The Return of RadioShack?

We’ve been following the ups and downs of Radio Shack for a while now, and it looks like another chapter is about to be penned in the storied retailer’s biography – and not Chapter 11 bankruptcy this time.

According to the ARRL website and major media reports, up to 50 of the 147 US locations of HobbyTown, the brick-and-mortar retailer of RC and other hobby supplies, will soon host a “RadioShack Express” outlet. Each outlet will be up to 500 square feet of retail space devoted to electronic components that would be of use to HobbyTown’s core customer base, as well as other merchandise and services.

HobbyTown locations in Mooresville, North Carolina, and Ontario, Ohio, will be among the first stores to get the RadioShack Express treatment. Current employees of the franchisees will staff the store-within-a-store, which will be stocked with RadioShack merchandise purchased by the store. Stores with Express outlets will have special RadioShack branding inside and out to attract customers. There’s talk of the deal being extended chain-wide if the pilot program goes well.

Back from the Ashes?

This is obviously great news for the beleaguered electronics retailer that was once a neighborhood fixture. True, its parts selection was often less than complete, more so in recent years than in the chain’s heyday in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. And it’s true that prices were often astronomical compared to buying online. But on a Sunday afternoon, The Shack was a lifesaver for that last minute part needed to finish a project, and the premium was well worth the convenience. Watching the decline of the chain and seeing stores disappear one by one was a slow, sad process, so that makes this seems like an unqualified positive development.

But is it? On the face of it, there’s a lot of synergy between the HobbyTown offerings and what could be stocked in a RadioShack Express. I’ve never actually visited a HobbyTown myself — I plan to fix that now that I know I’ve got an outlet nearby, even if it doesn’t appear to be on the list of 50 early Express locations — so I can only go by what I see listed online for merchandise. But a store that sells every conceivable part for RC cars and planes, drones, model rockets, and STEM-related toys and kits seems a likely place to find customers for RadioShack’s offerings.

It won’t be clear until someone sees one of these Express kiosks first hand and reports back, but it seems like we might see something like the old “cabinet o’ components” that was found in the back of the most recent incarnation of RadioShack retail stores, along with a few shelves full of things like solder, wire, and tools. There may also be some items in the Arduino-Pi space, which would be really exciting, although that might run afoul of existing HobbyTown offerings. Still, one-stop shopping of everything from servos to MOSFETs would be a huge win for electronics hobbyists.

Not the Cell Phones Again!

But there may be cause for concern. Reports are that RadioShack Express locations will also offer services such as cell phone repairs. Dipping a toe into the cell phone market seemed to be the beginning of the end for RadioShack the first time through, and by the time it was clear to everyone that the chain was on death’s door, it was hard to go into a RadioShack store without being bombarded by cell phone sales pitches. To be brutally frank, I don’t take the early inclusion of cell phone repairs as an encouraging sign of the long-term viability of the RadioShack Express concept. Do we really need another place that fixes cell phones? The areas that HobbyTown stores tend to locate are rife with places that fix phones already, so I just don’t see the point. And it just smacks of the bad old days of RadioShack.

Still, I’m cautiously optimistic that this is a positive development for RadioShack, and I think it’s a win for electronics hobbyists overall. I’ll be keeping my eye on my local HobbyTown for the return of that iconic RadioShack logo, and looking forward to the day that I can pay a buck for a resistor again. Until then, if any readers happen to be near one of the combined locations when they open next week, we’d love a boots-on-the-ground report. Post your observations in the comments below, and pix or it didn’t happen.

[via r/amateurradio]

Eight Transistor Stereo Amplifier From The Days Of Yore

Reading an article about the first transistorized Hi-Fi amplifier, [Netzener] got the itch to make one. But what to use for the starting point? Enter an old Radio Shack P-Box stereo amplifier kit. After a few modernizations and tweaks, the result is an 8-transistor stereo amplifier that’s aesthetically pleasing, sounds great, and is fully documented.

The Radio Shack kit used germanium transistors, but with their high leakage current and low thermal conductivity, he decided to convert it to work with silicon transistors. He also made some improvements to the push-pull bias circuit and limited the high-frequency response. As for the finished product, in true [Netzener] style, he assembled it all to look like the original completed Radio Shack amplifier. He even wrote up a manual which you’d think, as we did at first, was the original one, giving that old, comfortable feeling of reading quality Radio Shack documentation.

Check out the video below where he uses a 9 V battery and half a watt per channel to fill a room with clear, stereo sound.

This isn’t the first Radio Shack kit that [Netzener] has adapted. Check out his single tube radio and classic neon “Goofy Light” box.

Continue reading “Eight Transistor Stereo Amplifier From The Days Of Yore”

Hackaday Links: June 3, 2018

All the Radio Shacks are dead. adioS, or something. But wait, what’s this? There are new Radio Shacks opening. Here’s one in Idaho, and here’s another in Claremore, Oklahoma. This isn’t like the ‘Blockbuster Video in Nome, Alaska’ that clings on by virtue of being so remote; Claremore isn’t that far from Tulsa, and the one in Idaho is in a town with a population of 50,000. Are these corporate stores, or are they the (cool) independent Radio Shacks? Are there component drawers? Anyone want to take a field trip and report?

A few years ago, [cnxsoft] bought a Sonoff WiFi switch to control a well pump. Despite this being a way to control the flow of massive amounts of water with an Internet of Things thing, we’re still rocking it antediluvian style, and for the most part this WiFi-connected relay worked well. Until it didn’t. For the past few days, the switch wouldn’t connect to the network, so [cnxsoft] cracked it open to figure out why. There was one burnt component, and more than one electrocuted insect. Apparently, an ant bridged two pins, was shortly electrocuted, and toasted a resistor. It’s a bug, a real bug, in an Internet of Things thing.

eInk is coming to license plates? Apparently. Since an eInk license plate already includes some electronics, it wouldn’t be much to add some tracking hardware for a surveillance state.

Hold up, it’s a press release about crypto hardware. No, not that crypto, the other crypto. Asus has announced a new motherboard that is capable of supporting twenty graphics cards. This isn’t a six-foot-wide motherboard; it’s designed especially for coin mining, and for that, the graphics cards really only need a PCIe x1 connection. The real trick here is not using PCIe headers, and instead piping everything over vertical-mount USB ports. Yes, this is a slight cabling nightmare. So, you still think the early 80s with fluorinert waterfalls and Blinkenlights that played Game of Life was the pinnacle of style in computer hardware? No, this is it right here.

Here’s a book you should readIgnition!: An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants by John Drury Clark is a fantastic book about how modern liquid rocket fuel came to be. Want to know why 60s cartoons and spy movies always referenced a ‘secret rocket fuel formula’ when kerosene and liquid oxygen work just fine? This is that. Back when we covered it, the book, used, on Amazon, cost $500. It’s now in print again and priced reasonably. It’s on the Inc. 9 Powerful Books Elon Musk Recommends list, so you know it’s good. Thanks, [Ben] for sending this one in on the tip line.

Maplin For Sale

If you are an American Electronics Enthusiast of a Certain Age, you will have misty-eyed reminiscences of the days when every shopping mall had a Radio Shack store. If you are a Brit, the name that will bring similar reminiscences to those Radio Shack ones from your American friends is Maplin. They may be less important to our community than they once would have been so this is a story from the financial pages; it has been announced that the Maplin chain is for sale.

Maplin started life as a small mail-order company supplying electronic parts, grew to become a large mail order company selling electronic parts, and them proceeded to a nationwide chain of stores occupying a similar niche to the one Radio Shack fitted into prior to their demise. They still sell electronic components, multimeters, and tools, but the bulk of their floor space is devoted to the more techy and hobbyist end of mass-market consumer electronics. As the competition from online retailers has intensified  it is reported that the sale may be an attempt to avoid the company going into administration.

It’s fair to say that in our community they have something of a reputation of late for being not the cheapest source of parts, somewhere you go because you need something in a hurry rather than for a bargain. A friend of Hackaday remarked flippantly that the asking price for the company would be eleventy zillion pounds, which may provide some clues as to why custom hasn’t been so brisk. But for a period in the late 1970s through to the 1980s they were the only place for many of us to find  parts, and their iconic catalogues with spaceships on their covers could be bought from the nationwide WH Smith newsagent chain alongside home computers such as the ZX Spectrum. It’s sad to say this, but if they did find themselves on the rocks we’d be sorry to see the name disappear, but we probably wouldn’t miss them in 2018.

One of the things Maplin were known for back in the day were their range of kits. We’ve shown you at least one in the past, this I/O port for a Sinclair ZX81.

Footnote: Does anyone still have any of the early Maplin catalogues with the spaceships on the cover? Ours perished decades ago, but we’d love to borrow one for a Retrotechtacular piece.

Maplin store images: Betty Longbottom [CC BY-SA 2.0], and Futurilla [CC BY-SA 2.0].

Relive Radio Shack’s Glory Days by Getting Goofy

The Golden Age of Radio Shack was probably sometime in the mid-1970s, a time when you could just pop into the local store and pay 49 cents for the resistors you needed to complete a project. Radio Shack was the place to go for everything from hi-fi systems to CB radios, and for many of us, being inside one was very much a kid in a candy store scenario.

That’s not to say that Radio Shack was perfect, but one thing it did very well was the education and grooming of the next generation of electronics hobbyists, primarily through their “Science Fair” brand. Some of us will recall the P-Box kits from that line, complete projects with all the parts and instructions in a plastic box with a perfboard top. These kits were endlessly entertaining and educational, and now [NetZener] has recreated the classic neon “Goofy Light” P-Box project.

As it was back in the day, the Goofy Light is almost entirely useless except for learning about DC-DC converters, multivibrators, RC timing circuits, and the weird world of negative resistance. But by using the original Science Fair instructions, compiling a BOM that can be filled from Mouser or Digikey, and making up a reasonable facsimile of the original P-Box chassis, [NetZener] has done a service to anyone looking for a little dose of nostalgia.

It would be interesting if someone brought back the P-Box experience as a commercial venture, offering a range of kits with circuits like the originals. If that happens, maybe some of the offerings will be based on that other classic from Radio Shack’s heyday.

Continue reading “Relive Radio Shack’s Glory Days by Getting Goofy”

Hackaday Links: October 8, 2017

On the top of the popcorn pile for this weekend is an ambiguous tweet from Adafruit that was offered without comment or commentary. [Lady Ada] is holding some sort of fancy incorporation papers for Radio Shack. The smart money is that Adafruit just bought these at the Radio Shack auction a month or so ago. The speculation is that Adafruit just bought Radio Shack, or at least the trademarks and other legal ephemera. Either one is cool, but holy crap please bring back the retro 80s branding.

A Rubik’s Cube is a fantastic mechanical puzzle, and if you’ve never taken one apart, oh boy are you in for a treat. Here’s an RGB LED Rubick’s Cube with not enough detail as to how each square is getting powered. Here’s an open challenge for anyone: build an RGB LED Rubick’s Cube, and Open Source the design.

Last weekend, the front fell off the engine of an Air France A380 flying over Greenland. As with all aircraft incidents, someone has to find the missing bits. It only took a week to find a mangled cowling on an ice sheet. This is incredibly impressive; if you want a comparison to another accident, it took three months to find the fan disk for UA 232 in an Iowa cornfield.

Poorly thought out Kickstarters don’t grab our attention like they used to, but this is an exception. The Aire is a mashup of one of those voice-activated home assistants (Alexa, whatever the Google one is named…) and a drone. The drone half of the build is marginally interesting as a ducted fan coaxial thingy, and building your own home assistant isn’t that hard with the right mics and a Raspberry Pi. The idea is actually solid — manufacturing is another story, though. It appears no one thought about how annoying it would be to have a helicopter following them around their house, or if the mics would actually be able to hear anyone over beating props. Here’s the kicker: this project was successfully funded. People want to buy this. A fool and his or her money…

Processing is cool, although we’re old skool and still reppin’ Max/MSP. It looks like the first annual Processing Community Day is coming up soon. The Processing Community Day will be at the MIT Media Lab on October 21st, with talks from the headliners of the Processing community.

Maker Faire NYC was two weekends ago, the TCT show in Birmingham was last week, and Open Hardware Summit was in Denver this weekend. Poor [Prusa] was at all of them, racking up the miles. He did, however, get to ride [James from XRobots.co.uk]’s electric longboard. There’s some great videos from [James] right here and here.

Speaking of Open Hardware Summit, there was a field trip to Sparkfun and Lulzbot this Friday. The highlight? The biggest botfarm in the states, and probably the second largest in the world. That’s 155 printers, all in their own enclosures, in a room that’s kept at 80° F. They’re printing ABS. Control of the printers is through a BeagleBone running Octoprint. These ‘Bones and Octoprint only control one printer each, and there is no software layer ‘above’ the Octoprint instances for managing multiple printers simultaneously. That probably means the software to manage a botfarm doesn’t exist. There have been attempts, though, but nothing in production. A glove thrown down?

Pac Man On The Colour Computer 3

The 1980s were the heyday of the venerable Z80, a processor that found its way into innumerable home computers, industrial systems, and yes — arcade machines. However, not everyone had a Z80 based machine at home, and so sometimes porting is required. [Glen] is tackling this with a port of Pac Man to the Radio Shack Colour Computer 3.

The key to any good arcade port is authenticity – the game should feel as identical to the real thing as possible. The Atari 2600 port got this famously wrong. Porting to the Colour Computer 3 is easier in theory – with more RAM, a Motorola 6809 CPU running at a higher clock rate, and a more powerful graphics subsystem, fewer compromises need to be made to get the game to run at a playable speed.

The way [Glen] tackled the port is quite handy. [Glen] built a utility that would scrape a disassembled version of the original Pac Man Z80 code, look up the equivalent 6809 CPU instruction, and replace it, while placing the original Z80 code to the side as a comment. Having the original code sitting next to the ported instructions makes debugging much easier.

Level 256 as seen in [Glen]’s port.
There was plenty of hand tweaking to be done, and special effort was made to make sure all the data the original code was looking for was accessible at the same addresses as before. There was also a lot of work involved in creating a sprite engine that would reliably display the game video at a playable frame rate.

Overall, the port is highly faithful to the original, with the game code being identical at the CPU level. [Glen] reports that the same patterns used on the arcade machine can be used to complete the mazes on the Colour Computer 3 version, and it faithfully recreates the Level 256 bug as well. It’s an impressive piece of work to create such an authentic port on a home computer from 1986.

For another classic port, but with the temporal vectors flipped, check out Portal 2 on the Apple II.