I’ve been being a bit beastly recently with the….
So what is the MicroBeast? It’s a Z80 system with 512K of paged RAM and ROM packed onto an exquisitely retro board while being decidedly modern. First up, that’s a real Z80 on the board not an emulation. It comes complete with a strip of 14 segment LEDs for the reading of, which for me makes me think of a Newbury Newbrain on the alternate history of the 80s timeline, and a surprisingly solid chicletish keyboard that will charm you as you stick on the remarkable slick keycap stickers.
Did I mention you get to build this all yourself? Apart from some SMD components which are thankfully pre-mounted. It was a fun build, only marred by me missing one chip around the wrong way. And a couple of steps missed. And a little fingertip burn because yay, soldering vs me! The nice touch is the MicroBeast arrives in a box which when you are done, becomes a custom case with (slightly weak) magnetic closers to keep it shut. Makes you look like a victorian scientist with his “APPARATUS!”.
Now the built in keyboard and display work but they are hard work, with half of one line of “normal” display. The MicroBeast solution is to give you a virtual VT52 which you can scroll around. It works but it’s a bit disorienting at times. No worries though because part of the modern fun on the MicroBeast is a UART to USB C circuit on board so you can take your boring old laptop and connect a full on terminal emulator to the beast. (I recommend tio these days for a basic serial connection, but always have Serial to hand as it knows all the serial doohickeys out there).
Ah, you say, but what about getting files on there. Good question, answered by the works YModem upload and virtualised (with CPMTools) CPM disks. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, the MicroBeast has CPM 2.2 on board so it’s easy to boot into the classic OS, and there’s some demo apps preloaded so you don’t suffer builder’s post build upload anguish (it’s a real thing, ask your doctor) and can get going literally instantly. Though if you are using a terminal emulator, you will need to type “STAT CON:=TTY:” on the built in keyboard to make it take input from the serial connection.
Build a disk image on your laptop, add files to the disk and then boot up and upload from the BIOS into a Flash ROM or RAM disk… and make a cuppa… YModem uploads at 19200baud aren’t fast. Still trying to work out how to get something to persist on the MicroBeast. My wish list would be a slicker way to boot into an interactive serial session, some sort of SD storage to move virtualised disks around on and a video display. The last wish may already be granted as Andy Toone, creator of the MicroBeast has a VideoBeast on the way; I can’t wait to see how that comes out.
The MicroBeast is a fun creature and the RC2014 compatible bus on the back and handy FTDI on board is making me ponder future projects with it…. but thats another day. For now, I’m going to enjoy the retro vibes and the fun of a Z80 system that I can just plug into my laptop and get going with.