by Steven B. Combs, Ph.D.
I’ve temporarily shifted my MEGA65 obsession to the newest retro-computing fad on the YouTubes, the NABU Personal Computer. I’ve shared my unboxing, first use, and a cable build. My experience with the device has been interesting and in this post, I want to share ten things about the NABU that surprises this Commodore computer fan. Let’s dig in.
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Let’s look at ten things about the NABU that surprised this Commodore enthusiast, starting with the NABU’s industrial design.
The NABU form factor and case design is substantial when compared with Commodore computers of the same period. Commodore’s bread bin case looks toy-like next to the rugged metal VCR-sized NABU case. You can tell designers of the NABU created a “set-top-box” computer to look at home in a rack with 1980s video tape recorders and hi-fi audio equipment. And then they dangled a long cable out of the back of the box to connect a keyboard.
At first glance, the 66-key qwerty keyboard, with Alps key switches, look bulky. The lengthy cord hanging off its backside make sense if you want to operate the computer on your TV from your sofa. The NABU’s keyboard layout is odd, even for a 1980s computer, and includes
FFWD Keys. These keys were likely included to make the computing experience more intuitive to new users.
The keyboard key action is a welcome surprise. In a word, the keyboard feels “outstanding.” The Alps keys provide a nice thunk that reminds me of early Apple keyboards. It feels professional and is a keyboard I want to use–a statement rarely said about 1980s home computers, even Commodore computers. Finally, the keyboard includes ports for two joysticks and those ports are my next surprise.
I’ll admit, when I heard the NABU was a cable company contraption, I assumed everything would be proprietary; including connectors. DJ Sures uses a NABU joystick (I need to find me one of these) in his videos and I assumed, because of its unique flight stick appearance, that the connector on the other end was proprietary.
To my surprise, the back of the keyboard includes the two DB-9 connectors. The same connectors found on Atari, TI, and Commodore computers. My Hyperkin Trooper and Competition Pro joysticks work perfectly with the NABU. I’ve not tried the Hyperkin Ranger Paddle Controller, but nothing leads me to believe it won’t work except for paddle support in the software. I’ll have to check the NABU network to determine if there are any paddle controller games.
The NABU network is critical to the operation of the NABU personal computer. Last year, when boxes of NABUs first appeared, the only reason anyone would want one was for their historic value. Unbox it, turn it on, and the only thing the NABU could do is display a logo followed by an adapter failure message.
I passed on the first round of boxes since there was only a hope that “one-day” the community might reactivate the network. But, and in record time, that happened! By the time the next round of NABU boxes were available, users only needed to connect a USB RS422 adapter to a modern PC, wire up a cable, load some free software, and the NABU network lights up, via Internet connectivity, these previously dormant NABU personal computers.
Once the network is live, the surprises about the NABU continue as you view retro advertising load pages while the original NABU software streams to your device. The NABU software delivery system was much more advanced compared to its contemporaries. No longer did the user have to visit a computer store to purchase software. It was an app store before app stores.
While Commodore had its own computer network Quantum Link, which would in 1989 become America Online (AOL), there’s no way for us to relive the glory days of that online service. And that’s too bad. But, if you want to experience another network contemporary, that’s where the NABU comes in and when you fire up the NABU network, that’s where the other surprises begin.
In the 1980s, families loaded and ran software from the NABU network. There was a floppy disk controller, but these were rare among normal consumers. It appears NABU provided free software and users could opt to purchase additional titles. I assume when the original network ceased, so did “ownership” of those software titles and imagine families were none too happy at the loss of their software investment.
In 2023, users can experience the NABU’s small list of software titles without cost. You’ll quickly mow through the titles available and find that they are mediocre, even for their time. There are faithful recreations of games and productivity apps such as word-processors and, of course, the requisite BASIC programming language, but they aren’t great. That’s where exploitation of the hardware comes into play. The NABU uses standard hardware found on contemporary computers such as:
Because these specifications are like Japanese MSX computers, a 1983 home computer architecture used by several vendors and created by ASCII Corporation, the NABU has additional capabilities and compatibility when you replace the NABU ROM with an MSX ROM. Games are more refined, responsive, and true to the original arcade counterparts. Thanks to Cloud CP/M, you can now switch out ROMs and try many games and software originally not available on the NABU.
The NABU did not come with a user operating system (OS). The company sent software through the coaxial cable network. Software was free or fee. In 2023, and with no external storage available (yet), DJ Sures has figured out how to hack Digital Research’s CP/M OS on the NABU. This version of CP/M called, Cloud CP/M adds productivity and geek tools to the NABU. DJ has even hacked in an 80-column scrolling display. It’s a blast to use with various drives (
USER areas serving as software collections.
Check out drive
USER 1 for an assortment of MSX games ported to the NABU (Thanks GWSS for that collection!). Type
SUMMARY on drive
USER 0 to see a list that’s updated regularly. Type
NEWS to check the latest features in Cloud CP/M. Running CP/M in the cloud ensures you always have the latest version. It’s kinda slick!
CP/M was available for Commodore computers in the mid-1980s, and the Commodore 128 had its own version; however, the NABU version is more convenient and, based on what I’ve heard, more full featured. But pulling software from a server is not the only way to run applications on the NABU.
Thanks to software by GWSS and DJ Sures, we can download titles from the network via the Internet from different “channels.” But that’s not the only way. You can download
.nabu files to run locally using software such as the Internet Adapter Software from NABUNetworks. This will suffice until development continues on new hardware that will emulate local storage for old and new software.
Not content with the NABU’s original capabilities, software and hardware developers are creating new projects to extend functionality using modern programming techniques and hardware components. Like other popular retro-computing platforms, the NABU eco-system is alive and well with several software and hardware projects.
Here’s a short list of interesting utility and games projects in development:
We will continue to see new software for the NABU so subscribe to those YouTube channels and follow those blogs.
Here’s a short list of interesting hardware projects in development:
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we will soon have an inexpensive ESP32 board to connect our NABU’s to the network via Wi-Fi. In the meantime, if you don’t have a NABU, you do have options.
It surprised me to learn that NABU emulation was available through the use of MAME software. Yes, that MAME, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator we use to play our favorite retro console titles. And NABU setup is similar. Install the MAME software, feed it a NABU ROM, boot, and away we go!
Download a complete NABU emulator package for Windows and then read the instructions,. I’m sure Mac and Linux versions are coming soon to provide a free way to experience the NABU; however, what about the cost for real hardware?
Cost is the most surprising entry on my list. The retro-computing hobby is expensive and when boxes of NABU units surfaced, I expected the owner wanted to make a buck or two on his find. That’s not the case. You can purchase a NABU on eBay for $80 plus shipping. You’ll spend around $100 for the unit and then you’ll need another few bucks to build a cable with the components below:
Or you can purchase a prebuilt Arcade Shopper cable
All in, you won’t spend more than $150! That’s a lot of retro-computing goodness and fun. I’m calling this the best $150 or less you’ll spend on a retro computing system this year. When you compare to a THEC64 or a THEA500 Mini, this purchase is a steal! Grab one now.
There are many NABU owners in the growing community and you can check out NABU serial numbers to see if you know anyone. As followers know, I’m fond of the MEGA65 community. They are a generous bunch of folks with low drama. I’m new to the NABU community and can’t yet vouch for its health. There’s been some drama lately and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that all involve will figure it out. What I can tell you is that within that community, I’ve found helpful folks who have joined my livestream chats and made comments on my videos to help me solve problems. You can check out there comments on my NABU YouTube playlist.
If you want to interact with other NABU users, join the NABU Discord Server or support my channel and blog by becoming a member and then join my NABU channel on my Discord. That community will stay friendly and drama free. You’ll also find friendly folks who want to help you in RetroNET Chat or on the NABU IRC.
Help make this content better! Leave your comments, corrections, additions, and thoughts in the comments below. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading and if you are inclined, please let others know about the blog using the hashtag #retroCombs.
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