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What retro-style systems are currently being sold commercially? Currently I know about these projects:

I'm specifically excluding emulators (including C64 mini/maxi), fantasy consoles, etc. I'm only interested in real hardware (including FPGA) though the architecture doesn't have to be 8-bit.

Afterwords:

Under retro characteristics I consider most importantly direct access to the hardware by user software without operating system abstraction layer.

Also limited memory, graphics and sound capabilities compared to modern computers for retro look and feel but those are not mandatory because they can be easily simulated on a more capable machine.

Good starting point for what I'm looking for are 8-bit computers like the upper mentioned examples, but also 16/32 bit architectures like:

  • The Amiga family.
  • DOS era x86 PCs.
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    What exactly defines a retro system? One that has a keyboard and display and boots to BASIC? Something else? – Alex Hajnal Jun 11 at 22:19
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    though the architecture doesn't have to be 8-bit. Well, of course not. If it's an 8-bit system it's comparatively modern :-) There are people building modern implementations of PDP-11 and PDP-10, but not as a business, just for their own amusement. It's difficult to see how it could be commercially viable. – another-dave Jun 11 at 22:37
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    @another-dave Didn't the Soviet Union have a whole range of PDP-11-compatible home micros? – Alex Hajnal Jun 11 at 22:40
  • @Alex Hijnal Also graphics which looks pixelated on a modern monitor and with limited color palette, limited sound capabilities (like PC Speaker or SID), and maybe most importantly direct access to the hardware without OS abstraction layer. Not mandatory to boot to BASIC. I'm not a big fan of this language anyway. Something more modern, but still tiny like Lua REPL will be even better. ;) – bobeff Jun 11 at 22:44
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    There were Soviet clones, but AFAIK they were contemporary with the PDP-11, not a reproduction of a "retro" computer design. i.e., the clones themselves are now retro. – another-dave Jun 11 at 22:45
  • @another-dave I mean that 8-bit architecture is the low end of the designs which I'm interested to. The other possibilities are something like Amiga or even DOS era x86 machines. – bobeff Jun 11 at 22:50
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    @bobeff Why don't you edit your question and add your definition. IMO the limited video, audio, etc. were more a result of cost or technical limitations (it's kinda hard to fit a 1920x1200x24 framebuffer into 64kB) than a explicit design decision. Personally, I'd consider full access to the hardware by user software (no mandatory HAL) a retro feature. Booting directly into BASIC would be another though at least one platform used Forth and many systems booted to an OS (Multics, CP/M, etc.). – Alex Hajnal Jun 11 at 22:54
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    What exactly is "sold commercially"? There are systems designed by enthusiasts that you can order, mostly as PCB+components (in the best tradition of ZX80 kit) or even assembled. Though somehow I do not think the sellers make a lot of money. – Radovan Garabík Jun 12 at 7:47
  • @Radovan Garabík Yes, I expect the most of those systems to be designed by enthusiasts and to be on a border line between hobby and commercial projects. Actually the three systems mentioned by me are all of this kind. Unfortunately no one of them can currently be bought. The first is entirely sold out and the later two are still under development. – bobeff Jun 12 at 10:54
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    The Altair 8800 Clone which duplicates the case appearance while providing a full system capability compatible with the original using a single printed circuit board also implementing the front panel. Ordering Information – user9041 Jun 12 at 19:43
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    @AlexHajnal: The retro aspect I would find most interesting would be a CPU bus that runs with predictable retro-ish (~1-4Mhz) timing. Many emulators may be able to generate in real time a sequence of video frames that precisely matches those retro systems, but during each 16ms period they will have some moments when they're running much faster than a real system and others where they effectively stall for a few microseconds if not milliseconds. An FPGA-based system could operate with timing that would consistently be within a few dozen nanoseconds of matching a retro system.. – supercat Jun 15 at 16:54
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When I read the OP's question, the first thing I thought of was https://github.com/MiSTer-devel/Main_MiSTer/wiki

Taken from the page linked above:

What is it?

MiSTer is an open project that aims to recreate various classic computers, game consoles and arcade machines, using modern hardware. It allows software and game images to run as they would on original hardware, using peripherals such as mice, keyboards, joysticks and other game controllers.

MiSTer utilizes a readily available FPGA board called the 'DE10-Nano', which connects to your TV or monitor via HDMI video out. It can additionally be expanded with various add-ons (such as a USB hub, SDRAM, audio and VGA out).

The MiSTer software/OS itself is freely downloadable, and anyone is welcome to contribute to its development. In fact MiSTer relies on the contributions of many developers for the various systems (known as 'cores') it replicates.

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    Note that MiSTer is a port of the MIST Board, to beefier but more "some assembly may be required" hardware, if you'd prefer something that comes with a metal case and just needs an SD card image written. – ssokolow Jun 12 at 8:29
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Contemporary PCs do in fact satisfy your requirements if you don't boot a modern operating system.

"Real" MS-DOS itself might not boot due to A20 gate support having been removed on modern intel CPUs, but FreeDOS certainly does. I've even booted it on a Mac, a platform which is reluctant to running anything other than MacOS. This is actual real-mode bare metal execution rather than virtualisation or emulation. (Yes, real mode exists even on 64-bit Macs.)

From here you can fire up e.g. GW-BASIC and poke at the hardware to your heart's content. You can even use a DOS extender to enter protected mode and beat the 640kiB limit (and escape the horrors of segmentation) in which case DJGPP may be of interest to you.

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You have to consider the RC2014 crowd and their several Z80 CP/M machines that they've developed and are selling, mostly in kit form, from a variety of designers.

The modern ones are based on Z180s, run at expanded clock rates (e.g. 18MHz), and come loaded up with assorted systems from the CP/M era.

They need little more than a soldering iron, serial cable, compact flash card, and a power supply.

The key element they lack, in fact most of the modern machines lack, is floppy drives. And it's difficult to convey, especially in the pre-PC era, how fundamental to the computing experience the floppy drive was. From its implicit use as an organizational unit, to its performance (or lack there of), to its portability.

Floppies are a rare beast nowadays. The controller chips are rare, the drives are kind of expensive and power hungry, the media is getting more rare as well.

But they were a fundamental aspect of the machines of the day.

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  • Just for reference their official site: rc2014.co.uk – bobeff Jun 12 at 20:36
  • RC2014 is interesting because it's physical hardware (not an FPGA or similar) that can still be reconfigured well enough that it can be used to run programs designed for a wide variety of systems, e.g. with an add-on board using a TMS9918 it can be made to run software designed for ColecoVision or MSX systems (as well as some other less popular ones that used similar hardware). – occipita Jun 13 at 7:09
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Parallax makes an interesting set of chips they call Propeller chips. The original one is still sold, and likely to continue to be available for a long time, has a definite retro feel, despite being a 32 bit device and a concurrent multi-processor. Yes, one can do either parallel or concurrent type programming on it, and it shines when that is done.

https://www.parallax.com/catalog/microcontrollers/propeller

Here's the interesting bit:

Each core has it's own private memory space. On the original design, assembly language programs would only run in that space, limited to 512 long instructions. If you want, you can imagine it as a CPU with 512 registers that can contain instructions or data and you won't be far off the mark.

There is a shared memory space of 32Kbytes, and each of the cores has access to it in a round robin fashion.

Programming this thing feels a lot like retro computing does. People have made operating systems, emulations and all the usual things, but what I like most is just building up projects, writing applications and experimenting with it much like I did (and still do on occasion) with my Apple 2. The difference is all those cores turn into soft peripherials easily.

Here's an example:

Say I need a TV text display. Take one of those cores, they call them COGS, and knock out a composite video signal, 320x200 and supply an 8x8 font, and there you go. 40x24 text, with the video buffer being whatever format, where ever you want it. One of my first projects was to do exactly this and I mooched the Atari font out of my Atari 400 ROM, got the signals just right, and it's very hard to even tell the difference at a glance.

Once something like this is done, integrating it with some project is super easy. In fact, it's probably the easiest I've ever seen it.

To the rest of your project, that core running appears just like a custom chip in an old computer does. You can have it read memory, act on values, signal VBLANK, and all the good stuff. From there, you setup the other bits you might need, sound, serial, and then program on a fast, currently available system (dev boards are quite capable), doing many things just like you would back in the day, and there is only as much of an OS as you want there to be.

The current chip is considerably more capable, offering higher speeds and crazy luxury in terms of I/O and hardware assists to help with things like capturing signals, or creating them.

If your retro interest extends into programming and electronics, or you want to combine stuff available today with or into your retro projects, these devices are an awful lot of fun.

In my view, the Propeller 1 is definitely retro feel. You can get one in a DIP 40 package, slot it into a breadboard Ben Eater style, and have something dancing on the screen, or blinking lights, making sounds in very little time and not too much effort.

The newer one is a capable system on a chip, and a few users have mentioned "The Amiga of Microcontrollers", which is a description I feel isn't too far off.

Some assembly required though. Seriously, both chips shine in assembly and offer a beautiful, simple assembly language, despite being multi-processors. And you will either want to make your own little system, or get one of the more capable dev boards to get going. If these things are interesting, or don't scare you off, it's all a good experience.

Here are a few demos made on the original design. I expect to see, and will likely contribute to similar productions for the new design, but it's still really new:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gyO2lRXLyg

This one is done in Apple 2 type artifact color. Video authored by Eric Ball, animation by me, sound by the SidCOG author.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gEMKYnUADE

This one is in VGA, authored by a well known scener.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_GTOvkdM5Q

An accurate SID emulation, capable of playing pretty much any SID tune out there. There is an Amiga mod player under construction for the new design, which will be based on a serious sound engine near completion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnwAbLvcW6w

Not an emulation. This is a port of the 8bit game using a TV signal driver that outputs an Atari 8bit like video signal.

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    It's worth mentioning that on its base is created André LaMothe's HYDRA game development kit, which is from 2006, but still can be purchased. – bobeff Jun 14 at 19:14
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Another modern retro machine series for which I knew today is Maximite.

They can be programmed in modern BASIC dialect and there are 3 models available:

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There's a modern clone of the original 48K Sinclair ZX Spectrum called the Harlequin. In fact it's been around since 2008!

I think it's just a motherboard and ULA kit that you build yourself in a custom case or case of a dead Speccy. I really don't know much about them but see them mentioned around the internet on a regular basis.

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