Roberto Alsina's Custom Laptop Launches an Effort to Create a Python-Based Chassis Design Tool
A coder's approach to 3D modeling could lead to a universal tool for building portables based on the TRS-80 Model 100 layout.
Software developer Roberto Alsina has taken inspiration from a TRS-80 Model 100 portable in the creation of a custom laptop powered by a Radxa Zero single-board computer — and is looking to release a Python tool for designing your own version built using arbitrary components.
"There is a vintage computer that has always fascinated me. It was one of the first practical portables, the Tandy Model 100," Alsina explains. "Since I loved it… why not try to build something like it now, when we have much better technology? Well, I couldn't come up with any good reasons. Except that I had no components that could work in it. And that I had no idea how to design such a thing. And that I knew nothing about anything like electronics, 3D modeling, etc. So, I decided to do it."
What followed that decision is a 16-month journey to first prototype, starting with deciding to build it around the Radxa Zero single-board computer — chosen over other models owing to the ready availability of stock. A Ganon 65 per cent compact mechanical keyboard — "absolute garbage," Alsina warns, "[so] perfect for the job because all keyboards in 80s computers were pretty crap" — provides the input, and everything is housed in a 3D-printed chassis.
"To combine [the components] you need a case. And in 2023, as a simple person with no mechanical talents that means 3D printing," Alsina explains. "But, I also lack any knowledge of 3D design software. But, I am a programmer. So when I found I could write 3D models as Python programs I knew what to do: use CadQuery. Then came a months-long period of figuring out how to create the case and how to print it and so on."
While the case Alsina designed is perfect for his chosen components, the developer has bigger plans for the project. "It's not all the way there yet, but the goal is to create a software package that lets you (yes, you) set parameters and make this work with your random collection of misfit computer hardware," he explains. "So, no screen? Print a lid, expose the HDMI port! Have a Raspberry Pi 4 instead of a Radxa Zero? Sure, adjust a few things and make it work. Got a random keyboard with 14 mount points in random places? Sure, measure them and slap it in place."
Alsina isn't the only person to desire a return to the glory days of the Model 100 form factor. Last year Stephen Cass took a faulty Model 100 and upcycled it with new innards, using an Arduino Mega 2560 as a custom display driver. Belsamber's stealth-build Model 100 instead uses an entirely new, full-color, ultra-wide display for a more modern twist. Richard Sutherland's Framedeck uses no original Model-100 parts, but there's no mistaking its inspiration. Clockwork Pi's DevTerm, meanwhile, is a miniaturized modern take on the concept — and was recently made available in a RISC-V variant.
Full details of Alsina's build, which can handle basic desktop tasks and manages between 3-5 hours of runtime from a single charge, can be found on his website; the 3D-printable chassis files and the Python code that generated them are available in the project's Git repository under an unspecified open source license.