A Tale Of More Than One Amiga 1500

If you were an Amiga enthusiast back in the day, the chances are you had an Amiga 500, and lusted after a 2000 or maybe later a 3000. Later still perhaps you had a 600 or a 1200, and your object of desire became the 4000. The amusingly inept Commodore marketing department repackaged what was essentially the same 68000-based Amiga at the bottom end of the range through the platform’s entire lifetime under their ownership, with a few minor hardware upgrades in the form of chipset revisions that added a relatively small number of features.

We’ve probably listed above all the various Amigas you’ll be familiar with, with a few exceptions you either didn’t have or only saw in magazines. The original A1000, the chipset-upgraded A500+, the CDTV multimedia  platform, or the CD32 games console as examples. But there’s one we haven’t listed which you may never have seen unless you hail from the United Kingdom, and it’s an Amiga behind which lies a fascinating tale that has been unearthed by [RetroManCave].

In the late 1980s, Commodore sold the A500 all-in-one cased Amiga to consumers with marketing based heavily upon gaming, and the A2000 desktop Amiga to businesses with the promise of productivity software. Both machines had a 16-bit Motorola 68000 running at the same speed, with the A2000 having a lot of extra memory and a hard drive lurking within that case. The price difference between the two was inordinately high, creating a niche for an enterprising British company called Checkmate Computers to fill with their provocatively named A1500, a clever case for an A500 mainboard that gave it an expansion slot and space for that hard drive and memory.

This machine’s existence angered Commodore, to the extent that they vowed to eradicate the upstart by releasing their own UK-only A1500. The result, a comically badly concealed rebadge of an A2000 with two floppies and no hard drive, is something we remember seeing at the time, and dare we admit it, even lusting after. But the full story in the video below is well worth a watch for an engrossing insight into a little-known saga in one corner of the computing world during the 16-bt era. Towards the end it becomes a plug for the Checkmate Computers co-founder’s current Kickstarter project, but if that holds no interest for you then you are at least forewarned.

Of course, if you have either A1500 today, you might want an up-to-date graphics card for it.

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Retro Computer Badge for Hackaday Belgrade Has Everything You Wished for Back in the Day

The hardware badge for the Hackaday Belgrade conference is a Retro Computer that you wear around your neck. I have one in my hands and it’s truly a work of art. It’s beautiful, it’s fun to play with, and it will be an epic platform for a glorious weekend of badge hacking! Check out the first look video, then join me below as I drill down into the details.

Get your ticket now for Hackaday Belgrade, our premier European hardware conference at the end of this month. It’s a day filled with talks, works, food, fun, and of course everyone through the door gets one of these incredible badges. The best part is the community that turns out for this event and that includes the Hacker Village that takes hold in the evening. We’ll be hacking the badges until the wee hours of the morning alongside hardware demos, presentations, lightning talks, and live IDM and DJ sets.

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The 1980s called – asking for the Z80 Membership Card

The ’80’s and early ’90’s saw a huge proliferation of “personal” computers, spawning an army of hacker kids who would go on to hone their computing chops on 8-bit and 16-bit computers from brands such as Sinclair, Commodore, Acorn, Apple, Atari, Tandy/RadioShack and Texas Instruments. Fast forward to 2017, and Raspberry-Pi, BeagleBone and micro:bit computers reign supreme. But the old 8-bit and 16-bit computer systems can still teach us a lot.

[Lee Hart] has built the amazing Z80 Membership Card — a Z80 computer that fits in an Altoids tin. His design uses generic through hole parts mounted on a PCB with large pads, thick tracks and lots of track clearances, making assembly easy. Add to this his detailed documentation, where he weaves some amazing story telling, and it makes for a really enjoyable, nostalgic build. It makes you want to get under the hood and learn about computers all over again. The Z80 Membership Card features a Zilog Z80 microprocessor running at 4 MHz with 32k RAM and 32K EPROM, loaded with BASIC interpreter and monitor programs. A pair of 30-pin headers provide connections to power, I/O pins, data, address and control signals.

To accompany this board, he’s built a couple of companion “shield” boards. The Front Panel Card has a 16-key hex pad, 7-digit 7-segment LED display and Serial port. [Lee] has packed in a ton of features on the custom monitor ROM for the front panel card making it a versatile, two board, 8-bit system. Recently, he finished testing a third board in this series — a Serial/SD-Card/RAM shield which adds bank-switchable RAM and SD-card interface to provide “disk” storage. He’s managed to run a full CP/M-80 operating system on it using 64k of RAM. The two-board stack fits nicely in a regular Altoids tin. A fellow hacker who built the three-board sandwich found it too tall for the Altoids tin, and shared the design for a 3D printable enclosure.

[Lee] provides detailed documentation about the project on his blog with schematics, assembly instructions and code. He’s happy to answer questions from anyone who wants help building this computer. Do check out all of his other projects, a couple of which we’ve covered in the past. Check out Lee Hart’s Membership Card — a similar Altoids tin sized tribute to the 1802 CMOS chip and how he’s Anthropomorphizing Microprocessors.

Finally, we have to stress this once again — check out his Assembly Manuals [PDF, exhibit #1] — they are amazingly entertaining.

Thanks to [Matthew Kelley] who grabbed one of [Lee]’s kits and then tipped us off.

The BASIC Issue With Retro Computers

If you are interested in how a computer works at the hardware grass-roots level, past all the hardware and software abstractions intended to make them easier to use, you can sometimes find yourself frustrated in your investigations. Desktop and laptop computers are black boxes both physically and figuratively, and microcontrollers have retreated into their packages behind all the built-in peripherals that make them into systems-on-chips.
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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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Floppy Drive Hides SD Card Reader

[gilmour509] posted a thorough gallery of a new custom-built computer and case made to look like a 1995 IBM Aptiva. While the whole build is impressive, the most clever part involves a 3 1/2″ floppy disk that hides an SD card and works like a regular USB flash drive when inserted into the floppy drive.

He makes use of the fact that floppy disk edge card connectors have the same spacing as SD cards. Add in a hacked USB card reader, some careful cutting and assembly, and [gilmour509] has a very convincing floppy drive with gigabytes of space.

When inserted the light turns on and windows recognizes the drive.

The best part is that with everything put together, the floppy disks and floppy drive look completely unmodified. He even made the file explorer icon show a floppy drive.

The faux-Aptiva gallery includes the full build, but skip to about 2/3 down to see the floppy SD card section.

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A Modern 386 Development Board

Some readers out there probably have nostalgic feelings for their first 386 based PC, the beeps and hisses of the modem, and the classic sound of a floppy drive’s stepper motor. Perhaps that turbo button that we could never quite figure out.

If you want the power of a 386 processor today, you’re in luck: [Pierre Surply] has developed a modern development board for the 80386SX CPU. This board is based on a 386 processor that comes in a LQFP package for “easy” soldering, and an Altera Cyclone IV FPGA.

To allow the CPU to run, the FPGA emulates the chipset you would usually find on a PC motherboard. The FPGA acts as both a bus controller and a memory controller for the CPU. On the board, there’s an SRAM chip and internal memory on the FPGA, which can be accessed through the 386’s bus access protocol.

The FPGA also provides debugging features. A supervisor application running on the FPGA gives debugging functionality via a FTDI USB to UART chip. This lets you control operation of the CPU from a PC for debugging purposes. The FPGA’s memory can be programmed through a JTAG interface.

The project is very well documented, and is a great read if you’re wondering how your old 386 actually worked. It can even be hand soldered, so the adventurous can grab the design files and give it a go. The francophones reading can also watch the talk in the video below.

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