C.H.I.P. Or Z.O.M.B.I.E? We Can’t Decide

Imagine for a moment that you are back in 2015. Radio Shack are going to the wall, Heathkit returning from the dead, and Arduino spliting into two warring Arduinos. And someone has announced a tiny Linux-capable microprocessor board called the C.H.I.P. that will cost only $9. We all thought that last one was pretty cool at the time, didn’t we. Then Heathkit’s new products turned out to be pretty lacklustre, the warring Arduinos merged, and the C.H.I.P? The consensus was that $9 was a tall order for that BoM at the time, and then the Raspberry Pi people gave away a free Pi Zero on the front of a magazine before selling it for £5 ($6.30). It didn’t matter that the C.H.I.P. had a nifty all-in-one screen and keyboard combo called the Pocket C.H.I.P. which was a significant object of desire, the venture lasted for three years before finally hitting the rocks last year.

Now the C.H.I.P. is back, in a crowdfunding campaign fronted by one of its original engineers. It’s been renamed the Popcorn, and it comes in three variants. The Original Popcorn is a compatible C.H.I.P. by any other name, while the Super Popcorn is a much higher-spec machine that comes in quad and octacore variants with AmiLogic SoCs. All three have 32 GB eMMC on board, and the specs are suitably impressive but not out of the ordinary for a 2019 single board computer. Prices are $49, $69, and $89, which takes away that optimistic $9 price tag that made the original so attractive. There is no Pocket C.H.I.P. which is a shame because for us that was the only reason to buy a C.H.I.P, but there is a companion board called the Stovetop that provides Raspberry Pi-style desktop and display interfaces.

We wish them well, but it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the hardware world has moved on and the window of opportunity has closed. It’s not that these boards are not good ones, more that they now join a plethora of others which come a lot closer to the low price of the original. Still, there remains a C.H.I.P. community still out there, so perhaps that will save the day for them.

We interviewed the C.H.I.P.’s creators back in 2015, and marked its passing last year.

Thanks [Rose] for the tip.

Building An Ergonomic Keyboard

Despite the passing of several decades since that scene in Star Trek IV, the Voyage Home in which Mr. Scott remarks “A keyboard! How quaint!“, here on earth, they remain a central plank of our user interface experience. A plank is an appropriate metaphor, for the traditional keyboard with its layout derived from typewriters and intended to minimize type bar collisions has remained the same flat and un-ergonomic device for well over a century. If like [Tom Arrell] you suffer from repetitive strain injury to your hands and wrists from using a keyboard then a more ergonomic alternative is a must. His solution was to build his own keyboard in two halves.

He was inspired by a colleague’s Ergodox, but balked at the price. Then he found the Dactyl, an open source 3D printed keyboard in two halves, and resolved to build his own. Unlike the Dactyl, however, he wanted his ‘board to be able to operate as either a linked pair operating as one or a pair of separate keyboards. In went a pair of Sparkfun Pro Micro boards to his slightly modified Dactyl, along with a full complement of Cherry MX Brown switches.

The final product lacks key labels so is not for the faint-hearted. But he persevered with it and after a couple of weeks was able to use it without a crib sheet. It’s a bit higher than its commercial equivalent so it needs some improvised wrist rests, but for the price, he’s not complaining.

This isn’t the first keyboard with two halves we’ve shown you, here’s one from 2017.

Via Hacker News.

So, You Want To Buy A Mainframe

The computers we are used to working with are more likely to be at the smaller end of the computational spectrum. Sometimes they are very small indeed, such as tiny microcontrollers with only a few GPIOs. Others are single board machines such as a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino, and often a desktop or laptop PC. Of course, while these can be very capable machines, they don’t cut the mustard in the upper echelons of corporate computing. There the mainframe still rules, sitting in air-conditioned machine rooms and providing some of the glue that cements our economy together.

Most of us will never own a mainframe, even if sometimes we marvel at people who rescue ancient ones for museums. But it’s not impossible to run one yourself even if it isn’t cheap, and  [Christian Svensson] has written a guide for the potential purchaser of a more recent IBM model.

This is a fascinating piece as an uninformed spectator because it reveals something about the marketing of these machines. A fridge-sized rack may contain much more hardware than expected because all machines ship with high specifications installed but not enabled by licensing software. In some IBM machines this software comes on an attached laptop which goes missing when the mainframe is decommissioned, we’re told without this essential component the machine is junk. The practicalities are also considered, such things as whether the appropriate interface modules are present, or how to assess how much RAM has been installed. Powering the beast is less of a problem than you might expect as they ship with PSUs able to take a wide variety of DC or AC sources.

Once upon a time the chance to own one of the earlier DEC VAX minicomputers came the way of your scribe, the passing up on which has ever since been the source of alternate regret and thankfulness at a lucky escape. The ownership of second-hand Big Iron is not for everyone, but it’s nevertheless interesting to learn about it from those who have taken the plunge. There’s a tale unfolding about the ownership of a much older IBM room-sized computer at the moment.

IBM mainframes header image: Agiorgio [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Plot Your Way Past A Tiny Buffer

There is a dedicated community of plotter enthusiasts who keep their often-aging X-Y axis pen drawing devices going decades after they were built, and who share plotter-generated paper artwork online. [Dhananjay Balan] was seduced by this, so acquired a second-hand HP7440A through eBay and set about bringing it to life.

Bringing it to life was in the first instance the usual progression of cleaning the mechanism and checking all was in order, before doing a bit of research to find that the missing power supply was a 10-0-10V AC item. Then some adapters and a USB-to-serial port had it talking to a modern PC, and thanks to the wonders of HPGL it was working once more. This could thus have been a very simple tale worthy of the dreaded Not A Hack moniker, had the focus then not changed from the hardware into the software.

Back in the day, a 60-byte buffer in a plotter must have seemed huge. But in 2019 a plotter can be sent data at a rate that will swiftly fill it, after which the commands are not stored and are never drawn. Introducing a delay between sending commands solves the problem, but at the expense of very slow plotting. This was solved with a very clever use of the HPGL command to send the pen position, which waits until the pen has finished moving before sending its return value. This became a handy way to detect when the plotter was ready for more, allowing speedier printing without buffer overruns.

The plotter has an expansion port into which an optional module containing trigonometric drawing functions could have been plugged, but was missing in this example. HP’s idea was that the buffer was so small that a programmer would have difficulty writing their own, but the buffer hack in the previous paragraph put paid to that. Python code for all this and more is in a handy GitHub repository.

Via Hacker News.

Comprinter Hides A Laptop Inside A Printer

Sometimes we find projects that border on the absurd but are too cool to pass up. The Comprinter is exactly that. [Mason Stooksbury] had a dream. An all-in-one scanner printer that was also a computer. What would turn heads more than walking into a hackerspace with a printer, plugging your headphones in, then opening up the top to reveal a monitor?

[Mason’s] dream became possible when friends gave him some old laptops and a dead Kodak printer. After going through the laptops, he picked a Dell Inspiron 1440 to be the donor machine. The printer and laptop were both carefully stripped down. [Mason’s] goal for the project was to build a “beautiful” printer/computer. No bodges allowed. He spent most of his time planning out how to mount the motherboard and display inside the scanner section of the chassis.

The actual assembly was quite fiddly. Working with only an inch or so of clearance, [Mason] installed standoffs for the motherboard and display. He to do all this without breaking the wires for the display and WiFi antennas.

Once the main parts of the laptop were assembled, [Mason] completed the build with a nine-port USB hub, some internally mounted speakers and a USB keyboard mounted in the paper tray. The twelve-hour operation was a complete success. What looks to be a cheap inkjet actually hides a complete laptop running Xubuntu. The only downside is that the printer doesn’t actually print, but [Mason] is quick to note that if the printer hadn’t been broken in the first place, it would work fine — all the modifications are in the scanner section.

We’ve seen some wild casemods over the years, including a Nintendo in a toaster, a modern PC stuffed into an original Xbox, and Raspberry Pi’s stuffed into just about everything.

CPU Made From 74HC Chips Is A Glorious Mess

Did you ever start a project that you felt gained a life of its own? This project by [Paulo Constantino] is an entire CPU named dreamcatcher on breadboards, and is a beautiful jungle of digital. On top of that, it works to connect to an analog VGA display. How cool is that!

Designing an ALU and then a CPU is a typical exercise for students of digital design and is done using VerilogHDL or VHDL. It involves creating an ALU that can add, subtract etc while a control unit manages data moves and the like. There is also a memory fetch and instruction decode made up of de-mulitiplexers and a bunch of flip-flops that make up registers and flags. They are as complex as they sound if not more.

[Paulo Constantino] went ahead and designed the whole thing in Eagle as a schematic using 74HC logic chips. To build it though instead of a PCB he used breadboards. Everything from bus decoders to controlling an external VGA display is done using jumper wires. We did cover a video on the project a while back, but this update adds a video card interface to the build.

The CPU updates the display buffer on the VGA card, and in the video below shows the slow and steady update. The fact that the jungle of wires can drive a display is awesome. He has since started working on a 16-bit version of the processor and we’d love to see someone take it up a notch.

For those more accustomed to the PCB, the Z80 membership card project is a great build for 8-bit computer fans.

Thanks to [analog engineer] for the tip.

Continue reading “CPU Made From 74HC Chips Is A Glorious Mess”

Add USB-C To Your Laptop (Almost)

It’s a very brave person who takes a Dremel or similar to the case of their svelte new laptop in the quest for a new connector, it sounds as foolhardy as that hoax from a while back in which people tried to drill a 3.5mm jack into their new iPhones. But that’s what [BogdanTheGeek] has done, in adding a USB-C port to his Acer.

Of course, the port in question isn’t a fully functioning USB-C one, it’s a power supply jack, and it replaces the extremely unreliable barrel jack the machine was shipped with. He’s incorporated one of those little “ZYPDS” USB-C power delivery modules we’ve no-doubt all seen in the usual cheap electronic sources, and in a move of breathtaking audacity he’s cut away part of the Acer mainboard  to do so. He’s relying on the laptop’s ability to accept a range of voltages, and presumably trusting his steady hand with a rotary tool. Some Kapton tape and a bit of wire completes the work, and with a carefully reshaped hole in the outer case he’s good to go.

The result is beautifully done, and a casual observer would be hard pressed to know that it hadn’t always been a USB-C port. We’re sure there will come a moment at which someone will plug in a USB-C peripheral and expect it to work, it’s that good.

If you’d like to know a little bit more about USB-C, we’d like to direct you to our in-depth look at the subject.