These days, having a little computer in your pocket is par for the course. But forty years ago, this was a new and high tech idea. [The 8-Bit Guy] has a great video covering the state of the art in pocket computers and personal digital assistants from the 1980s and 1990s. You can see the video below.
There are a lot of familiar faces on the video including the Radio Shack pocket computers, Palm Pilots, and some more obscure machines of varying quality.
It might impress you to know that the Radio Shack TRS-80 PC-1 pocket computer actually had two CPUs. Of course, each CPU was a 4-bit processor running at 256 kHz, so maybe not as impressive as it sounds. Still, what a marvel in its day, programming BASIC on a 24-character LCD.
We always like citizen science projects, so we were very interested in DECO, the Distributed Electronic Cosmic-ray Observatory. That sounds like a physical location, but it is actually a network of cell phones that can detect cosmic rays using an ordinary Android phone’s camera sensor.
There may be some privacy concerns as the phone camera will take a picture and upload it every so often, and it probably also taxes the battery a bit. However, if you really want to do citizen science, maybe dedicate an old phone, put electrical tape over the lens and keep it plugged in. In fact, they encourage you to cover the lens to reduce background light and keep the phone plugged in.
The Casio F-91W is easily one of the most iconic and popular watches worldwide. But what’s cool about having the same exact thing as millions of other people? Not much, unless of course you modify it to make it your own. That’s exactly what [Gautchh] did to their beloved watch. Between permanent dark mode, stereo blue LED backlights, and a new strap, this timepiece really stands out from the crowd.
Once [Gautchh] got the watch open, the first order of business was to re-polarize the LCD with a different film so the digits are light and the background is dark. This watch ships with a single green backlight LED that’s fairly faint, so [Gautchh] upgraded it to bright blue and added a second 1206 LED in parallel on the other side of the readout. Finally, they replaced the rubber strap with something less likely to chafe.
We think dark mode looks great, though [Gautchh] says it requires a little bit of training to hold your wrist just right to make it readable. They make these mods look easy, but they likely aren’t for the faint of heart. If you want to give it a shot, there are good step-by-step instructions and several pictures to help out.
Over the years, we’ve seen plenty of hackers repurpose their Kindle or similar e-reader to reap the benefits of its electronic paper display. Usually this takes the form of some software running on the reader itself, since cracking the firmware is a lot easier than pulling out the panel and figuring out how to operate it independently. But what if somebody had already done that hard work for you?
Enter the Inkplate. By pairing a recycled Kindle display with an ESP32, Croatian electronics company e-radionica says they’ve not only created an open hardware e-paper display that’s easy for hackers and makers to use, but keeps electronic waste out of the landfill. Last year the $99 USD 6 inch version of the Inkplate ended its CrowdSupply campaign at over 920% of its original goal. The new 9.7 inch model is priced at $129, and so far managed to blow past its own funding goal just hours after the campaign went live. Clearly, the demand is there.
The new model’s e-paper display isn’t just larger, it also features a higher 1200 x 825 resolution and reduced refresh time. Outside of the screen improvements, you’ll also find more GPIO pins, an RTC module to keep more accurate time, and a USB Type-C port for both programming and power. You also get a choice of languages to use, with both Arduino and MicroPython libraries available for interfacing with the display. Interestingly, the Inkplate also features a so-called “Peripheral Mode” that allows you to draw graphics primitives on the screen using commands sent over UART.
While we’ve recently seen some very promising efforts to repurpose old e-paper displays, the turn-key solution offered by the Inkplate is admittedly very compelling. If you’re looking for an easy way to jump on the electronic paper bandwagon that works out of the box, this might be your chance.
Folks who like the take the old Amiga out for the occasional Sunday drive usually do it because they have wistful memories of the simpler times. Back when you could edit documents or view spreadsheets on a machine that had RAM measured in kilobytes instead of gigabytes. But even the most ardent retro computer aficionado usually allows for a bit of modern convenience.
Enter the mouSTer. This tiny device converts a common USB HID mouse into something older computers can understand. It even supports using Sony’s PlayStation 4 controller as a generic game pad. While the firmware is still getting tweaked, the team has confirmed its working on several classic machines and believe it should work on many more. Considering the prices that some of these old peripherals command on the second hand market, using a USB mouse or controller on your vintage computer isn’t just more convenient, but will likely be a lot cheaper.
Confirmed retrocomputing superfan [Drygol] is a member of the team working on mouSTer, and in a recent post to his retrohax blog, he talks a bit about what’s happened since his last update over the summer. He also talks a bit about the challenges they’ve faced to get it into production. Even if you’re not into poking around on vintage computers, there are lessons to be learned here about what it takes to move from a handful of prototypes to something you can actually sell to the public.
We especially liked the details about the mouSTer enclosure, or lack thereof. Originally [Drygol] says they were going to have the cases injection molded, but despite initial interest from a few companies they talked to, nobody ended up biting because it needed to be done with relatively uncommon low pressure injection. While 3D printing is still an option, the team ended up using clear heatshrink tubing to create a simple conformal protective shell over the electronics. Personally we think it looks great like this, but it sounds like this is only a temporary solution until something a bit more robust can be implemented.
Vacuum tubes ruled electronics for several decades and while you might think of them as simple devices analogous to a transistor or FET, there were many special types. We’re all familiar with nixie tubes that act as numeric displays, and there are other specialty tubes that work as a photomultiplier, to detect radiation, or even generate microwaves. But one of the most peculiar and distinctive specialty tubes has an intriguing name: a magic eye tube. When viewed from the top, you see a visual indication that rotates around a central point, the out ring glowing while the inner is dark, like an iris and pupil.
These tubes date back to the RCA 6E5 in 1935. At the time, test equipment that used needles was expensive to make, so there was always a push to replace them with something cheaper. They were something like a stunted cathode ray tube. In fact, the inventor, Allen DuMont, was well known for innovations in television. An anode held a coating that would glow when hit with electrons — usually green, but sometimes other colors. Later tubes would show a stripe going up and down the tube instead of a circle, but you still call them magic eyes.
The indicator part of this virtual meter took the form of a shadow. Based on the applied signal, the shadow would be larger or smaller. Many tubes also contained a triode which would drive the tube from a signal.
Hackaday editors Elliot Williams and Mike Szczys sift through a week of excellent hacks. Big news is of course the Raspberry Pi microcontroller which Elliot had a few weeks to play around with on the bench before the announcement — it has some fascinating programmable modules (PIO) built in! Philips designed an LED light bulb that under-drives the LEDs for efficiency and long life. And Amazon added a nice little hardware disable circuit for the microphone in the Echo Flex — a rather extreme teardown shows how they did it. Plus we talk about an open source long-range RC protocol, wall-sized pen plotter art, and a 3D printer that angles the nozzle to avoid needing support.
Take a look at the links below if you want to follow along, and as always, tell us what you think about this episode in the comments!