September 2020

Moving on from COLE-2

Over the last few days I have been thinking a lot about COLE-2’s future, and I kept asking myself if it is worth taking this project all the way to a final build. After much debate I finally admitted to myself that it’s not.

This project is a stepping stone, part of a long-term plan to build my dream 65816 computer. Think of it as the Apple IIGS upgrade I wish Apple had produced 30 years ago. Each design iterates on the previous one until my goal is reached. Since COLE-2 is not the end goal, once I build it it will end up in the same drawer as COLE-1 when I start my next design. Thus I’ve decided not to pursue further work on this hardware design.

As a stepping stone I think this project has done very well for me. I learned how to design a 65816 system, how to program GALs and CPLDs, and even some FPGA skills. Now it’s time for me to take the next step towards my final goal.

The Joys of Programmable Logic

My next design will be built around the ULX3S, an FPGA development board based on the Lattice ECP5. Compared to the iCE40 I used for COLE-2’s video controller the ECP5 is a beast; it sports over 84,000 LUTs compared to the paltry 7,680 on the iCE40. With that level of resources available I can build the entire system inside the FPGA itself.

Nothing is 100% finalized yet, but my plan is to connect a 65816 directly to the FPGA. The FPGA will provide the CPU with all necessary resources, such as RAM, ROM, and I/O. Future iterations may even replace the CPU with a soft core inside the FPGA, which could let it reach speeds that a physical 65816 simply can’t achieve.

The beauty of this design is that I can iterate on it without changing the hardware at all. In theory this design can be anything once it’s built, even a IIGS-compatible build, just by changing the FPGA’s code. I think that level of freedom will keep me occupied for a very long time!

As a bonus this new design will be quite small. This will make it very easy for me to push it aside when I want to use my workbench for other projects for a while.

I don’t have a name for this project yet, other than “not COLE-3”. I’ll be thinking of names as I wait for my ULX3S to arrive, which should be before the end of the month. I’ll announce the name at that point.

Taming my home office, vintage hardware, and a quick COLE-2 update

This post is far less technical than my usual posts, but since I haven’t blogged in nearly 8 months I decided it was time to post something.

So, what have I been up to? Well, like most people, I’ve just been trying to adjust to pandemic life. I’ve been working from home since late March, and that is slated to continue until at least January. Working from home has been great in some ways (I’m saving a ton on gas and lunches), but it’s also been tough in others (distracting cats, lack of sunlight, and general malaise with my lunch choices at home). For the first couple of months it was very draining on me, but now I have adjusted and things are going much better.

Home Office Reorganization

Since I am home so much I took the opportunity to get some work done on projects around the house. One of those projects was a massive reorganization of my home office/workshop, which has been in dire need of it for many years now.

Starting conditions

My home office is not very big; it’s just a spare bedroom and is roughly 8′ x 12′. One one short wall is my actual desk, plus an old end table that pretty much is just a table for my workstation. The other short wall had some very overburdened shelves holding all my technical books, plus a self-standing equipment rack, like you may find in a data center. One of the longer walls is mostly a set of double doors, and the other has my work bench. Every inch of wall space was used, and the remaining area did not leave a lot of room to work comfortably.

New Shelving

The first thing I did was recycle about half of the books, as they were all 15-20 years out of date. The remaining books went onto some brand new shelves I installed above my desk. The old shelves then came down, and I installed two Muscle Rack shelving units along that entire wall.

The equipment rack has not had any actual rack-mountable equipment in it for at least a decade; all that remained was our MythTV/Minecraft server, the cable modem, the wifi router, a cable box, and an HD-PVR. All of that went to the new racks, and the old equipment rack went to the basement.

The end result is that I now have a ton of storage space for all my parts and equipment, and my office feels much more comfortable. I still have some work to do as far as organizing what is on the racks, but it is ten times better than before.

Vintage Hardware Collection

As you might have guessed from my SBC projects I’m a fan of vintage hardware. I am particularly found of hardware from the 1970s and 80s. Over the last 20-25 years I’ve put together a nice collection, but it has been packed away in closets. My dream has been to get it all out, cleaned up, and put on display.

With my office organized I decided to gather everything into my office and display it on my new racks. While it’s not the display I dreamed of, it’s a start. As of right now my collection consists of:

  • A ColecoVision, sans power adapter. Untested since I can’t power it up.
  • A TI-99/4A, with the speech synthesizer add-on
  • A TurboExpress handheld
  • A late-model Commodore 64, but no floppy drive
  • A ROM 03 Apple IIGS, with a 3.5″ and a 5.25″ drive, but no monitor
  • A Macintosh IIfx (won’t turn on)
  • A Macintosh Quadra 660AV (also won’t turn on)
  • A Macintosh Quadra 630
  • A Macintosh SE/30
  • An SGI Indigo. Turns on, but no video
  • A Sun SPARCstation IPX. Turns on, but no video
  • A Sun SPARCstation 20. Turns on, but no video
  • A pizza box form factor NeXT workstation. Turns on, but no video

I plan to do some future blog posts about my collection, including repair work and efforts to make them more compatible with the modern world, such as adding SD card adapters where possible.


I’d like to end this post with a quick update on COLE-2. I have gotten some work in on this project over the summer, and my focus has been on finalizing the hardware so I can concentrate on the software. I’ll post more about those efforts soon.