365 Days of Commodore 128: Day 2 – The Tape Escape

June 11, 2022 – Day Two.

Despite the irreplaceable feeling of hearing a 5 1/4″ floppy disk whirring inside a drive as it slowly, slowly, s l o w l y transfers data into memory, disks are rare, expensive, and generally don’t tend to work quite as well as they did back in 1985.

I had originally planned to address this limitation by connecting a SD2IEC adapter to my Commodore 128D in order to save and load disk images from an SD card, but ran into an unexpected obstacle in the midst of the setup process. A SD2IEC includes two connectors: one to connect to the computer’s disk drive port to emulate the drive, and another to provide power to the device using either the user port or cassette port connectors. My SD2IEC adapter is designed to pull power from the cassette port. While this approach works fine with the vast majority of Commodore’s 8-bit computer line, the C128D places the cassette port on the right side of the case, recessed about a half-inch into the chassis. Not only does this placement clash with the plastic “shell” used on the SD2IEC’s cassette port power plug, the cassette port sits at the opposite end of the case from the disk drive port, far beyond the reach of the SD2IEC’s permanently-attached power cable.

I’ve planned a permanent workaround for that limitation in the coming weeks, but until then, my hopes of pirating a Maniac Mansion disk image and saving myself 500 dollars or so on an eBay copy have sadly been dashed.

You know what else you can save programs on, though? A cassette tape! It turns out I’ve got quite a few of them kicking around. I’ve still got myself a nice C2N Datasette drive from my old VIC-20 too!

C128 Datasette

Taking the drive out of its cardboard box and clear plastic bag, my hands were immediately coated with a sticky black substance that I can only describe as having the consistency of bong resin mixed with bearing grease. Good grief. I’m theorizing that the rubber insulation on the cable may have either reacted with the plastic baggie or started breaking down on its own, leaving a horrible surprise for the next poor goober who dared try to use it.

A bit of isopropyl alcohol and some soap and water quickly removed the gunk, leaving both my hands and the cable clean (barring a small stain on the drive itself – of course). I connected the drive to the C128D, powered it on, and popped in a spare Maxell Type II cassette (a C60 in this case, though the manual recommends tapes that are 30 minutes or shorter to reduce strain on the drive’s components).

Knowing your capstans from your pinch rollers is a bit of lost art in the 21st century. Although the C2N’s manual is fairly brief, it does include a helpful rundown of the mechanical components of the drive as well as the necessary commands to load, save, and verify data. The drive worked flawlessly in saving a simple test program (and loading that same program from the tape after rewinding), and my crisis of persistent memory was temporarily averted.