A VU-meter indicator for a Commodore 1530 Datasette

For present-day owners of vintage Commodore computers, keeping data and programs safe and backed up is top priority. Disk drive storage was more common in the US, whereas in Europe, the audio cassette was the preferred medium of storage.

The Datasette device was what allowed interfacing the cassettes to the computer. Tape head alignment was critical to successfully writing and reading data to the cassette. Some models of the Datasette came with a small hole above the keys, to allow access to the adjustment screw of the tape head azimuth position. Tweaking this while looking at a signal meter could help you improve the signal from a bad cassette and prevent load errors. [Jani] tried a commercial solution called “Load-IT” which had a LED bargraph, but it couldn’t help much dealing with tapes with very bad signals. So he built a signal strength meter for his Datasette. He calls it the VU-sette since it uses an analog style meter quite similar to the VU-meters found in many audio equipment.

The hardware is simple and uses commonly available parts. The analog meter is extracted from a Battery Checker sourced from eBay. An op-amp drives the analog meter, and another transistor drives a separate speaker. This can be used to listen in on the cassette, if the speaker is enabled via a push button. [Jani] first breadboarded and tested the circuit before ordering out prototype boards.

To test performance, [Jani] used FinalTAP, a tool for examining, cleaning and restoring digitized data cassette tapes (TAP files) for the Commodore 64 computer. The “LOAD-IT” version worked well with tapes that were in fairly good condition. But his VU-sette version allowed him to adjust the head more precisely and get out a much better read from bad tapes. While on the subject, check out this nice 7-segment bubble LED digital counter for the 1530.

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Even More Emulated Microcomputers: 8080 on a Stellaris Launchpad

[Steeeve] just sent us his work on emulating a handful of 8080-based microcomputers on a Stellaris Launchpad, including the bare-metal to run Space Invaders. We know what you’re thinking: Is that all you folks are doing these days?!?!? There must be something in the water.

[Steeeve]’s build is based on the Launchpad with an external 64kB of SPI RAM, a nice little TFT display, and a built-in SD card for all of your storage needs. Add in an 8080 emulator and a keyboard and you’ve got a tiny microcomputer. (Is that redundant?)

What’s really neat about [Steeeve]’s project is that he’s cloned not just one target computer, but a whole bunch of computers including (GitHub links follow) the 8080-based UK101/Superboard, the CPM/80, and the machine that ran Space Invaders, as well as the 6502-based Commodore PET and Apple-1.  And as a bonus, you can save the state onto the built-in SD card so that you can hibernate the microcomputer and pick up right back where you left off at a later date. Snazzy.

He’s also built a library which provides an emulation framework if you want to build on this work yourself. And did we mention he can play Space Invaders? Bravo [Steeeve]!

Restoring a vintage PDP-11/04 computer

[MattisLind] spent one and a half years to complete restoration of a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-11/04 including peripherals like a TU60 tape drive and a LA30P Decwriter printing terminal. The computer is now able to run CAPS-11 which is a very simple operating system and also CAPS-11/BASIC. Just like the project itself, his blog post is quite long filled with interesting details. For a tl;dr version, check the video after the break.

This system originally belonged to Ericsson and [MattisLind] received it from Ericsson computer club, EDKX. He was lucky to have access to online resources which made the task easier. But it still wasn’t easy considering the number of hardware faults he had to tackle and the software challenges too. The first task was obviously looking at the Power supply. He changed the big electrolytic capacitors, and the power supply seemed to work well with his dummy load, but failed when hooked up to the backplane of the computer. Some more digging around, and a replaced thyristor later, he had it fixed. The thyristor was part of a crowbar circuit to protect the system from over-voltages should one of the main switching transistors fail.

With the power supply fixed, the CPU still wouldn’t boot. Some sleuthing around, and he pin pointed the bus receiver chip that had failed. His order of the device via a Chinese ebay seller was on the slow boat, so he just de-soldered a device from another board which improved things a bit, but it was still stuck in a loop. A replacement communications board and the system now passed diagnostics check, but failed memory testing. This turned out to be caused be a faulty DIP switch. He next tackled all the software challenges in getting the CPU board up to speed.

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The Dan64: A Minimal Hardware AVR Microcomputer

[Juan] sent us his writeup of a microcomputer he built using an Arduino UNO (AVR ATmega328p) and some off-board SRAM. This one’s truly minimalistic.

Have a look at the schematics (PDF). There’s an Arduino, the SPI SRAM, some transistors for TV video output, and a PS/2 connector for the keyboard. That’s it, really. It’s easily built on a breadboard in a few minutes if you have the parts on hand. Flash the Dan64 operating system and virtual machine into the AVR and you’re good to go.

Now we’ve seen a few 6502-based retro computers around here lately that use a 6502 paired with a microcontroller for the interfacing, but they’ve all been bulky three-chip affairs. [Juan] wins the minimalism prize by using a 6502 virtual machine implemented in the AVR to reduce the parts count down to two chips for the whole shooting match.

Using a 6502 virtual machine was a crucial choice in the design, because there are 6502 cross compilers that will let you compile and debug code for the microcomputer on your macrocomputer and then load it into the micro to run. This makes developing for the micro less painful.

How does it load programs you ask? The old-fashioned way of course, using audio files. Although rather than using the Kansas City Standard as in days of yore, he encodes the data in short and long pulses of square waves. This might be less reliable, but it sure saves on external hardware.

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Fail of the Week: Re-addressing Your RAM DIMM

It doesn’t work and we’re not surprised considering the can of worms that comes with RAM addressing. Right off the bat we assume timing problems due to variance in the trace lengths and EM issues. But you have to hand it to [cyandyedeyecandy] for even trying. The self-proclaimed upgrade seeks to readjust how the DIMM works without changing the edge pinout.

The stick shown here is a 512 MB module that, because of the computer using it (unspecified in the post), is only allowing access to 256 MB. The added chips and free-form circuit make up an AND for the chip-select line, and flip-flop for the bank address.

The post is a gorgeous cry for help. We already weighed in from the peanut gallery at the top (seriously, that’s somewhat baseless guessing) so step up to the computer-engineering plate and let us know what needs to be done to make this most-awesome-of-non-working hacks actually work.

Once you’ve figured this out, here’s another one to scratch at your brain with.

LEGO Computer Case

With over 40,000 pieces in his possession, [Mike] is definitely a huge fan of LEGO. Given that he’s also very much a fan of technology, it’s no surprise that he has built more than one type of LEGO computer case. He wrote in to tell us that he’s finished work on a well-rounded system designed for everyone.

[Mike] is no stranger to interesting case builds. In the last couple of years, he’s also made a functioning wind tunnel case and a bio computer that uses generated heat to warm soil for wheat grass plants. In the course of planning the LEGO computer, he thought a lot about heat and airflow, ultimately deciding on a top-down cooling path.

He’s quoting custom LEGO computer builds, providing the choice between an i3, i5, or i7 with either 8 or 16 gigs of RAM. They will run Linux or Windows 7/8 and are 10-compatible. There are a few choices for the top of the case: classic LEGO brick, the industrial look with diagonal slats, and a colored, tiled top. These systems are completely upgradeable and are held firmly together with great engineering and the occasional support rod.

A Laptop with an External Graphics Card?

It used to be that desktop computers reigned king in the world of powerful computing, and to some extent, they still do. But laptops are pretty powerful these days, and in our experience, a lot of engineering companies have actually swapped over to them for resource hungry 3D CAD applications — But what if you still need a bit more power?

Well, [Kamueone] wasn’t satisfied with the performance of his Razer Blade GTX870m laptop, so he decided to hack it and give it its own external graphics card.

Now unfortunately this really isn’t quite a simple as running some PCIE extender cables — nope. You’ll have to modify the BIOS first, which according to [Kamueone], isn’t that bad. But after that’s done you’ll also need a way to mount your graphics card outside of the laptop. He’s using an EXP GDC Beast V6 which uses a mini PCIE cable that can be connected directly to the laptop motherboard. You’re also going to need an external power supply.

[Kamueone] ran some benchmarks and upgrading from the stock onboard GTX870m to an external GTX 780ti resulted in over three times the frame rate capability — 40fps stock, 130fps upgraded!