Supercon Badge Hardware Hacking: Here’s What to Bring

Hackaday Superconference is just a week away (precious few tickets remain), a celebration of all things Hackaday, which naturally includes creative projects making the most of their hardware. Every attendee gets a platform for hacking in the form of the conference badge.

To make the most of your badge hacking fun, plan ahead so you will have the extra components and the tools you need. At the most basic, bring along a serial to USB cable and a PIC programmer. These are common and if you don’t own them, ask around and you will likely be able to borrow them. Now is also the time to put in a parts order for any components you want to use but don’t have on hand!

The badge is hackable without any extras, but it’s designed for adding hardware and hacking the firmware. We’re excited to see what you can do with it. We gave an overview of this retro themed pocket computer a few days ago, today we’re inviting you to exploit its potential for your hardware hacks.

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The Supercon Badge is a Freakin’ Computer

It hangs around your neck, comes with the cost of admission, and would blow away a desktop computer from the 1980’s. This is the Hackaday Superconference badge and you can get your hands on one for the price of admission to the ultimate hardware conference.

Everyone through the door gets one of these badges featuring a 320 x 240 color display, a full qwerty keyboard, and limitless hacking potential! The stock firmware runs a BASIC interpreter, the CP/M operating system, and includes games and Easter Eggs. It’s a giant playground, and we want to see what you can do with this custom hardware during the three days of Supercon. Get your ticket now, then join me after the break for a demo video and plenty more info.

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Bus Raider Allows Classic Micro Emulation On An RC2014

If you were lucky enough to own one of the crop of 1980s 8-bit computers, did you ever pause to consider how its graphics worked? Maybe the really expensive ones had dedicated CRT controller subsystems akin to the graphics cards you’d have found on a PC a few years later, but most of the affordable models would have stopped what they were doing every TV line interval period to allow access to their memory for their graphical output to be created.

The RC2014 retrocomputer dodges all this, by using a serial port as an interface and expecting your serial terminal to handle the screen. But what if it could produce its graphics directly as the machines of old did? [Rob Dobson] set out to achieve this, and not only did he succeed but he also found a way to directly emulate some classic machines along the way.

His RC2014 card which he calls the Bus Raider started as an attempt to use a Raspberry Pi to commandeer the RC2014 memory and read it via its GPIO lines, interpreting the graphics for its own screen. But even with bare metal Pi programming he couldn’t achieve the complex timing required for that, so he took an alternative approach. He ended up with an ESP32 that emulates a custom part of the RC2014 memory map and generates a display from there. Having created a custom memory map and hardware emulator for his RC2014, he then had the revelation that he could emulate any memory map, and thus he could make the retrocomputer perform natively as though it were any of a selection of classic micros. So far as well as a straight serial terminal he has a Sinclair ZX Spectrum and a Radio Shack TRS-80 running, as well as his own custom Z80 environment. And since the ESP32 also has WiFi, he can even connect to it through that medium.

Retrocomputers are something in which you might think that everything possible would already have been done, but projects like this one never cease to amaze us with their ingenuity. If you’d like to read more about the RC2014, we reviewed an earlier model back in 2016.

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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Suitcase Computer Reborn with Raspberry Pi Inside

Fun fact, the Osborne 1 debuted with a price tag equivalent to about $5,000 in today’s value. With a gigantic 9″ screen and twin floppy drives (for making mix tapes, right?) the real miracle of the machine was its portability, something unheard of at the time. The retrocomputing trend is to lovingly and carefully restore these old machines to their former glory, regardless of how clunky or underpowered they are by modern standards. But sometimes they can’t be saved yet it’s still possible to gut and rebuild the machine with modern hardware, like with this Raspberry Pi used to revive an Osborne 1.

Purists will turn their nose up at this one, and we admit that this one feels a little like “restoring” radios from the 30s by chucking out the original chassis and throwing in a streaming player. But [koff1979] went to a lot of effort to keep the original Osborne look and feel in the final product. We imagine that with the original guts replaced by a Pi and a small LCD display taking the place of the 80 character by 24 line CRT, the machine is less strain on the shoulder when carrying it around. (We hear the original Osborne 1 was portable in the same way that an anvil is technically portable.) The Pi runs an emulator to get the original CP/M experience; it even runs Wordstar. The tricky part about this build was making the original keyboard talk to the Pi, which was accomplished with an Arduino that translates key presses to USB.

As an aside, if reading this has given you a twinge of nostalgia and you’re on the Eastern seaboard you may want to check out more vintage gear at the VCF East this weekend. If you hail from Europe, get your hack on with CP/M and a retrocomputing badge at Hackaday Belgrade one wee from now.

We’ve seen the Raspberry Pi pressed into retrocomputing duty before, of course. Here’s one used to emulate a Commodore 1541 disk drive, and another in the laptop Clive Sinclair never built.

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The Interesting Fate Of Kenya’s First Computers

If you are an enthusiast for 1950s computer hardware, you are probably out of luck when it comes to owning a machine of your own. Your best chance will be to join the staff of one of the various museums that preserve and operate these machines, at which you can indulge your passion to your heart’s content. But what if we told you that there is a 1950s computer available for pick-up at any time, to whoever is prepared to go and get it and has suitable transport? You’d be making plans straight away, wouldn’t you? The computer in question is real, but there’s a snag. It’s at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, just at the start of international waters off the coast of Kenya. The story of Kenya’s early computing and how the machine met its fate is the subject of a fascinating article from a year or two ago on owaahh.com that had us riveted from start to finish.

Like large state-owned enterprises worldwide, the Kenyan railway and power monopolies were among the first commercial customers for computing. In the final years of the British Empire, those were ordered from a company in London, International Computers & Tabulators, and it was their ICT1202 that served the railway company. The article goes into detail about the history of the company’s East African operation, the problems of running a tube-based computer in an African climate without air-conditioners, and the 1202’s demise and replacement. We’ll not spill the beans here on how the computer ended up on the seabed and how its replacement ended up being spirited away to China, for that you’ll have to read it all. It’s worth saying, the author also has a personal website in which he goes into much more detail about his experience with computers in the 1950s and ’60s.

Not had enough ancient computer tech? A couple of years ago we toured the primordial electronic computer, Colossus, and also took a look at the National Museum Of Computing that houses it.

From Cop Car Data Terminal, To Retro Computer

It is possible that you will have lived your life without ever coming into contact with a Motorola MDT9100-T. The data terminal of choice for use in police cars across the globe was a computer with a full-sized QWERTY keyboard, a small CRT display, a mainboard sporting an Intel 386SX processor, and a custom version of Windows 3.1. [Trammell Hudson] and some friends from NYC Resistor scored some MDT9100s in an online auction and found them to be just too good an opportunity not to crack them open and see what could be done.

The custom Windows install could be bypassed with a DOS prompt for some period demoscene action, but [Trammell] wanted more. The 386SX wasn’t even quick when it was new, and this computer deserved the power of a BeagleBone! A custom cape was created on a prototyping cape to interface with the MDT9100 header carrying both keyboard and video. A bit of detective work revealed the display to be a 640×480 pixel mono VGA. The ‘Bone’s LVDS output can drive VGA through a resistor ladder DAC with the aid of an appropriate device tree overlay. The keyboard was then taken care of with a Teensy working as a USB device, resulting in a working Linux computer in the shell of an MDT9100.

It’s always good to see old technology brought up to date. Amusingly a couple of years ago we reported on the death of VGA, but retro projects like this one mean it’ll be a long time before we’ve heard the last of it.