Wednesday, April 1, 2009

hands on with the tv computer

so a couple days ago i see a post on boingboing about the TV Computer. it's basically a $12 6502 nintendo famicom clone being sold for the "developing middle class." sure, 12 US Pesos is nothing to latte swilling software professionals like you and me. but in the developing world where the local currency is constantly defending itself from IMF hit men, buying laptops from the US supply chain can be a bit cost prohibitive. even a $100 laptop can give pause to the most well meaning parent or school system (or so the reasoning goes.) and that's where the $12 TV-Computer comes in, 'cause if $100 is too much, $12 might not be a budget killer.

so lotsa kids overseas are getting to experience the joy of 8 bits, just like i did when i was young. this would be the end of the story were it not for the folks from it just so happened, so the story goes, that a USCD grad student visiting his overseas home happened upon a store selling the $12 machines. inspiration struck and he wondered if it would be possible to get g33ks in the developed (?) world to code an educational game or two. so they have a wiki and an idea and are ready to start harvesting spare g33k cycles.

i am a total sucker for all things 8-bit. i generally eschew first person shooters for a nice game of galaga. and i have 8-bit operators on heavy rotation around chez meadhbh. so it was nearly impossible to resist. this is the story of my 8 bit fantasy (so far.)

buying the machine has coordinated with the maker shed to resell the TV-Computer in the US. click on over to to order. one thing you should note, however. while the TV-Computer costs the equivalent of $12 overseas, it's selling for $50 here. i suspect this is a secret plot to preserve the inflated price of commodore PET's on ebay, though i think i read somewhere some of the money is going to the 501(c)(3) the playpower people are putting together. in california, you're going to pay state sales tax and unless you want to drive over to the o'reilly offices, you're going to pay shipping. (though kudos to the maker shed for offering this as an option.)

my total came to something like US$63.56 (or since i spend most of my day buying things in linden dollars, L$16,525)

unpacking the machine

for the benefit of those readers who will be living vicariously through my experiences, let me provide a play by play description of unboxing the TV-Computer.

when i opened the shipping container (which was surprisingly light) i saw this. if you read chinese, you might be thinking to yourself, "oh. okay, it's a computer." sadly, i spent my youth learning dutch, english, esperanto and greek. i never quite made it to chinese. seeing things like this makes me mildly nervous, since i worry i'll be completely lost. the box the tv computer came in
but the true horror came when i realized the contents of the box included no instructions. note to self; when i make the $12 computer i've been thinking about for the last several years, remember to include a manual. so ack, no docs.

here's what i was looking at when i realized i'll be reverse engineering the instructions on this device.
looking at the box with the cover removed
to recap what's in the box:
  • the keyboard / processor
  • a power supply
  • a yellow cartridge with lots of chinese characters on it
  • a mouse
  • an A/V cable
  • and two (2) game controllers
the stuff in the box

operating the machine

after hooking the thing up to my ancient 32" sony studio monitor i powered it up and got this beautiful red screen. what did i do wrong? the red screen of stupidity. put the cartridge in!
i forgot to put the cartridge in, of course. put the cartridge in and things get better. (if you compare this photo with the one immediately previous, you can see that the cartridge goes in a slot in the above of the keyboard.)

i don't understand anything on that screen, though i'm guessing 2007 is the year the ROMs were burned. after playing with the buttons on the controller, i finally figured that pressing the left-most button of the controller moves you to the next screen, and on to 8 bit fun.
the splash screen
here's a shot of the main screen. OMG! it looks like windows! and look at the DOS icon! if you look carefully, you'll see it says "SB-DOS." at this point i sat and marveled for a moment. for years we tried to escape the horrors of the command line. sure, i love the Unix(tm) command line as much as the next chic, but DOS? but i think i figured it out. the windows interface (including the DOS box) is pretty ubiquitous. having a system that gives the "look and feel" of that same interface may have some benefits for kids starting their computing careers. i would (of course) have preferred they replicate the interface of the Canon Cat, but that's just me.

anyway. here's the main screen. it reminds me a LOT of Windows 95/98.
the main screen
down in the lower-left corner of the screen, there's something like a start menu. fortunately for me, i have some friends visiting soon who put their son in a mandarin immersion program. maybe they can help me translate. i'm not sure why the start menu renders below the bottom of the screen. it could be the computer sending funky settings to the video registers or it could just be that the old sony monitor i bought for $35 is not the TV in the world. the start menu
and yes, that was the icon for solitaire. the parallels with windows are striking. playing solitaire

about the hardware

at some point in the future, i'm going to void the warranty. but not tonight; it's a touch late. but here are a few notes about the hardware.
my favorite quirk on the system is that the power LED is labeled "LED" and not something like "power". if you look close, you can make out the "LED" label below the LED.

the keyboard is complete garbage. seriously. there's no debounce routine so pressing a key will occasionally get you two or three characters on the screen. and the enter key on my unit is somehow misaligned so i have to press it four or five times to register an enter key press.

your mileage may vary. i'm guessing its the software in the cartridge that's responsible for the missing / substandard debounce routine and i'm inclined to guess that the enter key problem on my unit is a manufacturing defect and not a design defect.
the keyboard
but the controllers didn't disappoint at all. i tried both the game controllers and the mouse. both worked perfectly. it's sort of a weird experience using a mouse on an 8-bit computer (i didn't spend much time with the Apple IIgs, obviously.) but i was happy to find the software "did the right thing" when i tried to move the mouse pointer with the game controller. the controllers
here's where the controllers / mouse plug in. the ports are labeled "com1" and "com2" so i'm wondering if they're regular db-9 serial ports. if so, bonus! i might be able to rig something up for development so i can download software via the serial port. the only nit i have to pick with the com ports is there are only two of them. i would have liked to have both the mouse and both controllers plugged in at the same time, but i'll live. the com ports the controllers plug into
here are the video outputs. you've got the traditional yellow/white audio/video thing and the red plug is labeled "RF" so i'm guessing it modulates the signal on channel 3. the video outputs


it was great fun to go back and relive the glory days of 8 bit, but the keyboard was a major problem and it looked like my unit put some scan lines above the screen and some below.

the unit came with zero documentation, so i'm left to guess what the commands are for the cartridge DOS clone and GBASIC. i haven't done the google search yet, so i'll post here if i find anything.

despite the unit's flaws, the 6502 has a magical otherworldly feeling about it, and i for one can't wait to start playing around with it. i'm motivated half by my nostalgia for 8-bit systems and half for wanting to have a cheap platform to develop educational games for my son. ultimately i would LOVE to buy a room full of these things and some refurbished CRT TVs for a computer lab for my local school. but i'd also feel obligated to pay for at least one local teacher to play at seymour papert's feet like i did.

what's next?

next week i'm gonna void the warranty to see what's inside it. maybe i can fix the keyboard while i'm in there. ultimately i would like to develop / port something like Apple LOGO to the box. and i'm probably gonna try to do a FORTH interpreter; they're pretty simple, and honestly, i like FORTH waaaay more than i like BASIC.

if you're interested in hacking these things with me, i'm hosting a weekly virtual get-together. thursday nights at 7PM, Second Life Time at meadhbh is full of stars.


rob.brown said...

Mine came today. Keep posting on what you do to mod it!

Anonymous said...

Wasn't this link useful? Did you see it?:

I liked your review. Kudos.

Ralph said...

You mentioned an interest in porting LOGO. I'm interested in doing the same thing. Let me know how to get in touch with you.

What do you need?

Fredrik said...

Is it hard to change the keyboard. Easy to program or hack it? Keyboard?

GSL said...

I can see this being useful if you could just disassemble the "operating system" cartridge and translate it into English... a feat that would be dang near impossible without some idea of how the existing text was stored, what encoding it uses, et cetera. Not sure I know many 6502 assembly programmers who also happen to know both English and Mandarin...