DVD version.

But before DVDs came along there was an analog video format, with an analog or digital audio track called Laserdisc. A Laserdisc is about the size of a vinyl record, with a cover just as big. Allowing for a great piece of cover art, and a book-like jacket with notes, descriptions, stories, and photos from the film. Laserdisc players and movies were expensive, and they were very slowly being adopted. Most users didn’t know the difference of the media and decided not to bother with it. LaserDiscs also couldn’t store the entire movie on one disc, even though each one was double-sided. Many movies over an hour were split across multiple discs. For Example the 1993 LaserDisc release of Star Wars has 5-sides just for the movie, that’s 3 discs with 2 sides per disc, with the 6th side remaining for supplemental features such as trailers and interviews. Early players could only play one side of the disc at a time, requiring the viewer to get up and flip over the disc manually. It wasn’t until later on where more advanced players could read the other side of the disc on their own. So if you wanted to watch “The Empire Strikes Back” from start to finish you would need to get up from your cozy sofa at least 5 times to switch discs and sides. 6 times if you wanted some bonus material.

Above is a LaserDisc compared to a DVD. The DVD is almost the size of the middle of the LaserDisc!

But the picture quality was a bit better then VHS and instead of needing to rewind a tape, you could navigate to a chapter in the film instantly. No rewinding was ever required and you could easily skip to your favorite part in no time. This quality would also not degrade overtime and was consistent. Unlike VHS cassette tapes there is no wear and tear. A laser reads the information off of the disc without ever touching it, unlike a VHS cassette where the tape comes into contact with a series of wheels and servos. The Laserdisc image and audio will remain the same for years to come… unless the disc succumbs to laser-rot, where the physical layers of the disc separate and deteriorate. This usually happens to discs stored improperly or if the disc was poorly manufactured.

The makeup of a laserdisc is an analog composite video track and various audio tracks. Some audio tracks were actually digital and some were analog. In the case of the Star Wars Trilogy – The Definitive Collection LaserDiscs, the analog audio track was actually used as a commentary track. While the commentary track is not for the whole length of the feature, and there is a lot of silence between tacks, it would pave the way for DVD feature-length commentaries in the future. Players usually had composite audio and video output with maybe a digital audio connection if you were lucky. If your LaserDisc player has an S-Video port you may still be better off using the Composite video connection unless your player is really high end. But even then your TV’s comb filter is likely far better and will work with the Composite signal better.

Not only could the LaserDisc pause and freeze-frame, but with more advanced discs you could usually scan through a scene with a frame-by-frame control. Allowing you to study the frame of the film as detailed as you’d like. Also some discs included pre-set chapter stops, where a screen would inform you of an artwork gallery ahead. You would then use the skim or frame buttons to navigate through the gallery of images.

While DVDs have made VHS cassettes and LaserDiscs a thing of the past, DVDs would never have came to be if it wasn’t for the advancements of the first big experiment in the consumer home video market – the LaserDisc. It was the Blu-Ray of it’s time, but unlike Blu-Rays they died out before their popularity could peak and before the format got a true chance to shine. Well, more like HD-DVD… but there was no popular competing disc format to get in the way.

I started collecting LaserDiscs for their cover art, and I mainly still do. They have beautiful pieces of artwork, usually a more grand version of their cramped VHS counterparts – and sometimes a surprising styled cover adapted from an alternate poster. I have my LaserDisc player setup today and even though it’s kind of silly to have it plugged into an HDTV it’s sometimes fun to take a disc out and see what it was like to be on the cutting edge of home entertainment many years ago.

Categories: General Tags: , , , ,

Apple TechStep Diagnostic Tool

July 4th, 2010 No comments

Have you ever heard of an Apple TechStep? Well this was a tool used in the early 1990′s by an Apple Tech to test a Macintosh computer. The tool was only sold privately to authorized Apple dealers, but later on Apple released it publicly for a price of $999. I recently picked up one of these on eBay for about $25.

The purpose of this tool is to test a Mac’s components. The Mac actually boots off of this device, the device can then run tests on the Power Supply, RAM, Motherboard, Drives, or Ports. The TechStep has a little LCD screen which displays only text. The numbered keypad has some text on it also to help you navigate around. On the back of the device are a few ports to connect to the computer: 25-pin SCSI, ADB (2 ports), Modem serial, Printer serial, and 3.5mm Stereo Mini-Jack. Also on the left side of the unit is an AC adapter port, the On/Off switch, and a secondary Serial port used for transferring diagnostic reports to a healthy Mac. The unit can run off of it’s AC power adapter or a single 9 volt battery, mine did not come with an adapter but the battery works just fine.

The TechStep uses ROM packs to load the computer diagnostic information. These are similar to GameBoy cartridges, the TechStep can hold two at a time. Each ROM has a sticker which lists which machines it is compatible with. Two were included with my unit “CPU Tests, Vol 1, v. 1.1.1″ and “CPU Tests, Vol. 2, v. 1.0″. Volume 1 works with Macintosh Classic, SE, SE/30, II, IIx, and IIcx models. Volume 2 works with Macintosh LCD, LCD II, and Classic II models. There are additional ROM packs, but these are very hard to come by.

To start using the TechStep shut off your Mac and the TechStep and connect a 25-pin SCSI cable, Serial Cable (Modem port works best for me) and an ADB cable running from your Mac to your TechStep. These cables are all male-to-male and are regular cables, no special adapters needed. Insert a 9-volt battery (after removing the ports section) or attach your AC cord, turn the unit on via the switch on the left.  The LCD screen will display which ROM card is in Slot A and will show an “Identify CPU” screen, listing the computers it’s compatible with. Press the number next to the machine, for example in my case I was using a Macintosh Classic, so I selected 1 for Classic.

You are brought to a “Home” screen showing you the list of the many tests you can run. I selected 3 for “Logic” and selected 1 again for the “All” function so I can run all of the available tests. The TechStep instructs you to turn on the Mac, once the Mac is turned on it will boot from the TechStep entirely – no disks needed! The Mac will go to a ‘Sad Mac’ face, but do not worry since your Mac is not being harmed. Your selected test will run and when it is finished you may save the results. Hold the * key and press the 7 (Save) button on the TechStep. You will be asked if you want to overwrite an older log if there is one. Now that you’ve run your test switch off your TechStep and your Mac.

With the TechStep software on your Mac you can test your Diagnostic Tool or retrieve logs from your TechStep unit. The ‘Report Generator’ program retrieves the logs from your unit. Plug in a serial cable from the Modem port on your Mac to the serial port on the left side of the TechStep next to the Power switch. Turn the TechStep on. Open the ‘Report Generator’ program and select “Receive Log” from the “Options menu” – a waiting dialog will come up. Eventually you will see the log the TechStep has generated on your screen. A detailed list of every test with the results is shown, you can save this or generate a report for printing out.

The TechStep is a very cool little device, it has become a hot item for vintage Apple and Mac collectors. If you find a unit be sure it includes a ROM pack (it’s A and B slots will be visibly blank without them) – without these ROM packs the TechStep can not function and will just display a “ROM Pack Not Found” screen.


Below is a diagnostic report which was saved onto my TechStep when I got it.