A Mini-ITX PDP-11

The PDP-11 is perhaps the most important computer in history. This was the king of all minicomputers, and once you get past the amazing front panels of the 11/20, 11/40, and 11/70, you’ll find PDP-11s everywhere. Heathkit sold one. It was the smallest computer that could run Unix. There were desktop versions sold as DEC Professionals. I have been told Ticketmaster — the entire backend of all event ticket sales in the United States — still runs on PDP-11s.

One of the interesting bits of the PDP-11 is the miniaturization that happened over the course of its development. Over time, the Unibus processor cards of the earlier models were shrunk down into a single chip. This PDP-on-a-chip was then cloned by the Soviets, and like most vintage Eastern European electronics, they’re all readily available on eBay.

For his Hackaday Prize entry, [SHAOS] is taking one of these chips and turning it into a modern machine. The PDPii is a project to bring the PDP-11 back to life in the form of an Open Source motherboard with a Mini-ITX motherboard. Is it game-changing? No, not really; you could buy a desktop PDP-11 thirty years ago. This project, though, is taking new old stock chips you can buy for ten dollars and turning it into something resembling a modern system. Finally, Ticketmaster can upgrade.

The design of this project doesn’t quite meet the spec for the Mini-ITX form factor; it’s based off the RC2014 backplane Z80 computer, but desktop computer cases are cheap, as are power supplies, and I’m sure someone out there knows how to fit an eight inch floppy in a five and a quarter inch hole.

The key feature for this Mini-ITX backplane PDP-11 is a redesign of the Q-bus found in later PDPs to something that’s a bit smaller, a bit cheaper to manufacture, and still has all the relevant pins accessible. With some reconfiguring of the baroque DEC standards, [SHAOS] came up with the Bread-Board Friendly Q-bus Extended, or BBQ-Bus+. The next step for this project is gathering up a few PDP-11 compatible Russian КР1801ВМ2 CPUs and going to town on the architecture of what is probably the most replicated computer design ever.

Modder puts Computer inside a Power Supply

When building a custom computer rig, most people put the SMPS power supply inside the computer case. [James] a.k.a [Aibohphobia] a.k.a [fearofpalindromes] turned it inside out, and built the STX160.0 – a full-fledged gaming computer stuffed inside a ATX power supply enclosure. While Small Form Factor (SFF) computers are nothing new, his build packs a powerful punch in a small enclosure and is a great example of computer modding, hacker ingenuity and engineering. The finished computer uses a Mini-ITX form factor motherboard with Intel i5 6500T quad-core 2.2GHz processor, EVGA GTX 1060 SC graphics card, 16GB DDR4 RAM, 250GB SSD, WiFi card and two USB ports — all powered from a 160 W AC-DC converter. Its external dimensions are the same as an ATX-EPS power supply at 150 L x 86 H x 230 D mm. The STX160.0 is mains utility powered and not from an external brick, which [James] feels would have been cheating.

For those who would like a quick, TL;DR pictorial review, head over to his photo album on Imgur first, to feast on pictures of the completed computer and its innards. But the Devil is in the details, so check out the forum thread for a ton of interesting build information, component sources, tricks and trivia. For example, to connect the graphics card to the motherboard, he used a “M.2 to powered PCIe x4 adapter” coupled with a flexible cable extender from a quaint company called Adex Electronics who still prefer to do business the old-fashioned way and whose website might remind you of the days when Netscape Navigator was the dominant browser.

As a benchmark, [James] posts that “with the cover panel on, at full load (Prime95 Blend @ 2 threads and FurMark 1080p 4x AA) the CPU is around 65°C with the CPU fan going at 1700RPM, and the GPU is at 64°C at 48% fan speed.” Fairly impressive for what could be passed off at first glance as a power supply.

The two really interesting take away’s for us in this project are his meticulous research to find specific parts that met his requirements from among the vast number of available choices. The second is his extremely detailed notes on designing the custom enclosure for this project and make it DFM (design for manufacturing) friendly so it could be mass-produced – just take a look at his “Table of Contents” for a taste of the amount of ground he is covering. If you are interested in custom builds and computer modding, there is a huge amount of useful information embedded in there for you.

Thanks to [Arsenio Dev‏] who posted a link to this hilarious thread on Reddit discussing the STX160.0. Check out a full teardown and review of the STX160.0 by [Not for Concentrate] in the video after the break.

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A Mini-ITX Atari 800

As a community has grown up around the 8-bit microcomputers of the 1980s, there have been some beautifully crafted rebuilds of classic machines to take advantage of newer hardware or to interface to peripherals such as keyboards or displays that were unavailable at the time. Often these have taken the form of small boards, or boards that are designed to follow the form factor of the original machine, and fit in an original case.

[mytekcontrols] has taken a different tack with his Atari 800 build, he’s produced an Atari clone designed to take the most popular upgrade boards produced by the 8-bit Atari community, as daughter boards. And he’s followed an existing form factor, though it’s not one from the Atari world. Instead, he’s made it as a mini-ITX motherboard of the type you may well be familiar with from the world of PCs.

He’s calling it the 1088XEL, because with a popular 1MB upgrade board fitted it boasts a generous 1088k of memory. It sports the original five Atari LSI chips, and manages the task without resorting to surface-mount construction.

The forum thread linked above is a long one that makes for a fascinating read as it deals in depth with the design of an 8-bit micro clone. But if you want to skip straight to the hardware, start at about page 13.

We’ve had more than one 8-bit Atari on these pages over the years. Most memorable though is probably this laptop.

Thanks [Lenore Underwood].

Super Computing with Mini ITX Cluster

[Colin Alston] was able to snag a handful of Mini ITX motherboards for cheap and built a mini super computer he calls TinyJaguar. Named partly after the AMD Sempron 2650 APU, the TinyJaguar boasts four, yes that’s four MSI AM1I Mini-ITX motherboards, each with 4GB of DDR memory.

A Raspberry Pi with custom software manages the cluster, and along with some TTL and relays, controls the power to the four nodes. The mini super computer resides in a custom acrylic case held together by an array of 3D printed parts and fasteners.There’s even a rack-like faceplate near the bottom to host the RPi, an Ethernet switch, an array of status LEDs, and the two buttons.

With 16 total cores of computing power (including GPU), the TinyJaguar is quite capable of doing some pretty cool stuff such as running Jupyter notebook with IPyParallel. [Colin] ran into some issues getting the GPU to behave with PyOpenCL. It took a bit of pain and time, but in the end he was able to get the GPUs up, and wrote a small message passing program to show two of the cores were up and working together.

Be sure to check out [Colin’s] super computer project page, specifically the ten project logs that walk through everything that went into this build. He also posted his code if you want to take a look under the hood.

Custom Video Streaming Box

There are a lot of options out today for streaming video to your Internet-connected devices. Whether it’s Hulu, Netflix, Slingbox, or the late Aereo, there is no shortage of ways to get your TV fix. However, [Jaruzel] wasn’t happy with any of these services and wanted a more custom solution, so he built his own TV-streaming box out of hardware he had lying around.

[Jaruzel] gets TV from a service called SkyTV, but wanted to be able to stream it to his tablet, laptop, and XBMC. While rummaging through his parts bin, he came up with a WinTV tuner card for capturing TV and a Mini-ITX board to process everything and stream it out over his network.

Once the computer was put in a custom enclosure, [Jaruzel] got to work installing Puppy Linux. He wrote a boot script that configures the WinTV card and then starts VLC to handle the streaming service which allows him to view the TV stream over HTTP on the network. This is a great hack that would presumably work for any TV stream you can find, even if it’s just an over-the-air source.

Raspberry Pi, now in a Mini-ITX form factor

Shown above is a fairly simple Raspberry Pi setup. There’s the Raspi itself, a 2.5″ hard drive, a USB hub, GPIO expansion, and wireless and Bluetooth adapters. Throw in the power supplies for all these devices, and you’ve got a real mess on your hands. There is a solution to this problem of a Gordian knot of USB and power cables: the Fairywren, a board that turns your Raspberry Pi into a Mini-ITX computer.

The basic idea behind the Fairywren is to take the basic outline of a Mini-ITX motherboard and add goodies like a real-time clock serial port, and USB hub while providing a secure mounting place for a Raspberry Pi. It turns a Raspberry Pi into a proper computer, with all the ports in the rear, and is compatible with a whole slew of Mini-ITX cases.

At £40, the Fairywren isn’t exactly cheap. In fact, it’s more expensive than the Raspberry Pi itself. That being said, you do get a whole lot of hardware for the price, and if you already have a small Mini-ITX case lying around, it may be just the thing to clean up the mess on your electronics bench.

DIY MP3 player shows that no hack is ever obsolete


[Ole Wolf] wrote in to tell us about a project he has been working on for several years now. The Wacken Death Box serves as a reminder that once you start a DIY project, it’s probably a good idea to finish it in a reasonable amount of time, lest it risk becoming obsolete.

His Death Box is an MP3 player that he takes along on his annual trip to the Wacken Open Air Festival. His goal was to construct a portable amplified music player that could be powered from either a car battery or charger. A Via EPIA Mini-ITX computer serves as the brains of the device, blaring his tunes from a set of car loudspeakers via a two-channel 100W amp.

[Ole Wolf] used the music player for a few years, improving it as he went along. He does admit however, that with the continually dropping prices of MP3 players, he decided to bring a small portable unit along with him to the 2010 festival, leaving his box at home.

Given the fact that far smaller and more portable devices make his music box seem clunky and obsolete in comparison, you might ask why he even keeps it around. We think that every hack has its place, and while you won’t be strapping the Death Box on your back for your morning jog, it fits quite well in a variety of situations. This rugged music box would be an appropriate choice to use in your workshop, at the beach, or even on a construction job site – places where you might not want to use your comparatively fragile iDevice.