FlickerFree 1.0

FlickerFree was a DOS utility created by Steve Gibson in 1986 that improved common IBM PC display operations. It was reviewed by Peter Norton in the July 1986 Issue of PC Magazine, who described it as “the most fascinating software I’ve seen for some time.” He goes on to say:

FlickerFree is a memory-resident program that solves several problems that muck up display screens: snow, flicker, and lack of speed. The original IBM Color/Graphics Adapter was cursed with an ugly “snow” effect whenever programs wrote directly to the display memory (unless the programs used time-consuming desnowing operations). Fortunately, newer display adapters, such as Compaq’s nifty built-in adapter, don’t suffer from snow, but they do sometimes suffer from an even greater pain-in-the-eye: screen flickers when information is scrolled. And all the screens, even with the IBM monochrome adapter, often function much more slowly than they should.

The demo machine below is configured as an IBM PC (Model 5150) with a CGA and 256Kb of RAM. It will automatically load FlickerFree (FF.COM) and then run the companion FlickerFree Performance Analyzer (FPA.COM).

[PCx86 Machine]

Directory of FlickerFree 1.0

 Volume in drive B is FlickerFree
 Directory of B:\

FF       COM     22330 04-01-86  12:00a
FPA      COM      5438 04-01-86  12:00a
FFIX     COM      3590 04-01-86  12:00a
FF_HIST          14610 04-01-86  12:00a
README             859 04-01-86  12:00a
        5 file(s)      46827 bytes
                           0 bytes free

A Brief History of FlickerFree

From the file FF_HIST:

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                        A brief history of FlickerFree

                                    - or -

               A look at the Technology behind "FlickerFreedom".

                                    - or -

                  Software efficiency is MUCH more important
                           than raw hardware power!!

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                                THANKS TO IBM!
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              Before I begin,  I'd like to take a moment to  give 
              my  sincere,  public  thanks  and  appreciation  to 
              International Business Machines,  Inc. (aka IBM) as 
              the  company which created the IBM PC ...  and  the 
              tidal-wave phenomenon of that product's success.

              FlickerFree,  would  not  exist if the  marketplace 
              created by IBM was any less vital and wonderful.

              FlickerFree has the benefit of being designed  many 
              years  AFTER the architecture of the PC was cast in 
              marketing-hardened  concrete  ...  so  I  have  the 
              advantage of hindsight which IBM never enjoyed.

              If here,  or elsewhere,  I ever appear to be harsh, 
              acerbic, or "Holier-than-IBM", please remember that 
              I  NEVER STOP BEING GRATEFUL for the  opportunities 
              created by IBM's success with this machine.
            -------------------------------------------------------



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                             Phase ONE - discovery
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            It began rather innocently.

            Like everyone else, I kept reading about all the things 
            which  could be purchased to speed up my "old  clunker" 
            4.77  Mhz 8088 PC.  Each passing "enhancement"  article 
            reminded  me  that OTHER PEOPLE were  computing  FASTER 
            than I.....  Hmmmm.....

            From  among  all the TURBO  Add-In  Cards,  V20  chips, 
            faster  clock  crystals,  new motherboards,  weird  do-
            hickies,  and the like,  one product caught my eye: The 
            286-EXPRESS CARD from PC Technologies.   This excellent 
            card  is  the  same  one also  being  sold  by  Victor, 
            Mountain Computer,  as well as several other well-known 
            companies.

            So one of these beauties found its way into the  unused 
            slot-8 of my trusty  (rusty)  old XT.


                   WHIZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzz . . .. ... (hic!)


            Sure enough, the RAW PROCESSING POWER of my system shot 
            up SIGNIFICANTLY, just as I'd hoped, but to my surprise 
            and consternation, the SCREEN didn't receive NEARLY the 
            same speed boost as raw number-crunching.

            My  prior  hardware  products:   The LPS II  Light  Pen 
            System  for  Apple  II computers  followed  by  Koala's 
            GIBSON Light Pen System,  demonstrate that I'm a  *BIG* 
            *FAN*   of  Display  Screens.    Screens  are  *REALLY* 
            important.   They're our only WINDOWS into what's going 
            ON in there!!    And SCREEN SPEED MATTERS . . . A LOT!!

            I'm  also sure that computers should be FAST!   I  mean 
            our EXPERIENCE of them should feel  light,  responsive, 
            and snappy under our fingers.

            A slow screen makes EVERYTHING feel slow ... and dull.


                    Something was wrong in IBM screenland.


            Out came my trusty IBM PC Technical Reference manual -- 
            I  hoped  to  understand where all of  my  new  80286's 
            power-juice was going.   After all, the finest hardware 
            in  the  world is POWERLESS to perform in the  face  of 
            inefficient SOFTWARE. . . .


                                       |
                                   \       /

                                 >   GULP!   <

                                   /       \
                                       |


            I couldn't BELIEVE what I found. Did I say inefficient?  

                       Horrifying would be more accurate. . .


            The  original authors of IBM's ROM BIOS could not  have 
            known  just  what a phenomenon the IBM PC would  become 
            ...  so  I suppose that no one spent much  (or  perhaps 
            any)  time worrying about the efficiency of the  lower-
            level  ROM  BIOS routines...  after  all,  they  WORKED 
            didn't they???

                                  Yeah, sure.


            It's  just  that no one ever knew HOW MUCH  BETTER  the 
            BIOS might have been or could be. The deeper and closer 
            I looked, the more room for "improvement" I found.

            Though  I still didn't know it then,  the product which 
            would become FlickerFree ... was well on its way!



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                    Phase TWO - a closer look at the issues
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            The Performance Issue:

            The original IBM Color Graphics Display Adapter has  an 
            intrinsic  hardware limitation which places a FIXED LOW 
            RATE on display update speed.   However,  the CRIME  is 
            that  the BIOS ROM,  which was written with these Color 
            Adapter  limitations  in mind,  treats  the  Color  and 
            Monochrome  Display  Adapters  identically,  needlessly 
            reducing  the speed of the Monochrome Display output to 
            the slow speed of the Color Display!!

            What's more,  many of the newer color display  adapters 
            do  not suffer under the "screen static" limitations of 
            the original CGA,  but they are STILL RUNNING UNDER THE 
            SAME (OLD) BIOS .....  and are therefore not  permitted 
            to function as fast as their better designs allow!!

            Finally, this FIXED LOW DISPLAY RATE is NOT TIED to the 
            speed and power of your computer's CPU chip ...  but is 
            set  by  the  FIXED RASTER SCAN RATE of  the  display's 
            sweeping beam.  The BIOS only permits a single byte  or 
            word  to be written to the display for each  horizontal 
            scan retrace.

            Therefore,  the addition of more PROCESSING POWER (like 
            my  addition  of  the PC Technologies 80286)  does  not 
            deliver a proportionate increase in screen performance.  
            Your FASTER MACHINE simply spends a greater  percentage 
            of its time WAITING for the ROM BIOS to permit a single 
            character  to be written to the display...  then  waits 
            again for the next one....



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            The FLICKER issue:
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            Scrolling  the  screen  image UP by one  line  normally 
            requires the rapid movement of all 4000 bytes of screen 
            character  data.   Essentially,  EACH CHARACTER on  the 
            screen is advanced FORWARD by exactly eighty locations.

            As  we've  just  seen,  the  Color  Adapter's  hardware 
            limitation prevents this mass data movement from  being 
            performed quickly, so the IBM ROM BIOS simply TURNS THE 
            SCREEN  OFF  (to black) while the data is  all  quickly 
            moved up one line. (What you can't see can't hurt you?)

            Since  I  found the Flickering effect to  be  extremely 
            annoying, and was sure you would too, I decided that it 
            would just have to go.   So I invented a completely new 
            technique  for  scrolling the screen's data  ...  which 
            results in a effectively INSTANTANEOUS VERTICAL SCROLL.

            (If you've seen the INFO page, you've already seen that 
            super-smooth HORIZONTAL SCROLLING can now be done too.)



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            The Color Issue:
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            I'm sure I'll NEVER understand how a computer could  be 
            sold  with  a Color Graphics Adapter and Color  Monitor 
            ...  but without any simple,  semi-permanent means  for 
            choosing  and  setting  the  display's  default  screen 
            colors.    That's just unbelievable to me.

            You've  already  seen how much nicer ANY  COLORS  OTHER 
            than  the PC's default "DimWhite-on-Black" appears  ... 
            and you may have already used the on-screen menu to set 
            up your own preferred screen colors.    So enough said.



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            The Inefficient Code Issue:
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            I  don't  want to be critical of anyone else's  work  - 
            especially behind their back,  so I'll keep this short, 
            polite, and a bit white washed:

            The video portion (at least) of the standard IBM PC ROM 
            BIOS was not skillfully written.  I don't need to stand 
            here  in judgment,  since FlickerFree is the result  of 
            what  I consider skillful writing (he said modestly)... 
            and you have seen the difference for yourself.



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                   Phase THREE - implementation of a product
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            So I began dabbling here and there,  counting each  and 
            every  single  "thought" cycle of the PC's 8088  micro-
            processor.   Even  though each "tick" of its  clockwork 
            brain would make a difference of only 210 Billionths of 
            a second, I knew how quickly they tend to all add up.

            (Having waited for your display screen, you know too!)

            Every  part of this project HAD to be  hand-written  in 
            100%  machine language.  Fortunately (and happily)  I'm 
            one  of  that  dying breed who eats and  breathes  (and 
            loves)  machine language.  I've never been  comfortable 
            tolerating  the inevitable performance loss  of  higher 
            level  languages.  I  prefer  the  experience  of  that 
            special hand-crafted feeling ... the power, and control 
            which comes with machine language.


                             I was gaining ground.


            With the new FlickerFree technologies up,  working, and 
            tightly  hand-coded for maximum speed and power,  I had 
            two  major  aspects  remaining:    User  Interface  and 
            Software Compatibility.

            I  decided to go all out on the user  interface.   I've 
            always felt that little things make big differences.

            Like the diagonal on-screen wipe.

            I  didn't  just  want *MY* menus to  explode  onto  the 
            screen like so many other products.  I wanted something 
            smoother.    After  hand-coding  about  ten   "special-
            effects" I settled upon the diagonal wipe.

            But it wasn't right yet.

            The EASY WAY for the menu to operate would have been to 
            let  it "wipe-on" first,  WITHOUT the inverse highlight 
            bars ...  and add them AFTERWARD.  That would have been 
            easy.   I tried it,  and knew it was wrong.   The  wipe 
            phase  was so smooth and "proper" that  the  subsequent 
            sudden appearance of the inverse highlights carried the 
            impression of an afterthought.   So,  I did it the hard 
            way.   The  menu is completely built (WITH the  inverse 
            highlight bars) "off stage",  and only then wiped  onto 
            the screen, complete.

            I wouldn't ship it any other way.

            What about the horizontal smooth-scroll??  Well I guess 
            I  was  just showing off ...  but I never get tired  of 
            seeing it slide by!



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            Software Compatibility
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            Boy... there is a nightmare! But I don't suppose I have 
            to  tell  you about the mish-mash of  today's  software 
            compatibility  problems.   It's  all so  technical  and 
            uninteresting  that  I won't waste your  time  further, 
            except to say that fully one third of my time (and two-
            thirds  of  my anxiety!) was devoted to developing  the 
            resident  technology behind  FlickerFree.   Again,  I'm 
            proud of the result and know that it speaks for itself.


            *******************************************************
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            So, What's next???

            Well, I'm at work on product number two (code name: P-2)

            As a paid,  registered, owner of FlickerFree, you'll be 
            receiving  early  notification of  P-2's  availability.  
            I'm as excited about it as I was about FlickerFree  ... 
            and I know you will be too!!

            In the mean time,  enjoy being FlickerFreed, and thanks 
            again for you support and your purchase!

                                                    Steve Gibson
                                                    April, 1986
                                                    Irvine, CA, USA

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