New Part Day: Hackboard 2, An X86 Single-Board Computer

From the old Gumstix boards to everyone’s favorite Raspberry Pi, common single-board computers (SBCs) have traditionally had at least one thing in common: an ARM processor. But that’s not to say hackers and makers haven’t been interested in an SBC with a proper x86 processor. Which is why the $99 Hackboard 2 is so exciting. With a modern x86 chip at the core it’s akin to a small footprint desktop motherboard, but with all the extra features that we’ve come to expect in a hacker-friendly SBC.

So what’s the big deal? In a word, compatibility. The fact that these diminutive computing devices shied away from the x86 architecture that most of us have been using on our desktops and laptops since the 1980s originally introduced software compatibility issues, but this was largely outweighed by the advantages of ARM. The latest NVIDIA Jetson is running on an ARM chip for the same reason the smartphone in your pocket is: they’re smaller, cheaper, and more energy efficient than x86.

However they’re rarely more powerful. Even the latest and greatest Raspberry Pi 4, often touted as a viable desktop replacement thanks to its quad core Cortex-A72, will get absolutely trounced by the pokiest of Intel’s Celeron CPUs. The performance gap is just too great. While the Pi can admirably handle most of the tasks the hacker community asks of it, there will always be a call for a board that puts raw processing power before anything else.

Sucking down nearly 40 watts at full tilt, the Hackboard 2 isn’t the SBC you’d want to use for a solar powered weather station. But if you’re putting together a set top box to play back video and run the occasional emulator, its Celeron N4020 processor and Intel UHD 600 GPU represent the most powerful combination available for a device of this size.

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New BBC Micro:bit Adds Microphone And Speaker

There’s an old tale that TV companies only need to make a few years of kids’ TV shows, because their audience constantly grows out of their offerings and is replaced by a new set with no prior knowledge of the old shows. Whether it’s true or not is up for debate, but does the same apply to single board computers aimed at kids? The original BBC micro:bit was first announced back in 2015 and must be interesting its second generation of kids by now, but that hasn’t stopped them bringing out a second version of the little educational computer. How do you update such a simple device? Time to take a look.

Edge connector shown on the original micro:bit design

The form factor of the new board is substantially the same as its predecessor, with the same edge connector and large connection pads, and the familiar LED matrix display. The most obvious additions are a small speaker and MEMS microphone allowing kids to interact with audio in their code, but less obvious is a new touch button in the micro:bit logo. The original had it in the silk screen layer, while the new one has it as copper for a capacitive sensor.

The silicon has an upgrade too, now sporting a Nordic Semiconductor nRF52833 running at 64 MHz and sporting 512k of ROM and 128k of RAM with built-in Bluetooth Low Energy. Binaries are incompatible with the original, however all the development environments can recompile code for a new universal binary format capable of running the appropriate software for either version.

The micro:bit has been more of a hit in schools than it has in our community, perhaps because it has the misfortune to have arrived alongside so many strong competitors. However it remains a powerful contender whose easy programming alongside the power of more traditional toolchains make it a good choice for kids and grown-ups alike.  We took a look at the original back in 2016, if you are interested.

Odyssey Is A X86 Computer Packing An Arduino Along For The Trip

We love the simplicity of Arduino for focused tasks, we love how Raspberry Pi GPIO pins open a doorway to a wide world of peripherals, and we love the software ecosystem of Intel’s x86 instruction set. It’s great that some products manage to combine all of them together into a single compact package, and we welcome the recent addition of Seeed Studio’s Odyssey X86J4105.

[Ars Technica] recently looked one over and found it impressive from the perspective of a small networked computer, but they didn’t dig too deeply into the maker-friendly side of the product. We can look at the product documentation to see some interesting details. This board is larger than a Raspberry Pi, but its GPIO pins were laid out in exactly the same order as that on a Pi. Some HATs could plug right in, eliminating all the electrical integration leaving just the software issue of ARM vs x86. Tasks that are not suitable for CPU-controlled GPIO (such as generating reliable PWM) can be offloaded to an on-board Arduino-compatible microcontroller. It is built around the SAMD21 chip, similar to the Arduino MKR and Arduino Zero but the pinout does not appear to match any of the popular Arduino form factors.

The Odyssey is not the first x86 single board computer (SBC) to have GPIO pins and an onboard Arduino assistant. LattePanda for example has been executing that game plan (minus the Raspberry Pi pin layout) for the past few years. We’ve followed them since their Kickstarter origins and we’ve featured creative uses here and there. LattePanda’s current offerings are built around Intel CPUs ranging from Atom to Core m3. The Odyssey’s Celeron is roughly in the middle of that range, and the SAMD21 is more capable than the ATmega32U4 (Arduino Leonardo) on board a LattePanda. We always love seeing more options in a market for us to find the right tradeoff to match a given project, and we look forward to the epic journeys yet to come.

An 8085 Retrocomputer From The Heart

The world of 8-bit retrocomputing splits easily into tribes classified by their choice of processor. There are 6809 enthusiasts, 6502 diehards, and Z80 lovers, each sharing a bond to their particular platform that often threads back through time to whatever was the first microcomputer they worked with. Here it’s the Z80 as found in the Sinclair ZX81, but for you it might be the 6502 from an Apple ][. For [Craig Andrews] it’s the 8085, and after many years away from the processor he’s finally been able to return to it and recreate his first ever design using it. The SBC-85 is not wire-wrapped as the original was, instead he’s well on the way to creating an entire ecosystem based around an edge-connector backplane.

The CPU board is an entire computer in its own right as can be seen in the video below the break, and pairs the 8085 with 8k of RAM, a couple of 2732 4k EPROMs, and an 8155 interface chip. This last component is especially versatile, providing an address latch, timer, I/O ports, and even an extra 256 bytes of RAM. Finally there is some glue logic and a MAX232 level shifter for a serial port, with no UART needed since the 8085 has one built-in. The minimal computer capable with this board can thus be slimmed down significantly, something that competing processors of the mid 1970s often struggled with.

Craig’s web site is shaping up to be a fascinating resource for 8085 enthusiasts, and so far the system sports that backplane and a bus monitor card. We don’t see much of the 8085 here at Hackaday, perhaps because it wasn’t the driver for any of the popular 8-bit home computers. But it’s an architecture that many readers will find familiar due to its 8080 heritage, and could certainly be found in many control applications before the widespread adoption of dedicated microcontrollers. It would be interesting to see where Craig takes this next, with more cards, and perhaps making a rival to the RC2014 over in Z80 country.

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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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Reverse Engineering An Ancient SBC With An Apple ][

We spend a lot of time in our community discussing the many home computers from the 8-bit era, while almost completely ignoring their industrial equivalents. While today a designer of a machine is more likely than not to reach for a microcontroller, four decades ago they would have used a single-board computer which might have shared a lot of silicon with the one you used to play Pac Man.

[Epooch] recently came into possession of a CMS 9619A Advanced Single Board Microcomputer, a rather unique Programmable Logic Controller intended for industrial applications. It’s powered by a Motorola 6809 CPU and features the usual array of peripheral chips. To unlock its secrets he reached not for an array of tools from 2019 but for a venerable Apple ][e microcomputer.

In this type of 8-bit machine the various peripherals are enabled through address decoding logic that toggles their chip select line when a particular I/O address is called. Sometimes this task is performed by a set of 74 or similar logic chips, but in the case of the CMS 9619A it falls upon a Programmable Array Logic (PAL). These chips, which could be thought of as a simple precursor to today’s FPGAs, were ideal for creating custom decoding logic.

As you might expect though, a PAL is an opaque device, so to deduce the address map it was necessary to reverse engineer it using the Apple ][‘s printer card and a bit of BASIC code. It then remained to do some ROM disassembly work and wire up the serial ports, before some ROM patching with the Apple ][ as an EPROM programmer to finally access the machine’s debugger.

The 6809 is famous as the brains of Radio Shack’s CoCo and the Dragon computers, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen it in an SBC.

Single Board Computer Plays Nice With NVIDIA GPU

It’s about convenience when it comes to single board computers. The trade-off of raw compute power for size means the bulk of them end up being ARM based, but there are a few exceptions like the x86 based Udoo Ultra. The embedded Intel 405 GPU on the Udoo Ultra is better than most in the category, but that won’t begin to play much of anything outside of a browser window. Not satisfied with “standard” [Matteo] put together his build combining an Udoo x86 Ultra with a NVIDIA 1060 GPU. It seems ridiculous to have an expansion card almost three times longer than the entire computer its attached to, but since when did being ridiculous stop anyone in the pursuit of a few more polygons?

M.2 adapter board trim comparison
M.2 to PCIe adapter board (Top) Trimmed adapter board (Bottom)

Since the Udoo Ultra doesn’t feature a PCIe slot [Matteo] slotted in a M.2 to PCIe adapter board. There are two PCIe lines accessible by the Udoo Ultra’s M.2 port although trimming the adapter board was required in order to fit. The PCIe female slot was cut open to allow the 1060 GPU to slide in. All of the throughput of the 1060 GPU wouldn’t be utilized given the Udoo Ultra’s limitations anyway.

Windows 10 was the OS chosen for the machine so that all those NVIDIA drivers could be installed, and there’s also the added benefit of being able to sneak in a little Trackmania Turbo too. So to accompany the build, [Matteo] created a graphics comparison video to show the remarkable improvement over the embedded graphics chip. You can see the Time Spy benchmark results in the video below.

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