Teardown: VTech Smart Start

Regular readers may be aware that I have a certain affinity for vintage VTech educational toys, especially ones that attempted to visually or even functionally tie in with contemporary computer design. In the late 1980s, when it became obvious the personal computer was here to stay, these devices were seen as an affordable way to give kids and even young teens hands-on time with something that at least somewhat resembled the far more expensive machines their parents were using.

Much Smarter: VTech PreComputer 1000

A perfect example is the PreComputer 1000, released in 1988. Featuring a full QWERTY keyboard and the ability to run BASIC programs, it truly blurred the line between toy and computer. In fact from a technical standpoint it wasn’t far removed from early desktop computers, as it was powered by the same Zilog Z80 CPU found in the TRS-80 Model I.

By comparison, the Smart Start has more in common with a desktop electronic calculator. Even though it was released just two years prior to the PreComputer 1000, you can tell at a glance that it’s a far more simplistic device. That’s due at least in part to the fact that it was aimed at a younger audience, but surely the rapid advancement of computer technology at the time also played a part. Somewhat ironically, VTech did still at least attempt to make the Smart Start look like a desktop computer, complete with the faux disk drive on the front panel.

Of course, looks can be deceiving. While the Smart Start looks decidedly juvenile on the outside, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few surprising technical discoveries lurking under its beige plastic exterior. There’s only one way to find out.

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This Z80 Computer Bootstraps Itself

[Plasmode] has created several Z80-compatible board designs, at least four of them using the oddball Z280. The Z280 was a special variant of a Z80 that could bootstrap itself with no external PROM, making it ideal for anyone trying to build a system on a breadboard. According to his post, the cost to build the board is about $35.

Although the 8080 CPU got a lot of glory, it was much harder to use than the Zilog Z80. The Z80 only required a single clock and power supply, so it was much easier to build a system, even on a breadboard. On top of that, the bus wasn’t multiplexed and it could refresh DRAM memory by itself. Maybe that’s why you can still get Z80-derived chips readily. There was one thing, though, you needed an EPROM or some other way to run some initial code to bootstrap your system. Zilog knew this was a problem. In those days, you had to use a special tool to burn a PROM and, unless it was erasable and you had the special UV light to erase it, any mistakes cost you a chip.

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A Z80 Computer At The Next Level

At the close of the 8-bit home computer era there were some machines produced that attempted to bridge the gap between the 8- and 16-bit worlds, either by providing a 16-bit device with a backwards compatibility mode, or an 8-bit one with enhanced capabilities to compete with its newer rivals. These products largely fell by the wayside in the face of new 16-bit only platforms, but they and the various enhanced versions of 8-bit processors that appeared over subsequent decades present a fascinating glimpse of what might have been. It’s a theme [Konstantin Dimitrov] explores with his Z20X computer project, a machine using the Zilog eZ80 processor running at 20 MHz, with 512 kB of external memory, and an interface for a 7″ TFT screen module.

The eZ80 is a more recent development, a pipelined processor capable of much higher clock speeds and addressing up to 16 MB of memory while maintaining software compatibility with the Z80. Had it come to market in the late 1980s it would have been a sensation, but instead it has appeared in embedded computers and perhaps of most interest to Hackaday readers, in TI’s line of programmable calculators.

The Z20X is designed to be a through-hole board, with the only SMD component the eZ80 itself. We can understand the motivation behind this, but at the same time wonder whether its likely builders in 2020 will be people unfazed by SMD assembly. It has a system of processor modules in case of future upgrades, and an expansion backplane with an option of an RC2014-compatible bus. There are also PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, a serial bus, and an on-board sound chip. The website is short on details of any software, but we’d expect it to work with the typical Z80 retrocomputer offerings such as a BASIC interpreter and the CP/M operating system.

This machine is likely to appeal to retrocomputing enthusiasts, but had it appeared even without the display in a previous decade it would no doubt have become an object of desire. It does however serve as a reminder that the Z80 line has been updated, and though most of us will have moved on it still offers a few chips that could be of interest. Meanwhile for a comparison, take a look at last year’s review of the latest in the range of RC2014 retrocomputer boards.

Thanks [yNos] for the tip.

Federico Faggin: The Real Silicon Man

While doing research for our articles about inventing the integrated circuit, the calculator, and the microprocessor, one name kept popping which was new to me, Federico Faggin. Yet this was a name I should have known just as well as his famous contemporaries Kilby, Noyce, and Moore.

Faggin seems to have been at the heart of many of the early advances in microprocessors. He played a big part in the development of MOS processors during the transition from TTL to CMOS. He was co-creator of the first commercially available processor, the 4004, as well as the 8080. And he was a co-founder of Zilog, which brought out the much-loved Z80 CPU. From there he moved on to neural networking chips, image sensors, and is active today in the scientific study of consciousness. It’s time then that we had a closer look at a man who’s very core must surely be made of silicon.

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The 1980s Called – Asking For The Z80 Membership Card

The ’80’s and early ’90’s saw a huge proliferation of “personal” computers, spawning an army of hacker kids who would go on to hone their computing chops on 8-bit and 16-bit computers from brands such as Sinclair, Commodore, Acorn, Apple, Atari, Tandy/RadioShack and Texas Instruments. Fast forward to 2017, and Raspberry-Pi, BeagleBone and micro:bit computers reign supreme. But the old 8-bit and 16-bit computer systems can still teach us a lot.

[Lee Hart] has built the amazing Z80 Membership Card — a Z80 computer that fits in an Altoids tin. His design uses generic through hole parts mounted on a PCB with large pads, thick tracks and lots of track clearances, making assembly easy. Add to this his detailed documentation, where he weaves some amazing story telling, and it makes for a really enjoyable, nostalgic build. It makes you want to get under the hood and learn about computers all over again. The Z80 Membership Card features a Zilog Z80 microprocessor running at 4 MHz with 32k RAM and 32K EPROM, loaded with BASIC interpreter and monitor programs. A pair of 30-pin headers provide connections to power, I/O pins, data, address and control signals.

To accompany this board, he’s built a couple of companion “shield” boards. The Front Panel Card has a 16-key hex pad, 7-digit 7-segment LED display and Serial port. [Lee] has packed in a ton of features on the custom monitor ROM for the front panel card making it a versatile, two board, 8-bit system. Recently, he finished testing a third board in this series — a Serial/SD-Card/RAM shield which adds bank-switchable RAM and SD-card interface to provide “disk” storage. He’s managed to run a full CP/M-80 operating system on it using 64k of RAM. The two-board stack fits nicely in a regular Altoids tin. A fellow hacker who built the three-board sandwich found it too tall for the Altoids tin, and shared the design for a 3D printable enclosure.

[Lee] provides detailed documentation about the project on his blog with schematics, assembly instructions and code. He’s happy to answer questions from anyone who wants help building this computer. Do check out all of his other projects, a couple of which we’ve covered in the past. Check out Lee Hart’s Membership Card — a similar Altoids tin sized tribute to the 1802 CMOS chip and how he’s Anthropomorphizing Microprocessors.

Finally, we have to stress this once again — check out his Assembly Manuals [PDF, exhibit #1] — they are amazingly entertaining.

Thanks to [Matthew Kelley] who grabbed one of [Lee]’s kits and then tipped us off.

Integrated Circuit Reverse Engineering, 1970s Style

We are used to stories about reverse engineering integrated circuits, in these pages. Some fascinating exposés of classic chips have been produced by people such as the ever-hard-working [Ken Shirriff].

You might think that this practice would be something new, confined only to those interested in the workings of now-obsolete silicon. But the secrets of these chips were closely guarded commercial intelligence back in the day, and there was a small industry of experts whose living came from unlocking them.

Electron micrograph of a wire bond to the Z80 CTC die
Electron micrograph of a wire bond to the Z80 CTC die

Integrated Circuit Engineering Corporation were a Scottsdale, Arizona based company who specialised in semiconductor industry data. They have long since been swallowed up in a series of corporate takeovers, but we have a fascinating window into their activities because their archive is preserved by the Smithsonian Institution. They reverse engineered integrated circuits to produce reports containing detailed information about their mechanical properties as well as their operation, and just such a report is our subject today. Their 1979 examination of the Zilog Z80 CTC (PDF) starts with an examination of the package, in this case the more expensive ceramic variant, then looks in detail at the internal construction of the die itself, and its bonding wires. We are then taken in its typewritten pages through an extensive analysis of the circuitry on the die, with gate-level circuits to explain the operation of each part.

The detail contained in this report is extraordinary, it is clear that a huge amount of work went into its production and it would have been of huge value to certain of Zilog’s customers and competitors. At the time this would have been extremely commercially sensitive information, even if it now seems like a historical curiosity.

The Z80 CTC is a 4-channel counter/timer peripheral chip for the wildly succesful Z80 8-bit microprocessor, in a 28-pin dual-in-line package. We were surprised to find from a quick search that you can still buy this chip from some of the usual suppliers rather than the surplus houses, so it may even still be in production.

If IC reverse engineering takes your fancy, take a look at our archive of [Ken Shirriff] posts.

Thanks [fortytwo] for the tip.

Easy To Build Z80 Single Board Computer

[Alexis] sent in a single board computer he’s been working on. The project goal of his build was making it easily reproducible. From looking at the schematics, it’s one of the simplest fully-functional computers we’ve seen. The build runs CP/M 2.2 off of two 3.5 inch floppies. This opens up a lot of options as to what software is already available. Although it operates over a serial terminal, [Alexis] pretty much duplicated an Osborne I, only at double the speed.

[Alexis] got a little e-fame from his earlier 8088 homebrew computer built from very early 8088’s rescued from an electronics junk shop. These 8088 computers made the blog rounds by playing Still Alive with a SID chip from a Commodore 64 and a YM2151 FM synth chip.

For now, I guess we’ll have to settle for a video of [Alexis]’ Z80 computer running CP/M. Check out a video after the break of his computer running the greatest Infocom adventure, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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