Hackaday Links: September 30, 2018

If you’re looking for an Open Source computer, good luck. The RISC-V stuff isn’t there yet, and with anything else you’re going to be dealing with NDA’d Intel, AMD, or some other proprietary cruft. System76, however, makes the most big-O Open computer, and they will be announcing a new Open computer called the Thelio next month. It was on display at the Open Hardware Summit, although smartly there were no pictures taken of this box. Liliputing has reported on it, but there are a few things wrong with that speculation. No, it’s not RISC-V. We’re looking at x86 here. It’s a desktop. It has wood (walnut or maple). It doesn’t have enough cold cathode lighting to blind you, but I guess that’s a matter of taste. Everything will be announced in October.

I have a plan in the works to sell snake oil to people. Actually, it’s not snake *oil*, but it is derived from snakes. There are rattlesnake farmers out there, who breed snakes for meat (tastes like chicken!) and their skins for boots. The fascia of the skins is disposed of when this leather is being prepared, and this can be used as the base component of a glue, or something resembling gelatin. It’s basically no different than fish or animal glue, except it’s from snakes. This can be used as one of the ingredients in gummy candy. This is my plan: I’m going to sell snake oil, except it’s really snake-based gummies. They promote digestion and get rid of ions in your body, or something. Better living through snake gummies.

The paragraph you just read is a better business plan than this bit of snake oil. It’s a battery that recharges itself. It’s unclear if it recharges itself over time; if if it just recharges itself automatically, wouldn’t the battery just have more energy in it? It’s hitting all the checkmarks of snake oil too: there are references to Tesla being a ‘forgotten genius’, zero-point energy fields, and a countdown timer to their crowdfunding campaign. This rabbit hole goes deep.

Did you know Hackaday has a Retro Edition, specifically designed for old computers that somehow have web browsers? It’s true! Sometimes, we even add pics of people pulling the Retro Edition up on their ancient devices. [Steven McDonald] wondered if his Blackberry counted. Sure thing! If you can pull up the Retro Edition on your ancient computer, we’ll mention it in the Links post, too. We’re also taking suggestions on how to improve the Retro Edition; I’ll get around to improving it eventually.

The Desktop Computer Returns As Amiga-Infused Retro Case

The desktop computer is dead. No, I don’t mean computers that are meant to sit either on or underneath a desk. I’m talking about computer cases that are placed on a desk horizontally, probably with a monitor on top. The ‘monitor stand case’ was a mainstay for most of the 80s and 90s, but died out when CRTs became too heavy.

Now, though, there’s an interesting Kickstarter project that aims to bring the desktop computer case back, and it’s doing it as an upgrade to the classic Amiga 500, Amiga 1200, and Amiga 600 computers.

The idea for this project began all the way back in the 80s, with the Checkmate A1500 computer case. This case was designed to add expansion capabilities to the low-end Amiga 500 computer, transforming it into a desktop system with extra floppies, a hard drive, and an expansion port. In effect, you could have a ‘professional’ Amiga system for half the price of Commodore’s product offerings.

Now the Checkmate is back, this time with a case upgrade that will transform an A500, A600, A1200, or even the PPC Aeon Tabor A1222 motherboard. There’s another trick this case has to offer: it’s also compatible with MicroATX and Mini-ITX motherboards, meaning yes, there is now going to be a real desktop case that you can throw a motherboard in and a monitor on top.

The death of the desktop computer is an absolutely tragic tale that has resulted in people dropping towers on a floor and propping up their LCDs on piles of books. The reason why we do this is understandable — when CRTs got too heavy for plastic enclosures, computers became towers. Now, though, we’re all using featherweight LCDs, and computers could easily return to the desktop.

Retro-uC, Your Favorite Instruction Sets On Custom Silicon

A few months ago, we caught wind of an interesting project in Big-O Open silicon. It’s a chip, loaded up with the great CPU cores of yore. Now, it’s finally a project on Crowd Supply. The Retro-uC project is an Open Source microcontroller for the retro geek, with a Zilog Z80, MOS 6502, and Motorola 68000 buried in the epoxy of a single QFP package. Oh yes, custom silicon and retro goodness, what more could you want?

The Retro-uC project is part of the Chips4Makers project to develop an Open Source chip for the community. Of course, this has been done before with projects like the HiFive1 and other RISC-V implementations, but really — this is a Z80, 6502 and 68k on a single chip. Let’s not bury the lede here.

As far as the architecture and implementation of these cores go, the ‘active’ core is externally selected on reset, or can be changed through the JTAG interface. There are 72 GPIO pins that can handle 5V, with each pin mapped to the address space of the cores. So far, so good. We can make this work for some really cool stuff.

The JTAG interface is used for testing and programming, although programs can be stored on an external I2C Flash chip and booted from there. There is 4kB of on-chip RAM, and while the peripheral configuration is still being determined, there will at least be UART, I2C, and PWM peripherals. How many of each is anyone’s guess.

The Retro-uC is now a Crowd Supply project, with rewards/orders/whatever ranging from a bare Retro-uC chip for $42 USD to an Arduino Mega-ish development platform for $89, a breadboard version of the chip for $59, and a chip mounted to a Perf2+ prototyping board for $65.

While this chip hasn’t even gotten to tape-out, all the cores work on an FPGA, and there is precedent for doing Open Source, crowdfunded silicon. We’re looking at this one closely and are excited to see what everyone is going to make.

This project has been a long time in the making, with the project lead giving a talk at FOSDEM earlier this year. Now it’s finally time for the hard part of any silicon project — getting the money — and we’re looking forward to see what comes of it.

Indiegogo Calls Time On The ZX Vega

It has been an exciting time to be a retro computer enthusiast in recent years, and the availability of affordable single board computers, systems-on-chip, and FPGAs have meant that retro hardware could be accurately reproduced or emulated. A host of classic micros have been reborn, to delight both the veterans who had the originals, and a new crop of devotees.

Today we have news of the impending demise of one of the higher-profile projects. The ZX Vega+ is a handheld Sinclair Spectrum console bearing the Sinclair name that came with an impeccable pedigree in that it had the support of the man himself. It seemed like a good proposition on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, and when it made its debut there in early 2016 it attracted over half a million pounds worth of backing in short order. Things soon went sour though, with reports of a falling-out within Retro Computers, followed by multiple missed deadlines and promises undelivered over the last couple of years. With little sign of either the money or the console itself, it seems Indiegogo have now lost patience and will be sending in the debt collectors to recover what they can. Whether the backers will see any of their money is unclear.

It’s fair to say that the ZX Vega saga has been a tortuous and rather sordid one, out of which few players emerge smelling of roses. In a way though it is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the 8-bit era, as the period from the late 1970s onwards was littered with the financially bare corpses of dubiously run companies in the home computer industry. Meanwhile if you are hankering for a Vega it should be easy enough to create one for yourself, as Retro Computers Ltd admitted that under its skin was a copy of the FUSE software emulator. We suspect that most Hackaday readers could take a Raspberry Pi and a suitable LCD, pair them with a 3D-printed case and an 18650 cell, and be playing Manic Miner in no time. Far simpler than this convoluted Spectrum project!

Hands On With The Smallest Game Boy Ever Made

The PocketSprite is the tiniest fully-functional Game Boy Color and Sega Master System emulator. Not only is it small enough to fit in your pocket, it’s small enough to lose in your pocket. It’s now available as a Crowd Supply campaign, and it’s everything you could ever want in a portable, WiFi-enabled, fully hackable video game console. It also plays Witcher 3. And probably Crysis, because of the meme.

This has been a year and a half in the making. The first hardware version of the PocketSprite was revealed at the 2016 Hackaday Superconference by hardware engineer extraordinaire [Sprite_TM]. As [Sprite] has a long list of incredibly impressive hardware hacks like installing Linux on a hard drive and building a Matrix of Tamagotchis, he always has to keep pushing deep into the hardware frontier.

In 2016, [Sprite] showed off the tiniest Game Boy ever, powered by the then brand-spankin’ new ESP32. This was released as Open Source, with the hope that a factory in China would take the files and start pumping out mini Game Boys for everyone to enjoy. Now, a year and a half later, it’s finally happened. In a collaboration with manufacturing wizard [Steve K], [Sprite] is the mastermind behind TeamPocket. The pocket-sized Game Boy-shaped emulator is now real. This is our hands-on review.

Continue reading “Hands On With The Smallest Game Boy Ever Made”

Hackaday Links: February 11, 2018

Are you a student? Are you part of a hackerspace? We have a contest going on right now where you can win a fancy new Prusa i3 MK3. The Repairs You Can Print contest is a challenge to do something useful with that machine that spits out tugboats. We’re looking for functional repairs of items around your house, office, or garage. Did you repair something with a 3D printer? Then you too can get in on the action! Enter now! Check out the entries!

You may know Flite Test as the group who do everything surrounding remote control flight (mostly fixed wings, a nice counter to the quadification of the hobby over the last few years). Flite Test designs and sells airplanes made out of Dollar Tree foam board, they have yearly, bi-coastal meetups, and they’re all-around awesome dudes. Now, they want to build the Disneyland of RC flight. [Josh Bixler], the face of Flite Test and a guy who has a plane named after him, wants to buy a golf course and turn it into the world’s best RC flying park, with a ~2000 foot grass strip for general aviation. We’re looking at their crowdfunding campaign, and it looks promising it might be funded by the time this goes live.

A while ago, [Peter Jansen], the guy who built a tricorder and a laser-cut CT scanner, made a magnetic camera. This Hall Effect camera is a camera for magnetism instead of light. Now, this camera has been fully built and vastly improved. He’s capturing ‘frames’ of magnetism in a spinning fan at 2000 Hz (or FPS, terminology kind of breaks down here), and it’s beautiful.

Oh thank God we can finally buy GPUs again. Try buying them with Bitcoin.

In the last few years, CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has expanded. Originally, this was one of the treaties that banned the import or export of rhino horn, but recently this expanded to the export of rosewood thanks to increased demand in China for rosewood furniture. The laws of unintended consequences kicked into effect, and importing anything made out of rosewood is now a mess of permits and inspections at the border, including musical instruments. Travelling orchestras, for example, are at risk of having their string section confiscated because of rosewood tuning pegs. Cooler minds may now be prevailing, and there’s some hope the regulations may be changed during the next meeting of the CITES convention next year.

As noted a few months ago, there was a possibility of Broadcom buying Qualcomm for one… hundred… Billion dollarsThis offer was rejected, with Qualcomm saying the offer wasn’t high enough. Broadcom fired back with an offer of $82 per share, or $121B. This offer was rejected this week.

Need some EMC testing? [Zach]’s got your back. He’s reserved some time in a 10m EMC chamber for testing NeuroBytes this week. If you have an Open Source project that needs a pre-test scan for unintentional radiator, you can get in on the action. This is just a pre-test, you’re not getting certification, and you’re not going to test anything with radios, and you need to ship [Zach] your stuff. But still, free test time. Woo.

Crowdfunding Is Now A Contract Between Company And Backer

Kickstarter is not a store. Indiegogo is not a store. Crowdfunding is not buying something — you’re merely donating some money, and you might get a reward for your pledge. Caveat emptor doesn’t apply, because there is no buyer, and no one can figure out what the correct Latin translation for ‘backer’ is. These are the realities that have kept Indiegogo and Kickstarter in business, have caused much distress in people who think otherwise, and have been the source of so, so many crowdfunding follies.

Now, finally, crowdfunding is being legally recognized as a store. The Register reports a court in England has ruled against Retro Computers Ltd and said it had formed a contract of sale with crowdfunding backer Rob Morton. For one person, at least, for one of their pledges, Indiegogo is a store.

The crowdfunding campaign in question is the Retro Computers’ Sinclair ZX Spectrum Vega Plus, a small device not unlike the Commodore 64 direct to TV joysticks. The Spectrum Vega simply plugs into your TV, reads an SD card, and plays old ‘speccy games. Clive Sinclair, the genius who brought us the Spectrum, strange flat CRTs, and a host of other inventions, was involved in this campaign. In the years since the campaign ended, there have been numerous updates and Retro Computers still says they intend to deliver the device. Morton, apparently fed up with the delays, brought a suit against Retro Computers for the grand sum of £584: £85 for the Spectrum pledge, £5 for shipping, and the remainder for travel expenses and lost wages for the court date.

District Judge Clarke of Luton County Court heard the case and ruled against Retro Computers, finding there was a contract of sale between Morton and Retro Computers Ltd.. Evidence included a number of copies of Morton’s order, a document the judge pointed out as saying ‘this order’ and not ‘this pledge’. Additionally, the judge found the fine print on Indiegogo does not negate a contract of sale; there was still an implied agreement between Morton and Retro Computers, and Retro Computers had breached the contract by not delivering a Spectrum.

It should go without saying that this finding does not apply to every project on Indiegogo, it does not apply to Kickstarter, and nor does it apply to every crowdfunding campaign. This does not even apply to all backers of the Spectrum Vega Plus. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of backers for crowdfunding projects that haven’t received what they paid for, and if nothing else this story gives just a little bit of satisfaction to anyone that’s still waiting on an undelivered product.