Tiny RISC Virtual Machine Is Built For Speed

Most of us are familiar with virtual machines (VMs) as a way to test out various operating systems, reliably deploy servers and other software, or protect against potentially malicious software. But virtual machines aren’t limited to running full server or desktop operating systems. This tiny VM is capable of deploying software on less powerful systems like the Raspberry Pi or AVR microcontrollers, and it is exceptionally fast as well.

The virtual machine is built from scratch, including the RISC processor with only 61 opcodes, a 64 bit core, and runs code written in his own programming language called “Brackets” or in assembly. It’s designed to be modular, so only those things needed for a given application are loaded into the VM. With these design criteria it turns out to be up to seven times as fast as comparably small VMs like NanoVM. The project’s creator, [koder77], has even used its direct mouse readout and joystick functionality to control a Raspberry Pi 3D camera robot.

For anyone looking to add an efficient VM to a small computing environment, [koder77] has made the project open-source on his GitHub page. This also includes all of the modules he has created so far which greatly expand the project’s capabilities. For some further reading on exceedingly tiny virtual machines, we featured this project way back in 2012 which allows users to run Java on similar hardware.

Mobile-Focused Windows 11 Leaves Taskbar Stuck Along The Bottom

Yeah, I’ll admit it: I’m a Windows person. Two years ago this summer, I traded in an overworked Windows 7 laptop that was literally screaming in pain for a SFF Windows 10 box as my main machine. But 10 might mean the end for this scribe, who has used Windows since the late 1980s. Admittedly, it’s for a fairly petty reason — Microsoft have gotten rid of alternate-location taskbar support in Windows 11. As in, you can have the taskbar anywhere you want, as long as it’s the bottom of the screen.

Years ago, I switched my taskbar to the top for various reasons. For one, it just made more sense to me to have everything at the top, and nothing at the bottom to interrupt visual flow while reading a web page or a document. Plenty of people move it to one of the sides or hide it when not in use for the same reason. More importantly, I thought moving the taskbar to the top would help with my neck/shoulder strain issues, and I believe that it has. So oddly enough, this one little thing may be the dealbreaker that gets me to switch after thirty-something years to Linux, where top-aligned taskbars are more or less the norm.

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Hackaday Links: April 3, 2022

It’s that time of year again — the 2022 Hackaday Prize has officially launched, and we’re excited to see what it turns out. This year’s theme is “Sustainability, Resilience, and Circularity,” and just in time, too; if the last couple of years has taught us anything, it’s that we’ve got a lot of failure points built into the systems that run our world. As broken as things are, it’s tempting to just curl up in a ball and pretend everything’s fine, but that’s not how hackers respond to adversity. We need to control what we can control, and there’s plenty of work to be done. From sustainable energy ideas to ways to reduce the amount of stuff we throw away, from breathing new life into old equipment to building communities that can take care of themselves, there’s plenty of work to be done. So get over to the Hackaday Prize page, check out the launch summit video if you need some inspiration, and get hacking. And hurry up — things are only going to get better if people like us make it happen.

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Desktop Performance In A Custom Mac Laptop

Most of us either own or have used a laptop at some point. For traveling, as a student, or even for browsing Hackaday on the couch in front of the TV, they are pretty much indispensable. They do tend to have a sharp performance reduction compared to a desktop though thanks to the thermal and battery limitations of a portable form factor. [Scott Yu-Jan] wanted to solve that in his own life by building a custom Mac laptop with none of these downsides.

Noticing that a modern iPad Mini has exactly the same width of his Mac Mini, [Scott] set about combining the two devices into a single unit that he could assemble when traveling. A 3D printed case with a traditional laptop clamshell design takes care of physically combining these two devices, and a USB-C cable between the two takes care of combining them in software thanks to Apple’s Duet program. While this has better performance than a Macbook Pro it might actually have some perks, since Apple continues to refuse to make a laptop with a touchscreen.

There are some downsides, of course. The price is higher than a comparable Macbook Pro for the iPad and Mac together, plus it doesn’t include a keyboard or mouse. It also has no battery, so it needs to be plugged in. In the follow-up video linked below, though, [Scott] notes that for him this still made sense as he uses the Mac and iPad individually already, and only works remotely at places that have power outlets readily available. For the average person, though, we might recommend something different if you really need an esoteric laptop-like machine.

Thanks to [Varun] for originally sending in this tip!

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The End Of The Electromechanical Era

When viewed from the far future, the early years of the 21st century will probably be seen as the end of a short era in human technological development. In the beginning of the 20th century, most everything was mechanical. There were certainly some electric devices, but consumer products like gramophone players and “movie” cameras were purely mechanical affairs. You cranked them up, and they ran on springs. Nowadays, almost every bit of consumer gear you buy will be entirely electronic. In between, there was a roughly 50 year period that I’m going to call the Electromechanical Era.

Jenny List’s teardown this week of an old Fuji film movie camera from 1972 captures the middle of this era perfectly. There’s a small PCB and an electric motor, but most of the heavy lifting in the controls was actually put on the shoulders of levers, bearings, and ridiculously clever mechanisms. The electrical and mechanical systems were loosely coupled, with the electrical controlled by the mechanical.

I’m willing to argue the specifics, but I’d preliminarily date the peak of the Electromechanical Era somewhere around 1990. Last year, I had to replace all of the rotted rubber drive belts in a Sony Walkman WM-D6C, a professional portable tape player and recorder produced from 1984-2002.

It’s not a simple tape recorder — the motors are electronically regulated to keep ridiculously constant speed for such a small device, and mine has Dolby B and C noise reduction circuitry packed inside along with some decent mic preamps. But still, when you press the fast-forward button, it physically shoves rubber-coated drive wheels out of the way, and sliding pieces of metal make it change modes of operation by making and breaking electrical contacts. Its precision lies as much in the mechanical assemblies and motors as in the electronics. It’s truly half electronic and half mechanical.

But that era is long over. The coming of the CD player signaled the end, although we didn’t see it at the time. Sure, there is a motor, but all the buttons are electronic, and all the “mechanism” is implemented almost entirely in silicon. The digital camera was possibly the last nail in the Electromechanical Era’s coffin: with no need to handle physical film, the last demand for anything mechanical evaporated. Open up a GoPro if you don’t know what I mean.

While I’ll be happy to never have to replace the drive rubber in a cassette recorder again, it’s with a little sadness that I think on the early iPods with their spinning metal hard drives, and how they gave way to the entirely silicon Zoom H5 recorder that I use now. It has a S/N ratio and quiet pre-amps, no wow or flutter, and a quality that would have been literally unbelievable when I bought the WM-D6C.

Still, if you find yourself in the thrift store, and you’ve never done so before, buy and take apart one of these marvels from a bygone era. A cassette recorder, even a cheap one, hides a wealth of electromechanical design.

Isolated Oscilloscope Design Process Shows How It’s Done

[Bart Schroder] was busy designing high voltage variable speed motor drives and was lamenting the inability of a standard scope to visualise the waveforms around the switch transistors. This is due to the three phase nature of such motors being driven with three current waveforms, out of phase with each other by 120 degrees, where current flows between each pair of winding taps, without being referenced to a common notion of ground. The average scope on your bench however, definitely is ground-referenced, so visualising such waveforms is a bit of a faff. Then there’s the fact that the motors run at many hundreds of volts, and the prospect of probing that with your precious bench instrument is a little nerve-wracking to say the least. The solution to the issue was obvious, build your own isolated high voltage oscilloscope, and here is the Cleverscope CS448 development journey for your viewing pleasure.

The scope itself is specification-wise nothing too flash, it’s the isolated channels that make it special. It does however have some niceties such as an extra eight 100 Mbps digital inputs and a handy 65 MHz signal generator. Also, don’t reach for your wallets just yet, as this is a specialised instrument with an even smaller potential user base than a normal scope, so these units are rather pricey. That all said, it’s not the existence of the scope that is the focus here, it’s the journey from problem to solution that interests us the most. There is much to learn from [Bart’s] journey, for example, where to place the frontend ADC? Isolated side or not? The noise floor of the signal chain dictated the former.

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Keep Calm And Hack On: The Philosophy Of Calm Technology

So much smart-tech is really kind of dumb. Gadgets intended to simplify our lives turn out to complicate them. It often takes too many “clicks” to accomplish simple tasks, and they end up demanding our attention. Our “better mousetraps” end up kludgy messes that are brittle instead of elegant and robust.

The answer might not be faster or newer technology, but a 30-year-old philosophy. Some great thinkers at Xerox PARC, the place where, among other things, the computer mouse was invented, developed principles they called Calm Technology.

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