Testing The Limits Of Home PCB Etching

PCB

[Quinn Dunki]‘s Veronica, a homebrew computer based on the 6502 CPU, is coming along quite nicely. She’s just finished the input board that gives Veronica inputs for a keyboard and two old Nintendo gamepads. [Quinn] is building this computer all by her lonesome, including etching all the PCBs. She’s gotten very, very good at etching her own boards, but this input board did inspire a few facepalming moments.

In an earlier post, [Quinn] went over her PCB etching capabilities. As demonstrated by the pic above, she’s able to print 16 mil traces with 5 mil separation. This is just about as good as you can get with homebrew PCBs, but it’s not without its problems.

[Quinn] is using a photographic process for her boards where two copies of a mask is printed on an acetate sheet, doubled up, and laid down on a pre-sensitized copper board. The requirement for two layers of toner was found by experience – with only one layer of toner blocking UV light, [Quinn] got some terrible pitting on her traces and ground planes.

Two photographic masks means the masks must be precisely aligned. This example shows what happens when the acetate sheets are ever so slightly misaligned. With a 5 mil gap between traces, [Quinn] needs to align the masks to within ±2.5 mils; difficult to do by eye, and very hard once you factor in flexing and clamping them down to the copper board.

Even when this process goes perfectly, [Quinn] is pushing the limits of a laser printer. When printing at 600 dpi, the pixels of the print are about 1.5 mils. While GIMP, printer drivers, and the printer itself have some fancy software to help with the interpolation, [Quinn] is still seeing ‘bumps’ on the edges of perfectly aligned parts. This is one of those things that really makes you step back and realize how amazing fabbing PCBs at home actually is.

With most of the hardware for Veronica out of the way, it’s just about time for [Quinn] to start programming her baby. We’re not expecting a full-blown operating system and compiler, but those NES gamepads are probably crying out for some use.

Veronica Gets A Pair Of Gamepads And A Bugged Chip

veronica

[Quinn Dunki]‘s awesome 6502-based computer is coming right along, and she decided it’s time to add one of the most important features found in the 80s microcomputers she’s inspired by – gamepads.

There were two ways of implementing gamepads back in the 80s. The Apple II analog joysticks used a potentiometer for each joystick axis along with a 556 timer chip to convert the resistance of a pot into a digital value. Analog controls are awesome, but a lot of hardware is required. The other option is the Atari/Commodore joystick that uses buttons for each direction. Surprisingly, these joysticks are inordinately expensive on the vintage market but a similar hardware setup – NES gamepads – are common, dirt cheap, and extremely well documented.

[Quinn] wrote a few bits of 6502 assembly to read these Nintendo controllers with Veronica’s 6522 VIA with the help of an ATMega168, and then everything went to crap.

In testing her setup, she found that sometimes the data line from the controller would be out of sync with the clock line. For four months, [Quinn] struggled with this problem and came up with one of two possible problems: either her circuit was bad, or the 6522 chip in Veronica was bad. You can guess which option is correct, but you’ll probably be wrong.

The problem turned out to be the 6522. It turns out this chip has a bug when it’s used with an external clock. In 40 years of production this hasn’t been fixed, but luckily 6502 wizard [Garth Wilson] has a solution for this problem: just add a flip-flop and everything’s kosher. If only this bug were mentioned in the current datasheets…

Now Veronica has two NES controller inputs and the requisite circuitry to make everything work. Video evidence below.

[Read more...]

Guest Rant: From Bits To Atoms

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I’ve been a software developer for quite a while. When you spend long enough inside a particular world, it’s easy to wind up with an ever-narrowing perspective. You start seeing everything from a software point of view. As the saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, you tend to treat every problem as NP-Complete. Or something. I forget how that goes.

Anyway, the point is, it’s always good to broaden one’s horizons, and solve as many different kinds of problems as possible. To that end, I started to get into hobby electronics recently. The journey has been very enlightening in a number of ways.

[Read more...]

Interfacing a GPU with a CPU

interfacing-a-gpu-with-a-cpu

[Quinn Dunki] pulled together many months worth of work by interfacing her GPU with the CPU. This is one of the major points in her Veronica project which aims to build a computer from the ground up.

We’ve seen quite a number of posts from her regarding the AVR-powered GPU. So far the development of that component has been happening separately from the 6502 centered CPU. But putting them together is anything but trivial. The timing issues that were so important to consider when developing the GPU get even hairier when it comes writing to the VRAM from an external component. Her first thought was to share a portion of the external RAM between the CPU and GPU as a way to push rendering commands from one to the other. This proved troublesome both in timing and in the number of pins available on the AVR chip. She ended up using something of a virtual register on the AVR chip that can receive commands from the CPU asynchronously. Timing dictates that these commands be written only during vertical blanking so this virtual register also acts as a status register to let the CPU know when it can send the next command.

Her post is packed with the theory behind the design, timing tests on the oscilloscope, and a rather intimidating schematic. But the most important part is the video showing her success in the end.

Macro assembly for AVR chips

avr-macro-assembly

Here’s an interesting tip that can help improve your ability to write assembly code. In an effort to remove the complexity of assembly code for an AVR project [Quinn Dunki] figured out how to use macros when writing AVR code with the GNU toolchain. Anyone using AVR-GCC should keep this in mind if they ever want or need to pound out a project in assembly language.

If you look at the code snippet above you’ll see two commands that are obviously not assembly; PulseVRAMWrite and DisableVRAMWrite. These are macros that direct the assembler to roll in a hunk of code. But avr-as, the assembler used with this toolchain, lacks the ability to handle macros. That’s too bad because we agree with [Quinn] that these macros make the code easier to read and greatly reduce the probability of error from a typo since the code in the macro will be used repeatedly.

The answer is to alter the makefile to use GNU M4. We hadn’t heard of it, but sure enough it’s already installed on our Linux Mint system (“man m4″ for more info). It’s a robust macro processor that swaps out all of her macros based on a separate file which defines them. The result is an assembly file that will play nicely with avr-as.

Her implementation is to help in development of the GPU for her Veronica computer project.

Fortifying Veronica’s VGA output

[Quinn Dunki] just moved to a new work space and had to pack up her homebrew computer project — called Veronica — in the process. She just unboxed it again and decided now was a good time to fortify the VGA display hardware. It wasn’t in the greatest of shape, since everything for the initial video tests had been built on a breadboard. The transition to protoboard ended up turning out just swell.

One of the thing’s that we like best about [Quinn's] hacks is that she documents her failures (or perhaps we should just call them hiccups?) just as much as she does her successes. This is not a small thing. We understand, because our own screw-ups don’t usually get photographed due to our raging need to just make the frakking thing work.

Once she had moved all the components to the new board the circuit was amazingly organized. Since she’s doing high-speed switching with the VGA signals it was important to keep the lines as short and straight as possible, hence the SRAM stack seen above. But when it was first fired up she had a jumble of only-somewhat-organized color stripes. It turns out that she had forgotten to change the color register in the AVR code, the color lines were hooked up in the wrong order, and the switch mode supply was injecting noise into the system. But thanks to her documentation of these issues we’ll know what to do when we find ourselves in a similar situation.

Backplane and mainboard for a 6502 computer

[Quinn Dunki] has been busy through the holidays giving her 6502 processor-based computer a place to live. The most recent part of the project (which she calls Veronica) involved designing and etching a mainboard for the device. In the picture above it’s the vertical board which is right at home in the backplane [Quinn] also designed.

The project is really gaining momentum now. You may remember that it started off as a rather motley arrangement of what we’d guess is every breadboard she owns. From there some nifty hex switches gave [Quinn] a way to program the data bus on the device. Many would have stopped with these successes, but the continuation of the project makes the hardware robust enough to be around for a while. The single-sided boards are playing nicely together, and the next step is to redesign the ROM emulator to use chips for storage. [Quinn] alludes to a side project in which she plans to build her own EEPROM programmer to help with getting code into the experimental computer.

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