Ancient Cable Modem Reveals Its RF Secrets

Most reverse engineering projects we see around here have some sort of practical endpoint in mind. Usually, but not always. Reverse-engineering a 40-year-old cable modem probably serves no practical end, except for the simple pleasure of understanding how 1980s tech worked.

You’ll be forgiven if the NABU Network, the source of the modem [Jared Boone] tears into, sounds unfamiliar; it only existed from 1982 to 1985 and primarily operated in Ottawa, Canada. It’s pretty interesting though, especially the Z80-based computer that was part of the package. The modem itself is a boxy affair bearing all the hallmarks of 1980s tech. [Jared]’s inspection revealed a power supply with a big transformer, a main logic board, and a mysterious shielded section with all the RF circuits, which is the focus of the video below.

Using a signal generator, a spectrum analyzer, and an oscilloscope, not to mention the PCB silkscreen and component markings, [Jared] built a block diagram of the circuit and determined the important frequencies for things like the local oscillator. He worked through the RF section, discovering what each compartment does, with the most interesting one probably being the quadrature demodulator. But things took a decidedly digital twist in the last compartment, where the modulated RF is turned into digital data with a couple of 7400-series chips, some comparators, and a crystal oscillator.

This tour of 80s tech and the methods [Jared] used to figure out what’s going on in this box were pretty impressive. There’s more to come on this project, including recreating the original signal with SDRs. In the mean time, if this put you in the mood for other videotext systems of the 80s, you might enjoy this Minitel terminal teardown.

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A NABU PC opened up and powered on

NABU PC Gets CPU Upgrade, Emulates A TRS-80

The NABU PC caused a bit of a buzz in the retrocomputing community a couple weeks back. After all, it doesn’t happen often that a huge batch of brand-new computers from the 1980s suddenly becomes available on eBay. Out of the box, the computer itself isn’t that useful: with no internal storage, or any application software whatsoever, it can really only serve as a bare-bones development platform. But since its hardware is quite similar to that of other contemporary home computers, emulating one of those shouldn’t be too difficult, which is exactly what [Ted Fried] did: he managed to turn his NABU into a TRS-80 clone by using his MCLZ8 CPU emulator.

The MCLZ8 is basically an 800 MHz Teensy CPU with an adapter board that allows it to be plugged into a Z80 socket. It emulates the Z80 CPU in real-time, but it also holds the TRS-80 ROM and performs real-time translation between peripherals. On the input side, it reads out the ASCII characters coming in from the NABU’s 8251A UART and stores them in the virtual TRS-80’s keyboard buffer. On the output side, it transfers the TRS-80’s video data to the NABU’s TMS9918 video chip.

The motherboard of a NABU PC with a Teensy-based CPU upgradeOne problem [Ted] ran into was a difference in screen resolution: the NABU has a 40×24 character display, while the TRS-80 generates a 64×16 character image. [Ted] solved the vertical difference by simply keeping the NABU logo on the screen at all times, and decided to just ignore the 24 characters that drop off the right side – it’s not a big issue for a typical BASIC program anyway.

The repurposed NABU might not be a perfect TRS-80 clone, but that’s not the point: it shows how easily the NABU’s hardware can be reprogrammed to do other things. For example, [Ted] has already started work on a new project that doesn’t emulate the Z80, but instead runs code directly on the Teensy’s ARM A9 processor. As you might imagine, this gives the NABU several orders of magnitude more processing power, although the practical use of this is limited because the CPU still has to wait for the NABU’s slow data bus and display chip. [Ted] explains the setup and runs a few impressive demos in the video embedded below.

[Ted]’s NABU experiments are a great example of the Teensy board’s flexibility: we’ve already seen how it can emulate a Z80 as well as an 8088. We’re also curious to see what others will develop with the NABU’s hardwareif they can still buy it, of course.

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NABU PC – A 1984 Z-80 Computer You Can Buy Today

Want to hack on brand new 8-bit 1980s hardware? Until recently you needed a time machine, or deep pockets to do this. All that has recently changed with the NABU PC. A retro machine that can be bought brand new for $59.99, (plus shipping) no time machine needed.

[Adrian] has one in his Digital Basement, and breaks it all down for us. The NABU PC was a Canadian computer.  Designed to connect to the cable TV network, the standard system had no internal secondary storage. You read that right; the NABU used the cable network to download and play games, view documents — just about anything you’d want to do with a computer. Cable modems back in the 80s — maybe someone did have a time machine?

Unfortunately, the NABU network failed. Not due to the PC’s hardware, but because the cable system back then was not designed for bidirectional data. While the NABU PC did see a limited release in Canada, was never widely successful. When production was shut down, the machines couldn’t be liquidated, as they didn’t do anything without the network. So in the warehouse, they sat, until this month, where can find them being sold on eBay.

So what’s inside a NABU? It starts with a Z-80 CPU sporting 64 kB of RAM. A TMS9918 handles video, while a General Instrument AY-3-8910 does the sound.  There are also two UARTs. An 8251 for serial io to the keyboard and joysticks, and a high-performance UART chip to handle comms with the network adapter. The keyboard is loaded with good old ALPS switches, and [Adrian] found it rather impressive.

That’s all well and good, but what can you actually do with a NABU PC? Right now, not much. The ROM software comes up and looks for the network adapter, then complains when it doesn’t find it. This means it’s hacking time! An army of retrocomputing enthusiasts are already working on bringing back the NABU computer. Check [Adrian]’s video description for all the documentation links, and check here on Hackaday for the latest updates!

This isn’t our first time watching this sort of liquidation — remember the HP touchpad?

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