The Z80 Is Dead. Long Live The Free Z80!

It’s with a tinge of sadness that we and many others reported on the recent move by Zilog to end-of-life the original Z80 8-bit microprocessor. This was the part that gave so many engineers and programmers their first introduction to a computer of their own. Even though now outdated its presence has been a constant over the decades. Zilog will continue to sell a Z80 derivative in the form of their eZ80, but that’s not the only place the core can be found on silicon. [Rejunity] is bringing us an open-source z80 core on real hardware, thanks of course to the TinyTapeout ASIC project. The classic core will occupy two tiles on the upcoming TinyTapeout 7. While perhaps it’s not quite the same as a real 40-pin DIP in your hands, like all of the open-source custom silicon world, it’s as yet early days.

The core in question is derived from the TV80 open-source core, which we would be very interested to compare when fabricated at TinyTapeout’s 130nm process with an original chip from a much larger 1970s process. While It’s true that this project is more of an interesting demonstration of TinyTapeout than a practical everyday Z80, it does at least serve as a reminder that there may be a future point in which a run of open-source real Z80s or other chips might become possible.

This isn’t the first time we’ve featured a TinyTapeout project.

An ASIC For A Secret File

Some time over a decade ago, the arrival of inexpensive PCB fabrication revolutionised the creation of custom electronics on a budget. It’s now normal for even the smallest projects we feature here to have a professional PCB, which for those of us who started by etching their own with ferric chloride is nothing short of a miracle. When it comes to the ultimate step in custom electronics of doing the same for integrated circuits though, it’s fair to say that this particular art is in its infancy. The TinyTapeout project is a collaborative effort in which multiple designers have the chance to make their own ASIC as a single tile on a chip along others, and [Bitluni] had the chance to participate. His ASIC? A secret file which could be read through his ESP32 to VGA board.

The video below the break then is both the tale of the secret file project, and that of TinyTapeout itself, which is a clever design involving an on-board microcontroller that selects the tile and manages the bus. This revision is Tiny Tapeout 3, which includes 249 tiles of contributor-generated circuitry holding a diverse array of projects.

The secret file itself is a motion GIF, compressed down until the point at which it will just fit on a tile. We’ll preserve the fun by not reveling what it us, but you probably won’t be surprised when you see it in the video.

We’ve featured TinyTapeout more then once, not least when [Matt Venn] gave a talk about it for Supercon 2022.

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A sequence of pictures with arrows between each other. This picture shows a Wokwi (Fritzing-like) diagram with logic gates, going to a chip shot, going to a panel of chipsGA footprint on a KiCad PCB render with DIP switches and LEDs around the breakout. Under the sequence, it says: "Tiny Tapeout! Demystifying microchip design and manufacture"

Design Your Own Chip With TinyTapeout

When hackers found and developed ways to order PCBs on the cheap, it revolutionized the way we create. Accessible 3D printing brought us entire new areas to create things. [Matt Venn] is one of the people at the forefront of hackers designing our own silicon, and we’ve covered plenty of his research over the years. His latest effort to involve the hacker community, TinyTapeout, makes chip design accessible to newcomers – the bar is as low as arranging logic gates on a web browser page.

Six chip shots shown, with various densities of gates being used - some use a little, and some use a the entire area given.
Just six of the designs submitted, with varying complexity

For this, [Matt] worked with people like [Uri Shaked] of Wokwi fame, [Sylvain “tnt” Munaut], [jix], and a few others. Together, they created all the tooling necessary, and most importantly, a pipeline where your logic gate-based design in Wokwi gets compiled into a block ready to be put into silicon, with even simulations and compile-time verification for common mistakes. As a result, the design process is remarkably straightforward, to the point where a 9-year-old kid can do it. If you wanted, you could submit your Verilog, too!

The first round of TinyTapeout had a deadline in the first days of September¬†and brought 152 entries together – just in time for an Efabless shuttle submission. All of these designs were put on a single instance of a chip, that will be fabbed in quantity, tested, soldered onto breakouts, and mailed out to individual participants. In this way, everyone will be getting everyone’s design, but thanks to the on-chip muxing hardware, they’re able to switch between designs using on-breakout DIP switches.

More after the break…

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