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.
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.
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?
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.
Now in its fourth iteration, it has a 32K EEPROM, 32K of memory, one serial and three parallel ports. In the ROM he’s put Tiny BASIC and Dave Dunfield’s MON85 Serial Monitor with Roman Borik’s improvements. His early demos include the obligatory blinking LED, playing 8-bit music to a speaker, and also a 7-segment LED display with a hexadecimal keyboard. There is also a system connector which allows you to connect a keyboard, a display, and other peripherals. Of course, you can connect serially at up to 115200 baud, making it very easy to compile some assembly on a PC and use the monitor to paste the hex into the board’s memory and run it. Or you can just jump into the Tiny BASIC interpreter and have some nostalgic fun. He demos all this in the video below.
He’s given enough detail for you to make your own and he also has the boards available in kit form on Tindie for a very reasonable price. With some minimal soldering skills, you can be back in the ’80s in no time.
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.
When you think about vintage computers from the 1970s, the first thing that should spring to mind are front panels loaded up with switches, LEDs, and if you’re really lucky, a lock with a key. Across all families of CPUs from the ’70s, you’ll find front panel setups for Z80s and 8080s, but strangely not the 6502. That’s not to say blinkenlights and panel switches for 6502-based computers didn’t exist, but they were astonishingly rare.
If something hasn’t been done, that means someone has to do it. [Alexander Pierson] built The Cactus, a 6502-based computer that can be controlled entirely through toggle switches and LEDs.
If you’re wondering why something like this hasn’t been built before, you only have to look at the circuitry of the 6502 CPU. The first versions of this chip were built with an NMOS process, and these first chips included bugs, undefined behavior, and could not be run with a stopped clock signal. These problems were fixed with the next chip spin using a CMOS process (which introduced new bugs), but the CMOS version of the 6502 would retain the contents of its registers with a stopped clock signal.
The specs for the Cactus computer are what you would expect from a homebrew 6502 system. The chip is a WDC 65C02S running at 1MHz, there’s 32k of RAM and a 16k EPROM, dual 6551s give serial access at various baud rates, and there are 16 bits of parallel I/O from a 65C22 VIA. The ROM is loaded up with OSI Basic. The real trick here is the front panel, though. Sixteen toggle switches allow the front panel operator to toggle through the entire address space, and eight flip switches can set any bit in the computer. Other controls include Run, Halt, Step, Examine, and Deposit, as you would expect with any front panel computer.
It’s a fantastic piece of work which I missed seeing at VCF East so I’m really glad [Alexander] made the trip between coasts. Cactus is truly something that hasn’t been done before. Not because it’s impossible, but simply because the state of the art technology from when the 6502 was new didn’t allow it. Now we have the chips, and the only limitation is finding someone willing to put in the work.
Back in February this year, we ordered a new single board computer, and reviewed it. The board in question was the Asus Tinker Board, a Raspberry Pi 3 competitor from the electronics giant in a very well-executed clone of the Raspberry Pi form factor.
Our review found its hardware to be one of the best of that crop of boards we had yet seen, but found serious fault with the poor state of its software support at the time. There was no website, the distro had to be downloaded from an obscure Asus download site, and there was no user community or support channel to speak of. We were then contacted by some of the folks from Asus who explained that the board had not yet been officially launched, and that the unit we’d secured had escaped the fold a little early. Continue reading “Return To The Asus Tinker Board: Have Six Months Changed Anything?”→
I normally stay away from talking about x86 single-board computers because I don’t have a lot to say about them. They’re too expensive, and run too hot, to be interesting. Enter the new UP Core funding now on Kickstarter.
The UP Core is just 56.5 mm × 66 mm (2.2 in × 2.6 in) and powered by a 64-bit Quad Core Intel Atom clocked at either 1.44 GHz or 1.92 GHz. It will ship with either 2 GB or 4 GB of RAM, and either 32 GB or 64 GB of eMMC. The board has a USB 3 port, HDMI, DSI/eDP, and two MIPI-CSI ports supporting either a 2 MP or 8 MP camera. It has both WiFi 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth LE built-in.