The 8-Bit Guy Builds A 16-Bit Computer

One of the better retro historians out there on YouTube is the 8-Bit Guy, and after years of wanting to do something like this, it’s finally happening. The 8-Bit Guy is building his dream computer, heavily inspired by the Commodore 64.

Before we go into what this computer will do and what capabilities it will have, it’s important to note the 8-Bit Guy is actually doing a bit of market and user research before dedicating a year or more to this project. He’s asked other famous retrocomputing YouTubers for their input on what their ‘dream’ retrocomputer should do, and they’ve come up with a basic list of requirements. The Dream Computer will be like working on a 1957 Chevy, in that all the registers are immediately available for peeking and poking. The computer will be completely comprehensible, in so far that one person can completely understand everything, from the individual logic gates inside the CPU to the architecture of the kernel. It’ll run BASIC.

In the age of the Raspberry Pi, one might ask, ‘why not go with a Raspberry Pi?’. To the 8-Bit Guy, the Pi is just a Linux computer. Other retrocomputing projects of a similar scope to this dream computer also fail: The Mega65, a project to resurrect the Commodore 65, will be too expensive. The BASIC Engine fails because it only does composite out, and it runs on an ESP anyway, so you’re shielded from the real hardware. The same problem exists with the Maximite in that the hardware is one layer of abstraction away from the interface. The C256 Foenix is probably the closest to meeting the design goals, but it’s far too expensive, and even without the MIDI ports, SID chips, and other interesting hardware, it would still be above the desired price point.

The ‘requirement’ for this dream computer is to use only modern parts, have VGA or HDMI video out, a real CPU, preferably a 6502, use no FPGA or microcontrollers, and can run Commodore Basic. Also, this computer would cost about $50, with $100 as the absolute, maximum limit (implying a BOM cost of around $15-$25). This is absolutely, completely, astonishingly impossible. I would be deceiving you if I did not mention the impossibility of this project happening with the stated goals. This project will not meet the goal of selling for less than one hundred dollars.

That said, there’s no harm in trying, so The 8-Bit Guy is currently working with a few dev boards, specifically one designed around the 65816 CPU. The 65816 is an interesting chip, in that it is a 6502 until you flip a bit in a register. It has a larger address space than the 6502, and everything from the World of Commodore should be (relatively) easily ported to the 65816. Why was this CPU never used in Commodore hardware? Because a Western Design Center sales guy told a Commodore engineer that Apple was using it in their next computer (the Apple IIgs). The option of Commodore ever using the ‘816 died then and there.

If you’d like to help out on this computer, there is a Facebook group for organizing the build. This Facebook group is a closed group, meaning you need a Facebook account to login. Unfortunate, but we’re looking forward to a year of updates around this dream computer. Building a computer that meets the specs is impossible, but we’re more than eager to see the community try.

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Hackaday Links: February 17, 2019

There is a population of retrocomputing enthusiasts out there, whose basements, garages, and attics have been taken over by machines of years past. Most of the time, these people concentrate on one make; you’re an Apple guy, or you’re a Commodore guy, or you’re a Ford guy, or you’re a Chevy guy. The weirdos drive around with an MSX in the trunk of an RX7. This is the auction for nobody. NASA’s JPL Lab is getting rid of several tons of computer equipment, all from various manufacturers, and not very ‘vintage’ at all. Check out the list. There are CRT monitors from 2003, which means they’re great monitors that weigh as much as a person. There’s a lot of Sun equipment. If you’ve ever felt like cleaning up a whole bunch of trash for JPL, this is your chance. Grab me one of those sweet CRTs, though.

Last week, we published something on the ‘impossible’ tech behind SpaceX’s new engine. It was reasonably popular — actually significantly popular — and got picked up on Hacker News and one of the Elon-worshiping subreddits. Open that link in one tab. Now, open this link in another. Read along as a computer voice reads Hackaday words, all while soaking up YouTube ad revenue. What is our recourse? Does this constitute copyright infringement? I dunno; we don’t monetize videos on YouTube. Thanks to [MSeifert] for finding this.

Wanna see something funny? Check out the people in the comments below who are angry at a random YouTuber stealing Hackaday content, while they have an ad blocker on.

Teenage Engineering’s OP-1 is back in production. What is it and why does it matter? The OP-1 is a new class of synthesizer and sampler that kinda, sorta looks like an 80s Casio keyboard, but packed to the gills with audio capability. At one point, you could pick one of these up for $800. Now, prices are at about $1300, simply because production stopped for a while (for retooling, we’re guessing) and the rumor mill started spinning. The OP-1 is now back in production with a price tag of $1300. Wait. What? Yes, it’s another case study in marketing: the best way to find where the supply and demand curves cross is to stop production for a while, wait for the used resellers to do their thing, and then start production again with a new price tag that people are willing to pay. This is Galaxy Brain-level business management, people.

What made nerds angry this week? Before we get to that, we’re gonna have to back track a bit. In 2016, Motherboard published a piece that said PC Gaming Is Still Way Too Hard, because you have to build a PC. Those of us in the know realize that building a PC is as simple as buying parts and snapping them together like an expensive Lego set. It’s no big deal. A tech blog, named Motherboard, said building a PC was too hard. It isn’t even a crack at the author of the piece at this point: this is editorial decay.

And here we are today. This week, the Internet reacted to a video from The Verge on how to build a PC. The original video has been taken down, but the reaction videos are still up: here’s a good one, and here’s another. Now, there’s a lot wrong with the Verge video. They suggest using a Swiss army knife for the assembly, hopefully one with a Philips head screwdriver. Philips head screwdrivers still exist, by the way. Dual channel RAM was completely ignored, and way too much thermal compound was applied to the CPU. The cable management was a complete joke. Basically, a dozen people at The Verge don’t know how to build a PC. Are the criticisms of incompetence fair? Is this like saying [Doug DeMuro]’s car reviews are invalid because he can’t build a transmission or engine, from scratch, starting from a block of steel? Ehhh… we’re pretty sure [Doug] can change his own oil, at least. And he knows to use a screwdriver, instead of a Swiss army knife with a Philips head. In any event, here’s how you build a PC.

Hackaday writers to be replaced with AI. Thank you [Tegwyn] for the headline. OpenAI, a Musk and Theil-backed startup, is pitching a machine learning application that is aimed at replacing journalists. There’s a lot to unpack here, but first off: this already exists. There are companies that sell articles to outlets, and these articles are produced by ‘AI’. These articles are mostly in the sports pages. Sports recaps are a great application for ML and natural language processing; the raw data (the sports scores) are already classified, and you’re not looking for Pulitzer material in the sports pages anyway. China has AI news anchors, but Japan has Miku and artificial pop stars. Is this the beginning of the end of journalism as a profession, with all the work being taken over by machine learning algorithms? By vocation, I’m obligated to say no, but I have a different take on it. Humans can write better than AI, and the good ones are nearly as fast. Whether or not the readers care if a story is accurate or well-written is another story entirely. It will be market forces that determine if AI journalists take over, and if you haven’t been paying attention, no one cares if a news story is accurate or well written, only if it caters to their preexisting biases and tickles their confirmation bias.

Of course, you, dear reader, are too smart to be duped by such a simplistic view of media engagement. You’re better than that. You’re better than most people, in fact. You’re smart enough to see that most media is just placating your own ego and capitalizing on confirmation bias. That’s why you, dear reader, are the best audience. Please like, share, and subscribe for more of the best journalism on the planet.

The TRS80 Model 100 Gets A Brain Transplant

We’ll forgive you if you were busy in the ’80s, and missed the TRS80 Model 100. It was a portable version of the original, ran on four AA batteries, and even had an integrated acoustic coupler which proved handy for workers on the go. However, time is rarely kind, and [Trammell] had come across a non-functional example for just $20. It was time to bring this relic screaming into the modern age.

The motherboard was toast, so [Trammell] decided to wire up a Teensy++ directly to the Hitachi HD44102 display driver chips. Being an older LCD, the display needed a negative bias voltage, so a few diodes, capacitors and a PWM line stepped in to create a charge pump. There was no character generator on board, so the heavy lifting is all handled by the Teensy itself. The keyboard was a simple enough matrix design, so that was wired straight up.

[Trammell]’s work with this iteration got as far as acting as a USB serial terminal, and there was some work done on VT100 emulation. However, according to Twitter, the next stage involves an iCE40 FPGA and some music with which we’re altogether too familiar.

[Trammell] owns a working Model 100, too – employed in some modem experiments, no less.

Resurrecting An Amiga 500+

Recently, I was lucky enough to receive a big haul of retro computer gear from a friend who was emptying out his garage. Even better, the haul was almost entirely old Amiga gear — my favorite computing platform of all time. Upon returning home, I gleefully sorted through the boxes, powering things up one by one. Amazingly, everything worked… except for one lonely Amiga 500+. I was greeted by a dull grey screen. This wouldn’t do, so naturally, I got to work.

It seemed like a shame to be opening the machine, as after almost 30 years of life, this one still had its warranty seal intact. Regardless, nothing ventured, nothing gained – the Torx bits were at hand and the screws were coming out.

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The Xerox Star On A Desktop Near You

It is 1980-something and you see someone typing on a keyboard. The display is graphical, and they use a mouse to finish a document, send it over the network to another similar computer, where another user edits it a bit and prints it on a laser printer. Given the time-frame you might think the computer is a Mac, but you’d be wrong. The Xerox Star had all the features Apple “invented” about three years before the Macintosh arrived. If you never heard of the Star, that’s not surprising. At $16,500 each, there were only about 25,000 sold. Your chances of finding a working one now are slim, but thanks to emulation created by [Josh Dersch] you can try the Star out on your hardware today. If you want a preview, have a look at the 1982 video, below.

The machine had a surprisingly complex architecture. The main CPU was a microcoded computer with multiple registers that would run a sort of microcode program to execute different instruction sets depending on what was running. In addition, there was an intel 8085 that loaded the right microcode and serviced the keyboard, the mouse, the floppy, and the serial ports.

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The Greatest Computer Ever Now Gets A New, Injection Molded Clear Case

The Macintosh SE/30 is the greatest computer ever made. It was a powerhouse when it was launched almost exactly thirty years ago today. You could stuff 128 Megabytes of RAM into it, an absolutely ludicrous amount of RAM for 1989. You could put Ethernet in it. You could turn the 1-bit black or white internal display into an 8-bit grayscale display. I think there was a Lisp card for it. These were just the contemporaneous hacks for the SE/30. Now, people are actively developing for this machine and putting Spotify on it. There’s a toolbar extension for Macs of this era that will let you connect to a WiFi network. You’ll be hard pressed to find a computer that still has a fanbase this big thirty years after release.

Now, there’s a project to create new injection molded cases for the Mac SE/30 (and the plain ‘ol SE). These cases will be clear, just like Apple prototypes of the era. It’s also one of the most difficult injection molding projects retrocomputer enthusiasts have ever taken up.

Over the years, we’ve seen some interesting projects in the way of creating new plastic cases for old computers. The most famous is perhaps the remanufacturing of Commodore 64C cases. Instead of a purely community-driven project, this was an accident of history. The story goes that one guy, [Dallas Moore], went to an auction at an injection molding factory. The owner mentioned something about an old computer, and wheels started turning in someone’s head. A Kickstarter later, and everyone who wanted a new C64 case got one. You could get one in translucent plastic to go with the retro aesthetic.

New cases for the Amiga A1200 have also been made thanks to one fan’s Solidworks skills and a Kickstarter campaign. There is, apparently, a market for remanufactured cases for retrocomputers, and it’s just barely large enough to support making new injection molding tooling.

So, about that SE/30. The folks on the 68k Macintosh Liberation Army forums are discussing the possibility of making a new case for the greatest computer Apple will ever make. The hero of this story is [maceffects] who has already modeled the back ‘bucket’ of the SE/30 and printed one out on a filament printer (check out the videos below). This was then printed in clear SLA, and the next step is crowdfunding.

While this isn’t a complete case — a front bezel would be needed to complete the case — it is an amazing example of what the retrocomputing community can do. The total cost to bring this project to fruition would be about $15,000 USD, which is well within what a crowdfunding campaign could take in. Secondary runs could include a translucent Bondi Blue polycarbonate enclosure, but that’s pure speculation from someone who knows what would be the coolest project ever.

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Is That A Vintage Computer In Your Pocket?

There’s a lot of debate over which of several contenders was the first modern computer. One of those first operating computers was the University of Cambridge’s EDSAC — the brainchild of Dr. Maurice Wilkes. The EDSAC scored a lot of firsts and used a serial data path along with mercury delay line memories. Over on Hackaday.io, [David Boucher] wanted to simulate the EDSAC in a much smaller form factor than the original room full of racks.

As you can see in the video below, he succeeded in that task, using a Teensy and a small LCD display. We’re reminded EDSAC was among the first machines so some of the terms we would employ were not in use yet. An order is an instruction, for example. Initial orders are akin to a bootloader. Continue reading “Is That A Vintage Computer In Your Pocket?”