A Computer In Your Pocket, 1980s Style

These days, having a little computer in your pocket is par for the course. But forty years ago, this was a new and high tech idea. [The 8-Bit Guy] has a great video covering the state of the art in pocket computers and personal digital assistants from the 1980s and 1990s. You can see the video below.

There are a lot of familiar faces on the video including the Radio Shack pocket computers, Palm Pilots, and some more obscure machines of varying quality.

It might impress you to know that the Radio Shack TRS-80 PC-1 pocket computer actually had two CPUs. Of course, each CPU was a 4-bit processor running at 256 kHz, so maybe not as impressive as it sounds. Still, what a marvel in its day, programming BASIC on a 24-character LCD.

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Hackaday Links: January 10, 2021

You know that feeling when your previously niche hobby goes mainstream, and suddenly you’re not interested in it anymore because it was once quirky and weird but now it’s trendy and all the newcomers are going to come in and ruin it? That just happened to retrocomputing. The article is pretty standard New York Times fare, and gives a bit of attention to the usual suspects of retrocomputing, like Amiga, Atari, and the Holy Grail search for an original Apple I. There’s little technically interesting in it, but we figured that we should probably note it since prices for retrocomputing gear are likely to go up soon. Buy ’em while you can.

Remember the video of the dancing Boston Dynamics robots? We actually had intended to cover that in Links last week, but Editor-in-Chief Mike Szczys beat us to the punch, in an article that garnered a host of surprisingly negative comments. Yes, we understand that this was just showboating, and that the robots were just following a set of preprogrammed routines. Some commenters derided that as not dancing, which we find confusing since human dancing is just following preprogrammed routines. Nevertheless, IEEE Spectrum had an interview this week with Boston Dynamics’ VP of Engineering talking about how the robot dance was put together. There’s a fair amount of doublespeak and couched terms, likely to protect BD’s intellectual property, but it’s still an interesting read. The take-home message is that despite some commenters’ assertions, the routines were apparently not just motion-captured from human dancers, but put together from a suite of moves Atlas, Spot, and Handle had already been trained on. That and the fact that BD worked with a human choreographer to work out the routines.

Looks like 2021 is already trying to give 2020 a run for its money, at least in the marketplace of crazy ideas. The story, released in Guitar World of all places, goes that some conspiracy-minded people in Italy started sharing around a schematic of what they purported to be the “5G chip” that’s supposedly included in the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. The reason Guitar World picked it up is that eagle-eyed guitar gear collectors noticed that the schematic was actually that of the Boss MetalZone-2 effects pedal, complete with a section labeled “5G Freq.” That was apparently enough to trigger someone, and to ignore the op-amps, potentiometers, and 1/4″ phone jacks on the rest of the schematic. All of which would certainly smart going into the arm, no doubt, but seriously, if it could make us shred like this, we wouldn’t mind getting shot up with it.

Remember the first time you saw a Kindle with an e-ink display? The thing was amazing — the clarity and fine detail of the characters were unlike anything possible with an LCD or CRT display, and the fact that the display stayed on while the reader was off was a little mind-blowing at the time. Since then, e-ink technology has come considerably down market, commoditized to the point where they can be used for price tags on store shelves. But now it looks like they’re scaling up to desktop display sizes, with the announcement of a 25.3″ desktop e-ink monitor by Dasung. Dubbed the Paperlike 253, the 3200 x 1800 pixel display will be able to show 16 shades of gray with no backlighting. The videos of the monitor in action are pretty low resolution, so it’s hard to say what the refresh rate will be, but given the technology it’s going to be limited. This might be a great option as a second or third monitor for those who can work with the low refresh rate and don’t want an LCD monitor backlight blasting them in the face all day.

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Think Your Laptop Is Anemic? Try An MSDOS One

If someone gifted you a cheap laptop this holiday season, you might be a little put out by the 2GB of RAM and the 400 MHz CPU. However, you might appreciate it more once you look at [Noel’s Retro Lab’s] 4.8 Kg Amstrad PPC512 He shows it off inside and out in the video below.

Unlike a modern laptop, this oldie but goodie has a full keyboard that swings out of the main body. The space below the keyboard contains the LCD screen, which [Noel] is going to have to replace with an LCD from another unit that was in worse shape but had a good-looking screen. In this video, he gets as far as getting video output to an external monitor, but neither LCD shows any sign of life. But he’s planning more videos soon.

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Retrocomputing With Modern Hardware, No Emulation Required

The x86 processor family is for the time being, the most ubiquitous type of processor in the PC world, and has been since the 1980s when the IBM PC came on the scene. Emulating these older devices is easy enough if you want to play an old LucasArts game or experience Windows 3.1 again, but the true experience is found on original hardware. And, thanks to industrial equipment compatibility needs, you can build a brand new 486 machine with new hardware that will run this retro software as though it was new itself.

[The Rasteri] masterminded this build which is reminiscent of the NES classic and other nostalgic console re-releases. It’s based on the PC/104 standard which was introduced in the early 90s, mostly for industrial controls applications. The platform is remarkably small, and the board chosen for this build hosts a 486 processor running at 300 MHz. It has on-board VGA-compatible graphics but no Sound Blaster card, so he designed and built his own ISA-compatible sound card that fits in the PC/104’s available expansion port.

After adding some more tiny peripherals to the build and installing it in a custom case, [The Rasteri] has a working DOS machine on new, bare-metal 486 hardware which can play DOOM as it was originally intended. It can also run early versions of  Windows to play games from the Microsoft Entertainment Pack if you feel like being eaten by a snow monster while skiing. [The Rasteri] is no stranger to intense retro computing like this either, as he was the one who got DOOM to run on original NES hardware.

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The First Real Palmtop

Back before COVID-19, I was walking through the airport towards the gate when suddenly I remembered a document I wanted to read on the flight but had forgotten to bring along. No worry, I paused for a bit on the concourse, reached into my pocket and proceeded to download the document from the Internet. Once comfortably seated on the plane, I relaxed and began reading. Afterwards, I did a little programming in C on a shareware program I was developing.

Today this would be an ordinary if not boring recollection, except for one thing: this happened in the 1990s, and what I pulled out of my pocket was a fully functional MS-DOS computer:

Introducing the HP-200LX, the first real palmtop computer. I used one of these daily up until the mid-2000s, and still have an operational one in my desk drawer. Let’s step back in time and see how this powerful pocket computer began its life. Continue reading “The First Real Palmtop”

Surfing The Web With 7400 Logic

We see more computers built from logic gates than you might expect. However, most of them are really more demonstration computers and can’t do much of what you’d consider essential today. No so with [Alastair Hewitt’s] Novasaur. Although built using 34 TLL chips (and a few memory and analog chips, too, along with one PAL), it boasts some impressive features:

  • Dual Processor CPU/GPU (Harvard Architecture).
  • 33 MHz dot clock, 16.5 MHz data path, 8.25 MHz per processor (~3.5 CPU MIPs)
  • 256k ROM: 96k ALU, 64k native program, 64k cold storage, 32k fonts.
  • 128/512k RAM: 1-7 banks of 64k user, 60k display, 4k system.
  • 76 ALU functions including multiply/divide, system, and math functions.
  • Bitmapped Graphics: Hi-res mode up to 416×240 with 8 colors and 4 dithering patterns. Lo-res mode up to 208×160 with 256 colors, double-buffered.
  • Text Mode: 8 colors FG/BG, 256 line buffer, up to 104×60 using 8×8 glyphs, 80×36, and 64×48 rows using  8×16 glyphs.
  • Audio: 4 voice wavetable synthesis, ADSR, 8-bit DAC, 8Hz-4.8kHz.
  • PS2 Keyboard: Native interface built-in.
  • RS232 Serial Port: Full duplex, RTS/CTS flow control, 9600 baud.
  • Expansion Port: 7 addressable 8-bit register ports, 4 interrupt flags

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PET 2001 Emulator On $2 Of Hardware

Since the late 60s, Moore’s law has predicted with precision that the number of semiconductors that will fit on a chip about doubles every two years. While this means more and more powerful computers, every year, it also means that old computers can be built on smaller and cheaper hardware. This project from [Bjoern] shows just how small, too, as he squeezes a PET 2001 onto the STM32 Blue Pill.

While the PET 2001 was an interesting computer built by Commodore this project wasn’t meant to be a faithful recreation, but rather to test the video output of the Blue Pill, with the PET emulation a secondary goal. It outputs a composite video signal which takes up a good bit of processing power, but the PET emulation still works, although it is slightly slow and isn’t optimized perfectly. [Bjoern] also wired up a working keyboard matrix as well although missed a few wire placements and made up for it in the software.

With his own home-brew software running on the $2 board, he has something interesting to display over his composite video output. While we can’t say we’d emulate an entire PC just to get experience with composite video, we’re happy to see someone did. If you’d like to see a more faithful recreation of this quirky piece of computing history, we’ve got that covered as well.

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