Making A Cassette Mass Storage Interface

If you are of the generation who were lucky enough to use the first 8-bit home computers in your youth, you will be familiar with their use of cassette tapes as mass storage. Serial data would be converted to a sequence of tones which could then be recorded using a standard domestic cassette recorder, this recording could then be played back into the machine’s decoder and loaded into memory as a complete piece of software. Larger programs could take a while to load, but though it was rather clunky it was a masterful piece of making the best of what was at hand.

[Mike Kohn] was working with some microcontroller infra-red communication projects when he saw that the same techniques could be used to produce a tape interface like those on the home computers of old.

Over the years he has returned to the project a couple of times, and his original Atmel processor has been supplanted by a W65C265SXB development board based on the 16-bit derivative of the 6502. This made generating the tones as straightforward using his processor’s built-in tone generator, but decoding still presented a challenge. His earlier attempts used an LM2917 frequency to voltage converter to decode tones to logic levels, but on further consideration he decided to move to the LM567 tone decoder. This chip is designed specifically for an on-off logic output rather than the 2917’s analogue voltage output.

His recording device was originally a hi-fi separate cassette deck after experimenting with microcassettes, but eventually he used a data recorder designed for a Radio Shack TRS-80. All his code can be found in his GitHub repository.

It’s probably true to say that [Mike] has made a better cassette interface than the one you could have found on your home computer back in the day. We’ve featured a few data cassette hacks over the years, including this Commodore tape deck with an LED counter, and a tape deck emulator capable of holding an entire software archive.

Hook Any Mouse to an Acorn

Acorn was one of the great IT giants that rose high and then fell to obscurity during the rise of personal computing. However, for many hobbyists these computers are as important and as loved as the Commodore 64. [Simon Inns] has made a great adapter to interface modern USB mice to these old boxes. 

After thirty years of interaction with people, one might be hard pressed to find a working mouse for an older computer. On top of that, even if you did, these mice are likely a lackluster experience to begin with. They were made long before industrial designers were invited to play with computers and are often frustrating and weird. Cotton swabs and alcohol are involved, to say the least.

[Simon]’s box converts a regular USB HID compliant mouse to a quadrature signal that these 8-bit computers like. The computer then counts the fake pulses and happily moves the cursor around. No stranger to useful conversion boxes, he used an Atmel micro (AT90USB1287) with a good set of USB peripherals. It’s all nicely packed into a project box. There’s a switch on the front to select between emulation modes.

If you’d like one for yourself the code and schematics are available on his site. As you can see in the video below, the device works well!

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Make Any PC A Thousand Dollar Gaming Rig With Cloud Gaming

The best gaming platform is a cloud server with a $4,000 dollar graphics card you can rent when you need it.

[Larry] has  done this sort of thing before with Amazon’s EC2, but recently Microsoft has been offering a beta access to some of NVIDIA’s Tesla M60 graphics cards. As long as you have a fairly beefy connection that can support 30 Mbps of streaming data, you can play just about any imaginable game at 60fps on the ultimate settings.

It takes a bit of configuration magic and quite a few different utilities to get it all going, but in the end [Larry] is able to play Overwatch on max settings at a nice 60fps for $1.56 an hour. Considering that just buying the graphics card alone will set you back 2500 hours of play time, for the casual gamer, this is a great deal.

It’s interesting to see computers start to become a rentable resource. People have been attempting streaming computers for a while now, but this one is seriously impressive. With such a powerful graphics card you could use this for anything intensive, need a super high-powered video editing station for a day or two? A CAD station to make anyone jealous? Just pay a few dollars of cloud time and get to it!

Custom Keyboard Makes the Case for Concrete

One of the worst things about your average modern keyboards is that they have a tendency to slide around on the desk. And why wouldn’t they? They’re just membrane keyboards encased in cheap, thin plastic. Good for portability, bad for actually typing once you get wherever you’re going.

When [ipee9932cd] last built a keyboard, finding the right case was crucial. And it never happened. [ipee9932cd] did what any of us would do and made a custom case out of the heaviest, most widely available casting material: concrete.

To start, [ipee9932cd] made a form out of melamine and poured 12 pounds of concrete over a foam rectangle that represents the keyboard. The edges of the form were caulked so that the case edges would come out round. Here’s the super clever part: adding a couple of LEGO blocks to make space for the USB cable and reset switch. After the concrete cured, it was sanded up to 20,000 grit and sealed to keep out sweat and Mountain Dew Code Red. We can’t imagine that it’s very comfortable to use, but it does look to be cool on the wrists. Check out the gallery after the break.

Concrete is quite the versatile building material. We’ve seen many applications for it from the turntable to the coffee table to the lathe.

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Hack An 8085 like it’s 1985

If you have been building electronic hardware for several decades, do you still have any projects from your distant past? Do they work? An audio amplifier perhaps, or a bench power supply.

[Just4Fun] made a rather special computer in the 1980s, and it definitely still works. Describing it as “An 8085 single board computer with an EPROM emulator” though, does not convey just how special it is. This is not the modern sense of a single board computer with an SoC and a few support components. Instead it is a full system in the manner of the day in which processor, memory and peripherals are all separate components surrounded by 74 series glue logic. The whole system is wire-wrapped on a piece of perfboard and mounted very neatly in a rack. The EPROM emulator is a separate unit in a console case with hexadecimal keyboard and 7-segment display.

As the video below the break of an LED flashing demo shows, the EPROM emulator allows 8085 machine code to be entered byte by byte instead of having to be burned into a real EPROM.

[Just4Fun] leaves us with plans to replace the period EPROM emulator with a modern alternative, an EEPROM on a PCB designed to fit in the original bank of EPROM sockets. In this he suggests he might fit a bootloader and a BASIC interpreter, something entirely possible back in the day with conventional EPROMs, but probably not as cheaply.

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Ask Hackaday: Are Gaming PCs Hard to Build?

No. No they’re not. But let’s talk about it anyway.

The endless trenches of digital worlds are filled with hardcore gamers from all walks of life. They can be found exploring post-apocalyptic Boston in Fallout 4, and commanding Sgt. Recker through a war-torn landscape in Battlefield 4 for hours on end. Their portal into these vast digital worlds come via some sort of computer system.

What type of computer system used is a point of contention between many gamers, and is typically divided between console versus PC. I will not dare to drag you into the captious arguments between the two, but instead we will focus on something that has something in common with our world — how does a previously non-technical console enthusiast cross over and build a gaming PC?

Many hackers have built computers from scratch and [Adam Fabio] just covered a bunch of custom laptop builds this morning. People with such skills can easily build a high-end gaming PC. But what about people without such skills? Can a console gamer with no technical background build a high-end PC gaming system?

Inspiration for this article came after reading something [Emanuel Maiberg] published over the summer on Motherboard. Why someone writing for a publication called Motherboard would have trouble building a gaming rig is beyond me. Certainly I think his starting assumptions are questionable. He asserts that you need an unreasonable amount of time and money to attempt one of these projects. But gaming rigs can be purchased fully-assembled — those that build them are doing it out of passion.

The question is this:  How far should engineers go to make a technical product easier to use for a non-technical person?  If I order an engine for a hot rod, it can be assumed that I know to hook up the gas line without specifically being told to do so. After all, a person who’s going to put an engine in a hot rod probably knows a thing or two about engines.

I think that building a desktop PC has never been easier. We’ve now had 30 years of evolution to help weed out the “slow learners” when it comes to manufacturers. The Internet is a lot easier to use for answers than it used to be, and we have faster means of connecting with communities of experts than ever before.

That said, the neighborhood computer store is beginning to go the way of the dodo. There is an entire generation of “mobile-first” users who will give you a blank stare if you start talking about “desktop computing”. And familiarity with the fact that computer customization is even possible is beginning to fade; if all you’ve ever used are tablets and smartphones “upgrade” and “customization” are software terms, not hardware possibilities.

So we turn it over to you. Are gaming PCs hard to build? Have engineering practices and design choices made it easier than it used to be to get into it? What do you think is happening with the average skill level for working with computers now compared to when you had to open the case to add a modem to your machine? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Hacklet 125 – DIY Laptops

In the old days of the 1970’s, the only way to get your own computer was to build one from scratch. Thanks to an army of hackers like [Woz], PC’s are no commodity objects that can be bought for a couple of hundred dollars. The magic of building your own still is there though – especially when we’re talking about portable machines. Laptops, notebooks, netbooks take quite a bit of skill to assemble. Stuffing a keyboard, screen, and battery into a small clamshell case takes a bit of planning. Our last look at DIY laptops was exactly 100 Hacklets ago, so it’s time for a refresh. This week we’re checking out some of the best DIY laptops and portable computers on Hackaday.io!

piberryWe start with [Sahas Dinesh Chitlange] and Pi-Berry Laptop. [Sahas] found just the right mix of simple and elegant with this build. A Raspberry Pi 2 is the brains of the operation. The Pi sits in a case built from a mix of MDF and regular wood. The display is a 10.1″ HDMI LCD. The keyboard was pulled from a tablet case. Power was easy — a USB power bank provides enough for 4-5 hours of runtime. [Sahas] covered his laptop in Italian leather for a polished look. He planned out his parts layout well enough that the power-hungry Pi stays cool without a fan.

pivenaNext up is [Tim] with PIvena. [Tim] took his inspriation from [Bunnie Huang’s] Novena open laptop. Rather than roll his own ARM board, [Tim] went with a Raspberry Pi. His original design was for the Raspberry Pi model B. Last time we looked at PIvena, the model B+ was still pretty new. As we hoped, [Tim] modified his design to accept the new Pi layouts. This means it will physically work with the B+, Pi 2, and Pi 3 boards. [Tim] didn’t stop there though. He also upgraded from an 800 x 480 LCD to an 1200 x 800 LCD. He managed to do that while keeping the same bolt pattern on the travel cover. Nice work [Tim]!

elloNext we have [KnivD] with ELLO 2M. The most striking thing about ELLO 2M is the construction. The entire laptop is made from 6 PCBs which sandwich all the other parts. The keyboard is PCB material with keys routed out. The processor is a Microchip PIC32MX470-120. Software is loaded from one of 3 microSD cards. The 7 inch touchscreen LCD and 4500 mAh LiPo battery are nestled in between PCB layers. A true hacker, [KnivD] included a generous pin grid for debugging add-on circuits. The whole setup looks great with white silkscreen. As [Mark Sherman] mentioned in the comments, this machine reminds us of a modern-day TRS-80 Model 100.

pipdaFinally we have [pdrift86] with Mini rpi2 laptop. Palmtop might be a better name for this. [pdrift86] took his inspiration (and his keyboard) from the old HP Jornada Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). The housing is Masonite, cut from a clipboard. A Raspberry Pi 2 hides inside, along with a 4 cell 18650 Li-Ion battery. The screen is a 5″ LCD with a composite input. The display isn’t a touchscreen, so a Playstation Portable analog stick is on-board, and will eventually be connected for mouse control. [pdrift86] even managed to sneak the Pi camera on the back of his machine, so it can take pictures cellphone style.

If you want to see more DIY laptop projects, check out our new DIY Laptops notebooks, and portables list. Notice a project I might have missed? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on Hackaday.io. That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!