Nov 27, 2022
Want to just connect? — Skip straight to the hardware setup and script sections.

WebTV was a service launched in 1996 that brought this amazing new internet craze right into your living room, and it was a pretty compelling device for its time. You could view newsgroups, join IRC chatrooms, send emails, browse the web, and on later models simultaneously watch TV in Picture-in-Picture mode.

When I was in middle school my brother had one, and he’d pay me to write eBay listings on it. I spent countless hours on that thing chatting, designing flashy HTML 3.2 listings, and listening to its vast library of midi background music.

Honestly, even by today’s standards, WebTV puts most smart TVs’ capabilities to shame. Sure it can’t do streaming video or Netflix, but streaming video barely existed as a novelty at this point, and Netflix wouldn’t begin their transition to online distribution for a whole decade yet.

This launch video provides some context of how mind-blowing the WebTV was for the time, and it only got better. Later models could even display program schedules and control your VCR to record shows like a DVR, which you could then watch later while hanging out in a chatroom. From your couch. In the freaking 90s.

WebTV returns

A few weeks ago I saw a Philips MAT976 WebTV at the thrift store but passed it up figuring it was a brick–the service died long ago, after all. Imagine my delight, then, when I found this YouTube video by Michael MJD showing a project well on its way to restoring the experience.

Naturally I rushed back and bought the unit, then set about connecting it.

Philips MAT976 WebTV box
Paid a whole $12.99 to get my childhood back

Suppose you’ve also just bought a WebTV and want to connect it to one of the custom servers currently out there. How might you go about doing that?


Hardware setup

The first thing you’ll likely need to do when setting up an original WebTV unit is clear its settings. You can do this with a “power off code.” Just have your WebTV plugged in but in a powered-off state, then do one of the following:

  • Keyboard: Press option 3 times, then type 32768
  • Remote: Press option 3 times, then HOME, BACK, ↑, ↓, GO

The lights on your box should give you a fun little show for a few seconds, then all tellyscript, dialing options, TV listings, etc. should be cleared giving you a more or less blank slate to work with.

Buying the right modem

To connect to modern servers you’ll need to go over the internet. To do this you’ll need a Linux-compatible USB voice modem connected to an internet-connected Raspberry Pi. The common wisdom around the community is you should be using something with a Conexant RD02-D400 chipset. Common models of these include the Lenovo RD02-D400 and the Dell NW147. Based on my reading Zoom, StarTech, and US Robotics may have also made RD02-D400 USB modems, but I’m having trouble finding model numbers for those.

It’s worth noting that this modem isn’t connecting to a real phone line. Your WebTV won’t actually be dialing out, and you don’t need phone service. Your Pi is going to trick the WebTV into thinking whatever it dialed was real.

Buying the right Raspberry Pi

I don’t even want to admit how many hours I lost to this project figuring a Pi 2 Model B would be fine, because come on. It’s just using a USB modem. How resource-intensive could that be?

Linux top command showing 104% CPU usage

Get a Pi 4 for this. And hook it up with ethernet. You can try your luck with wifi, but for me that also caused extreme unreliability and inexplicably slow connection speeds when it did work.

Phone line simulator 2022

Lastly, you need to power your phone line. Old phone lines had voltage on them, and your devices are expecting that voltage to be there.

You might see USB modems for DreamPi designed with a line voltage inducer built in, but skip those. The WebTV wants that line voltage cranked. An AC to DC adapter that puts out anywhere from 15-25V DC should work.

To build your phone line, you need to cut a pair 1 wire and splice the positive and negative from your DC supply in with it. Pair 1 is the innermost two pins on your telephone connector. Normally this pair is red and green, but color may not help here since there were multiple standards and some manufacturers also didn’t give a crap. Which wire of pair 1 you splice into makes no difference.

Telephone wiring pinout
Borrowed from allpinouts.org

The DC power supply should go inline with your chosen wire such that signal is coming down one wire, through your power supply, and back out to the same wire. Which way you hook positive and negative also makes no difference.

You may be feeling like this is all very slapdash advice. Just splice inline with either wire in either direction? And nothing’s going to get fried? Yes. I went ahead and tested this with straight-throughs, rollovers, and reversed polarity in each, and you get a nice dial tone in any configuration. Pair 1, pick a wire, splice in, don’t overthink it.

Connect one end of your powered phone line to the WebTV. Connect the other end to your modem. Connect your modem to a Raspberry Pi. Connect the Pi to the internet.

WebTV wired up

Software setup

The dialup and routing methods available as of this writing are a little tricky, but everything’s there if you piece it together. There’s MattMan‘s DreamPi For WebTV V2 Raspberry Pi image which is easy enough to flash over to an SD card and start up, but there are newer routing rules that aren’t in it as of this writing. There’s also notdreamnorpi by samicrusader that isolates the essential USB modem connection components of DreamPi, but it doesn’t come with the routing necessary to make a WebTV function once it completes its dialup connection. Lastly there’s an nftables gist by nitrate92 that contains the necessary routing, but the rules may get dropped on every restart without further configuration.

The simplest solution seems to be getting an old version of notdreamnorpi operational on a pi with the nftables rules from nitrate92’s gist added. I’d recommend this over attempting to add the routes to the DreamPi image, as it was built with Raspbian Stretch and doesn’t include the kernel modules necessary to make nftables function.

If you don’t care how any of this works and just want to start surfing, skip to the end of this section for the lazy bash script.

Installing Raspbian

First you’ll need a base Raspbian image, so grab the Raspberry Pi Imager and get an SD card ready. You’ll want to choose Raspberry Pi OS (other) and then Raspberry Pi OS Lite. I tested on 32-bit Raspbian Buster 2022-09-22. This will give you a fresh OS with no desktop environment. There’s zero point in having a desktop environment for this since it’s just going to sit behind a TV and pretend to be a phone line.

With the image written to your SD card, hook in a monitor and keyboard for first-time setup. Get your locale, hostname, network settings, etc. right and remember to enable SSH if needed. Since it will probably be buried in a nest of TV wires, SSH can be a real blessing.

Retrieving notdreamnorpi

Next you’ll want to get a copy of notdreamnorpi and install your dependencies. You’ll want this old version since the current one is hit-or-miss detecting the modem on Raspbian Buster.

Also note: On line 21 in this build of notdreamnorpi, there’s a reference to /sbin/init –version. That won’t work on Raspbian, and will crash notdreamnorpi. Replace /sbin/init with /usr/bin/systemd/systemd.

The dependencies you’ll actually need in this setup vary a bit from what’s in the readme, so do sudo apt install wvdial python3-psutil python3-serial python3-sh python3-systemd.

Adding and preserving nftables rules

For the webtv.nft gist, save webtv.nft wherever you like on your pi and run sudo nft flush ruleset and sudo nft -f webtv.nft to set the rules.

The only problem here is that all the rules may be gone whenever you reboot the Pi. To keep them around we need to persist them somehow. There are a lot of ways to do this, but the cleanest is probably just to run the above commands in a systemd unit file that also starts notdreamnorpi once the network is up.

Running notdreamnorpi on startup

With everything in place, we need to ensure notdreamnorpi provides a dial tone when the Pi starts up. Then we have a set-and-forget solution that can be reset with a power cycle.

Again there are a lot of ways to do this, but we’ll cover the systemd unit file. Nitrate92 was kind enough to share theirs, and it does the job perfectly while also persisting the nftables rules. I’ve lightly edited it here:

[Unit]
Description=dreampi
After=network.target
Wants=network-online.target

[Service]
Type=simple
User=root
ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nft flush ruleset
ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nft -f /home/pi/webtv.nft
ExecStart=/usr/bin/python3 /home/pi/notdreamnorpi/dreampi.py
WorkingDir=/home/pi/notdreamnorpi
Restart=on-failure
RestartSec=5s

[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

Create this file at /etc/systemd/system/dreampi.service.

Ain’t nobody got time for that

I hear you. If you don’t care how any of that works and just want a script that does everything above with the recommended settings, here you go. Just grab a Pi with Raspbian Lite on it, copy this into a .sh file in your home directory, run it, and reboot. Enjoy your dial tone.

#!/bin/bash
# For Raspbian Pi OS 32-bit 2022-09-22.

# prevent root
if [[ $EUID -eq 0 ]]; then
  echo "Script will sudo when it needs to. Just run it as a regular user." 1>&2
  exit 1
fi

echo "Setting up dependencies, notdreamnorpi, WebTV routing rules, and systemd unit file..."
sleep 1

# install dependencies (throw kitchen sink, you likely already have many of these)
sudo apt install -y git ppp net-tools nftables wvdial python3-psutil python3-serial python3-sh python3-systemd

# clone notdreamnorpi - archived version, works well in systemd unit file
wget https://github.com/samicrusader/notdreamnorpi/archive/da8225eb716fa3af9fb3e7d02431033605935f68.zip
unzip da8225eb716fa3af9fb3e7d02431033605935f68.zip
mv notdreamnorpi-da8225eb716fa3af9fb3e7d02431033605935f68 notdreamnorpi
sed -i -e 's/\/sbin\/init/\/usr\/bin\/systemd\/systemd/' notdreamnorpi/dreampi.py # /sbin/init --version doesn't work on raspbian, crashes notdreamnorpi

# download webtv.nft
wget -O webtv.nft https://gist.githubusercontent.com/nitrate92/6f67518c79b769c02e9a12beb0bb87eb/raw/33b33a4a1fffcb86a30f0ef33368228a458032c1/webtv.nft
sudo nft flush ruleset
sudo nft -f webtv.nft

# set up the systemd unit file
unitfile="[Unit]
Description=dreampi
After=network.target
Wants=network-online.target
[Service]
Type=simple
User=root
ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nft flush ruleset
ExecStartPre=/usr/sbin/nft -f /home/$(whoami)/webtv.nft
ExecStart=/usr/bin/python3 /home/$(whoami)/notdreamnorpi/dreampi.py
WorkingDir=/home/$(whoami)/notdreamnorpi
Restart=on-failure
RestartSec=5s
[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target"
echo "$unitfile" > dreampi.service
sudo mv dreampi.service /etc/systemd/system/
sudo systemctl daemon-reload
sudo systemctl enable dreampi
sudo systemctl start dreampi.service

echo ""
echo "All done. Configured to route to Zefie's minisrv. Recommend rebooting before using."
echo "To change servers any time, edit ServerIP in /home/$(whoami)/webtv.nft then reboot."

If you need to debug this, you can view live logs from the service with journalctl -f -u dreampi. Mine still fails to connect sometimes, but I find it’s usually the WebTV needing a power off code instead of a problem with the Pi.

Now you’re on the World Wide Web

Available servers

While JarHead‘s server from Michael MJD’s video isn’t yet public, there are a couple of other public servers up and running. You can find Zefie’s minisrv by setting the server address to 51.222.164.146 (default in above script), or the HackTV minisrv at 74.76.120.18. These don’t try to offer the original experience, but they will let your original hardware browse the web again just like it used to, and each has its own fun surprises in its custom menus.

Space Jam website on WebTV
Everybody get up, it’s time to slam now

You can also make your own server and do whatever you like with it if that’s more to your taste. Zefie has a great minisrv repo to start with.

Lastly, if you’d like to chat with the WebTV modding community, there’s a Discord server at https://discord.gg/qke279EUa8.

Oct 9, 2022

I’m the type of person who gets excited about rare old tech, so you can imagine my delight when I found a $15 travel bag at the thrift store claiming to contain a laptop printer. Inside was a Seikosha LT-20, a dot matrix model I had never heard of before–and if search is anything to go by, I’m not alone in my ignorance.

Seikosha LT-20

Obligatory Japanese Lesson

First things first, if you immediately thought “That sounds a lot like Seiko, the Japanese watchmaker,” you’re right, it is. My immediate instinct was to assume Seiko used to include “sha” 社 (company) on the end of their name, such that Seikosha effectively meant “Seiko Co.” That’s apparently not the case, though.

According to A Journey In Time: The Remarkable Story of Seiko (2003), the kanji for Seikosha is actually 精工舎, which is a play on “seikou” 精巧 (elaborate; delicate; exquisite–also a homophone for 成功, success) with the second kanji swapped for another “kou” 工 (construction, workmanship) and followed by “sha” 舎 (hut, house). As such, Seikosha means “House of Exquisite Workmanship.” And I must agree, it is a truly exquisite piece of tech!

Lost to Time

The Seikosha LT-20 debuted in 1991 for laptop users who also wanted a printer portable enough to take on business trips. Considering the demographic, you can imagine the market was limited compared to other printers of its time–so limited that I really struggled to find any information about it.

Complete with fancy travel bag!

I found pricing in a short review in issue 1 of a Bosnian magazine called Micro Computer World. The LT-20 cost $499 on release, or $549 with an optional Ni-Cd battery included. Adding a battery charger cost $46.99, and a spare battery cost $77.99. A Seikosha protective bag (which I’m delighted mine came with) cost $74.99. The only other reference I could find to anything ever being published about the LT-20 is a review in PC/Computing Volume 4, Issue 5 (May 1991), but I’ve been unable to locate a digitized copy of this issue. I may need to retrieve that from a library’s archives.

I was also unable to locate a digitized version of the original owner’s and reference manuals, but luckily this printer came with paper copies! I’ve (poorly) digitized them here for posterity. If you have equipment to properly digitize these, please reach out and I’ll happily send them your way.

Seikosha LT-20 Owner's Manual
PDF, 12.4MB
Seikosha LT-20 Reference Manual
PDF, 14.9MB

Seikosha Drivers

You might imagine the driver situation on a piece of hardware like this is hopeless, but it was astoundingly easy to get running. According to page 34 in the owner’s manual it just uses the IBM Proprinter X24 driver. That’s conveniently on Disk 6 of a Windows 3.11 for Workgroups install. After adding an IBM Proprinter X24 to my system the LT-20 lit right up and started printing.

Replacing the Ribbon

Predictably after 31 years the ribbon was almost bone dry, but it still made recognizable prints. Unlike the drivers, though, finding a ribbon for an LT-20 is basically impossible.

The old, dry ribbon as stored in the cartridge

I reached out to Lanie Hurwitz from Ribbons Unlimited to see what my options would be, and he was extremely helpful in finding a generic ribbon I could at least use to remanufacture the existing ribbon cartridge. While Ribbons Unlimited didn’t have any continuous ribbons in the 5/16″ width the LT-20 uses, they did have rolls of 5/16″ black in the correct material. All I needed to do was bond it into a continuous loop and load it into the housing.

Fresh ribbon loaded

Bonding ink-soaked nylon to itself is a bit of a tall order, but is doable! I tried a number of options like melting it with a laser at low power, pressing it with a chisel-tip soldering iron, and even looking around for household chemicals I could repurpose to melt the nylon to itself. I may have stolen my girlfriend’s lip balm to see how much phenol was in it, and may have been trying to concentrate acetic acid in the garage from some vinegar… Ultimately I ended up going with a very boring solution: Elmer’s Craft Bond glue and extensive use of a heat gun. It’s not the best way to bond nylon (there are actual products for this, I’m just cheap and impatient), but it does create a flexible, strong-enough bond for this purpose.

Print comparison

Return of the Seikosha LT-20

With the drivers in order and a brand new ribbon threaded into the cartridge, the Seikosha LT-20 is now printing beautifully again after 31 years! It’s really rewarding to have your ear drums once again burst by that piercing dot matrix screech. Amazingly, the rollers in this unit still work great and pick up the paper every time.

Jul 3, 2022

Looking for the code? — Skip straight to the GitHub repo. Our modern, technological world is full of distractions. For this reason, when I really want to engage with a book but still take notes, I like to use a very old computer. It still needs to save to my NAS, have good word processing […]

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Feb 8, 2022

I’m in the process of replacing my voice assistants with a more private, home-based solution that keeps everything inside the local network. I had originally decided on using Rhasspy in a server/satellite configuration to collect voice commands, and Home Assistant to manage turning things on and off. I changed to openHAB after trying and failing […]

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