Repurposing A Toy Computer From The 1990s

Our more youthful readers are fairly likely to have owned some incarnation of a VTech educational computer. From the mid-1980s and right up to the present day, VTech has been producing vaguely laptop shaped gadgets aimed at teaching everything from basic reading skills all the way up to world history. Hallmarks of these devices include a miserable monochrome LCD, and unpleasant membrane keyboard, and as [HotKey] found, occasionally a proper Z80 processor.

It started, as such things often do, with eBay. [HotKey] found that the second hand market is flooded with these decades-old educational gadgets, often selling for just a few bucks. As it turns out, children of the smartphone and tablet era don’t seem terribly interested in a “laptop” from 1991. At any rate, he ordered about a dozen different models and started tearing into them to see what made them tick.

He found that the VTech machines of around 20+ years old were using the Z80 processor, and what’s more, they shared a fairly standardized external cartridge interface for adding additional software or saving data. Upon attempting to dump some data from the cartridge port, [HotKey] discovered that it was actually connected to the computer’s main bus. He realized that with a custom designed cartridge, it should be able to take over the system and have it run his own code.

After more than a year of tinkering and talking to other hackers in the Z80 scene, [HotKey] has made some impressive headway. He’s not only created a custom cartridge that lets him load new code and connect to external devices, but he’s also added support for a few VTech machines to z88dk so that others can start writing their own C code for these machines. So far he’s created some very promising proof of concept programs such as a MIDI controller and serial terminal, but ultimately he hopes to create a DOS or CP/M like operating system that will elevate these vintage machines from simple toys to legitimate multi-purpose computers.

We’ve seen VTech hardware hacked in the past, but it’s generally been focused on the company’s more recent hardware such as the Linux-powered InnoTab. It will be interesting to see if these educational toys can fulfill some hacker’s dreams of having a cheap and portable box for Z80 tinkering.

Hackaday Links: October 13, 2019

Trouble in the Golden State this week, as parts of California were subjected to planned blackouts. Intended to prevent a repeat of last year’s deadly wildfires, which were tied in part to defective electrical distribution equipment, the blackouts could plunge millions in the counties surrounding Sacramento into the dark for days. Schools have canceled classes, the few stores that are open are taking cash only, and hospitals are running on generators. It seems a drastic move for PG&E, the utility that promptly went into bankruptcy after being blamed for last year’s fires, but it has the support of the governor, so the plan is likely to continue as long as the winds do. One group is not likely to complain, though;  California amateur radio operators must be enjoying a greatly decreased noise floor in the blackout areas, thanks to the loss of millions of switch-mode power supplies and their RF noise.

Good news, bad news for Fusion 360 users. Autodesk, the company behind the popular and remarkably capable CAD/CAM/CAE package, has announced changes to its licensing scheme, which went into effect this week. Users no longer have to pay for the “Ultimate” license tier to get goodies like 5-axis machining and generative design tools, as all capabilities are now included in the single paid version of Fusion 360. That’s good because plenty of users were unwilling to bump their $310 annual “Standard” license fee up to $1535 to get those features, but it’s bad because now the annual rate goes to $495. In a nice nod to the current userbase, those currently on the Standard license, as well as early adopters, will get to keep the $310 annual rate as long as they renew, and The $495 pricing tier went into effect in November of 2018, while anyone still on the $310 annual price was grandfathered in (and will remain to be). At that time there was still a $1535 tier called Ultimate, whose price will now be going away but the features remain in the $495 tier which is now the only pricing option for Fusion 360. Ultimate users will see a $1040 price drop. As for the current base of freeloaders like yours truly, fear not: Fusion 360 is still free for personal, non-commercial use. No generative design or tech support for us, though. (Editor’s Note: This paragraph was updated on 10/14/2019 to clarify the tier changes after Autodesk reached out to Hackaday via email.)

You might have had a bad day at the bench, but was it as bad as Román’s? He tipped us off to his nightmare of running into defective Wemos D1 boards – a lot of them. The 50 boards were to satisfy an order of data loggers for a customer, but all the boards seemed caught in an endless reboot loop when plugged into a USB port for programming. He changed PCs, changed cables, but nothing worked to stop the cycle except for one thing: touching the metal case of the module. His write up goes through all the dead-ends he went down to fix the problem, which ended up being a capacitor between the antenna and ground. Was it supposed to be there? Who knows, because once that cap was removed, the boards worked fine. Hats off to Román for troubleshooting this and sharing the results with us.

Ever since giving up their “Don’t be evil” schtick, Google seems to have really embraced the alternative. Now they’re in trouble for targeting the homeless in their quest for facial recognition data. The “volunteer research studies” consisted of playing what Google contractors were trained to describe as a “mini-game” on a modified smartphone, which captured video of the player’s face. Participants were compensated with $5 Starbucks gift cards but were not told that video was being captured, and if asked, contractors were allegedly trained to lie about that. Contractors were also allegedly trained to seek out people with dark skin, ostensibly to improve facial recognition algorithms that notoriously have a hard time with darker complexions. To be fair, the homeless were not exclusively targeted; college students were also given gift cards in exchange for their facial data.

For most of us, 3D-printing is a hobby, or at least in service of other hobbies. Few of us make a living at it, but professionals who do are often a great source of tips and tricks. One such pro is industrial designer Eric Strebel, who recently posted a video of his 3D-printing pro-tips. A lot of it is concerned with post-processing prints, like using a cake decorator’s spatula to pry prints off the bed, or the use of card scrapers and dental chisels to clean up prints. But the money tip from this video is the rolling cart he made for his Ultimaker. With the printer on top and storage below, it’s a great way to free up some bench space.

And finally, have you ever wondered how we hackers will rebuild society once the apocalypse hits and mutant zombie biker gangs roam the Earth? If so, then you need to check out Collapse OS, the operating system for an uncertain future. Designed to be as self-contained as possible, Collapse OS is intended to run on “field expedient” computers, cobbled together from whatever e-waste can be scrounged, as long as it includes a Z80 microprocessor. The OS has been tested on an RC2014 and a Sega Master System so far, but keep an eye out for TRS-80s, Kaypros, and the odd TI-84 graphing calculator as you pick through the remains of civilization.

Review: The RC2014 Micro Single-Board Z80 Retrocomputer

At the end of August I made the trip to Hebden Bridge to give a talk at OSHCamp 2019, a weekend of interesting stuff in the Yorkshire Dales. Instead of a badge, this event gives each attendee an electronic kit provided by a sponsor, and this year’s one was particularly interesting. The RC2014 Micro is the latest iteration of the RC2014 Z80-based retrocomputer, and it’s a single-board computer that strips the RC2014 down to a bare minimum. Time to spend an evening in the hackerspace assembling it, to take a look!

It’s An SBC, But Not As You Know It!

The kit contents
The kit contents

The kit arrives in a very compact heat-sealed anti-static packet, and upon opening was revealed to contain the PCB, a piece of foam carrying the integrated circuits, a few passives, and a very simple getting started and assembly guide. The simplicity of the design becomes obvious from the chip count, there’s the Z80 itself, a 6850 UART, 27C512 ROM, 62256 RAM, 74HCT04 for clock generation, and a 74HCT32 for address decoding. The quick-start is adequate, but there is also a set of more comprehensive online instructions (PDF) available.

I added chip sockets and jumpers to my kit.
I added chip sockets and jumpers to my kit.

Assembly of a through-hole kit is hardly challenging, though this one is about as densely-packed as it’s possible to make a through-hole kit with DIP integrated circuits. As with most through-hole projects, the order you pick is everything: resistors first, then capacitors, reset button and crystal, followed by integrated circuits.

I’m always a bit shy about soldering ICs directly to a circuit board so I supplemented my kit with sockets and jumpers. The jumpers are used to select an FTDI power source and ROM addresses for Grant Searle’s ROM BASIC distribution or Steve Cousins’ SCM 1.0 machine code monitor, and the kit instructions recommended hard-wiring them with cut-off resistor wires. There was no row of pins for the expansion bus because this kit was supplied without the backplane that’s a feature of the larger RC2014 kits, but it did have a set of right-angle pins for an FTDI serial cable.

Your Arduino Doesn’t Have A Development Environment On Board!

Having assembled my RC2014 Mini and given it a visual inspection it was time to power it up and see whether it worked. Installing the jumper for FTDI power, I attached my serial cable and plugged it into a USB port.

A really nice touch is that the Micro has the colours for the serial cable wires on the reverse side of the PCB, taking away the worry of getting it the wrong way round. A quick screen /dev/ttyUSB0 115200 to get a serial terminal from a bash prompt, hit the reset button, and I was rewarded with a BASIC interpreter. My RC2014 Micro worked first time, and I could straight away give it BASIC commands such as PRINT "Hello World!" and be rewarded with the expected output.

The SCM ROM monitor.
The SCM ROM monitor.

So I’ve built a little Z80 single board computer, and with considerably less work than that required for the fully modular version of the RC2014. Its creator Spencer tells me that the Micro was originally designed as a bargain-basement RC2014 as a multibuy for workshops and similar activities, being very similar to his RC2014 mini board but without provision for a Pi Zero terminal and a few other components. It lacks the extra hardware required for a more comprehensive operating system such as CP/M, so I’m left with about as minimal an 8-bit computer as it’s possible to build using parts available in 2019. My question then is this: What can I do with it?

So. What Can I Do With An 8-bit SBC?

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX81, how could it possibly compare this small kit that was a giveaway at a conference? Although the Sinclair included a black-and-white TV display interface, tape backup interface, and keyboard, the core computing power was not too far different in its abilities from this RC2014 Micro — after all, it’s the same processor chip. It was the platform that introduced a much younger me to computing, and straight away I devoured Sinclair BASIC and then went on to write machine code on it. It became a general-purpose calculation and computing scratchpad for repetitive homework due to the ease of BASIC programming, and with my Maplin 8255 I/O port card I was able to use it in the way a modern tech-aware kid might use an Arduino.

The RC2014 Micro is well placed to fill all of those  functions as a BASIC and machine code learning platform on which to get down to the hardware in a way you simply can’t on most modern computers, and though the Arduino represents a far more sensible choice for hardware interfacing there is also an RC2014 backplane and I/O board available for the Micro’s expansion bus should you wish to have a go. Will I use it for these things? It’s certainly much more convenient than its full-sized sibling, so it’s quite likely I’ll be getting my hands dirty with a little bit of Z80 code. It’s astounding how much you can forget in 35 years!

The RC2014 Micro can be bought from Spencer’s Tindie store, with substantial bulk discounts for those workshop customers. If you want the full retrocomputer experience it’s a good choice as it provides about as simple a way into Z80 hardware and software as possible. The cost of simplicity comes in having no non-volatile storage and in lacking the hardware to run CP/M, but it has to be borne in mind that it’s the bottom of the RC2014 range. For comparison you can read our review of the original RC2014, over which we’d say the chief advantage of the Micro is its relative ease of construction.

A Curiously Strong Z80 In Your Pocket

Like many hackers, [Tom Szolyga] has soft spot for the venerable Z80. The number of instructions and registers made it relatively easy to program in ASM, and he still has fond memories of the refreshingly straightforward CP/M operating system he used to run on them back in the day. In fact, he loves Z80 computers so much he decided to build one that he could carry around in his pocket.

The result is the Minty Z80, so-called because it lives inside a tin formerly inhabited by every hacker’s favorite curiously strong mint. But the goal of this build wasn’t just to make it small, but also make it convenient to work with. [Tom] is using a ATmega32A to help interface the Z84C0008 microprocessor with the modern world, which allows for niceties such as support for a micro SD card. There’s no onboard USB-to-serial capability, but with an external adapter connected to the Minty’s header, it’s easy to use log into this microcosm of classic computing with a terminal emulator running on a computer or mobile device.

[Tom] has provided the schematics and Bill of Materials for the Minty Z80 on the project’s Hackaday.io page, but as of the latest update, he’s holding off on releasing the board files until he’s sure that all the bugs have been worked out. There’s no word yet if he found any show stoppers in the first iteration of the board design, but he’s posted a picture of the fully assembled miniature retrocomputer in all its glory which seems like a good sign.

The design of the Minty Z80 is similar to that of the Z80-MBC2 by [Just4Fun], but on an even smaller scale. It’s encouraging to see several projects leveraging modern design and components to prevent classic computing from becoming little more than a distant memory.

Four Chips To Retro Perfection

Over the years, we’ve seen many people build a computer from the ground up. It’s always great, but this one takes the cake. I’m not just saying that because there’s a cute little ‘Z80 Inside’ logo on the silk screen, either. It’s a four IC Z80 computer, a tiny board, and [Just4Fun]’s entry into this year’s Hackaday Prize.

This single board computer is only four chips, the most important being the CMOS Z80 CPU. This is the same CPU as was found in the TRS-80 and the ZX Spectrum, both classics from the early days of computing. In addition to the PCU, there’s a Toshiba SRAM with 128 whole kilobytes of random access memories. A 74HC00 is thrown into the mix for glue logic, and everything else happens through a specially-programmed ATMega32A. This last chip provides a universal I/O subsystem, the EEPROM, and the 4/8MHz clock for the CPU.

Those four chips are really all you need for a fully functional computer, but you can do so much more with this little board. There’s a uCom board, or basically a ‘transparent’ USB-to-serial emulator that will allow you to upload a hex file to the board. Of course this means you can also connect it to a terminal, and with FuzixOS, there’s Unix for the Z80. It’s a wonderment of retrocomputing, and one of the best ways to build an old computer today.

Continue reading “Four Chips To Retro Perfection”

Retrocomputing For The Masses Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday 29 May 2019 at noon Pacific for the Retrocomputing for the Masses Hack Chat!

Of the early crop of personal computers that made their way to market before IBM and Apple came to dominate it, few machines achieved the iconic status that the Sinclair ZX80 did.

Perhaps it was its unusual and appealing design style, or maybe it had more to do with its affordability. Regardless, [Sir Clive]’s little machine sold north of 100,000 units and earned a place in both computing history and the hearts of early adopters.

Spencer Owen is one who still holds a torch for the ZX80, so much so that in 2013, he hatched a seemingly wacky idea to make his own. A breadboard prototype of the Z80 machine slowly came to life over Christmas 2013, one thing led to another, and the “RC2014” was born.

The RC2014 proved popular enough to sell on Tindie, and Spencer is now following his dream as a retrocomputing mogul and working on RC2014 full time. He’ll be joining us to discuss the RC2014, how it came to be, and how selling computing nostalgia can be more than just a dream.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday May 29 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

 

Pitting 8-Bit Chess Games Against Modern Foes

UltraChess is a vintage chess game for the 8-bit MSX platform, running on the Z80. [flok] wondered just how capable the game really was, and set forth to test it against a variety of other chess engines.

Having been designed in the 1980s, UltraChess is far from up-to-date as far as the chess software world is concerned. By using the OpenMSX emulator to run the game, [flok] was able to implement scripts to read and write the gamestate in UltraChess, and make it compatible with the Universal Chess Interface. This would allow UltraChess to be played off against a variety of other chess engines to determine its approximate ELO rating.

The scripts worked well, and are available on Github for those who wish to tinker further. Unfortunately, [flok] has thus far been unable to determine a rating for UltraChess, as it has lost every single game it has played against other chess engines. This is unsurprising given the limited processing power available, but we’d love to see a tweaked and hotrodded Z80 chess program take on the same challenge. If you’ve done such a thing, let us know, or alternatively  you might like to try playing like Harry Potter.