Does the complexity of modern computing ever get you down? Do you find yourself longing for the old days, where you could actually understand what your desktop machine’s hardware and software was doing at any given moment? You aren’t alone, but unfortunately running a 40+ year old computer as your daily driver isn’t really a viable option.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t have options. [Kostas] writes in to tell us about the “CB2 micro”: a diminutive open source retrocomputer kit that can be built in as little as 30 minutes thanks to its through-hole construction and exceptionally low parts count. When completed the miniature computer is an all-in-one BASIC development platform; just connect up a display and a PS/2 keyboard, and you’ve got everything you need to write you own programs or run games and applications developed by the community. You don’t even need a floppy, as the ATmega644P powered board has enough internal flash to store eight programs for easy access through its graphical menu system.
For many in the audience, a cheap little board that you can assemble yourself and use as a stand-alone BASIC experimentation platform is appealing enough. But thanks to a collection of hardware add-on boards, the CB2 micro can be augmented with some interesting capabilities.
Some are fairly obvious such as adding additional flash storage or RAM, but you can also run the computer on AA or AAA batteries, or add an S-Video port. [Kostas] even explains how to assemble a special serial cable that allows you to network multiple boards together. If you take the plunge and start building your own hardware modules, the sky’s the limit.
Humans seem to have a need to do things that aren’t practical. Make the biggest ball of twine. Engrave the Declaration of Independence on a grain of rice. We want to make things bigger, smaller, faster, or whatever. That might explain why [nanochess] put out bootBASIC.
The 8088 (or later) assembly code gives you a very restricted BASIC interpreter that you can boot up. That means it has to fit in the 512-byte boot block that the hardware loads to get an operating system running. How restricted? Keep in mind it fits in 512 bytes. Each line can only have 19 characters or less. Backspace works, but doesn’t update the screen. Line numbers range from 1 to 999 and there are only 26 integer variables named a through z that hold 16 bits. All statements are in lower case.
In the past, you might very well have started programming in Basic. It wasn’t very powerful language and it was difficult to build big projects with, but it was simple to learn, easy to use, and the interpreter made it easy to try things out without a big investment of time. Today you are more likely to get started using something like an Arduino, but it is easy to miss the accessible language and immediate feedback when you are doing simple projects. Annex WiFi RDS (Rapid Development Suite) is a scripting language for the ESP8266 that isn’t quite Basic, but it shares a lot of the same attributes. One example project from [cicciocb] is a scrolling dot matrix LED clock.
Bringing modern protocols and techniques to vintage computers is a favorite pastime for hackers, and over the years we’ve seen some absolutely incredible hardware and software projects designed specifically to do what most people would consider impossible. They’re very rarely practical projects, of course. But that’s never really the point.
Today we present another excellent entry into this niche avenue of hacking: Renderific, a tool to render SVGs on 8-bit Atari computers by [Kevin Savetz]. The MIT licensed program is written in Turbo-BASIC XL and allows computers such the 1200XL and 800XL to not only render the image on screen but output it to an attached plotter. There are a few niggling issues with some files, and apparently the plotter draws the image upside-down for some reason, but on the whole we can now add “SVG Rendering” to the list of things you can do with a nearly 40-year-old computer.
Of course, those who are familiar with these 1980’s machines might wonder how their limited CPUs can possibly cope with such a task. Well, that’s where the impracticality comes in. According to [Kevin], you can be in for quite a wait depending on the complexity of the image. In his tests, some SVGs took up to 45 minutes to fully render on the screen, so you might want to have a snack handy.
If you’re interested in lending a hand with the project, it sounds as though [Kevin] could use some assistance in figuring out why the Atari 1020 plotter doesn’t like the output of his program. There’s also a few SVG functions and forms of Bézier curves that need some work if you’ve got your Turbo-BASIC XL programming books handy.
If you missed it, the Hackaday Supercon 2018 badge was a complete retro-minicomputer with a screen, keyboard, memory, speaker, and expansion ports that would make a TRS-80 blush. Only instead of taking up half of your desk, everyone at the conference had one around their neck, when they weren’t soldering to it, that is.
The killer feature of the badge was its accessibility and hackability — and a large part of that was due to the onboard BASIC interpreter. And that’s where Jaromir comes in. Once Voja Antonic had finalized the design of the badge hardware for our conference in Belgrade in the spring of 2018, as Jaromir puts it, “all we needed was a little bit of programming”. That would of course take three months. The badge was battle-tested in Belgrade, and various feature requests, speed ups, and bugfixes were implemented (during the con!) by Jaromir and others.
Firmware work proceeded over the summer. Ziggurat29 helped out greatly by finding ways to speed up the badge’s BASIC interpreter (that story is told on his UBASIC and the Need for Speed project page) and rolled into the code base by Jaromir. More bugs were fixed, keywords were added, and the three-month project grew to more like nine. The result: the badge was in great shape for the Supercon in the fall.
Jaromir’s talk about the badge is supremely short, so if you’re interested in hacking a retrocomputer into a PIC, or if you’ve got a badge and you still want to dig deeper into it, you should really give it a look. We don’t think that anyone fully exploited the CP/M machine emulator that lies inside — there’s tons of software written for that machine that is just begging to be run after all these years — but we’re pretty sure nearly everyone got at least into the basement in Zork. Dive in!
For one reason or another, we’re going with a retro-futuristic 80s aesthetic in this case, [Mike] decided to turn an Apple IIe into a robot. If you have to ask why, you’ll never know, but this project does have some interesting things going for it. There’s a voice synthesizer, a brand spankin’ new power supply, and it rolls around on the floor thanks to Apple BASIC.
Since this is a mobile robot, there needs to be a power supply in there somewhere. The Apple II had a fantastic switching power supply, but it ran off mains voltage. To make this Apple run off a 14.8 V LiPO battery, [Mike] needed to re-engineer this power supply to give +5, +12, -5, and -12 Volts. The easiest is the positive voltage, and for that, he used a big ‘ol LM1084 linear regulator for the +5 V line. This outputs a ton of heat and probably isn’t the best solution, but it is a solution that works. The +12 line was again another linear regulator, an LM7812CV. Since this is dropping 14.8 V down to 12, the efficiency isn’t that bad, and since there’s no floppy drive it’s not pulling much current anyway. The negative voltages are a MAX764 / MAX765 inverting switching regulators. This completely replaces the original power supply in the Apple II, and is a decent reference design for anyone who wants to make a luggable Apple II laptop.
To move this thing around, the motors run on their own 11.1 V LiPO, with a bunch of Pololu gear tying everything together. The BASIC code was written on an emulator, transferred over with the Floppy Emu. Movement is controlled through the output pins on the joystick port, and there’s a text to speech module that was obviously needed and ties this project together wonderfully. You can check out the video demo of the build below.
It won’t replace your beloved Rasbperry Pi, but it’s worth saying hello to this “Strawberry Jam”, straight out of Japan. It’s an equally delicious way to get people interested in the basics of coding.
My hackerspace friend Jim is a lucky bloke, for last year he was able to take an extended holiday through a succession of East Asian countries. We were treated to online pictures of beautiful scenery and beaches, city lights, and of course exciting tech destinations such as hardware markets and hackerspaces. On his return he tossed a package on the table in front of me and said “Jenny, you might like to take a look at that, these are big in Japan!” Inside was an electronic kit and a few pieces of documentation, with Japanese text.
A Different Way To Get Kids Coding
What he’d given me was an IchigoJam (Best translation I’ve been given is “Strawberry Jam”), a small single-board computer aimed at young people. In the style of the 8-bit machines of the 1980s, it runs a comprehensive BASIC interpreter and plugs into a TV set, though it brings itself up-to-date with a USB-A socket for a keyboard. At its heart is an NXP LPC1114F102 ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller with 32KB of Flash and 4KB of SRAM, and though the board Jim passed to me has a surface-mount example it’s clear that it was also designed for the now-obsolete DIP variant of the chip. If you were to think of this as an odd hybrid of a BASIC Stamp, a Raspberry Pi, and one of the smaller MBED boards, you probably wouldn’t be too far from the mark. What follows is my impression of it based on the information at hand. Sadly the IchigoJam website and forum seems only available to Japanese viewers and returns an error code from my European perspective.