Building my own computer … from components

A Fignition computer

Yesterday I told you a little story about how I got my first computer. Thing is, this wasn’t a random chance event where my parents bought me a computer because it might be “educational”; they didn’t even buy it to help me with my homework.

No, you see before computers I was somewhat obsessed with electricity and wires. I was one of those kids who, if left alone with an electronic item would be found half an hour later with the thing in bits. Not just “let’s take the lid off and have a look inside it” but I used to do teardowns on everything just for fun. Well, not everything… I wasn’t daft enough to go poking inside TVs or wall sockets.  I knew what mains electricity was so anything that had a plug didn’t get touched. If it ran on batteries and had screw holes? It was fair game.

What mystified my parents was that I’d put the stuff back together and it’d still work. 80s technology was great, there was so much stuff inside your average boombox. All these little metal things with legs that books told me were called ‘integrated circuits’ and other things called ‘resistors’.

I remember proudly telling my parents that one day I’d make them a computer. I didn’t own one (yet) and had never taken one to bits. I must have been exposed to their general existence though since I did manage to construct one at four years old. I mean, it had a few basic limitations like being made from cardboard and wood but it had wire inside it and a few random circuit boards I’d removed from some unwilling ex-stereo.

Well, on Christmas Day in between playing on my Beeb and digesting copious amounts of food I spent a fun hour or so putting together my own computer – from components, with a soldering iron. The computer is called a Fignition and is a computer kit designed with the same idea as the first 8bit micros – it’s simple enough that one person can understand the technical workings of it. Six year olds can grasp the concept of programming and what ‘RAM’ and a ‘CPU’ do. They can even cope with assembler if it’s reasonably simple. They can’t quite cope with multi-core CPUs, GPU shaders and interfacing things to a PCI-Express slot which is probably why modern computers don’t include manuals that have full schematic diagrams in them.

The Fignition contains an Atmel AVR as its CPU, has proper composite video output, a tiny keyboard to enter code, runs Forth as its OS/programming language and while you can use AVRDude to flash the microcontroller it includes its own 8Kb of RAM and 384KB of storage so you really can sit in front of a TV with just the Fignition and tap away writing software. It’s not something that requires a host PC to make it useful – in fact the only reason to plug it into a computer is to update the firmware. Upstairs on our bookshelf are loads of 80s programming books  full of simple type-in programs. I might convert some of the more interesting ones to Forth and type them into the Fignition.

A successful trip to Ikea

I’ve never had a decent computer desk, they’ve always been small things made from particle board that contain hundreds of pointless shelves and alcoves, or scratched up tables of inconvenient heights.

Deciding to sort this out I made a trip to the blue warehouse known as Ikea on a quest to find something suitable. I’ve got a bay window that is ideal for sitting at and is where my current desk-mess is located

As you can see the desk is a bit of a mess, everything is cramped up and the 80s style hifi cabinet, while useful, is of an inconvenient size.

I managed to find a Vika Furuskog table top in unfinished pine and four Vika Curry legs. My original intention was to buy those legs and a section of kitchen worktop, but this seemed much better and less faff – the table top contains pre-drilled holes for the legs and a pair of braces screwed into the bottom surface.

The store wasn’t too busy, and not only did I manage to get a parking space right outside the front doors but they charged me £1 for a hotdog, drink and a donut. The hotdog and drink alone should have cost £1 so I think someone wasn’t quite awake at the till. I now also know the maximum width of stuff that will fit in my car.

I’ve just finished building the desk and sorting out the rest of the room. It now looks much tidier; the set of drawers I’ve had upstairs. They never used to fit under my old desk but are the perfect height now.

Tomorrow I’m off to the tip to get rid of some bits of junk. I’ve got a 19 inch SGI CRT monitor upstairs that connects to an SGI Octane; both two very heavy items. The monitor can go, it’s insanely large and I dropped it on the floor once – it bounced! I’m sure it still works, but since I can buy a VGA lead off eBay for 12 quid it seems pointless to keep.

Magic diskdrive killing rays

… must be flooding through my house. I have so many dead Amigas with broken diskdrives, it’s untrue. Every single Amiga I own (all four of them) has a dodgy diskdrive. And I’ve just been given another one to repair, and I’m failing!

Had to resort to buying an entire new A600 off a local friend in exchange for an XBox 360 game.

Bloody retro tech, it sucks sometimes. I’m going to buy a floppy disk cleaner out of desparation.

One more for the collection

My retro computer collection (hoard?) is about to gain a few new members. Amy has a pile of Amiga disks that need keeping safe and an Amiga monitor. Someone on the YakYak forum is offering an Atari 1040STFM too. I’ll have that thankyou 🙂

No, I have no idea where to put this stuff either… Well, there’s the bathroom and kitchen I guess. With all this old tech inhabiting my house I really should find a way of networking them. Serial ports seem like the best way.

My own retro museum

I have quite a lot of retro computer hardware and old games consoles. It’s not my fault they’re so cheap (or free), and I am in no way trying to live my childhood again 😉

Since I have so many I thought it might be interesting if I took photos of them and wrote a bit about each one. Some of the machines I own are mine from back when I was small and just starting out with the whole computer thing. I still have the very Spectrum that I learned to program on.

I won’t be regurgitating the vital stats about each machine, Wikipedia is full of that anyway. I don’t quite know what my “angle” will be, I’ve seen other retro websites and want to do something personal, but interesting to others apart from me.

Any ideas?

Free kit and why everyone should recycle their old PC hardware

From Random

Because she’s a nice person, Amy bought me a new graphics card for my PC. It’s an Inno3D NVIDIA 7600 PCI-Express card with half a gig of ram. Then, because she’s an awesome person she gave me one of her old TFT displays. We didn’t quite know if the display worked since she’d been given it by a person who works in a recycling centre (visit your local tip, see the container full of old PCs and tellies? One of those places). It needed 12V at 4A to work, a fairly standard voltage, and after some rooting around a suitable PSU was found to test the monitor.

It worked! This monitor was totally fine with nothing seemingly wrong with it, and it came out of a skip. Had it not been rescued it’d now be in some WEEE recycling place being made safe enough to bury in some landfill. A totally fine working monitor being stripped down so it could be buried in a landfill… think about that for a moment.

I’ve just come back from Maplin where I had to buy my own PSU for it as we were borrowing one of Amy’s existing monitor PSUs to test this one. It needs a bit of a clean, but otherwise is fine.

So before you junk your old PC because it’s “too old” or is “broken”… actually think whether it really is broken, and then offer it on somewhere like Freecycle or eBay. There will be someone who’ll take it, even if it’s knackered. Amy has several half working Playstation 2s from which she has been able to make three working ones. All of these were also rescued from the same skip this monitor came from.