The 23rd Annual "Last" Chicago CoCoFEST!
Recap by Salvador Garcia
The Glenside Color Computer Club (GCCC) - http://www.glensideccc.com/ - celebrated the 23rd annual “Last” Chicago CoCoFEST! on April 24 and 25. This event is a celebration of friendship and camaraderie revolving around a small home computer that was popular in the 80s, the Tandy/Radio Shack Color Computer. While the original electronics of this computer may now be considered archaic and obsolete, a dedicated group of people have continued development of technology that can be integrated into the world of the Color Computer.
So why am I writing about a vintage computer expo in this modern world of Windows, Android and iPads? This is because this fest not only highlights the Color Computer, but also showcases a fusion of old and new technology. Instead of tossing the old aside, the people that make up the Color Computer community take cutting edge technology and use it to enhance and rebuild the Color Computer.
Why is a 80s Computer Still Relevant?
With Mac OS, Linux and Windows dominating the personal computer today anyone can ask “Why is the Color Computer relevant?” After all we are talking about a computer that existed in an official capacity from approximately 1980 to 1991, whose official maximum RAM capacity was 512KB with a maximum processor speed of around 2MHz. Today’s computers, with advanced processors from Intel and AMD and Gigabytes of RAM and storage capacity tower over the Color Computer’s meager specs.
Still, when the Color Computer first debuted it was one of the most innovative personal computers of its class. This new entry into the home computer fray was based around the Motorola 6809 microprocessor. This processor’s lineage could be traced back to the PDP line of mini computers made by Digital Equipment Corporation. The 6809’s architecture, instruction set and addressing schemes were based on the PDP’s own.
This characteristic alone made the 6809 one of the more advanced microprocessors of its time as compared to others such as the MOS 6502 and the Zilog Z80, perhaps the two most commonly used processors in home computers. In 1980 when the Color Computer debuted using this processor, it was a Big Deal. It is thanks to innovative technology, such as the 6809, that we have the powerful systems that we use today.
The 6809, along with many other innovative products of that time deserve a special place in the history of computing. CoCoFEST! an event that brings colleagues and friends together, honors the Color Computer’s place in history and in the present.
Cloud-9 (http://www.cloud9tech.com/) is a company that was founded in 1994 by Mark Marlette and provides hardware and software for the three versions of the Color Computer. Noted products include an IDE interface that plugs into the Color Computer’s cartridge slot, memory expansion modules and NitrOS9. The latter is a full fledged multi user Unix-like operating system that runs on the Color Computer. In addition, DriveWire is available free of charge (as of this writing) as a download from their site.
Cloud-9 was present at the 2014 CoCoFEST! Their display included a few decked out Color Computers showcasing their products and some the products that they have available.
This company has been busy supporting the Color Computer community by providing innovative products that bring new technology and capabilities to this computer. And they have not been stagnant. Cloud-9 reported updates to existing products as well as new development. The following paragraphs describe in brief some of what has been going on.
miniFLASH: A product nearing release that will plug into the CoCo’s cartridge slot (or Multi Pak Interface) and provide four banks of 16K FLASH memory to store ROM images. This will eliminate the need to physically swap out ROM cartridges or OSes. The 16K memory banks will be selectable via software or directly by hardware.
Another Cloud-9 product is the DOS adapter. This is a small printed board that plugs into the Color Computer’s 24 pin EPROM socket and allows the use of 28 pin EPROMs. The 28 pin EPROMs are easier to find plus they have an increased capacity over their 24 pin counterparts. The DOS adapter also incorporates a switching mechanism so that the larger capacity EPROMs can be divided into two banks, meaning that the user can burn the contents of two 24 pin devices into the larger capacity EPROM. Cloud-9 updated this product, improving its presentation by including a solder mask and silkscreen on the printed circuit board.
A PS/2 keyboard adapter is another product available from this company. The adapter is a Color Computer keyboard hardware emulator that allows the use of any PS/2 keyboard with the Color Computer. This device also supports keyboard macros and correctly resets the Color Computer when the Ctrl-Alt-Delete sequence is keyed in. At this time this product is getting an update. The new revision C board is ready for prototyping along with its corresponding firmware and should be available soon.
An innovative product that Cloud-9 is working on and will be available in the near future is the SuperSD. This device, a complete embedded system with the ATMEL AVR Xmega 128a1 as its heart, allows using an SD memory card with the CoCo . The SD card behaves as though it were a solid state hard drive and can be used to store files or ROM images. SuperSD can load these images into the CoCo’s memory space emulating a 32K ROM, provided that Tandy’s specifications are followed. This will make it easy to load OSes whose image is stored in the SD card in a predetermined folder.
SuperSD is compatible with the FAT file system, using the onboard 64K of fast static RAM to hold the FAT file handle buffers. This means that files can easily be read and written by a DOS/Windows computer and read or written by the SuperSD. In addition to holding file allocation table information the memory is also used for the Ethernet buffers and extended memory for the AVR micro controller.
SuperSD will use the DriveWire Protocol to Communicate between it and the CoCo. In addition, this device will also provide a Wiznet expansion slot. Wiznet will be supported by using SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface) controlled by the AVR. Using this platform Ethernet connectivity will be possible. Lots of firmware that supports various protocols is ready for action, with more on the way.
Another useful feature will be the implementation of AES 128 bit encryption for the firmware files. This allows Cloud-9 to post updates to the firmware on their Website. The SuperSD owner only needs to download these files and store them in the SD per instructions. SuperSD will decrypt these files and update its firmware.
HAWKSoft, owned and operated by Christopher Hawks, had a display at the CoCoFEST! HAWKSoft is a vendor that provides hardware and software for the Color Computer. Some noted products include an RGB to S-video converter and software that allows NitrOS-9 to read PC CD-ROMs.
By far the most interesting item at the HAWKSoft booth was the Raspberry Pi CoCo. At first glance it looked just like any other Color Computer 3, with its full travel keyboard and white case, but as Chris explained it was anything but just another Color Computer 3.
First of all there was no CoCo 3 motherboard or electronics inside the case. Instead, there was a RaspBerry Pi that booted into Linux. A CoCo emulator ran within the Linux environment to provide the familiar green welcome screen. Next Chris built a small circuit based on the ATMEL Tiny microcontroller to interface the Raspberry Pi to the CoCo keyboard. The small circuit sensed whatever key was pressed on the keyboard and sent the relevant information via the USB interface to the RaspBerry Pi.
Chris also added a USB hub and installed it inside the Color Computer case. The various USB ports could be seen peering out of the computer’s cartridge slot. It I of note that this is perhaps the first CoCo emulator to run on a host OS that actually uses a CoCo keyboard.
The emulator software took care of correctly interpreting the pressed keys and taking the corresponding action. Chris used the MESS CoCo emulator which works under Linux. MESS is Multiple Emulator Super System and is capable of emulating various computer systems. Chris mentioned that the version running on the RaspBerry Pi was a stripped down version that only emulated the Color Computer. This helped reduce the size of the application to a more manageable size.
Chris is working on putting the software in a publicly available DropBox resource, along with an article that will describe how any one can build their own R-Pi Coco. The article will be published in the Glenside Color Computer Club newsletter. The club makes the newsletter available to everyone free of charge. Go to their Website to find out how you can receive it.
Richard Crislip’s display aptly demonstrated the virtues of DriveWire, a software/hardware combo that is used to transfer files between the CoCo and a Windows PC. The software is run on both the host (Windows PC) and the client (the Coco). They communicate via a serial cable (this being the hardware component). Aaron Wolfe is the one behind DriveWire and responsible for a major part of its development.
DriveWire is more than just a way to transfer files between both systems, it is also a client/server setup that allows the CoCo to store files on a remote system. This is a great example of how a technology that is considered obsolete is augmented by current technology. By using DriveWire the user can have storage that is accessible to the CoCo on a remote system. Storage is no longer limited to the physical hardware that can be connected directly to the CoCo.
In addition to file transfer DriveWire can also perform some TCP/IP networking functions such as Web hosting, Telnet access and BBS services. This means that given the right software the Color Computer can connect to the Internet through DriveWire.
The setup that was used to demonstrate DriveWire was also unique. Richard used two monitors to show the CoCo’s screen. The first was al old NTSC monochrome monitor. The second was a modern VGA LCD flat panel display. By using a video switch Richard was able to have both the CoCo and the Windows PC hooked up to this single LCD monitor.
Since the CoCo does not have a standard VGA output Richard used a video converter that accepted the CoCo’s video signal and had a VGA output. Again the fusion of old and new technology was present.
To see a video of DriveWire in action follow this link:
And the following is the official DriveWire Website;
FPGA Color Computer emulator
Another perfect example of the fusion of old and new was the Altera DE1 FPGA that was programmed to act as a Color Computer 3 emulator. The Altera DE1 is a “blank” Field Programmable Gate Array (hence FPGA). The programmer can build a system that will allow the DE1 to mimic a computing device. Once the FPGA is programmed it behaves as the computer it was programmed to be.
In this case the programmer put together software for the Altera DE3 that emulates a Color Computer. Its compatibility, although not 100%, is impressive as it runs most software available for the Color Computer 3. The person behind this project is Gary Becker and he has a Yahoo! Group dedicated to the FPGA CoCo 3:
The following link provides in introductory overview of the Altera DE1:
This link presents a short demo of the Altera DE1 Color Computer
LogiCall 7.0 is a software application that has a history of almost 20 years and was mainly written by Bob Swoger with crucial and extensive collaboration by John Mark Mobley and Chris Hawks. LogiCall runs on all versions of the CoCo plus some other computer systems, such as the Sinclair 2068, and provides the user with a basic shell that allows him or her to navigate the file system structure of the attached drives using a menu based system. Additionally, LogiCall can also accept commands from the user to perform some file operations such as copy, rename, delete and move and some administrative operations such as backup and diskette format.
The objective of this software is to make using the Color Computer more visual and intuitive. This is accomplished through the menu structure and its innovative use of one-keystroke commands. The app’s source code is provided so that individuals can customize the software to their unique needs.
As an added bonus to registered attendees LogiCall was provided on a 16GB USB flash drive so that everyone could try it out.
History of the Color Computer
Both Boisy Pitre and Bill Loguidice were at the CoCoFEST! to promote their new book, “CoCo: The Colorful History of Tandy's Underdog Computer”, published December 10, 2013 by CRC Press. This book presents the reader with a detailed history of the CoCo from its conception to its production.
The authors had a round table discussion that went overtime. Attendees were interested in hearing the stories behind the book and behind the Color Computer. The discussion closed with a question and answer session. Both authors were eager to share experiences and answer the public’s questions. This book is available through Amazon and can be located easily by searching its title.
The Elusive and Mythical Color Computer 4
During the time when the Color Computer 3 was commercially available, many followers started to imagine what Tandy/Radio Shack had in store for the next generation of the Color Computer. Many envisioned a faster processer, integrated disk storage and a more advanced video subsystem. This was the early 90s and VGA was all the rage after IBM introduced it a few years back along with its line of PS/2 computers.
Unfortunately, it was also a time when the concept of the home computer was slowly disappearing, being replaced by an all encompassing general computer driven by Microsoft software and using an Intel microprocessor. The Color Computer 4 never came to be as Tandy/Radio Shack discontinued the line making the CoCo 3 the last of its kind.
CoCoFEST! 2014 hosted a rare relic from the Color Computer past: A genuine prototype of the Color Computer 4, by Tandy/Radio Shack. Although this was just a mock up of the case, with no CoCo 4 electronics inside, it still represented an official effort by this company to develop the next generation of the Color Computer after the CoCo 3.
More CoCo stuff
The CoCoFEST! was littered with CoCo stuff. Everything from back issues of popular magazines such as Rainbow could be seen, as well as books that described how to get started with Color Computer BASIC, assembly programming and technical documentation.
An interesting display was by John Linville. He had a fully functional LED array display system connected to a Color Computer. This project was built following instructions from an article that appeared in an issue of Nuts and Volts dating back to 2000.
A central and strategic fundraising event was the annual CoCoFEST! auction were all sorts of CoCo and some non CoCo stuff was auctioned off. This event is the highlight of the first day of the event (not counting the festivities that go on after the show). Alas, I had to leave as the auction was getting started so I can’t report a play-by-play of this event.
All in all everyone had a great time celebrating friendship and a small underdog computer of the 80s that left a spirit of community and collaboration which is still going on strong today.
See you next year:
April 25 & 26, 2015
HERON POINT CONVENTION CENTER
645 West North Avenue
Lombard, IL 60148
665 Building on the lower level
Saturday 10 am to 5 pm
Sunday 10 am to 5 pm