Computer Speed Gains Erased By Modern Software

[Julio] has an older computer sitting on a desk, and recorded a quick video with it showing how fast this computer can do seemingly simple things, like open default Windows applications including the command prompt and Notepad. Compared to his modern laptop, which seems to struggle with even these basic tasks despite its impressive modern hardware, the antique machine seems like a speed demon. His videos set off a huge debate about why it seems that modern personal computers often appear slower than machines of the past.

After going through plenty of plausible scenarios for what is causing the slowdown, [Julio] seems to settle on a nuanced point regarding abstraction. Plenty of application developers are attempting to minimize the amount of development time for their programs while maximizing the number of platforms they run on, which often involves using a compatibility layer, which abstracts the software away from the hardware and increases the overhead needed to run programs. Things like this are possible thanks to the amount of computing power of modern machines, but not without a slight cost of higher latency. For applications developed natively, the response times would be expected to be quite good, but fewer applications are developed natively now including things that might seem like they otherwise would be.  Notepad, for example, is now based on UWP.

While there are plenty of plausible reasons for these slowdowns in apparent speed, it’s likely a combination of many things; death by a thousand cuts. Desktop applications built with a browser compatibility layer, software companies who are reducing their own costs by perhaps not abiding by best programming practices or simply taking advantage of modern computing power to reduce their costs, and of course the fact that modern software often needs more hardware resources to run safely and securely than equivalents from the past.

Commodore 64 Upgrade In Modern Package

While the Commodore 64 was an immensely popular computer for its time, and still remains a strong favorite within the retrocomputing community, there’s a reason we’re not using modern Commodore-branded computers today. Intense competition, company mismanagement, and advancing beyond 8-bit computers too late in the game all led to the company’s eventual downfall. But if you’re still a Commodore enthusiast and always wished you were able to get an upgraded C64, you might want to take a look at the Commander X16, a modern take on this classic computer.

We’ve actually seen the Commander X16 before, but this was back in its early days of prototyping and design. This video from [Adrian’s Digital Basement], also linked below the break, takes a look at how it’s come in the four years since [David Murray] started this project. At its core, it’s an 8-bit 6502-based computer like you’d find in the 1980s but built with new components. There are some more modern updates as well such as the ability to use an SD card as well as built-in SNES controller ports, but the real magic here is the VERA module. Built around an FPGA, this module handles graphics, some of the audio, and the storage capabilities and does all of these things much better than the original Commodore, while still being faithful to what made these computer great.

While the inclusion of the FPGA might offend some of the most staunch 8-bit purists, it turns out to be necessary due to the lack of off-the-shelf video chips and really makes this build shine in the end. It’s also capable of running 6502-based software from other machines too, including the original NES. The VERA module makes it possible to run other software too, including a sample of Sonic the Hedgehog from the Sega Genesis which [Adrian] demonstrates in his video. 6502-based computers are quite versatile as the Commander X16 demonstrates, and it’s even possible to build a rudimentary 6502 on a breadboard with just a few parts.

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3D Printed Post Modern Grandfather Clock

Projects can often spiral, not down or up, but out. For [Derek] he started playing around with a 3D printed escapement mechanism and thought it was a wonderful bit of engineering. But with a simple drum and weight, it only had a runtime of a few minutes. What started as a simple “can I make it run longer” spiraled into a full-blown beautiful grandfather clock.

A gear drive, a ratcheted winding sprocket, and a ball chain gave the clock about one hundred minutes of runtime. Adding a recharging mechanism was fairly straightforward. The weight automatically rewinds with the help of an ESP32, a motor, and some limit switches. While an ESP32 is absolutely overkill for this simple project, it was cheap and on hand. A quick hall effect sensor to detect the pendulum passing made it into a proper clock. Considering it’s a printed plastic clock, losing only 2-3 seconds per day is incredibly good. The whole thing is wrapped in a gorgeous wood case with a distinct design.

Surprisingly, everything was designed in OpenSCAD and Blender. [Derek] includes some great tips such as cleaning out the ball bearings to make them run smoother and suggestions on how to make a plastic clock move without binding. Clock making is a complex and sometimes arcane art, which makes watching the process all the more interesting.

New Tech And The Old Ways

This week on Hackaday, we featured a project that tickled my nostalgia bone, and proved that there are cool opportunities when bringing new tech to old problems. Let me explain.

[Muth] shared a project with us that combines old-school analog photography printing with modern LCD screens. The basic idea is to use a 4K monochrome screen in place of a negative, making a contact print by placing the screen directly on top of photographic paper and exposing it under a uniform light source. Just like the old ways, but with an LCD instead of film.

LCD exposure animationBut what’s the main difference between a screen and film? You can change the image on the LCD at will, of course. So when [Muth] was calibrating out exposures, it dawned on him that he could create a dynamic, animated version of his image and progressively expose different portions of the paper, extending the available dynamic range and providing him the ability to control the slightest nuances of the resulting image contrast.

As an old photo geek, this is the sort of trick that we would pull off manually in the darkroom all the time. “Dodging” would lighten up a section of the image by covering up the projected light with your hand or a special tool for a part of the exposure time. With [Muth]’s procedure, he can dodge the image programmatically on the per-pixel level. We would have killed for this ability back in the day.

The larger story here is that by trying something out of the box, applying a new tool to an old procedure, [Muth] stumbled on new capabilities. As hackers, we’re playing around with the newest tech we can get our hands on all the time. When you are, it might be that you also stumble on new possibilities simply afforded by new tech. Keep your eyes open!

TRS-80 Clone Uses Modern Parts

Before RadioShack decided the best business model for an electronics store was to harass its customers into buying overpriced batteries and cellphones, it was a great one-stop shop for most discrete components, knobs, resistors, radio equipment, and even a popular computer. That computer, the TRS-80, is a popular one in the retrocomputing world and if you can’t get original parts to restore one, you can always build your own clone.

This build comes to us from [Glen] aka [glenk] who is known for retrocomputing builds like this classic PET we featured a little over a year ago, and this TRS-80 is his latest project. He really gets into the weeds on the hardware, too. This isn’t an FPGA or Raspberry Pi running a TRS-80 on lookalike hardware. [Glen] has completely redesigned the computer from the ground up using modern CMOS components in order to make a modern, perfectly functional replica of the RadioShack classic.

Because of the level of detail [Glen] goes into, this one is a must-read for anyone interested in computing hardware (as opposed to the software, which you could learn about through a more simple emulator) and retrocomputing in general, and also brings most of us back to a more nostalgic, simpler time where a trip to RadioShack was fun and interesting.

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Smoothly Modernized Nixie Display

The renaissance of Nixie tube popularity amid the nostalgia surrounding older tech has made them almost prohibitively expensive for individual projects. Seeing an opportunity to modernize the beloved devices, [Connor Nishijima] has unleashed this new, LED edge-lit display that he has dubbed Lixie.

We featured his prototype a few years ago. That design used dots to make up each character but this upgrade smooths that out with sleek lines and a look one would almost expect from a professional device — or at the very least something you’d see in a cyberpunk near-future. The color-changing Neopixel LEDs — moderated by a cleverly designed filter — allow for customization to your heart’s content, and the laser-cut acrylic panes allow for larger displays to be produced with relative ease.

The image above (and the video below) show two revisions of the most recent Lixie prototypes. There is a huge improvement on the right, as the digits are now outlines instead of single strokes and engraved instead of cut completely through the acrylic. The difference if phenomenal, and in our opinion move the “back to the drawing board” effect to “ready for primetime”. [Connor] and his team are working on just that, with a Tindie preorder in place for the first production-ready digits to roll off their line.

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Are Today’s Engineers Worse?

Today’s engineers are just as good as the ones that came before, but that should not be the case and there is massive room for improvement. Improvement that can be realized by looking for the best of the world to come and the one we left behind.

Hey kids! Let's learn why the CE certifications exist!
Hey kids! Let’s learn why the CE certifications exist!

Survivorship bias is real. When we look at the accomplishments of the engineers that came before us we are forced to only look at the best examples. It first really occurred to me that this was real when I saw what I still consider to be the most atrocious piece of consumer oriented engineering the world has yet seen: the Campbell’s soup warmer.

This soup warmer is a poor combination of aluminum and Bakelite forged into the lowest tier of value engineering during its age. Yet it comes from the same time that put us on the moon: we still remember and celebrate Apollo. It’s possible that the soup warmer is forgotten because those who owned it perished from home fires, electrocution, or a diet of Campbell’s soup, but it’s likely that it just wasn’t worth remembering. It was bad engineering.

In fact, there’s mountains of objects. Coffee pots whose handles fell off. Switches that burned or shocked us. Cars that were ugly and barely worked. Literal mountains of pure refuse that never should have seen the light of day. Now we are here.

The world of engineering has changed. My girlfriend and I once snuck into an old factory in Louisville, Kentucky. The place was a foundry and the only building that survived the fire that ended the business. It happened to be where they stored their professional correspondence and sand casting patterns. It was moldy, dangerous, and a little frightening but I saw something amazing when we cracked open one of the file cabinets. It was folders and folders of all the communication that went into a single product. It was an old enough factory that some of it was before the widespread adoption of telephony and all documents had to be mailed from place to place.

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