This Snappy 8-Bit Microcomputer Brings The Speed To Retrocomputing

When the need for speed overcomes you, thoughts generally don’t turn to 8-bit computers. Sure, an 8-bit machine is fun for retro gameplay and reliving the glory days, and there certainly were some old machines that were notably faster than the others. But raw computing power isn’t really the point of retrocomputing.

Or is it? [Bernardo Kastrup] over at The Byte Attic has introduced an interesting machine called the Agon Light, an 8-bit SBC that’s also a bit like a microcontroller. The machine has a single PCB that looks about half as big as an Arduino Uno, and sports some of the same connectors and terminals around its periphery. The heart of the Agon Light is an eZ80 8-bit, 18.432 MHz 3-stage pipelined CPU, which is binary compatible with the Z80. It also has an audio-video coprocessor, in the form of an ESP32-Pico-D4, which supports a 640×480 64-color display and two mono audio channels. There’s no word we could find of whether the ESP32’s RF systems are accessible; it would be nice, but perhaps unnecessary since there are both USB ports and a PS/2 keyboard jack. There’s also a pin header for 20 GPIOs as well as I2C, SPI, and UART for serial communication.

The lengthy video below goes into all the details on the Agon Light, including the results of benchmark testing, all of which soundly thrash the usual 8-bit suspects. The project is open source and all the design files are available, or you can get a PCB populated with all the SMD components and just put the through-hole parts on. [Bernardo] is also encouraging people to build and sell their own Agon Lights, which seems pretty cool too. It honestly looks like a lot of fun, and we’re looking forward to seeing what people do with this.

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This ESP32 Pico Wristwatch Has Plenty Of Potential

First hand-built prototype. Nurse! isopropyl alcohol, stat!

Prolific hacker [Sulfuroid] is a medical doctor by day, and an electronics hobbyist by night, and quite how he finds the time, we have no idea.

The project we want to highlight is an ESP32 based LED smart watch, which we’ll sure you’ll agree, looks pretty nicely developed so far, and [Sulfuroid] has bigger plans, as you may find, when you dig into the GitHub repo. This analog-style design uses four groups of 0603-sized LEDs, arranged circularly to indicate the passage of time, or anything else you fancy. Since there are four control buttons, a pancake vibration motor, as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the possibilities are endless.

In order to stand a hope of driving those 192 LEDs from a single ESP32-Pico-D4, it was necessary to use a multiplexed LED driver, courtesy of the Lumissil IS31FL3733 device, which can handle arrays up to 12 x 16 devices. This chip is one to remember, since it has some really nice features, such as global current control to reduce CPU overhead, automatic breathing loops for those fancy fade effects, and even includes a handy open/short detection function, so it can report back assembly problems, assisting in reworking your dodgy soldering!

Routing circular arrays is such a pain.

Power and interfacing are taken care of via USB-C, with a TP4054 single Li-Ion cell charger chip handling the battery. This is a Taiwanese clone of the popular LTC4054, but that chip may be a bit hard to get at the moment. There is the common-as-muck CP2104 USB chip dealing with the emulated serial port side of things, since for some reason, the ESP32 still does not support USB. The Pico-D4 does have RTC support, but [Sulfuroid] decided to use a DS3231M RTC chip instead. We noticed the touch functionality wasn’t broken out – that could be added easily in the next revision!

We’ve covered watches a lot, because who doesn’t want custom geek-wear! Here’s a slick one, a fun one with the brains on display, and finally one using charlieplexing to get the component count down.


The ESP32… On A Chip

The new hotness in microcontrollers is the ESP32. This chip, developed by Espressif, is the follow-on to the very popular ESP8266, the cheap, low-power, very capable WiFi-enabled microcontroller that came on the scene a few years ago. The ESP32 is another beast entirely with two powerful cores, WiFi and Bluetooth, and peripherals galore. You can even put an NES emulator in there.

While the ESP32 is significantly more powerful, it has for now been contained in modules. What would really be cool is a single chip loaded up with integrated flash, filter caps, a clock, all on a 7x7mm QFN package. Meet the ESP32-Pico-D4 (PDF). It is, effectively, an ESP32 on a chip. It’s just the ticket if you’re trying to cram wireless, fast microcontroller wizardry into a small package.

At its heart, the ESP32-Pico is your normal ESP32 module with a Tensilica dual-core LX6 microcoprocessor, 448 kB of ROM, 520 kB of SRAM,  4 MB of Flash (it can support up to 16 MB), Wireless with 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.2, and a cornucopia of peripherals that include an SD card, UART, SPI, SDIO, LED and motor PWM, I2S, I2C, cap touch sensors, and a Hall effect sensor. It’s quite literally everything you could ever want in a microcontroller.

Disregarding the just barely hand-solderable package and the need for a PCB antenna, the ESP32-Pico requires very few support components. Really, the only thing going on in the reference schematic is a bunch of bypass caps. This is, by far, the easiest and smallest method to put WiFi, Bluetooth, and a powerful microcontroller in a project. It will surely be a very, very popular chip for hobbyist electronics for years to come. Of course, it will be even more popular if Espressif also manages to put this chip in a QFP package in addition to the QFN.

Unfortunately, apart from the PDF released by Espressif, the details on the EPS32-on-a-chip are sparse. We don’t know when we’ll be able to get our grubby hands on a tray, tube, or reel of these chips. That said, there’s enough information here to start designing a breakout board. Have at it — we’d love to see what the community comes up with.

Shout out to [Dave] for the tip.