For many years now, the so-called ‘Blue Pill’ STM32 MCU development board has been a staple in the hobbyist community. Finding its origins as an apparent Maple Mini clone, the diminutive board is easily to use in breadboard projects thanks to its dual rows of 0.1″ pin sockets. Best of all, it only costs a few bucks, even if you can only really buy it via sellers on AliExpress and EBay.
Starting last year, boards with a black soldermask and an STM32F4 Access (entry-level) series MCUs including the F401 and F411 began to appear. These boards with the nickname ‘Black Pill’ or ‘Black Pill 2’. F103 boards also existed with black soldermask for a while, so it’s confusing. The F4xx Black Pills are available via the same sources as the F103-based Blue Pill ones, for a similar price, but feature an MCU that’s considerably newer and more powerful. This raises the question of whether it makes sense at this point to switch to these new boards.
Since the late 60s, Moore’s law has predicted with precision that the number of semiconductors that will fit on a chip about doubles every two years. While this means more and more powerful computers, every year, it also means that old computers can be built on smaller and cheaper hardware. This project from [Bjoern] shows just how small, too, as he squeezes a PET 2001 onto the STM32 Blue Pill.
While the PET 2001 was an interesting computer built by Commodore this project wasn’t meant to be a faithful recreation, but rather to test the video output of the Blue Pill, with the PET emulation a secondary goal. It outputs a composite video signal which takes up a good bit of processing power, but the PET emulation still works, although it is slightly slow and isn’t optimized perfectly. [Bjoern] also wired up a working keyboard matrix as well although missed a few wire placements and made up for it in the software.
With his own home-brew software running on the $2 board, he has something interesting to display over his composite video output. While we can’t say we’d emulate an entire PC just to get experience with composite video, we’re happy to see someone did. If you’d like to see a more faithful recreation of this quirky piece of computing history, we’ve got that covered as well.
What makes a cyberdeck? Looking as though it came from an alternate reality version of the 1980s is a good start, but certainly isn’t required. If you’re really trying to adhere to the cyberpunk ethos, any good deck should be modular enough that it can be easily repaired and upgraded over time. In fact, if it’s not in a constant state of evolution and flux, you’ve probably done something wrong. If you can hit those goals and make it look retro-futuristic at the same time, even better.
Which is why the Clockwork DevTerm is such an interesting device. It ticks off nearly every box that the custom cyberdeck builds we’ve covered over the last couple years have, while at the same time being approachable enough for a more mainstream audience. You won’t need a 3D printer, soldering iron, or hot glue gun to build your own DevTerm. Of course if you do have those tools and the skills to put them to work, then this might be the ideal platform to build on.
With a full-sized QWERTY keyboard and widescreen display, the DevTerm looks a lot like early portable computers such as the TRS-80 Model 100. But unlike the machines it draws inspiration from, the display is a 6.8 inch 1280 x 480 IPS panel, and there’s no pokey Intel 8085 chip inside. The $220 USD base model is powered by the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3, and if you need a little more punch, there are a few higher priced options that slot in a more powerful custom module. Like the Waveshare Pi CM laptop we recently looked at, there’s sadly no support for the newer CM4; but at least the DevTerm is modular enough that it doesn’t seem out of the question that Clockwork could release a new mainboard down the line. Or perhaps somebody in the community will even do it for them.
Speaking of which, the board in the DevTerm has been designed in two pieces so that “EXT Module” side can be swapped out with custom hardware without compromising the core functionality of the system. The stock board comes with extra USB ports, a micro USB UART port for debugging, a CSI camera connector, and an interface for an included thermal printer that slots into a bay on the rear of the computer. Clockwork says they hope the community really runs wild with their own EXT boards, especially since the schematics and relevant design files for the entire system are all going to be put on GitHub and released under the GPL v3.
They say that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is, and if we’re honest, we’re getting a little of that from the DevTerm. An (CPU BLOBs aside!) open hardware portable Linux computer with this kind of modularity is basically a hacker’s dream come true, and thus far the only way to get one was to build it yourself. It’s hard to believe that Clockwork will be able to put something like this out for less than the cost of a cheap laptop without cutting some serious corners somewhere, but we’d absolutely love to be proven wrong when it’s released next year.
For anyone serious about mining cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, we’re well past the point where a standard desktop computer is of much use. While an array of high-end GPUs is still viable for some currencies, the real heavy hitters are using custom mining hardware that makes use of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to crunch the numbers. But eventually even the most powerful mining farm will start to show its age, and many end up selling on the second hand market for pennies on the dollar.
According to [xjtuecho], it takes a little bit of work to get the EBAZ4205 ready for experimentation. For one thing, you may have to solder on your own micro SD slot depending on where you got the board from. You’ll also need to add a couple diodes to configure which storage device to boot from and to select where the board pulls power from.
Once you’re done, you’ll have a dual core Cortex A9 Linux board with 256 MB DDR3 and a Artix-7 FPGA featuring 28K logic elements to play with. Where you go from there is up to you.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen FPGA boards hit the surplus market at rock bottom prices. When IT departments started dumping their stock of Pano Logic thin clients back in 2013, a whole community of dedicated FPGA hackers sprouted up around it. We’re not sure the if the EBAZ4205 will enjoy the same kind of popularity in its second life, but the price is certainly right.
Students of ARM history will know that the origins of the wildly popular processor architecture lie in the British computer manufacturer Acorn (the original “A” in “ARM”). The first mass-market ARM-based products were their Archimedes line of desktop computers. A RISC-based computer in a school or home was significantly ahead of the curve in the mid 1980s and there was no off-the-shelf software, so alongside the new chips came a new operating system that would eventually bear the name Risc OS.
It’s since become one of those unexpected pieces of retrocomputing history that refuses to die, and remains in active development with a new version 5.28 of its open-source variant just released. Best of all, after supporting the Raspberry Pi since the earliest boards, it now runs on a Raspberry Pi 4. The original ARM operating system has very much kept up with the times, and can now benefit from the extra power of the latest hardware from Cambridge. The new release deals with a host of bugs, as well as bringing speed increases, security fixes, and other improvements. For those whose first experience of a GUI came via the Archimedes in British schools, the news that the built-in Paint package has received a thorough update will bring a smile.
The attraction of Risc OS aside from its history and speed lies in its being understandable in operation for those wishing to learn about how an OS works under the hood. It’s likely that for most of us it won’t replace our desktops any time soon, but it remains an interesting diversion to download and explore. If you’d like to read more about early ARM history then we’d like to point you at our piece on Sophie Wilson, the originator of the ARM architecture.
Whenever a product becomes popular, it’s only a matter of time before other companies start feeling the urge to hitch a ride on this popularity. This phenomenon is the primary reason why so many terrible toys and video games have been produced over the years. Yet it also drives the world of electronics. Hence it should come as no surprise that ST’s highly successful ARM-based series of microcontrollers (MCUs) has seen its share of imitations, clones and outright fakes.
The fakes are probably the most problematic, as those chips pretend to be genuine STM32 parts down to the markings on the IC package, while compatibility with the part they are pretending to be can differ wildly. For the imitations and clones that carry their own markings, things are a bit more fuzzy, as one could reasonably pretend that those companies just so happened to have designed MCUs that purely by coincidence happen to be fully pin- and register compatible with those highly popular competing MCU designs. That would be the sincerest form of flattery.
If you’ve ever wanted to try your hand at creating a Raspberry Pi-like board for yourself, you should check out [Jay Carlson’s] review of 10 different Linux-capable SoCs. Back in the 1960s, a computer was multiple refrigerator-sized boxes with thousands of interconnections and building one from scratch was only a dream for most people. Then ICs came and put all the most important parts in a little relatively inexpensive IC package and homebrew computing became much more accessible. Systems on Chip (SoC) has carried that even further, making it easier than ever to create entire systems, like the Pi and its many competitors.
Only a few years ago, making an SoC was still a big project because the vendors often didn’t want to release documentation to the public. In addition, most of the parts use ball grid array (BGA) packaging. BGA parts can be hard to work with, and require a multilayer PC board. Sure, you can’t plug these into a typical solderless breadboard. But working with these relatively large BGAs isn’t that hard and multilayer boards are now comparatively cheap. [Jay] reports that he got cheap PCBs and used a hot plate to build each board, and has some sage advice on how to do it.