Respectfully Modifying the Amiga 500

Modifying the Amiga 500 to speed up access to RAM in a memory expansion pack is a well documented procedure, with guides on the process written in the early 1990’s when the hardware was only a few years old. But as they were written for contemporary hardware, they make no concessions for how one should be treating a vintage computer that’s now over 30 years old. In 1993, cutting traces on the Amiga 500 motherboard was just a last ditch effort to eek a few more months of service life out of an outdated desktop computer. But in 2018, it’s kind of like when that old lady tried to “restore” a fresco of Jesus in Spain; it might be done with the best of intentions, but you still screwed the thing up good and proper.

Such things don’t fly over at [Inkoo Vintage Computing]. There you can find a guide that details the impressive lengths one can go to if they want to perform the classic modification without any irreversible changes to the motherboard. To avoid the cut traces and soldered bodge wires, this version of the modification makes use of a novel adapter that breaks out the necessary connections on the 8372A chip.

The adapter is simply a homemade PCB with both male and female plastic leaded chip carrier (PLCC) connectors. The few pins on the chip that needed rerouting are exposed as solder pads on the adapter for easy wiring. There are even a couple jumpers on the adapter to turn the modifications on and off.

Not surprisingly, the trickiest part of building this adapter was sourcing the antiquated PLCC connectors. Assuming you can even find them, you are then left with the challenging task of soldering them together. Judging by the pictures on the [Inkoo Vintage Computing] page, it’s no walk in the park.

Another similar arrangement is used in the expansion bay of the Amiga, where a pin is virtually “cut” in the connector. A tiny PCB is soldered to a 3×2 header to reroute the signals, and another jumper is used to enable and disable the pin. Luckily, the long pins on the Amiga memory expansion are forgiving enough that the little board can fit in between them without breaking electrical contact.

We’re no stranger to the Amiga 500 around these parts. We’ve covered how to get the 1987-vintage machine online in the 21st century, as well as employing a Raspberry Pi to emulate the original floppy drive. You can even make your own faux-Amiga with a 3D printed case, if you suffer from a sort of existential dread when working on a computer that’s older than you are.

Baremetal Rust On the Horizon

Rust Programming Langauge has grown by leaps and bounds since it was announced in 2010 by Mozilla. It has since become a very popular language owing to features such as memory safety and its ownership system. And now, news has arrived of an Embedded Devices Working Group for Rust aiming at improving support for microcontrollers.

Rust is quite similar to C++ in terms of syntax, however Rust does not allow for null or dangling pointers which makes for more reliable code in the hands of a newbie. With this new initiative, embedded development across different microcontroller architectures could see a more consistent and standardized experience which will result in code portability out of the box. The proposed improvements include IDE and CLI tools for development and setup code generation. There is also talk of RTOS implementations and protocol stack integration which would take community involvement to a whole new level.

This is something to be really excited about because Rust has the potential to be an alternative to C++ for embedded development as rust code runs with a very minimal runtime. Before Arduino many were afraid of the outcome of a simple piece of code but with rust, it would be possible to write memory-safe code without a significant performance hit. With a little community support, Rust could be a more efficient alternative. We have seen some Rust based efforts on ARM controllers and have covered the basics of Rust programming in the past if you want to get started. Good times ahead for hardware hackers.

Open Source Hardware Video Game Music Player

[Aidan Lawrence] likes classic synthesized video game music in the same way that other people “like” breathing and eating. He spent a good deal of 2017 working on a line of devices based on the Yamaha YM2612 used in the Sega Genesis to get his feet wet in the world of gaming synths, and is now ready to take the wraps off his latest and most refined creation.

One of his earlier attempts at a hardware VGM player.

The YM2151 Arcade Classic is an open source hardware player for Video Game Music (VGM) files. It uses no emulation, the files are played on the device’s YM2151 chip in the same way they would have been on a real arcade cabinet at the time of their release. Interestingly, as some arcade machines were exceedingly rare or even scrapped before release, [Aidan] believes that his player may be the first time some of these songs have ever been played (at least in public) on real hardware.

The YM2151 synthesizer is powered by a STM32 “Blue Pill” board, which was selected as much for its capabilities as it was its low cost. The STM32 loads the VGM files from an SD card, and puts track information for the currently playing song on the 128×32 OLED display. A few tactile switches under the screen allow for shuffling through the songs stored on the card, and a slide switch for mute rounds out the simplistic but functional user interface.

In the GitHub repository, [Aidan] has provided the source code, schematics, Bill of Materials, and KiCad-generated Gerber files; everything you need to create your own version of his player. After listening to it rock out for a few minutes in the video after the break, we’re tempted to take him up on that offer.

This player reminds us of a similar design, also using original hardware, that we covered last year. The logical next step for this project would be to flesh out the UI and put it into an enclosure like this SNES chiptune player.

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Nicely Engineered Boost Converter Powers Nixies from USB Charger

Love them or hate them, Nixies are here to stay. Their enduring appeal is due in no small part to the fact that they’re hardly plug-and-play; generating the high-voltage needed to drive the retro displays is part of their charm. But most Nixie power supplies seem to want 9 volts or more on the input side, which can make integrating them into the typical USB-powered microcontroller project difficult.

Fixing that problem is the idea behind [Mark Smith]’s 5-volt Nixie power supply. The overall goal is simple: 5 volts in, 170 volts out at 20 mA. But [Mark] paid special care to minimize the EMI output of the boost converter through careful design, and he managed to pack everything into a compact 14-cm² PCB. He subjected his initial design to a lot of careful experimentation to verify that he had met his design goals, and then embarked on a little tweaking mission in KiCad to trim the PCB’s footprint down by 27%. The three separate blog posts are well worth a read by anyone interested in learning about electronics design.

Now that [Mark] has his Nixie power supply, what will become of it? We can’t say for sure, but it’ll be a clock. It’s always a clock. Unless it’s a power meter or a speedometer.

New ThinkPad Guts Bring Intel Core I, DDR4, USB 3 to Cult Laptops

We often see people funneling their passion into keeping beloved devices in operation long past their manufacturer’s intent. These replacement Thinkpad motherboards (translated) bring old (yet beloved) Thinkpads a much desired processor upgrade. This is the work of the user [HOPE] on the enthusiast forum 51nb. The hack exemplifies what happens when that passion for legendary gear hits deep electrical expertise and available manufacturing. This isn’t your regular laptop refurbishment, [HOPE] is building something new.

ThinkPads are known for their zealous following (as our own [Brian Benchoff] underscored last year). Lenovo has steered the venerable brand into the future while the laptop market has drifted deeper and deeper into the wilds of tight integration at the expense of user modification. Along the way 4:3 screens were traded for media-friendly 16:9, TrackPoints were traded for trackpads, and the classic ThinkLight gave way to real keyboard backlights. These progressions left a shrinking but vocal group of old school Thinkpad enthusiasts — the cult of Thinkpad — clinging to beloved devices like 2007’s X61 and T60 ignored by a changing market.

In an astounding turn of ingenuity [HOPE] has revitalized these classic ThinkPads by entirely replacing their motherboards. And not just for one particular model, there are options available for at least 3 families of computers. The new devices are referred to by model numbers never used by IBM or Lenovo; the X60/61 motherboard makes an X62, the X200/201 motherboard makes an X210, and the T60 motherboard makes a T70. Depending on the customer’s preference either a bare motherboard or a fully assembled unit is available.

Classic stickers with non-classic ports

Depending on the exact model in question these motherboards slot directly into the original chassis but add recent generation Intel Core I processors, DDR4, USB 3.0/3.1, Thunderbolt 3 and more. Often they reuse the original heat sinks and fans, and expose these ports through the same chassis apertures the original motherboards used. Considering these machines are a decade older than the hardware being crammed inside them the level of integration is truly impressive. The end result looks like it could have come out of a Lenovo factory just before Spring Festival. If you look closely at the image at the top of this article, you might notice they even included an improved “Intel Inside” sticker on the palm rest and a model number label at the lower left of the display!

There is an implicit economic statement here that’s worth calling out. A motherboard for anything more significant than a basic microcontroller is an incredibly complicated piece of technology. When the bar is moved from “small ARM processor” up to “modern x86 system” this counts extra. Not only are they complex electrically but the fabrication processes required to physically create them are at the edge of what you’d find at your favorite cheap PCB fab house. We’re talking CPUs studded with about 1100 pins, DDR4 and PCI-E with extremely tight electrical timing requirements driving elaborate board layouts, and a plethora of off-board peripheral parts. On top of those constraints the board itself must be small enough to fit inside, not a purpose-built enclosure, but an existing laptop body with whatever combination of mounting brackets and connector placements Lenovo decided on. That a hobbyist (we assume) can make their own devices in this range to sell for $500-$700 is nothing short of astounding.

Fresh replacements being installed

This shouldn’t be possible. More accurately, it’s likely possible because there are other drivers which make the cost of PCB fabrication and assembly lower and more accessible than ever. The general march of technology certainly, but perhaps the presence of mobile devices and a desire to repair and improve them. After all and if the rumors are to be believed, anyone who can find the right Huaqiangbei stall can get the NAND replaced in their iPhone, a once complex process made simple.

It’s difficult to track the progression of each model as they are primarily covered on the 51nb forums (a Facebook page called [Lcdfans] makes some of the information available in English). However it’s possible to find hands-on information like [koobear]’s review on Reddit.

Lost In Space: How Materials Degrade In Space

Hackaday readers are well aware of the problems caused by materials left exposed to the environment over time, whether that be oxidized contact pads on circuit boards or plastics made brittle from long exposure to the sun’s UV rays.

Now consider the perils faced by materials on the International Space Station (ISS), launched beginning in 1998 and planned to be used until 2028. That’s a total of 30 years in an environment of unfiltered sunlight, extreme temperatures, micrometeoroids, and even problems caused by oxygen. What about the exposure faced by the newly launched Tesla Roadster, an entirely non-space hardened vehicle on a million-year orbit around the sun? How are the materials which make up the ISS and the Roadster affected by the harsh space environment?

Fortunately, we’ve been doing experiments since the 1970s in Earth orbit which can give us answers. The missions and experiments themselves are as interesting as the results so let’s look at how we put materials into orbit to be tested against the rigors of space.

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Rubik’s Robot So Fast It Looks Like a Glitch in the Matrix

From Ferraris to F-16s, some things just look fast. This Rubik’s Cube solving robot not only looks fast, it is fast: it solved a standard cube in 380 milliseconds. Blink during the video below and you’ll miss it — even on the high-speed we had trouble keeping track of the number of moves this solution took. It looked like about 20.

Beating the previous robot record of 637 milliseconds is just the icing on the cake of a very cool build undertaken by [Ben Katz]. He and his collaborator [Jared] put together a robot with a decidedly industrial look — aluminum extrusion chassis, six pancake servo motors with high-precision optical encoders, and polycarbonate panels for explosion containment which proved handy during development. The motors had to be modified to allow the encoders to be attached to the rear, and custom motor controllers were fabricated. [Jared] came up with a unique board to synchronize the six motors and prevent collisions between faces. Machine vision is provided by just two PlayStation Eye cameras; mounted at opposite corners of the enclosure, each camera can see three faces at a time. They had a little trouble distinguishing the red from the orange, which was solved with a Sharpie.

[Ben] and [Jared] think they can shave a few milliseconds here and there with tweaks, but even as it is, this is a great lesson in optimization and integration. We’ve covered Rubik’s robots before, like this two-motor slow and steady design and this six-motor build that solves a cube in less than a second.

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