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.

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There Are 200 Electronic Kits In That Box

If you grew up in the latter part of the 20th century, you didn’t have the Internet we have today — or maybe not at all. What you did have, though, was Radio Shack within an hour’s drive. They sold consumer electronics, of course, but they also sold parts and kits. In addition to specific kits, they always had some versions of a universal kit where lots of components were mounted on a board and you could easily connect and disconnect them to build different things. [RetoSpector78] found a 200-in-1 kit at a thrift store that was exactly like the one he had as a kid and he shares it with us in the video below.

This was a particularly fancy model since it has a nice looking front panel with a few knobs and displays. The book shows you how to make the 200 different projects ranging from metronomes to rain detectors. The projects really fell into several categories. There were practical circuits like radio receivers, test equipment, and transmitters. Then there were games or circuits even the manual called “silly.” In addition, there were circuits to build simply to understand how they work, like flip flops or counters.

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Retrotechtacular: Remembering Radio Shack P-Box Kits

If you are under a certain age, you probably associate Radio Shack with cellphones. While Radio Shack never gave us access to the variety and economy of parts we have today, they did have one thing that I wish we could get again: P-Box kits. The obvious questions are: What’s a P-Box and why do I want one? But the kit wasn’t to make a P-Box. P-Box was the kind of box the kit came in. It was like a piece of perfboard, but made of plastic, built into a plastic box. So you bought the kit — which might be a radio or a metal detector — opened the box and then built the kit using the box as the chassis.

The perfboard was pretty coarse, too, because the components were all big discrete components. There was at least one that had an IC, but that came premounted on a PC board that you treated like a big component. One of my favorites was a three-transistor regenerative shortwave receiver. In those days, you could pick up a lot of stations on shortwave and it was one of the best ways at the time to learn more about the world.

On the left, you can see a picture of the radio from the 1975 catalog. You might think $7.95 is crazy cheap, but that was at least a tank full of gas or four movie tickets in those days, and most of us didn’t have a lot of money as kids, so you probably saved your allowance for a few weeks, did chores, or delivered papers to make $8.

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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.

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