A purple PCB with many DIP chips including a 6502

Hackaday Prize 2022: Reuse Those DIP Chips To Make A 1980s-Style Single-Board Computer

With the Great Chip Shortage still delaying deliveries of new components, now might be a good time to look around your lab and inspect those piles of chips that you thought “might come in handy one day”. Chances are you’ll find a good stack of 74xx series logic, once ubiquitous but today mostly obsolete thanks to powerful microcontrollers and FPGAs. It would be a shame to let them go to waste, so why not use them to make a neat 1980s-style computer?

With this idea in mind, [Anders Nielsen] designed the ABN6502: a single-board computer based on the venerable 6502 processor, but with relatively modern interfaces like a VGA monitor output, a PS/2 keyboard connector and even a wireless module to simplify firmware uploads from a PC. One design requirement was to minimize the number of new components needed; the average hacker interested in building the ABN6502 will probably have many of the chips lying around somewhere in their workshop.

The component list reads like a typical bill of materials for a 6502-based computer, but comes with a lot of flexibility to allow for part subsititution. For the CPU, both the classic NMOS 6502 as well as the modern CMOS-based 65C02 are supported, along with their 6522 companion chip that provides I/O ports and timers. A ROM socket can hold either modern, fast flash chips or traditional but slow UV-erasable EPROMs.

Instead of using DRAM chips with their complicated refresh requirements, [Anders] went for 32 KB of SRAM to implement the main memory; unaffordable in the ’80s but easily available today. Standard 74xx series logic chips glue all the components together, again with several options to add or remove features as the user prefers. Pin headers bring out the I/O ports for easy connection to external peripherals.

The ABN6502’s software library is currently limited to a bootloader, but a complete development toolchain based on the CC65 compiler should make it easy to develop all kinds of programs on this platform. We’ve already featured the clever wireless ROM flashing system, as well as a demonstration of the 6502 driving RGB LEDs.

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A Slim 7400 Logic VGA Board For All Your Retro Needs

Over the years we’ve seen a number of hackers generate VGA with 74xx logic chips, but they’ve generally not been the most practical of builds. Often put together as part of a competition or purely for the challenge, these circuits are usually implemented in a mass of jumper wires and often take up multiple breadboards. Not exactly something you can toss in a drawer when you’re done with it.

But the Vectron VGA Plus, created by prolific hacker [Nick Bild], manages to improve on things considerably. Designed specifically to be smaller and simpler than its predecessors, the custom PCB contains far fewer chips than we’re used to seeing for this kind of thing. At the same time it provides a handy header row along the bottom that allows the user to connect whatever they’re working on, from microcontrollers to retro computers.

When your breadboard looks like this, it’s time for a PCB.

It looks like the PCB could still be shrunk down considerably if you’re really looking to maximize desk space, but we imagine for his purposes, [Nick] felt this was more than compact enough. Especially when you look at what the same circuit looked like during the breadboard phase. Yikes.

So, what did it take to simplify this 640 x 480 VGA interface? The short answer is adding more RAM. Wherever possible, dedicated hardware was replaced with software operations that could be performed by the externally connected device. [Nick] has provided some sample code for the Arduino that lets the microcontroller push data into the board’s memory and take control.

We can trace the origins of this project back a few years, to when [Nick] was working on adding an LCD to his homebrew 6502 computer. A few months later he put together the earlier version of this board, the Vectron VGA, before switching gears and handing VGA generation duty over to a FPGA. We’re excited to see the next evolution of this project, and given the track record of this particular hacker, we shouldn’t have to wait long before it hits our inbox.


Homebrew 16 Bit Computer Reinvents All The Wheels

Building your own computer has many possible paths. One can fabricate their own Z80 or MOS 6502 computers and then run a period correct OS. Or a person could start from scratch as [James Stanley] did. [James] has invented a completely unique computer and CPU he calls SCAMP. SCAMP runs a custom OS called SCAMP/os which you can check out in the video below the break.

[James] describes the CPU and computer as purposefully primitive. Built out of discrete 74xx series logic chips, it runs at a fast-enough-for-homebrew 1 MHz. Plus, it has a lot of blinking lights that can’t help but remind us of the original Imsai 8080. But instead of a panel of switches for programming, the SCAMP/os boots to a shell, which is presented through a serial terminal. Programs are written in a bespoke language with its own compiler. The OS is described as a having a Unix-like feel with CP/M-like functionality. That’s quite a combination!

What we love most about the build, other than its clean looks and blinkenlights, is the amount of work that [James] has put into documenting the build both on his blog and on Github, where the source code and design is available. There’s also an open invitation for contributors to help advance the project. We’re sure he’ll get there, one bit at a time.

While [James] is using a Compact Flash card for storage currently we can’t help but wonder if a Cassette Tape storage system might be a worthwhile future upgrade.

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A breadboard filled with logic chips and wiring

SPAM-1 Is A Well-Documented Discrete CPU With An Impressive Software Library

Here at Hackaday we love projects that are so well-documented that you can spend days reading up on what the designer has achieved. [John Lonergan] didn’t disappoint when he designed the SPAM-1, an 8-bit CPU built from discrete logic gates. His detailed log contains a wealth of information on such things as designing opcodes, optimizing program counter logic, running a digital simulation, as well as his thoughts on microcode design. The sheer volume of it may be a bit off-putting to beginners, so it might be best to start with the video series that describes the architecture and goes into detail on several sub-blocks.

The design has changed a bit since [John] first started on the project, as he decided to add more and more features, but the final result is a well-thought out architecture that keeps the simplicity needed for discrete hardware but still has enough features to keep it interesting for seasoned CPU aficionados. The instruction size is rather large (48 bits) to simplify the instruction decoding at the expense of larger code size. Conditional jump instructions are not present; instead, all instructions have an optional control flag to make them conditional, a feature inspired by the ARM instruction set.

Once the design was mature enough, [John] modelled the entire thing in Verilog and simulated his design to verify correct operation and to check the timings, estimating it to be workable up to 5 MHz or so. A large stack of breadboards and DIP chips from the 74xx series then brought the design to life.

Not content with simply designing, simulating and implementing a custom CPU in hardware, [John] also spent significant effort on the software side of things, writing an assembler and even a C-like compiler for the SPAM-1 platform. And if that wasn’t enough, he also added an emulator for the classic CHIP-8 language, which allows it to run existing programs like Pong and Tetris. Input and output for all this software is mostly through a UART connection to a PC. A VGA interface is still on [John]’s to-do list, but he did build an adapter to connect a classic NES controller to the system.

The SPAM-1 is a worthy addition to the long list of discrete-logic CPUs we’ve seen here, such as this breadboard computer running a UNIX-like OS or this minimalistic one. If you’d like to see one that implements an existing instruction set, try this homebrew RISC-V computer.

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A Superheterodyne Receiver With A 74xx Twist

In a world with software-defined radios and single-chip receivers, a superheterodyne shortwave radio might not exactly score high on the pizzazz scale. After all, people have been mixing, filtering, and demodulating RF signals for more than a century now, and the circuits that do the job best are pretty well characterized. But building the same receiver using none of the traditional superhet trappings? Now that’s something new.

In what [Micha] half-jokingly calls a “74xx-Defined Radio”, easily obtained discrete logic chips, along with some op-amps and a handful of simple components, take the place of the tuned LC circuits and ganged variable capacitors that grace a typical superhet receiver. [Micha] started by building an RF mixer out of a 74HC4051 analog multiplexer, which with the help of a 2N3904 phase splitter forms a switching mixer. The local oscillator relies on the voltage-controlled oscillator (VCO) in a 74HC4046 PLL, a chip that we’ve seen before in [Elliot Williams]’ excellent “Logic Noise” series. The IF filter is a simple op-amp bandpass filter; the demodulator features an op-amp too, set up as an active half-wave rectifier. No coils to wind, no capacitors to tune, no diodes with mysterious properties — and judging by the video below, it works pretty well.

It may not be the most conventional way to tune in the shortwave bands, but we always love the results of projects that are artificially constrained like this one. Hats off to [Micha] for the interesting trip down the design road less travelled.

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A CPU-Less Computer With A Single NOR-Gate ALU

We see a lot of discrete-logic computer builds these days, and we love them all. But after a while, they kind of all blend in with each other. So what’s the discrete logic aficionado to do if they want to stand out from the pack? Perhaps this CPU-less computer with a single NOR-gate instead of an arithmetic-logic unit is enough of a hacker flex? We certainly think so.

We must admit that when we first saw [Dennis Kuschel]’s “MyNor” we thought all the logic would be emulated by discrete NOR gates, which of course can be wired up in various combinations to produce every other logic gate. And while that would be really cool, [Dennis] chose another path. Sitting in the middle of the very nicely designed PCB is a small outcropping, a pair of discrete transistors and a single resistor. These form the NOR gate that is used, along with MyNor’s microcode, to perform all the operations normally done by the ALU.

While making the MyNor very slow, this has the advantage of not needing 74-series chips that are no longer manufactured, like the 74LS181 ALU. It may be slow, but as seen in the video below, with the help of a couple of add-on cards of similar architecture, it still manages to play Minesweeper and Tetris and acts as a decent calculator.

We really like the look of this build, and we congratulate [Dennis] on pulling it off. He has open-sourced everything, so feel free to build your own. Or, check out some of the other CPU-less computers we’ve featured: there’s the Gigatron, the Dis-Integrated 6502, or the jumper-wire jungle of this 8-bit CPU-less machine.

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Hackaday Links: December 17, 2017

Where do you go if you want crazy old electronic crap? If you’re thinking a ham swap meet is the best place, think again. [Fran] got the opportunity to clean out the storage closet for the physics department at the University of Pennsylvania. Oh, man is there some cool stuff here. This room was filled to the brim with old databooks and development boards, and a sample kit for the unobtanium Nimo tube.

The Gigatron is a Hackaday Prize entry to build a multi-Megahertz computer with a color display out of TTL logic. Now, all this work is finally paying off. [Marcel] has turned the Gigatron into a kit. Save for the memories, this computer is pretty much entirely 74-series logic implemented on a gigantic board. Someone is writing a chess program for it. It’s huge, awesome, and the kits should cost under $200.

What’s cooler than BattleBots, and also isn’t Junkyard Wars? BattleBots, but in drone form. Drone Clash was originally announced in March, but now they’re moving it up to February to coincide with the TUS Expo. What could be better than flaming piles of lithium?

The Atari Lynx went down in history as the first portable console with a color LCD. There was a problem with the Lynx; the display was absolutely terrible. [RetroManCave] found someone selling an LCD upgrade kit for the Lynx, and the results are extremely impressive. The colors aren’t washed out, and since the backlight isn’t a fluorescent light bulb (yes, really), this Lynx should get a bit more run time for each set of batteries.

Like dead tree carcasses? You need to butcher some dead tree carcasses. The best way to do this is on a proper workbench, and [Paul Sellers] is working on a video series on how to make a workbench. He’s up to episode 3, where the legs are mortised. This is all done with hand tools, and the videos are far more interesting than you would think.

If you need some very small, very blinky wearables, here’s an option. This build is literally three parts — an LED matrix, an ATtiny2313, and a coin cell battery. Seems like this could be an entry for the Coin Cell Challenge we have going on right now.