Hackaday Links: June 11, 2017

PCB art is getting better and better every year. This year, though, is knocking it out of the park. In March, [Andrew Sowa] turned me into money. More recently, [Trammell Hudson] has explored the layers of OSH Park soldermask and silk to create a masterpiece. Now, we’re moving up to full-blown art. [Blake Ramsdell] worked with OSH Park to create a full panel of art in gold, fiberglass, soldermask, and silkscreen. It’s 22×16 inches, and it’s fantastic.

There’s an independent Hackaday meetup going down in Hong Kong this week. The subject of the meetup will be vacuum systems for electron beam melting, mass spectrometry, and building Nixie tubes.

Why does my circuit still work when I remove some caps? This question was posed to the EEVBlog forums, with a picture attached of  the worst mess of wires I’ve ever seen. This is — supposedly — not a joke, and a complete, functional CPU built out of 74HC series logic on thirty or so solderless breadboards. A weird bonus of access to the tip line at Hackaday means everyone here becomes experts in the field of absurdly constructed electronics. Want to see the worst PCB ever? We’ve seen it. This is, without question, the most rats nest electronic project anyone has ever built.

[Adam West] died this weekend at the age of 88. [West] is perhaps best known for his performance in Lookwell as a crime-solving, washed-up TV action hero. He is survived by his wife, Marcelle, and six children.

There’s a new documentary on [Nolan Bushnell] and the early days of Atari. Documentarian [Bruno Grampa] will be showing his latest, Easy to Learn, Hard to Master at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View on June 23rd. It’s narrated by [Bil Herd], so we’re a bit prejudiced, but check out the trailer.

A Mini-ITX Atari 800

As a community has grown up around the 8-bit microcomputers of the 1980s, there have been some beautifully crafted rebuilds of classic machines to take advantage of newer hardware or to interface to peripherals such as keyboards or displays that were unavailable at the time. Often these have taken the form of small boards, or boards that are designed to follow the form factor of the original machine, and fit in an original case.

[mytekcontrols] has taken a different tack with his Atari 800 build, he’s produced an Atari clone designed to take the most popular upgrade boards produced by the 8-bit Atari community, as daughter boards. And he’s followed an existing form factor, though it’s not one from the Atari world. Instead, he’s made it as a mini-ITX motherboard of the type you may well be familiar with from the world of PCs.

He’s calling it the 1088XEL, because with a popular 1MB upgrade board fitted it boasts a generous 1088k of memory. It sports the original five Atari LSI chips, and manages the task without resorting to surface-mount construction.

The forum thread linked above is a long one that makes for a fascinating read as it deals in depth with the design of an 8-bit micro clone. But if you want to skip straight to the hardware, start at about page 13.

We’ve had more than one 8-bit Atari on these pages over the years. Most memorable though is probably this laptop.

Thanks [Lenore Underwood].

Atari Now Runs Java, Thankfully Doesn’t Require Constant Updates

Java Grinder is a tool that compiles Java programs to run on platforms like microcontrollers and consoles, by outputting native assembly code and using APIs to work with custom hardware like bespoke graphics and sound chips. Amongst other hardware, Java Grinder supports the Commodore 64, which uses a variant of the 6502 CPU. [Michael Kohn] realized the Atari 2600 shares this processor, and figured he’d get started on making Java Grinder work with the Atari by expanding on the C64 work done by [Joe Davisson]. Together, they brought Java to the Atari 2600 and made a game along the way.

According to [Michael], parts of the project were easy, as some Java routines compile down into as little as 1 or 2 instructions on the 6502. Other parts were harder, like dealing with the graphics subsystem, and modifying Java Grinder to output 8-bit bytecode to fit into the Atari’s tiny 4K ROM limit. Even with this tweak, they still couldn’t fit in a game and title screen. In the end they relied on bank switching to get the job done. [Joe]’s game is pretty solid fare for the Atari 2600 — blocky graphics and bleepy sounds — and they’ve uploaded it to the page so you can try it yourself in an emulator.

At the end of the day, porting Java code to a system with 128 bytes of RAM probably isn’t going to be particularly useful. However, as a coding exercise and learning experience, there’s a lot of value here in terms of building your skills as a coder. Other such experiments have shown us Java running on other unexpected devices, like the Sega Genesis or the MSP430. Video after the break.

Continue reading “Atari Now Runs Java, Thankfully Doesn’t Require Constant Updates”

Hackaday Links: October 9, 2016

Atari is back! That’s what some dude says. There are no real details in that post, other than ‘Atari is Back!’

The ESP32 is coming, and it’s going to be awesome. Espressif has just released an Arduino core for the ESP32 WiFi chip. The digitalRead, digitalWrite, SPI, Serial, Wire, and WiFi “should” work. If you’re looking for ESP32 hardware, they’re infrequently available and frequently out of stock. Thankfully, stock levels won’t be the Raspberry Pi Zero all over again until someone figures out how to run an NES emulator on the ESP32.

Tiny, cheap ARM boards would make for great home servers if they had SATA or multiple network interfaces. Here’s a Kickstarter for a board with both. It’s based on an ARM A53 with multiple Ethernets, mini PCIe, enough RAM, and SATA. It’s a board for niche use cases, but those uses could be really cool.

You’re not cool or ‘with it’ until you have a PCB ruler. That’s what all the hip kids are doing. For wizards and dark mages out there, a simple PCB ruler isn’t enough. These rare beasts demand RF rulers. There’s some weird stuff on these rulers, like Archemedian spiral antennas and spark gaps. Black magic stuff, here.

Some dude with a camera in the woods did something. Primitive Technology, the best example of experimental archaeology you’ve ever seen, built a spear thrower. You can throw a ball faster with a lacrosse stick than you can with just your hands, and this is the idea behind this device, commonly referred to as an atlatl. You can hunt with an atlatl in some states, but I have yet to see a video of anyone taking down a deer with one of these.

Think we’re done spamming the Hackaday Superconference yet? YOU’RE WRONG. The Hackaday Superconference is the greatest hardware conference of all time until we do this whole thing again next year. Get your tickets, look at the incredible list of speakers, book your flights, and be in Pasadena November 5-6.

An Atari 600XL Talks Composite Video

When we write about the 8-bit era of home computers there is a list of manufacturers whose names are frequently mentioned. Apple, Commodore, Texas Instruments, maybe Acorn and Sinclair if you are British, and of course Atari. But when we mention the last of those names it is invariably in reference to their iconic 2600 games console, it almost passes unnoticed that they also produced a line of 8-bit home computers based upon that success.

[ModPurist] was lucky enough to secure one of the Atari 8-bit computers through bartering with a local game store, an Atari 600XL from around 1983 or 1984, complete with its original box, manuals, cartridges, and a data cassette recorder. But on powering the system up and connecting to a TV a problem emerged. There was something there, but through a lot of noise and very blurry indeed. The solution after a bit of investigation turned out to be quite simple, to bypass the Astec video modulator and apply a composite video modification. Further investigation revealed that the original problem had in part been caused by the unit’s 5V power supply falling short of its voltage, so a further modification was to make a USB lead to allow it to be powered from a modern 5V charger.

This is a relatively simple piece of work, so you might be asking “Where’s the hack?”. The answer lies not in the mod itself, but in the detailed look [ModPurist] gives us at the inner workings of the 600XL, since it’s not a machine we see very often. Having the benefit of 30 years of hindsight and knowing the Atari’s competition quite well, we’d say that compared to some other machines of the era it’s a surprisingly well-designed computer both aesthetically and mechanically.

If your appetite for old Ataris has been whetted by this mod, can we draw your attention to this Atari 800 laptop? Or how about this 800 whose 6502 has been replaced with a 6809?

Atari Archaeology Without Digging Up Landfill Sites

We are fortunate to live in an age of commoditized high-power computer hardware and driver abstraction, in which most up-to-date computers have the ability to do more or less anything that requires keeping up with the attention of a human without breaking a sweat. Processors are very fast, memory is plentiful, and 3D graphics acceleration is both speedy and ubiquitous.

Thirty years ago it was a different matter on the desktop. Even the fastest processors of the day would struggle to perform on their own all the tasks demanded of them by a 1980s teenager who had gained a taste for arcade games. The manufacturers rose to this challenge by surrounding whichever CPU they had chosen with custom co-processors, ASICs that would take away the heavy lifting associated with 2D graphics acceleration, or audio and music synthesis.

One of the 1980s objects of computing desire was the Atari ST, featuring a Motorola 68000 processor, a then-astounding 512k of RAM, a GUI OS, high-res colour graphics, and 3.5″ floppy drive storage. Were you to open up the case of your ST you’d have found those ASICs we mentioned as being responsible for its impressive spec.

Jumping forward three decades, [Christian Zietz] found that there was frustratingly little information on the ST ASIC internal workings. Since a trove of backed-up data became available when Atari closed down he thought it would be worth digging through it to see what he could find. His write-up is a story of detective work in ancient OS and backup software archaeology, but it paid off as he found schematics for not only an ASIC from an unreleased Atari product but for the early ST ASICs he was looking for. He found hundreds of pages of schematics and timing diagrams which will surely take the efforts of many Atari enthusiasts to fully understand, and best of all he thinks there are more to be unlocked.

We’ve covered a lot of Atari stories over the years, but many of them have related to their other products such as the iconic 2600 console. We have brought you news of an open-source ST on an FPGA though, and more recently the restoration of an ST that had had a hard life. The title of this piece refers to the fate of Atari’s huge unsold stocks of 2600 console cartridges, such a disastrous marketing failure that unsold cartridges were taken to a New Mexico landfill site in 1983 and buried. We reported on the 2013 exhumation of these video gaming relics.

A tip of the hat to Hacker News for bringing this to our attention.

Atari ST image, Bill Bertram (CC-BY-2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.

Hacklet 119 – Retrogaming Console Hacks

If you haven’t heard, retrogaming is a thing. 40-somethings are playing the games of their youth alongside millennials who are just discovering these classic games. There are even folks developing new homebrew games for consoles as far back as the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Atari 2600. This week on the Hacklet, we’re highlighting some of the best retrogaming console hardware hacks on Hackaday.io. Note that I did say hardware hacks. The focus this week is on games played on the original hardware. Don’t worry though, I’ll give emulated projects some love in a future Hacklet.

bankerWe start with [danjovic] and Atari 2600 Bankswitch Cartridge. The Atari 2600 is a legendary system. Millions of hackers’ first exposure to gaming came through its one button joystick. To make the unit affordable, Atari used a MOS Technology 6507 processor. Essentially it’s a 6502 in a 28-pin package. This meant several features got nerfed, most notably the address space. The 6507 can only address 8KB of RAM. In the Atari, only 4KB is available to the cartridge. Games got around the 4KB limit by bank switching – write a value to a magic address, and the bank switching logic would swap in a whole different section of cartridge ROM. There were several different bank switching schemes used over the years. [Danjovic] has created his own version of this bank switching logic, using only classic 74 series logic chips.


nesmodNext up is [ThunderSqueak] with Top Loader NES composite mod. Toward the end of the NES’s life, Nintendo introduced a cost-reduced version known as the “top loader”. This version had a top loading cartridge and no DRM lock-out chip. Unfortunately it also did away with composite AV ports. The only way to hook this NES to your TV was through the RF modulated output. [ThunderSqueak] and a number of other intrepid hackers have fixed this problem. All it takes is a 2N3906 PNP transistor and a few jellybean parts. The video and audio outputs are pulled from the motherboard before they enter the RF modulator. One nice feature is the clean connectors. [ThunderSqueak] used connectors from modular in-wall AV boxes for a setup that looks as good as it works.

segaNext we have [makestuff] with USB MegaDrive DevKit. Sega’s MegaDrive, or Genesis as it was known here in the USA, was a groundbreaking console. It used a Motorola 68000 16-bit CPU while most other systems were still running a Z80 or a 6502. People loved this console, and there are plenty who still want to develop software for it. Enter [makestuff] with his development kit. On a card with a $40 USD bill of materials, he’s managed to fit SDRAM, an FPGA, and a USB interface. This is everything you need to load and debug software on an unmodified console. The FPGA had enough logic left over that [makestuff] was able to implement a continuous bus cycle tracer over USB. Nice work!

robbbFinally, we have our own [Joshua Vasquez] with R.O.B. 2.0. The original NES came in a deluxe version with a special pack in – a robot. Robotic Operating Buddy, or ROB for short, would play games with the player. Unfortunately ROB was a bit of a flop. It only worked with two games, Gyromite and Stack-Up Ice Climber. Most ROB units eventually found their way to the recycling bin. [Joshua] is building a new version of the ROB, with modern controls. He’s already modeled and 3D printed ROB’s head. I can’t wait to see this project come together!

If you want to see more retrogaming goodness, check out our new retrogaming hardware hacks list. See 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!