David Murray and Kevin Williams with an early X16 prototype

Commander X16: A Dreamy 8 Bit Computer Comes Closer To Reality

Imagine the ultimate homage to 1980s 8-bit home computers. It might  look like [David Murray] aka The 8-Bit Guy’s Commander X16.

As a core group of geeks, hackers, and developers age, we yearn for the computers of our youth. VIC-20s, Commodore Pets, 64s, 128s, Ataris, Apple IIes, and the list goes on and on. For many of us, our first hands on experience with a computer was with such a machine that is now called “retro”. Sadly, many of these relics are getting more expensive as demand increases and supplies dwindle. Working examples are harder to find, and even those can break down. Original monitors, peripherals, and accessories are also getting scarcer. This is all quite understandable when we consider that some of these classics are over 40 years old.

What was it that we loved about these old rigs that makes them so attractive? [David] decided to distil what makes a classic a classic, and then turn that list into a spec list for what he calls his “Dream Computer”. He found that things like a printed and spiral bound manual were a big part of the charm and utility of these early home computers. Booting directly to a prompt and being able to directly control the hardware was another highly desirable trait.

[David] also took the time to determine what people don’t like about these retro machines: Wacky keyboard layouts, composite video output, and glacially slow storage. Swapping multiple floppies to load a program or respooling a cassette tape is just as undesirable in 2021 as it was in 1981. Who knew?

X16 Prototype #3
The X16’s’ prototyping is still in progress.

The result of [David]’s research is the Commander X16. Inspired by the VIC-20, it’s a fresh take on the retrocomputer that only uses parts that are currently available. You can see the first video in a series about the development of the X16 below the break. Be aware that a lot of progress has been made since the video came out in 2019, but it still provides an excellent starting point for learning about the project.

The X16’s specifications read like dream list made in the mid 80s: 256 color VGA, up to 2MB memory, an 8 MHz 6502, plenty of expansion ports, and even ports for SNES style controllers.  And what else will this dream machine include? You guessed it: A spiral bound manual!

It’s not possible to list all of the great features of the X16 in this space, so check out the Commander X16 FAQ for all the details. If this project makes your heart go pitter patter, you may be interested to know that they need help with software development! An emulator is available for development. The goal is to have a healthy software ecosystem in place when the X16 launches.

You may also enjoy reading about other 6502 retrocomputer reports such as this “Brain in a vat” 6502 computer, or a guided tour of the birthplace of the 6502 and the Commodore 64 with our very own Bil Herd.

Thank you to [Truth] for bringing us a report of this fine project via the Tip Line. Keep those tips coming!

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Tracking Satellites With A Commodore PET

A recent writeup by Tom Nardi about using the 6502-based NES to track satellites brought back memories of my senior project at Georgia Tech back in the early 80s.  At our club station W4AQL, I had become interested in Amateur Radio satellites.  It was quite a thrill to hear your signal returning from space, adjusting for Doppler as it speeds overhead, keeping the antennas pointed, all while carrying on a brief conversation with other Earth stations or copying spacecraft telemetry, usually in Morse code.

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VCF: 3D Printing In The 80s

The Vintage Computer Festival East is going down right now, and I’m surrounded by the height of technology from the 1970s and 80s. Oddly enough, Hackaday frequently covers another technology from the 80s, although you wouldn’t think of it as such. 3D printing was invented in the late 1980s, and since patents are only around for 20 years, this means 3D printing first became popular back in the 2000’s.

In the 1970s, the first personal computers came out of garages. In the early 2000s, the first 3D printers came out of workshops and hackerspaces. These parallels pose an interesting question – is it possible to build a 1980s-era 3D printer controlled by a contemporary computer? That was the focus of a talk from [Ethan Dicks] of the Columbus Idea Foundry this weekend at the Vintage Computer Festival.

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Mini Retro PET Computer

There was a time that the Commodore PET was the standard computer at North American schools. It’s all-in-one, rugged construction made it ideal for the education market and for some of us, the PET started a life-long love affair with computers. [Ruiz Brothers] at Adafruit has come up with a miniature PET model run on a microcontroller and loaded up with a green LED matrix for a true vintage look.

While not a working model of a PET, the model runs on an Adafruit Feather M0 Basic Proto which is an Atmel ATSAMD21 Cortex M0 microcontroller and can display graphics on Adafruit’s 16×9 charlieplexed led matrix.The ATSAMD21 is the chip used in the Arduino Zero, so I’m sure we’ll see more of this chip in the future. Like all of the tutorials at Adafruit, this one is very detailed with step-by-step animated pictures to help you along. Obviously, you don’t need the exact hardware that they’re using, but if you’re putting in an order from Adafruit anyway, why not?

The plans for the 3D printed PET are available for free, so even if you don’t want to put their LED matrix and microcontroller in it, you can still print yourself out a great looking prop and 3D printing the PET will only use about a dollar’s worth of filament. Of course, while this is a cool retro model, if you have a Commodore PET lying around, you could probably do something else with it. We don’t, so that sound you hear is the sound of our 3D printer printing up the past.

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Commodore PET Mods At VCF West 2016

28193708113_821f852139_zHere at the Vintage Computer Festival, we’ve found oodles of odds and ends from the past. Some, however, have gotten a modern twist like [bitfixer’s] recent Commodore PET project upgrades.

First off is [bitfixer’s] Augmented Reality upgrade. By the power of two iPhones and one raspberry Pi, the user dons a Google-Cardboard-esque heads-up-display and can visualize a 3D, ASCII rendering of the world before them. Not only does this view show up in the HUD, however, it’s also streamed to a Raspberry Pi whch then serializes it info a video display on the Commodore PET.

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TRON Legacy, can you tell??

This hack builds on some of [bitfixer’s] prior work getting ASCII video streaming up-and running. Of course, the memory on the Commodore PET is nowhere near capable of being able to process these images. In fact, streaming and storing the video data onto the PET’s memory would fill it up in under one second! Instead, [bitfixer] relies on some preprocessing thanks to the far-more-powerful (by comparison) Raspberry Pi and iPhone processors that are capturing the images.

 

 

Next off is [bitfixer’s] full-color video display on the same Commodore PET. Again, leveraging another RaspPi to encode and reduce the video to bitmap images, the Commodore PET simple grabs these images and streams them to the screen as fast as possible–at a beloved 5.8 frames per second.

 

VCF East X: Virtual Reality With PETSCII

What would happen if Oculus-quality virtual reality was created in the 80s on the Commodore PET? [Michael Hill] knows, because he created a stereoscopic video headset using a PET.

This build is an extension of [Michael]’s exhibit last year at VCF East where he displayed a video feed with PETSCII. Yes, that means displaying video with characters, not pixels.

This year, he’s doubling the number of screens, and sending everything to two iPhones in a Google Cardboard-like VR headset. Apart from the optics, the setup is pretty simple: cameras get image data, it’s sent over to a PET, and a stream of characters are sent back.

It’s impossible to film, and using it is interesting, to say the least. Video below.

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VCF East: PetPix, Streaming Images To A Commodore PET

PETaday

Thought the Vintage Computer Festival would just be really old computers with hundreds of people pecking 10 PRINT “HELLO” 20 GOTO 10? Yeah, there’s plenty of that, but also some very cool applications of new hardware. [Michael Hill] created PetPix, a video player for the Commodore PET and of course the C64.

PetPix takes any video file – or streaming video off a camera – and converts 8×8 pixel sections of each frame to PETSCII. All the processing is done on a Raspberry Pi and then sent over to the PET for surprisingly fluid video.

There is, of course, a video of PetPix available below. There are also a few more videos from [Michael] going over how PetPix works.

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