Don’t Mess With Texas – The TI-99/4A Megademo

The demoscene is a hotbed of masterful assembly programming, particularly when it comes to platforms long forgotten by the passage of technology and time. There’s a certain thrill to be had in wringing every last drop of performance out of old silicon, particularly if it’s in a less popular machine. It’s that mindset that created Don’t Mess With Texas – a glorious megademo running on the TI-99/4A.

Entered in the oldskool demo contest at Syncrony 2017, the demo took out the win for [DESiRE], a group primarily known for demos on the Amiga – a far more popular platform in the scene. The demo even includes a Boing Ball effect as a cheeky nod to their roots. Like any good megademo, the different personalities and tastes brings a huge variety of effects to the show – there’s a great take on vintage shooters a la Wolfenstein in there too. [jmph] shared a few more details on the development process over on pouet.net.

The TI-99/4A wasn’t the easiest machine to develop for. It’s got a 16-bit CPU hamstrung by an 8-bit bus, and only 256 bytes of general purpose RAM. Despite the group’s best attempts, the common 32K RAM expansion present in the floppy drive controller is a requirement to run the demo. Just to make things harder, the in-built BASIC is too slow for any real use and there’s no function to allow the use of in-line assembly instructions. The group had to resort to a cartridge-based assembler to get the job done.

In the machine’s favour, it has a great sound chip put to brilliant use – the demo’s soundtrack will take you right back to the glory days of chiptune. It’s also got strong graphics capabilities for the era on par with, if not better than, the Commodore 64. The video subsystem in the TI works so hard that it’s the only DIP in the machine that gets a heatsink! The demo does a great job of pushing the machine to its limits in this regard.

If you’re suddenly feeling a strong attraction to the TI-99/4A, don’t worry – it’s got a cult following all its own. You can even find USB adapters & IDE controllers if you want to build a fully loaded rig, or play a stunning port of Flappy Bird if that tickles your fancy.

[Thanks to Gregg for the tip!]

The DIY Luggable PC

If you haven’t gone laptop shopping recently, you’re in for a big shock when you do. Recent consumer laptops are thin, powerful, surprisingly inexpensive, and Apple’s latest MacBook Pros even have a fantastic ‘Touch Bar’ – a touch-sensitive OLED display where the function keys should be. The greatest laptops ever made are available right now, and they don’t cost much, either.

Unfortunately, the laptop as a platform is inherently a compromise. If you want a discrete CPU, or if you simply want to choose your own parts, you’re relegated to a desktop build. The middle ground between extensibility and portability isn’t really covered by case manufacturers, and even the rare ‘LAN party’ cases rarely have a handle.

[Roger] is taking steps to solve this problem. He’s designed a 3D printable luggable PC. Yes, now you can have a GTX 1080 and a 22-core Xeon in a form factor you can carry around. It’ll fit in the overhead bin on your next flight, and yes, the monitor is included.

The construction of this DIY luggable PC should be familiar to anyone who built a 3D printer in 2011. It’s made out of threaded rods, with brackets for an LCD panel, ATX power supply, motherboard, and SSDs. Since this is effectively a modular system, you can load this case up with hardware. The included monitor in [Roger]’s build is taken from an old laptop and driven through an eBay “LCD Controller Board”.

While a luggable PC might be a very niche use case, it is still one that’s vastly underserved. I recently built a new battlestation, and after searching for a case like this for a few months, I eventually gave up, caved in, and bought whatever Linus told me to buy. You simply cannot buy an ATX case that has a monitor bolted to the side, and [Roger]’s build is the first DIY solution we’ve seen.

All the files to replicate this project are linked to on the [Roger]’s Hackaday.io project, and this would be an excellent basis for a community-based project to build an Open Hardware luggable PC enclosure. A few days ago, [Roger] brought this PC out to the Hackaday LA January meetup. He brought to the meetup on the train, providing more than enough evidence this is a truly portable PC. Check out the pics from the meetup below.

Build Your Own P-Brain

I don’t think we’ll call virtual assistants done until we can say, “Make me a sandwich” (without adding “sudo”) and have a sandwich made and delivered to us while sitting in front of our televisions. However, they are not completely without use as they are currently – they can let you know the time, weather and traffic, schedule or remind you of meetings and they can also be used to order things from Amazon. [Pat AI] was interested in building an open source, extensible, virtual assistant, so he built P-Brain.

Think of P-Brain as the base for a more complex virtual assistant. It is designed from the beginning to have more skills added on in order to grow its complexity, the number of things it can do. P-Brain is written in Node.js and using a Node package called Natural, P-Brain parses your request and matches it to a ‘skill.’ At the moment, P-Brain can get the time, date and weather, it can get facts from the internet, find and play music and can flip a virtual coin for you. Currently, P-Brain only runs in Chrome, but [Pat AI] has plans to remove that as a dependency. After the break, [Pat AI] goes into some detail about P-Brain and shows off its capabilities. In an upcoming video, [Pat AI]’s going to go over more details about how to add new skills. Continue reading “Build Your Own P-Brain”

AT to XT Keyboard Adapter

If you got an old PC/XT stored somewhere in basement and want to use a newer keyboard, here’s a little project you might like. [Matt] built an AT2XT keyboard adapter on a prototype board using an AT to PS/2 keyboard cable. An AT2XT keyboard adapter basically allows users to attach AT keyboards to XT class computers, since the XT port is electronically incompatible with PC/AT keyboard types. For those retro computing fans with a lot of old PCs, this trick will be great to connect the XT machines to a KVM (keyboard/Video/Mouse) switch.

[Matt] found schematics for the project on the Vintage Computer Federation Forum, but used a PIC12F675 instead of the specified PIC12F629. He does provide the .hex file for his version but unfortunately no code. You could just burn the .hex file or head up to the original forum and grab all files to make your own version. The forum has the schematics, bill of materials, PCB board layout and firmware (source code and .hex), so you just need to shop/scavenge for parts and get busy.

And if you are felling really 31337, you can make a PS/2 version of the binary keyboard to justify the use of your new adapter.

[via DangerousPrototypes]

A Motherboard Manufacturer’s Take On A Raspberry Pi Competitor

In the almost five years since the launch of the original Raspberry Pi we have seen a huge array of competitors emerge in the inexpensive single board computer market. Many have created their own form factors, but an increasing number have gone straight for the jugular of the fruity board from Cambridge by copying its form factor and interfaces as closely as possible. We’ve seen sterling efforts from the likes of Banana Pi, Odroid, and several others, but none have yet succeeded in toppling it from its pedestal.

The ASUS Tinker specification.
The ASUS Tinker specification.

The latest contender in this arena might just make more of an impact though, because it comes from a major manufacturer, a name you will have heard of. Asus have quietly released their Tinker, board that follows the Pi form factor very closely, and packs a 1.8 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A17 alongside an impressive spec we’ve captured as an image for this article. Though they are reticent about it on their website, there is a SlideShare presentation with some of the details, which we’ve placed below the break.

At £55 (about $68) where this is being written it’s more expensive than the Pi, but Asus go to great lengths to demonstrate that it is significantly faster. We will no doubt verify the accuracy of that claim as the boards find their way into the hands of our community. Still, it features a mostly-Pi-compatible I/O header, and the same display and camera connectors as the Pi. There is no information as to how compatible these last two are though.

Other boards in this arena have boasted impressive hardware, but have fallen down when it comes to the support for their operating systems. When you buy a Raspberry Pi it is not just the hardware you are taking on but the Raspbian operating system and its impressive community support. The Tinker supports Debian, so if Asus is to make a mark they must ensure that its support rivals that of the board it is targeting. If they succeed in that endeavor then the result can only be good news for us.

Continue reading “A Motherboard Manufacturer’s Take On A Raspberry Pi Competitor”

The Cardboard Computer

Every time we say “We’ve seen it all”, along comes a project that knocks us off. 60 year old [Mark Nesselhaus] likes to learn new things and he’s never worked with hardware at the gate level. So he’s building himself a 4-bit Computer, using only Diode-Transistor Logic. He’s assembling the whole thing on “card board” perf-board, with brass tacks for pads. Why — because he’s a thrifty guy who wants to use what he has lying around. Obviously, he’s got an endless supply of cardboard, tacks and Patience. The story sounds familiar. It started out as a simple 4-bit full adder project and then things got out of hand. You know he’s old school when he calls his multimeter an “analog VOM”!

It’s still work in progress, but he’s made a lot of it in the past year. [Mark] started off by emulating the 4-bit full adder featured on Simon Inns’ Waiting for Friday blog. This is the ALU around which the rest of his project is built. With the ALU done, he decided to keep going and next built a 4-to-16 line decoder — check out the thumbnail image to see the rats nest of jumbled wires. Next on his list were several flip flops — R-S, J-K and D types, which would be useful as program counters. This is when he bumped into problems with signal levels, timing and triggering. He decided to allow himself the luxury of adding one IC to his build — a 555 based clock generator. But he still needed some pulse shaping circuitry to make it work consistently.

from right, Input, +5V, nc, gnd
LED Driver : from left, Gnd, NC, +5V, Input

[Mark] also built a finite-state-machine sequencer based on the work done by Rory Mangles TinyTim project. He finished building some multiplexers and demultiplexers, and it appears he may be using a whole bank of 14 wall switches for address, input and control functions. For the output display, he assembled a panel using LED’s recovered from a $1 Christmas light string. Something seems amiss with his LED driver, though — 2mA with LED on and >2.5mA with LED off. The LED appears to be connected across the collector and emitter of the PNP transistor. Chime in with your comments.

This build seems to be shaping along the lines of the Megaprocessor that we’ve swooned over a couple of times in the past. Keep at it, [Mark]!

Continue reading “The Cardboard Computer”

An Intel 8085 Microprocessor Trainer

The Intel 8085 microprocessor was introduced 40 years back, and along with its contemporaries — the Z80 and the 6502 — is pretty much a dinosaur in terms of microprocessor history. But that doesn’t stop it from still being included in the syllabus for computer engineering students in many parts of the world. The reason why a 40 year old microprocessor is still covered in computer architecture text books instead of computer history is a bit convoluted. But there’s a whole industry that thrives on the requirements of college laboratories and students requiring “8085 Microprocessor Training Kits”. [TisteAndii] just finished college in Nigeria, where these kits are not locally built and need to be imported, usually costing well over a 100 dollars.

Which is why his final year project was a low cost Intel 8085 Microprocessor Trainer. It’s a minimalist design with some basic read/write memory, program execution and register inspection, with no provision for single stepping or interrupts yet. The monitor program isn’t loaded in an EEPROM. Instead, a PIC18 is used and connected to the 8085 address, data and control pins. This makes it easier to write a monitor program in C instead of assembly. And allows use of a 1.8″ LCD with SPI interface instead of the more usual 7-segment displays used for these kind of kits. [TisteAndii] built a 6×4 keyboard for input, but couldn’t solve debounce issues and finally settled on a 5×4 membrane keypad.

Being a rookie, he ended up with a major flaw in his board layout — he missed connecting the SRAM and the PPI devices to the data bus. A bunch of jumper links seemed to solve the issue, but it wasn’t perfect. This, and a few other problems gave him a lot of grief, but towards the end, it all worked, almost. Most importantly, his BoM cost of about $35 makes it significantly cheaper compared to the commercial units available in Nigeria.

While some hackers may consider this a trivial project, it solves a local problem and we hope the next iteration of the design improves the kit and makes it more accessible.