A Computer In Your Pocket, 1980s Style

These days, having a little computer in your pocket is par for the course. But forty years ago, this was a new and high tech idea. [The 8-Bit Guy] has a great video covering the state of the art in pocket computers and personal digital assistants from the 1980s and 1990s. You can see the video below.

There are a lot of familiar faces on the video including the Radio Shack pocket computers, Palm Pilots, and some more obscure machines of varying quality.

It might impress you to know that the Radio Shack TRS-80 PC-1 pocket computer actually had two CPUs. Of course, each CPU was a 4-bit processor running at 256 kHz, so maybe not as impressive as it sounds. Still, what a marvel in its day, programming BASIC on a 24-character LCD.

Continue reading “A Computer In Your Pocket, 1980s Style”

RadioShack To Be Reborn As Online-First Retailer

The good news is that as of today RadioShack has officially been purchased by Retail Ecommerce Ventures (REV), giving the troubled company a new lease on life. The downside, at least for folks like us, is that there are no immediate plans to return the iconic electronics retailer to its brick-and-mortar roots. As the name implies, REV specializes in online retail, having previously revamped the Internet presence of other bankrupt businesses such as Pier 1 Imports and Dressbarn.

While the press release doesn’t outright preclude the possibility of new physical RadioShack locations, it’s clear that REV believes the future of retail isn’t to be found in your local strip mall. As the US mulls further lockdowns in response to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to disagree. There will be millions of bored kids and adults looking for something to do during the long winter nights, and an electronic kit or two shipped to their door might be just the thing.

REV says they plan to relaunch the rather dated RadioShack website just in time for the company’s 100th anniversary in 2021. As of this writing the website currently says that sales have been temporarily halted to allow for inventory restructuring, though it’s unclear if this is directly related to the buyout or not. Getting an accurate count of how much merchandise the company still has on hand after shuttering the majority of their physical locations in 2017 certainly sounds like something the new owners would want to do.

Like most of you, we have fond memories of the Golden Age of RadioShack, back before they thought selling phones and TVs was somehow a good idea. To their credit, they did try and rekindle their relationship with hackers and makers by asking the community what they’d want to see in their stores. But we all know how that story ended. While it doesn’t look like this news will get us any closer to having a neighborhood store that stocks resistors, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that RadioShack kits and books will still be around for the next generation.

An Old Calculator Lives Again

There was a time when any electronics student would have a slide rule hanging off their belt. By the 1970s, the slide rule changed over to an electronic calculator which was a pricy item. Today you can buy calculators at the dollar store. [JohnAudioTech] pulled out an old Radio Shack vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) calculator and found it didn’t work. Obviously, that means it is time to open it up.

It is fun to see one of these old devices opened up again. Consumer electronics with big through-hole ICs! Troubleshooting the device wound up being anti-climatic, as a broken wire to the battery compartment explained the whole thing.

As a teardown, though, this is a fun video. Not only are all the parts through-hole, but the PCB is clearly a manual layout with serpentine traces flowing across the board like some sort of art piece. Continue reading “An Old Calculator Lives Again”

Radio Shack Shortwave Goes Digital

If you spent the 1970s obsessively browsing through the Radio Shack catalog, you probably remember the DX-160 shortwave receiver. You might have even had one. The radio looked suspiciously like the less expensive Eico of the same era, but it had that amazing-looking bandspread dial, instead of the Eico’s uncalibrated single turn knob number 1 to 10. Finding an exact frequency was an artful process of using both knobs, but [Frank] decided to refit his with a digital frequency display.

Even if you don’t have a DX-160, the techniques [Frank]  uses are pretty applicable to old receivers like this. In this case, the radio is a single conversion superhet with a variable frequency oscillator (VFO), so you need only read that frequency and then add or subtract the IF before display. If you can find a place to tap the VFO without perturbing it too much, you should be able to pull the same stunt.

Continue reading “Radio Shack Shortwave Goes Digital”

Where Did Pocket Computing Start?

A smartphone in 2019 is an essential piece of everyday equipment. Many of you are probably reading this page on one, and it will pack a very significant quantity of computing power into your hand. Pocket computing has a long history stretching back decades before the mass adoption of smartphones though, and Paleotronic has an interesting retrospective of that earlier history.

The piece starts with the Radio Shack PC-1, a rebadged Sharp with a calculator-style keyboard and a one-line alphanumeric LCD display, then continues through the legendary TRS-80 Model 100 to the era of the palmtop. It’s a difficult subject to cover in its entirety as there are so many milestones on the pocket computing path, but it’s an interesting read nevertheless as it successfully evokes the era when a 300 Baud connection via an acoustic coupler was a big deal. We might for example have mentioned the Atari Portfolio if only for its use by a young John Connor to scam an ATM in Terminator 2, and as any grizzled old sysadmin will tell you, there was a time when owning a Nokia Communicator might just save your bacon.

Of the classic pocket computing devices mentioned, only one has received significant coverage here. The TRS-80 model 100 still has a huge following, and among quite a few hacks featuring it we’ve seen one brought into the smartphone age by getting the ability to make a cellular connection.

TRS-80 Model 100 image: Jeff Keyzer from Austin, TX, USA [CC BY-SA 2.0]

A Trash-Steam-Machine-80

Sometimes for a retrocomputing enthusiast it can be challenging to see a surviving machine gutted and used for another purpose. But in the case of [Tom Pick]’s Radio Shack TRS-80 based Steam Machine PC we can forgive him, because it began with a very unpromising machine that had most definitely seen better days.

The TRS-80 in question is a Model III, the all-in-one console device with a numerical keypad, CRT monitor, and dual 5.25″ floppy drives built in. This provided plenty of space for the components of a modern PC with a 12″ LCD monitor. The PC itself is a run-of-the mill 2.6 GHz Pentium and nothing exceptional, but its input devices are of note. The keyboard is a Red Dragon mechanical item which has been made to look the part in place of the old Radio Shack item with a set of custom colour-coded keycaps, while the pointing device in a particularly neat touch is a modern Radio Shack-branded mouse. The boot screen is the proper Radio Shack logo from the TRS-80’s heyday, meaning that if you didn’t know any differently you might think this was meant to be. Sadly the two floppy drives are unconnected, though we’re sure it would be possible to make a modern PC see them for a bit of 360k storage goodness.

We don’t see as many projects featuring the TRS-80 series as we should, and the model III is a particular rarity. Far more common in these pages is the portable Model 100, most recently gaining a cellular connection.

Designing Custom LCDs To Repair Retrocomputers

China, we’re told, can make anything. If you need some PCBs in a few weeks, there are a few factories in China that will do it. If you need a nuclear reactor, yep, there’s probably a factory in China that’ll do it because nuclear reactors are listed as one of the items facing new tariffs when imported into the United States. No, I am not kidding. What about LCDs? What about old-school character LCDs? Is it possible to find a factory in China that will make you the LCD you want? That’s what [Robert Baruch] will find out, because he’s repairing an old computer with new parts.

The object of this repair and restomod is a TRS-80 Pocket Computer (PC-1), otherwise known as the Sharp PC-1211. It looks like a calculator, but no, it’s a legitimate computer you can program in BASIC. [Robert] bought this computer for a bit more than $5 on eBay ‘for repair’, which means the zinc-air battery was dead, and unfortunately, the LCD was shot. The LCD technically works, but it just doesn’t look good. Sometime in the last thirty years, moisture got in between the layers of glass, polarizing film, and liquid crystal. This is not unique to [Robert]’s unit — a lot of these PC-1s have the same problem, many of these broken seals rendering the computers themselves useless.

This is an ancient computer, and replacements for this LCD are impossible to find, but because the Sharp PC-1211 is well documented, it is possible to find the datasheet for the original display. With that, it’s just a question of finding an LCD manufacturer that will do it. So far, the costs look good — $800 USD ($300 for tooling and 10 samples, $500 for another 200 LCDs) is what it’ll take to get a few units. [Robert] already has a few people interested in repairing their own Pocket Computers. You can follow the eevblog thread here, or check out the video below.

Continue reading “Designing Custom LCDs To Repair Retrocomputers”