Modular Z80 Really Racks Up The Retrocomputer Cred

Very few retrocomputing projects are anything other than a labor of love. There’s really no practical reason to build a computer that is woefully inadequate for just about any task compared to even an entry-level PC today. But the lack of a practical reason to do something rarely stops a hacker, as with this nifty modular Z80-based rack computer.

Actually, there’s at least one area where retrocomputers excel compared to their modern multi-core gigahertz counterparts — and that’s nostalgia. That’s what [Ricardo Kaltchuk] was going for with his build, which started by finding a Z80 and an Intel 8251 USART in his parts bin. Those formed the core of what would become the “Proton” computer, a modular beauty built around 7 cm by 10 cm PCBs that plug into a backplane inside a rack made from aluminum angle. Aside from the power supply and the Z80 CPU, other modules include a RAM card with a zero insertion force socket for an EPROM, a mass-storage module sporting a 128 MB Compact Flash card, plus modules for standard serial and I2C comms.

The fit and finish are excellent, and the performance is impressive. The Proton runs CP/M and boasts a ton of old applications that will bring back some memories, like SuperCalc and dBase. We’d venture a bet that WordStar is in there someplace, or easily could be. The video below is a little rough, but shows everything off really well.

In some ways, the Proton reminds us of the RC2014, but its fit and finish are what bring this build home. That’s not to take away from the work [Ricardo] obviously put into documentation, though. The 62-page manual has every detail of every module, plus instructions for building one of your own.

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Homebrew Relay Computer Looks Like It Could Be A Commercial Product

You may not have noticed, but we here at Hackaday really love our clicky stuff. Clicky mechanical keyboards, unnecessarily noisy flip-dot displays, and pretty much anything made with a lot of relays — they all grab our attention, in more ways than one. So it’s with no small surprise that we appear to have entirely missed perhaps the clickiest build of all: a fully operational 8-bit computer using nothing but relays.

What’s even more amazing about our failure to find and feature [Paul Law]’s excellent work is that he has been at it for the better part of a decade now. The first post on his very detailed and very well-crafted blog describing the build dates from 2013, when he was just testing LEDs in the arithmetic-logic unit (ALU). Since then, [Paul] has made incredible progress, building module after module, each containing a small portion of the computer’s functionality. The modules plug into card cages with backplanes to connect them, and the whole thing lives in an enclosure made from aluminum extrusion and glossy black panels for a truly sleek look. The computer is incredibly compact for something that uses 400+ DPDT relays to do its thinking.

In addition to the blog, [Paul] has a criminally undersubscribed YouTube channel with a quite recent series going over the computer in depth. We included the overall tour below, but you should really check out the rest of the videos to appreciate how much work went into this build. We’ve seen relay computers ranging in size from single-board to just plain ludicrous, but this one really takes the prize for fit and finish as well as functionality.

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An Open Source Toolbox For Studying The Earth

Fully understanding the planet’s complex ecosystem takes data, and lots of it. Unfortunately, the ability to collect detailed environmental data on a large scale with any sort of accuracy has traditionally been something that only the government or well-funded institutions have been capable of. Building and deploying the sensors necessary to cover large areas or remote locations simply wasn’t something the individual could realistically do.

But by leveraging modular hardware and open source software, the FieldKit from [Conservify] hopes to even the scales a bit. With an array of standardized sensors and easy to use software tools for collating and visualizing collected data, the project aims to empower independent environmental monitoring systems that can scale from a handful of nodes up to several hundred.

We’ve all seen more than enough DIY environmental monitoring projects to know there’s nothing particularly new or exciting about stuffing a few cheap sensors into a plastic container. But putting high quality, reliable hardware into large scale production is another thing entirely. Especially when your target user may have limited technical knowledge.

That’s why FieldKit is designed around a common backplane with modular sensors and add-on boards that can be plugged in and easily configured with a smartphone application. Whether the node is going to be mounted to a pole and powered by a solar panel, or attached to a buoy, most of the hardware stays the same.

While the electronics and the software interface are naturally the stars of the show here, we can’t help but also be impressed with the enclosure for the FieldKit. It seems a minor thing, but as we’ve seen from the projects that have come our way over the years, finding a box to put your hardware in that’s affordable, adaptable, and weatherproof is often a considerable challenge in itself. Rather than using something commercially available, [Conservify] has designed their own enclosure that’s inspired by the heavy duty (but prohibitively expensive) cases from Pelican. It features a replaceable panel on one side where the user can pop whatever holes will be necessary to wire up their particular project without compromising the case itself; just get a new panel when you want to reconfigure the FieldKit for some other task. Prototypes have already been 3D printed, and the team will be moving to injection molded versions in the near future.

As a finalist in the 2019 Hackaday Prize, FieldKit exemplifies everything we’re looking for this year: a clear forward progression from prototype to final hardware, an obvious need for mass production, and the documentation necessary to show why this project is deserving of the $125,000 grand prize up for grabs.

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Veronica VGA Board Finalized


The latest update in the Veronica 6502 computer project is this finalized VGA board which now has a home in the machine’s backplane.

We’ve been glued to the updates [Quinn Dunki] has been posting about the project for many months now. Getting the GPU working proved to take quite a bit of time, but we learned a ton just by following along. The video output had humble beginnings way back in March. That breadboarded circuit got complicated very quickly and that was before it was even interfaced with the CPU. As you can see from the image above, etching and populating the GPU board really cleans up the build. We’re sure it’s robust enough to move around at this point. We wonder if she’s planning on showing it off at a Maker Faire or another geeky gathering?

It really has become clear how wise [Quinn] was to design a backplane board early on. It plays right into the modular concept. She was even smart enough to include that SIL pin header on the near side of the board which was used heavily while prototyping this video module.

Backplane And Mainboard For A 6502 Computer

[Quinn Dunki] has been busy through the holidays giving her 6502 processor-based computer a place to live. The most recent part of the project (which she calls Veronica) involved designing and etching a mainboard for the device. In the picture above it’s the vertical board which is right at home in the backplane [Quinn] also designed.

The project is really gaining momentum now. You may remember that it started off as a rather motley arrangement of what we’d guess is every breadboard she owns. From there some nifty hex switches gave [Quinn] a way to program the data bus on the device. Many would have stopped with these successes, but the continuation of the project makes the hardware robust enough to be around for a while. The single-sided boards are playing nicely together, and the next step is to redesign the ROM emulator to use chips for storage. [Quinn] alludes to a side project in which she plans to build her own EEPROM programmer to help with getting code into the experimental computer.

Hacking Old Server Hardware For New Home Use

[Arnuschky] was looking for a network storage solution that included redundancy. He could have gone with a new NAS box, but didn’t want to shell out full price. Instead, he picked up a Dell PowerEdge 2800 and hacked it for SATA drives and quiet operation.

It’s not surprising that this hardware can be had second-hand at a low price. The backplane for it requires SCSI drives, and it’s cheaper to upgrade to new server hardware than it is to keep replacing those drives. This didn’t help out [Arnuschky’s] any, so he started out by removing the SCSI connectors. While he was at it, he soldered wires to the HDD activity light pads on the PCB. These will be connected to the RAID controller for status indication. The image above shows the server with eight SATA drives installed (but no backplane); note that all of the power connectors in each column are chained together for a total of two drive power connectors. He then applied glue to each of these connectors, then screwed the backplane in place until the glue dried. Now the device has swappable SATA drives!

His server conversion spans several posts. The link at the top is a round-up so make sure you click through to see how he did the fan speed hack in addition to the SATA conversion.

If your tolerances don’t allow you to glue the connectors like this, check out this other hack that uses shims for spacing.