A Neal Stephenson, 80s vision of "tomorrow" based cyberdeck built around a Kuwaiti Sakhr AX170 MSX computer and Lattepanda Delta SBC
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New screen safe and sound in it's new bezel
JPEG Image - 2.74 MB - 11/01/2022 at 02:45
Old screen bezel I'd originally planned to use made of hardboard, acrylic, and a chopped up keyboard bezel.
JPEG Image - 2.85 MB - 11/01/2022 at 02:45
Everything old is new. I scrapped a dead dvd player for it's screen bezel and rear screen cover. I'll need to cook up a proper rear cover, but the screen fit's so perfectly it just needed standoffs glued in for the controller PCB and a hole for the stuff that stands proud of the board.
JPEG Image - 2.68 MB - 11/01/2022 at 02:45
It's been a hot minute since I last made any real progress on the AXE 1770 (two damn years, YIKES!). 2020 was nuts, moving house was nuts, and moving and then rebuilding my very most favorite hackerspace (Freeside Atlanta) and seeing to it that it's tools worked and roots took hold in it's new planter bed took priority over my schmexy cyberdeck. I did try here and there to make progress on it, but it was slow going when i found the energy and time for it.
This was my first attempt at a screen enclosure. I'd gotten an official lattepanda delta 7'' touchscreen, and made an enclosure from handyboard, laser-cut acrylic, and a keyboard bottom shell I chopped up with a table saw and glued back together. This is an excellent and cheap way of making an enclosure for thin projects by they way! Unfortunately in the process of moving hackerspace and home I managed to lose the screen, and had to mothball this route, as I couldn't source another of the lattepanda screens. :(
Thankfully? I had a chromebook which had been around the block, seen it's share of use and abuse, and was getting quite long in the tooth. It was destined for ewaste or a dumpster, so I pulled it to bits and looked up it's LCD panel model, and managed to find a cheap and cheerful LCD to whatever-ya-like video controller! Only problem was it's a 10' screen and didn't have any obvious good way to mount it in a pleasing way to the AX 170 shell without sicking out the side or obscuring a cartidge slot. BOOO! At least I have a slim portable VGA/composite/hdmi monitor now. Maybe it'll live in another project.
Since I couldn't figure out a satisfying mount for the big screen the project just sat to one side mocking me here and there, and i assumed I'd have to buy a new screen kit for it.
Cut to a few days ago, I was tidying the gordian knot of cables at Freeside and happened across a circa-2011 RCA portable clamshell dvd player, with a familiar size of screen on it. It didn't play DVDs bit the screen worked, and i thought i might cannibalize it if i could pull the same hdmi panel controller trick on it.
Thankfully, a very awesome member at Freeside noticed me gnawing on the screen, and when i explained my plan he pulled a deus ex machina, and happened to have an exact-fit replacement for the screen that was already made to take hdmi and dc power without a fuss!
I added some standoffs, chopped open a hole i the shell for the ports, and am currently here:
Just a quick mockup with the new screen vaguely in place, and a 'shooped display for effect.
Next up, finding a suitable set of hinges, making a cool rear cover that fits the ax170's look, and seeing if i can get it all fit together!
With a working keyboard at the ready, I had to chose what kind of computer this would be. I already had a Pi4 and 7" touchscreen on hand, and while the Pi4 is a really impressive amount of computer for the size and it's totally able to run as a desktop, it's ARM based architecture is limiting for software. I wanted something I could run regular desktop software on, and maybe do some light gaming. With as much time and effort as it's taking I wanted a truly usable computer, not just something that looks the part.
In the compact computing space there's the likes of the Intel NUC, which uses normal laptop ram, and there's dedicated single board computers. x86/x64 SBCs have come a long way in the last few years, compact and powerful machines that'll give low to mid-tier laptops a run for their money. There's about a dozen of them from various manufacturers, each with some pros and cons. I felt the best fit for me was a Lattepanda Delta. It's not too expensive, powerful enough to use as a normal PC, has a built in arduino for microcontrollery stuff, and is nice and compact.
As an added bonus, this board has a pretty cool touchscreen that can be seen and adjusted in windows 10. I mocked up what a 7 and 10 inch screen might look like, and decided a 7" looked more fitting to the scale of this machine, and help keep it looking sleek and asymmetrical in a believably "designed that way" way.
With all the major bits and pieces decided on, onward to the bits-and-pieces that glue it all together!
Now for the fun part. Opened it up, depopulated the motherboard, hacked off the left half of it to make room for new components and checked what sort of stuff might fit inside now.
Putting the hacksaw back in computer hacking.
Now onto the keyboard conversion. made an opening where the old CPU was in the mainboard, attached a pin header for a Teensy LC, and wired the keyboard's ribbon headers to it.
A bit messy on the wire routing, but it works a treat! Still plenty of room on the protoboard to fit up other hardware as needed. I followed the same procedure as I did for the teletype keyboard conversion, and it was time to settle on what hardware to run in the cyberdeck....
I spent months hemming and hawwing over starting this project. Looking at the ebay listings, seeing if anything cooler showed up, and always coming back to the AX170. I was concerned I wouldn't be able to convert the keyboard once I had the machine though, since the DIY keyboard scene is like drinking from several fire hoses at once to get into, and I didn't want to gut a classic computer if I couldn't get it working again.
Thankfully, I came across a busted TI Silent 70 teletype, and it was close enough to try a USB conversion on. https://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Make-a-USB-Laptop-Keyboard-Controller/ served as a great tutorial for getting a basic keyboard conversion taken care of. I breadboarded up the teletype keyboard and after much fiddling and half-understanding I managed to get the little keyboard working on a modern PWith that under my belt and my appetite whetted, I ripped off the bandaid and ordered the AX170! A week or so later a nicely packed box that showed it's trip from Jordan to Georgia (USA) arrived:
I can't read Arabic, but I know it runs right to left, and with a bit of poking around I managed to get it partly working on a modern TV and found it still working with MS-basic, word processor, spreadsheet, paint, and calendar program on the ROM. Pretty decent factory feature set for the mid to late 80s.
Godspeed little AX170. When next you awaken you'll be roughly 1000x faster and I'll be sure to set up an MSX emulator so you don't lose any of your software library.
I've made my fair share of custom electronics. Hand-wired Gameboy Zeros, ruggedized video players for my brother with special needs, A MAME cabinet with a giant CRT back when the cabinet was harder to come by than the CRT. I loved seeing the decks built by others, but had little desire to make one of my own since I figured it'd just be a retread of other projects done better by people who had need of them if I was just tossing a newest-model raspberry pi into a shell and trying to hide it.
One of the more recent things I've gotten familiar with though is the mechanical keyboard scene. I have a few friends who've been building their own keyboards since that scene really took off a few years back. Neat hobby, but not something I have had much need for. That said, seeing their chatter about keyboards and having made my own custom arcade controls in the past was a good primer for my own slow-growing thoughts of wanting to build a custom slick looking portable computer.
At some point I decided if I could find a *COOL* enough looking old computer I'd make it into a cyberdeck and pit my skill against my instinct to "just get it done!", and try to make something that looked like a super cool deck pulled off the shelf of an expensive computer shop the end of act 2 of a Stephenson book and handed to the plucky hacker after a hoverbus smashed over their beloved cobbled-together rig.
I poured over any retrocomputing stuff I could find looking for a good donor candidate. More common 80s computers seemed too familiar, even if dolled up with a paint job and screen. 80s era Soviet block computers are all over ebay, and they have all kinds of different builds and styles, but they have a blocky, "be thankful for any computer" look to them.
How about a Japanese computer from the 80s? Cool modern for the time designs, kanji on the keycaps, and not super recognizable to western onlookers. The MSX compatible line of computers was a great pool to stare at, but importing them is a bit tricky, and the 80s nostalgia pricing is in full swing.
After some more ebay searching though, I found that MSX computers also saw use in a lot of Arabic speaking nations with Arabic software and keycaps. Neat! Instead of a Japanese HitBit, I found the Al Sakhr AX170. Cool asymetrical design, full sized keyboard, and room enough to house a lot of modern hardware without being huge.
Being a child of the 90s and having spent no small amount of time traipsing the cobbwebbed corners of the bbs scene growing up reading about the heyday of phreaking, stumbling across the first explosion of anime into the US, and soaking up hacker lore, I've been fascinated by the prospect of cool looking portable computers. Hell, Penny from Inspector Gadget even had a computer book and a cyborg for an uncle.year
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