RC2017/10 project: affordable FPGA-Elf

For the RC2017/10 RetroChallenge, I will update my FPGA-Elf to run on a relatively inexpensive FPGA board, and make PCBs to provide the necessary I/O interfaces.  I plan to add the equivalent of the CDP1861 “PIXIE” graphics. At the conclusion of the RetroChallenge, I will offer the bare PCBs for sale, so that others can build an FPGA-Elf.

In 2008 I developed a soft CPU core equivalent to the RCA CDP1802, and in July of 2010 used it in a RetroChallenge project as the basis for an FPGA-Elf, functionally equivalent to the Popular Electronics COSMAC Elf from 1976. Since then I have made a few minor updates to it, migrating it to a Xilinx Artix-7 FPGA, and making PCB-based front panel switch and bezel boards. Unfortunately the FPGA board I used is not commercially available, and would be extremely expensive if it were.

For this project, I’ll migrate it to a Digilent Cmod-A7-15T (or -35T), which is an inexpensive ($75 or $89) FPGA board with the Artix-7 FPGA, a USB interface, SPI flash, static RAM, and headers providing a 48-pin DIP footprint, suitable for use on a solderless breadboard.

I will lay out a base PCB, into which the CMOD-A7 can be plugged, which, combined with the switch and bezel boards, will form a complete Elf. The CMOD-A7 is sold fully assembled, and my own boards with be through-hole only, with no SMD components, so the Elf will be easily assembled by anyone with only modest soldering experience.

In order to keep costs down, instead of the obsolete HP 5082-7340 hexadecimal displays used in the original Elf (which were expensive even when new), or the also-obsolete TI TIL311 hexadecimal displays that have been more commonly used in recent years, I will use current production LiteOn LTP-305HR displays. These are 5×7 dot matrix displays that look similar to the TIL311, but still being manufactured, and cost only $3.67 each from Digi-Key. The PCB will be designed to support either two displays for data only, like the original Elf, or six displays to have address and data.

The board will also support a MicroSD card for mass storage, using an Adafruit MicroSD card breakout board, but I don’t plan to write any software for that until after the RetroChallenge.

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