Access An 8-bit Atari Through Twitter

Building a retro computer, or even restoring one, is a great way to understand a lot of the fundamentals of computing. That can take a long time and a lot of energy, though. Luckily, there is a Twitter bot out there that can let you experience an old 8-bit Atari without even needing to spin up an emulator. Just tweet your program to the bot, and it outputs the result.

The bot was built by [Kay Savetz] and accepts programs in five programming languages: Atari BASIC, Turbo-Basic XL, Atari Logo, Atari PILOT, and Atari Assembler/Editor, which was a low-level assembly-type language available on these machines. The bot itself runs on a Raspberry Pi with the Atari 800 emulator, rather than original hardware, presumably because it’s much simpler to get a working network connection on a Pi than on a computer from the 80s. The Pi runs a python script that polls Twitter every two minutes and then hands the code off to the emulator.

[Kay]’s work isn’t limited to just Ataris, though. There’s also an Apple II BASIC bot for all the Apple fans out there that responds to programs written in AppleSoft BASIC. While building your own retro system or emulating one on other hardware is a great exercise, it’s also great that there are tools like these that allow manipulation of retro computers without having to do any of the dirty work ourselves.

Boot-To-BASIC Box Packs A Killer Graphics Engine

In the early days of the home computer era, many machines would natively boot into a BASIC interpreter. This was a great way to teach programming to the masses. However on most platforms the graphics routines were incredibly slow, and this greatly limited what could be achieved. In 2020 such limitations are a thing of the past, with the Color Maximite 2. (Video, embedded below.)

The Color Maximite 2 is a computer based around the STM32H743IIT6 microcontroller, packing a Cortex-M7 32-bit RISC core with the Chrom-ART graphics accelerator. Running at 480MHz it’s got plenty of grunt, allowing it to deliver vibrant graphics to the screen reminiscent of the very best of the 16-bit console era. The Maximite 2 combines this chip alongside a BASIC interpreter complete with efficient graphics routines. This allows for the development of games with fast and smooth movement, with plenty of huge sprites and detailed backgrounds.

[cTrix] does a great job of demonstrating the machine, designed by [Geoff Graham] and [Peter Mather]. Putting the computer through its paces with a series of demos, it shows off the impressive visual and audio capabilities of the hardware. It serves as an excellent spiritual successor to BlitzBASIC from back in the Amiga days. Particularly enjoyable is seeing a BASIC interpreter that adds syntax highlighting – making parsing the code far easier on the eyes!

We’d love to see this become an off-the-shelf kit, as it’s clear the platform has a lot to offer the retro hobbyist. It’s certainly come a long way from the original Maximite of nearly a decade ago. Video after the break.

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A Pocket Retro Computer Anyone Can Build

Not satisfied with any of the DIY retro computer kits on the market, [Leonardo Leoni] decided to make his own. Built using only the finest through-hole technology and powered by the ATmega328 microcontroller, his diminutive 8-bit computer is easy to build and even easier to develop for. Whether you’re looking to hone your BASIC skills or play some Zork on the bus, this little computer looks like a great project for anyone who has a soft spot for computing’s simpler days.

All things considered, using this tiny machine looks like it would be relatively pleasant. [Leonardo] is using a common SH1106 OLED display, and there’s a full QWERTY keyboard (with number row) done up with tactile momentary buttons. There’s very few passive components involved in the build, which is sure to be appealing to new players; especially after they’ve finished soldering all those switches to the board.

On the software side, [Leonardo] says he leaned heavily on open source projects to get his machine up and running. Beyond the hardware drivers for things like the display, he specifically calls out the Tiny Basic and Tiny Lisp Computer projects for their code. If small-scale programming isn’t your style, the machine is compatible with the Arduino IDE so you can easily throw something else on it. If you’ve ever dreamed of a QWERTY Arduboy, this might be your chance.

From the way [Leonardo] describes the computer, which he calls the Cobalt 3, we get the impression a commercial kit might be in the cards. We hope the community shows enough interest to make it happen. After all, not everyone was able to make it to Hackaday Belgrade 2018 to get their own pocket retro computer.

Jack Tramiel Got A Good Deal, And Ruined Everything

A sideshow in the playground wars of the early 1980s over who had the best home computer lay in the quality of their onboard BASIC interpreters. Where this is being written the cream of the crop was Acorn’s BBC Basic, while Sinclair owners could hold their own, and the Commodore 64 was regarded as powerful, but not easy to program. It’s a teenage memory brought to mind by [Liam Proven], who argues in a blog post that Commodore’s BASIC left a problematic legacy that can still be felt today.

It’s an interesting proposition, and one with its roots in Commodore founder Jack Tramiel’s 1977 deal with Bill Gates to acquire a version of Microsoft BASIC for his machines, in which he paid a one-off fee for unlimited uses of the language rather than a per-sale levy. The argument in the post is that this led to later Commodore machines being hamstrung by an outdated BASIC interpreter as a cost saving measure. It fits well with those 1980s memories from school computer labs, because by comparison its competitors six years after the deal had the benefit of language extensions missing in Commodore’s 64.

Where [Liam]’s analysis becomes interesting is in how he perceives the effect of this long-in-the-tooth BASIC; he postulates that the sheer number of Commodore 8-bit machines sold ensured it had a dominant position in the market place and thus coloured the perception of BASIC as a programming language in the years that followed. We’re not so sure about his view that this led eventually to some of the shortcomings in computing today, but we agree wholeheartedly with him that Commodore were less than competent in marketing their hardware.

We look forward to hearing your take on the matter in the comments, and meanwhile for some perspectives on the Commodore of the day who better to relate them than somebody who had a ringside seat. Our colleague [Bil Herd] has shared with us some of his Commodore recollections over the years, including the Commodore 128 story, an account of the 1985 CES show, and a two-parter on the TED chip and its speech capabilities.

Header image: Commodore BASIC / Public Domain, and Evan-Amos / Public domain.

Microsoft Releases The Source Code You Wanted Almost 30 Years Ago

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, if you had a personal computer there was a fair chance it either booted into some version of Microsoft Basic or you could load and run Basic. There were other versions, of course, especially for very small computers, but the gold standard for home computer Basic was Microsoft’s version, known then as GW-Basic. Now you can get the once-coveted Microsoft Basic source code for the 8086/8088 directly from Microsoft in the state you would have found it in 1983. They put up a read only GW-BASIC repository, presumably to stop a flood of feature requests for GPU acceleration.

You might wonder why they would do this? It is certainly educational, especially if you are interested in assembly language. For historical reasons, you might want to get a copy you could modify, too, for your latest retrocomputer project.

There are a few tidbits of interest. Some of the source is marked that it was translated. Apparently, Microsoft had a master implementation for some processor — real or imagined — and could translate from that code to 8088, Z-80, 6502, or any other processor they wanted to target.

From what we understand, GW-Basic was identical to IBM’s BASICA, but didn’t require certain IBM PC ROMs to operate. Of course, BASICA, itself, came from MBASIC, Microsoft’s CP/M language that originated with Altair Basic. A long lineage that influenced personal computers for many years. On a side note, there’s debate on what the GW stands for. Gee-Whiz is a popular vote, but it could stand for ‘Gates, William’, Greg Whitten (an early Microsoft employee), or Gates-Whitten. The source code doesn’t appear to answer that question.

We did enjoy the 1975 copyright message, though:

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ON THE PDP-10 FROM
FEBRUARY 9 TO APRIL 9 1975

BILL GATES WROTE A LOT OF STUFF.
PAUL ALLEN WROTE A LOT OF OTHER STUFF AND FAST CODE.
MONTE DAVIDOFF WROTE THE MATH PACKAGE (F4I.MAC).

It wasn’t long ago that Microsoft released some old versions of MSDOS. If you have the urge to write some Basic, you might pass on GW-Basic and try QB64, instead.

GW-Basic Disk and Manual photo by [Palatinatian] CC-SA-4.0.

Classic 8-Bit Computing The Atari Way

In the classic gaming world, even before the NES arrived on the scene, there was no name more ubiquitous than Atari. Their famous 2600 console sold almost as many units as the Nintendo 64, but was released nearly 20 years prior. In many ways, despite making mistakes that led to the video game crash of the early 80s, Atari was the first to make a path in the video game industry. If you want to explore what the era of 8-bit computing was like in the Atari age, a new resource is compiling all kinds of Atari-based projects.

This site has everything, from assembling Atari 8-bit computers based on the 6502 chip, to programming them in BASIC and assembly, to running official and homebrew games on the hardware itself. This was put together by [Jason H. Moore] who grew up around Atari systems and later, their home computers. He even puts his biomedical experience to use here by designing a game for the 2600 called Gene Medic which can be found at the site as well.

If you grew up in the 70s and 80s and are looking for a bit of Atari nostalgia this site is the place to go. It’s even worth a visit from younger folks as well since the 8-bit world is a lot easier to get immersed in and learn the fundamentals of computer science. Of course, if you want to take it the other direction, it’s possible to modify the old Atari to add a few modern conveniences.

Photo via Evan-Amos

Hackaday Links: April 5, 2020

Git is powerful, but with great power comes the ability to really bork things up. When you find yourself looking at an inscrutable error message after an ill-advised late-night commit, it can be a maximum pucker-factor moment, and keeping a clear enough head to fix the problem can be challenging. A little proactive social engineering may be in order, which is why Jonathan Bisson wrote git-undo, a simple shell script that displays the most common un-borking commands he’s likely to need. There are other ways to prompt yourself through Git emergencies, like Oh Shit, Git (or for the scatologically sensitive, Dangit Git), but git-undo has the advantage of working without an Internet connection.

Suddenly find yourself with a bunch of time on your hands and nothing to challenge your skills? Why not try to write a program in a single Tweet? The brainchild of Dominic Pajak, the BBC Micro Bot Twitter account accepts tweets and attempts to run them as BASIC programs on a BBC Microcomputer emulator, replying with the results of the program. It would seem that 280 characters would make it difficult to do anything interesting, but check out some of the results. Most are graphic displays, some animated, and with an unsurprising number of nods to 1980s pop culture. Some are truly impressive, though, like Conway’s Game of Life written by none other than Eben Upton.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing all sorts of cultural shifts, but we didn’t expect to see much change in the culture of a community that’s been notoriously resistant to change for over a century: amateur radio. One of the most basic facts of life in the amateur radio world is that you need a license to participate, with governments regulating the process. But as a response to the pandemic, Spain has temporarily lifted licensing requirements for amateur radio operators. Normally, an unlicensed person is only allowed to operate on amateur bands under the direct supervision of a licensed amateur. The rules change allows unlicensed operators to use a station without supervision and is intended to give schoolchildren trapped at home an educational experience. In another change, some countries are allowing special callsign suffixes, like “STAYHOME,” to raise awareness during the pandemic. And the boom in interest in amateur radio since the pandemic started is remarkable; unfortunately, finding a way to take your test in a socially distant world is quite a trick. Our friend Josh Nass (KI6NAZ) has some thoughts about testing under these conditions that you might find interesting.

And finally, life goes on during all this societal disruption, and every new life deserves to be celebrated. And when Lauren Devinck made her appearance last month, her proud parents decided to send out unique birth announcement cards with a printed circuit board feature. The board is decorative, not functional, but adds a distinctive look to the card. The process of getting the boards printed was non-trivial; it turns out that free-form script won’t pass most design rule tests, and that panelizing them required making some compromises. We think the finished product is classy, but can’t help but think that a functional board would have really made a statement. Regardless, we welcome Lauren and congratulate her proud parents.