About Archive Tags RSS Feed


Entries tagged computer-building

Building a computer - part 1

11 July 2019 13:01

I've been tinkering with hardware for a couple of years now, most of this is trivial stuff if I'm honest, for example:

  • Wiring a display to a WiFi-enabled ESP8266 device.
    • Making it fetch data over the internet and display it.
  • Hooking up a temperature/humidity sensor to a device.
    • Submit readings to an MQ bus.

Off-hand I think the most complex projects I've built have been complex in terms of software. For example I recently hooked up a 933Mhz radio-receiver to an ESP8266 device, then had to reverse engineer the protocol of the device I wanted to listen for. I recorded a radio-burst using an SDR dongle on my laptop, broke the transmission into 1 and 0 manually, worked out the payload and then ported that code to the ESP8266 device.

Anyway I've decided I should do something more complex, I should build "a computer". Going old-school I'm going to stick to what I know best the Z80 microprocessor. I started programming as a child with a ZX Spectrum which is built around a Z80.

Initially I started with BASIC, later I moved on to assembly language mostly because I wanted to hack games for infinite lives. I suspect the reason I don't play video-games so often these days is because I'm just not very good without cheating ;)

Anyway the Z80 is a reasonably simple processor, available in a 40PIN DIP format. There are the obvious connectors for power, ground, and a clock-source to make the thing tick. After that there are pins for the address-bus, and pins for the data-bus. Wiring up a standalone Z80 seems to be pretty trivial.

Of course making the processor "go" doesn't really give you much. You can wire it up, turn on the power, and barring explosions what do you have? A processor executing NOP instructions with no way to prove it is alive.

So to make a computer I need to interface with it. There are two obvious things that are required:

  • The ability to get your code on the thing.
    • i.e. It needs to read from memory.
  • The ability to read/write externally.
    • i.e. Light an LED, or scan for keyboard input.

I'm going to keep things basic at the moment, no pun intended. Because I have no RAM, because I have no ROM, because I have no keyboard I'm going to .. fake it.

The Z80 has 40 pins, of which I reckon we need to cable up over half. Only the arduino mega has enough pins for that, but I think if I use a Mega I can wire it to the Z80 then use the Arduino to drive it:

  • That means the Arduino will generate a clock-signal to make the Z80 tick.
  • The arduino will monitor the address-bus
    • When the Z80 makes a request to read the RAM at address 0x0000 it will return something from its memory.
    • When the Z80 makes a request to write to the RAM at address 0xffff it will store it away in its memory.
  • Similarly I can monitor for requests for I/O and fake that.

In short the Arduino will run a sketch with a 1024 byte array, which the Z80 will believe is its memory. Via the serial console I can read/write to that RAM, or have the contents hardcoded.

I thought I was being creative with this approach, but it seems like it has been done before, numerous times. For example:

Anyway I've ordered a bunch of Z80 chips, and an Arduino mega (since I own only one Arduino, I moved on to ESP8266 devices pretty quickly), so once it arrives I'll document the process further.

Once it works I'll need to slowly remove the arduino stuff - I guess I'll start by trying to build an external RAM/ROM interface, or an external I/O circuit. But basically:

  • Hook the Z80 up to the Arduino such that I can run my own code.
  • Then replace the arduino over time with standalone stuff.

The end result? I guess I have no illusions I can connect a full-sized keyboard to the chip, and drive a TV. But I bet I could wire up four buttons and an LCD panel. That should be enough to program a game of Tetris in Z80 assembly, and declare success. Something like that anyway :)

Expect part two to appear after my order of parts arrives from China.

| No comments


Building a computer - part 2

18 July 2019 13:01

My previous post on the subject of building a Z80-based computer briefly explained my motivation, and the approach I was going to take.

This post describes my progress so far:

  • On the hardware side, zero progress.
  • On the software-side, lots of fun.

To recap I expect to wire a Z80 microprocessor to an Arduino (mega). The arduino will generate a clock-signal which will make the processor "tick". It will also react to read/write attempts that the processor makes to access RAM, and I/O devices.

The Z80 has a neat system for requesting I/O, via the use of the IN and OUT instructions which allow the processor to read/write a single byte to one of 255 connected devices.

To experiment, and for a memory recap I found a Z80 assembler, and a Z80 disassembler, both packaged for Debian. I also found a Z80 emulator, which I forked and lightly-modified.

With the appropriate tools available I could write some simple code. I implemented two I/O routines in the emulator, one to read a character from STDIN, and one to write to STDOUT:

IN A, (1)   ; Read a character from STDIN, store in A-register.
OUT (1), A  ; Write the character in A-register to STDOUT

With those primitives implemented I wrote a simple script:

;  Simple program to upper-case a string
org 0
   ; show a prompt.
   ld a, '>'
   out (1), a
   ; read a character
   in a,(1)
   ; eof?
   cp -1
   jp z, quit
   ; is it lower-case?  If not just output it
   cp 'a'
   jp c,output
   cp 'z'
   jp nc, output
   ; convert from lower-case to upper-case.  yeah.  math.
   sub a, 32
   ; output the character
   out (1), a
   ; repeat forever.
   jr start
   ; terminate

With that written it could be compiled:

 $ z80asm ./sample.z80 -o ./sample.bin

Then I could execute it:

 $ echo "Hello, world" | ./z80emulator ./sample.bin
 Testing "./sample.bin"...

 1150 cycle(s) emulated.

And that's where I'll leave it for now. When I have the real hardware I'll hookup some fake-RAM containing this program, and code a similar I/O handler to allow reading/writing to the arduino's serial-console. That will allow the same code to run, unchanged. That'd be nice.

I've got a simple Z80-manager written, but since I don't have the chips yet I can only compile-test it. We'll see how well I did soon enough.



Building a computer - part 3

1 August 2019 13:01

This is part three in my slow journey towards creating a home-brew Z80-based computer. My previous post demonstrated writing some simple code, and getting it running under an emulator. It also described my planned approach:

  • Hookup a Z80 processor to an Arduino Mega.
  • Run code on the Arduino to emulate RAM reads/writes and I/O.
  • Profit, via the learning process.

I expect I'll have to get my hands-dirty with a breadboard and naked chips in the near future, but for the moment I decided to start with the least effort. Erturk Kocalar has a website where he sells "shields" (read: expansion-boards) which contain a Z80, and which is designed to plug into an Arduino Mega with no fuss. This is a simple design, I've seen a bunch of people demonstrate how to wire up by hand, for example this post.

Anyway I figured I'd order one of those, and get started on the easy-part, the software. There was some sample code available from Erturk, but it wasn't ideal from my point of view because it mixed driving the Z80 with doing "other stuff". So I abstracted the core code required to interface with the Z80 and packaged it as a simple library.

The end result is that I have a z80 retroshield library which uses an Arduino mega to drive a Z80 with something as simple as this:

#include <z80retroshield.h>

// Our program, as hex.
unsigned char rom[32] =
    0x3e, 0x48, 0xd3, 0x01, 0x3e, 0x65, 0xd3, 0x01, 0x3e, 0x6c, 0xd3, 0x01,
    0xd3, 0x01, 0x3e, 0x6f, 0xd3, 0x01, 0x3e, 0x0a, 0xd3, 0x01, 0xc3, 0x16,

// Our helper-object
Z80RetroShield cpu;

// RAM I/O function handler.
char ram_read(int address)
    return (rom[address]) ;

// I/O function handler.
void io_write(int address, char byte)
    if (address == 1)

// Setup routine: Called once.
void setup()

    // Setup callbacks.
    // We have to setup a RAM-read callback, otherwise the program
    // won't be fetched from RAM and executed.

    // Then we setup a callback to be executed every time an "out (x),y"
    // instruction is encountered.

    // Configured.
    Serial.println("Z80 configured; launching program.");

// Loop function: Called forever.
void loop()
    // Step the CPU.

All the logic of the program is contained in the Arduino-sketch, and all the use of pins/ram/IO is hidden away. As a recap the Z80 will make requests for memory-contents, to fetch the instructions it wants to execute. For general purpose input/output there are two instructions that are used:

IN A, (1)   ; Read a character from STDIN, store in A-register.
OUT (1), A  ; Write the character in A-register to STDOUT

Here 1 is the I/O address, and this is an 8 bit number. At the moment I've just configured the callback such that any write to I/O address 1 is dumped to the serial console.

Anyway I put together a couple of examples of increasing complexity, allowing me to prove that RAM read/writes work, and that I/O reads and writes work.

I guess the next part is where I jump in complexity:

  • I need to wire a physical Z80 to a board.
  • I need to wire a PROM to it.
    • This will contain the program to be executed - hardcoded.
  • I need to provide power, and a clock to make the processor tick.

With a bunch of LEDs I'll have a Z80-system running, but it'll be isolated and hard to program. (Since I'll need to reflash the RAM/ROM-chip).

The next step would be getting it hooked up to a serial-console of some sort. And at that point I'll have a genuinely programmable standalone Z80 system.

| No comments