Throwback workstation emulated on a business-card-sized board you can (almost) carry in your wallet — DECstation emulation using RP2040

RP2040 pretends its a DECstation
(Image credit: rscott2049)

Continuing on the march to bringing computer experiences of the past into the modern computing world, one maker has developed a DECstation emulation built into a credit card-sized single-board computer. This is possible because the Raspberry Pi RP2040 microcontroller can emulate the late ‘80s high-end workstation.

Xmaze on RP2040 - YouTube Xmaze on RP2040 - YouTube
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The minicomputer in question was once considered one of the best, most powerful options of its time. It ran DEC’s version of Unix and X-Windows, Ultrix and DECWindows. The creator says the project emulates a DECstation 3000, but I suspect it may actually be a DECstation 3100. My computing history suggests this was the model that ran Ultrix, not the 3000. But I digress.

Everything the MIPS processor-based workstation needed to run, which would often sit on your desk with your CRT monitor on top of it, can now fit onto a business card-sized PCB. An electronics engineer going by rscott2049 developed and published how to make it all happen.

The build requires ordering a custom PCB and doing some soldering. Rscott2049 has a GitHub repository with the build requirements, software, and instructions. You’ll need to have the board fabricated, perhaps using the recommended JLCPCB prototype fabrication services. 

When you receive it, you’ll solder on various components, such as the voltage regulator, micro SD card slot, VGA port, and the like. The maker recommends building two boards, one as a debugger and the other as your “production” model.

Next, you’ll debug everything, test connections, and install the operating system and software. The maker uses Dmitry.GR’s LinuxCard project emulator, along with his own emulated Ultrix/DECWindows environment. There’s support for a USB keyboard and mouse combo, monochrome VGA graphics at 1024 x 864, and Ethernet networking.

At the end, you’ll have a small computer that slides into your wallet but plugs into a display to give you the full DECWindows experience. Relive the glory days of the late ’80s, even including the entrancing Xmaze or Xworms screensavers.

Jeff Butts
Contributing Writer

Jeff Butts has been covering tech news for more than a decade, and his IT experience predates the internet. Yes, he remembers when 9600 baud was “fast.” He especially enjoys covering DIY and Maker topics, along with anything on the bleeding edge of technology.

  • bit_user
    I wondered what he did about memory, since that seems to be the RP2040's Achilles heel, but the board says it has 32 MB of "HyperRAM". So I guess the RP2040 does actually support some kind of external memory, then?

    BTW, it does strike me as funny to emulate a far more capable machine on a lowly microcontroller. If I understand correctly, RP2040 couldn't natively run an OS like Ultrix.