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.

Continue reading “Vulcan 74: A Masterpiece of Retro Engineering”

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.

Expanded Memory For The Teensy++ 2.0


Sometimes with a microcontroller project you need to do some very RAM-hungry operations, like image and audio processing. The largish AVR chips are certainly fast enough to do these tasks, but the RAM on these chips is limited. [xxxajk] has come up with a library that allows the use of huge RAM expansions with the Teensy++ 2.0 microcontroller, making these RAM-dependant tasks easy on one of our favorite microcontroller board.

[xxajk]’s work is actually a port of XMEM2, an earlier project of his that added RAM expansion and multitasking to the Arduino Mega. Up to 255 banks of memory are available and with the supported hardware, the Teensy can address up to 512kB of RAM.

XMEM2 also features a preemptive multitasking with up to 16 tasks, the ability to pipe messages between tasks, and all the fun of malloc().

The build is fairly hardware independent, able to work with Rugged Circuits QuadRAM and MegaRAM expansions for the Arduino Mega as well as [Andy Brown]’s 512 SRAM expansion. With the right SRAM chip, etching a board at home for XMEM2 is also a possibility.

Playing around with MRAM

For the longest time, hardware tinkerers have only been able to play around with two types of memory. RAM, including Static RAM and Dynamic RAM, can be exceedingly fast but is volatile and loses its data when power is removed. Non-volatile memory such as EPROMS, EEPROMS, and Flash memory retains its state after power is removed, but these formats are somewhat slower.

There have always been competing technologies that sought to combine the best traits of these types of memory, but not often have they been available to hobbyists. [Majenko] got his hands on a few MRAM chips – Magneto-Resistive RAM – and decided to see what they could do.

Magneto-Resistive RAM uses tiny pairs of magnetic plates to read and write 1s and 0s. [Majenko] received a sample of four MRAM chips with an SPI bus (it might be this chip, 4 Megabits for $20, although smaller capacity chips are available for about $6). After wiring these chips up on a home-made breakout board, [Majenko] had 16 Megabits of non-volatile memory that was able to run at 40 MHz.

The result was exactly what the datasheet said: very fast write and read times, with the ability to remove power. Unlike EEPROMS that can be destroyed by repeated reading and writing, MRAM has an unlimited number of write cycles.

While MRAM may be a very young technology right now, it’s a wonderful portent of things to come. In 20 (or 30, or 40) years, it’s doubtful any computer from the largest server to the smallest microcontroller will have the artificial separation between disk space and memory. The fact that any hardware hacker is able to play around with this technology today is somewhat amazing, and we look forward to more builds using MRAM in the future.

Simple trick for replacing Game Boy cart batteries while retaining game saves

[Adr990] wants to make sure his Game Boy game saves aren’t lost to aging batteries. They’re stored in SRAM with a small coin cell inside the cartridge to keep the memory energized when the game is not being played. But if you pull out the battery in order to replace it the data will be lost in the process. It turns out that you can hot-swap the battery without too much effort. As shown in the video after the break, he disassembled the case of the cartridge, then replaced the battery while the Game Boy is switched on. The edge connector feeds power which will keep the SRAM active while the backup battery is removed. We’re sure this could be done with a bench supply as well, but you’ll need to do your own testing before risking those prized game saves.

The other option is to backup your SRAM before replacing the batteries. We’ve seen an AVR-based cartridge dumper, and also one that uses an Arduino. Both should be able to read and write SRAM data. Continue reading “Simple trick for replacing Game Boy cart batteries while retaining game saves”