Vintage Computer Festival East Raises The Bar Again

When I arrived at the InfoAge Science and History Museum for this year’s Vintage Computer Festival East, I fully expected it to be a reduced event compared to last year. After all, how could it not? Due to the schedule getting shifted around by COVID, show runner Jeffrey Brace and his team had just six months to put together an event that usually gets planned over the course of an entire year. With such a truncated preparation time, they more than deserved a little slack.

But as anyone who attended VCF East 2022 can attest, they didn’t need it. Not only did the event meet the high expectations set by last year’s Festival, it managed to exceed them. There were more workshops, more talks, more vendors, more consignment rooms, more live streams, more…well, everything. This year’s program even got a splash of glossy color compared to the grayscale handout attendees received in October. It was, by any metric you care to use, better than ever.

It does however leave me in somewhat on an unenviable position. As we’ve learned during the pandemic, a virtual representation of an event as extensive as VCF can give you a taste of what’s offered, but all the nuance is lost. Looking at pictures of somebody’s passion project can’t compare to actually meeting the person and seeing that glint of pride in their eye as they walk you through all the details.

So bear that in mind through this rundown of some of the projects that caught my eye. This isn’t  a “best of” list, and the Festival is certainly not a competition. But each attendee will invariably come away with their own handful of favorite memories, so I’ll document mine here. If you’d like to make your own memories, I’d strongly suggest making the trek out to the Jersey Shore come April 2023 for the next Vintage Computer Festival East.

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1981 Called, Here’s Your Software

How many of us who have a few decades of adulthood under our belts would like to talk to our 17 year old selves? “Hey kid, it’s all gonna be OK. Also, Duke Nukem Forever does come out eventually, but it’s not going to be pretty!” Being honest, exposure to the hot takes of one’s naive teenage self would almost certainly be as cringeworthy as the time-worn-but-familiar adult would be to the teenager, but there’s one way in which you can in a sense have a conversation with your teenage self. [Mad Ned] had this opportunity, when he discovered a printed BASIC listing for a game he’d written for the TRS-80 back in 1981. Could he make it run again, and what did it tell him about his teenage years?

Grizzled 8-bit veterans will tell you of countless hours spent typing poorly-reproduced listings found in magazines, and the inevitable pain that followed as all those mistypes were ironed out. [Ned] eschewed all that retro experience because this is the 21st century, and we now have much more powerful computers to do our bidding! The reality of incomplete OCR is one we’ll no doubt all be used to, and for 8-bit fans also the debugging that was needed to get the listing to run. Breaker Ball is an odd hybrid of Breakout and Space Invaders, and it’s his analysis of the teenage thinking that led to the game being the way it is that rounds off the piece.  Sadly we’re not treated to the entire listing, but there’s a short gameplay video we’ve placed below the break.

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A Computer In Your Pocket, 1980s Style

These days, having a little computer in your pocket is par for the course. But forty years ago, this was a new and high tech idea. [The 8-Bit Guy] has a great video covering the state of the art in pocket computers and personal digital assistants from the 1980s and 1990s. You can see the video below.

There are a lot of familiar faces on the video including the Radio Shack pocket computers, Palm Pilots, and some more obscure machines of varying quality.

It might impress you to know that the Radio Shack TRS-80 PC-1 pocket computer actually had two CPUs. Of course, each CPU was a 4-bit processor running at 256 kHz, so maybe not as impressive as it sounds. Still, what a marvel in its day, programming BASIC on a 24-character LCD.

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TRS-80 Clone Uses Modern Parts

Before RadioShack decided the best business model for an electronics store was to harass its customers into buying overpriced batteries and cellphones, it was a great one-stop shop for most discrete components, knobs, resistors, radio equipment, and even a popular computer. That computer, the TRS-80, is a popular one in the retrocomputing world and if you can’t get original parts to restore one, you can always build your own clone.

This build comes to us from [Glen] aka [glenk] who is known for retrocomputing builds like this classic PET we featured a little over a year ago, and this TRS-80 is his latest project. He really gets into the weeds on the hardware, too. This isn’t an FPGA or Raspberry Pi running a TRS-80 on lookalike hardware. [Glen] has completely redesigned the computer from the ground up using modern CMOS components in order to make a modern, perfectly functional replica of the RadioShack classic.

Because of the level of detail [Glen] goes into, this one is a must-read for anyone interested in computing hardware (as opposed to the software, which you could learn about through a more simple emulator) and retrocomputing in general, and also brings most of us back to a more nostalgic, simpler time where a trip to RadioShack was fun and interesting.

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A Trash-Steam-Machine-80

Sometimes for a retrocomputing enthusiast it can be challenging to see a surviving machine gutted and used for another purpose. But in the case of [Tom Pick]’s Radio Shack TRS-80 based Steam Machine PC we can forgive him, because it began with a very unpromising machine that had most definitely seen better days.

The TRS-80 in question is a Model III, the all-in-one console device with a numerical keypad, CRT monitor, and dual 5.25″ floppy drives built in. This provided plenty of space for the components of a modern PC with a 12″ LCD monitor. The PC itself is a run-of-the mill 2.6 GHz Pentium and nothing exceptional, but its input devices are of note. The keyboard is a Red Dragon mechanical item which has been made to look the part in place of the old Radio Shack item with a set of custom colour-coded keycaps, while the pointing device in a particularly neat touch is a modern Radio Shack-branded mouse. The boot screen is the proper Radio Shack logo from the TRS-80’s heyday, meaning that if you didn’t know any differently you might think this was meant to be. Sadly the two floppy drives are unconnected, though we’re sure it would be possible to make a modern PC see them for a bit of 360k storage goodness.

We don’t see as many projects featuring the TRS-80 series as we should, and the model III is a particular rarity. Far more common in these pages is the portable Model 100, most recently gaining a cellular connection.

Designing Custom LCDs To Repair Retrocomputers

China, we’re told, can make anything. If you need some PCBs in a few weeks, there are a few factories in China that will do it. If you need a nuclear reactor, yep, there’s probably a factory in China that’ll do it because nuclear reactors are listed as one of the items facing new tariffs when imported into the United States. No, I am not kidding. What about LCDs? What about old-school character LCDs? Is it possible to find a factory in China that will make you the LCD you want? That’s what [Robert Baruch] will find out, because he’s repairing an old computer with new parts.

The object of this repair and restomod is a TRS-80 Pocket Computer (PC-1), otherwise known as the Sharp PC-1211. It looks like a calculator, but no, it’s a legitimate computer you can program in BASIC. [Robert] bought this computer for a bit more than $5 on eBay ‘for repair’, which means the zinc-air battery was dead, and unfortunately, the LCD was shot. The LCD technically works, but it just doesn’t look good. Sometime in the last thirty years, moisture got in between the layers of glass, polarizing film, and liquid crystal. This is not unique to [Robert]’s unit — a lot of these PC-1s have the same problem, many of these broken seals rendering the computers themselves useless.

This is an ancient computer, and replacements for this LCD are impossible to find, but because the Sharp PC-1211 is well documented, it is possible to find the datasheet for the original display. With that, it’s just a question of finding an LCD manufacturer that will do it. So far, the costs look good — $800 USD ($300 for tooling and 10 samples, $500 for another 200 LCDs) is what it’ll take to get a few units. [Robert] already has a few people interested in repairing their own Pocket Computers. You can follow the eevblog thread here, or check out the video below.

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A Network Card For The Trash-80

Around these parts, [Peter] is well-known for abusing the TRS-80 to do things it should never do. You can read Wikipedia on the TRS-80, you can look at Google Images, and you can browse the web. As with any retrocomputer, there are limitations for what you can do. To browse Wikipedia, [Peter] had to set up an AWS instance which translated everything and used serial to IP converters. It can be done, but it’s hard.

Now, after seeing a few interesting projects built around the ESP32, [Peter] built a network card for the TRS-80. It’s called the trsnic, and it’s a working network card for almost all the TRS-80s out there, with the eventual goal of supporting the TRS-80 Model I / II / III / 4 / 12 / 16 / 16B and 6000.

The idea for the trsnic comes from [Arno Puder]’s RetroStoreCard, a device that plugs into the TRS-80 Model III and connects it to a ‘personal cloud’ of sorts that hosts and runs applications without the need for cassettes or floppys. It does this with an ESP32 wired up to the I/O bus in the Model III, and it’s all completely Open Source.

[Peter] took this idea and ran with it. Thanks to the power found in the ESP32, real encrypted Internet communication can happen, and that means HTTPS and TLS.

Right now, documentation for the trsnic is limited, but the project does exist and building it is as easy as stuffing some headers and DIP sockets in a PCB and soldering them on. There’s a bit of work to do on the ESP32 code, but if you’re looking for a network card for your Trash-80, this is the one that works now.