Whatever Happened To The Desktop Computer?

If you buy a computer today, you’re probably going to end up with a laptop. Corporate drones have towers stuffed under their desks. The cool creative types have iMacs littering their open-plan offices. Look around on the online catalogs of any computer manufacturer, and you’ll see there are exactly three styles of computer: laptops, towers, and all-in-ones. A quick perusal of Newegg reveals an immense variety of towers; you can buy an ATX full tower, an ATX mid-tower, micro-ATX towers, and even Mini-ITX towers.

It wasn’t always this way. Nerds of a sufficient vintage will remember the desktop computer. This was, effectively, a tower tilted on its side. You could put your monitor on top, negating the need for a stack of textbooks bringing your desktop up to eye level. The ports, your CD drive, and even your fancy Zip drive were right there in front of you. Now, those days of desktop computers are long gone, and the desktop computer is relegated to history. What happened to the desktop computer, and why is a case specifically designed for a horizontal orientation so hard to find?

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A 6502 with a Custom Language

The 6502 has a long history with hackers. The Apple computer (the one with no keyboard or even case) had a 6502. So did the Kim-1. [Dolo’s] version is a bit more refined, though. He started it a few years ago in response to one of our contests, but he’s been making improvements to it ever since. In particular, the custom programming language, Dflat, has many improvements lately, including true functions and high-resolution drawing.

The hardware has a CPU running at over 2.5 MHz, 44K of RAM, 16K of PROM, and 16K of video RAM. There’s plenty of I/O, including a keyboard, sound, and joysticks. An SD card provides mass storage and it all goes in a hacked BBC Micro case. You can see an overview video, below.

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World’s Stupidest Solid State Disk Drive Hack

The title might seem a little harsh, but it is a direct quote from the video by [Linus Tech Tips] that you can see below. He picked up a board that is a RAID 0 controller for up to ten SD cards so you can use them as a conventional SATA SSD. Of course, the channel’s tag line is “impractical solutions for improbable problems” but even by his own admission, this is pretty impractical.

It is odd for us to scoff at any kind of hack, but honestly, it is hard to see the value to this, other than it is amusing to think some factory turned these boards out hoping to make a profit. Besides being amusing, though, it is also a good exercise in design trades. For example, when you design a car, you want it to be safe, but you can’t make the body out of four-inch thick steel because of cost, weight, and fuel consumption. So you balance these concerns by making tradeoffs.

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IBM 1401 Runs FORTRAN II Once More

The IBM 1401 is undeniably a classic computer. One of IBM’s most “affordable” mainframes, it ruled the small business computing world of the 1960’s. Unfortunately, computers aren’t often thought of as treasured heirlooms, only a handful of these machines survive today. The computer history museum has two machines. One from Germany, and the other recovered from a basement in Connecticut back in 2008. [CuriousMarc] and the rest of the team at the museum have been working diligently to restore the 1401, and they’ve hit quite a milestone — They can now compile and run FORTRAN II code.

Getting the 1401 to run FORTRAN II itself is quite an accomplishment. The hardest part was dealing with the 729 vacuum column tape drives. The team spent years building a hardware emulator which takes the place of the real drives. The emulator is driven by an old PC running windows. Tape images are stored as files, which can be loaded, rewound, and run just like a real 729.

Emulators are great, but [Mark] and his team wanted this to run on the real hardware. They first had to re-create a FORTRAN compiler tape. They ran a tape copier program on the 1401, then loaded an image of the compiler on their emulator. The computer dutifully copied the image to a real tape drive.

The team also needed a punched card deck of FORTRAN source code to compile and run. The first example in the FORTRAN manual is a Hilbert Matrix program. The team could have used a keypunch machine to punch the cards for the program, but that is a painstaking and error-prone process. One mistake, and they would have to re-punch an entire card — much like using an old typewriter with no White-Out or correction ribbon. Instead, they typed the source into a PC, then converted the file to a tape image. A small program instructed the 1401 to punch the source code out on cards for them.

At the moment of truth, shown first in the video, the 1401 reads FORTRAN II from tape, pulls in the source code from punched cards, compiles, runs, and then prints the result on its line printer. All the original hardware singing along just like it did in 1959.

If you haven’t been to the Computer History Museum yet, check it out! It’s also the site of Vintage Computing Festival West.

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Flood Damaged 386 Gets a Modern Rebuild

Until a flood claimed its life, the 386 tower [Tylinol] found on the side of the road served him well as a DOS gaming rig. In the aftermath of the flood, the machine was left with ruined internals and a rusted case; it ended up being tossed in storage where it was slowly rotting away. But a recent idea got him to drag this old dinosaur back out into the light of day and give it a new lease on life with some modern gear.

For our viewing pleasure [Tylinol] documented the restoration of the computer, dubbed SErEndIPITy, from start to finish. The rebuild starts with tearing the machine down to the steel frame and sanding all the rust off. Luckily it looks like no structural damage was done, and a coat of engine enamel got the frame looking more or less like new. The original motherboard mounting solution wouldn’t work for his modern board, so he ended up riveting a piece of sheet metal in and drilling new holes for standoffs to thread into.

A nice element of this rebuild is that [Tylinol] didn’t want to drastically change the outward appearance of the machine. The customary yellowed plastic was left alone, and wherever possible the original hardware was reused. Rather than blow a hole in the case, he took his Dremel to the decorative ribbed design of the front panel and turned it into a stock-looking vent.

The real star of this rebuild is the LED CPU “Speed” display on the front of the case. In its original form, this was a fake display that simply cycled through predefined digits when you pressed the “Turbo” button on the front panel. By grounding them one at a time, [Tylinol] figured out which lines on the PCB controlled each segment of the display and wired it up to a Teensy 3.5. He was then able to write a C# plugin for CoreTemp to display the temperature.

The rebuilt machine is packing an i5-6500 processor, GTX 970 video card, and 8 GB of DDR4 RAM. Not exactly a speed demon compared to some of the modern desktops out there, but it certainly beats the original hardware. Incidentally, so does the Teensy 3.5 controlling the front panel display. There’s a certain irony there…

Cramming modern hardware into the carcass of an outdated computer is nothing new, of course. But we especially like the builds that take the time to make it all look stock.

[via /r/DIY]

A RISC-V That The Rest Of Us Can Understand

There is great excitement in the world of microprocessors, surrounding the RISC-V architecture. This is an open source modular instruction set specification that has seen implementations on FPGAs, and is starting to emerge in dedicated silicon.

If you are not yet up to speed on what is probably going to be the most important microprocessor development of a generation, you should watch this video. As [Robert Baruch] sets out to demonstrate, the combination of RISC technology and a modular instruction set means that the simplest processor compliant with the RISC-V specification can be surprisingly accessible. And to demonstrate this he’s building one from LSI and MSI TTL CMOS chips, something we’d more usually expect to see in a recreation of a much older architecture.

The video below the break is the first of a forthcoming series, and in it he introduces the project and gives us an easily-understandable overview of RISC-V before explaining the mechanics of a register for his RISC-V implementation. This will be his first module, and he’s created a PCB for it. He runs through its design, his choice of indicator LEDs, and then his choice of PCB house. There is also a breakout board, with two of the PCI sockets he’ll be using for his backplane. Finally we see the board being tested, with LEDs lighting up in response to values being stored in a completed register.

[Robert] has appeared on these pages many times before, among the most recent with his TMS9900-based breadboard computer. This build moves away from his retro fare though, and should be well worth watching for future installments.

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Home Made 8-Bit CPU Is A Wiry Blinky Build

It might look like a random pile of wires to some, but it is far from random: [Paulo Constantino] built this 8-bit CPU himself from scratch. He built his remarkable creation using wires and 74HC shift register chips, plus a selection of LEDs to show the various registers.

Running at a maximum of 5MHz, it has an 8-bit data and address bus, although the latter can be expanded to 16 bits. It’s not mining Bitcoin (yet), but it can do things like play the Mario theme. His latest addition is the addition of the ability to write data out to flash memory, and he is looking to add a keyboard to make programming easier.

At the moment, he has to program the CPU by setting DIP jumpers. It’s an impressive, if somewhat frightening build that [Paulo] says took him a couple of days to design and a week or so to build. We’ve seen a few breadboard CPU builds, (some of which were tidier) and builds with similar shift register chips, but this one scores big in the blinky light and mad genius stakes.

Thanks to [AnalogMind] for the tip!

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