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.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
Latest articles
Sponsored articles
Related articles
Latest articles
Read more
Related articles