Roll your own Retro-64

Last Updated on April 17, 2017 by Dave Farquhar

So an upstart company has licensed the Commodore name and unveiled an updated C-64, which is essentially a nettop in a 64-alike case with a 64-like keyboard. Reactions are extreme. People either love it or hate it.

I’d like to have one, but I’m not paying $595 for a nettop. But it should be possible to roll your own.

The keyboard is the trickiest part. But there’s an old mod that’s been available for several years to turn a 64 into a USB keyboard. Do that, then put an internal USB connector instead of an external one on the end of the plug, and that’ll take care of keyboard input.

Then do the C-64 ITX mod to put an ITX motherboard inside the 64’s case. I’d cut the opening with a hacksaw or jeweler’s saw rather than with a power tool, as it would leave less of a mess to clean up afterward. Plug the keyboard circuit into one of the motherboard’s USB headers, and you’ve got it. I’d put a fan in where the two round openings are, for cooling purposes. Atom and Fusion systems shouldn’t get too hot, but a little ventilation would be a good idea.

I don’t think I’d bother with an optical drive. You can do so much with USB these days, it seems unnecessary. I’d much rather have a digital card reader on that side of the machine, frankly, and save the internal SATA ports for storage. SSDs, of course, for lower power consumption and greater speed. You could put an optical drive and a USB-SATA converter inside a 1541 for those times when you need one, perhaps, if you wanted something that looked period authentic.

The 64 keyboard isn’t all that well suited to running software that needs more than the standard alphanumeric keys. And the official remake will have similar weaknesses. But you can always plug a PS/2 or USB keyboard in for those times you need function keys, the keypad, and a nice arrow pad, since the ports are there. Modern PCs will happily use multiple keyboards. I know this because I once plugged a PS/2 keyboard and five USB keyboards into a coworker’s computer during his lunch break. I know they all worked because I tested them afterward. Strangely, he didn’t think it was as funny as I did…

And as time goes on, Windows and Microsoft apps, at least, seem to be letting you do less and less with the keyboard, so maybe letters and numbers and a mouse are all you really need.

What’s the machine good for? Well, it’s a small, all-in-one computer that can connect to a convenient television set, and easily stashed away when not in use. The original was designed to be usable that way, though most people opted to set them up permanently on a desk.

So I think a DIY retro-64 is doable, and would instill more pride of ownership, in addition to costing a lot less than $595. When I have some time, it would be a fun project.

I wouldn’t hack up a working 64 like this, but dead 64s are fairly common. I’m pretty sure I have at least one. A dead PLA is probably the most common problem, but a dead power supply can take several chips with it when it goes. There are probably still 10-20 million 64s out there somewhere, and maybe half of them still work. The estimated working life of most of the chips inside was 10 years or less, and a lot of 64s stayed in service that long.

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