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Retro computing with a touch of modern and the home for all things, retroCombs (aka Steven Combs).

Commodore Plus/4 Series

2 October 2022

My MEGA65 Laptop

by Steven B. Combs, Ph.D.
tags:

I love my MEGA65 but it’s not a device you throw in your bag on your way out the front door. A portable MEGA65 is in the works but the design is a phone form factor and lacks a physical keyboard.

MEGAphone

I’ve shared how to install XEMU on ChromeOS and Mac OS and while the emulator is handy on these computers, the lack of a Commodore keyboard makes the experience confusing and awkward. In this blog post, I’ll share my newest solution to travel with a MEGA65 system and my attempt to include a somewhat Commodore like keyboard.


Table of Contents


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Companion YouTube Video

Title: Title

Video Errata

None as of 2022-10-01.

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  1. Commodore 64 Non-Transparent Keyboard Labels
  2. Lenovo T480s on eBay
  3. XEMU Emulator
  4. VICE
  5. DirMaster
  6. CBM prg Studio
  7. TheC64 Joystick

Picking a Laptop

My portable MEGA65 solution requires a spare laptop. As I’ve said, I use the MEGA65 emulator, XEMU, on both a MacBook Pro and Chromebook. The Chromebook keyboard is the least like a Commodore keyboard and while the MacBook Pro includes more keys to remap, neither keyboard includes PETSCII characters on the keys or includes Commodore specific keys such as RUN/STOP and RESTORE.

For my portable MEGA65 solution, I chose to use a Windows computer. I don’t own a Windows computer and haven’t for over 15 years. I began my search on eBay and I was looking for something around $300 that included a lot of memory and a large SSD so I could do other things with the device if required. My search led me to a Lenovo ThinkPad T480 with 14” screen, an Intel i5-8350U 1.70 GHz, 512 GB SSD, and 16 GB RAM. I’ve always liked the Lenovo brand, the link back to IBM (a computer manufacturer from the 8-bit days), the integrated keyboard pointing device, and the great keyboard.

Four days after the winning bid, the laptop arrived as advertised. It was time to reacquaint myself my Windows. Something I was not looking forward to and was not surprised when I turned the laptop on for the first time to find myself in the Windows setup process complete with all the updates. But this isn’t a Windows bashing blog post. Let me explain other reasons I choose Windows other than the keyboard.

Windows Benefits

I hate to admit it, but Windows is the best operating system to use for my portable MEGA65 development device and for Commodore retro-computing. As an Apple fan, it pains me to make this admission; however, there a three main reasons:

  1. Better keyboard compatibility with Commodore emulators.
  2. Large selection of Commodore emulator and development software such as VICE, DirMaster and CBM prg Studio.
  3. Ubiquitous and inexpensive computers are available to run emulation software efficiently.

The Lenovo I purchased ups the Windows OS ante by including the a good HD screen, decent battery life (for Windows), lots of onboard memory, and enough storage to hold all the world’s retro-computer emulators and software. The Lenovo’s ThinkPad profile form factor lets me drop it into my bag next to my MacBook Pro when I travel and use the same USB-C power/charging adapter. The only thing that would make it better is if it included a Commodore keyboard. Now I can’t replace the keyboard on the Lenovo, but I can “Commodore it up!”

Keyboard Modification

I don’t make any physical modifications to the Lenovo keyboard but I do add wonderful Commodore 64 Black Keyboard Labels on top of the majority of key caps. You can see this process in the companion video and because laptop keys are smaller than their desktop keyboard counterparts, I did make modifications to labels. In the end, I love the look of the keyboard but more importantly, the labels remind me which number keys are which colors and which keys produce PETSCII characters. I’ve even labeled non-standard keys, RUN/STOP and RESTORE! It’s a great solution that makes using the XEMU emulator, and other Commodore emulators, more productive and enjoyable.

XEMU Benefits

You might wonder if using emulation software diminishes the MEGA65 experience. As mentioned, I miss that wonderful MEGA65 keyboard because it’s the best keyboard found on any Commodore computer. The Lenovo keyboard isn’t as good, but better than keyboards found on a VIC-20 or C64. XEMU provides other advantages over hardware to include:

  1. Screen captures are a right-click away to share your programming, games, or technical issues with the community.
  2. Configurable keyboard.cfg file to make changes to the Windows PC keyboard layout.
  3. Full-screen mode fills the laptop screen with full MEGA65 blue glow and provides a distraction free environment.
  4. On Windows, a USB Joystick (WORK OR NOT?)
  5. Drag and drop .D81 image files makes it easy to swap out floppy disk images.
  6. Running software like DirMaster in tandem with XEMU provides a slick round trip solution to prepare disk images for final use on the MEGA65.

I’m sure other benefits exist. If have recommendations, share in the comments below.

Syncing Files

If I’m using XEMU to create BASIC programs, how do I share that disk image with my MEGA65? I use Google Drive to sync files across computers but any cloud tool works. I use a folder named MEGA65 to sync the disk image. That folder syncs to a Mac mini that’s connected to my MEGA65 using a DSD USB to TTL Adapter. I use M65 Connect to move the disk image from the cloud folder to the MEGA65. Do I wish I could cloud sync the file directly, sure, but this solution works. If I make modifications on the MEGA65, I must remember to copy the disk image back to the Mac and the cloud folder.

Frustrations

While I love my MEGA65 laptop, its not without frustrations. I’d forgotten how quickly Intel processors drain batteries in both use and in sleep mode. On my M1 MacBook Pro with XEMU, I can program all day long without a charge. The Lenovo is done in about 4 hours.

Windows 11, while an improvement from the last version I used, is a mess. Holding on to legacy UI components makes managing the system a visual and user disaster. I remember why I moved to Linux and Mac OS. Finally, updating the OS and software is the same pain I remember it being. On the Mac and with Linux, updating software is a simple affair. If someone has advice for me, please post that in the comments below.

What’s Missing

I need the two items below to make this install complete:

  1. I need a MEGA65 sticker on the lid. I didn’t have time to order one before I completed this video.
  2. I want to find a USB joypad controller that I can throw in the travel bag. A full size joystick is too bulky for travel.

Time to sum up my MEGA65 laptop experiment.

Summing Up

I enjoy creating BASIC programs and experimenting with the MEGA65 emulator on the Lenovo laptop. It’s a good solution until someone recreates the MEGA65 in a Commodore LCD form factor. As I make new discoveries or modifications with my MEGA65 laptop, I’ll be sure to share.

If you’d like more information about the DSD USB to TTL Adapter, check out this video.

Want to learn more about using the MEGA65 keyboard, check out this video.

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