COLE-1 updates

Yes, it’s been five months since my last post. As it turns out writing meaningful blog posts is not as easy as I thought!

Anyway, I’ve been pretty busy, not only with life and work, but also steadily making progress on COLE-1. Here’s a recap.

SPI Support

One of the first things I did once the board was operational was start hacking together support for SPI, which opens up the possibility of talking to a lot of interesting hardware. The 6522 VIA can almost, but not quite, do SPI in hardware, so I ended up bit-banging it myself. The protocol is fairly simple, and is very flexible on clock rate, so this was not hard to do. Owning a logic analyzer (a Saleae Logic 4) also helped immensely.

SD Card Support

Once the SPI was working my next task was to hook up one of those little $5 SD-to-SPI adapters that you can find just about anywhere on the net. The hardware hookup was easy; the driver software, not so much. It took me a week or so to finally get the driver to properly initialize the card and read blocks, despite having some official documentation and some sample code. Having a small bug in my SPI driver also did not help matters!

Operating System

With the low-level bits of the SD card driver working (at least for reading), I have begun to build a real operating system around that. Tentatively I’m calling it JR/OS (Josh’s Retro Operating System), at least until a better name comes to mind.

The plan is to embed the OS in ROM and allow booting applications from FAT-formatted SD cards. Some day I would like to be able to load the OS from disk at boot time, but COLE-1 only has 32K of RAM and a largely empty 32K ROM, so for now JR/OS will remain in ROM.

Video and Improved I/O

This is where I’ve spent most of my time lately and the part I’m most excited about. For the past few months I have been designing a custom video and I/O chip using a large CPLD (complex programmable logic device). The goal is to provide VGA output, PS/2 keyboard and mouse input, and possibly hardware SPI.  It’s slated to eventually be the core of my next SBC, but first I’m going to be hooking it up to COLE-1.

Here’s the early prototype hardware. The board on the left is a Max V CPLD development board; it’s hooked up via a ribbon cable to my breadboard which contains the support circuitry to interface to the VGA monitor.

The two chips at the bottom of the breadboard are the VRAM, which is not yet connected. This board will get much more full soon.

And here’s a 16-color test pattern. The board can actually do up to 64 colors at 320×240 but this pattern was easy to generate.

I’ll be making a separate post about this chip soon, because it’s pretty cool and it deserves a post of its own. Stay tuned!

Introducing COLE-1

In my last post I talked about breadboarding a 6809 single-board computer; well, in the last three months I’ve taken that one step further, and I am proud to say I have finally achieved my goal of building an SBC based on an original design. Allow me to present COLE-1:

This SBC is based on a WD 65C02 clocked at 4 MHz, with 32K of RAM, 32K of ROM (implemented with an EEPROM, for easy updates), a 6522 VIA driving two 8-bit expansion ports, and a 6850 ACIA providing a TTL-level serial port running at 115.2k bps.

Board Design

All of my design work (schematic and board layout) was done using KiCad, and the boards were manufactured by PCBWay. It’s a four-layer board (my first) with internal ground and power planes. Here are a couple of photos of the bare board; as you can see the manufacturing quality is quite good:

Careful observers will notice that there is solder mask over the pads for my surface-mount components; this is NOT the board house’s fault, because I see the same thing in the gerber file; somehow I goofed up my board layout in KiCad. Fortunately solder mask is pretty easy to remove with a sharp flat-head screwdriver, so I was able to correct this mistake.

The solder mask problem, however, was nothing compared to the other mistake in this layout: I accidentally picked the wrong footprint for the ACIA, which is the chip at the lower left corner of the board. What should have been a 24-pin, 15mm wide footprint ended up being a 10mm wide variant!

Rather than waste the boards I hacked together an ugly but functional adapter using a 24-pin socket, some perf board, and two strips of male headers. This turned out to be more of a pain than I had planned, due to the need to solder in some tight spaces, but I finally got it working and stable.

The moral here is always print your layout on paper and do a test fitting with your actual components before sending your layout to the fab house!

Firmware

The firmware for this board is very much a work in progress.  The system currently boots into a customized version of Enhanced BASIC; from there, you can run the ‘SYS’ command to drop into my home-brew system monitor.

The monitor is loosely based on the Apple II system monitor (since I grew up using it), but currently has only minimal functionality. You can view (but not modify) memory, disassemble code, and do Xmodem transfers to and from memory. The upload function is very handy for rapid testing of new firmware; I can upload and run test code from RAM instead of having to pull the EEPROM and re-program it.

Future Upgrades

At the moment I am working on designing an add-on board that will provide VGA output and PS/2 keyboard input through one of the VIA ports, using a custom CPLD and an Atmega microcontroller. I’ll be blogging more about that project soon.

I have also been experimenting with a microSD card adapter that interfaces via SPI, with the intent of eventually implementing a full disk operating system (probably based on FAT-16). The problem is that my current hardware design doesn’t directly support SPI; I have written some code that bit-bangs it on a VIA port, but it’s not exactly fast, so  I am thinking about just tying one port to an atmega328p and using that as a parallel<=>SPI interface to get better throughput.

Eventually there will be a COLE-2, probably based on the 65816, and with more integrated peripherals. I had originally intended to start work on COLE-2 once COLE-1 was up and running, but I’ve decided to hold off for a bit and see how much I can add onto COLE-1 first.

Design Files

The schematics, board layout, and firmware source code are all available in my GitHub repository.

A Home-brew 6809 SBC

When I was a kid experimenting with electronics my big dream was always to build my own computer. Today, after thirty years, I finally realized that dream:

This is my breadboard implementation of Grant Searle’s 6809 SBC. His basic design is just six chips and a handful of miscellaneous components. If you use a USB to TTL serial cable like I did then you can cut that down to just five chips.

This SBC is powered by a 6809 with 32K of RAM, 16K of ROM, and a 68B50 ACIA for the serial I/O. The ROM contains a modified version of Microsoft Extended BASIC as used by the Tandy Color Computer 2. All I/O is via the serial port at 115200 bps. Here’s me running some really simple BASIC commands in Minicom:

I was able put this together in an afternoon over 2-3 hours, and surprisingly, it almost worked on the first try! The only reason it didn’t work right away was because I forgot to tie a couple of MPU pins to Vcc. Once the missing wires were added it booted right up.

Grant also has designs for basically the same SBC but with a Z-80 or a 6502 as the CPU, and i plan to build all three eventually. I had actually wanted to start with the Z-80 version, but it uses an 8k ROM (a 27C64) and my burner seems to be having problems burning those; more on that later.

Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet I’m to start designing my own SBC. I’d like to build something around a 65816 but I will probably start with a 6502 or 65802 to keep the first design simple. Whatever I do I’m sure I’ll have fun building it!