There’s RC2014 Life In The TMS9918A Display Chip Yet

One of the outliers in the home computer wars of the early 1980s was the Texas Instruments TI99/4A. It may not have had the games library of its rivals and its TMS9900 processor may not have set the world on fire with its registers-in-RAM architecture, but its range of support chips included one whose derivatives would go on to delight subsequent generations. If you had an MSX or one of the 8 or 16-bit Sega consoles, the TMS9918A graphics chip provided the architecture that sat behind Sonic in his adventures.

A few decades later, there is still significant interest in this classic chip. [J.B. Langston] has an RC2014 retrocomputer, and wishing to play MSX demos upon it, has created a TMS9918A-based graphics card for the RC2014 bus. The success of the board hinges upon a circuit showing how to interface the 9918A to SRAM, and since it is mapped to the same ports as its MSX equivalent it should in theory be compatible with Z80 demos written for that platform. He’s already achieved some success with that aim, as can be demonstrated by the video we’ve placed below the break of the Bold MSX demo running on an RC2014.

The RC2014 has gained a significant following in the retrocomputer scene, and has appeared here many times. We reviewed an early model in 2016. Surprisingly though the TMS9918A has only appeared here once, as part of a homebrew 6809-based system.

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Z80 Fuzix Is Like Old Fashioned Unix

Classic Z80 computers tend to run CP/M. If you’re a purist you’ll be happy with that because that’s certainly what most serious Z80 computers ran back in the day. However, for actual use, CP/M does feel dated these days. Linux is more comfortable but isn’t likely to run on a Z80. Or is it? Linux borrows from Unix and back in the 1980s [Doug Braun] wrote a Unix-like OS for the Z80 called UZI. There have been lots of forks of it over the years, and a project called FuzixOS aims to make a useful Z80 Unix-like OS.

Of course, 1980 Unix was a lot different from modern-day Linux, but it is still closer to a modern system than CP/M. Fuzix also adds several modern features like 30 character file names and up-to-date APIs. The kernel isn’t just for the Z80, by the way. It can target a variety of older processors including the 6502, the 6809, the 8086, and others. As you might expect, the system can fit in a pretty small system.

The video below shows [Scott Baker’s] RC2014 computer running Fuzix. You’ll see it looks a lot like a Linux system, although that analogy only goes so far.

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An Eight Inch Floppy For Your Retrocomputer

For people under a certain age, the 8 inch floppy disk is a historical curiosity. They might just have owned a PC that had a 5.25 inch disk drive, but the image conjured by the phrase “floppy disk” will be the hard blue plastic of the once ubiquitous 3.5 inch disk. Even today, years after floppies shuffled off this mortal coil, we still see the 3.5 inch disk as the save icon in so many of our software packages.

For retro computing enthusiasts though, there is an attraction to the original floppy  from the 1970s. Mass storage for microcomputers can hardly come in a more retro format. [Scott M. Baker] evidently thinks so, for he has bought a pair of Qume 8 inch floppy drives, and interfaced them to his CPM-running RC2014 Z80-based retrocomputer.

He goes into detail on the process of selecting a drive as there are several variants of the format, and interfacing the 50 pin Shuggart connector on these drives with the more recent 34 pin connector. To aid in this last endeavour he’s created an interface PCB which he promises to share on OSH Park.

The article provides an interesting insight into the control signals used by floppy drives, as well as the unexpected power requirements of an 8 inch drive. They need mains AC, 24VDC, and 5VDC, so for the last two he had to produce his own power supply.

He’s presented the system in a video which we’ve put below the break. Very much worth watching if you’ve never seen one of these monsters before, it finishes with a two-drive RC2014 copying files between drives.

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Review: The RC2014 Z80 Computer

As hackers and makers we are surrounded by accessible computing in an astonishing diversity. From tiny microcontrollers to multi-processor powerhouses, they have become the universal tool of our art. If you consider their architecture though you come to a surprising realisation. It is rare these days to interface directly to a microprocessor bus. Microcontrollers and systems-on-chip have all the functions that were once separate peripherals integrated into their packages, and though larger machines such as your laptop or server have their processor bus exposed you will never touch them as they head into your motherboard’s chipset.

A few decades ago this was definitely not the case. A typical 8-bit microprocessor of the 1970s had an 8-bit data bus, a 16-bit address bus, and a couple of request lines to indicate whether it wanted to talk to memory or an I/O port. Every peripheral you connected to it had to have some logic to decode its address and select it when you wanted to use it, and all shared the processor’s bus. This was how those of us whose first computers were the 8-bit machines of the late 1970s and early 1980s learned the craft of computer hardware, and in a world of Arduino and Raspberry Pi this now seems a lost art.

The subject of today’s review then provides a rare opportunity for the curious hardware hacker to get to grips with a traditional microprocessor bus. The RC2014 is a modular 8-bit computer in which daughter cards containing RAM, ROM, serial interface, clock, and Z80 processor are ranged on a backplane board, allowing complete understanding of and access to the workings of each part of the system. It comes with a ROM BASIC, and interfaces to a host computer through a serial port. There is also an ever-expanding range of further peripheral cards, including ones for digital I/O, LED matrixes, blinkenlights, a Raspberry Pi Zero for use as a VDU, and a small keyboard.

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Talking DIY Z-80 Retrocomputer Complete with Dev Tools

[Scott Baker] wanted to take on a new retrocomputing project. He decided to build an RC2104. Lucky for us, he documented everything along the way. In addition to the main board, [Scott] built bus monitoring and debugging tools, a front panel, a real time clock, an analog to digital converter, and a speech synthesizer.

You can follow along in the 8-part post that includes videos. He started with the basic kit:

  • CPU – The Z80
  • ROM – 27C512 64 KB ROM, selectable in 8KB banks
  • RAM – 62256 32 KB RAM
  • Clock – 7.3728 Mhz crystal that drives a 74HC04 hex inverter (for the CPU and the UART)
  • Serial I/O – MC68B50 UART

In addition, he picked up a digital I/O board.

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