The Commodore 64 Lives Again - as a Modern PC Running Ubuntu

Son of Carpet Cleaner PC - another crazy project is finished

Some of you may remember the now-infamous Carpet Cleaner Computer that's Personal (CCCP), an old Bissell carpet washer that I converted to a PC because, well, just because. The fun continues with another entertaining waste of time and money, converting a Commodore 64 to a genuine contemporary PC. Yes, it can be done, again with a little custom engineering and an unusual circuit board.

IMHO, the Commodore 64 is one of the best computers ever designed and built - no kidding. I bought my first one in 1983 and actually ran a forerunner of Farpoint Group, Mathias Associates, using a C64 (and a pin-fed, dot-matrix printer) as my entire IT arsenal. All I really needed was a word processor (I can't remember the name of the software; it was from Sierra Online and slow but usable) and Multiplan, which was the same as on a PC but painfully slow (the same as on the PC, only even more painful). The 5¼" floppy disk was also astonishingly slow, but its design (based on an embedded OS) was clever. The overall architecture was brilliant, especially for those of us who enjoyed 6510 assembler programming, and there was a good selection of add-on hardware and software. I ended up with five or six C64s lying around the house.

And so, one day about a year ago it occurred to me that it would be fun to turn one of these into a modern PC running Ubuntu. The processor part was easy, as it turned out - strip out the original logic board and replace it with a Nano-ITX board, in this case the VIA EPIA N700 (1.5 GHz. C7 version, with 2 GB of RAM). This board is plenty fast, has lots of I/O, and, most importantly, fits within the limited ceiling of the C64 case.  The processor fan does make a bit of noise, but it's tolerable. BTW - performance is excellent overall, but the graphics are a bit slow and unsuitable for gaming. But for Firefox and even YouTube, it's just fine.

Integrating the keyboard, potentially the biggest challenge, turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. I had assumed that I would need to build a C64-to-USB keyboard adapter, and, indeed, I found plans for a few of these on the Web. But then a miracle occurred - I discovered the Keyrah board from Visalia Online in Germany. This $50 product is all I needed to solve the keyboard challenge - it has connectors for the existing C64 keyboard cable and USB out, among many other features. I just built a cable to link the USB ports, and that was that.

Storage is via a Class-6 four-GB CF card, as the N700 has a built-in CF socket. This is plenty of space for OS residence and casual Web browsing. I'm using a Logitech wireless (of course) USB mouse, bought on sale at BestBuy, and a Linksys USB WLAN adapter. Ubuntu once again continues to be simply amazing - everything just worked, although I'm sticking with 9.04 - 9.10 was problematic in the test installation I did on another machine, and I've not yet tried 10.04. In fact, the only thing left to do is to use xmodmap to re-map the keyboard, and perhaps clean up some of the plastics used to fill gaps in the case (these are the "white spaces", so to speak, in the interior shot; the exterior paint is a pretty good match) and the mounting for the audio jack (the steel washer is a bit funky). The reuse of openings (including vents) in the case turned out pretty well, I think, regardless. Until I finalize the keyboard mapping, I'm using Ubuntu's built-in "onboard" assistive screen keyboard for any characters that I can't get to - and, yes, there are a bunch of them, as one might expect. BTW, the C64 keyboard itself is not at all contemporary - key travel is long and key effort is high, and it's noisy. But another great conversation piece has been born, and it works just great - in fact, this entry was written on it.

The next project is to build a Pico-ITX board into an old Sony 8FC-55W clock radio, which I purchased new in 1969 and which woke me promptly at 6:00 AM during high school, always to the same song - Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone". There's a message in there somewhere... While the radio will be toast (but, then, who listens to broadcast radio anymore, apart from in the car?), the clock should still work. More later.

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