Steam branding is strong. Valve Corporation has turned their third-party marketplace into the first place millions choose to buy their PC games. The service has seen record-breaking numbers earlier this year with over 25 million concurrent users, so whatever they are doing is clearly working. Yet with all those software sales, last month Valve announced a new piece of hardware they call the Steam Deck.
The IBM PC spawned the basic architecture that grew into the dominant Wintel platform we know today. Once heavy, cumbersome and power thirsty, it’s a machine that you can now emulate on a single board with a cheap commodity microcontroller. That’s thanks to work from [Fabrizio Di Vittorio], who has shared a how-to on Youtube.
The full playlist is quite something to watch, showing off a huge number of old-school PC applications and games running on the platform. There’s QBASIC, FreeDOS, Windows 3.0, and yes, of course, Flight Simulator. The latter game was actually considered somewhat of a de facto standard for PC compatibility in the 1980s, so the fact that the ESP32 can run it with [Fabrizio’s] code suggests he’s done well.
It’s amazingly complete, with the ESP32 handling everything from audio and video to sound output and keyboard and mouse inputs. It’s a testament to the capability of modern microcontrollers that this is such a simple feat in 2021.
Say what you will about office life: there were definitely some productivity perks, but the coffee is much better at home. Like many of us, [Pierre] has been working from home for the last year or so. And as much as he might enjoy spending so much time in his small Parisian apartment, it lacks many of the amenities of the office such as a scanner, printer, and, you know, a reasonable amount of space in which to work.
Inspired by another build, [Pierre] set out to build his dream desk that is maximum PC power in minimum space. It is chock full of easily-accessible cavities that hide everything you’d expect, plus a few things you don’t, like a flatbed scanner, a printer, a router, and a wireless charging pad. One cavity is dedicated to I/O, and another has three international power sockets. The only thing it doesn’t hide is the 22″ pen display that [Pierre] uses for sketching, signing documents, and occasionally as a second monitor.
This desk may look like solid wood, but the top is a veneer that’s glued on to a custom-cut 1mm steel sheet. The inside frame is made of hardwood and so are the legs — one of them has a hidden channel for the only two cords that are even somewhat visible — the power and Ethernet cables. He joined all the frame pieces with dowel rods, and made a 3D-printed and metal-reinforced drilling jig to get the holes just right.
[Pierre] started this build by planning out the components and making meticulous notes about the dimensions of every piece. Then he sketched it and modelled it in FreeCAD to get all the cavities and cable runs correct and ensure good airflow through the desk. After that it was on to woodworking, metalworking, and PCB fab for relocated and hidden display controls and a custom-built amplifier.
It’s obvious that a lot of thought went in to this, and there’s a ton of work appreciate here, so clear off that inferior desk of yours and check out the build video after the break. Wish you had a PC desk? [Pierre] is seriously considering a Kickstarter if enough people show interest.
It’s interesting to imagine what computers may have looked like throughout different time periods that precede their portability or even their existence altogether. In the 1950s and ’60s, computers still filled entire rooms, but if the age of the PC had arrived earlier one is left to wonder what might a minimalist mid-century PC might look like.
Well, if we were lucky, it would have looked something like [xmorneau]’s cubical computing creation. This DIY beauty is made of scrap oak and a sexy set of hairpin legs. As hot as it looks, [xmorneau] shouldn’t have to worry about overheating — the bottom is completely open except for an intake fan, there’s another fan at the top that exhausts hot air through a mesh grille, and those lovely little legs elevate it four inches off the desk. Our favorite part (after the legs) has to be the secret lid that blends in beautifully.
The cube measures 32cm³ (~12.6in³), so [xmorneau] went with a mini-ATX motherboard, but was able to fit in a full-size graphics card. Everything is mounted internally to wood except for the mobo, which is mounted on a panel of sheet metal that makes up the back wall.
We love the way this looks and are glad to see that this build changed [xmorneau]’s opinion of RGB a little bit, because we can’t help but like it both ways.
Nostalgia seems to be an inevitable consequence of progress. Advance any field far enough into the future, and eventually someone will look back with misty eyes and fond memories of the good old days and start the process of turning what would qualify as junk under normal conditions into highly desirable collectibles.
In some ways, those who have been bitten by the computer nostalgia bug are lucky, since the sheer number of artifacts produced during their period of interest is likely to be pretty high, making getting gear to lovingly restore relatively easy. But even products produced in their millions can eventually get difficult to find, especially once they get snapped up by eager collectors, leaving the rest to make do or do without.
Of course, if you’re as resourceful as Tube Time is, there’s another alternative: build your own retro recreations. He has embarked on some pretty intense builds to recapture a little of what early computer enthusiasts went through trying to build useful machines. He has built replicas of early PC sound cards, like an ISA-bus AdLib card, its MCA equivalent, and the “Snark Barker”— or is it the “Snood Bloober”? — which bears an uncanny resemblance to the classic Sound Blaster card from the 1980s.
Tube Time will join us for the Hack Chat this week to answer questions about all his retro recreations, including his newest work on a retro video card. Be sure to bring your questions on retro rebuilds, reverse engineering, and general computer nostalgia to the chat.
Inside a modern laptop there is surprisingly little in the way of parts, now that removable media drives are largely a thing of the past and once the battery has been removed from the equation. When the keyboard and trackpad are subtracted and replaced with USB equivalents the inner workings are reduced to a relatively compact motherboard and hard drive alongside the screen.
The screen is encased in a lasercut frame that also mounts the motherboard. It includes a lasercut cover that folds over the top in a living hinge to create an A-frame case that also holds the power supply. As an extra bonus the centre of the A provides handy storage for a keyboard.
If you’ve scrolled through the list of boot options offered on any PC’s BIOS, it reads like a history of storage technology. Up top we have the options to boot from disk, often a solid-state drive, then USB disk, optical drive, removable media, and down the bottom there’s usually an option to boot from the network. Practically no BIOS, however, has an option to boot a PC from a vinyl record — at least until now.
Clearly a project from the “Because why not?” school of hacking, [Jozef Bogin] came up with the twist to the normal booting process for an IBM-PC. As in the IBM-PC — a model 5150, with the putty-colored case, dual 5-1/4″ floppies, and one of those amazing monochrome displays with the green slow-decay phosphors. To pull off the trick, [Jozef] leverages the rarely used and little known cassette tape interface that PCs had back in the early days. This required building a new bootloader and burning it to ROM to make the PC listen to audio signals with its 8255 programmable peripheral interface chip.
Once the PC had the right bootloader, a 64k FreeDOS bootable disk image was recorded on vinyl. [Jozef] provides infuriatingly little detail about the process other than to mention that the audio was sent directly to the vinyl lathe; we’d have loved to learn more about that. Nonetheless, the resulting 10″ record, played back at 45 RPM with some equalization tweaks to adapt for the RIAA equalization curve of the preamp, boots the PC into FreeDOS just fine, probably in no more time than it would have taken to boot from floppy.