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intric8
Seattle, WA, USA
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Posted Wed Jun 17, 2020 8:46 am


It’s not an exaggeration to say the CMD RAMLink is by far one holiest of the “holy grail” items for the Commodore 64 and 128. To be honest, most everything CMD (Creative Micro Designs) made seems to be called a holy grail these days, and with good reason. CMD created hardware and software for the C64/128 that often seemed plucked from the future with the help of a Delorean, with extremely high build qualities and otherworldly power. If only the crew at CMD worked for Commodore, and controlled the product roadmap...

The RAMLink certainly deserves its praise and admiration. Back in the day, by the time they hit the market in 1990, they were nothing short of magical. They were not inexpensive devices, likely difficult for many to justify in 1990 and beyond (the RAMLink was discontinued as late as 2001!). But holy smokes - they are nothing short of amazing.
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Look, but don't touch. Whoop-pish!


In my personal experience, most folks in the USA had already started leaving the 8-bit world behind by then. The Amiga had already been on the market for nearly 5 years! But there was a market, if a limited one, for something as brute-force powerful as the RAMLink.

This article, and the video above, is an attempt to demonstrate why the RAMLink is so special even in 2020. It kind of boggles my mind that no one has ever tried to reverse engineer the thing.

Some of you - justifiably - may be asking yourself, “What the heck IS the RAMLink, anyway?” 



Let’s take a look.
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The RAMLink is a tank, made in a case of solid metal with metallic switches.


The RAMLink is a remarkable device that plugs into your Commodore’s cartridge port. At its most basic, it is a virtual drive that serves much like a RAM disk. It can hold up to 16 MB RAM, and whatever you store in that RAM can potentially be instantly loaded within a second of invoking the command.

Honestly, it kind of has to be seen to be believed and fully appreciated.

Take, for example, the classic game Miner 2049er from 1983. That game is over 60 blocks, which in a hand-wavy estimation will take about a minute to load normally from a 1541 disk drive. If you copy that game to a RAMLink and load it, it will take less than 1 second.

It’s called Instant Load.

Now, back in 1990-ish, when hardcore Commodore 64/128 fans were buying these devices, they were not cheap. Just a bare RAMLink - with no RAM installed - would run over $200. The folks who generally picked these devices up were often people who ran BBSes. Or, the very rare person who was all-in on GEOS when the writing had been on the wall years previous. You could store *massive* files relatively speaking on your RAMLink that before seemed like pure fantasy.
RAMLink-ad.jpg

REUs (RAM Expansion Units) had been around for a long time, so many mistakenly saw the RAMLink as just a big, beefy version of the same. But it’s so much more. With an REU, when you turn off your machine whatever was stored in your REU vanishes. The RAMLink, however, comes with its own power supply unit (PSU). Thus, when you turn off your C64/128, whatever you copied to the RAMLink is still there, ready and waiting for the next time you turn the computer back on. Your RAMdisk is *persistent*. And it's as fast or faster to use what's on your RAMLink as, well, turning on your computer. It's that fast.

In addition, the RAMLink offered these extra features (strap on those seatbelts):
  • Battery Backup option, in case you need to unplug your RAMLink from the wall. (I wish I had one of these, or knew how to make one)
  • Parallel Port to attach to a CMD hard drive (wow!)
  • Passthrough Port, so you can still use cartridges when the RAMLink is plugged into the computer
  • REU port, in case you don’t have the RAM board. Or, if you do have a RAM board but it has less than 16MB, you can add more RAM using one of your REU cartridges.
  • JiffyDOS 6.01 Kernel is built-in - for both C64 and 128 - so you never need to install JiffyDOS on your actual computer, just the disk drives you want to also use with JiffyDOS (if you care).
  • Special, custom GEOS Utilities
  • Partitions! These can be created (up to 31!) or deleted using special RAMLink tools. There are Native Mode and Emulation Mode partitions. The Emulation Mode can include 1541, 71 and 81. These emulation modes can help improve compatibility with software programs which require the tracks and sectors of a disk, as well as the BAM and directory, to be laid out in the same way as on a particular type of Commodore disk drive. (Therefore these emulation modes have a fixed storage capacity equal to that drive it is emulating.)
  • Subdirectory support.
  • Time and Date stamped directory listings.
  • It’s own special DOS, called RL DOS.
  • 156 Paged Manual, plus 49 paged JiffyDOS manual
  • Autobooting. It is possible to autoboot from RAMLink when used with a C128 or 128D in 128 mode.
  • It is seen as an actual drive, and is given the Drive ID of 16. However, using RAM Tools, you can reconfigure the Drive ID number to whatever you wish.
  • One of the Tools CMD created for use with RAMLink is FCopy. This program is a massive help in file copying, and will work with all file types and all drive types including an REU running under RAMDOS. Since it has JiffyDOS included, you can also use the built-in JiffyDOS file copier, too.
  • Locking files. This allows you to protect files from being scratched, or deleted. (This does not include the loss of power to the RAMLink. But if you want to scratch (delete) a locked file, you have to unlock it first.)
  • Drive Swap! There’s a literal button on the device to allow drive swapping. This means if you have another disk drive set to 8, you can press a button on the RAMLink to swap it to 9 via software without finding a toothpick and playing with jumpers. Woo hoo! Magic, I say.
  • Since you’re plugged in, you can set the RTC (Real Time Clock) and never worry about an internal battery melting your precious heirloom.
A few things about the RAMLink worth noting.

First, it is not 100% compatible with every file or disk image you throw at it. Sometimes emulation modes will fix this, but not always. As such, there’s actually an entire website with over 250 games dedicated to RAMLink “fixed” games. http://members.optusnet.com.au/spacetax ... -GAMES.htm
These are games that wouldn’t work back in the day on a RAMLink, but now they will. There are also 1581 games that have been fixed on that site, which may also work on the RAMLink under 1581 emulation mode. Thank goodness there are people out there that still care and do this.

Also, with the scarcity of the RAMLink it can be very spendy to acquire one. They were expensive to buy 30 years ago, and they still are.

Interestingly, in the last year a new product has been developed in the Bay Area that - at face value - seems to offer much of the same features. Well, at least in terms of fast loading games, not all of the other stuff. But it has a slew of additional features that some could argue far surpass the RAMLink in terms of actual normal usage in the year 2020. Not only that, but it is constantly being worked on and improved.

Introducing, the BackBit, which has been available for sale from the Backbit shop for only a few months now. Designed and created by Evie Salomon, she has been refining and adding to the product for over a year. And that constant push for improvement and innovation continues to this day.

Her ingenious little device is the size of a small cartridge. It offers Fast Loading of games just like the RAMLink where you can easily load files onto an SD micro card - up to a staggering 32GB.
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But the BackBit also offers a knee-buckling gaggle of additional features.

When you first load the device it will take over your Commodore 64 or 128. You’ll see a directory structure that you can browse up and down using the up/down cursor keys and Return to enter a directory or launch a program. Very simple. If you need to exit a program and drop back to the directory, there is one single button on top of the cartridge you can tap and - poof! - you’re *back*. No cables, no wires, just plug-and-play and you're off.

You can also:
  • SEARCH !!! Let’s say you have a large directory (each directory can hold 1000 files) and you want to get to Xevious at the very bottom. Simply type “X” and you’ll jump instantly down to the first file that starts with the letter “X”. Type “XE” and you’ll probably be sitting on Xevious at that point. Amazing.
  • Also, when you turn power off of your machine and power it back on, the Backbit REMEMBERS THE DIRECTORY WHERE YOU LEFT OFF! OMG I can’t tell you how refreshing user experience is for repeat plays of a game.
  • You can “RIP & BURN” original disks from disk drives to the Backbit. Look out, Zoom Floppy!
  • Built-in SID Player.
  • KOALA Image Viewer
  • The Backbit allows you to add text metadata to your files as well (Release notes, genre, etc) it’s amazing - but it NEVER alters your original disk files. It can fork them.
  • BACKBIT Extended Data Feature blows way past the original disk file size requirements and lets you save and run programs up to 4GB!
  • It has a Real Time Clock, and when you create new files on the Backbit it will date and time stamp them.
Also, and this may seem trivial to some, but I love how the SD Card slot was designed. You can easily remove and insert the little SD memory card and not have some janky assed USB drive dangling off the side of the thing.

Lastly, there’s an optional wireless button you can get (for only $15) that you can set anywhere on your desk to mash rather than using the little button on the cartridge. This is really nice for C128 folks so we don’t have to reach back behind the machine to go back to the menu. It’s like Evie thought of everything!

But wait, there's more! There's even a "Backbit Tool" that anybody can use to generate BBT files. This tool can allow you to create your own slideshows, stitch multiple disk images together to be used on the backbit (like, a game with several disks/sides), all kinds of cool things.

Now, like the RAMLink it’s not 100% compatible with every single file you throw at it. But it can run a ton of PRGs, d64, d71, d81 and works with both the 64 and 128. To that end it was explicitly designed for ease of use, and to that end it has succeeded in its goals.

At the end of the day, the RAMLink is still a very bad ass piece of period-correct hardware that is a blast to learn to use and see in action. But they aren’t easy to get these days. While the Backbit isn’t a direct 1:1 comparison, it does offer a very similar instant load feature many would love to experience, I’m sure. And it's so much more affordable, and getting better on a daily basis.

What a great time to be into Commodore, hm?
<3

User avatar
Overmann

Posted Thu Jun 18, 2020 8:30 am

I've been reading up on this since your video went up and I'm kind of surprised that I've not heard of EITHER of these devices before.. These are RIGHT up my alley! Well, if the RAMlink is as rare and expensive as you imply then I guess it's off the table for me, but the backbit is really cool! It's great to see so much awesome hardware for the Commodore machines.

Lets hope the community stays alive for another 40 years :)

User avatar
blindguy

Posted Thu Jun 18, 2020 9:10 am

Great Video, makes me want a RamLink!!!

We need to get the CMD guys back together and have them build a few of these as well as all the other CMD hardware!!





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