Collecting for vintage computers can be a hit and miss affair. Often I have purchased tapes and discs for my humble Amstrad CPC only to have them fail to work. Sure, you have EBay protection and can send items back if they fail, but isn’t it better to have something that just works? Expenses are another big problem, to the point where if you want that rare disc copy of Turrican you will be paying well over $100 for it!
Thankfully, the various 8-bit computer communities have provided collectors with a solution using current hardware. Recent years have seen the rise of the HxC, the Gotek and many other various SD and USB adapters that connect to your vintage computer. Sure, it’s not a solution for those who want to collect the original games, so if you have money and are willing to wait then this probably isn’t for you.
The device featured in this article is the DDI3, a disc emulator for the Amstrad CPC464. For those who are unfamiliar with the Amstrad CPC464, it is an 8-bit computer with an attached tape drive released by Amstrad in 1984. You are able to attach a disc drive to it, but you first need a disc drive interface that allows it to work. This interface includes a ROM chip that gives the computer instructions on how to use discs. This is where people run into problems with the HxC and Gotek, as they are generic devices that can be used on any computer, so they don’t contain that essential ROM. Enter the DDI3 by Piotr Bugaj, AKA ‘Zaxon’.
This device was ordered from Sell My Retro, a site that is well worth visiting for any retro collector. Original hardware and games can be found here as well as homebrew devices such as this one. When purchasing items such as this one you have to be aware that, in a lot of cases, the seller has to make them from scratch, so you may have to wait. When it arrived in its antistatic bag I was VERY excited! I eagerly opened the bag, carefully removed the device got to work setting it up.
From the above image you can see the edge connector on the bottom, and just above that is the chip that the 464 needs to use a disc drive. There is also a screen to show you which disc image is currently selected, some switches and buttons along the top, and on the right is a connector for an external disc drive should you need one. The device contains both AmsDOS and ParaDOS, an enhanced version of Amstrad’s OS. ParaDOS can easily copy disc images on to actual Amstrad discs, so you can play those games on your CPC664 or CPC6128. This device will not work on those two machines, though Piotr has another USB drive emulator which does work on ‘Sell My Retro’.
One thing to mention is that this device came with no documentation, though don’t let that put you off. Below I will list the steps I had to go through to get this up and running. It’s not that difficult, though you might be feeling a bit lost if you’ve never done anything like this before.
I’m assuming you have a USB drive, if not go and buy one now! Go on, I’ll wait until you come back… Sorted? Great! Let’s go!
Head to this website and download the latest version of “HxCFloppyEmulator_Soft.zip”.
Next download the Amstrad HxC Floppy Manager. The device holds an many disc images as the USB drive can take, but only allows 15 active slots that can be used at any one time. This management tool allows you to change the disc images that are allocated to those slots.
Save both of these wherever you like (I stored them on the USB drive itself) and extract the files. First we want to use the HxC Emulator Software. This contains executables for both Windows and Mac OSX computers, though both are identical in their layout and operation. Open the executable, click on ‘Settings’ and ‘SD HxC Floppy Emulator Settings’. Yes, I know we’re using a USB stick and not an SD card. Trust me!
Just change the Mode of drive A to ‘Amstrad CPC’ and click on ‘Save Config File’.
This will store the correct computer configuration file on the USB stick, which is something that the device will not work without. Once you’ve completed this action the file “HXCSDFE.CFG” will be present on your USB stick. Now we need to install the “HxC Floppy Emulator Manager”. The folder contains 3 versions of the manager, though obviously we want the one contained in the Amstrad directory.
HxC devices natively support files with the extension .HFE, so that’s what we’re looking for here. You can ignore all the other files and copy “AUTOBOOT.HFE” into the root directory of your USB drive.
Your root directory should now contain both of these files.
At this point I plugged the USB drive into the DDI3 and turned on the 464 to try it out.
ParaDOS is currently enabled on the device, so this is mentioned on the startup screen. Right now I only have one .HFE file on the USB drive, so I used the 2 far left buttons along the top to select the disc image.
Remebering my Amstrad BASIC, I typed in “CAT” to see what was on the disc image.
There is only one executable file, so I type ‘RUN”HXC’ to open the management tool.
There is currently only one disc image on the USB drive, so all you can see is that and the two directories. The configuration file is not visible in the management tool. So the testing appears to be OK, let’s find some Amstrad games! There are plenty of sites out there, though I began my search at CPC Game Reviews. I downloaded a bunch of games, though I saved them on my laptop rather than the USB drive.
As I mentioned, the HxC firmware can only read .HFE files, though you’ll notice that the Amstrad files end in .DSK. Thankfully the HxC Floppy emulator can convert these files for us, so open that again and click ‘Batch Converter’
Select the location you have stored the disc images in for the first box with the path of the USB drive in the second. Click ‘Convert’.
Once this has been completed place the USB drive back into the DDI3 and open the HxC management tool again. You should have a page full of disc files.
The management tool will always be an available disc image, though you can allocate up to 15 additional disc images at a time. Using the cursor keys, scroll to the game you want to select and press ENTER. Press the “H” key for instructions if you’re stuck at any point.
Once you have allocated the games you want to play press “ESC”. It will ask you if you want to save so select “Y” to store the disc images in the allocated slots.
Once this has been done and you have exited back to BASIC you can switch between the allocated disc images using the 2 top left buttons. There is a button on the left of the unit that resets the Amstrad. The switch closest to the USB stick will turn ParaDOS on and off. Let’s try out a childhood favourite of mine, Finders Keepers:
Brilliant! Let’s have a look at Sorcery:
It all works beautifully. The only problem I encountered was when I used my dk’tronics 64k RAM pack with the DDI3. The computer refused to boot up with ParaDOS enabled.
I switched it back to AmsDOS and it worked fine. I took the computer somewhere else and it refused to work at all with the 64k RAM expansion. Both worked fine on their own but not together. As I type this the 64k expansion is working with ParaDOS enabled. Piotr advised me that this has to do with the supply of power. He has told me that using a separate 4 Amp power supply should fix the problem.
I paid $150AU for the DDI3, which is about the average price for high quality SD and USB solutions. It allows you to use an external disc drive, it gives you the flexibility of using disc images and it contains ParaDOS. The only downside is the lack of documentation that comes with the unit. However, if you follow my steps then you should have no problems setting up your new DDI3!
Piotr is making the DDI3 in batches of 25, so when they sell out you will have to wait until he can source parts again. He has told me that he will be working on a third batch in the near future, so if you miss out this time all is not lost!