Commodore 64 Project: Part 2: Abby Normal

19 08 2015

Computers just keep getting smaller. In the days of the Commodore 64, things were bulky, not 1950s-takes-up-a-whole-room huge mind you, just not particularly compact for the capability. Inside that brown case, the C64 itself had a scant 64 kilobytes of memory, a 1 Mhz 6510 cpu, video adapter and sound interface. Power was provided by an external brick power supply. Storage either came in the form of a tape drive or floppy drive, I had both growing up. The floppy drive was roughly the same size as the computer itself and had its own CPU and memory. Back in the day I made a turn based strategy that offloaded some of the work to the floppy drive. If you had multiple floppy drives it was even faster, but I digress.

For a number of reasons, the 1984 introduction of the IBM PC AT became the blueprint for the clone market that sprang up after it. As they were clones, they patterned themselves after their progenitor. This resulted in the “AT Standard”, which was never truly formalized and just existed as the de facto. Intel supplanted that in 1995 with the introduction of the ATX standard. They had solved a bunch of issues that arose from the older AT standard. No longer could you plug in the power to the motherboard backward and potentially destroy everything, and there were many other improvements. Most desktop computers today now use the ATX standard.

Fast forward to 2002, and VIA Technologies introduced their own standard. Dubbed “Mini ITX”, it was, for the time, an impossibly small motherboard with a lot of features packed in. The versatility of the small form factor gave rise to a bunch of experimenters that managed to do interesting things with the board. Around that time I discovered the site mini-itx.com. This is a fascinating site and one that I’ve watched grow and expand over the years. The early community at the site began with shoving the Mini ITX boards in a variety of objects that weren’t really meant to have computers in them. There was the NES PC which put a PC emulating the NES into an actual Nintendo Entertainment System case. There’s the Biscuit Tin PC and countless others.

In 2003, I was interested in the mini-itx form factor largely for building my own home theater PC (HTPC for short). I had it all planned out. I’d use the latest VIA mini ITX board, the EPIA M-1000, it would fit into a black set top box case. Inside I’d have a Happauge WinTV capture card and this $700 DVR machine would replace my aging VCR. It would run the fantastic MythTV software on Linux.

What I hadn’t accounted for was that the EPIA M-1000 was slow. The forums emphasized this, but I figured with the hardware MPEG support it would still muddle through. However, because it was running on Linux and it was new the drivers just weren’t there at the time. I spent a few months learning to write drivers on Linux, but ultimately gave in. The machine that resulted served briefly as an emulation system. I bought a couple of Logitech controllers to play various old games, but it never truly met its potential.

After several years of light use, the power supply simply died on the machine. Since the machine wasn’t very useful, I ended up giving up on it and it just collected dust in my closet. I never stopped looking at mini-itx.com though, and one project published on there had got me thinking: The Commodore 64 project.

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Now with a dead C64 with which to conduct my experiments, I would soon be bringing things to life. A 12 year old computer in a 30 year old case! Muhahaha!

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