Introduction: Atari 2600 Retro Gaming Media PC Conversion With Linux Ubuntu and Emulation Station / RetroPie
Ok, for this project, I am going to turn an old and sadly dead Atari 2600 from the 70s into a working modern PC that is efficient and capable of running classic emulators for gaming, whilst being practical enough to use as a day to day computer for surfing the web, programming (for school) and running a Plex Media Server. IT needs to be energy efficient, silent and most of all, cheap to build! Good news - it's a nice easy project if you have the kit and some experience of modding
- Atari 2600 "woody" - free from a bundle of stuff I swapped
- 500GB 2.5" laptop HDD - recycled from an old laptop
- Gigabyte N3050N-D3H Dual Core 1.6GHz Celeron Mini-ITX Board with 2x LAN, VGA, 4K HDMI
- 2 x 2GB DDR3L 1.35V 1600Mhz RAM
- 90W Pico PSU + DC Mains Adapter
- USB Keyboard and mouse - from the cupboard!
- 8GB USB memory stick - left on the desk, so "borrowed" it!
- Random USB and audio front panel ripped out of an old PC (see pictures)
The motherboard/CPU/RAM combo I got as part of a bulk order from mini-itx.com who supply and build specialist mini PCs. You're looking around £100 for all of the above parts but you can shop around or re-use similarly sized components. This build would be easier (but much more expensive) if you used a Thin-ITX (half height ITX) board as it would entail fewer modifications.
Tools you will need:
- A Dremel or similar cutting tool
- A cordless screwdriver/drill
- A sharp craft knife
- Some motherboard offsets and screws
- A hot glue gun or Gorilla Glue gel
- Some mesh (optional) that you might scavenge from a PC fan dust cover
These Atari cases use some very old and brittle plastics that shatter and burn/melt very easily. Please take care, wear eye protection and work in a well ventilated area. It does produce fumes when drilled or cut with tools. Not to mention it stinks!
Step 1: Clearing Out the Case and Removing Obstacles.
Ok, this is the apparently easy bit but do take care with it as this old brittle plastic shatters and cracks REALLY easily. I narrowly averted disaster a few times by stopping cutting or using drill pilot holes just in time to prevent the case splitting. even then it's not perfect and ideally I would now spend several days / weeks sanding and then painting the case but I wanted to retain the original look and colours. It's meant to be a tidy / stealthy ghetto PC for little money.
First job - break out the dremel and craft knife. You will see as soon as you open the case there are several main parts to the Atari - go ahead and just remove them all using a standard screwdriver to open up the case.Keep the screws handy as we are going to recycle them later.
Take the base tray and grind/cut away everything in the middle section until it looks a bit like the picture above. You are advised to keep a pair of wire cutters handy as the plastic will melt and stick itself to your dremel attachments, so be ready to cut it free. Resist the urge to chop or hack away at the case with the cutters as that will just cause it to shatter (i had a piece fly the length of a large room and a few people had to duck!).
Step 2: Power Supply
Ok, using an external DC adapter makes things MUCH easier inside. No expensive TFX or slimline PSUs here please! You need to trial place your motherboard and then measure a distance to the side for your laptop style DC adapter to plug in. This is going to be a solid, screwed in part, so it should withstand the cable being plugged and unplugged repeatedly.
Go ahead and drill a small pilot hole, then increase the width of the drill bit until it is the width of your female DC socket, as shown in the first picture.
You then need to remove the nut from the end of the DC socket. Leave the washer in place. Once that's done, go ahead and screw in the Pico PSU as shown in the second picture.
Lock it in place by screwing the but back on, from the outside of the case, so you finish up with something like in Pictures 2 & 3
Step 3: Cutting and Sticking the Motherboard
Ok, so now that you have the casing stripped, cut and sanded as needed to fit your motherboard internally, it's time to look at the external cutting that needs to be done.
One thing I was keen to avoid was lots of unnecessary cutting of the original case. To achieve this, I actually attempted to desolder some of the rear I/O ports rather than turn the back of the case into a tunnel entrance. The motherboard that I am using is designed for low power, but good connectivity, hence the twin Gigabit Ethernet ports. I don't need the VGA and Serial ports, as this is either going to be headless and stream to a receiver, or be connected via HDMI to a TV. There are tons of USB ports so if I need to connect adapters or controllers, I can do that via the rear ports, or via a custom cut set of ports under the front, a bit like more modern consoles.
Ok confession time - standard height ITX ports will NOT fit without modifying either the board, case or both. With my board, i have removed the VGA, Serial and Audio ports using a combination of cutting and desoldering. Be aware that if you buy a cheap low power soldering iron, it just will not cut through the high quality solder they use on modern components, well not easily and you risk damaging the board if you apply too much heat for too long.
I also dremelled away a little of the rear casing and this gave me access to the USB and LAN ports.
To mount the motherboard, I tilted it at a downward angle as the Pico-PSU or any ATX 20-24 pin power cable will struggle to fit in the low profile case of the Atari 2600. It's only about 10-20 degrees below the horizontal but enough to make a difference and make the case JUST fit. It's secured by putting in a traditional motherboard stand-offs under it, but at a similar angle so that the screws hold down the motherboard securely.
When you're affixing the motherboard, make sure to use your drill or dremel to drill pilot holes prior to screwing in the standoffs or screws as the plastic will chip or crack due to it being brittle with age. Don't screw your motherboard down tight just yet... next job is front ports...
Step 4: Too Lazy to Go Around the Back!
Ok, so there's nothing more annoying than having to pull PCs or consoles out to get at ports, or poking around unsighted inside a cabinet trying to plug something in by touch. Well there is cable tidying but more on that later!
To that end, I'm going to fit some ports using, yes you guessed it, recycled parts! Once again, old donor PCs are great for sourcing bits for projects, just like this front panel USB/audio port. It came out of a working PC so it's ok to assume it's working and I can quickly hook it up for testing.
Ok - step 1 : site where you want it. In this case, I'm putting it in the front left corner on the floor of the case. First of all - stick it in place with a bit of blu tack or something that won't damage it or stick permanently. Then draw around the ports to locate your pilot holes for drilling and cutting. The first holes were for audio in and out. As those are the smallest, they can be easily drilled in and then the board better located and fewer too-large USB slots cut.
Step 2 - cut the USB slots. This is going to be tougher as they are quite small and the case will flex if you're not gentle with it. I drilled out each end, then cut away any remaining in the middle. After that, break out the craft knife and get as close to a rectangle as you can. No matter what happens, you will probably get a few splinters break off the front of the casing.
Once that's done, repeat it for the the other USB socket and then you will probably find that the expansion board moves forward by a few mm now the USB ports are not restricted. Whilst it's not perfectly straight, it's good enough to not be noticeable under a tv. I then glued it in place using Gorilla Glue (the gel version as the normal superglue is too thin and will just run everywhere).
Step 5: Time for Some Affordable Bulk Storage
Ok, the first image shows what most of these builds end up looking like inside - a pile of badly wired junk!
The second image shows what I want to do - use the slope of the motherboard as a neat place to hide away all those untidy cables! A bit of double-sided sticky tape on the top of the drive (the side with the big sticker on it) is enough to hold it in place.
Ok - cables - make sure to use a SATA cable that doesn't have a 90 degree joint in it otherwise you will just make it harder to tidy up! Save that for the motherboard end, where minimising bits that stick up is your priority. NOw you can screw the motherboard in place.
Step 6: Tie Up Loose Ends
Ok, so the next step is to hook up all those new cables for sound, USB and the hard drive. Check your motherboard manual to make sure you don't try and plug a USB cable into the power/reset switches but they should only go in one way due to the blank pins in each pre-wired plug.
You'll see that I didn't connect the USB3.0 cable in the picture. That's because it is actually too tall for the case by about 5 mm so am going to probably have to strip down the plastic covering and reseal it in rubber or tape. That will give it greater flexibility and mean that I can bend it down and fit it under the lid.
This board/CPU doesn't really give off much/any heat but regardless, I am not letting anything sit on top of the heatsink just in case. This motherboard has connectors at all corners and the short PicoPSU cable is a real pain to get it tidy with the 4 pin ATX connector that runs around one of the RAM sockets. I think that in future I might just make my own cables now that I am more confident in soldering.
Step 7: Future Improvements
Ok shameless rip-off time. I like the convenience of having power and reset switches to hand, but as the system is set to power on in the event of loss, I don't actually need a power switch after the first time as everything else can be done through the desktop.
The best way to do this is once again recycling - the two momentary contact switches from the original circuit board will do nicely so half an hour's desoldering later, we have two switches. After that, strip a power switch from the eponymous donor PC and resolder the wires and socket to the Atari switch and bob should be your uncle. I'll get that done as soon as I get a chance!
Good news - that was dead easy and now have a working on-off switch! You only need to solder the power switch to two of the six contact points as I am not re-using the original circuit board, which uses a simple board with six pins routed to a single +/- connection. Tested it in Ubuntu and worked first time as it triggered the off/standby/reset menu on screen. Also set the BIOS to always power on in the event of power loss to reduce hassle and bootup time.
I also added the front panel and tested it for the USB3 socket as that needed some of the plastic housing for the plug stripped in order to make it flexible enough to bend to fit under the lid without flexing the socket on the motherboard too much. Seems fine and worked first time so all is well!
Ubuntu is installed and the next step is to get EmulationStation and some ROMs installed, ready for some retro Atari gaming! Am not too fussed about power LEDs or fans/USB sockets in the top as am keeping the rest of the switch slots free to let air in and out of the case naturally. Ok - got this done, after a bit of time in the Terminal and have added a screenshot. The current version has an issue with wired Xbox360 controllers, basically they work in the menus but not in some ROMS, particularly Nintendo, so watch out for that!
I have a Dreamcast PC that is my next guide, followed by refurbishing a 13 year old Alienware PC and building a PiCube out of a donor GameCube - stay tuned for more build logs like this in the near future! Comments and suggestions welcome.