A Pi Pico on a breakout board inside a Busch 2090 educational computer

Pi Pico Becomes SRAM For 1981 Educational Computer

Ever since the Raspberry Pi Pico was introduced in early 2021 we’ve seen the tiny Pi being used for an astonishing variety of applications. It has powered countless clocks, gadgets, games, and accessories for all kinds of computers old and new. [Michael Wessel] has recently added an interesting new application in the “old computer” category, by turning a Pico into a 2114 SRAM emulator for his Busch 2090, an educational computer system from 1981.

The pinout of the classic 2114 SRAM chip is quite simple: ten address lines, four data lines, Write Enable and Chip Select. Since the 3.3 V Pico is more or less 5V tolerant, you could directly connect these signals to its GPIO ports, but [Michael] considered it more reliable to use level shifters between the two voltage domains. He experimented with a few standard level shifter circuits, but quickly realized he had to take the 33 kΩ pulldown resistors on the Busch 2090’s address bus into account. By just adding a couple of resistors to the Pico’s ports he could make completely passive level shifters, which worked just fine since the system’s clock frequency is only 500 kHz.

[Michael] demonstrates his RAM replacement in the video below, with a neat set of blinkenlights showing the data being shuttled around in real time. He has plans to make a proper PCB for his project, as well as to enable all kinds of neat features by modifying the system’s RAM in real time. This is of course not limited to the Busch 2090: the 2114 chip was widely used in the 1980s, so the PicoRAM can probably be used in many other systems of the era. Code for the Pi is available on GitHub if you’re interested in trying this for yourself. If you’d like to find out what programming a Busch 2090 feels like, you can emulate one using an Arduino.

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Opening Up ASIC Design

The odds are that if you’ve heard about application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) at all, it’s in the context of cryptocurrency mining. For some currencies, the only way to efficiently mine them anymore is to build computers so single-purposed they can’t do anything else. But an ASIC is a handy tool to develop for plenty of embedded applications where efficiency is a key design goal. Building integrated circuits isn’t particularly straightforward or open, though, so you’ll need some tools to develop them such as OpenRAM.

Designing the working memory of a purpose-built computing system is a surprisingly complex task which OpenRAM seeks to demystify a bit. Built in Python, it can help a designer handle routing models, power modeling, timing, and plenty of other considerations when building static RAM modules within integrated circuits. Other tools for taking care of this step of IC design are proprietary, so this is one step on the way to a completely open toolchain that anyone can use to start building their own ASIC.

This tool is relatively new and while we mentioned it briefly in an article back in February, it’s worth taking a look at for anyone who needs more than something like an FPGA might offer and who also wants to use an open-source tool. Be sure to take a look at the project’s GitHub page for more detailed information as well. There are open-source toolchains if you plan on sticking with your FPGA of choice, though.

the conversion from hynix SRAM to FRAM on a Pokemon Yellow PCB

Pokemon Time Capsule

The precious Pokemon we spent hours capturing in the early nineties remain trapped, not just by pokeballs, but within a cartridge ravaged by time. Generally, Pokemon games before the GameBoy Advance era had SRAM and a small coin cell to save state as NVRAM (Non-volatile random access memory) was more expensive. These coin cells last 10-15 years, and many of the Pokemon games came out 20 years ago. [9943246367] decided to ditch the battery and swap the SRAM for a proper NVRAM on a Pokemon Yellow cartridge, 23 years later.

The magic that makes it work is a FRAM (ferroelectric random access memory) made by Cypress that is pin-compatible with the 256K SRAM (made by SK Hynix) on the original game cartridge PCB. While FRAM data will only last 10 years, it is a write-after-read process so as long as you load your save file every 10 years, you can keep your Pokemon going for decades. For stability, [9943246367] added a 10k pull-up on the inverted CE (chip enable) pin to make sure the FRAM is disabled when not in use. A quick test shows it works beautifully. Overall, a clever and easy to have to preserve your Pokemon properly.

Since you’re replacing the chip, you will lose the data if you haven’t already. Perhaps you can use [Selim’s] Pokemon Transporter to transport your pokemon safely from the SRAM to the FRAM.

A 6502 Computer, With Acres Of Breadboard And Dozens Of Chips

Imagine you’re time-warped back to 1979 and tasked with constructing a personal computer. Could you do it? [RadicalBrad] thinks he can, and his 6502-based “Super VIC” build looks like it’s off to a great retrocomputing start.

Most emulations of old hardware these days go the FPGA route, and while we respect those projects immensely, there’s something to be said for applying a highly artificial constraint at the outset of a project. [RadicalBrad] chose to design like it’s 1979, and limited his ode to the machines of his youth to the 6502 CPU and logic and RAM chips available before 1980. The computer will support NTSC video output and 4-channels of 8-bit sound. No circuit boards will be used – everything is to be assembled on solderless breadboards. So far he has 48 (!) of them ganged together, which sounds like an enormous amount of space to work with, but he still found things crowded enough that some of the DIP bodies were trimmed a bit to fit more closely on the breadboards. The SRAM posed a problem, though, in that the 512K chips he wanted were not available in DIPs. To stay faithful to the constraints, he soldered the SOJ-packaged RAM chips into 40-PIN DIP headers – all 25 chips! We can’t recall a PC of the era sporting 12 megabytes of RAM, but no matter – it’s too cool not to love.

[RadicalBrad] has his work cut out for him, and this could take years to finish. We’re keen to follow his progress and can’t wait till it boots for the first time. Until it does, we’ll just gaze upon such discrete computing wonders as this almost-as-simple-as-possible computer, or even this delightfully noisy adder for a relay computer.

Mostly Non-Volatile Memory With Supercapacitors

Back in the days of old, computers used EPROMs to store their most vital data – usually character maps and a BASIC interpreter. The nature of these EPROMs meant you could write to them easily enough, but erasing them meant putting them under an ultraviolet light. Times have changed and now we have EEPROMs, which can be erased electronically, and Flash, the latest and greatest technology that would by any other name be called an EEPROM. [Nicholas] wanted an alternative to these 27xx-series EPROMs, and found his answer in supercapacitors.

[Nick]’s creation is a mostly non-volatile memory built around an old 62256 32k SRAM. SRAM is completely unlike EPROMs or Flash, in that it requires power to keep all its bits in memory. Capacitor technology has improved dramatically since the 1980s, and by using a supercap and one of these RAM chips, [Nick] has created a substitute for a 27-series EPROM that keeps all its memory alive for days at a time.

The circuit requires a small bit of electronics tucked between the EPROM socket and the SRAM chip; just enough to turn the 12 Volts coming from the EPROM programming pin to the 5 Volts expected from the SRAM’s Write Enable pin. This is accomplished by a few LEDs in series, and a 0.1F 5.5V supercap which keeps the SRAM alive when the power is off.

As for why anyone would want to do this when modern technologies like Flash can be found, we can think of two reasons. For strange EPROM sizes, old SRAMs abound, but a suitable Flash chip in the right package (and the right voltage) might be very hard to find. Also, EEPROMs have a write lifetime; SRAMs can be written to an infinite number of times. It’s not the best solution in every case, but it is certainly interesting, and could be useful for more than a few vintage computing enthusiasts.

This project makes us think of another where an LED may have been supplying keep-alive power to some volatile memory.

Vulcan 74: A Masterpiece Of Retro Engineering

[Radical Brad] has played around with FPGAs, video signals, and already has a few astonishing projects of bitbanged VGA on his resume. Now he’s gone insane. He’s documenting a build over on the 6502.org forums of a computer with Amiga-quality graphics built out of nothing but a 65C02, a few SRAM chips, and a whole pile of logic chips.

The design goals for this project are to build a video game system with circa 1980 parts and graphics a decade ahead of its time. The video output is VGA, with 400×300 resolution, in glorious eight-bit color. The only chips in this project more complex than a shift register are a single 65c02 and a few (modern) 15ns SRAMs. it’s not a build that would have been possible in the early 80s, but the only thing preventing that would be the slow RAM chips of the era.

So far, [Radical] has built a GPU entirely out of 74-series logic that reads a portion of RAM and translates that to XY positions, colors, pixels, and VGA signals. There’s support for alpha channels and multiple sprites. The plan is to add sound hardware with support for four independent digital channels and 1 Megabyte of sample memory. It’s an amazingly ambitious project, and becomes even more impressive when you realize he’s doing all of this on solderless breadboards.

[Brad] will keep updating the thread on 6502.org until he’s done or dies trying. So far, it’s looking promising. He already has a bunch of Boing balls bouncing around a display. You can check out a video of that below.

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New Part Day: SPI RAM And A Video Controller

Generating video signals with a microcontroller or old CPU is hard if you haven’t noticed. If you’re driving even a simple NTSC or PAL display at one bit per pixel, you’re looking at a minimum of around 64kB of RAM being used as a frame buffer. Most microcontrollers don’t have this much RAM on the chip, and the AVR video builds we’ve seen either have terrible color or relatively low resolution.

Here’s something interesting that solves the memory problem and also generates analog video signals. Yes, such a chip exists, and apparently this has been in the works for a very long time. It’s the VLSI VS23s010C-L, and it has 131,072 bytes of SRAM and a video display controller that supports NTSC and PAL output.

There are two chips in the family, one being an LQFP48 package, the other a tiny SMD 8-pin package. From what I can tell from the datasheets, the 8-pin version is only an SPI-based SRAM chip. The larger LQFP package is where the action is, with parallel and SPI interfaces to the memory, an input for the colorburst crystal, and composite video and sync out.

After looking at the datasheet (PDF), it looks like generating video with this chip is simply a matter of connecting an RCA jack, throwing a few commands to the chip over SPI, and pushing bits into the SRAM. That’s it. You’re not getting hardware acceleration, you’re going to have to draw everything pixel by pixel, but this looks like the easiest way to generate relatively high-resolution video with a single part.

Thanks [antibyte] for the tip on this one.