An Amstrad Portable You Won’t Have Seen

Of all the players in the home computer world in the 1980s, Alan Sugar’s Amstrad was a step ahead in ease of use over its competitors. The Amstrad CPC series of computers came with their own monitors that also had a built-in power supply, and featured built-in data recorders or disk drives as standard. Despite having a line of business computers and an eventual move into PC territory that included portable machines, Amstrad never produced a CPC which wasn’t anchored to the desktop. [Michael Wessel] has taken that challenge on himself with a CPC464 that had a broken cassette recorder, and come up with a creditable take on a portable computer that never was.

Starting with an ethos of not modifying the CPC case more than necessary, the defective tape drive has gone to be replaced with an HDMI TFT screen and a video converter board. In went a 512K RAM expansion, an SD card disk expansion, and a stereo amplifier. A small power supply board also takes power for the unit via USB-C, such that it can operate from a power bank.

The result is a fully functional and hugely expanded CPC that’s as much cyberdeck as it is retrocomputer, and given that if we remember correctly that these machines were CP/M capable it could be of greater use than simply gaming. [Michael] hasn’t entered his creation into our ongoing Cyberdeck Contest, but we think it would make a strong contender.

This isn’t the first Amstrac CPC we’ve shown you, here’s a very different take on a modernized machine.

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Giving The Amstrad CPC A Voice And A Drum Kit

Back in the ’80s, home computers weren’t capable of much in terms of audio or multimedia as a whole. Arguably, it wasn’t until the advent of 16-bit computers such as the Amiga that musicians could make soundtrack-quality music without having to plug actual studio gear up to their machines. [Michael Wessel] is trying to bring some of that and many more features to the Amstrad CPC with his ambitious LambdaSpeak 3 project, an expansion card built completely up from scratch and jam-packed with features.

First, and likely giving it its name, is the speech synthesizer. [Michael] has made an emulation mode where his card can act just like the original SSA-1 expansion, being able to be controlled by the same software as back then. By default, the card offers this mode with an Epson S1V30120 daughterboard (which is based on DECTalk synthesis), however for further authenticity you also have the option of fitting it with an SP0256-AL2 chip, the same one used in the original Amstrad hardware in 1985.

As for the more musical part of the project, the board supports 4-channel PCM playback, much like the Amiga’s sound offering. This can be used for a drum machine sequencer program, and it has an Amdrum mode, emulating another expansion from the original Amstrad days. Sample playback can also be used alongside the speech synthesis as shown here, with random allophone beats that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Kraftwerk recording. Finally, by using the UART interface included on the LambdaSpeak, you can also turn the CPC itself into a synth by giving it MIDI in/out and interfacing a controller in real time with the computer’s AY-3-8912 sound chip.

If you like modern expansions giving old computers new life, did you know that you can get just about any retro computer online, perhaps a TRS-80, an Amiga and even a Psion Organizer? And if you’re interested in just using old systems’ sound chips with modern USB MIDI controllers, it’s easy to make a microcontroller do all the heavy lifting.

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Retrofitting An Amstrad CPC6128 With A Floppy Emulator

In the home computer boom of 1980s Britain, you could describe Amstrad as the third-placed home-grown player after Sinclair and Acorn. If you were a computer enthusiast kid rather than a gamer kid, you wanted Acorn’s BBC Micro, your parents bought you Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum because it was cheaper, and you thought the Amstrads were cool because they came with a better monitor than your family’s cast-off 1970s TV.

Amstrad were not a computer company headed by a technical wizard, instead they were a consumer electronics company whose founder [Alan Sugar] had a keen nose for the preferences of the consumer. Thus the Amstrad machines were different from some of their competitors: they were more polished, more appliances than experimental tools. Mass storage devices such as tape decks and floppy drives were built-in, every Amstrad came with its own dedicated monitor, and keyboards were decent quality as you’d see on a “proper” computer.

The high-end Amstrad model was the CPC6128. It came with a 3″ floppy drive, and of most interest, it could run the CP/M operating system. If your parents bought you an Amstrad CPC as a 1980s teen, it wouldn’t have been this one, so they are considerably less common than their 64k brethren with the cassette deck. One has found its way into [Drygol]’s hands though, and because the vintage 3″ floppies are unobtainable nowadays he’s fitted a floppy emulator board that stores data on an SD card.

In a sense, in that this is simply the fitting of an off-the-shelf board to a computer, it’s Not A Hack. But misses the point. This is an unusual home computer from the 8-bit era and his write-up is as much a teardown as it is  a howto. We don’t often get to see inside a 6128.

Fitting the board required the fabrication of a cable, with some very neat soldering work. The board has an LCD display, which is mounted in the floppy opening with a 3D printed bezel. The result is a very usable retro computer, without too much in the way of wanton remodeling.

This is probably the first real Amstrad 6128 we’ve shown you, but that hasn’t stopped enthusiasts making a clone with original chips, and another on an FPGA.