Hackaday Prize China Finalists Announced

In the time since the Hackaday Prize was first run it has nurtured an astonishing array of projects from around the world, and brought to the fore some truly exceptional winners that have demonstrated world-changing possibilities. This year it has been extended to a new frontier with the launch of the Hackaday Prize China (Chinese language, here’s a Google Translate link), allowing engineers, makers, and inventors from that country to join the fun. We’re pleased to announce the finalists, from which a winner will be announced in Shenzhen, China on November 23rd. If you’re in Shenzen area, you’re invited to attend the award ceremony!

All six of these final project entries have been translated into English to help share information about projects across the language barrier. On the left sidebar of each project page you can find a link back to the original Chinese language project entry. Each presents a fascinating look into what people in our global community can produce when they live at the source of the component supply chain. Among them are a healthy cross-section of projects which we’ll visit in no particular order. Let’s dig in and see what these are all about!

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Review: The RC2014 Micro Single-Board Z80 Retrocomputer

At the end of August I made the trip to Hebden Bridge to give a talk at OSHCamp 2019, a weekend of interesting stuff in the Yorkshire Dales. Instead of a badge, this event gives each attendee an electronic kit provided by a sponsor, and this year’s one was particularly interesting. The RC2014 Micro is the latest iteration of the RC2014 Z80-based retrocomputer, and it’s a single-board computer that strips the RC2014 down to a bare minimum. Time to spend an evening in the hackerspace assembling it, to take a look!

It’s An SBC, But Not As You Know It!

The kit contents
The kit contents

The kit arrives in a very compact heat-sealed anti-static packet, and upon opening was revealed to contain the PCB, a piece of foam carrying the integrated circuits, a few passives, and a very simple getting started and assembly guide. The simplicity of the design becomes obvious from the chip count, there’s the Z80 itself, a 6850 UART, 27C512 ROM, 62256 RAM, 74HCT04 for clock generation, and a 74HCT32 for address decoding. The quick-start is adequate, but there is also a set of more comprehensive online instructions (PDF) available.

I added chip sockets and jumpers to my kit.
I added chip sockets and jumpers to my kit.

Assembly of a through-hole kit is hardly challenging, though this one is about as densely-packed as it’s possible to make a through-hole kit with DIP integrated circuits. As with most through-hole projects, the order you pick is everything: resistors first, then capacitors, reset button and crystal, followed by integrated circuits.

I’m always a bit shy about soldering ICs directly to a circuit board so I supplemented my kit with sockets and jumpers. The jumpers are used to select an FTDI power source and ROM addresses for Grant Searle’s ROM BASIC distribution or Steve Cousins’ SCM 1.0 machine code monitor, and the kit instructions recommended hard-wiring them with cut-off resistor wires. There was no row of pins for the expansion bus because this kit was supplied without the backplane that’s a feature of the larger RC2014 kits, but it did have a set of right-angle pins for an FTDI serial cable.

Your Arduino Doesn’t Have A Development Environment On Board!

Having assembled my RC2014 Mini and given it a visual inspection it was time to power it up and see whether it worked. Installing the jumper for FTDI power, I attached my serial cable and plugged it into a USB port.

A really nice touch is that the Micro has the colours for the serial cable wires on the reverse side of the PCB, taking away the worry of getting it the wrong way round. A quick screen /dev/ttyUSB0 115200 to get a serial terminal from a bash prompt, hit the reset button, and I was rewarded with a BASIC interpreter. My RC2014 Micro worked first time, and I could straight away give it BASIC commands such as PRINT "Hello World!" and be rewarded with the expected output.

The SCM ROM monitor.
The SCM ROM monitor.

So I’ve built a little Z80 single board computer, and with considerably less work than that required for the fully modular version of the RC2014. Its creator Spencer tells me that the Micro was originally designed as a bargain-basement RC2014 as a multibuy for workshops and similar activities, being very similar to his RC2014 mini board but without provision for a Pi Zero terminal and a few other components. It lacks the extra hardware required for a more comprehensive operating system such as CP/M, so I’m left with about as minimal an 8-bit computer as it’s possible to build using parts available in 2019. My question then is this: What can I do with it?

So. What Can I Do With An 8-bit SBC?

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81, how could it possibly compare this small kit that was a giveaway at a conference? Although the Sinclair included a black-and-white TV display interface, tape backup interface, and keyboard, the core computing power was not too far different in its abilities from this RC2014 Micro — after all, it’s the same processor chip. It was the platform that introduced a much younger me to computing, and straight away I devoured Sinclair BASIC and then went on to write machine code on it. It became a general-purpose calculation and computing scratchpad for repetitive homework due to the ease of BASIC programming, and with my Maplin 8255 I/O port card I was able to use it in the way a modern tech-aware kid might use an Arduino.

The RC2014 Micro is well placed to fill all of those  functions as a BASIC and machine code learning platform on which to get down to the hardware in a way you simply can’t on most modern computers, and though the Arduino represents a far more sensible choice for hardware interfacing there is also an RC2014 backplane and I/O board available for the Micro’s expansion bus should you wish to have a go. Will I use it for these things? It’s certainly much more convenient than its full-sized sibling, so it’s quite likely I’ll be getting my hands dirty with a little bit of Z80 code. It’s astounding how much you can forget in 35 years!

The RC2014 Micro can be bought from Spencer’s Tindie store, with substantial bulk discounts for those workshop customers. If you want the full retrocomputer experience it’s a good choice as it provides about as simple a way into Z80 hardware and software as possible. The cost of simplicity comes in having no non-volatile storage and in lacking the hardware to run CP/M, but it has to be borne in mind that it’s the bottom of the RC2014 range. For comparison you can read our review of the original RC2014, over which we’d say the chief advantage of the Micro is its relative ease of construction.

Magnets Make This Panda Move

A single board computer on a desk is fine for quick demos but for taking it into the wild (or even the rest of the house) you’re going to want a little more safety from debris, ESD, and drops. As SBCs get more useful this becomes an increasingly relevant problem to solve, plus a slick enclosure can be the difference between a nice benchtop hack and something that looks ready to sell as a product. [Chris] (as ProjectSBC) has been working on a series of adaptable cases called the MagClick Case System for the LattePanda Alpha SBC which are definitely worth a look.

The LattePanda Alpha isn’t a run-of-the-mill SBC; it’s essentially the mainboard from a low power ultrabook and contains up to an Intel Core M series processor, 8GB RAM, and 64GB of eMMC. Not to mention an onboard Atmega32u4, WiFi, Gigabit Ethernet, and more. It has more than enough horsepower to be used as an everyday desktop computer or even a light gaming system if you break PCIe out of one the m.2 card slots. But [Chris] realized that such adaptability was becoming a pain as he had to move it from case-to-case as his use needs changed. Thus the MagClick Case System was born.

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Four Chips To Retro Perfection

Over the years, we’ve seen many people build a computer from the ground up. It’s always great, but this one takes the cake. I’m not just saying that because there’s a cute little ‘Z80 Inside’ logo on the silk screen, either. It’s a four IC Z80 computer, a tiny board, and [Just4Fun]’s entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize.

This single board computer is only four chips, the most important being the CMOS Z80 CPU. This is the same CPU as was found in the TRS-80 and the ZX Spectrum, both classics from the early days of computing. In addition to the PCU, there’s a Toshiba SRAM with 128 whole kilobytes of random access memories. A 74HC00 is thrown into the mix for glue logic, and everything else happens through a specially-programmed ATMega32A. This last chip provides a universal I/O subsystem, the EEPROM, and the 4/8MHz clock for the CPU.

Those four chips are really all you need for a fully functional computer, but you can do so much more with this little board. There’s a uCom board, or basically a ‘transparent’ USB-to-serial emulator that will allow you to upload a hex file to the board. Of course this means you can also connect it to a terminal, and with FuzixOS, there’s Unix for the Z80. It’s a wonderment of retrocomputing, and one of the best ways to build an old computer today.

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This Atomic Pi Eats Other Pis For Lunch

The world is full of single board computers that want a slice of the Raspberry Pi action. Most of them are terrible. But fools and their money, yadda yadda, and there’s a new sucker born every minute. The latest contender to the Raspberry Pi is the Atomic Pi. It’s an x86-based single board computer that costs $35, shipped to your door. Is it worth it? Is it even in the same market as a Raspberry Pi? Or is it just a small budget computer without a box? I have no idea.

With that said, the Atomic Pi comes with an Intel Atom x5-Z8350 with Intel HD Graphics (Cherry Trail). There is 2 GB of DDR3L-16000, 16 GB of eMMC, and an SD slot for storage. Connectivity is a full HDMI port (primary audio out), USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, a Mediatec RT5572 used for WiFi, a Qualcomm CSR8510 for Bluetooth 4.0, a “Legitimate licensed BIOS”, and a real-time clock. Overall, you’re looking at a top-of-the-line tablet computer from four years ago. One that would run Windows.

To use all the features of the Atomic Pi, you will need to buy a $15 breakout board to supply power to the board, and use a large industrial power supply, the kind you would normally find bolted to a RepRap or a homemade CNC machine. You will need to supply both 5 V and 12 V to the board if you would like to use the Class D audio amplifier, but if you only want to use audio over HDMI, supplying only 5 V will do. If you want to boot this board, it looks like you’ll need to bring a USB/TTL cable to make everything work. This may be a tough sell to a crowd with zero experience booting a bare Linux system. That said, it runs Nintendo 64 emulators well, which is the only reason people buy Raspberry Pis anyway.

Is the Atomic Pi the single board computer you need? I don’t know. But we’ve got an Atomic Pi on order, and we’re ready to go with a full review when it show up.

Build Your Own Linux Single Board Computer

We are fortunate enough to have a huge choice of single-board computers before us, not just those with a bare-metal microcontroller, but also those capable of running fully-fledged general purpose operating systems such as GNU/Linux. The Raspberry Pi is probably the best known of this latter crop of boards, and it has spawned a host of competitors with similarly fruity names. With an entire cornucopia to choose from, it takes a bit more than evoking a berry to catch our attention. The form factors are becoming established and the usual SoCs are pretty well covered already, show us something we haven’t seen before!

[Marcel Thürmer] may have managed that feat, with his Blueberry Pi. On the face of it this is just Yet Another SBC With A Fruity Pi Name, but what caught our attention is that unlike all the others, this is one you can build yourself if you want. It’s entirely open-source, but it differs from other boards that release their files to the world in that it manages to keep construction within the realm of what is possible on the bench rather than the pick-and-place. He’s done this by choosing an Alwinner V3, an SoC originally produced for the action camera market that is available in a readily-solderable TQFP package. It’s a choice that has allowed him to pull off another constructor-friendly feat: the board is only two layers, so it won’t break the bank to have it made.

It’s fair to say that the Allwinner V3 (PDF) isn’t the most powerful of Linux-capable SoCs, but it has the advantage of built-in RAM to avoid more tricky soldering. With only 64Mb of memory, it’s never going to be a powerhouse, but it does pack onboard Ethernet, serial and parallel camera interfaces, and audio as well as the usual interfaces you’d expect. There is no video support on the Blueberry Pi, but the chip has LVDS for an LCD panel, so it’s not impossible to imagine something could be put together. Meanwhile, all you need to know about the board can be found on its GitHub repository. There is no handy OS image to download, u-boot instructions are provided to build your own. We suspect if you’re the kind of person who is building a Blueberry Pi though this may not present a problem to you.

We hope the Blueberry Pi receives more interest, develops a wider community, and becomes a board with a solid footing. We like its achievement of being both a powerful platform and one that is within reach of the home constructor, and we look forward to it being the subject of more attention.

The $4 Z80 Single-Board Computer, Evolved.

We feature hundreds of projects here at Hackaday, and once they have passed by our front page and disappeared into our archives we often have no opportunity to return to them and see how they developed. Sometimes of course they are one-off builds, other times they wither as their creator loses interest, but just occasionally they develop and evolve into something rather interesting.

One that is taking that final trajectory is [Just4Fun]’s Z80-MBC, a single board computer with only 4 ICs, using an Atmel microcontroller to simulate the Z80 support chips. It has appeared as a revised version, on a smart new PCB rather than its original breadboard, and with built-in SD card and RTC support through readily available breakout boards, and banked RAM for CP/M support. You may remember the original from last year, when it was also a Hackaday Prize entry and stage finalist. From a Hackaday perspective this is particularly interesting, because it shows how the Prize can help a project evolve.

The Atmega32A uses the Arduino bootloader with programming through the ICSP port, and full instructions are given in the hackaday.io project page alongside all the files required to build your own board. There is no mention of whether boards can be bought, but we’d say this could be a commercial-quality product if they chose to take it in that direction.