Building A Replica Of An Obscure Romanian Computer

We’ve all seen emulated Apple II and Commodore 64 boards about the place. Few of us have heard of the Romanian ZX Spectrum clone known as the Cobra, let alone any efforts to replicate one. However, [Thomas Sowell] has achieved just that, and has shared the tale with us online.

The Cobra was named for its origins in the city of Brasov – hence, COmputer BRasov. The replica project was spawned for a simple reason. Given that sourcing an original Romanian Cobra would be difficult, [Thomas] realized that he could instead build his own, just as many Romanians did in the 1980s. He set about studying the best online resources about the Cobra, and got down to work.

The build started with board images sourced from Cobrasov.com, and these were used to get a PCB made. [Thomas] decided to only use vintage ICs sourced from the Eastern Bloc for authenticity’s sake, too. Most came from the former USSR, though some parts were of East German, Romanian, or Czechoslovakian manufacture. The project took place prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, so there weren’t any hassles shipping across borders.

With everything hooked up and the EEPROMs given a real Cobra ROM image, the computer burst into life. There were some hiccups, with an overheating video IC and some memory glitches. However, with some nifty tweaks and replacements subbed in, the computer came good. Other work involved adding a custom keyboard and modifying 3.5″ floppy drives to work with the system.

Overall, the build is a faithful tribute to what was an impressive piece of engineering from behind the Iron Curtain. [Thomas]’s work also embodies the DIY ethos behind many homebrew Cobra computers built back in the day.

If all this talk has got you curious about the full history of the Cobra and Romania’s underground computer movement, we have everything you’re looking for right here!

The First Microcomputer: The Q1

Quiz time, what was the first commercially available microcomputer? The Altair 8800? Something obscure like the SCELBI? The Mark-8 kit? According to [The Byte Attic], it was actually the Q1, based on the Intel 8008 processor. The first Q1 microcomputer was delivered in December of 1972, making it the first, as far as he can tell. Later revisions used the Z80 processor, which is the model pictured above that [The Byte Attic] has in his possession. It’s a beautiful little machine, with a striking orange plasma display.

The irony is that this machine is almost entirely forgotten about. The original unit may have looked more like a typewriter, pictured here. If you have any first hand knowledge, or especially software, documentation, or surviving hardware bits, make sure to check in to add to the knowledge pool about this amazing little machine.

It’s an important milestone, and the development of the Q1 may have been a direct cause of Intel developing the more powerful 8080 microprocessor. It seems that Daniel Alroy’s work on this machine literally kicked off the microcomputer revolution, and it’s been missing from our computer lore for too many years. We’re very hopeful to see more of this story come together, and the history of the Q1 fully recovered.

And if retro hardware is your jam, we’ve got you covered, including among others, the parallel story about the first microprocessor.

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Exploring Texas Instrument’s Forgotten CPU

Texas Instruments isn’t the name you usually hear associated with the first microprocessor. But the TI TMX 1795 was an 8008 chip produced months before the 8008. It was never available commercially, though, so it has been largely forgotten by most people. But not [Ken Shirriff]. You can see a demo from 2015 of the device in the video below, too.

The reason the chips have the same architecture is they were built to replace the same large circuit board inside a Datapoint 2200 programmable terminal. These were big beasts that could be programmed in BASIC or PL/B.

Datapoint asked Intel to shrink the board to a chip due to heating problems — but after delays, they instead replaced the power supply and lost interest in the device. TI heard about the affair and wanted in on the deal. However, Datapoint was unimpressed. The chip didn’t tolerate voltage fluctuations very well, since they had replaced the power supply and had a new CPU design that was faster than the chip would be. They were also unimpressed with how much stuff you had to add to get a complete system.

So why did the Intel 8008 work out in the marketplace but the TI chip didn’t? After all, Datapoint decided not to use the 8008, also. But as [Ken] points out, the 8008 was much smaller than the TI chip and, thus, was more cost-effective to produce.

As usual, [Ken]’s posts are always interesting and enlightening. He’s looked at a lot of old computers. He’s even dug into old space hardware. Great stuff!

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Sketch of a Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 with Arduino Mega 2560

TRS-80 Model 100 Gets Arduino Heart Transplant

When [Stephen Cass] found himself with a broken Tandy TRS-80 Model 100 portable computer, the simplest solution was to buy another broken one and make one working computer from two non-working computers. However, this left him with a dilemma — what to do with the (now even more) broken one left over?

LCD layout is unusual by modern standard, but optimized for fast updates

Naturally, he did what a lot of us would do and used modern hardware to interface with the original parts that still work. In this case it meant replacing the motherboard with an Arduino Mega 2560.

Luckily, the Model 100 has a substantial fanbase and there’s a lot of helpful information available online, including the detailed service manual, that helped [Stephen] to understand how to drive the unusual display.  The LCD has a resolution of 240×64 pixels, which are broken down into eight zones of 50×32 pixels, and two zones of 40×42 pixels.  Each zone is then further divided into four banks, eight pixels tall, so that each column of eight pixels corresponds to a single byte.

Every one of the ten zones is controlled by an individual HD44102 driver IC, connected to a 30-bit wide bus for selecting the correct chip, bank and column.

With the Arduino handling the data, the old LCD still needed a -5 V supply for contrast and an RC filter to smooth out the PWM signal [Stephen] is using to adjust the viewing angle.

With the new interface, [Stephen] is able to access all of the pixels on the original display, and to use modern graphics libraries such as displayio. With the display issue solved, he intends to use a separate Teensy 4.1 to connect with the keyboard matrix and provide a VT100 terminal interface.

Schematic of the HD44102 driver circuit

Upcycling old, broken hardware can be a lot of fun and is always educational.  Understanding why certain design decisions were made at a time when the engineering trade-offs were different can lead to insights that are directly relevant to modern designs when resources get tight. In this case, the quirky LCD drivers were a response to making the display of text as efficient as possible, so as not to overburden the processor.

The TRS-80 computers are ripe for hacking, with their “built-for-service” designs, and we’ve featured a few in the past.  Some have replaced the motherboard with something newer, like [Stephen], whereas others have also replaced the display, or connected them to the cellphone network.

Have you found new ways to get old hardware working? Tell us in the comments below or send us a message on the Hackaday tips line.

Thanks to [nb0x0308] for the tip!

The Internet Without The Computer: 1990s Style

We think of the Internet extending to small devices as a modern trend, but it actually is a good example of how everything makes a circle. Today, we want the network to connect to our thermostat and our toaster. But somewhere between the year 1990 and the year 2010, there was a push to make the Internet accessible to the majority of people who didn’t own a computer. The prototypical device, in our mind, was Microsoft’s ill-fated WebTV, but a recent video from [This Does Not Compute] reminded us of another entry in that race: The Audrey from 3COM. Check out the video, below.

Many devices, like the WebTV, wanted to take over your TV set to save on a display. That doesn’t sound bad today, but you have to remember, the typical TV set in those days was not the high-resolution digital monster you have today, so the experience of surfing the Web on one was suboptimal. The Audrey actually had a cute little screen and a compact keyboard.

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IBM’s Early PC Attracts Time Travelers

It wasn’t long ago I was nostalgic about an old computer I saw back in the 1980s from HP. It was sort of an early attempt at a PC, although price-wise it was only in reach for professionals. HP wasn’t the only one to try such a thing, and one of the more famous attempts was the company that arguably did get the PC world rolling: IBM. Sure, there were other companies that made PCs before the IBM PC, but that was the computer that cemented the idea of a computer on an office desk or at your home more than any computer before it. Even now, our giant supercomputer desktop machines boot as though they were a vintage 1981 PC for a few minutes on each startup. But the PC wasn’t the first personal machine from IBM and, in fact, the IBM 5100 was not only personal, but it was also portable. Well, portable by 1970s standards that also had very heavy video cameras and luggable computers like the Osborne 1.

The IBM 5100 had a brief three-year life from 1975 to 1978. A blistering 1.9 MHz 16-bit CPU drove a 5-inch CRT monitor and you could have between 16K and 64K of RAM along with a fair amount of ROM. In fact, the ROMs were the key feature and a giant switch on the front let you pick between an APL ROM and a BASIC ROM (assuming you had bought both).

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Z80 Single-Board Computer Looks Like It Could Have Been A Killer Product

Most retrocomputer builds seem to focus on either restoring old machines or rebuilding them from scratch. Either way, the goal is to get as close as possible to the original machine, and while we certainly respect those builds, there are other ways to celebrate the computers of yesterday, as this Z80 single-board computer nicely demonstrates.

[Ivan Farafontov]’s SBC is sort of a “Z80 that never was” build, one that would almost have been possible back in the heyday of 8-bit computing, and would have made quite a splash if it had. Most of the peripheral chips are from Zilog and would have been found in many of the Z80 machines of the day, like the TRS-80 and ZX Spectrum. Where it goes off the old-school path is with the video section, which uses an Atmel CPLD chip and a dual-port RAM to drive a VGA monitor. It still looks the part, though, with a 256×192 pixel, 16-color display. The compact video section helps keep the overall footprint of this machine pretty small, at least by the standards of the old machines. The machine is barely larger than its custom keyboard, which is populated with mechanical switches and really nice-looking custom keycaps, and everything fits into a 3D-printed case.

The demo that starts at the 4:30 mark of the video below will be a nostalgia storm for a lot of readers, starting as it does with a version of Boulder Dash that [Ivan] wrote from scratch, along with the tile editor he used to create the sprites for the game. All the design files and code are available if you want to build your own, of course. We recently featured another Z80 that never was, but [Ivan]’s machine really makes a statement with its compact size and its capabilities.

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