Commodore 64 Original Hardware Laptop

People may break down your door for this
Click photo to super-size it

This project somehow has the distinction of being both the longest and fastest portable electronics project I have ever done. I originally started making a C64 laptop in the fall of 2006, and kept pecking away at it every so often. Finally, a few weeks ago, I said “screw it” and started over.

I redid everything in a week and a half – the shortest project ever. (The previous record hold was the Wii portable at 2 weeks) The goal this time was to make something that looked exactly like a computer from the early 80′s, yet in a new form. Including the color beige and texture.

Sorry Apple fans, the logo does not glow
Luckily the blue in the logo matches the blue SD card. Not to sound like a TLC host or anything, but that sort of stuff is important in design.

Anyway, about the project itself. This is a fully functional Commodore 64 laptop using actual hardware, specifically the C64C motherboard which was one of the last and smallest revisions. It uses a Gamecube power supply in place of the original power brick.

For storage there’s a device called the 1541-III DTV to “emulate” a floppy drive using an SD card. (Click here for more info) The SD card is formatted FAT-32 so you can dump disk images on it using a PC, and read it with the C64 – pretty cool!

For more information, the making-of, pictures and video read the rest of the story below.

I am taking a break for a while because I am pretty tired and burned out from all the portable making this winter and spring. If you are interested in projects, hit me up in a month or so.

Looks like those broken ancient skeletons they are always trying to put together.

As mentioned before this started with a C64C motherboard. It’s smaller than most, but I needed it to be even smaller. I chopped off the power input/joystick end and also shaved off the cassette port tabs. I ditched everything about the original case design except the size – I wanted to keep the whole thing at 15″ x 10.5″, which is about the smallest it can get with the 15″ LCD screen involved.

Oh this was a SNAP to wire!

The keyboard needed some hacking to make this size, specifically the function keys. I lobbed them off, bypassed the traces and then rewired the keyboard plug so the whole thing was thinner.

I recycled the original connectors so there was one less thing to buy!

It's ready to Step Up 2 The Streets

The keyboard… with the function part sawed off. I opted to use the original keyboard because 80′s computers had such great keyboards, why ditch ‘em?

Always use headers and connectors - very handy

A close up of the keyboard and joystick area on the motherboard. Some kind engineer put via’s in for all the joystick connections, so even with the joystick ports cut off, it was easy to rewire. The new function keys are wired directly to the keyboard pins on the motherboard as well.

I design in 2D because I'm old school and won't change!

Time to start the design! Once again I did everything in Adobe Illustrator because that’s how I roll. I started the layout around noon on a Wednesday, with a goal of routing it Friday morning.

Thus, I have to draw everything 2 times... :)

Side view of the design. I used a lot of V-bits to give everything sharp angles and a very 80′s feel. This includes the screen, which is “recessed” in the lid to allow room for the raised keys when closed. This top deep bevel matches up to the bevels around the lower portion when closed.

The case is in 4 parts, 2 for the lid, 2 for the base. Like the recent Xbox 360 laptops everything is curved, beveled, and slow to rout.

In the 80's black was the new beige

Color revision of the laptop design (This was probably on a Thursday night just before The Office came on) This shows me how the unit will look and simulates the shading on all of the surfaces. I ended up going a darker beige when I painted it because light beige didn’t look quite right.

This consumes more cans of the not-that-cheap Krylon paint at Ace, but it’s worth it to be right!

Want to check out the design file? Click here to download, AI 10 version.

If you want to see how the case was made, check out this story. This case was done the exact same way.

With pinouts written inside before I forgot how I wired it.

Keyboard frame with parts inside. This includes the SD disk drive thing, the sound amp, 2 speakers (it’s not stereo but I wanted a “full” sound), volume slider, LED indicators, function keys and the Nokia LCD screen you can attach to the 1541-III-DTV for whatever reason. As usual black plastic screen door material was used to cover the holes.

All of this connects via 1 cable header to the main motherboard so it’s easy to take the unit apart when testing. This is in contrast to say my Xbox 360 laptop where there are… let’s see… 4 different things you have to connect when placing the lid.

Inside view of the base with components. It’s actually fairly simple overall, the complexity is in all the small parts and connections.

Like the newer Xbox 360′s I lay parts side-by-side instead of on top of each other, it gives me a lot more breathing room with wires and is less of a headache.

As mentioned earlier I used a Gamecube power supply for this project. It plugs into the back, then goes to a big meaty PC power supply switch. When switched this sends 12 volts to the LCD, 12 volts to the SID and a switching regulator creates 5 volts for the C64 logic, audio amp and 1541-III-DTV.

(Note: The 1541-III-DTV is cool but it really needs a new name. Or just a shorter one)


Testing the SID chip. I had a few laying around, needed to know they worked. They all did, in fact! The function keys weren’t wired up at this point so I had to stick the circuit board back on and use a screwdriver. This is my life.

Now the unit is in what I like to call “open working” condition. This is where I test that everything runs, more or less fits together, and that I haven’t once again used too small of a choke in my switching power supply and that it isn’t smoking.


Testing out the 1541-III-DTV for the first time (or at least the first time I got it on video)

Finally I install the hinges. These are some nice friction hinges from McMaster-Carr that I had left over. I’m glad I put them to use since they’re expensive. Above we can see some spacers being glued to the keyboard frame, and held in place at a 90 degree angle while they dry by my laptop. Very useful.

Finally the unit is screwed together and away we go! As with the Xbox 360, I countersunk all screw holes. Since this unit is only 2.35″ thick I could use shorter (ahem cheaper) screws to lash together each half of the case. There are also 2 completely useless “decoration screws” but I’m not telling where!

Google Earth view of laptop. The little LCD screen below the keyboard works with the SD card and displays some info. It’s not really necessary but was fun to add. Also, along with the function keys, it fills in some empty space on the inside panel and helps with the symmetry.

Red LED’s were used for the indicators because I am now officially sick of blue ones. I thought about red and yellow just to shake things up, but I went for the all one color “bank of indicators” look.

This is a cool view of the unit, showing how thick it… isn’t. Each half is made from .75″ and .5″ material sandwiched together. The keyboard is raised from the main surface, which itself has different levels all beveled with a V-bit into each other. You can also see how the LCD screen is sunk in to allow the keyboard to fit when closed.

Bottom of the unit. It says “Made in USA” twice so nobody forgets. Yeah! Oh and yes there’s a cartridge slot still. (Is it just me or does the C64 has the stickiest, highest-friction cartridge slot of all time?)

Front view. Growing up I was an Atari kid, so I was quite impressed to see the stuff the C64 could pull off. Arcade ports that were more ambitious than their Genesis counterparts in some ways.

During coats I dabbed the painted surfaces with a sponge to give it more texture. The vent holes are basically pointless, but it gives me a good place to put the speakers. I actually did put heatsinks on all the IC’s inside the unit, not just the SID, for good measure. Why not? Again, there was room, and any weight I could add to the bottom of the unit to balance out the top is a good thing (because you know aluminum DIP 40 heatsinks are SO heavy)

Unit closed. I redid a C64 logo from scratch. Back when I was a graphic artist we always had people bringing in business cards or other crap artwork and wanting it “blown up to a buildboard”. So vectorization of crap is one of my many talents – I even supplied my rebuilt “Colecovision” logo to the current IP holders.

The C64 loading a game. Unlike the MyIDE interface on the Atari, the SD card thing suffers from the limitations of the C64′s IEC interface… oh well!!!

And YES, I know an expansion port disk system exists but for whatever reason we decided years ago that wouldn’t work for us, and I’m not going back now!

Closer view of the keyboard. I really struggled with what color to paint the volume slider, then figured some other parts were gray so why not. But I only had silver metallic paint!

So, since the economy is “in the dumpster” (thus explaining why there was a line of cars at Sonic yesterday and nowhere to park at the mall) I didn’t buy a whole new can of paint, just used silver and said “close enough!”

Unit closed, showing the precious friction hinges, video cable to screen and the power plug.


Finally here’s a video of the main unit being used.

Looking back now, I think this is probably one of, if not my favorite project I have done. It just looks so beautifully ugly it’s great, like it came out of a time machine from an alternate reality 80′s where this existed.

Before you email, I am aware there was a portable C64 in the 80′s but I think we can agree it wasn’t quite like this.

Now I am taking a break. Building 5 Xbox 360 laptops, this, and some other stuff I’ve yet to show in a span 4 months has worn me out.

However, next week as a special bonus, I will run a story on the C64 laptop that WASN’T – a kind of cautionary tale of modding gone wrong. Stay tuned!

LINK – A great clip with a C64 cameo.

For your own laptop, “wireless internet broadband” could be helpful when traveling.

417 thoughts on “Commodore 64 Original Hardware Laptop”

  1. Many (and i mean many!!) of us would pay a whole lot of money for a machine like this. So if you should want to make more we will absolutely make it worth it ;)

  2. I love this commodore so much :) later i have an amiga 500.. and than äh 2.86 PC with 25 mhz.. this was is slow but buitiful time :)

  3. Good job, buddy! I liked your design!
    Why don’t you produce more of this commodore 64 laptop??
    I am sure A LOT OF PEOPLE would like to buy one! me, too!
    :)

  4. Wow, what a blast from the past! I spent many happy days many years ago with my C64. For the sake of nostalgia i’d buy one again now!! Congratulations on the article, great write up Ben.

  5. Good work. But think. The best part on Commodore, Spectrum, Amstrad, Electron and all the ’80s PCs, is the onboard programming language. Mix 2012 technology and the already known ’80s Basic Programming Language and you will have the best computer. Russians did it. They use ZX Spectrum. I am from Greece. I love machine code. PCs use a simulated machine code. They named Assembly. It is not Assembly. And it is far away from machine code. This part is the best on ’80s PCs. My project will be soon ready. I will send you info when I done. You will understand why I made it. Keep going my friend. Your brain still work. Bravo.

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