A few weeks ago our community was abuzz with the news of a couple of new portable computers available through AliExpress. Their special feature was that they are brand new 2023-produced retrocomputers, one with an 8088, and the other with a 386SX. Curious to know more? [Yeo Kheng Meng] has one of the 386 machines, and he’s taken it apart for our viewing pleasure.
What he found is a well-designed machine that does exactly what it claims, and which runs Windows 95 from a CF card. It’s slow because it’s an embedded version of the 386 variant with a 16-bit bus originally brought to market as a chip that could work with 16-bit 286-era chipsets. But the designer has done a good job of melding old and new parts to extract the most from this vintage chip, and has included some decidedly modern features unheard of in the 386 era such as a CH375B USB mass storage interface.
If we had this device we’d ditch ’95 and run DOS for speed with Windows 3.1 where needed. Back in the day with eight megabytes of RAM it would have been considered a powerhouse before users had even considered its form factor, so there’s an interesting exercise for someone to get a vintage Linux build running on it.
One way to look at it is as a novelty machine with a rather high price tag, but he makes the point that considering the hardware design work that’s gone into it, the 200+ dollar price isn’t so bad. With luck we’ll get to experience one hands-on in due course, and can make up our own minds. Our original coverage is here.
Laptop computers may be ubiquitous today, but there was a time when they were the exclusive preserve of rich businesspeople. Back in the early ’90s, the significant added cost of portability was something that few were willing to pay. As a result, not many laptops from those days survive; for those that do, keeping them running can be quite a challenge due to their compact construction and use of non-standard components.
[Adalbert] ran into these problems when he got his hands on a Toshiba T3200SXC from 1991. As the first laptop ever to feature a color TFT display, it’s very much worth preserving as an historical artifact. Sadly, the original display was no longer working: it only displayed a very faint image and went completely blank soon after. Leaky capacitors then destroyed the power supply board, leaving the laptop completely dead. [Adalbert] then began to ponder his options, which ranged from trying to repair the original components to ripping everything out and turning this into a modern-computer-in-an-old-case project.
In the end he went for an option in between, which we as preservationists can only applaud: he replaced the display with a modern one of the correct size and resolution and built a new custom power supply, keeping the rest of the computer intact as far as possible. [Adalbert] describes the overall process in the video embedded below and goes into lots of detail on his hackaday.io page.
Connecting a modern LCD screen was not as difficult as it might seem: where the old display had an RGB TTL interface with three bits per color, the new one had a very similar system with six bits per color. [Adalbert] made an adapter PCB that simply connected the three bits from the laptop to the highest three bits on the screen. A set of 3D-printed brackets ensured a secure fit of the new screen in the classic case.
For the power supply [Adalbert] took a similar approach. He designed a PCB with several DC/DC converters that fit easily inside the computer’s case, leaving enough space to add a battery. This made the old Toshiba more portable than it ever was — believe it or not, the original T3200SXC could only be used with a mains connection.
Once the laptop was restored to working order, [Adalbert] added a few finishing touches: a sound card and speakers made it suitable as a gaming platform, and a network card gave it rudimentary online capabilities. The end result is a T3200SXC that looks and feels exactly the way it did when it was new, but with a few added features. That’s a really satisfying result: many classic laptop projects add modern computing hardware, or even completely replace the original contents. You might also want to check out [Adalbert]’s unusual 3D printer based PCB manufacturing technique that he used for the new power supply.
Continue reading “Hackaday Prize 2022: Repairing A Vintage Laptop With Modern Components”
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.
Some readers out there probably have nostalgic feelings for their first 386 based PC, the beeps and hisses of the modem, and the classic sound of a floppy drive’s stepper motor. Perhaps that turbo button that we could never quite figure out.
If you want the power of a 386 processor today, you’re in luck: [Pierre Surply] has developed a modern development board for the 80386SX CPU. This board is based on a 386 processor that comes in a LQFP package for “easy” soldering, and an Altera Cyclone IV FPGA.
To allow the CPU to run, the FPGA emulates the chipset you would usually find on a PC motherboard. The FPGA acts as both a bus controller and a memory controller for the CPU. On the board, there’s an SRAM chip and internal memory on the FPGA, which can be accessed through the 386’s bus access protocol.
The FPGA also provides debugging features. A supervisor application running on the FPGA gives debugging functionality via a FTDI USB to UART chip. This lets you control operation of the CPU from a PC for debugging purposes. The FPGA’s memory can be programmed through a JTAG interface.
The project is very well documented, and is a great read if you’re wondering how your old 386 actually worked. It can even be hand soldered, so the adventurous can grab the design files and give it a go. The francophones reading can also watch the talk in the video below.
Continue reading “A Modern 386 Development Board”
[Antoine] recently learned of a little challenge we have in the hinterlands of the Hackaday webosphere – what’s the oldest, or lowest spec hardware you have that can load this our retro edition? He has a pile of old PCs at his work, and with a lot of idle time at work because of summer, he decided to dig into that pile and get a really old computer up on the Internet.
While the pile of PCs didn’t have anything as old as he was expecting, [Antoine] did find an old Compaq from 1992. It has a 386DX running at 25MHz, 4MB of RAM, a 300 MB hard drive, VGA, and an Ethernet NIC. Gathering the requisite CRT monitor, PS/2 keyboard, and an AUI to a more modern Ethernet connector.
When getting these ancient computer on the Internet, the secret sauce is in the software configuration. [Antoine]’s box is running DOS 6.2, but was previously configured to connect to a Microsoft filesystem server on boot. This server was probably somewhere at the bottom of the same pile the Compaq was salvaged from, so rolling his own modern networking stack was the way to go. A driver for the NIC was downloaded on another computer and transferred via floppy, as was mTCP, the key to getting a lot of old PCs on the Internet. The browser is Arachne, and with the right configurations, everything worked perfectly.
[Antoine]’s efforts resulted in a computer that can easily handle the stripped down Hackaday retro edition, and can handle light browsing on Wikipedia. The effective download rate is something like a 33k modem; even with a fast (10M!) Ethernet connection, processing all the packets is taxing for this old machine.
The “cheap” and “easy” way in about an hour! A question that pop’s up from time to time is “I somehow ended up with an archaic old laptop / computer, can it run Linux?” Well of course it can, but that totally depends! On what? Well machine CPU, CPU speed, hard disk space, RAM and most importantly what you are expecting it to do.
Okay, why a Intel 386? Well number one I own a 386, but more importantly its the absolute bottom Intel CPU you can run Linux on. While it wont be able to do much, it will give you a basic system to kick around and “get to know” the insides of Linux without a million things installed and the worry of breaking it.
Unfortunately a 386 requires some special moves as the actual chip was dropped from almost all distributions long ago. All of the modern distributions I have looked at require at least a 486 CPU. This tutorial will be strictly for installing a basic bare bones Linux on a 386. Have a 486? Pentium? Faster? Never fear I will be covering that in a part II later this week.
Linux on a 386 in about an hour? Madness you might think, it probably takes Linux longer to boot on a 386 (and in some cases you are correct)! Want to know the trick? Simple, cheat!
Join me after the break for the parts and steps needed to get you started.
Continue reading “Installing Linux On A 386 Laptop”