A Z80 Computer At The Next Level

At the close of the 8-bit home computer era there were some machines produced that attempted to bridge the gap between the 8- and 16-bit worlds, either by providing a 16-bit device with a backwards compatibility mode, or an 8-bit one with enhanced capabilities to compete with its newer rivals. These products largely fell by the wayside in the face of new 16-bit only platforms, but they and the various enhanced versions of 8-bit processors that appeared over subsequent decades present a fascinating glimpse of what might have been. It’s a theme [Konstantin Dimitrov] explores with his Z20X computer project, a machine using the Zilog eZ80 processor running at 20 MHz, with 512 kB of external memory, and an interface for a 7″ TFT screen module.

The eZ80 is a more recent development, a pipelined processor capable of much higher clock speeds and addressing up to 16 MB of memory while maintaining software compatibility with the Z80. Had it come to market in the late 1980s it would have been a sensation, but instead it has appeared in embedded computers and perhaps of most interest to Hackaday readers, in TI’s line of programmable calculators.

The Z20X is designed to be a through-hole board, with the only SMD component the eZ80 itself. We can understand the motivation behind this, but at the same time wonder whether its likely builders in 2020 will be people unfazed by SMD assembly. It has a system of processor modules in case of future upgrades, and an expansion backplane with an option of an RC2014-compatible bus. There are also PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, a serial bus, and an on-board sound chip. The website is short on details of any software, but we’d expect it to work with the typical Z80 retrocomputer offerings such as a BASIC interpreter and the CP/M operating system.

This machine is likely to appeal to retrocomputing enthusiasts, but had it appeared even without the display in a previous decade it would no doubt have become an object of desire. It does however serve as a reminder that the Z80 line has been updated, and though most of us will have moved on it still offers a few chips that could be of interest. Meanwhile for a comparison, take a look at last year’s review of the latest in the range of RC2014 retrocomputer boards.

Thanks [yNos] for the tip.

Restoring The Coolest Laptop Ever

Well-seasoned readers will no doubt remember GRiD laptops, the once and always tacti-cool computers that dominated the military market for decades. GRiDs were the first laptops to go to space, and they were coveted for their sleek (for the time) good looks and reputation as indestructible machines.

The GRiDs went through many iterations, and even though their military roots make them nearly unobtanium,¬†[Simon] scored a GRiD laptop and set about restoring it. His theme was the 1986 movie Aliens, which featured a few GRiD Compass computers as props. [Simon]’s 1550SX came a little later than the Compass 2, but documents with the machine reveal it was a Royal Air Force machine that had been deemed unserviceable for reasons unknown.

[Simon] carefully tore it down – pay close attention to the video below and you’ll hear the telltale plink of the magnesium case parts rather than the dull thud of plastic; they don’t make them like that anymore – and cleaned it up. He replaced the original display with a PiMoroni 10″ retro game display to keep the original 4:3 aspect ratio. A Raspberry Pi 4 went inside, along with a Teensy to take care of adapting the GRiD keyboard to USB and lighting up some front-panel LEDs. A second Teeny allows the original IsoPoint mouse to be used, which is a real gem. With the addition of appropriate graphics, the machine looks like it would be at home on a Colonial Marines dropship.

We love the retro feel of [Simon]’s build, and the movie nostalgia. We’re just glad he didn’t include a LiPo battery, which might not get along with the magnesium case. Game over, man!

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C#, The Language For All Platforms – Now Including Windows 3.11 And DOS

The Microsoft .NET framework has been with us in one form or another since the millennium, and though it has remained largely the preserve of the Microsoft universe, it has found its way since then through a variety of implementations to other platforms including MacOS and GNU/Linux. In Microsoft terms though its history goes back only as far as Windows 98, earlier MS operating systems remain off-limits.

Just a glimmer of .NET in DOS and Windows 3.11 comes courtesy of [Michal Strehovsk√Ĺ], who has successfully compiled .net C# code for both Windows 3.11 and DOS. An in-depth explanation comes courtesy of [Scott Hanselman], and it involves some tricks spanning the decades since the early 1990s. The .NET Core compiler’s object files can be fed into the linker that shipped with an ancient version of Microsoft’s C++ compiler, which when used with Microsoft’s Win32s compatibility layer that brought some of Windos NT’s APIs to the 16-bit OS, allows C# from 2020 to run as though it were 1992 again. Meanwhile the DOS version uses .NET Core’s ability to produce self-contained executables along with some very significant tricks to pare down the size of the finished program from many megabytes to an eventual DOS-suitable 27k. Remember the apocryphal Bill Gates quote, that “640k should be enough for anyone“, that refers to the maximum memory available to DOS without extra memory-extending tricks.

Neither piece of software is especially useful, and we can’t see a rush of C# coders to these new platforms. But we applaud him for his ingenuity, and getting old hardware to do new tricks is right up our alley. It’s certainly dredged up a few memories from back in the day for us. Meanwhile we’ve featured .NET in a few projects over the years, most recently on an FPGA.

A Barn Find 6502 Is Restored

The phrase “Barn find” is normally associated with the world of older cars, where enthusiasts live in the hope that they may one day stumble upon a dusty supercar lurking unloved for decades on a remote farm. It’s not so often found in the context of electronics, but that’s the phrase that [John Culver] uses for a mid-1970s Atari arcade board that had been through a very hard time indeed and was in part coated with cow dung. It’s interesting because it sports a very early example of a MOS 6502 in a ceramic package, whose date code tells us was manufactured in week 22 of 1976.

Finding a microprocessor, even a slightly rare one, is not that great an event in itself. What makes this one interesting is the state it was in when he got it, and the steps he used to retrieve it from the board without it sustaining damage, and then to clean it up and remove accumulated rust on its pins. We are fast approaching a point at which older microprocessors become artifacts rather than mere components, and it’s likely that more than one of us with an interest in such things may one day have to acquire those skills.

We’re rewarded at the end with a picture of the classic chip passing tests with flying colours, and the interesting quirk that this is a chip with the famous rotate right bug that affected early 6502s. If you are interested in the 6502 then you should definitely read our colleague [Bil Herd]’s tribute to its recently-departed designer, [Chuck Peddle].

Serious Repair Work On The Amiga 600

The Amiga will be forever loved for bringing serious multimedia capabilities to the home computer market. However, these machines are now showing their age, and keeping them running can take a bit of work. [Drygol] isn’t one to shy away from the task, however, and set about repairing a few Amiga 600s that came his way.

First up on the docket is replacing the many electrolytic capacitors that tend to leak over the years. They can cause corrosion, destroying traces and other components, as well as failing themselves. [Drygol] is an old hand at this now, whipping out the hot air station and some copper shielding to protect delicate connectors from melting. A simple recap was enough to get one machine up and running, but the other was more recalcitrant. When swapping a dud CPU out, a pad was destroyed on the PCB. This necessitated some careful tracing, followed by a drill hole through the PCB to allow a bodge wire to run the signal from the other side of the board.

There’s also plenty of upgrades to be done; S-Video outputs instead of the crummy old RF modulator, and special interrupt switches that help when cracking games and doing assembly programming. Thanks to a rich aftermarket and vivid community, researching and performing mods is easy thanks to writeups and parts available online.

It’s a great example of the basic techniques one must master to keep old hardware on the boil. Learn to recap, refit, and hunt for problems, and you’ll be well on your way to maintaining your retro fleet for years to come. We’ve seen [Drygol]’s work before too – this vampiric A500 is a particular treat!

What Everyone Else Did With Eight Bits, The Germans Did With Only One

In the 1980s there was an impetus for the first time for young people to be equipped with computer literacy. A variety of different educational programmes were launched, typically involving a collaboration between a computer manufacturer and a broadcaster, and featuring BASIC programming on one of the 8-bit home computers of the day. One such educational scheme was a bit different though, the German broadcaster WDR produced an educational series using a modular computer featuring an unusual 1-bit processor that was programmed in hexadecimal machine code. [Jens Christian Restemeier] has produced a replica of this machine, that is as close to the original as he can make it. (Video, in German, embedded below.)

The computer is called the WDR-1, and had its origin in a kit machine before it was taken up by the broadcaster. The unusual 1-bit processor is a Motorola MC14500, which was produced from 1977 onwards for industrial control applications. He takes the viewer in the video below the break through the machine’s parts, explaining the purpose of each daughter card and the motherboard. Lacking an original to copy he instead worked from photographs to replicate the chip placements of the original, substituting pin headers for the unusual sockets used on the 1980s machines. Take a look at his video, below the break.

More information on the WDR-1 can be found online in German (Google translate link). Meanwhile we’ve featured the MC14500 before, in a small embedded computer.

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The Multiyear Hunt For A Gameboy Game’s Bug

[Enddrift] had a real problem trying to run a classic game, Hello Kitty Collection: Miracle Fashion Maker, into a GBA (Gameboy Advance) emulator. During startup, the game would hit an endless loop waiting for a read from a non-existent memory location and thus wouldn’t start under the emulator. The problem is, the game works on real hardware even though that memory doesn’t exist there, either.

To further complicate things, a similar bug exists when loading a saved game under Sonic Pinball Party. Then a hack for Pokemon Emerald surfaced that helped break the case. The story is pretty interesting.

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