Using such a common header pinout for the Z80 computer allows it to be used with a variety of readily-available Arduino shields. This compatibility is achieved with an analog-digital converter and a 3.3 V regulator, mimicking the pins found in an Arduino Uno. The code, available on GitHub, includes an extensive explanation and walkthrough over the process in which the Mega takes over the bus from the Z80 to function as a fully-featured debugger. Programs can be loaded through embedding an assembly listing into the Mega’s sketch, or, once the debugger is up you can also upload a compiled hex file through the serial connection.
At the end of August I made the trip to Hebden Bridge to give a talk at OSHCamp 2019, a weekend of interesting stuff in the Yorkshire Dales. Instead of a badge, this event gives each attendee an electronic kit provided by a sponsor, and this year’s one was particularly interesting. The RC2014 Micro is the latest iteration of the RC2014 Z80-based retrocomputer, and it’s a single-board computer that strips the RC2014 down to a bare minimum. Time to spend an evening in the hackerspace assembling it, to take a look!
It’s An SBC, But Not As You Know It!
The kit arrives in a very compact heat-sealed anti-static packet, and upon opening was revealed to contain the PCB, a piece of foam carrying the integrated circuits, a few passives, and a very simple getting started and assembly guide. The simplicity of the design becomes obvious from the chip count, there’s the Z80 itself, a 6850 UART, 27C512 ROM, 62256 RAM, 74HCT04 for clock generation, and a 74HCT32 for address decoding. The quick-start is adequate, but there is also a set of more comprehensive online instructions (PDF) available.
Assembly of a through-hole kit is hardly challenging, though this one is about as densely-packed as it’s possible to make a through-hole kit with DIP integrated circuits. As with most through-hole projects, the order you pick is everything: resistors first, then capacitors, reset button and crystal, followed by integrated circuits.
I’m always a bit shy about soldering ICs directly to a circuit board so I supplemented my kit with sockets and jumpers. The jumpers are used to select an FTDI power source and ROM addresses for Grant Searle’s ROM BASIC distribution or Steve Cousins’ SCM 1.0 machine code monitor, and the kit instructions recommended hard-wiring them with cut-off resistor wires. There was no row of pins for the expansion bus because this kit was supplied without the backplane that’s a feature of the larger RC2014 kits, but it did have a set of right-angle pins for an FTDI serial cable.
Your Arduino Doesn’t Have A Development Environment On Board!
Having assembled my RC2014 Mini and given it a visual inspection it was time to power it up and see whether it worked. Installing the jumper for FTDI power, I attached my serial cable and plugged it into a USB port.
A really nice touch is that the Micro has the colours for the serial cable wires on the reverse side of the PCB, taking away the worry of getting it the wrong way round. A quick screen /dev/ttyUSB0 115200 to get a serial terminal from a bash prompt, hit the reset button, and I was rewarded with a BASIC interpreter. My RC2014 Micro worked first time, and I could straight away give it BASIC commands such as PRINT "Hello World!" and be rewarded with the expected output.
So I’ve built a little Z80 single board computer, and with considerably less work than that required for the fully modular version of the RC2014. Its creator Spencer tells me that the Micro was originally designed as a bargain-basement RC2014 as a multibuy for workshops and similar activities, being very similar to his RC2014 mini board but without provision for a Pi Zero terminal and a few other components. It lacks the extra hardware required for a more comprehensive operating system such as CP/M, so I’m left with about as minimal an 8-bit computer as it’s possible to build using parts available in 2019. My question then is this: What can I do with it?
So. What Can I Do With An 8-bit SBC?
My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81, how could it possibly compare this small kit that was a giveaway at a conference? Although the Sinclair included a black-and-white TV display interface, tape backup interface, and keyboard, the core computing power was not too far different in its abilities from this RC2014 Micro — after all, it’s the same processor chip. It was the platform that introduced a much younger me to computing, and straight away I devoured Sinclair BASIC and then went on to write machine code on it. It became a general-purpose calculation and computing scratchpad for repetitive homework due to the ease of BASIC programming, and with my Maplin 8255 I/O port card I was able to use it in the way a modern tech-aware kid might use an Arduino.
The RC2014 Micro is well placed to fill all of those functions as a BASIC and machine code learning platform on which to get down to the hardware in a way you simply can’t on most modern computers, and though the Arduino represents a far more sensible choice for hardware interfacing there is also an RC2014 backplane and I/O board available for the Micro’s expansion bus should you wish to have a go. Will I use it for these things? It’s certainly much more convenient than its full-sized sibling, so it’s quite likely I’ll be getting my hands dirty with a little bit of Z80 code. It’s astounding how much you can forget in 35 years!
The RC2014 Micro can be bought from Spencer’s Tindie store, with substantial bulk discounts for those workshop customers. If you want the full retrocomputer experience it’s a good choice as it provides about as simple a way into Z80 hardware and software as possible. The cost of simplicity comes in having no non-volatile storage and in lacking the hardware to run CP/M, but it has to be borne in mind that it’s the bottom of the RC2014 range. For comparison you can read our review of the original RC2014, over which we’d say the chief advantage of the Micro is its relative ease of construction.
Homebrew computers are the ‘in thing’ these days and the Zilog Z80 is the most popular choice for making one on your own. We have seen some pretty awesome builds but [Martin K]’s Z-berry is the smallest on record yet. As the name suggests, the retrocomputer conforms to the Raspberry Pi form factor which includes the GPIO header.
The Z-berry is designed with a Z80 CPU running at 10 MHz (20 MHz possible) and comes with 32 kB ROM
and 512 kB RAM. In addition to the serial interface, the computer boasts an I2C bus, an SPI bus, and a PS/2 keyboard connector to boot. [Martin K] has a video where the finished system is enclosed in a Raspberry Pi case and has an I2C OLED display attached and working.
[Martin K] has posted a lot of details on how to make your own Z-berry which includes the BOM, schematic and preliminary information. We reached out to him to find out more about the software which is stable and available on request along with PCBs and sample code. Additionally, this project promises to draw much less current than the Raspberry Pi and should prove useful for anyone looking to create a retro solution to a modern problem.
[Alexis] sent in a single board computer he’s been working on. The project goal of his build was making it easily reproducible. From looking at the schematics, it’s one of the simplest fully-functional computers we’ve seen. The build runs CP/M 2.2 off of two 3.5 inch floppies. This opens up a lot of options as to what software is already available. Although it operates over a serial terminal, [Alexis] pretty much duplicated an Osborne I, only at double the speed.
[Alexis] got a little e-fame from his earlier 8088 homebrew computer built from very early 8088’s rescued from an electronics junk shop. These 8088 computers made the blog rounds by playing Still Alive with a SID chip from a Commodore 64 and a YM2151 FM synth chip.
For now, I guess we’ll have to settle for a video of [Alexis]’ Z80 computer running CP/M. Check out a video after the break of his computer running the greatest Infocom adventure, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The N8VEM is a homebrew computer project based on the classic Z80 microprocessor. It’s designed to be easy to build using large TTL DIP components instead of SMD devices. It runs the CP/M operating system and all drives are virtual in RAM/ROM. While the base hardware is interesting, we really like the potential for expansion using a backplane. Have a look at the project’s Hardware Overview to see extra boards like the bus monitor and the prototyping board. We found out about this project on [Oldbitcollector]’s blog; he’s using a Parallax Professional Development Board to create a VT100 terminal for the N8VEM.
The world of 8-bit retrocomputing splits easily into tribes classified by their choice of processor. There are 6809 enthusiasts, 6502 diehards, and Z80 lovers, each sharing a bond to their particular platform that often threads back through time to whatever was the first microcomputer they worked with. Here it’s the Z80 as found in the Sinclair ZX81, but for you it might be the 6502 from an Apple ][. For [Craig Andrews] it’s the 8085, and after many years away from the processor he’s finally been able to return to it and recreate his first ever design using it. The SBC-85 is not wire-wrapped as the original was, instead he’s well on the way to creating an entire ecosystem based around an edge-connector backplane.
The CPU board is an entire computer in its own right as can be seen in the video below the break, and pairs the 8085 with 8k of RAM, a couple of 2732 4k EPROMs, and an 8155 interface chip. This last component is especially versatile, providing an address latch, timer, I/O ports, and even an extra 256 bytes of RAM. Finally there is some glue logic and a MAX232 level shifter for a serial port, with no UART needed since the 8085 has one built-in. The minimal computer capable with this board can thus be slimmed down significantly, something that competing processors of the mid 1970s often struggled with.
Craig’s web site is shaping up to be a fascinating resource for 8085 enthusiasts, and so far the system sports that backplane and a bus monitor card. We don’t see much of the 8085 here at Hackaday, perhaps because it wasn’t the driver for any of the popular 8-bit home computers. But it’s an architecture that many readers will find familiar due to its 8080 heritage, and could certainly be found in many control applications before the widespread adoption of dedicated microcontrollers. It would be interesting to see where Craig takes this next, with more cards, and perhaps making a rival to the RC2014 over in Z80 country.
With all the hoopla surrounding the recent launch of the new Raspberry Pi 4, it’s easy to overlook another event in the Pi calendar. July will see the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Raspberry Pi Model B+ that ushered in a revised form factor. It’s familiar to us now, but at the time it was a huge change to a 40-pin expansion connector, four mounting holes, no composite video socket, and more carefully arranged interface connectors.
As the Pi 4 with its dual mini-HDMI connectors and reversed Ethernet and USB positions marks the first significant deviation from the standard set by the B+ and its successors, it’s worth taking a look at the success of the form factor and its wider impact. Is it still something that the Raspberry Pi designers can take in a new direction, or like so many standards before it has it passed from its originator to the collective ownership of the community of manufacturers that support it?