A homebrew computer built inside plexiglass cases with lots of LEDs

The Coleman Z80 Is A Modern Take On A 1970s Computer

[Joshua Coleman] likes to design his own computers. Sometimes, that means drawing up bus architectures,  memory maps and I/O port pinouts. Other times, he can focus his efforts more on the general aesthetics, as well as on building a great set of peripherals, as he shows in his latest ColemanZ80 project. Thanks to the RC2014 architecture defining most of the essential features of a classic Z80 computing platform, [Joshua] was able to design a modern retrocomputer that’s not only genuinely useful, but also looks as if it came off a production line yesterday.

The external design is a sight to behold: bright red laser-cut acrylic pieces form a neat, semi-transparent case with ventilation slots on the sides and lots of blinkenlights on the front. Inspired by 1970s classics like the Altair 8800, the front panel gives the user a direct view of the machine’s internal state and allows simple command inputs through a series of tumbler switches. The CPU, RAM and other basic devices are housed in one case, with all the expansion modules in a second one, linked to the mainboard through a 40-wire flatcable.

A hand-built Z80 computer's mainboard
Lots of classic chips, but also loads of hand-routed wires grace the ColemanZ80’s mainboard.

Although the mainboard closely follows the RC2014 design, [Joshua] went through a lot of effort to tune the system to his specific needs. The expansion boards he built include an NS16550 UART to replace the default 68B50, a battery-backed real-time clock, a YM2149-based sound card and even a speech synthesizer module built around the classic SP0256 chip, of Speak & Spell fame. An even more unusual feature is the presence of an AM9511, one of the earliest math coprocessors ever made, to speed up floating-point calculations. All of these modules were built entirely by hand on prototype boards: we can barely imagine how much time this must have taken.

Output devices include a VGA adapter courtesy of a Raspberry Pi Pico as well as a regular 4-digit 7-segment LED display and a set of classic HP “bubble” LEDs. [Joshua] runs several demos in his video (embedded below), ranging from computing the Mandelbrot set to playing chiptunes on the YM2149. There’s plenty of scope for further expansion, too: [Joshua] plans to build more peripherals including a floppy drive interface and a module to operate a robotic car.

This is not the first Coleman Z80 computer: the previous version ran on an architecture [Joshua] designed all by himself. We’ve seen several other impressive RC2014 derivatives, like a tiny micro version and this Altair-inspired case.

Continue reading “The Coleman Z80 Is A Modern Take On A 1970s Computer”

The Gallium Nitride Revolution

[Asianometry] has been learning about gallium nitride semiconductors and shares what he knows in an informative video you can see below. This semiconductor material has a much higher bandgap voltage than the more common silicon. This makes it useful for applications that need higher efficiency and less heating.

The original use of the material was for LEDs, but we are seeing increasing use of the material in high-power applications like chargers. Phone chargers are especially common using this technology. This isn’t surprising when your think about how many phone chargers are needed worldwide every day.

Other places that need power-efficient devices are data centers, electric vehicles, and battery-operated equipment. It isn’t clear, though, that we can make enough of the material to meet global demand if it becomes extremely popular. This is especially true because the machinery and processes used to create silicon devices don’t work with gallium nitride. Silicon carbide is a competitor, and it could be easier to create, even though it isn’t as efficient as gallium nitride.

We’ve looked at gallium nitride before, and we are sure we are going to be seeing it again. Silicon carbide may one day operate on the surface of Venus. You can even use it to make homemade LEDs.

Continue reading “The Gallium Nitride Revolution”

NTC Thermistor To ThingSpeak Meter Makes A Great IoT Starter Project

There are a lot of IoT solutions and frameworks out there, and [Davide] demonstrates how to make a simple data logging and tracking application with his ESP8266-to-ThingSpeak project, which reads up to four NTC (negative temperature coefficient) thermistors and sends the data to ThinkSpeak over WiFi.

IoT can be a pretty deep rabbit hole, so if you’re looking for a simple project to demonstrate the working parts and provide a starting point, the project’s GitHub repository might help you get started. We’ve also seen ThingSpeak used to track toilet paper sheet usage, which is a nice demonstration of how to interface to a physical object with moving parts.

On the other hand, if you find reading NTC thermistors to be the more interesting part, you’re in luck because [Davide] has more information about that along with a modified ESP8266 Arduino library. Watch a tour of his temperature logging hardware in action in the video, embedded below.

Continue reading “NTC Thermistor To ThingSpeak Meter Makes A Great IoT Starter Project”

More Detail On That Fantastic Lego OLED Brick

It’s always great when we get a chance to follow up on a previous project with more information, or further developments. So we’re happy that [“Ancient” James Brown] just dropped a new video showing the assembly of his Lego brick with a tiny OLED screen inside it. The readers are too, apparently — we got at least half a dozen tips on this one.

We’ve got to admit that this one’s a real treat, with a host of interesting skills on display. Our previous coverage on these bedazzled bricks was disappointingly thin on details, and now the original tweets even seem to have disappeared entirely. In case you didn’t catch the original post, [James] found a way to embed a microcontroller and a remarkably small OLED screen into a Lego-compatible brick — technically a “slope 45 2×2, #3039” — that does a great job of standing in for a tiny computer monitor.

Continue reading “More Detail On That Fantastic Lego OLED Brick”

Single Photon Detection With Photomultipliers

Unless you are an audiophile, you likely think of tubes as mostly relegated to people who work on old technology. However, photomultiplier tubes are still useful compared to more modern sensors, and [Jaynes Network] has a look into how they work, especially with scintillating detectors.

The RCA photomultiplier he examines has ten stages and can detect even a single photon. Combined with a scintillating detector, they make good radiation detectors.

We can’t help but smile when we hear someone obviously in love with the engineering behind a tube like this. We get it. The inside of the tube is crowded, so it is hard to identify the dynodes and other portions, but some diagrams make it readily apparent how the tube does its job.

We were impressed with how good the documentation that came with the tube looked, considering its age. We mean the condition it was in. The document itself was obviously a reproduction of a typewritten document with hand-drawn figures and graphs.

We were hoping for some footage of the tube in action, but we’ll have to wait for a future video. We are betting that is coming, though. Although there are some solid-state detectors, they are not suitable for all applications. There was a time, though, when the tubes were in many applications, including X-ray scanners and photography equipment.

Continue reading “Single Photon Detection With Photomultipliers”

All About USB-C: Connector Mechanics

There’s two cases when hackers have to think about USB-C connector mechanics. The first is when a USB-C connector physically breaks, and the second is when we need to put a connector on our own board. Let’s go through both of them.

Clean That Connector

What if a socket on your phone or laptop fails? First off, it could be due to dust or debris. There’s swabs you can buy to clean a USB-C connector; perhaps adding some isopropyl alcohol or other cleaning-suitable liquids, you can get to a “good enough” state. You can also reflow pins on your connector, equipped with hot air or a sharp soldering iron tip, as well as some flux – when it comes to mechanical failures, this tends to remedy them, even for a short period of time.

How could a connector fail, exactly? Well, one of the pins could break off inside the plastic, or just get too dirty to make contact. Consider a device with a USB-C charging and data socket, with USB 2.0 but without high-speed pairs – which is to say, sadly, the majority of the phones out there. Try plugging it into a USB-A charger using a USB-A to USB-C cable. Does it charge, even if slowly? Then, your VBUS pins are okay.

Plug it into a Type-C charger using a Type-C cable, and now the CC pins are involved. Does it charge in both orientations? Then both of your CC pins are okay. Does it charge in only one orientation? One of the CC pins has to be busted. Then, you can check USB 2.0 pins, used for data transfer and legacy charging. Plug the phone into a computer using a USB-A to USB-C cable. Does it enumerate as a device? Does it enumerate in both orientations? If not, you might want to clean D- and D+ pins specifically, maybe even both sets. Continue reading “All About USB-C: Connector Mechanics”

Seriously, Don’t Buy This Mopping Robot

The original Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner led to loads of clones and lookalikes over the years, and one of them is the ALEE mopping “robot”. [Raymond] tears it down and reveals what’s inside. Turns out it contains mostly regret! Although it does host some design cleverness in its own way.

Technically the ALEE, which cost [Raymond] a cool $85 USD, is not a robot since it has no sensors. And unless a dragging a wet cloth pad kept moist by a crude drip reservoir counts as “mopping”, it’s not much of a mop, either.

This one-motor unit (and tiny battery) is responsible for both motion and direction control. There are no sensors.

There is one interesting aspect to this thing, and it’s to do with the drive system and direction control. The whole thing is driven by a single motor, and not a very powerful one. The center of the robot has a pair of wheels that are both driven at the same rate and speed, and the wheel assembly can pivot around its axis. That’s about it. There are not even any bump sensors of any kind.

So how does this thing move, let alone change direction to (poorly) emulate an original Roomba-like crisscross pattern? The control board appears to have one job: if the motor stalls, reverse direction. That, combined with the fact that the drive unit can pivot and the enclosure is dragging a wet rag, appears to be all the chaos that’s needed to turn bonking into a wall into an undefined direction change.

It’s not great performance, but it sure is some impressive cost-cutting. You can see it bonk around unimpressively in a short video, embedded below the page break.

Just to be clear, [Raymond] knows perfectly well what he’s in for when he obtains cheap tech items from overseas retailers for teardowns. The ALEE does have some mildly interesting secrets to share, but overall, it really wasn’t worth it. Sometimes cheap tech has hacker potential, but there’s no such potential here. Seriously, don’t buy this thing.

Continue reading “Seriously, Don’t Buy This Mopping Robot”