Parts We Miss: The Mains Transformer

About two decades ago there was a quiet revolution in electronics which went unnoticed by many, but which overturned a hundred years of accepted practice. You’d have noticed it if you had a mobile phone, the charger for your Nokia dumbphone around the year 2000 would have been a weighty device, while the one for your feature phone five years later would have been about the same size but relatively light as a feather. The electronics industry abandoned the mains transformer from their wall wart power supplies and other places in favour of the much lighter and efficient switch mode power supply. Small mains transformers which had been ubiquitous in electronics projects for many years, slowly followed suit.

Coils Of Wire, Doing Magic With Electrons

Inside and outside views of Jenny Lists's home made linear power supply from about 1990
This was a state of the art project for a future Hackaday scribe back in 1990.

A transformer works through transferring alternating electrical current into magnetic flux by means of a coil of wire, and then converting the flux back to electric current in a second coil. The flux is channeled through a ferromagnetic transformer core made of iron in the case of a mains transformer, and the ratio of input voltage to output voltage is the same as the turns ratio between the two. They provide a safe isolation between their two sides, and in the case of a mains transformer they often have a voltage regulating function as their core material is selected to saturate should the input voltage become too high. The efficiency of a transformer depends on a range of factors including its core material and the frequency of operation, with transformer size decreasing with frequency as efficiency increases.

When energy efficiency rules were introduced over recent decades they would signal the demise of the mains transformer, as the greater efficiency of a switch-mode supply became the easiest way to achieve the energy savings. In a sense the mains transformer never went away, as it morphed into the small ferrite-cored part running at a higher frequency in the switch-mode circuitry, but it’s fair to say that the iron-cored transformers of old are now a rare sight. Does this matter? It’s time to unpack some of the issues surrounding a small power supply. Continue reading “Parts We Miss: The Mains Transformer”

Minitel, The 1980s Console Game Platform You Never Had

We’ve made no secret over the years here at Hackaday of our admiration for the Minitel. The ubiquitous CRT terminals which made 1980s France the most connected country in the world never made it to where we grew up, but OH! how we wanted them to! We’ve seen quite a few Minitels repurposed as serial terminals here, but for the time being we think [Louis H] has won the Minitel Internet with his plugin game console cartridges. These have a DIN plug to fit the Minitel serial port, and present themselves as a serial game.

The cartridge itself is an extremely simple affair, a tube which fits over the DIN plug body, containing a slim PCB with an ATmega328 and its supporting components. The games must be programmed such that their gameplay can work over a serial interface, so as an example the first game is a version of 2048.

We applaud both the simplicity and creativity of this project, and we love it that a new 1980s console we never knew we had has been unearthed, without the need for hardware modification. Meanwhile if you’d like to peer inside an Alcatel Telic 1, we can take you there.

FOSDEM Saved, With 3D Printing

If you were to consider what the most important component of a hacker event might be, the chances are you’d pick something that’s part of the program, the ambiance, or the culture. But as the organizers of FOSDEM in Brussels found out, what’s really the most important part of such an event is the toilet paper.

If you can’t keep the supplies coming, you’re in trouble, and since they only had one key for the dispensers across the whole event, they were heading for a sticky situation. But this is a hacker event, and our community is resourceful. The folks on the FreeCAD booth created a model of the key which they shared via the Ondsel collaboration tools, while those on the Prusa booth fired up their Prusa XL and ran off a set of keys to keep the event well supplied.

Perhaps for many of us, the act of running off a 3D model and printing it is such a mundane task as to be unremarkable — and indeed the speed at which they were able to do it points to it being a straightforward task for them. But the sight of a bunch of hardware hackers saving the event by doing what they do best is still one to warm the cockles of our hearts. We’re fairly certain it’s not the first time we’ve seen a bit of clandestine venue hacking save an event, but perhaps for the sake of those involved, we’d better not go into it.

A Tube Tester Laid Bare

There’s still a mystique around vacuum tubes long after they were rendered obsolete by solid state devices, and many continue to experiment with them. They can be bought new, but most of us still come to them through the countless old tubes that still litter our junk boxes. But how to know whether your find is any good? [Rob’s Fixit Shop] took a look at a tube tester, once a fairly ubiquitous item, but now a rare sight.

To look at it’s a box with an array of tube sockets, a meter, and a set of switches to set the pinout for the tube under test. We expected it to use a common-cathode circuit, but instead it measures leakage between the grid and the other electrodes, a measure of how good the vacuum in the device is. In a worrying turn this instrument can deliver an electric shock, something he traces to a faulty indicator light leading to the chassis. We are however still inclined to see it as anything but safe, because the lack of mains isolation still exposes the grid to unwary fingers.

All in all though it’s an interesting introduction to an unusual instrument, and given a suitable isolating transformer we wouldn’t mind the chance to have one ourselves. If you need to test a tube and don’t have one of these, don’t worry. It’s possible to roll your own.

Continue reading “A Tube Tester Laid Bare”

Revisiting A Z80 Game From 1990

Back in the days of 8-bit computers, like no doubt many readers of similar age, we wrote little games. First in BASIC, then augmented with little machine code speed-ups. We didn’t come close to [Óscar Toledo Gutiérrez] though, who’s reverse engineering a 2K all-machine-code game he wrote back in 1990. As a tale of software archaeology it’s fascinating.

The game itself is an avoid-the-monsters platformer with plenty of ladders for the little sprite-based protagonist to run down. The computer was a Mexican homebrew educational machine with a TMS9118 display chip and an AY-3-8910 synthesizer, so the result had both color and music. His run through the code breaks it down neatly into individual sections, so it’s possible to see what’s going on without an in-depth knowledge of machine code.

He readily admits it bears all the hallmarks of an 11-year-old’s knowledge at the time, and that it has some parts less elegant, but nevertheless it’s something of an achievement at any age. It was out of date gameplay-wise in 1990 but in 1982 it could probably have been bought on a tape by eager kids. Here in 2024 he’s got it for download should you have a Colecovision or an MSX. There’s a gameplay video below the break, take a look.

Continue reading “Revisiting A Z80 Game From 1990”

Schematics, For A Modern Flagship Phone

The mobile phone is an expensive and often surprisingly fragile device, whose manufacturers are notorious for making them as difficult to repair as possible. Glued-together cases and unreplaceable batteries abound, and technical information is non-existent. But amongst all that there’s one manufacturer with a different approach — Fairphone. Case in point, they’ve released the full service guide including schematics for their flagship Fairphone 5.

Fairphone’s selling point is the repairability and internal accessibility of their products and of course they’ve made hay with this as a marketing opportunity. But aside from that, it’s a fascinating chance to look in-depth at a modern smartphone from the inside out. We see the next-level PCB layout and how everything is so neatly packed into the minimum space, all without resorting to a heat gun.

It’s great to have another hackable phone, and fair play to Fairphone for releasing all this stuff, but perhaps the most interesting part from where we’re sitting is how and where this phone is being sold. There have been hackable phones before, for many the Pinephone will spring to mind, but they have always been sold to an audience who buy to hack. Here in Europe where this is being written, the Fairphone is being sold as a consumer device. It won’t shake Apple or Samsung from their perches, but for a hackable device to be so generally available to those who wish to do things with it can never be a bad thing.

We took a quick look at Fairphone back in 2015, when they launched.

It Wasn’t DOOM That Killed The Amiga

If you were the type of person who might have read Hackaday had we been around in the late 1980s or early 1990s, it’s a reasonable guess that you would have had a 16-bit home computer on your desk, and furthermore that it might have been a Commodore Amiga. These machines gave the best bang for the buck in those days with their impressive multimedia capabilities, and they gained a fervent following which persists to this day. [Carl Svensson] was one of them, and he’s penned a retrospective on the demise of the platform with the benefit of much hindsight.

The heyday of the Amiga from its 1985 launch until the days of the A1200 in the early-to-mid 1990s saw Moore’s Law show perhaps its fastest effects for the consumer. In that decade the PC world jumped from the 8088 to the Pentium, and from a PC speaker and CGA if you were lucky, to a Sound Blaster 16 and accelerated SVGA. By comparison the Amiga didn’t change much except in model numbers and a few extra graphics modes, and when a faster processor came it was far to little too late.

Defender of the Crown, released in 1986

There’s a well-worn path with some justification of blaming Commodore-s notoriously awful management for the debacle, but the piece goes beyond that into the mid ’90s. His conclusion is that what really killed the Amiga was that the CPU price reductions which defined the x86 world at that time never came to 68k or PowerPC lines, and that along with the architecture zealotry of the fan base meant that there would never be the much-longed-for revival.

He also takes a look at the other home computer platforms of the era, including the “all its killer architecture managed to kill was, sadly, Atari itself” Atari Falcon, and the Acorn Archimedes, which also lives on for enthusiasts and is perhaps the most accessible survivor. From here having also the benefit of hindsight we can’t disagree with him on his assessment, so perhaps it’s best to look at the Amiga not as the platform we should rightfully still be using, but the great stepping stone which provided us a useful computer back in t he day without breaking the bank.