HackSpace magazine

RC2014 Micro Kit Review

By Jo Hinchliffe. Posted

The RC2014 Micro ($77) is the latest kit in a line of retro computers. Like the RC2014 Mini and the original RC2014, the Micro is a simple retro 8-bit computer system built around the venerable Z80 processor.

Historically, the Z80 processor had some amazing early computer systems built around it and, while the RC2014 isn’t a direct descendant of any of them, there are comparisons to be made with the ZX81 and the Apple I.

It comes well packed in an anti-static bag, with all the ICs in foam and the smaller components neatly cut off the tape reels. There is a small introductory build guide in the kit, which has some useful additions such as the colour codes for the resistors, so you don’t have to work too hard to identify the different values. In the guide, there is a link to the online build instructions via the RC2014 website, which is essentially the same but larger.

Sold via RC2014’s Tindie store, the Micro is the most stripped-down kit in the RC2014 range. This approach aims to keep the cost as low as possible, as it was originally designed as an option for larger volume purchases for workshops.

Due to its popularity, however, RC2014 decided to release the Micro as a product in its own right. Only the essential pin headers to operate are supplied, and the ICs are all mounted directly to the PCB, not using sockets (these are optional upgrades).

We really like this approach as it might be that a seasoned hardware hacker would have these parts already, but also they aren’t needed for standard operation and could be added if you wanted to expand the system at a future date. Speaking of expansion, a quick tour of the RC2014 shop reveals a plethora of modules that could be added at a later date.

GETTING YOURSELF TOGETHER

The kit is a joy to build – everything is well labelled on the high-quality PCB, and the board is organised really well so that there is plenty of room between components, minimising the chances of bridging any solder connections. We have soldered a fair amount, but we used a very cheap £4 USB soldering iron and some fairly large 0.8 mm solder to tackle this, as we wanted to use the type of tools a beginner might have. It was a simple build and, whilst the RC2014 site is perhaps a little nervous of recommending the kit for absolute beginners, you should be ne as long as you have a little soldering experience.

It took around an hour to solder all the components and to nish off the various jumpers between pads and get the board complete. In its current form, the RC2014 Micro will be operated from another computer with a serial connection to the RC2014 using an FTDI cable (not supplied). We realised that our budget 5 V FTDI cable had a different pin con guration to the of cial one and so we used some male-to-female DuPont cables to create the correct connections, albeit with the classic error of wiring the RX/TX pins incorrectly the first time!

We installed PuTTY on an Ubuntu-powered laptop. PuTTY is a free SSH and Telnet client that is available for a variety of platforms, including Windows and Linux, and can be used as a serial terminal. On the configuration page of PuTTY, we indicated that we wanted a serial connection, and we set the ‘serial line’ window to the location of our FTDI device – in our case, this was /dev/ttyUSB0 – and we set the speed to 115200 to match the baud speed of the RC2014 Micro.

We then clicked the Open button. PuTTY opens a terminal window, and we hit the reset button on the RC2014 micro, and it booted perfectly. We had set a physical header on the RC2014 Micro so that it booted into the Microsoft BASIC environment (it can boot into either Microsoft BASIC or Steve Cousins’ SCM monitor ROM) and with the quick three lines of BASIC and a ‘run’ command, we established the RC2014 Micro was working perfectly with a classic print program.

Exploring the RC2014 website and the RC2014 Google group, we found a heap of modifications, expansions, and different projects around the RC2014 platform.

The designs and expansion modules are all explained and have schematics provided, so they do provide maximum opportunity for modi cation and further development on the platform. If your BASIC skills are as rusty as ours, there are heaps of code examples on the RC2014 GitHub page and plenty of examples in the RC2014 Google groups community. We were also reminded that the classic Usborne books on vintage computing from the 1980s are all available as free PDF downloads. There are enough projects in those titles to keep us busy all winter. Check them out via this page: hsmag.cc/tod2IQ.

We found this kit a pleasure to build/solder, and it’s a real sense of satisfaction to be able to build a fully working computer in around an hour. If you never had the chance to play with BASIC on vintage hardware, or you want to relive and explore the experience, we heartily recommend this kit.

Vedict: 10 out of 10

An enjoyable, simple, well-designed soldering kit creating a fun retro computer that fits in your hand.

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