Vintage Computing Pt. 3: Epson Equity I+

The Epson Equity I+ is an 8088 based business workstation from the 1980s. It sported a 20MB internal hard drive, along with a 5.25” floppy drive.

The hard drive was toast, so I removed it. It’s also harder to make or get bootable 5.25” disks, I swapped in the 720K 3.5” floppy drive from the Epson 286. The system supports this drive natively, though it will not support 1.44MB floppies.

I picked up a USB floppy drive that claimed  to have 720K support. I have had some success with that drive formatting newer HD floppies to 720K. It’s touch and go at times, and may just depend on the brand. At first, I used masking tape and a sharpie to cover the High Density hole, but switched to electrical tape pretty quickly. I cut the tape long enough to wrap over both sides of the hole.

I wrote several disks: MS-DOS 3.3, MS-DOS 5.0, as well as a disk with a couple of games I remember fondly from the early days: Inside Trader and Corporate Raider, from SoftServ, Inc.

The Paradise Basic EGA card that was in the Epson allegedly supports monochrome modes, and I was anxious to have that work as the Epson monitor I have is monochrome (green phosphor). Nevertheless, while I could get a cursor to blink on the display in monochrome mode, nothing else would appear. More to come on this.

Booting off floppy is great fun, using an IBM CGA monitor, and I could easily run any programs that ran from a single floppy (the games listed above, for instance), but it’s of limited use. To really run this machine, a hard drive would be needed. Since the original drive was shot, and I have no interest in trying to use ancient controllers and hard drives, I did some research and there is thankfully a large contingent of hobbyists who continue to use these old machines. There is also an industrial market for modern components that will work in old equipment.

There are, therefore, some pretty nice options to replace and old hard drive with - basically - an SSD.

I ordered an XT-IDE controller kit from The Glitch Works, which arrived in a timely fashion. Here’s how it comes:

The XT-IDE Rev. 4 Kit

The board is beautifully silkscreened, and all the components are through-hole which makes assembly a breeze. I put about two hours into the whole thing.

The XT-IDE Rev 4 fully assembled

The XT-IDE Rev 4 fully assembled

It took me a little while to figure out the correct DIP switch settings on the board. I found these pages invaluable to getting everything set right.

What I found worked for me was the following:

I/O Address Switch: 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0

ROM OPT Switch: 1 0 0 0 1 1 1 0

Because the BIOS ROM came with BIOS version 1.x, I had to set the topmost jumpers for Compatibility mode instead of Hi Speed. I guess I assumed the board would come with the most recent BIOS, and initially assumed Hi Speed would work fine. At a later date, I will probably burn the updated BIOS to the chip. To do this, I need to set switch 8 on the ROM OPT switch to “On”.

With the controller built, I also needed a drive. I purchased, off eBay, a IDE -> CF bracket. I used a TexElec IDE CF Bracket purchased off eBay, along with a 1GB Cisco CompactFlash card I already owned.

The TexElec IDE / CF Adapter bracket

The TexElec IDE / CF Adapter bracket

With all this put together, it was time to boot the system. I booted the DOS 5.0 install disk, and once I ran a format c: and format c: /mbr on the CF card, was able to install the full MS-DOS environment.

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Once installed, I pulled out a couple more fun floppies I had made up, including a Christmas demo disk from the 1980s:

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And the ever-classic Family Feud (which I remember well from my Commodore 64 days):

Family Feud for MS-DOS

Family Feud for MS-DOS

The music and graphics for Family Feud are nowhere near the quality I remember being possible on the Commodore 64, which is interesting. Since we have only a PC speaker in this machine, and CGA graphics, it’s not too surprising.

I thought I would give one more stab at having the monochrome screen work, now that I had the full MS-DOS install booting well. I tried adding the command “mode mono” to the Autoexec.bat file, set the DIP switches on both the motherboard and graphics card appropriately, and booted it up.

Sure enough, once MS-DOS booted and ran that command, I had a working display! It seems very strange that the motherboard won’t talk monochrome without being forced into it by a DOS command; according to the manual I’ve done everything right. I suspect it’s the graphics card at fault- but until I get another monochrome card to work with, I can’t test. Nevertheless I feel like this is a pretty fair victory in getting this old Epson Equity I+ up and running again.

Finally up and running the way I want it…

Finally up and running the way I want it…