Black Box, Multi I/O / hardware

From: Michael Current (aa700@cleveland.Freenet.Edu)
Date: 05/18/92-09:11:05 PM Z

From: aa700@cleveland.Freenet.Edu (Michael Current)
Subject: Black Box, Multi I/O / hardware
Date: Mon May 18 21:11:05 1992

Reprinted from Usenet: comp.sys.atari.8bit

Date: 13 May 92 20:59:56 GMT
Subject: Blackbox/MIO comparison

Date: 23 Oct 90 03:08:48 GMT  
Organization: The Ohio State University (IRCC)  
     Having had the opportunity to use both the BlackBox from CSS (Computer  
Software Services) and the MIO from ICD, I thought I would share what I  
have learned about these two unique pieces of hardware for the 8-bit Atari.  
The systems I have used include: 130XE computers (upgraded to 512K), 1-meg MIO
256K MIO, BlackBox, Supra Modem 2400, Seikosha MP1300AI printer, 2 Happy 1050 
floppy drives, an Adaptec 4000a hard drive controller, 2 Adaptec 5500 hard  
drive controllers, a Seagate ST225 20 meg hard drive, a ATASI 3046 40 meg  
hard drive, and a CMI 5516 13 meg hard drive.  
 What is an MIO or a Blackbox?  
     An explanation of just what the MIO and BlackBox are is in order. Both  
include a SASI/SCSI hard disk interface, a printer port, a RS232  
port, and some type of printer buffer. The MIO comes with either 256K or 1  
megabyte of dynamic RAM on board which can be used as any combination of  
ramdisk(s) and printer spooler. The BlackBox comes either with no user ram  
or 64K of static ram which can be used only as a printer buffer. Additionally,
the BlackBox (BB) can use the standard extended banks of a 130XE as a 64K  
printer buffer.  
     The RS232 and/or printer ports can be disabled in both units to allow an 
external device such as an Atari 850 interface to be used.  
     Both come with clear manuals printed on 8 1/2 by 11 inch unbound  
paper. The pinouts for all ports are clearly shown in the manuals and there  
are examples showing how to set up a hard disk system. The BBS manual  
includes several short assembler listings showing some methods of  
accessing the BB from machine language.  
     The MIO comes in a nice gray case with the SCSI connector and printer  
port on one end. The other end has the RS232 port, on/off switch, power plug, 
and two LED's - one is a power indicator and the other lights up when  
the MIO is busy.  My 1-meg MIO has a second 9 pin plug on this end for a  
planned 80 column adaptor which never happened. The 50 conductor ribbon cable 
which plugs into the computer is on one side.  
     The BB comes with no case. Cases are available for it for $39.95 (and  
they are even black!). On the front edge is the connector which plugs into  
the 130XE. The other side has the SCSI connector, the floppy controller  
connector (see below), and the power plug. The printer plugs onto one end  
and the modem to the other. The BBS also has two LED's which serve the same  
functions as the ones in the MIO.  
 Plugging it in  
     The MIO has a 50 pin connector which plugs in to the parallel  
expansion port on a 600XL or 800XL. An XE adaptor must be purchased for $16.95
to plug the MIO into a 130XE computer. This adaptor plugs into both the ECI  
port and the cartridge port on the 130XE and has sockets for two  
cartridges on it. The second cartridge plug is primarily for R-Time 8  
cartridge from ICD.  
     The BlackBox is built to plug directly into the 130XE. It comes with  
a short 5 pin cable for plugging into an XL machine. No extra adaptor is  
needed. For my own system, I use the XE adaptor from ICD and plug the 50 pin  
cable on the BB into it (I use the R-Time 8 and this keeps the cartridge  
stack shorter).  
     The MIO has the expected 9 pin and 15 pin d-connectors for plugging in  
your printer and modem. The BB comes with 34 pin card edges for use with 34  
conductor ribbon cable. You can use both standard crimp-on connectors for  
both cables (use 25 conductor ribbon cable for the modem cable) or you can  
buy the cables you need from CSS. There is also an unused 34 connection card  
edge on the BB. This is for the floppy controller that CSS is planning to  
release. This floppy controller will allow the user to attach industry  
standard disk drives -- up to 80 track 720K - to the BB.  
     The MIO comes with a heavy duty 9v power supply. The BlackBox comes with 
power supply which has +12v -12v and +5v output. All three voltages are used  
by the BB.  
     Both the MIO and the BlackBox have menus. Here is a list of options  
available from the Main Menu of both:  
1) Assign drives as floppy disks, or hard drive partitions. When assigning  
floppy drives, you can assign any physical floppy drive as and drive from  
D1: to D8: (and D9: on the BlackBox).  
Note: On the MIO ramdisks can also be defined. These ramdisks refer to MIO  
memory only - not memory available inside the computer. A DOS ramdisk  
handler must be used for memory in the computer.  
2) Swap drives - shows up as 'Exchange Drives' on the BlackBox and allows you 
to swap the drive assignments of two drives. For example, you could swap  
drives 1 and 4. The drive assigned to D4: would then become logical drive #1  
and you could boot from it while the drive that was drive 1 would then be  
addressable as D4:. I am writing this using PaperClip which I booted from my  
hard drive using this method.  
3) Lock Drive - Write locks a drive if it a hard drive partition or a RAMdisk.
4) Save configuration - This writes the current configuration to the first  
sector of device 0,0 (the first hard drive on your system). If no hard drive  
is present this option does nothing.  
     The other options available from these menus are different enough to  
need separate descriptions.  
 The MIO Menu:  
     The MIO Menu is entered by holding down the <Select> button and pressing 
<Reset>. This loads the menu into the computers program ram starting at  
address $3000. This destroys whatever was there, so it is best to re-boot the 
computer after accessing the menu. The Main Menu is the drive configuration  
menu. This is where you set up your hard drive partitions, partition the  
MIO ram into ramdisks, and assign floppy drives. The printer and RS232  
menus are also accessed from here.  
 Available from the Printer Menu:  
1 - Pause/Resume printing  
2 - Clear Spooler  
3 - Print Repeat copies  
4 - Set port type  
5 - Set spooler size  
6 - Set Port Number  
 The 'Repeat Copies' option allows you to print copies of any text currently  
in the MIO print spooler. Setting the port type allows printing to either  
parallel and serial printers. This function is also used to turn line  
feeds on/off. Spooler size is adjustable in 32K byte increments from  
0 (OFF) up to the maximum ram available on the MIO. Maximum available ram  
includes all ram on the MIO not already assigned to ramdisks. The port number 
can be set to P1:, P2:, or OFF.  
 Available from the RS232 Menu:  
1 - Set Baud Rate  
2 - Set Stop Bits  
3 - Set Parity  
4 - Assign Port Number  
 Baud rate can be set from 110 to 19,200 baud. Stop bits can be set to  
either 1 or 2. Parity can be set to None, Odd, Even, or Space. Since most  
terminal software handles these items, I am not sure why they are on the menu.
Maybe it looked empty without some extra options (R1:, R2:, or NONE are  
the allowable port assignments).  
 The BlackBox Menu:  
 The BlackBox Menu is entered by pressing a button on the BlackBox. This  
menu does not use any programming ram and is therefore non-destructive. You  
can enter the menu and usually exit with no effect on the program you are  
 Available from the BlackBox menu are:  
1 - Drive configuration menu  
2 - Port Status Menu  
3 - 6502 Monitor  
 From the Drive Configuration Menu you can partition your hard drive, assign  
floppies, add hard drive partitions to the partition list (explained below),  
enter the Controller Menu, or enter the Partition List Menu.  
 The Controller Menu allows you to add up to 8 different hard drives to your  
 The BlackBox allows you to have up to 96 hard drive partitions. The  
information on these partitions (size, start sector, controller and drive  
number, etc) is kept in the Partition List. You are allowed to name each  
partition with any name of up to 11 characters; 10 of which show up in the  
 The Main Configuration Table of the BlackBox has room for nine drives  
(and/or partitions). You can load any partition from the Partition List into  
the Main Configuration Table by going to the Partition List, moving the  
cursor to the partition you want and pressing <Return>. You will then be  
returned to the Main Configuration Table and asked what drive you want the  
partition loaded as.  
 Options on the Port Status Menu are:  
1 - I/O Sound On/Off  
2 - RS232 Port On/Off  
3 - Printer Port Number  
4 - Printer Line Feeds On/Off  
5 - Spooler Status  
6 - HD Partition List Start Sector  
7 - Save Configuration  
 Yes, I/O sound with a hard drive, heh! The RS232 port  an only be turned on/o
with no option to be assigned as anything other than R1:.  The printer  
port can be assigned as any one of P1: through P8:, ALL, or NONE. Spooler  
status cycles between off, XE extended banks, and BlackBox ram (if the ram is 
available on the BB).  
 This is also where you tell the BB where to look for the Partition List  
which takes up to 14 sectors and can be located anywhere on the first hard dis
on the system. You can save the configuration here as well as from the  
Drive Configuration Menu.  
 The 6502 monitor is the best I have seen for the 8-bit Atari. It doesn't  
have as many features as others but it is transparent to the system and d es a
MUCH better job of interruping a program than either DDT or Omnimon. I  
have retired my Omnimon and never used DDT much anyway. With the BB Monitor  
you can interrupt a program, examine/change memory, and usually  
resume right where you left off.  
 Ever had a lockup you couldn't get out of by pressing RESET? With the BB  
Monitor you can change the program counter to point to $E477 (the cold  
start vector) and when you exit the BB the computer will cold start. This is  
nice for saving the files in your ramdisks.  
Note: While snooping in the BB ROM I discovered that holding the Help key  
and pressing Reset causes a cold start. Holding Shift-Help does not cause the 
cold start. This feature was not mentioned in the documentation.  
 Other than programs to format hard drives, the only software I am aware of  
for these devices requires SpartaDOS. There are programs to:  
1) Swap drive assignments  
2) Lock/Unlock drives/partitions  
3) Load/Save configuration tables from/to disk files  
4) Load/Save BB partition lists from/to disk files  
5) Print information contained in configuration files and partition list  
6) Load a partition from the partition list into the configuration table of  
the BB.  
 There are also some .CMD files used by BBS Express Pro! sysops to work with  
the MIO. I am sure there is software available that I don't know about or  
forgot to mention here.  
 There are two buttons, two switches, and a bank of eight dip switches on the 
BlacKBox. One of the buttons is used to access the menu. The other dumps the  
screen to the printer. This can be done at any time.  
 One of the swiches allows you to select either text or graphics mode for  
the screen dump. In graphics mode all Atari graphics characters appear on  
paper just as they do on your screen. In graphics mode, screen dumps take the 
full width of 8 1/2 by 11 inch paper. This makes a Graphics 0 screen look  
like Graphics 2 on the printout.  
 The other toggle switch write protects ALL hard drives. This is handy when yo
want to try out a new program and don't want it to mess with the hard drives. 
 The dip switches are used as follows:  
1) Force printer fauly line to NO FAULT. This causes the BB to not send  
any data to the printer. You could have another printer interface (and printer
attached to your computer and control which printer prints with this switch.  
2) Enable hard disk port/high speed floppy SIO. This allows you to disable  
access to your hard drives and disable the BB's high speed SIO code for floppy
3.) Enable parallel printer port  
4) Enable RS232 port  
5) Enable printer line feeds  
6) Printer is a Prowriter (Used by graphics dump routine)  
7) MIO compatibility mode where hard drives are concerned. The MIO inverts  
all data as it writes to the hard drive. In normal mode, the BlackBox  
doesn't do this. Flipping this switch to the MIO mode allows a hard drive to  
be used by either the MIO or the BlackBox. Note: This affects ALL hard  
drives that are online.  
8) Unused  
* Switches 3-5 are mainly for systems with no hard drives online. If a hard  
drive is present this information is contained on the configuration sector.  
 The BB gives more storage capacity on hard drives than does the MIO. It is  
able to format a drive using 512 byte sectors. These are accessed as 256 byte 
sectors after formatting. (Each 512 byte physical sector contains two 256  
byte logical sectors).  
 CSS claims that using 512 byte sector format can add up to 20% to the storage
available on a hard drive.  
 I gained a little over 10% formatting my 40 meg hard drive in this mode. I  
have a 40 meg drive that formats out as follows:  
Format          Type                    Sectors  
MIO             256 byte sectors        146685  
BB              256 byte sectors        148994  
BB              512 byte sectors        162530*  
*This is the number of logical (256 byte) sectors  
 The only way I have fouund to empty the printer buffer on the BlackBox is  
to enter the port status menu and cycle the buffer off/on.  
 Printing through the printer buffer with either the BlackBox or the MIO  
slows down both the printing process and the computer (especially when  
accessing the devices like disk drives).  
 The MIO has been plagued by problems and rumours of problems since it was  
released. I personally know of at least 11 MIO's that had to be sent in for  
repairs at one time or another. (And I know only 8 people who own MIO's). I  
bought my MIO's second hand and both had been sent back by the original  
owners to be fixed. Here are some problems I have experienced when using  
the MIO:  
1) Wierd things have happened when I used the printer buffer. Everything  
from wierd flickering and characters showing up on the screen to garbage  
being sent to the printer.  
2) I could not use my Mac/65 cartridge and the ram in the MIO at the same  
time. When I tried, the ramdisk(s) formatted themselves whenever they felt  
like it and I had to use a sector editor to recover anything important.  
To my knowledge no one else has had this particular problem.  
3) When using terminal programs the MIO frequently locked up on me while I was
online. I suspect that this is a problem when the MIO is the originator  
of a call because I know of many BBS's using the MIO that have been online for
a long time with no such problem.  
Note: Bobterm 1.20 claims to solve this lockup problem by supplying its own  
handler for the MIO which also allows it to transfer at a true 19,200 baud  
 I have had no problems with the BlackBox except when I wired it into my  
230 watt power supply. I reversed the +12v and -12v lines and fried a couple  
of chips. A normal person would not have done this.  
 Product Support  
 ICD has apparently lost interest in the Atari 8-bit machines. At this time  
they offer little support for the MIO. If anything goes wrong, they are not  
likely to offer any help to the user at all beyond fixing them for $40.00  
 My own experience with ICD has left a lot to be desired. I have been using  
ICD products since about 1984. I use the SpartaDOS X-cartridge and when I  
first got my MIO, I couldn't exit the menu without the computer doing a  
cold-start. Thinking something was wrong with the MIO, I called ICD for  
help. I asked for technical assistance and my call was forwarded to Howard.  
 I explained my system and the problem to him and he told me that the MIO was 
faulty and to send it in for repairs. He informed me that repairs would cost  
 Well, it turns out that exiting the MIO menu with a cartridge plugged in  
caused a cold-start with all MIO's. So much for getting good help from ICD for
their 8-bit products (in fairness to ICD, I heard that they do a better job  
supporting their ST product line).  
 CSS, on the other hand has proved to be a gold mine for Atari 8-bitters. As  
I mentioned above, I fried a couple of chips on my BlackBox. I called CSS and 
(with some embarrassment) told Ron exactly what I did. Instead of saying  
"Send it in with your wallet, checkbook, and credit cards', he told  
me exactly what chip I had probably fried. I found the chips at Radio Shack  
(for about $2.00) and fixed my BlackBox. These folks really do care!  
 The people at CSS have answered some pretty dumb questions for me (and one  
or two intelligent ones too). They have even helped people with their ICD  
 = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =  
 __________ __________________________________  
|    _     |                                  |  
|    \\_   |   Tena Koutou from Aotearoa      |  
|    /_ >  | The Land of the Long White Cloud |  
|     </   |                                  |  
|   /~>    |      _      |  
|  /_/     | Fidonet 3:772/90         (_)o    |  
|  o       | (Dawn Scotting)          /\  \   |  
--- KCReader v0.95 beta  

 Michael Current, Cleveland Free-Net 8-bit Atari SIGOp   -->>  go atari8  <<--
   The Cleveland Free-Net Atari SIG is the Central Atari Information Network
      Internet: / UUCP: ...!umn-cs!ccnfld!currentm
     BITNET:{interbit} / Cleveland Free-Net: aa700

Return to message index