14 June 2019

Meet the Machine: (Former) Toolbox PC

My original plan for the Meet the Machine series was to discuss the vintage computers I have, but for very sentimental reasons, I'm expanding the concept a bit. The computer in this post was built in 2013, but it played a significant role in my life. This is going to be a long post, so buckle in.
Behold, the Toolbox PC before it had an operating system. 
I had built a few PCs before this one, so I had a pretty good grasp on it. But those PCs were designed to stay in one place. At the time, I was going on extended trips and thus didn't have access to my Steam library. At first I brought an Xbox 360, which was fun, but PC games allowed for so much more. 

So I needed a PC that I could take with me that would withstand a bit of abuse. I expected this thing to be dropped a few times (and it was). I spent a few weeks searching the Internet for PC cases built for abuse and nothing at a reasonable cost turned up. What I did find were some interesting custom cases, but they too were either cost prohibitive or designed more for style than utility. 

Then the idea hit me: the Toolbox PC. I could get a rugged toolbox built with strong materials and add shock absorbers to the components. 

13 June 2019

Site Update

Hey friends,

I've been making some changes to this website to make it more open to things other than calculators. I'm keeping the name The Calculator Review even though I'll be discussing more than just calculators because I like it.

I've added a links page so you can see where I get a lot of my inspiration from, as well as to make this part of the Commodore 64 community. Please check them out if you find this stuff interesting.

Thank you so much for reading, and if you have feedback, I'd love to hear it!

12 June 2019

Commodore Project 64 Part 7: Backup Board!

I mentioned several times that I'm concerned that I won't get the board for P64 working since I've had no luck in finding out what's wrong with it. I purchased a Commodore 64C for super cheap with the hope that it wouldn't work so that I could repair it and keep my theme of the project. [Un]forunately it worked perfectly.

But recently I was lucky enough to find an untested Commodore 64 breadbox computer among a lot of other neat things.
This one looks way worse than other breadbox I've had.

10 June 2019

Commodore Project 64 Part 6: The Power Supply

I wasn't planning on doing another P64 post until I did something interesting and worth sharing. But two of my Commodore 64 power supplies died on me and the third isn't putting out the correct voltage. This left me with no means of using any of the machines for a few weeks until the new one I ordered arrived.

Of course I can't live with that, so I thought back to a video from Perifractic's Retro Recipes in which he built a cheap and simple power supply.
This blew my mind because the original C64 PSU is big and ridiculously heavy. I guess electrical technology has improved over the past thirty years.

So I've been planning on building one of these for a while but hadn't had a reason to bother with it until now. I even had the components I would need already, so I spent some time analyzing some things Perifractic didn't explain clearly and doing a little bit of my own research elsewhere to figure out exactly what I needed to do.

07 June 2019

Meet the Machine: Commodore 64 One

As I mentioned in the beginning of the Commodore Project 64 series, I have several C64s. The focus so far has been on one that doesn't currently work, so now I'd like to discuss the ones that do, as well as other vintage computers in my collection.

I'll start with the one that looks the best.
I call it the Commodore 64 One because it's the first system I restored.

The chassis is in fantastic condition, showing hardly any signs of age. It's actually the chassis that the Project 64 board originally came from. The board comes from the first C64 I ever purchased.
Inside, all of the radial capacitors have been replaced. Every chip that put out any sort of heat was fitted with a heat sink to keep everything nice and cool.
But the most important thing done to this computer is the PLA chip was replaced with a modern U17 PLAnkton. These can be found on Ebay for about $20, but I purchased mine from Retroleum.com. It's a small UK-based store that sells spare and replacement parts for vintage computers and vital for any Commodore 64 enthusiast.
The PLA chip is apparently the most common point of failure for a Commodore 64, so replacing this one with a modern chip reduces the chances of this computer dying on me. The U17 PLAnkton also generates significantly less heat than the old PLA, which can only be a good thing.
This machine was modified for reliability and performance. It's my go-to C64 for gaming, and it runs like a dream. I love this computer even though it isn't stock.

05 June 2019

Commodore Project 64 Part 5: The Keyboard

While planning out this project, I was concerned about the motherboard never working. As I've said before, it gives me nothing more than a black screen even after having all capacitors replaced and testing the chips that are usually the biggest culprit in a non-working machine. So as a fallback, in case I never got the Project 64 board working again, I ordered a supposedly non-working Commodore 64C for about $50 from Ebay.
This is the Commodore 64C, a later revision of the world's most popular computer. I personally love the breadbox design more, but the 64C has its own beauty. This machine is in rough shape. It's missing keys and is quite filthy. Also it has a weird smell. But I figured if it didn't work, I could take the board from inside and use it for Project 64.
But alas, it works flawlessly. That's good because I won't have to fix the board if I do end up using it for P64. But it's also kind of bad because it breaks my rule of using only things that wouldn't otherwise be a part of a working machine. Regardless, I'm not going to scrap this C64C chassis of course.

Today's post isn't about the 64C, but the Vic-20 keyboard I intend to use for Project 64.

Okay, it's actually not that bad. I've disassembled and cleaned many Commodore keyboards and it's pretty straightforward. I also don't care that it's missing keys because I'm going to be 3D printing new ones anyway. But I needed to make sure the keyboard would work.
I brought out my main Commodore 64 that currently works flawlessly. I won't get into what makes it special for this post because I'd like to write something for each of my vintage computers.
From what I can tell, the keyboard used for the Vic-20 is identical to the Commodore 64. It plugs in just fine, so I booted up the Commodore 64 and attempted to type "TESTING VIC-20 KEYBOARD ON COMMODORE 64."
Hmmm, not quite. I wasn't sure if this was being caused by a faulty keyboard or if the Vic-20 keyboard wasn't compatible with the Commodore 64. So I brought out my working Vic-20.
My desk was getting cluttered with Commodore products, but the test proved that a Vic-20 keyboard is perfectly compatible.
The weird pink color isn't the fault of the Commodore 64. I think the television I'm using is having problems (yay a future project!). But more importantly, I learned that I was going to have to repair the Vic-20 board for Project 64.

I've never fixed the keyboard of a Commodore machine before, so I'm going to stop here for now. I'm guessing the missing shift lock key might be the cause of the problems, but I don't have a spare currently to verify this. 

03 June 2019

Commodore Project 64 Part 4: Retr0bright Phase 3

The first three phases of retr0brighting were intended to be experimental. I wanted to find the best method for me to restore the old electronics in my collection. Unfortunately, as this post will reveal, none of the methods I've tried have proven to be consistent.
For Phase 3, I purchased two 15W ultraviolet lights so that I wouldn't have to rely on unreliable sunlight.
I brushed 40 volume creme over the top and bottom of the chassis as well as half of the printer cover of the calculator. I put all of the parts on top of the dryer in my laundry room and set up the black lights to cover as much as possible.

A few hours into this experiment, I figured I should add another yellowed thing that hadn't been retr0brighted at all and see what kind of effect this setup would have.
I have two Sega Dreamcasts, one in amazing shape (left) and one that shows its age (right). This would be the perfect opportunity to see if I could restore something back to its true original color with the method.

I taped off a section so I could see definite changes, if any were to appear. This square was coated lightly with creme, which may have been the problem later on.
All parts were rotated and the lights rearranged to get better coverage and so I could fit the Dreamcast on top of the dryer. Take notice of the angle of the Dreamcast because this yielded strange results after 20-something hours.

The sectioned off square hardly shows any difference, but the right side of the yellowed Dreamcast is slightly brighter. The side that was hit the most with UV light is more yellowed than the shaded side. My guess as to what happened here is that the UV negatively affected the plastic that wasn't covered in 40 volume creme. 

I think the very thin layer of creme I used on the Dreamcast just wasn't enough to do anything useful, but there was a difference. It's hard to see in person, but at certain angles I can definitely tell the sectioned area was brightened.

Anyway, back to the Vic-20 case.

Side note: after 24 hours of checking on this under a black light, seeing this case under normal light was really weird. Here's everything before I washed off the creme.

And this is after, with a picture of the chassis from before on the left. These pictures don't really tell the whole story because the lighting is different between them. For future projects, I'll need to find a way to get consistent lighting between pictures to get a better idea of how well the retr0brighting process works.

Once again, not much has changed on the bottom of the chassis. I'm honestly pretty happy with where it is anyway. 
The melted portion on the top of the chassis came out fantastic. There's still a slightly peach color remaining, so I'll hit this lightly with some sandpaper to see if that helps remove it completely.

I have not attempted to retr0bright the interior of the chassis at all, but even it has whitened in parts where there was creme. 
The left and right sides of the top and bottom chassis still need some work because I didn't leave them in the UV light much. 
Finally, here's the part from the severely oranged calculator. I only brushed the half beneath the window so I could see definite changes. I wouldn't say it's brighter than the rest, just different. I wonder if this calculator was also in an area thick with cigarette smoke. I'm going to need to find a different method to fully restore this calculator. But I did discover something very interesting during my first attempt to clean it.
While attempting to fix the plastic panel over the display, I got some super glue on the chassis of the calculator. I wiped it off as quickly as possible, but it revealed the true color beneath the sickly orange. This clearly damaged the plastic, but I wonder if there's an ingredient in super glue that could be used to clean this up. 

Anyway, that's all for the Project 64 for now. I still don't have a working board and I'm waiting on some components for my 3D printer to move ahead with the keys. I will need to put this on hold until something of significance happens because there's only so much to say about retr0brighting the same machine. I'd like to use what I've learned so far to retr0bright something else, so once I figure out what that is, I'll write about that.

Thanks for tuning in!

31 May 2019

Commodore Project 64 Part 3 - Retr0bright Phase 2, More Keys

After the success of the first retr0bright, I was confident I had everything I'd need to get this computer looking the way I want it. The 40 Volume Creme is definitely the way to go.

With that, it was time to brighten the rest of the chassis as well as the Canon P101-D calculator.
I woke up extra early since the sun was supposed to rise around 5:30 AM. I wanted to maximize the amount of time everything would be exposed for the best results. Unfortunately, because of the position of my porch, the sunlight was nowhere near available. I waited a few hours and finally had some light to work with.

And this is where I started to find problems with this method. There are a lot of trees around me, and there's another porch above mine. Because of the narrow area of sunlight I get each day, I had to move everything every half hour or so. This was very annoying.

But I persisted, and found that my porch gets a total of about 2 hours of sunlight during the day. Most videos I've seen of successful retr0brights have their parts out for six to twelve hours.

Here's a comparison shot of the bottom of the Vic-20 case. The first brightening attempt was great, but the second didn't make much of a difference. It seems retr0brighting has diminishing returns, so I would need a way to keep everything in direct UV light for an extended period of time.

But it wasn't all disappointment. Here are comparison shots of the other parts.

The difference between before and after with the calculator was incredible. The dark orange has become a light shade of pink. It has a long way to go before it's back to normal, but I was happy with the results of just a few hours of sunlight.

The top of the chassis looks WAY better now. Most of the yellowing is gone, and the ugly stain on the left side is completely gone. 

Also, one of the most concerning parts of the case looks significantly better. 

Still, this wasn't enough to satisfy me, so I needed to take drastic measures to get this case looking fantastic. Tune in to Retr0bright Phase 3 some time next week.

Moving on from that, I made a shocking discovery about the keys of the Commodore 64: they aren't all the same. 
As you can see, the slope of the top changes between the f keys. Did this also mean that the other keys were different?
Yes, it did. I was mistaken when I thought the key I 3D printed from Thingiverse wasn't accurate. It turns out it was the same as the top row. This means I'll need to design two more keys-
God damn it. 

29 May 2019

Commodore Project 64 Part 2 - Retr0bright Phase 1

A while back I attempted to retr0bright a disgustingly oranged calculator. It did not work. I used 40 volume hair creme, which has a lot of hydrogen peroxide, the key ingredient in making things whiter. Vintage enthusiasts swear by the stuff, so I pick up a gallon of it from Sally Beauty for like $10. The mistake I made when attempting to de-orange that calculator was I never left it in the sun. It turns out you need ultraviolet light to activate the hair creme.

So with today's post, I want to revisit that device as well as move forward with the Commodore Project 64.

I think the bottom of the Vic-20 place is the best place to start. It's the worst-looking part of the chassis, but if I screw it up, the damage won't be visible from above at least. I began by removing all of the rubber feet and then used a heat gun to cleanly remove the product sticker. I also scrubbed all of the parts with soap and water, and used an abrasive pad to remove any marks.

Removing the sticker revealed the true color of the Vic-20 chassis. This would help me figure out when the case was looking the way it should. With this point of comparison, I brushed the 40 volume creme all over the surface and laid clear plastic wrap over that to keep debris from getting in it. 

This went outside onto my porch, which only gets a few hours of sunlight each day.

I had to move it twice over the following hours so it would always be in direct sunlight. I also rotated the piece so that every area would be affected.

And here's the result of the first phase:
The difference is huge. The yellowing was reduced significantly. I'm pretty happy with the results so far, but there's still work to be done. 

While cleaning the top of the chassis, I found some nasty damage had been done to the vent. I believe this was caused by a candle because I've also found wax between some of the keys and in other parts of the chassis. My guess is a candle fell over onto this machine at some point in the past. 

It's unfortunate to see this kind of damage, but I'm hoping the retr0bright will lighten that area up and make it less noticeable. 

In Phase 2, I'll be doing the entire case as well as that ugly orange calculator. Thanks for reading!

If you're interested in retr0bright, here are some places to start:

https://www.retr0bright.com/ - a website dedicated specifically to it.

And this video:

In fact I recommend watching ALL of the 8-Bit Guy's videos. His content is fantastic and he has been a huge inspiration to me. 

26 May 2019

Something Different: Commodore Project 64 Part 1

Hello, and once again, sorry for the lack of content. I've been busy with several projects and haven't had much motivation to work on calculator reviews. The original joke was that the calculator reviews would all pretty much be the same, but the reality is that joke isn't very funny after several months. That doesn't mean I won't be doing more calculator reviews, but they will be less common and will be for devices that have something notable about them.

I follow several vintage electronics enthusiasts on YouTube and have found their projects to be fascinating. It has inspired me to build a custom Commodore 64 computer of my own. I have several working machines and one that does not work at all. The shell of that one was re-purposed for a retro gaming machine powered by a Raspberry Pi.

Commodore 64 Assy 326298 Rev A, from 1982.
That left me with a board that didn't function. I've replaced the capacitors and swapped out most of the chips for tested working ones, but it still won't give me anything more than a black screen. I've even tried using the Commodore 64 Dead Test cartridge, but even that won't give me any sort of output.
The Commodore Dead Test cartridge.
I've given up on this machine several times, but I don't have the heart to get rid of it. I want to figure out what's wrong and have it up and running again. Sure, I could just get another board, but I'm interested in the challenge of making a 37 year-old machine working again.

So I have dubbed this my Commodore Project 64. I want to turn it into a custom computer with features my stock computers don't have. I personally prefer the original machines, but I want to have some fun with this. The one rule I want to stick with as best I can is that I will only use parts from original machines that are beyond repair and would likely never be used for regular machines again.

I was inspired by Adrian Black's Creamy Dreamy C64:

He used a Commodore Vic-20 case for a very beautiful end result. So with that, I hunted down the worst Vic-20 case I could find on Ebay.

Commodore Vic-20 Case.
This thing is a mess.

The good news is that the case itself isn't broken, just very gross. Several keys are missing, but that's okay because I've got a plan for those.

One of my favorite creators on YouTube, Perifractic's Retro Recipes, built this amazing machine. Since he wanted to only use parts that were recently manufactured, his options for keys were limited. He went with Lego Bricks, which is a neat idea, but I personally hated that. 

So I've been designing 3D printed keys to be used on my Commodore Project 64. This part alone has proven to be a grueling process. Some people have attempted to replicate these keys, but I don't like how they've turned out.

The leftmost blue key was my first print of a C64 key, and it came from a user by the name of Yangsong on Thingiverse. Click here if you want to get a look at the CAD files. The key looks and functions nicely, but it's not quite right for the Commodore 64. It may be a different design that user is basing it on, but I don't know for sure. The mess on the inside is just printing supports I haven't bothered to remove because they have no effect on the end result.

The key in the middle is my design so far. The dimensions are much closer to the keys I'm working with.
Here's a view of the key in CAD. It's still not to my liking, but I've been making adjustments and printing it over and over and getting closer to something amazing. I do want to make the design publicly available when it's finished so that others can print their own keys.

So this is where I am now with the project. The Vic-20 case needs to be thoroughly cleaned and retr0brighted. Now that my area is getting sun, I should have better luck with that. The 3D printed keys need to be refined and I'll need to figure out what sort of color scheme I want to go with. And of course, I need to get the board working again.

In the meantime, I'd like to post occasional updates on this project. I've got more parts and things I'll need ordered but it could be several months before I have all of them.