World’s First RP2040 QWERTY Computer

Independent hardware developer [bobricius] is at it again, making what he claims is the world’s first Pico RP2040 QWERTY + IPS development kit — the PICOmputer. This is a palm-sized computer of sorts. It integrates a keyboard made from tactile push button switches, a TFT IPS display, and a RP2040 Pico computer module. At 100 x 65 mm size, it is slightly bigger than your typical ISO-7810-ID-1-sized credit card, and slightly smaller than an A7 piece of paper.

One of [Bobricius]’s goals for this project was to minimize the number of external components, thus maximizing the use of the RP2040’s internal features. And if you peruse the schematic posted on his GitHub repository, you can agree he’s met this goal for sure. There’s a filter capacitor for the optional LoRa module, and two MOSFETs and three resistors to drive a speaker and the TFT backlight. Aside from connectors, the switches, and the submodules themselves, that’s all of the external circuitry.

The arrangement of two USB connectors, type C for power and micro-USB for data, is an interesting aspect of the connector / module placement. He plans to add an Ethernet module in the future, and issue some more revisions to fix small errors and to make the front panel fit more sizes of displays. We wonder if a battery module add-on is in the works, as well.

If you recognize [bobricius], that’s because his previous ARMACHAT handheld LoRa messenger project was among the Hackaday Prize Community Vote (Bootstrap) winners last year. We think tiny keyboards may be an obsession for him — indeed, he freely admits to being blinded by his own enthusiasm. Check out his mini (Pi)QWERTY USB keyboard from 2018, for example. Thanks to [Itay] for bringing this project to our attention via the Hackaday tip line.

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LoRa Messenger Does Its Best BlackBerry Impression

While the de facto smartphone design ultimately went in a different direction, there’s no denying the classic BlackBerry layout offered some compelling advantages. It was a gadget primarily designed to send and receive emails and text messages, and it showed. So is it really any wonder [MSG] would build his pocket-sized LoRa messengers in its image?

Of course, he did have some help. The communicators use the Keyboard FeatherWing by [arturo182], which puts a surplus BlackBerry Q10 keyboard on a custom PCB designed to accept a board from Adafruit’s Feather collection. [MSG] ended up pairing his with a Feather M4 because he wanted to work with CircuitPython, with a 900 MHz LoRa FeatherWing along for the ride. He notes that switching his code over to Arduino-flavored C would allow him to use the Feather M0 that features integrated LoRa; a change that would allow him to make the gadget a bit thinner.

Inside the 3D printed enclosure, He’s made room for a 3.7 V 1800 mAh pouch battery that should provide plenty of runtime. There’s also an external antenna with a uFL pigtail for connecting to the radio. The case is held together with heat-set inserts, which should make it more than robust enough to handle a few adventures.

[MSG] says slight variations in hardware versions means his STLs might need a little tweaking to fit your components, and warns that his code is basically just a mashup of examples he found online, but he’s still sharing the goods for anyone who wants to reach out and touch someone without all that pesky infrastructure in the way.

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Building A Pocket Sized Python Playground

Like many of us, [Ramin Assadollahi] has a certain fondness for the computers of yesteryear. Finding his itch for nearly instant boot times and bare metal programming weren’t being adequately scratched by any of his modern devices, he decided to build the PortablePy: a pocket-sized device that can drop him directly into a Python prompt wherever and whenever the urge hits him.

The device is powered by the Adafruit PyPortal Titano, which combines a ATSAMD51J20, ESP32, an array of sensors, and a 3.5″ diagonal 320 x 480 color TFT into one turn-key unit. The PyPortal is designed to run CircuitPython, but the scripts are usually dropped on the device over USB. That’s fine for most applications, but [Ramin] wanted his portable to be usable without the need for a host computer.

For a truly mobile experience, he had to figure out a way to bang out some Python code on the device itself. The answer ended up being the M5Stack CardKB, a tiny QWERTY board that communicates over I2C. Once he verified the concept was sound, he wrote a simple file management application and minimal Python editor that could run right on the PyPortal.

The final step was packaging the whole thing up into something he could actually take off the bench. He designed a 3D printed clamshell case inspired by the classic Game Boy Advance SP, making sure to leave enough room in the bottom half to pack in a charging board and LiPo pouch battery. He did have to remove some of the connectors from the back of the PyPortal to get everything to fit inside the case, but the compact final result seems worth the effort.

While an overall success, [Ramin] notes there are a few lingering issues. For one thing, the keyboard is literally a pain to type on. He’s considering building a custom keyboard with softer buttons, but it’s a long-term goal. More immediately he’s focusing on improving the software side of things so its easier to write code and manage multiple files.

It sounds like [Ramin] isn’t looking to compromise on his goal of making the PortablePy completely standalone, but if your convictions aren’t as strong, you could always connect a device like this up to your mobile to make things a bit easier.

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A Pocket Retro Computer Anyone Can Build

Not satisfied with any of the DIY retro computer kits on the market, [Leonardo Leoni] decided to make his own. Built using only the finest through-hole technology and powered by the ATmega328 microcontroller, his diminutive 8-bit computer is easy to build and even easier to develop for. Whether you’re looking to hone your BASIC skills or play some Zork on the bus, this little computer looks like a great project for anyone who has a soft spot for computing’s simpler days.

All things considered, using this tiny machine looks like it would be relatively pleasant. [Leonardo] is using a common SH1106 OLED display, and there’s a full QWERTY keyboard (with number row) done up with tactile momentary buttons. There’s very few passive components involved in the build, which is sure to be appealing to new players; especially after they’ve finished soldering all those switches to the board.

On the software side, [Leonardo] says he leaned heavily on open source projects to get his machine up and running. Beyond the hardware drivers for things like the display, he specifically calls out the Tiny Basic and Tiny Lisp Computer projects for their code. If small-scale programming isn’t your style, the machine is compatible with the Arduino IDE so you can easily throw something else on it. If you’ve ever dreamed of a QWERTY Arduboy, this might be your chance.

From the way [Leonardo] describes the computer, which he calls the Cobalt 3, we get the impression a commercial kit might be in the cards. We hope the community shows enough interest to make it happen. After all, not everyone was able to make it to Hackaday Belgrade 2018 to get their own pocket retro computer.

A Fantastic Raspberry Pi Handheld Just Got Better

Last year, we brought you word of the MutantC by [rahmanshaber]. The Raspberry Pi handheld was more than a little inspired by the classic T-Mobile Sidekick, with a sliding display and physical QWERTY keyboard. The design was a little rough around the edges and missing a few key features, but it was clear the project had a lot of potential.

Today, we’re happy to report that [rahmanshaber] has officially released MutantC_v2. It looks like the new version of this handheld, perhaps more properly categorized as a ultra-mobile PC (UMPC), successfully addresses a number of the shortcomings found in the original; so if you held off on building one last year, you might want to start warming up the 3D printer now.

The major improvement over the original is the inclusion of a battery, which makes the device truly mobile. This was something that we mentioned [rahmanshaber] was working on back when he released the first version, as it was easily the most requested feature from the community. We certainly wouldn’t say a miniature handheld computer is completely useless if it has to stay tethered, but there’s no arguing that being able to take it on the go is ideal.

This upgraded version of the design now officially supports the Raspberry Pi 4 as well, which previously [rahmanshaber] was advising against due to overheating concerns. Slotting in the latest-and-greatest edition of every hacker’s favorite Linux single board computer will definitely kick things up a notch, though we imagine the older and less power hungry iterations of the Pi will be plenty for the sort of tasks you’re likely to be doing on a gadget like this.

If you like the idea of having a diminutive Linux computer within arm’s reach of your bench but aren’t necessarily committed enough to build something like the MutantC, there are certainly simpler designs you can get started with.

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Perhaps August Dvorak Is More Your Type

One of the strangest things about human nature is our tendency toward inertia. We take so much uncontrollable change in stride, but when our man-made constructs stop making sense, we’re suddenly stuck in our ways — for instance, the way we measure things in the US, or define daytime throughout the year. Inertia seems to be the only explanation for continuing to do things the old way, even when new and scientifically superior ways come along. But this isn’t about the metric system — it’s about something much more personal. If you use a keyboard with any degree of regularity, this affects you physically.

Many, many people are content to live their entire lives typing on QWERTY keyboards. They never give a thought to the unfortunate layout choices of common letters, nor do they pick up even a whisper of the heated debates about the effectiveness of QWERTY vs. other layouts. We would bet that most of our readers have at least heard of the Dvorak layout, and assume that a decent percentage of you have converted to it.

Hardly anyone in the history of typewriting has cared so much about subverting QWERTY as August Dvorak. Once he began to study the the QWERTY layout and all its associated problems, he devoted the rest of his life to the plight of the typist. Although the Dvorak keyboard layout never gained widespread adoption, plenty of people swear by it, and it continues to inspire more finger-friendly layouts to this day.

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Acrylic Mold Makes For Professional-Looking Silicone Keyboards

The border between consumer electronics and DIY projects is getting harder and harder to define. First it was PCBs, which quickly went from homemade to professional with quick-turn services. Then low-cost CAD/CAM packages and high-end fabrication services gave us access to enclosures that were more than black plastic boxes with aluminum covers. Where will it end?

That’s a question [arturo182] begins to answer with this custom-molded silicone keyboard for a handheld device. There’s no formal writeup, but the Twitter thread goes into some detail about the process he used to make the tiny qwerty keypad. The build started by milling a two-part mold from acrylic. Silicone rubber was tinted and degassed before injecting into the mold with a baster. The keys are connected by a thin membrane of silicone, and each has a small nub on the back for actuating a switch.

There’s clearly room for improvement in this proof of concept – tool marks from the milling process mar the finish of the keys slightly, for instance. There may be tips to be had from this article on silicone keyboard refurbishment to improve the process, but overall, we’d say [arturo182] is well on his way here.