Zilog’s Forgotten Operating System: Z80-RIO

When it comes to famous operating systems for the Z80 and similar Zilog processors, the first and maybe only one to come to mind is CP/M, which was even made its presence known on the dual-CPU (8502 and Z80) Commodore 128. Yet Zilog also developed its own operating system, in the form of the comprehensively titled Z80 Operating System with Relocatable Modules and I/O Management (Z80-RIO for short). With limited documentation having survived, [Ralf-Peter Nerlich] has set out to retain and recover what information he can on RIO and the associated Programming Language Zilog (PLZ) after working with these systems himself when they were new.

A Zilog MCZ 1/20 system from around 1979. (Credit: Herb Johnson)
A Zilog MCZ 1/20 system from around 1979. (Credit: Herb Johnson)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither Z80-RIO nor PLZ were targeting the regular consumer market when they were brought to market in the late 1970s, but were part of Zilog’s focus on industrial markets, as well as laboratories and elsewhere that could benefit from a versatile, programmable computer system for control and automation.

As part of an integrated hardware/software solution, Zilog released a series of computer systems, such as the MCZ 1/20 of which a number of examples survive today. Herb Johnson’s collection and restoration projects provide a good overview of not only the base systems, but also the expansion cards available for these systems. Right along with the Z80-RIO OS providing the ability to customize the system for the target usage, the underlying hardware could also be configured with just the expansion boards required, or conceivably even custom boards.

Of course, it doesn’t take many guesses to figure out what happened to Z80’s RIO OS and related, with the 1980s heralding massive shifts in the computer markets. Although now functionally obsolete for decades, it’s good to see such preservation efforts of 1970s computing systems and related software. These are after all the foundations on which modern day computing is built.

(Thanks to [Stephen Walters] for the tip)

Z8000 Trump Card Needs Your Help

[Smbakeryt] needs your help. He bought a 1984-vintage Z8000 coprocessor card for the PC, but the software is missing in action. Apparently, the co-processor — called a Trump Card — appeared in Byte magazine courtesy of the famous [Steve Ciarcia]. The schematics were published, and if you sent [Steve] proof that you built it, he’d send you the software. The product was later commercialized, but no one seems to have the software, so [Smbakeryt] is on the lookout for it.

The board itself was pretty amazing for its day. It added a 16-bit Zilog Z8000 CPU with 512 K of RAM. Big iron for 1984 and a good bit more performance than a stock IBM PC of the era.

We miss the days when computer gear came with big binders of documentation. These days, you are more likely to get a sticker with a URL. The Z8000 was a nice processor and could emulate the Z80, but it never became hugely popular. In addition to Zilog’s System 8000, the CPU found its way into some Unix computers including the Onyx C8002 and several Olivetti computers. Commodore planned to use the CPU in a canceled project. The Z8000 was famous for not using microcode and, thus, it fit on a relatively small die with 17,500 transistors (compared to the 8086’s 29,000 transistors).

We hope someone can help out with the software. If you want your own Z8000 system, you might be better off with Clover. Or, stick with a Z80 on the cheap.

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Clover Computer: A Modern Z8000 CP/M Machine

Seeing some old Zilog 16-bit chips on eBay recently, [Scott Baker] was curious enough to snap them up and build himself a Z8000 computer. It started as a two-board solution, then he added a display module. Instead of layering the boards vertically à la a PC/104 stack, [Scott] decided to build them flat. His first backplane was triangular, but he opted for a square to accommodate one more expansion board in the future. The assembled contraption resembles a clover, hence the name Clover Computer.

The Z8000 was Zilog’s first 16-bit microprocessor, introduced in 1979. It was not hugely popular for a variety of reasons (the Z8000 Wikipedia article has some interesting details). The Z8000 was eclipsed in the marketplace by Intel’s 8088 and Motorola’s 32-bit 68000. One interesting point is that the Z8000 did not use microcode, and as a result, its transistor count was significantly less than its contemporaries. The Z8000 was used in some military applications, and despite its limited commercial success, it continued to be available from Zilog and licensed second sources up until 2012.

[Scott]’s design splits the system into a CPU board, a memory and serial board, and a display board. Along the way, he learns 1980’s era tricks from the Olivetti M20, one of the few computer systems designed around the Z8000. He also manages to find a recent Z8000 implementation of CP/M by GitHub user [], which [Scott] forked and adapted to his project (see project repo here). He succeeds in getting everything working, and ports a monitor, Tiny Basic, and Zork.

Check out his project write-up introductory link, and see it in action in the video below the break. Did you ever use or encounter the Z8000? Let us know in the comments!

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Z80 Single-Board Computer Looks Like It Could Have Been A Killer Product

Most retrocomputer builds seem to focus on either restoring old machines or rebuilding them from scratch. Either way, the goal is to get as close as possible to the original machine, and while we certainly respect those builds, there are other ways to celebrate the computers of yesterday, as this Z80 single-board computer nicely demonstrates.

[Ivan Farafontov]’s SBC is sort of a “Z80 that never was” build, one that would almost have been possible back in the heyday of 8-bit computing, and would have made quite a splash if it had. Most of the peripheral chips are from Zilog and would have been found in many of the Z80 machines of the day, like the TRS-80 and ZX Spectrum. Where it goes off the old-school path is with the video section, which uses an Atmel CPLD chip and a dual-port RAM to drive a VGA monitor. It still looks the part, though, with a 256×192 pixel, 16-color display. The compact video section helps keep the overall footprint of this machine pretty small, at least by the standards of the old machines. The machine is barely larger than its custom keyboard, which is populated with mechanical switches and really nice-looking custom keycaps, and everything fits into a 3D-printed case.

The demo that starts at the 4:30 mark of the video below will be a nostalgia storm for a lot of readers, starting as it does with a version of Boulder Dash that [Ivan] wrote from scratch, along with the tile editor he used to create the sprites for the game. All the design files and code are available if you want to build your own, of course. We recently featured another Z80 that never was, but [Ivan]’s machine really makes a statement with its compact size and its capabilities.

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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.