Friday, February 16, 2018

Easy add-on Projects for Spectrum ZX81 & ACE (Redux): Forward

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There was a time when plugging a home fabricated electronics project into, onto or out the back of a Computer was an actively encouraged pursuit. Hardware project books for many a micro computer filled bookstore shelves which intern were filled with many a hardware DIY add-on. Easy add-on Projects for the Spectrum ZX81 and Ace, was one such tome of 80s knowledge, and it's been taking filling space on book self for a couple of years.

Easy add-on Projects for the Spectrum, a good read with some fun possibilities 

In order to undertake the builds presented within Easy add-on Projects for the Spectrum ZX81 and Ace, an initially requirement is the construction of an Address Decoder board, itself obviously already an project. In the true maker spirit of the times this involves producing your own PCB. There was at one point an order-able companion board, leasoning the difficulties any period 80's enthusiast lacking in manufacturing resources would face, though notably you still had to populate the PCB with components yourself.

The (non-Address Board Creation) projects themselves are quite an interesting selection, ranging from a primitive scanner, a light pen, a lap counter and to the major project a weather station. Not surprisingly they all have a very 'you could do this with an Arduino or Raspberry Pi' feel to them. In considering this vibe, it could also be a fun aside to implement the same on either of those modern devices, or the other way around by bringing some Arduino projects to the ZX81.

Lets not get to ahead of ourselves, the first order of business is to get down to that Decoder. There are 2 versions of the board presented in the book, one for the Jupiter Ace and one that's compatible with both the ZX81 and Spectrum, it's this board I'll be constructing. There is not a great deal to it, just a few 74 series ICs and other easy-ish to source parts. This is one of the wonderful thing about retro stuff I guess, it's all still relatively easy to source and understand. I'm not going to use the board quite as designed, I'm intending to use SMD components for example to modernise construction, in general however there should be no functional changes.

So, over the course of the coming weeks I'll get down redesigning the Decoder Board and form there onto the actual projects. If you playing along at home the book ' Easy add-on Projects for the Spectrum ZX81 and Ace' is available from the Jupiter Ace Resource Archive. A site well worth an explore given the Ace's close links to the ZX81 and ZX Spectrum.

See more entries for this project: ForwardPart 1Part 2Part 3

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Thursday, February 08, 2018

Amstrad NC 100, Don't Blow a Fuse

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In the last few days I took delivery of an Amstrad NC 100 notepad computer that had been listed on everybodys favourite auction site as not working. The purchase was an educated gamble as all my prior research on the NC 100, along with helpful advice from the Twitter Sphere, pointed to the major cause of failure for these devices being an easy fix. A simple blown fuse that would probably require replacing or circumventing.

After taking the NC 100 apart, locating the fuse where it should be, in the bottom left corner of the main board (power socket facing towards you), I ran a continuity test, the resulting in our prospective blown fuse scenario proving correct.

Amstrad NC 100 Main Board, Left: A Dusty and Blown Fuse. Right: A Temporary Jumper Wire Fix

The non-working Fuse is a  PCB Leaded, 500 mA, 250 V component, which I didn't have to hand. So in order to power up the computer I simply removed the fuse and soldered in a copper jumper wire as a temporary fix. (Next time I place a general component order I'll obtain a new fuse.) This is fine, just as long as I insure the polarity of any power supply is correct, Tip / Outer positive, inner negative.

Interestingly, based on the type of fuse I found in my NC 100 , there seem to be a couple of revisions of the NC 100 board. A number of online references indicate that the fuse should be an SMD component, not a though hole type one. 

A Now Fully Functional Amstrad NC 100

To test, I reconnected the main board to the LCD panel, and screen came to life with a Friendly 'Lithium battery is low' warning, not unexpected as there was no backup battery in the device at the time. Fix completed, and case reassembled, and I'm now the proud owner of a rock bottom priced Amstrad NC 100.

Now to find something for this little notepad computer do, maybe I'll take it to the office and garner some curious and possibly concerning looks at meetings.

Further Viewing

For an entertaining and informative overview of the NC 100, including the replacement of (in this case an SMD) fuse, head over to YouTube and the EEVblog

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Sunday, February 04, 2018

The UDG For ZXpand Add-on for the ZX81: Part 1

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One of most noticeable graphic element lacking from a ZX81 is perhaps the ability to define said graphic elements. Enter the UDG for ZXpand from Andy Rea, an expansion module available from around mid 2017 that affords the ZX81 owner the opportunity to create User Defined Graphics.

The UDG for ZXpand Hardware

The UDG for ZXpand is designed to be used in conjunction with memory expansions supporting the WRX extensions / modifications. Modern memory boards such as the ZXpand(+) and the ZXblast support this natively. Note that if using period RAM expansions such as the 16k Sinclair RAM pack or one from Memotech, then hardware alterations are required.

The UDG 4 ZXpand Expansion Board.

For an expansion board the UDG 4 ZXpand is quite small, being the width of the ZX81 expansion bus and approximately as deep again.. The expansion is designed to slot horizontally and directly into the ZX81 expansion port, and to be sandwiched  between a ZX81 and supporting RAM Pack / ZXpand / ZXblast.

Configuring the UDG 4 ZXpand for use with available software is a simple matter of adjusting a jumper setting on the board. A small toggle switch might have been a better choice, still one could easily be added by the end user. The jumper can be set 3 ways:

  1. Open: No effect, ZX81 operates as normal
  2. 64 Mode: Sets the UDGs to a defined limit of 64 Characters. A further 64 characters will be inverse versions.
  3. 128 Mode: All available ZX81 characters can be redefined and made available.

Modes 3 in particular provides scope for a complete overhaul of the ZX81s character set. Need some lower case characters, then replace the otherwise seldom used inverse set with something more useful. I'll cover the creation of character sets and the importation of existing fonts in a second post / article.

It's also worth noting that the UDG 4 ZXpand is supported by the 1.8 release of the EightyOne Sinclair Emulator.

Upadated UDG Gamming Goodness

The ability to redefine all 128 character tiles provides the scope for all existing ZX81 games to be retrofitted with HiRes character graphics. A good case in point would be Quicksilvas Galaxians, originally published in 1983 and written by T. Beckworth

A fast paced arcade game, Galaxians exemplifies just what a standard ZX81 can deliver when asked nicely. With the addition of some well done UDGs Galaxians is elevated to a whole new level, the game rivalling the best early games the ZX Spectrum has to offer.

Galaxians Clone with and without UDGs enabled

You can grab the updated version of Galaxians Thanks to Moggy on the Sinclair World Forums. Be sure to search for other updated tittles while there.

The results of redefined character sets on old games depend largely on the quality of the original, or simply revolve around just how the pre-existing Sinclair character set may or may not have have been used. Even in the otherwise brilliantly updated Galaxians there are some oddities to be seen due to this specific limitation. This is most apparent in the Hi Score tables where an "*" character, normally used in game as a player bullet, leads a certain illegibility the player score listing.

New Game Realses

Zedragon version 1, running on a ZX81
Updates to older games is all well and good, but endowing a ZX81 with near ZX Spectrum like powers (minus to colours) the UDG for ZXpand stands to have major impacts on many a new games releases.

There are effectively no limitations plaguing new tittles , these having the potential to provide complex experiences with a full usage of UDGs.

The first of brand new title being Ze dragon, a game so professional it's hard to believe a ZX81 is running behind it. A clone of Atari Sea Dragon, Ze Dragon is a Scramble like game replacing other worldly action with a Submariner adventure.

Ze Dragon was released in late 2017, and February 2018 has seen it updates to Ze Dragon II. The new version features pixel level scrolling, something not before seen in a ZX81 game. (Perhaps some parallax scrolling in version 3?).

Ze Dragon is an impressive conversion, demonstrating the full capabilities of the ZX81, UDG for ZXpand and the ZXpand(+). Perhaps this is not so surprising as the creators behind the both the UDG 4 ZXpand and ZXpand are behind the game. Game Author Sir Morris (Charlie Robson of ZXpand fame), Andy Rea and other co-mariners should be justly proud.

As with Galaxians, Ze Dragon 2 is available over at the Sinclair World Forums.

Ze Dragon 2 running on the EightyOne Sinclair Emulator

Next Time

Well that's a basic review and some games covered, so what about using Andy Reas' clever little device to do our our own bidding. Next post I'll attempt to cover some basics on generating our own UDGs for own games and programs. Covering some simple coding, then moving quickly onto some software that's already available to take all the hard work out of generating new ZX81 characters sets.

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