Audio Cassette Tape Data Retrospective

It has been a long time since we stored software and computer data on audiotape. But it used to be the de facto standard for hobby computers and [Noel] has a great video about the Amstrad’s system (embedded below) which was pretty typical and how the process could be sped up since today, you have perfect audio reproduction, especially compared to consumer-grade audiotape.

The cassette tapes suffered from several problems. The tape had an inherently low bandwidth, there was quite a bit of noise present from the analog circuitry and heads, and the transport speed wasn’t necessarily constant. However, you can easily digitally synthesize relatively noise-free sound at high fidelity and rock-solid frequency. So basically a microcontroller, like an Arduino, can look like an extremely high-quality tape drive.

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Think Your Laptop Is Anemic? Try An MSDOS One

If someone gifted you a cheap laptop this holiday season, you might be a little put out by the 2GB of RAM and the 400 MHz CPU. However, you might appreciate it more once you look at [Noel’s Retro Lab’s] 4.8 Kg Amstrad PPC512 He shows it off inside and out in the video below.

Unlike a modern laptop, this oldie but goodie has a full keyboard that swings out of the main body. The space below the keyboard contains the LCD screen, which [Noel] is going to have to replace with an LCD from another unit that was in worse shape but had a good-looking screen. In this video, he gets as far as getting video output to an external monitor, but neither LCD shows any sign of life. But he’s planning more videos soon.

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Amstrad Portable Gets A Modern LCD Transplant

Playing classic games on the real hardware is an experience many of us enjoy, but sometimes the hardware is just a bit too retro for modern sensibilities. A case in point is the miserable monochrome LCD that was originally installed in the Amstrad PPC640 portable 8086 PC that [Drygol] recently picked up. He decided that his portable Amstrad sessions would be far more enjoyable if he swapped it out for a display that didn’t have 30+ years on the clock.

To quell the complaints of any of the vintage hardware aficionados out there, it’s worth mentioning that the original LCD was actually damaged and needed to be replaced anyway. Granted [Drygol] could have tried to find a contemporary panel to replace it with, but looking at the incredible before and after shots of the modded PPC640, it’s hard to argue he didn’t make the right decision by throwing a modern display into the otherwise largely original computer.

Getting the new LCD’s PCB ready for installation.

[Drygol] says he picked up a cheap 4:3 LCD TV on eBay, and as luck would have it, found that the new panel dropped perfectly into the original frame. Getting it buttoned back up required the removal of the RF can and all the female connections on the TV’s PCB, plus he had to cut some holes in the back of the display enclosure to mount the LCD’s controls, but overall it looks very stock.

Of course, getting the new LCD display in the original frame was only half the battle, it still needs to be connected up to the computer somehow. To get everyone playing nicely with each other, [Drygol] is using a commercially available MDA/CGA/EGA to VGA converter that is installed where the batteries would have gone originally. Wired to the PPC640’s external monitor connector, it allows him to drive the new display without having to use the original LCD interface.

[Drygol] has made something of a name for himself by performing some of the most impressive restorations and modifications of retro hardware in recent memory. From the unbelievable work that went into repairing a smashed Atari 800XL case to his gorgeous custom Amiga A500, his projects are sure to please the retro hardware lovers in the audience.

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Little Emulators Do 8 Bits At A Time

Have you ever wondered how many, for example, Commodore 64s it would take to equal the processing power in your current PC? This site might not really answer that, but it does show that your machine can easily duplicate all the old 8-bit computers from Commodore, Sinclair, Acorn, and others. By our count, there are 86 emulators on the page, although many of those are a host machine running a particular application such as Forth or Digger.

If you are in the US, you might not recognize all the references to the KC85, this was an East German computer based on a Z80 clone. Very few of these were apparently available for personal purchase, but they were very popular in schools and industry. These were made by Robotron, and there are some other Robotron models on the page, too.

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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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