The last couple years have seen an incredible flourishing of the cyberdeck scene, and probably for about as many reasons as there are individual ’deck designs. Some people get really into the prop-making, some into scrapping old tech or reusing a particularly appealing case, and others simply into the customization possibilities. That’s awesome, and they’re all different motivations for making a computer that’s truly your own.
But I really like the motivation and sentiment behind [Andreas Eriksen]’s PotatoP. (Assuming that his real motivation isn’t all the bad potato puns.) This is a small microcomputer that’s built on a commonly available microcontroller, so it’s not a particularly powerful beast – hence the “potato”. But what makes up for that in my mind is that it’s running a rudimentary bare-metal OS of his own writing. It’s like he’s taken the cyberdeck’s DIY aesthetic into the software as well.
What I like most about the spirit of the project is the idea of a long-term project that’s also a constant companion. Once you get past a terminal and an interpreter – [Andreas] is using LISP for both – everything else consists of small projects that you can check off one by one, that maybe don’t take forever, and that are limited in complexity by the hardware you’re working on. A simple text editor, some graphics primitives, maybe a sound subsystem. A way to read and write files in flash. I don’t love LISP personally, but I love that it brings interactivity and independence from an external compiler, making the it possible to develop the system on the system, pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.
Pretty soon, you could have something capable, and completely DIY. But it doesn’t need to be done all at once either. With a light enough computer, and a good basic foundation, you could keep it in your backpack and play “OS development” whenever you’ve got the free time. A DIY play OS for a sandbox computing platform: what more could a nerd want?
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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.
Quiz time, what was the first commercially available microcomputer? The Altair 8800? Something obscure like the SCELBI? The Mark-8 kit? According to [The Byte Attic], it was actually the Q1, based on the Intel 8008 processor. The first Q1 microcomputer was delivered in December of 1972, making it the first, as far as he can tell. Later revisions used the Z80 processor, which is the model pictured above that [The Byte Attic] has in his possession. It’s a beautiful little machine, with a striking orange plasma display.
The irony is that this machine is almost entirely forgotten about. The original unit may have looked more like a typewriter, pictured here. If you have any first hand knowledge, or especially software, documentation, or surviving hardware bits, make sure to check in to add to the knowledge pool about this amazing little machine.
Not to start a debate in the comments or anything, but what would you say was the first microcomputer, or personal computer? We suppose the answer depends on your definition. Some would argue that the PC was born at Xerox PARC with a curious portrait-mode display and a three-button mouse, while others would say it all began in a garage in either Los Altos, California or Albuquerque, New Mexico.
If you take the term ‘computer’ to mean that which can crunch big numbers fairly quickly, then the Canadian-made MCM/70 is arguably the first personal computer in that it is portable, has an alphanumeric keyboard, a display, and supports cassette storage, which could be used to extend the 8K of memory. It was an all-in-one computing solution, and it could have an optional telephone modem built in. This was a forward-thinking machine for 1974.
Over on Hackaday.io, [Zoltan Pekic] has been busy building a stack of tools for assisting with verifying and debugging retro computing applications. He presents his take on using Intel hex files for customised in-circuit testing, which is based upon simple microcoded sequencers, which are generated automatically from a high level description.
The idea is that it is very useful to be able to use an FPGA development board to emulate the memory bus component of the CPU, allowing direct memory access for design validation purposes. This approach will also allow the production of a test rig to perform board level verification. The microcode compiler (MCC) generates all the VHDL, and support files needed to target a Xilinx FPGA based dev board, but is generic enough to enable targeting other platforms with a little adaptation.
Another interesting use case enables in-circuit tracing of buggy memory accesses, with the microcode sequencer decoding the accesses and dumping the relevant information out to either a serial port, or even direct to an embedded VGA controller, hardware allowing.
This automated approach to generating customisable microcoded hardware is a very nice trick to have in your bag, and even if it only helps in certain circumstances, [Zoltan] notes that it at least serves as an interesting example of the architecture of computers from history, if not much else.
Source for the example 8085 project can be found on the project GitHub, and the toolchain source can found here also.
To say the Heathkit name is well known among Hackaday readers would be something of an understatement. Their legendary kits launched an untold number of electronics hobbies, and ultimately, plenty of careers. From relatively simple radio receivers to oscilloscopes and televisions, the company offered kits for every skill level from the post-war era all the way up to the 1990s.
So it’s hardly a surprise that in 1977, seeing the success of early home computers like the Altair 8800 and IMSAI 8080, Heathkit decided to join the fray with a computer kit of their own. But by that point the home computing market had started to shift from a hobbyist’s pursuit to something the whole family could enjoy. Compared to the Apple II and TRS-80, both of which also launched in 1977, Heathkit’s machine seemed like the product of a bygone era.
While it might not have gained the notoriety of the microcomputers it was designed to compete with, the Heathkit H8 is certainly not forgotten. Tucked away in a corner at the 2021 Vintage Computer Festival East was an impressive exhibit dedicated to the Society of Eight-Bit Heath Computerists (SEBHC) called Heathkit: Keeping the Legacy Alive. Presented by Glenn Roberts, this collection of original and modern hardware demonstrated the incredible lengths to which this group of passionate Heathkit owners have gone to not just preserve the memory of these often overlooked computers, but to continue to improve upon the kit’s unique design.
[Ken Shirriff] recently shared some pictures and a writeup from his visit to the Large Scale Systems Museum, a remarkable private collection of mainframes and other computers from the 1970s to the 1990s. Housed in a town outside Pittsburgh, it contains a huge variety of specimens including IBM mainframes and desk-sized minicomputers, enormous disk and tape storage systems, and multiple 90s-era Cray supercomputers. It doesn’t stop there, either. Everything through the minicomputer revolution leading to personal home computers is present, and there are even several Heathkit HERO robot kits from the 80s. (By the way, we once saw a HERO retrofitted with wireless and the ability to run Python.)
Something really special is that many of the vintage systems are in working order, providing insight into how these units performed and acted. The museum is a private collection and is open only by appointment but they encourage interested parties not to be shy. If a trip to the museum isn’t for you, [Ken] has some additional photos from his visit here for you to check out.