An Amstrad PCW For The 21st Century

If you were a computer-mad teen in the late 1980s, you were probably in the process of graduating from an 8-bit machine to a 16-bit one, maybe an Amiga, or an Atari ST. For the first time though you might not have been the only computer owner in your house, because there was every chance your parents might have joined the fun with a word processor. Maybe American home offices during this period might have had PC clones, but for Brits there was every chance that the parental powerhouse would have been an Amstrad PCW.

Amstrad were the masters of packaging up slightly outdated technology for electronic consumers on a budget, and the PCW was thus a 1970s CP/M machine for the 1980s whose main attraction was that it came with monitor and printer included in the price. [James Ots]’ parents had one that interested him enough that  he has returned to the platform and is documenting his work bringing it up to date.

It was the most recent progress in booting into CP/M from an SD card by hijacking the printer ROM that caught our eye, but reading all the build logs that is only the tip of the iceberg. He’s connected another monitor, made a joystick port and a soundcard, and added a memory upgrade to his PCW. Most of these machines would have only been used with the bundled word processor, so those are real enhancements.

We’ve featured quite a few projects involving Amstrad’s CPC home computers, such as this one with a floppy emulator. Amstrad are an interesting company for followers of consumer electronics of the ’70s and ’80s, they never had the out-there tech wackiness of their great rival Sinclair but their logo could be found on an astonishing variety of appliances. The “AMS” in Amstrad are the initials of the company founder [Alan Sugar], who is rather better known in 2017 as the British host of The Apprentice. It is not known whether he intends to lead the country.

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.

 

Amstrad on an FPGA

If you are from the United States and of a certain age, it is very likely you owned some form of Commodore computer. Outside the US, that same demographic was likely to own an Amstrad. The Z80-based computers were well known for game playing. [Freemac] implemented a working Amstrad CPC6128 using a Xilinx FPGA on a NEXYS2 demo board.

The wiki posting is a bit long, but it covers how to duplicate the feat, and also gives technical details about the design. It also outlines the development process used ranging from starting with a simple Z80 emulation and moving on to more sophisticated attempts. You can see a video of the device below.

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Power For An Amstrad Spectrum

If you were an American child of the early 1980s then perhaps you were the owner of a Commodore 64, an Apple II, or maybe a TRS-80. On the other side of the Atlantic in the UK the American machines were on the market, but they mostly lost out in the hearts and minds of eager youngsters to a home-grown crop of 8-bit micros. Computer-obsessed British kids really wanted Acorn’s BBC Micro, but their parents were more likely to buy them the much cheaper Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Sinclair Research was fronted by the serial electronic entrepreneur [Clive Sinclair], whose love of miniaturization and ingenious cost-cutting design sometimes stretched the abilities of his products to the limit. As the 8-bit boom faded later in the decade the company faltered, its computer range being snapped up by his great rival in British consumer electronics, [Alan Sugar]’s Amstrad.

The Amstrad Spectrums replaced the rubber and then shaky plastic keys of the Sinclair-era machines with something considerably more decent, added joystick ports and a choice of a built-in cassette deck or one of those odd 3″ floppy disk drives for which Amstrad seemed to be to only significant customer. For that they needed a more capable power supply offering a selection of rails, and it is this unit that concerns us today. [Drygol] had a friend with an Amstrad-made Sinclair 128K Spectrum +2 with a broken power supply. His solution was to wire in a supply retrieved from a small form factor PC that had all the requisite lines, and for safety he encased it in an improbably huge piece of heat shrink tubing.

Wiring a PSU to a DIN plug for a retro computer is not an exceptional piece of work in itself even if it’s tidily done and nice to see older hardware brought back to life. What makes this piece worth a look instead is the teardown of what is a slightly unusual footnote to the 8-bit home computer story. We’re shown the familiar Z80 and support chips with the Spectrum edge connector and modulator on a through-hole board with a piece of cutting edge tech for a 1980s home computer, a single SMD chip unusually mounted nestled in a hole cut in the board.

Amstrad eventually stopped making Spectrums in the early 1990s, having also tried the Sinclair name on a spectacularly awful PC-compatible home computer. [Clive Sinclair] continued to release electronic products over the following decades, including a portable computer, the last of his trademark miniature radio receivers, and an electric bicycle accessory. Amstrad continue to make computers to this day, and [Alan Sugar] has achieved fame of a different sort as host of the UK version of The Apprentice. He has not yet become Prime Minister.

We’ve featured another Amstrad Spectrum +2 losing its tape deck for a slimmer machine. On that note, the Spectrum wasn’t Amstrad’s only entry in the 8-bit market, and we’ve also shown you a compact clone of their CPC464. As for [Drygol], he’s featured here several times. His mass-restoration of Commodore 64s for instance, or bringing a broken Atari ST back from the dead.

A Smaller, Homebrew Amstrad

Although they weren’t very popular in America, the Amstrad CPC 464 and CPC 6128 were extremely well-received in Europe. [Zaxon] loved his ‘464, and for a bit of a learning experience – and the fact that an Amstrad takes up an exceptional amount of desk space – decided to make a clone of his favorite computer (.pl, Google translatrix).

The clone began as a simple schematic of the original Amstrad CPC 464, but the parts used in the original required some modern equivalents. Still, most of the old chips remained in the clone; the original Hitachi HD46505 CRT controller remains, as do the original DRAM chips and the vintage Z80 CPU.

A few modern amenities were added, including an interface for a PS/2 keyboard and a disk that’s much improved over the original cassette drive or weird 3.5″ disks: a Disk On Module, or basically a CompactFlash card in a strange form factor that plugs straight into a motherboard’s IDE socket. They’re mostly seen when tearing apart old thin clients, but using them in retrocomputing project is a great idea.

Thanks [rasz_pl] for the tip. Video below.

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