Building an old-school ‘kit computer’

Original Author: Colin Riley

I think many coders, especially those at a lower level, are always interested about what goes on below the software. Having designed and built a few guitar effects pedals out of some op-amps and transistors, I have always liked electronics and hardware tinkering, but never took it further with respect to computing. I’ve decided recently that it’s something I really wanted to explore further, and a FIGnition.

The items you get in the FIGnition kit.

FIGnition is designed as a do-it-yourself educational computer. It is based on the 8-bit Atmel AtMega168 microcontroller, and is supplied in kit form. You get a printed circuit board, online build guide and several bags of electronic bits and bobs. The project creator intends to fully open source it’s design and firmware meaning for learning you can’t do much better!

One element of FIGnition is that it is fully self contained – it has composite video out for viewing on a TV (PAL output only, not NTSC) and a keyboard made out of 8 buttons. The keyboard can be quite tricky to get used to, but is perfectly usable. It runs FIG-Forth on the device, so you can get programming as soon as it’s built.

I must admit to not knowing Forth at all, but the fact the firmware is being open sourced means you can create custom versions and add new features which is great. The microcontroller has a few I/O pins free for tinkering – so adding new hardware is a real possibility!

The built board, sans ICs.

I built my kit in just over an hour, but have yet to do any real development on/to it. I have created a video showing how it was built from start to finish. Hopefully those who are anxious about the complexity of soldering will be put at ease with the simplicity of the video! In the future I will post an update on what else I have done to ‘enhance’ the computer. Maybe a second core – but more likely something far simpler!

You can see more images in my FIGnition Flickr Set, including filming setup.