CFFA2 Card Review

Posted by Alex Lee on 2 December 2008 | 40 Comments

Tags: CFFA, Compact Flash, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Hard Drive 2images

I'll admit it: I'm no expert with hardware. While many Apple II faithful are handy with a soldering iron and can boast to have modified their TranswarpGS or ZipGSX beyond their default clock rate, I'm very cautious with anything that's green with gold teeth. Additionally, having never upgraded my Vulcan hard drive before moving onto a Power Mac, I've never used SCSI (similar to the CFFA in some respects) on the IIGS and with it, setting up and managing multiple 32meg ProDOS partitions.

To that end, my review of Rich Dreher's CFFA card will contain a step by step guide as to how I set it up on my ROM 01 IIGS with 4 meg of RAM and 8Mhz ZipGSX. My steps are the result of playing around with the card for quite a few hours in tandem with reading the accompanying CFFA manual. Hopefully, the solutions I found are going to be the same sort of issues other more non-technically minded people will encounter and hopefully encourage the curious to put down some hard earned cash into Flash based storage for the Apple II.

Because it's fantastic!


CFFA Card 


1. Hardware Install

Was a snap and didn't require anything more than fitting the card into one of the IIGS' spare slots.

However, I originally installed the CFFA in slot 2; not so ideal if your IIGS battery RAM is dead, as getting the IIGS to see the CFFA requires you to access the control panel and switch Slot 2 to 'Your Card' every time I turned on the damn thing!

Slot 7 was also free so I inserted the CFFA into that physical slot. Not requiring AppleTalk for the moment and the control panel setting for Slot 7's default being ‘Your Card' results in the IIGS booting from the compact flash even when freshly turned on with all its BRAM parameters back to defaults, which includes scanning all slots to look for a disk to boot from.

You can, of course, get your IIGS battery RAM replaced for both ROM 01 and ROM 03 machines and not worry about those issues, but will require some hardware know-how to fix for yourself.


2. Software Install

Batch/Run 6 of the CFFA included a free 16 meg compact flash card preinstalled with ProDOS 8 and some important utilities for setting up your CFFA. These programs are also available on the accompanying CD-ROM, as well as online. I copied these utilities from the 16meg card to a floppy disk containing System 5.0.4. Booting from this floppy, I can run the utilities from the 3.5" disk, enabling me to remove the 16 meg compact flash, replacing it with the 256 meg Compact Flash I had eagerly bought a month earlier for only $5 Australian.


3. Setting Up Partitions with the CFFA Utility Program

The next step was to use the CFFA Utility program to specify how many partitions I wanted to use. With a 256 megabyte compact flash card, dividing 256 meg by 32 meg equals 8 partitions. ProDOS can only support volumes or partitions as large as 32 meg, so this process is necessary (unless you format the drive with HFS, which limits the compact flash card's contents accessibility to System 6 only).

Originally, I didn't appreciate the process whereby you need to specify how many partitions you want to use and so I started using the CFFA using only the default four partitions (and wondered why only four appeared when I have a 256 meg compact flash!). After setting the partitions setting to 8, I powered off my IIGS and powered back up again, revealing the 8 partitions.


4. Formatting ProDOS Partitions

Once you've specified how many partitions you intend to use, you then need to PROPERLY format them for use with ProDOS. And I don't just mean using the GS/OS Finder.

The CFFA manual states that you should use Davex (a freeware program written by Dave Lyons) to properly format your compact flash card's first two 'higher' partitions. Apparently the Apple System Utils has a bug that doesn't properly format any of the partitions after the second one of the compact flash card.

Now, I know how to use a IIGS pretty well, but Davex didn't come to me naturally. I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but it was probably only in 2003 that I learned you could type 'bye' in BASIC to return to GS/OS or ProDOS. Before that I used a hasty three-finger salute.

In my defense however, I'd used a little command line stuff with UNIX, so how hard could Davex be? If you type '?' into the program, it displays a list of the commands available. But none of them seemed relevant to formatting a disk. I found the documentation for Davex online which pointed me in the right direction. Turns out the 'init' command (initialise) is an external one and doesn't appear when using the '?' command. The other command useful here: 'online', shows where these pre-allocated unformatted partitions are in terms of the device and drive number. By typing the command 'init .71 /CF1' you specify to initialise the first partition of the drive found in slot 7 and calling that partition 'CF1'. By typing the command 'init .72 /CF2', you do the same for the second partition.

Now, booting off the System 5.04 floppy, the other partitions can be seen. Because I had tried formatting all partitions previously with System 5.0.4 instead of Davex, sure enough, one of the partitions (partition 4) would only format to 21 meg instead of 32 meg, which the CFFA documentation warned would happen if you formatted without Davex.

Once you've correctly formatted the first two partitions with Davex, you can re-initialise any partitions with the wrong size with System 5.0.4 and they will then be 32 meg in capacity, except the last partition I had, which I'm assuming is because 256 divided by 8 equals 32 only in a perfect world, so I'm losing a little space somewhere as part of the formatting required (in the same way a 20 gig iPod will only actually be able to store 18.4 gig when formatted). But that doesn't bother me, because now I've got a solid-state hard drive with 245 megabytes available for the Apple IIGS.


5. Using Cider Press

Now that my partitions have been correctly created on the compact flash, I'm ready to copy across the data that I've set up in 32 meg partitions within 2image disk images on my PowerMac using Bernie ][ the Rescue.

But to do so, I have to go out of my Mac comfort zone and use a PC. Andy McFadyn's Cider Press is a wonderful utility that very quickly copies data to and from ProDOS partitions in Microsoft Windows. Not only is Cider Press free, its source code is now also available. However no one has taken up the challenge of porting it to Mac OS X.

So getting my data to and from my primary Mac to my IIGS, I have to use the extra step of utilising my girlfriend's Dell laptop connected to a USB based compact flash card reader. Not so ideal, because if I want to then transfer data back from my IIGS to my Mac, I have to go through the PC again.

This is a video showing how to copy over the contents of 32meg disk images to 32meg ProDOS partitions that have already been set up on the CF card on the IIGS.

According to Rich on the CFFA forum, Dave Lyons is in the process of creating a utility for Mac OS X that will allow copying of ProDOS partitions to and from a compact flash card on the Mac. Bring it on I say, but at the same time, a Mac OS X port of Cider Press wouldn't go astray either.


6. Enjoying the CFFA Card


Booting into System 6.0.1, with a fairly standard set of extensions (Sound Control panel and a few desk accessories) takes about 45 seconds to cold boot to the desktop. About 10 of those seconds are caused by the slight delay of each partition literally appearing on the desktop. I'm not sure why this is occurring, and unfortunately, this process repeats whenever you quit any program and return to the Finder.

Just testing the loading times of games at random, Milestones 2000 v1.5 opens in 8 seconds. Duel Tris requires 10 seconds to arrive at its main menu. Arkanoid requires 19 seconds to reveal its animated Taito logo.

It would help to have a comparison to truly show the meaning behind these times, but unfortunately my Vulcan drive has since expired. I think I can say however, that these loading times are much faster than my Vulcan ever was.

In chatting with Mike Stephens during one of the Aussie Friday IRC sessions, he felt that the older v1.3 firmware, when used in conjunction with Dave Lyons GS/OS driver, yielded better speeds. While you can downgrade your CFFA card's firmware to v1.3, I'm happy with the convenience that firmware v2.0 offers, in that you don't need to set any jumper settings for the number of partitions you use. Additionally, you can specify which partition to boot from simply holding down the 'M' key upon reset of your IIGS.

Rich Dreher has stated on the forums that Dave Lyons is working on an updated GS/OS driver to accommodate version 2.0 firmware of the CFFA, which may yield further speed improvements.


Speed Isn't Everything

It's really nice to use a real IIGS again with a mass storage device. In the last ten years a lot of my IIGS experience has come from Bernie ][ the Rescue, mainly because of its speed and quick access to the Apple IIGS software library via the use of disk images. Of course, Bernie isn't 100% compatible with every piece of IIGS software but going back to a real IIGS, with the speed limitations of 3.5" floppies and Vulcan hard drives, was never an entirely desirable prospect. The CFFA has changed that for me. While speed is great, convenience is king: being able to store 245meg versus the 40 meg on the Vulcan is a wonderful luxury. Additionally, the other advantage of the CFFA is that there are no moving parts - you're never likely to lose data due to physical defects in the media and it makes no noise whatsoever when the compact flash card is accessed.


Wish List

If ever version a v3.0 firmware was released what I'd like to see most is the CFFA card being used as a virtual 3.5" floppy drive which emulates the IWM. The idea occurred to me when details of the BlueFlash project were revealed - the idea that you can store disk images on the compact flash card, which you would specify to use via some sort of user interface, for example a classic desk accessory, and then boot those images. This intended feature of the BlueFlash card is great for maintaining a way of playing all those 5.25" disk based games for which you simply can't copy to 32 meg ProDOS partitions on a compact flash card. If a future version of the CFFA (or another product) could do the same for 3.5" 2image archives, we can ensure that not only hard drive installable programs work, but programs that only work from floppy disk (of which there are many games, apps and educational programs that refuse to run from anything but a 3.5" disk) can continue to be run long after the physical media or drive mechanisms fail.

Additionally, something I'd like to see in any compact flash card reader for the Apple II is the ability to insert the card through the hole on the back of the computer. At the moment, to insert a compact flash card means I have to unplug the monitor from the IIGS, remove it from its position atop the CPU, open the IIGS case, insert the card, then put everything back together again. Some will see this as nitpicking, but it is a bit of a pain.

Mauro has put together a hack and shared his setup with photos on the CFFA forum. But I'd rather not have to file one of the holes at the back of the IIGS case to make this work.

Alternatively you can get a one channel 40 pin IDE connector cable and have two compact flash cards connected concurrently, or at least just plug the card to the external cable for simpler access. I want to try this for myself at some point, but a lack of time and other projects for this site beckon.


Overall: Speed and Convenience...

...make the CFFA card a real winner. But you still have to take the time to prepare those 32 meg ProDOS partitions to copy over to the compact flash card. This is a time consuming process, but I'm going to eliminate that part for you long suffering readers, by providing the 2images I used to get the CFFA up and running for myself.

This includes the following 32 meg 2images, checked for integrity with the latest version of Prosel 16:

 System 6.0.1 Hard Drive Image (Complete with many shareware and freeware and every system tool and font used by almost every IIGS desktop based program ~13.3meg)

 System 6.0.4 Hard Drive Image (An alternative, same as above, but updated with unofficial System 6.0.4 ~13.5meg)

 All versions of GS/OS & ProDOS 16 Hard Drive Image (Setup with TaifunBoot, you can launch any version of the IIGS operating system from this single volume, now with full ROM 03 compatibility ~13.6meg)


In addition to booting with one of the above system disks, you can quickly start with a wide range of IIGS software by utilising these hard drive images, which include as much hard drive installable software as possible:


 System Add-ons (Customise GS/OS with a huge collection of system extensions ~12.5meg)

 Fonts (Huge collection of bitmaps and a large selection of TrueTypes for use with Pointless ~15.1meg)

 Action Games (A whole 32meg volume dedicated to the action and arcade genre ~17meg)

 Adventure and Simulation Games (All hard drive installable adventure and simulation games ~20.2meg)

 Board Games and RPGs (All hard drive installable Board and Role Playing Games ~15.8meg)

 Sports & Unreleased Games (A volume of Sports and Unreleased games with more shareware, freeware and game demos ~13.9 meg)

 Games with Path Modifications (Specially hacked to enable more games to run from a large ProDOS volume ~8.8 meg)

 Productivity & Visual Creative (both commercial software, shareware and freeware ~14.3meg)

 Utilities & Aural Creative (both commercial & shareware, including many sequenced music files ~15.2meg)

 Hyper Studio (pre-installed and including many, many different stacks ~14.5meg)

 HyperCard IIGS (pre-installed and also includes many example stacks ~13.3meg)

 Reading, Writing and Mathematics (Educational software ~15.1meg)

 Science, Social Studies, Kids Creative, Computer Skills (Educational software ~14.4meg)

 Graphics & Animation (A collection of classic and new graphics slideshows and animation ~18.6meg)

 Hardware Apps (A collection of all drivers and software for use with specific hardware additions ~3.6meg)

 Communication Apps (A collection of comms apps that you can telnet to BBSs on the net with KEGS/GSPort or a WiFi232, or use with an Uthernet I or II ~11.6meg)

 8-bit Games (A collection of oldschool Apple II games you can launch from GS/OS or boot from this 32 meg disk image ~15.7meg)

 8-bit Eduware (A self-booting collation of 8-bit educational software. Note: Beta – many programs don't work. Can You Help? ~13.6meg)

 8-bit Creative (A self-booting collection of 8-bit creative software, Note: Beta – many programs don't work. Can You Help? ~10.1meg)

 8-bit MECC Collection (Self booting hard drive images with over 150 MECC eduware programs ~ 12.6meg)

 Odds & Ends (A collection of all hard drive installable demos and some other miscellaneous wares ~11meg)

Now these 32meg volumes aren't entirely complete when it comes to hard drive installable versions. If you come across a version of a game on these 2images that don't work or aren't included, and you already have a hard drive installable version, feel very free to upload it!

On a real IIGS, you can install these onto pre-formatted 32meg ProDOS partitions on compact flash cards for use with the Micro Drive TurboMicro DriveCFFA1 & 2 or Focus drive controller cards. This requires at least Windows XP (or a virtual environment of Windows if you're on a Mac), the freeware CiderPress utility, and a compact flash card reader connected by USB. With this combination, watch this video on how to transfer these 32 meg disk images to 32 meg ProDOS partitions and vice versa. You don't need to do this with a CFFA3000 – you can simply download each disk image, copy to a CF or USB stick and mount each disk image using the CFFA3K's control panel.



If I've done anything wrong or downright stupid in the way I've setup my CFFA, let me know via the comments available on this blog so we can all benefit from everyone's experience!