iCEBreaker, The Open Source Development Board for FPGAs

The Hackaday Superconference is over, which is a shame, but one of the great things about our conference is the people who manage to trek out to Pasadena every year to show us all the cool stuff they’re working on. One of those people was [Piotr Esden-Tempski], founder of 1 Bit Squared, and he brought some goodies that would soon be launched on a few crowdfunding platforms. The coolest of these was the iCEBreaker, an FPGA development kit that makes it easy to learn FPGAs with an Open Source toolchain.

The hardware for the iCEBreaker includes the iCE40UP5K fpga with 5280 logic cells,, 120 kbit of dual-port RAM, 1 Mbit of single-port RAM, and a PLL, two SPIs and two I2Cs. Because the most interesting FPGA applications include sending bits out over pins really, really fast, there’s also 16 Megabytes of SPI Flash that allows you to stream video to a LED matrix. There are enough logic cells here to synthesize a CPU, too, and already the iCEBreaker can handle the PicoRV32, and some of the RISC-V cores. Extensibility is through PMOD connectors, and yes, there’s also an HDMI output for your vintage computing projects.

If you’re looking to get into FPGA development, there’s no better time. Joe Fitz‘s WTFpga workshop from the 2018 Hackaday Superconference has already been converted to this iCEBreaker board, and yes, the seven-segment display and DIP switches are available. Between this and the Open Source iCE toolchain, you’ve got a complete development system that’s ready to go, fun to play with, and extremely capable.

Hackaday Links: November 18, 2018

The greatest bit of consumer electronics is shipping and the reviews are out: Amazon’s Alexa-enabled microwave is a capable microwave, but befuddling to the voice-controlled-everything neophyte. Voice controlled everything is the last hope we have for technological innovation; it’s the last gasp of the consumer electronics industry. This is Amazon’s first thing with a built-in voice assistant, and while this is a marginally capable microwave at only 700 Watts — fine for a college dorm, but it’s generally worth shelling out a bit more cash for a 1000 Watt unit — the controls are befuddling. The first iteration is always hard, and we’re looking forward to the Amazon Alexa-enabled toaster, toothbrush, vacuum cleaner, and Bezos shrine.

Need a laser cutter, like crowdfunding campaigns, and know literally nothing about laser cutters? Have we got something for you. The Etcher Laser crowdfunding campaign has been pinging my email non-stop, and they’ve got something remarkable: a diode laser cutter engraver for $500. It comes in a neat-looking enclosure, so it’s sure to raise a lot of money.

A while back [Paulusjacobus] released an Arduino-based CNC controller for K40 laser cutters. There were a few suggestions to upgrade this to the STM32, so now this CNC controller is running on a Blue Pill. Yes, it’s great and there’s more floating points and such and such, so now this project is a Kickstarter project. Need a CNC controller based on the STM32? Boom, you’re done. It’s also named the ‘Super Gerbil’, which is an awesome name for something that is effectively a GRBL controller. Naming things is the hardest problem in computer science, after all.

The Gigatron computer is a ‘home computer’ without a microprocessor or microcontroller. How does it do this? A metric butt-load of ROM and look-up tables. This is cool and all, but now the Gigatron logo is huge. we’re talking 18 μm by 24 μm. This was done by etching a silicon test wafer with electron beam lithography.

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.

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