Hackaday Prize 2022: A Functional Commodore PET Tribute

The C64 may be the best-selling computer of all time, but Commodore made several machines before that, too. [Mjnurney] always loved the Commodore PET, and set about building some new machines in the PET’s unique all-in-one form factor.

The case design started with measurements taken from an original Commodore PET, of which [Mjnurney] has three. Then, it was modified and extended to make room for a proper keyboard. The case also mounts a 14″ IPS display, two 15W speakers, and a gas strut enabling the case to be propped open for easy maintenance. It’s actually made out of real sheet metal, too!

The primary version mounts an Amiga 500 inside, including its classic keyboard. However, [Mjnurney] has developed a PC version, too. Both look great, and it’s wild to see Netflix displayed on a machine that looks more at home in 1977. Perhaps most of all, though, we love the dual floppy drives just below the screen.

Throwback cases pay tribute to some of our favorite machines. The tiny ones are perhaps the cutest of all.

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Pet Docking Station Was Two Decades In The Making

There are some projects which once might have been entirely appropriate, but which now seem sacrilegious. [Dave Luna]’s PC docking station in a Commodore Pet 64 case might at first sight seem to be one of them, but there’s a little more to it than gutting a cherished retrocomputer.

A much younger [Dave] had a dead Pet 64, and because over two decades ago such a thing was considered junk, set about converting it to a PC case. In the way of all ambitious projects it stalled, so here in 2022 he was starting with the metal case and keyboard of a Pet 64 rather than the full computer.

Into the case went a small color TFT monitor, a USB3 hub, a DisplayLink adapter, and and an Arduino Micro doing the job of USB-ifying the Commodore keyboard. The result is a pretty cool docking station, but one which he admits isn’t as nice to use as he’d like. Viewed through rose tinted glasses any PET was an amazing machine in its day, but a slightly lackluster keyboard and a tiny screen don’t quite have the same allure in a world of 4K monitors. Still, we’d have one on our desk.

The Pet appears in quite a few projects that have made it to these pages, for example showing YouTube videos.

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A 3D-printed device labelled "BlixTerm" plugged into the back of a Commodore PET

BlixTerm Brings Full-Speed YouTube Video To The Commodore PET

If you’ve ever used a home computer from the late 1970s or early 1980s, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the slow speed of their user interfaces. Even listing the contents of a BASIC program from RAM could take several seconds, with the screen updating one line at a time. Video games were completely optimized for speed, but could still handle just a few slowly-moving objects at the same time. Clearly, playing anything resembling full-motion video on hardware from that era would be absolutely impossible – or so you might think.

In fact, [Thorbjörn Jemander] has managed to persuade a Commodore PET to play YouTube videos at a completely reasonable 30 frames per second. He describes the process of designing the “BlixTerm” hardware and software in his video (embedded below), along with lots of useful information on how to push digital systems to their absolute limits.

A video of a drifting car, as rendered by a Commodore PET displayNaturally, the PET needs a bit of assistance from modern hardware, in this case a Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W hooked up to the “User” expansion port. The Pi connects to YouTube through WiFi and loads the requested video, then downconverts it to a 640×200 grayscale stream and transforms each frame to an 80×25 grid of characters, using those from the PET’s ROM that most closely resemble the pattern needed.

While it took quite some effort to squeeze enough performance out of the Pi to do all of this in real time, the trickiest bit was getting the resulting character stream into the PET’s video memory fast enough. To do this, [Thorbjörn] designed a special interface card with 2 KB of dual-port SRAM, which enabled the Pi to store its video frames as soon as they were ready on one side, and the PET to load them at its own pace from the other side. With just sixteen microseconds available to process each byte, the PET’s CPU can execute only four or five machine code instructions; barely enough to load and store a single character and jump to the next memory address.

The end result, as you can see in the video, is really impressive. Even within the constraints of the Commodore character set, the resulting image is clearly recognizable, while the frame rate seems to defy the hardware’s limitations.

If you’re a Commodore aficionado and wondering what the hell that weird PET 600 model is all about, [Thorbjörn] made a video about that too; it’s a rebadged 8296 aimed at the Swedish market. We’ve actually seen a project to generate live video on the PET before, although at a much lower frame rate. Thanks for the tip, [Keith Olson]!

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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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