Just the signal, not the noise

Hello 8bit'ers,

Why do our issues look forward to Friday? Because that's when they finally get to come out! Ha ... ha .. ha – Ok. Not funny. 😏

But it's a fact. It's Friday again. Our current issue has received some support. Not just from readers who have provided content (a big Thank You!), but also from a new platform that pretty much every retro enthusiast will love. That, along with 10 more articles featuring the best from the past 2 weeks, can be found in our Issue #88.



Two Stop Bits

Pretty much anyone who has even a remote connection to technology in one way or another will eventually come across HN – Hackernews. As an independent, community-driven news source, you'll find daily content here that's currently trending, being discussed, or has sparked controversy within your tech microcosm.

The accelerator YCombinator struck gold with it, creating something that's been often imitated but never duplicated. While modern tech enthusiasts certainly turn to other news sources, HN has somehow become a de facto standard that one can't ignore since 2010, especially when it comes to retrocomputing content which is always welcome.

The Issue: Discoverability. (Tell me...)

None other than Cloudflare CTO John Graham-Cumming recognized this as well, and just a few days ago launched a HN clone dedicated to retrocomputing. 🤯

For twostopbits.com, he uses a slightly adapted original HN source but keeps the same concept – the rising number of articles proves him right. For those who have a passion for middle-aged hard- and software, it's hoped to be not just a news source, but especially an aggregator for things that might otherwise just slip by. (But that's what we're here for too! 😁)

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FPGA Gameboy

FPGA Gameboy
Imagesource: https://unsplash.com/

For those who have long contemplated implementing their own hardware but have considered using an FPGA, you might be familiar with alternatives besides Verilog and VHDL, such as Clash mentioned in Issue #26 or Chisel.

And for everyone else whose I-don't-have-time-for-this-nonsense filter™ fundamentally removes such topics from their daily agenda automagically, perhaps you'd enjoy exploring someone else's implementation?

What if the end result is a fully functional Gameboy or Gameboy Color, which, unlike software emulators, is optimized for latency and perfectly replicates the original system's timing, and even allows a Game Link connection to a second device? Exciting? No?

How about the ability to play both original cartridges and ROM files, or connect external game controllers?


The board used by the creator Eli Lipsitz, who publishes here, won't burn as big a hole in your wallet as, for example, the Analogue Pocket or a MiSTer System, and can also be used for other intriguing projects... though we're circling back to the filter issue mentioned above. 😜

Regardless, Eli's project is a wonderful DIY candidate for the upcoming cold season, and the entire code is open source. Wonderful. ❤️

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Imagesource: Museum of Science and Technology Belgrade, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Cold War era (which had its fair share of far from pleasant consequences in many places) also coincided with the late 70s and 80s... a historical fact that led to some intriguing developments in the world of microcomputer technology, particularly in Eastern European countries of that time.

There were numerous machines. Some were direct clones of Western designs, while others boasted innovations, partly due to the ingenuity of their designers and partly because of the prevailing restrictions on availability of hardware.

One such machine was Yugoslavia's Galaksija, and Steven Cass aka @stephencass, who writes for spectrum.ieee, took on the challenge of recreating this device using more modern means.

It turned out to be quite an adventure. However, he got some help from a veteran, had to cancel his Crowd Supply order, and managed to assemble the device from parts he sourced himself.

It's an entertaining tale that, if you're interested in the hardware, could have also seen an FPGA-based conclusion since there's a suitable Galaksija core available for MiSTer.

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Imagesource: Zilog, Inc.

Another piece of quite intriguing history emerged this week from the Z80 realm.

Did you know that Zilog, in the late 70s, developed not only CP/M but also another operating system called Z80-RIO for its in-house machines? And they did so quite seriously, complete with relocatable modules and I/O management and stuff... 😯

No? Neither did we!

However, writer Maya Posch aka @MayaPosch thankfully enlightened us recently, drawing attention to the preservation efforts of Ralf-Peter Nerlich aka @Zweieck2.

This dedicated individual is on a mission to preserve and gather as much information on RIO and PLZ, reflecting on his personal experiences working with them when they were brand new.

Although these machines and the OS itself faded into obscurity by the early 80s, the versatility of the expandable hardware paired with the CP/M alternative is quite remarkable for its time when viewed from a modern perspective.

Curious? Relevant reading material can be found in the form of the corresponding hackaday.com article here.

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Macintosh Primer

Apple Macintosh Primer
Imagesource: https://vintageapple.org/

The original Apple Macintosh didn't just give one of the most successful series of personal computers its name. It's fair to say that it marked a milestone in the history of personal computing and became a veritable cash cow for Apple for many years, and then again later on.

Happy owners of one of these (hopefully re-capped) machines know why they don't just hawk it on eBay. And those who power up this old workhorse occasionally or even regularly for some unique nostalgia rituals might be quite grateful for the following.

In 1984, William B. Sanders, presumably now active as @SandersCMU, published a book about the machine even before the release of the final hardware. This might sound a bit audacious, given that practical experience with it must have been somewhat... well, scarce at the time. But looking back, the end result is quite impressive and remains enjoyable to read even today:

The Apple Macintosh Primer offers 117 pages of tips and tricks — some possibly even new to the avid Mac fan. The PDF from vintageapple.org is high-resolution and is a download that belongs in everyone's collection of forever-unread PDF books on their hard drive. 👹

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Classic Mac Video Signals

Classic Mac Video Signals
Imagesource: Image by Freepik

We're sticking with the Mac, but sliding forward a bit on the timeline. By the late 1980s, Apple began supporting external color monitors. However, the word supporting had little to do with the word standard, as Apple's technical design decisions often meant that their computers didn't just readily output a compatible VGA signal.

I mean, a 67Hz(!) refresh rate ... but of course, there was a solid technical reason for that. 🙄

The issue persists to this day. If you want to run an old-school IIci with its 640 by 480 pixels on an external monitor, you'd need a lot of luck, the right moon phase, a few dried frog legs, and the blood of a 8 year old virgin to ultimately succeed.

Steve Chamberlin, better known as Big Mess O' Wires, delved into the issue and devised a solution – one without the blood 🩸. Using a TI LM1881, he crafted a video sync separator that acts as a VGA translator, allowing his own IIci to connect to more or less modern VGA monitors.

Not just a superb practical guide, but as always, expertly presented reading material. 📓

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Imagesource: https://architeuthisflux.com/

Anyone who occasionally works with breadboards knows the challenges. Cold connections, heaps of jumper cables that more resemble a Starsky & Hutch hairstyle than a comprehensible connection diagram, a desoldering tweezer misplaced by the dog, sore fingers, and chipped tooth corners because... well, the dog just won't fetch the darn thing. 🤷‍♂️

This is where the idea by Kevin Santo Cappuccio aka @arabidsquid comes in quite handy.

Jumperless is a breadboard where you can simply configure and test all point-to-point connections programmatically.

But this gadget can do even more. The RGB LEDs underneath each row, 2 DACs, 4 ADCs, 2 current and voltage sensors, as well as 5 GPIOs turn it into a marvelous analysis tool.

To be honest, the cost-benefit ratio is a bit skewed when it comes to larger builds involving more than one or two boards, making it more suited for those with deep pockets – but that's not the real objective here.

However, for those who quickly want to test a circuit, probe an unknown IC, or write to an EEPROM (yes!), this project might be seriously appealing.

And... it sparkles. 🥴

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The Gary Kildall Story

The Man That Should Have Been Bill Gates
Imagesource: https://youtu.be/59D1L7xj8eM

Gary Kildall is a personality whose name will be unfamiliar to many. As often happens in history, the story is written by the victors, not the true heroes. Kildall was one of the pioneers of the emerging microcomputers, founder of Digital Research, Inc., and creator of the CP/M operating system.

During his career spanning over 20 years, he left an imprint that still influences how we interact with computing technology of all kinds today. Yet, the true fame and honor eluded him.

Our reader Alistair Ross, better known as @AlsGeekLab, decided to change that to some extent. Over several months, he painstakingly researched and produced a three-part documentary, diving deep into the facts about Kildall that are scarcely mentioned elsewhere.

The Man That Should Have Been Bill Gates is prime-time content, revealing some more than intriguing details in nearly 1 1/2 hours of runtime.

Recommendation of the week! 📺 Love it.

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Amiga FPS

Amiga FPS
Imagesource: https://pixelglass.org/

In the early 90s, games with 3D graphics were nothing really new. Titles, especially like Elite, among many others, had been utilizing 3D wireframe graphics for many years, even on microcomputers that operated at merely 1 or 2MHz.

Most of the blockbuster games on the Amiga were 2D titles, polygon-based 3D games — usually simulations — or technologically ingenious mixtures that gave rise to gems like Another World or Flashback.

True 3D, especially with textured surfaces, was a computationally intensive problem on the Amiga, not genuinely supported due to how the (fantastic) Blitter supports pixel manipulation.

3D titles like Wolfenstein or even DOOM seemed unthinkable at the time. On a stock Amiga 500, running a first-person shooter at a decent FPS rate is still not really conceivable to this day... or is it?

Last week, many of us learned otherwise. The FPS shooter Grind and its quite revolutionary 3D engine have made it possible. To be precise, this engine isn't new. Back in September 2019, Krzysztof Kluczek caused a sensation in the Amiga community with his piece of code.

Shortly after, John Tsakiris from Pixelglass came on board, and now we get to admire the fruits of their labor.

Aside from many technical marvels and superlatives, one thing is refreshingly surprising: The Steampunk / Lovecraftian graphics… which, however, isn't entirely finished yet.

A release we're genuinely looking forward to. 🔫

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DOS Retrogames

DOS Retrogames
Imagesource: Image by Freepik

The off-topic of the week revolves around MS-DOS. Even though the underlying machines and CPUs had four times the bus width compared to our beloved hardware, one has to admit that, especially from the early 90s onwards, MS-DOS not only caught up in the gaming world but in some areas even led the way.

The pain... 😪

The silver lining is that today – 30 years later – MS-DOS can be beautifully emulated. Assuming you have a reasonably fast machine, with the help of js-dos, the originally black-and-white CLI joy can be directly transferred to the browser.

Why is this interesting? Because it brings a whole slew of games (a whopping 1723 to be exact) within easy reach. 🤤

An unknown Czech team has made it possible. In addition to the MS-DOS emulator, they have also integrated other emulators into their project at retrogames.cz. The project undoubtedly treads in a legal gray area, but the team only offers these titles for play, not for download. Moreover, they claim to possess a legally acquired license for every single game. We'd like to take their word for it.

Because a whole array of true gaming gems awaits. Monkey Island, Wing Commander, Alone in the Dark... Browsing is a joy! 🍀

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Imagesource: https://btco.github.io/

For those who lean more towards the creative type and can't quite get excited about genuine hardware, but don't want to give up that 8-bit retro vibe, they often turn to 8-bit fantasy consoles.

These things are available in abundance, and even if their functionality is often similar, the implementations differ in detail more than enough. But for those who are looking for a slightly different challenge, want to turn away from TIC80 and PICO8, and love to play in the Javascript sandbox, the project by Bruno Oliveira aka @btco_code might be just the thing.

QX82 is an attempt to combine 8-bit micro visuals with simple gameplay and easy programmability.

Unlike an emulator or fantasy console, QX82 is simply a Javascript library. While it captures the essence of old computers, it's not limited by their functionality since it operates using Javascript. The engine is open-source, MIT-licensed, and available for download on GitHub.

The API of the thing is influenced by BASIC, allowing for direct screen interactions and user inputs. Graphics in QX82 mainly use characters, but custom font files can be used to craft unique designs.

Feeling adventurous? Fancy some JS? Here you go.

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What. A. Ride.

We didn't see twostopbits.com coming – but competition not only stimulates business. No, the platform also makes our lives a bit easier. We hope it's a project that's here to stay.

Regardless, we're looking forward to the next 2 weeks. Temperatures in Europe are slowly heading south, which might bring some folks back to their home computers and gift us with a few exciting projects.

If you know of any, please let us know. A quick reply to this email will do.

And while you're at it – forwarding this to friends, relatives, and colleagues earns you 88 karma points. 😜

Issue #89 is already in the works and will be out as always in 2 weeks. Until then – build something and speak about it.

Stay warm. Jan & Bastian

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