Building A Faux Retro Portable Computer

The modern laptop has its origins in the mid to late 1980s, when shrinking computer hardware and improvements to battery technology finally made mobile computing practical. But before the now iconic clamshell form factor became the standard, there was a market for so-called “portable” computers. These machines often resembled pieces of luggage with keyboards attached, and even at their peak, they were nowhere near as practical as today’s ultra-thin notebook computers. But for the more nostalgic among us, these vintage portables do have a special sort of charm about them.

Looking to recapture some of that magic with modern components, [davedarko] has started working on his own Raspberry Pi portable computer. Just like those machines of yore, his build is designed to be a self-contained computing experience that you can lug around, but not exactly something you’d be popping open on the train. Its extruded aluminum frame holds the display, power supply, and audio hardware, with plenty of room to spare for additional hardware should he decide to pack in a couple hard drives or something more exotic.

The skeletal frame has plenty of room for activities.

We particularly like the 3D printed hinge and lock mechanism he designed that holds the keyboard closed against the front of the frame. Sufficiently old experienced readers will recall this particular feature being a defining characteristic of portables such as the Osborne 1 and Compaq Portable, and it’s great to see it included here. All it needs now is a leather handle on the side to complete the look.

[davedarko] still has some work ahead of him, as ultimately he’d like to completely enclose his computer’s frame with laser cut panels. But the build is certainly progressing nicely, and frankly, it’s already at the point where we’d have no problem pulling it out at the next hackerspace meetup. Between builds like this and the growing collection of cyberdecks we’ve covered recently, it looks as though 1980s design aesthetic is alive and well within the hacker community.

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A Python Serial Terminal To Get You Out Of A Jam

When fiddling around with old computers, you can occasionally find yourself in a sticky situation. What may be a simple task with today’s hardware and software can be nearly impossible given the limited resources available to machines with 20 or 30 years on the clock. That’s where [bison] recently found himself when he needed to configure a device over serial, but didn’t have any way of installing the appropriate terminal emulator on his Fujitsu Lifebook C34S.

His solution, since he had Python 2.6 installed on the Debian 6 machine, was to write his own minimal serial terminal emulator. He intended for the code to be as terse as possible so it could be quickly typed in, should anyone else ever find themselves in need of talking to a serial device on Linux but can’t get screen or minicom installed.

The code is very simple, and even if you never find yourself needing to fire up an impromptu terminal, it offers an interesting example of how straightforward serial communications really are. The code opens up the /dev/ttyS0 device for reading, and after appending the appropriate return character, pushes the user’s keyboard input into it. Keep looping around, and you’ve got yourself an interactive terminal.

With this program written, [bison] was able to connect the 266 MHz C34S to his Retro WiFi SI, a modem adapter that bridges the gap between a vintage computer and modern wireless network. Gadgets like these allow you to browse BBSes as the creator intended, and can be fashioned with nothing more exotic than an ESP8266 running some open source code.

Just In Time For Christmas: Apple Macintosh Prototype For Sale

We do love a bit of retrotechnology around our workspace. But we have to admit, we really want to find this prototype Apple Mac under the tree this year. There’s only one problem. There’s only one for sale and only two like it known to exist, for that matter. The auction house thinks it will fetch up to $180,000. We will guess that number is low, but we will find out on December 4th.

The 1983 computer has a pre-production plastic housing and a 5.25 inch “twiggy” drive. Apple provided this machine, apparently, to Encore Systems so they could develop MacWrite ahead of the machine’s release date.

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ATX2AT Makes Retrocomputing Safer, Heads To Kickstarter

It’s easy to take power supplies for granted in modern computing, but powering vintage hardware is not always so simple or worry-free. The power supplies for old electronics are themselves vintage, and the hardware being powered can be quite precious. A power problem can easily cause fried components and burned traces on a board. As [Doc TB] observes, by the time you hear crackling, it’s already far too late.

To address this, [Doc TB] designed the ATX2AT Smart Converter as an open source project and recently decided to make it available through a Kickstarter campaign. ATX2AT is a way to safely and securely replace some vintage power supplies with a standard PC ATX power supply, and adds a large number of protection features such as current monitoring and programmable reaction time for overcurrent protection. All of this can help prevent a retrocomputer enthusiast’s precious vintage hardware from being damaged in the event of a problem. It’s not just for powering known-good hardware; it can be invaluable when testing or repairing hardware that might be in an unknown state.

When we first came across [Doc TB]’s ATX2AT project we recognized it as a well-made device to address a specific niche, and to do it well. Assessing risk takes into account not only the probability of a problem occurring, but also just how bad things would be if it did happen. If your old hardware is precious enough to warrant the extra protection, or you are into repairing or assessing old hardware, then an ATX2AT might be just what you need. You can see it in action in the video embedded below.

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UNIX Version 0, Running On A PDP-7, In 2019

WIth the 50th birthday of the UNIX operating system being in the news of late, there has been a bit of a spotlight shone upon its earliest origins. At the Living Computers museum in Seattle though they’ve gone well beyond a bit of historical inquiry though, because they’ve had UNIX (or should we in this context say unix instead?) version 0 running on a DEC PDP-7 minicomputer. This primordial version on the original hardware is all the more remarkable because unlike its younger siblings very few PDP-7s have survived.

The machine running UNIX version 0 belongs to [Fred Yearian], a former Boeing engineer who bought his machine from the company’s surplus channel at the end of the 1970s. He restored it to working order and it sat in his basement for decades, while the vintage computing world labored under the impression that including the museum’s existing machine only four had survived — of which only one worked. [Fred’s] unexpected appearance with a potentially working fifth machine, therefore, came as something of a surprise.

To load the OS a disk emulator was connected to the machine, and for possibly the first time in many decades a new UNIX version 0 device driver was written to enable it to be used. The first login was the user “dmr”, a homage to UNIX co-creator Dennis M. Ritchie.

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An Atari Graphics Chip, Ready For You To Build

The most notable of the home computer and console hardware from the 8-bit golden era didn’t get their impressive sound and graphics from off-the-shelf silicon, instead they relied on secretive custom chipsets to get the edge over their competitors. Unfortunately for vintage gaming aficionados, those chips are now long out of production and in many cases there’s little information to be had about their operation.

Which makes discovery of the schematics (PDF link) for the “Tia Maria” graphics chip found in the Atari 7800 console an unusual occurrence, and one which should be of special interest to the emulation community. They can be found alongside the rest of the Atari Museum’s 7800 information.

That such a useful document is available at all is due to a lucky find in a dumpster following the demise of Atari, when a treasure trove of documents was discarded. It seems that the existence of these schematics has been known within the Atari community for some time, and we expect before long this information will find its way into FPGA implementations of the 7800; especially since the system features nearly complete backwards compatibility with the massively successful Atari 2600.

When that happens we hope we’ll be able to bring it to you, but it’s not the first time someone’s made an Atari on an FPGA.

Via RetroRGB

Header image: Bilby [CC BY 3.0]

Amstrad Portable Gets A Modern LCD Transplant

Playing classic games on the real hardware is an experience many of us enjoy, but sometimes the hardware is just a bit too retro for modern sensibilities. A case in point is the miserable monochrome LCD that was originally installed in the Amstrad PPC640 portable 8086 PC that [Drygol] recently picked up. He decided that his portable Amstrad sessions would be far more enjoyable if he swapped it out for a display that didn’t have 30+ years on the clock.

To quell the complaints of any of the vintage hardware aficionados out there, it’s worth mentioning that the original LCD was actually damaged and needed to be replaced anyway. Granted [Drygol] could have tried to find a contemporary panel to replace it with, but looking at the incredible before and after shots of the modded PPC640, it’s hard to argue he didn’t make the right decision by throwing a modern display into the otherwise largely original computer.

Getting the new LCD’s PCB ready for installation.

[Drygol] says he picked up a cheap 4:3 LCD TV on eBay, and as luck would have it, found that the new panel dropped perfectly into the original frame. Getting it buttoned back up required the removal of the RF can and all the female connections on the TV’s PCB, plus he had to cut some holes in the back of the display enclosure to mount the LCD’s controls, but overall it looks very stock.

Of course, getting the new LCD display in the original frame was only half the battle, it still needs to be connected up to the computer somehow. To get everyone playing nicely with each other, [Drygol] is using a commercially available MDA/CGA/EGA to VGA converter that is installed where the batteries would have gone originally. Wired to the PPC640’s external monitor connector, it allows him to drive the new display without having to use the original LCD interface.

[Drygol] has made something of a name for himself by performing some of the most impressive restorations and modifications of retro hardware in recent memory. From the unbelievable work that went into repairing a smashed Atari 800XL case to his gorgeous custom Amiga A500, his projects are sure to please the retro hardware lovers in the audience.

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