Last night was the 17th meeting of the Sea-CCC (Seattle Commodore Computer Club). This isn’t a recap of the entire event; it’s about the incredible ongoing saga of a machine I brought with me: a CDTV “entertainment console” made back in 1991.
In the spring of 2018 I won a CDTV on Ebay at a very reasonable price below $300. It was sold as “good condition, untested” which is always a tiresome red flag. But the price was so excellent I gambled anyway.
It came with the wireless remote, external floppy drive and gorgeous black keyboard. All in all, it was an incredible package that came in two shipments. I found out after receiving everything that it also had a Genlock and a SCSI expansion upgrade as well, which I didn’t know it had when I bought it (plus the stock midi ports, which is super cool).
For those that are unfamiliar, the CDTV was internally an Amiga 500 with 1MB RAM, custom Kickstarts and a CD-ROM drive with a built-in audio CD GUI designed by Jim Sachs. Externally it looks a lot like a sleek black CD or DVD player.
When I got it all together, my first and primary goal was to play music CDs. I know - overkill - but the CDTV allowed me to have a gorgeous and “practical” computer in the living room with the Commodore logo on it! You laugh, but I really thought that would be cool (and I have no passion for the CD32, personally). The CDTV is so cool looking, it blends right in with the rest of my stereo equipment like a sexy chameleon.
The fact that I still have stereo equipment in 2019 made one of my friends, Matt, laugh as I explained my reasoning for getting the machine. “You do?” he asked. “I got rid of that stuff as soon as I could and went digital all the way.” Not an uncommon attitude.
I have a gorgeous silver-face “natural sound” Yamaha amp, a late 1970s fully restored Denon record player with phono pre-amp, and a respectable vinyl collection I still add to even today as the packaging and vinyl options continue to impress. Have you seen (and heard) the new Stranger Things records? Holy crap. I also have an Apple Airport Express in the mix so I can hit the stereo with my iPhone if I want to. And everything gets pumped through some outstanding KEF speakers.
Along the way I also found an incredible, never used NOS black wired mouse. And I located pretty easily a matching black CD caddy. What’s that? Well gather around, kiddies. Back in the early days, we used CD Caddies, which sort of look like a hybrid CD jewel case that you use similar to a floppy disk. You gently open the top of the caddy’s lid to drop in your CD, then push the caddy into your CDTV much like a giant floppy disk going into a drive. Then the deck would spin your CD and you were on your way.
So, the CDTV acquisition was my sneaky way of getting the Commodore logo into my audio stack in the living room. I had no real plans to use it as a computer as I have enough Amigas to perform that function in my little C= computer room which is sort of overflowing as it is. Plus, I never got (or intend to get) the black monitor, so headless is how it shall likely always be (although a small little LCD would be nice to view and access the GUI controls).
When I first got the machine and eventually the CD caddy a few weeks later as it didn’t come with one, I dragged my 1084S upstairs and hooked everything up. I quickly became baffled by the wireless remote, but did access the system setup screen where I set the time, language, and other boring tidbits.
I next grabbed an audio CD and pushed the caddy into the deck. Nothing happened. I started to get that sinking feeling in my stomach we all get from time to time in the vintage computing hobby. I pressed the CD play button on the deck. Still nothing. No spinning sounds, no jamming clicks. Just silence.
It was at that point I went to YouTube and watched the hour long painful Welcome video that came with the CDTV (ironically sometimes on VHS tape) back in the day.
I went through the same steps the male and female narrators explained and still nothing. I could see the CDTV’s built-in CD controls on my monitor, and the buttons and lights on the machine all lit up, too. But nothing would make the CD - neither game nor audio - spin up.
Dejected, I popped a Workbench floppy into the external drive. And even that wouldn’t boot! In fact, it would flash the screen a few times as one would expect on a boot-up but would just hang there.
Under normal circumstance I would have taken off the top case and poked around to look for anything obvious. But the CDTV was completely foreign to me. I wondered if maybe something had jarred loose during shipping, or if these things used battery-driven RTCs, or something else. I really had no idea.
At the time I was so depressed and disgusted about the whole thing I just walked away. I had so many other cool projects in my C= room I didn’t want to fall down into a nightmare time-waster with a machine I had no clue about. I kept the CDTV plugged in so I could see the time and essentially used it as a gigantic clock with a tiny baby blue LED. It was the world's largest and heaviest LED clock, but it did still have a Commodore logo. In my living room. Yay, I still won.
Fast forward to last night at the Sea-CCC.
There are many members in the club far more knowledgeable and capable when it comes to all things hardware than I will ever be. Granted none of them had ever seen a CDTV in person. But I figured I could open it up around the hardware gods and get their impressions and ideas to see if it was salvageable.
First, we used a different external floppy drive and the CDTV fired up Workbench 1.3 as happy as a clam for the first time in, presumably, over 20 years. That was a major win for me to see the CDTV do anything successful.
Next, Christian and I with the help of a new-member, Alex, began the tedious process of unscrewing a billion tiny screws. It soon became quite obvious to all that the CDTV was not meant to be serviced at home.
Interestingly, when the case cover is removed the motherboard is positioned at the top of the case, not the bottom - that’s where the CD player resides. After taking several pictures so we could remind ourselves which wires plugged in where, we managed to get the motherboard out of the case. It was not an obvious or easy process to do so.
Incredibly, the CD player was underneath yet another solid steel bracket that had to be removed. It was at each stage of dismantling this beast where I became more and more accepting of the fact that this machine might never be used again. At this point it was more of a morbid curiosity on my part while dissecting the corpse.
Christian finally lifted the bizarre, proprietary CD drive out of the CDTV’s belly and we all huddled around to look at it more closely. It reminded me of the massive tank-line floppy drive in the Amiga 1000: it was just enormous and weird.
He started to move it this way and that in his hands when we all heard something clunk loosely inside. We all looked at each other and I said, “What was that?” Christian started to jiggle it and suddenly something fell out onto the floor.
A copper penny!
We all started shouting in triumph as the realization washed over us: a million years ago some small child had pushed a penny into the CD door and dropped it inside, thus likely locking up the drive! I picked the penny up off the floor and shouted, stupidly, “And it’s a fucking Canadian penny!” Everyone laughed for no good reason, but mostly out of exasperated joy and relief.
Meanwhile, another club member had brought an impressive G4 tower to play a bit of Duke Nukem. While sitting around the Mac, someone had the brilliant idea to hook one of its spare 12-volt molex power connectors to the CD-ROM’s power with a CD in the drive. Christian did so and the drive began to instantly spin like a top!
Another loud cheer filled the room.
For the next 40 minutes we reassembled the CDTV.
But when we powered up the machine this time, the CD spun about an eighth of a turn and stopped. Each time we cycled power it was the same thing: about 1/8th of a spin and then it would just stop.
The current theory is the PSU needs attention next. It’s able to pump out the 5 volts needed to start the machine and the Amiga computer inside it, but not the 12 volts the CD player needs to run. So, in the future we’ll take it apart again (but only the top case) and take a look inside the PSU, which may need a re-cap.
At the end of the night I felt far better about the future prospects of my machine actually working and becoming a part of the stereo rack. Even my friend Matt expressed similar thoughts, encouraged to see the machine was potentially fixable. Lord knows if the CD drive motor had been bad I’d pretty much be out of luck. Unless someone else knows differently, this does not look like it would have a drop-in aftermarket replacement.
So here’s to hoping the PSU brings her back to life and playing CDs again. That would be an amazing Christmas present indeed.