Modularity is a fun topic for us. There’s something satisfying about seeing a complex system split into parts and these parts made replaceable. We often want some parts of our devices swapped, after all – for repair or upgrade purposes, and often, it’s just fun to scour eBay for laptop parts, equipping your Thinkpad with the combination of parts that fits you best. Having always been fascinated by modularity, I believe that hackers deserve to know what’s been happening on the CPU module front over the past decade.
We’ve gotten used to swapping components in desktop PCs, given their unparalleled modularity, and it’s big news when someone tries to split a yet-monolithic concept like a phone or a laptop into modules. Sometimes, the CPU itself is put into a module. From the grandiose idea of Project Ara, to Intel’s Compute Card, to Framework laptop’s standardized motherboards, companies have been trying to capitalize on what CPU module standardization can bring them.
There’s some hobbyist-driven and hobbyist-friendly modular standards, too – the kind you can already use to wrangle a powerful layout-demanding CPU and RAM combo and place it on your simple self-designed board. I’d like to tell you about a few notable modular CPU concepts – their ideas, complexities, constraints and stories. As you work on that one ambitious project of yours – you know, the one, – it’s likely you will benefit a lot from such a standard. Or, perhaps, you’ll find it necessary to design the next standard for others to use – after all, we all know there’s never too few standards! Continue reading “Future Brings CPU Modules, And The Future Is Now”→
PC-104 is a standard computer form factor that most people outside of industrial settings probably haven’t seen before. It’s essentially an Intel 486 processor with lots of support for standards that have long since disappeared from most computers, but this makes it great for two things: controlling old industrial equipment and running classic DOS games on native hardware. For the latter, we turn once again to [The Rasteri] who is improving on his previous build with an even smaller DOS gaming rig, this time based on a platform even more diminutive than PC-104.
The key of a build like this is that it needs native support for the long-obsolete ISA bus to be able to interface with a SoundBlaster card, a gold standard for video games of the era. This smaller computer still has this functionality in a smaller package, but with some major improvements. First, it has a floating point unit so it can run games like Quake. It’s also much faster than the PC-104 system and uses less power. Finally, it fits in an even smaller case.
The build goes well beyond simply running software on a SoM computer. [The Rasteri] also custom built an interface board for this project, complete with all of the necessary ports and an ISA sound chip, all while keeping size down to a minimum. The new build also lets him give the build a better name than the old one (although he phrases this upgrade slightly differently), and will also let him expand some features in the future as well. Be sure to check out that first build if you’re new to this saga, too.
The x86 processor family is for the time being, the most ubiquitous type of processor in the PC world, and has been since the 1980s when the IBM PC came on the scene. Emulating these older devices is easy enough if you want to play an old LucasArts game or experience Windows 3.1 again, but the true experience is found on original hardware. And, thanks to industrial equipment compatibility needs, you can build a brand new 486 machine with new hardware that will run this retro software as though it was new itself.
[The Rasteri] masterminded this build which is reminiscent of the NES classic and other nostalgic console re-releases. It’s based on the PC/104 standard which was introduced in the early 90s, mostly for industrial controls applications. The platform is remarkably small, and the board chosen for this build hosts a 486 processor running at 300 MHz. It has on-board VGA-compatible graphics but no Sound Blaster card, so he designed and built his own ISA-compatible sound card that fits in the PC/104’s available expansion port.
After adding some more tiny peripherals to the build and installing it in a custom case, [The Rasteri] has a working DOS machine on new, bare-metal 486 hardware which can play DOOM as it was originally intended. It can also run early versions of Windows to play games from the Microsoft Entertainment Pack if you feel like being eaten by a snow monster while skiing. [The Rasteri] is no stranger to intense retro computing like this either, as he was the one who got DOOM to run on original NES hardware.
[Gijs Gieskes] has made another eye-catching PCB wonder, this time a diary built from several circuit boards which are assembled into a book, not unlike a PC/104 system. But with [Gijs]’s system you can easily open the stack-up to access single boards without disassembling the whole thing. We don’t see brass piano hinges on PCB assemblies very often, but [Gijs]’s PCB designs are anything but conventional. Hint: if you wanted to recreate this technique using more ordinary hardware, you can find hinged PCB standoffs from various suppliers.
Apparently it’s more than a passive piece of art. Each board has several circuits, some of which (all?) are functioning is ways not clearly described, which seems to be intentional. According to his build log, different things happen when you mix and match the inter-board ribbon cables in various ways. We are told in the instructions “to just try and see what happens”. No schematics are posted, but there is a partial description of the circuits in the manual and parts on the two-layer boards are well-labeled. Although after spot checking a few circuits board photos, we’d guess that no small number of traces, and perhaps some parts, are wild goose chases.
The project claims to be a diary for the years 2018 and 2019, but we will leave it as an exercise for the reader to interpret the messages that [Gijs] has embedded into this fascinating piece. We have written about several of his projects over the years, such as this crazy bent Casio SK-1 from all the way back in 2005. And before dismissing this “book” style of circuit board stack-up as only for artists, check out this teardown of a Soyuz clock we covered back in January.