IBM PCjr Revived by an ATX Power Supply and Many False Starts

The IBM PCjr was a computer only the marketing geniuses of a multi-billion dollar corporation could love. On the face of it, it seemed like a great idea – a machine for the home market, meant to complement the “big boy” IBM PC in the office and compete against the likes of Apple and Commodore. What it ended up as was a universally hated, only partially PC-compatible machine which sold a mere half-million units before being mercifully killed off.

That doesn’t mean retrocomputing fans don’t still snap up the remaining machines, of course. [AkBKukU] scored a PCjr from a thrift store, but without the original external brick power supply. An eBay replacement for the 18-VAC supply would have cost more than the computer, so [AkBKukU] adapted a standard ATX power supply to run the PCjr. It looked as if it would be an easy job, since the external brick plugs into a power supply card inside the case which slots into the motherboard with a card-edge connector. Just etch up a PCB, solder on an ATX Molex connector, and plug it in, right? Well, not quite. The comedy of errors that ensued, from the backward PCB to the mysteriously conductive flux, nearly landed this one in the “Fail of the Week” bin. But [AkBKukU] soldiered on, and his hand-scratched adapter eventually prevailed; the video below tells the whole sordid tale, which thankfully ended with the sound of the machine booting from the 5-1/4″-floppy drive.

In the end, we’ve got to applaud [AkBKukU] for taking on the care and feeding of a machine so unloved as to be mentioned only a handful of times even on these pages. One of those articles marks the 25th anniversary of the PCjr, and lays out some of the reasons for its rapid disappearance from the market.

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How Much Current Does that Thing Draw?

If you ask us how to measure the current draw from something, we’ll break a power lead and put a multimeter in series with the power supply. If that’s not handy, we’ve been known to take the fuse out of the power supply and replace it with the meter. Crude, but effective. But if you have about $8,000 sitting around, you could go grab a Keithley 2460 SourceMeter.

What’s a SourceMeter? Well, as far as we can tell it is a power supply with very accurate built-in current monitoring and a microprocessor that can display lots of interesting statistics and graphs. In all fairness, this looks like a souped up model, but they start at about half the price which is still a lot more than most hacker budgets.

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Beats an Extension Cord

What does your benchtop power supply have that [Pete Marchetto]’s does not? Answer: an extension cord draped across the floor. How often have you said to yourself, “I just need to energize this doodad for a couple seconds,” then you start daisy chaining every battery in the junk drawer to reach the necessary voltage? It is not uncommon to see battery packs with a single voltage output, but [Pete] could not find an adjustable one, so he built his own and put it on Tindie.

Presumably, the internals are not going to surprise anyone: an 18650 battery, charging circuit, a voltage converter, display, adjustment knob, and a dedicated USB charging port. The complexity is not what intrigues us, it is the fact that we do not see more of them and still wind up taping nine-volt batteries together. [Editor’s note: we use one made from an old laptop battery.]

This should not replace your benchtop power supply, it does not have the bells and whistles, like current regulation, but a mobile source of arbitrary voltage does most of the job most of the time. And it’s what this build hasn’t got (a cord) that makes it most useful.

Hybrid Lab Power Supply From Broken Audio Amp

The lab power supply is an essential part of any respectable electronics workbench. However, the cost of buying a unit that has all the features required can be eye-wateringly high for such a seemingly simple device. [The Post Apocalyptic Inventor] has showed us how to build a quality bench power supply from the guts of an old audio amplifier.

We’ve covered our fair share of DIY power supplies here at Hackaday, and despite this one being a year old, it goes the extra mile for a number of reasons. Firstly, many of the expensive and key components are salvaged from a faulty audio amp: the transformer, large heatsink and chassis, as well as miscellaneous capacitors, pots, power resistors and relays. Secondly, this power supply is a hybrid. As well as two outputs from off-the-shelf buck and boost converters, there is also a linear supply. The efficiency of the switching supplies is great for general purpose work, but having a low-ripple linear output on tap for testing RF and audio projects is really handy.

The addition of the linear regulator is covered in a second video, and it’s impressively technically comprehensive. [TPAI] does a great job of explaining the function of all the parts which comprise his linear supply, and builds it up manually from discrete components. To monitor the voltage and current on the front panel, two vintage dial voltmeters are used, after one is converted to an ammeter. It’s these small auxiliary hacks which make this project stand out – another example is the rewiring of the transformer secondary and bridge rectifier to obtain a 38V rail rated for twice the original current.

The Chinese DC-DC switching converters at the heart of this build are pretty popular these days, in fact we’re even seeing open source firmware being developed for them. If you want to find out more about how they operate on a basic level, here’s how a buck converter works, and also the science behind boost converters.

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A Smarter PSU Converter Leaves the Magic Smoke Inside

Over the years, computers have become faster, but at the same time, more power hungry as well. Way back around the 386 era, most PCs were using the AT standard for power supplies. Since then, the world moved on to the now ubiquitous ATX standard. Hobbyists working on older machines will typically use these readily available supplies with basic adapters to run old machines, but [Samuel] built a better one.

Most AT to ATX adapters are basic passive units, routing the various power lines where they need to go and tying the right pin high to switch the ATX supply on. However, using these with older machines can be fraught with danger. Modern supplies are designed to deliver huge currents, over 20 A in some cases, to run modern hardware. Conversely, a motherboard from the early 90s might only need 2 or 3A. In the case of a short circuit, caused by damage or a failed component, the modern supply will deliver huge current, often damaging the board, due to the overcurrent limit being set so high.

[Samuel]’s solution is to lean on modern electronics to build an ATX to AT adapter with programmable current protection. This allows the current limit to be set far lower in order to protect delicate boards. The board can be set up in both a “fast blow” and a “slow blow” mode to suit various working conditions, and [Samuel] reports that with alternative cabling, it can also be used to power up other old hardware such as Macintosh or Amiga boards. The board is even packed with extra useful features like circuitry to generate the sometimes-needed -5V rail. It’s all programmed through DIP switches and even has an OLED display for feedback.

It’s an adapter that could save some rare old hardware that’s simply irreplaceable, and for that reason alone, we think it’s a highly important build. We’ve talked about appropriate fusing and current limiting before, too – namely, with LED strips. 


Hybrid Bench Power Supply Can Also Hit the Road

Everyone needs a bench power supply, and rolling your own has almost become a rite of passage for hackers. For a long time, the platform of choice for such builds seemed to be the ATX power supply from a computer. While we certainly still see those builds, a lot of the action has switched to those cheap eBay programmable DC-DC converters, with their particolored digital displays.

This hybrid bench and portable power supply is a good example of what can be accomplished with these modules, and looks like it might turn out to be a handy tool. [Luke] centered his build around the DPS3003, a constant current and constant voltage buck converter that can take up to 40-VDC input and outputs up to 32 volts at 3 amps. In bench mode, the programmable module is fed from a mains-powered 24-volt switching supply. For portable work, an 18-volt battery from a Makita drill slips into a 3D-printed adapter on the top of the case. The printed part contains a commercial terminal [Luke] scored on eBay, but we’d bet the entire thing could be 3D printed. And no problem if you change power tool brands — just print another adapter.

Those little eBay power supply modules have proven to be an enabling technology, at least judging by the number of clever ways we’ve seen them used lately. From this combination bench PSU and soldering iron supply to a portable PSU perched atop a battery, these things are everywhere. Heck, you can even reflash the firmware and make them do your bidding.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]

Making Custom Silicon For The Latest Raspberry Pi

The latest Raspberry Pi, the Pi 3 Model B+, is the most recent iteration of hardware from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. No, it doesn’t have eMMC, it doesn’t have support for cellular connectivity, it doesn’t have USB 3.0, it doesn’t have SATA, it doesn’t have PCIe, and it doesn’t have any of the other unrealistic expectations for a thirty-five dollar computer. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of engineering that went into this new version of the Pi; on the contrary — the latest Pi is filled with custom silicon, new technologies, and it even has a neat embossed RF shield.

On the Raspberry Pi blog, [James Adams] went over the work that went into what is probably the most significant part of the new Raspberry Pi. It has new, custom silicon in the power supply. This is a chip that was designed for the Raspberry Pi, and it’s a great lesson on what you can do when you know you’ll be making millions of a thing.

The first few generations of the Raspberry Pi, from the original Model B to the Zero, used on-chip power supplies. This is what you would expect when the RAM is soldered directly to the CPU. With the introduction of the Raspberry Pi 2, the RAM was decoupled from the CPU, and that meant providing more power for more cores, and the rails required for LPDDR2 memory. The Pi 2 required voltages of 5V, 3.3V, 1.8V, and 1.2V, and the sequencing to bring them all up in order. This is the job for a power management IC (PMIC), but surprisingly all the PMICs available were more expensive than the Pi 2’s discrete solution.

The MXL7704, with four switching power supplies. The four symmetric gray and brown bits are inductors.

However, where there are semiconductor companies, there’s a possibility of having a custom chip made. [James] talked to [Peter Coyle] of Exar in 2015 (Exar was then bought by MaxLinear last year) about building a custom chip to supply all the voltages found in the Raspberry Pi. The result was the MXL7704, delivered just in time for the production of the Raspberry Pi 3B+.

The new chip takes the 5V in from the USB port and converts that to two 3.3V rails, 1.8V and 1.2V for the LPDDR2 memory, 1.2V nominal for the CPU, which can be raised and lowered via I2C. This is an impressive bit of engineering, and as any hardware designer knows, getting the power right is the first step to a successful product.

With the new MXL7704 chip found in the Raspberry Pi 3B+, the Pi ecosystem now has a simple and cheap chip for all their future revisions. It might not be SATA or PCIe or eMMC or a kitchen sink, but this is the kind of engineering that gives you a successful product rather than a single board computer that will be quickly forgotten.