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Yet more Amstrads added to the collection - ALT-386sx and PCW8256
Created on: 29-07-2020 By Gee
If you haven't guessed already, I like my Amstrad computers. Purely because of nostalgia and curiosity.
Recently whilst scouring eBay for all things Amstrad, I came across an Amstrad ALT-386sx laptop and thought it would be a great addition to my collection as it was both and Amstrad, and a 386 DOS machine. When I had bought that I called the gent to arrange collection and he then asked if I was interested in an Amstrad PCW8256 that he had lying around. Sadly, it had no keyboard or system disks. He told me he'd look for the keyboard, but when I arrived he told me he wasn't successful sadly.
The first issue with the 386 machine was getting it to recognise the hard drive. The BIOS settings had all been lost due to the fact that the battery had long since died. Both the CMOS and the laptop running battery. The CMOS battery was an issue that needed checking too, making sure that the CMOS battery hadn't leaked over the motherboard causing damage to it. If it had, it hadn't caused too much damage as the machine still booted up ok once I found that the hard drive was a "type 17" and the floppy drive is a 1.44mb one.
This took a good bit of selecting one and rebooting to test the settings until I eventually found the settings on a website with the Amstrad 386SX details. That helped a lot.
DOS & Windows
I was amazed to find that the computer also had Windows 3.1 on it, not 3.11. From what I had read online about these machines, I thought it would only have MS DOS version 3.30, not the version 6 it has. So that was a nice surprise and must have been an upgrade, however I might be wrong. The problem with having Windows was that I didn't have a serial mouse to use on windows. I'd also need that for the games I wanted to play on it. This was solved by another quick search on eBay for a serial mouse, once I seen how much people were after for those I ended up buying an IBM (IBM 96f9275 if you must know the model number) PS⁄2 mouse and an adaptor for PS⁄2 to serial. That cost less than the average serial mouse on eBay. Much less in fact, as the total for the two items was £6.77 delivered, majority of that was postage unfortunately.
Naturally with the age of the machine and there having been a CMOS battery on board, it had caused an issue. I had managed to get some disk images onto some real floppy disks to try the machine out, Hoping to play monkey island on a terrible monochrome screen. The computer just couldn't see the floppy drive properly. It new it was there and it would do the usual noises on power up, but would never access it.
I opened the computer up and cut out the old CMOS battery that looked like it had not long started to leak over a small area of the board. Under where it had been were a couple of traces which may have gotten eaten away by the battery juices, so that was scraped away and will need further cleaning in the future. Also possibly a repair jumper soldered in. This could possibly be why the disks aren't being read.
Whilst I was having a look at the board I had taken a few parts of it out and had noticed that there was some corrosion on a screw near a capacitor. I'm assuming that this has also started to leak, which means I now have a recap on my hands.
I don't yet have a de-soldering gun yet, but hopefully I can get that into my arsenal at some point to make this job a lot easier.
The PCW8256 or 8512 is a machine I liked the look of ever since I first seen one online. They intrigued me and feel like a next step on from the CPC series.
The one that the gent I got the 386 from didn't have the keyboard but it was offered to me at a ridiculous price that I couldn't refuse. Even after buying a keyboard for it on eBay it was still a decent price.
Seeing as I have no pcw8256 CP/M disks and the drive is a 3" one like the CPC 664 or 6128, I was unable to test that the machine was actually working.
What I ended up doing was figuring out how to use a gotek drive in the machine and 3d printed out a bracket to hold it in the computer.
The CPC wiki forum also had a zip file with some self booting pcw 8256 game images that I could put onto a USB stick to try out. I done all this and managed to get some games to load up. Unfortunately my keyboard hadn't arrived by this point so I couldn't have a little play of my new addition.
The PCW8256 has 8 empty slots for additional RAM to make it the same spec as the PCW8512 (but without the larger capacity floppy drive). There is quite a bit of information on how simple the 8256 is to upgrade on a dutch PCW owners group, so this is something that I will look forward to doing in the future also.
Whilst I was on this website I took note of the type of RAM chips that I needed and had a look for them online. I found someone within the UK selling them for £12.99 as a PCW8256 RAM upgrade kit. I thought this was a bit expensive for what it was and found the same (hopefully) chips on AliExpress for a fraction of the price. So for less that what the seller in the UK was wanting, I bought 50 chips. Why 50? because it's AliExpress and there is bound to be some that do not work. This also means that I can offer other owners a little upgrade kit via my website shop at a decent price once I make that. If the source of chips is good, then I might take some more stock depending on how well they sell.