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The Zen Timer Is a Means, Not an End

We’re going to spend the rest of this chapter seeing what the Zen timer can do, examining how it works, and learning how to use it. I’ll be using the Zen timer again and again over the course of this book, so it’s essential that you learn what the Zen timer can do and how to use it. On the other hand, it is by no means essential that you understand exactly how the Zen timer works. (Interesting, yes; essential, no.)

In other words, the Zen timer isn’t really part of the knowledge we seek; rather, it’s one tool with which we’ll acquire that knowledge. Consequently, you shouldn’t worry if you don’t fully grasp the inner workings of the Zen timer. Instead, focus on learning how to use it, and you’ll be on the right road.

Starting the Zen Timer

ZTimerOn is called at the start of a segment of code to be timed. ZTimerOn saves the context of the calling code, disables interrupts, sets timer 0 of the 8253 to mode 2 (divide-by-N mode), sets the initial timer count to 0, restores the context of the calling code, and returns. (I’d like to note that while Intel’s documentation for the 8253 seems to indicate that a timer won’t reset to 0 until it finishes counting down, in actual practice, timers seem to reset to 0 as soon as they’re loaded.)

Two aspects of ZTimerOn are worth discussing further. One point of interest is that ZTimerOn disables interrupts. (ZTimerOff later restores interrupts to the state they were in when ZTimerOn was called.) Were interrupts not disabled by ZTimerOn, keyboard, mouse, timer, and other interrupts could occur during the timing interval, and the time required to service those interrupts would incorrectly and erratically appear to be part of the execution time of the code being measured. As a result, code timed with the Zen timer should not expect any hardware interrupts to occur during the interval between any call to ZTimerOn and the corresponding call to ZTimerOff, and should not enable interrupts during that time.

Time and the PC

A second interesting point about ZTimerOn is that it may introduce some small inaccuracy into the system clock time whenever it is called. To understand why this is so, we need to examine the way in which both the 8253 and the PC’s system clock (which keeps the current time) work.

The 8253 actually contains three timers, as shown in Figure 3.1. All three timers are driven by the system board’s 14.31818 MHz crystal, divided by 12 to yield a 1.19318 MHz clock to the timers, so the timers count once every 838.1 ns. Each of the three timers counts down in a programmable way, generating a signal on its output pin when it counts down to 0. Each timer is capable of being halted at any time via a 0 level on its gate input; when a timer’s gate input is 1, that timer counts constantly. All in all, the 8253’s timers are inherently very flexible timing devices; unfortunately, much of that flexibility depends on how the timers are connected to external circuitry, and in the PC the timers are connected with specific purposes in mind.

Timer 2 drives the speaker, although it can be used for other timing purposes when the speaker is not in use. As shown in Figure 3.1, timer 2 is the only timer with a programmable gate input in the PC; that is, timer 2 is the only timer that can be started and stopped under program control in the manner specified by Intel. On the other hand, the output of timer 2 is connected to nothing other than the speaker. In particular, timer 2 cannot generate an interrupt to get the 8088’s attention.

Timer 1 is dedicated to providing dynamic RAM refresh, and should not be tampered with lest system crashes result.


Figure 3.1
  The configuration of the 8253 timer chip in the PC.

Finally, timer 0 is used to drive the system clock. As programmed by the BIOS at power-up, every 65,536 (64K) counts, or 54.925 milliseconds, timer 0 generates a rising edge on its output line. (A millisecond is one-thousandth of a second, and is abbreviated ms.) This line is connected to the hardware interrupt 0 (IRQ0) line on the system board, so every 54.925 ms, timer 0 causes hardware interrupt 0 to occur.

The interrupt vector for IRQ0 is set by the BIOS at power-up time to point to a BIOS routine, TIMER_INT, that maintains a time-of-day count. TIMER_INT keeps a 16-bit count of IRQ0 interrupts in the BIOS data area at address 0000:046C (all addresses in this book are given in segment:offset hexadecimal pairs); this count turns over once an hour (less a few microseconds), and when it does, TIMER_INT updates a 16-bit hour count at address 0000:046E in the BIOS data area. This count is the basis for the current time and date that DOS supports via functions 2AH (2A hexadecimal) through 2DH and by way of the DATE and TIME commands.

Each timer channel of the 8253 can operate in any of six modes. Timer 0 normally operates in mode 3: square wave mode. In square wave mode, the initial count is counted down two at a time; when the count reaches zero, the output state is changed. The initial count is again counted down two at a time, and the output state is toggled back when the count reaches zero. The result is a square wave that changes state more slowly than the input clock by a factor of the initial count. In its normal mode of operation, timer 0 generates an output pulse that is low for about 27.5 ms and high for about 27.5 ms; this pulse is sent to the 8259 interrupt controller, and its rising edge generates a timer interrupt once every 54.925 ms.

Square wave mode is not very useful for precision timing because it counts down by two twice per timer interrupt, thereby rendering exact timings impossible. Fortunately, the 8253 offers another timer mode, mode 2 (divide-by-N mode), which is both a good substitute for square wave mode and a perfect mode for precision timing.

Divide-by-N mode counts down by one from the initial count. When the count reaches zero, the timer turns over and starts counting down again without stopping, and a pulse is generated for a single clock period. While the pulse is not held for nearly as long as in square wave mode, it doesn’t matter, since the 8259 interrupt controller is configured in the PC to be edgeand hence cares only about the existence of a pulse from timer 0, not the duration of the pulse. As a result, timer 0 continues to generate timer interrupts in divide-by-N mode, and the system clock continues to maintain good time.

Why not use timer 2 instead of timer 0 for precision timing? After all, timer 2 has a programmable gate input and isn’t used for anything but sound generation. The problem with timer 2 is that its output can’t generate an interrupt; in fact, timer 2 can’t do anything but drive the speaker. We need the interrupt generated by the output of timer 0 to tell us when the count has overflowed, and we will see shortly that the timer interrupt also makes it possible to time much longer periods than the Zen timer shown in Listing 3.1 supports.


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Graphics Programming Black Book © 2001 Michael Abrash