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NEC PC-8201A Portable Computer – Black Screen

Here's a new acquisition. It's an all-in-one portable machine from the early 80s. It was sold cheaply as non-working and, indeed, it non-works.

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I hadn't realised how big these things were!? I was expecting something around half the thickness and maybe 60% the width/height. It's actually a really nice machine and I do like the form-factor. This item came quite scuffed and 'used'. All to be expected and nothing to worry about. I purchased it since they seem to have a great array of I/O ports and programmability. They run Microsoft BASIC off-the-shelf and have 32kb of storage.

Initial Inspection

First signs of tear-it-down-before-turning-it-on showed up as soon as I checked out the battery pack. The batteries weren't in there, but there was a LOT of corrosion. The circuit board in the battery pack even seemed to have components missing? Did they corrode and disintegrate away?

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After a good scrub, all was much cleaner... I had already decided to pull the main machine apart first though. Corrosion has a magical property of travelling inside metal (just like electricity) and conquering whatever it can get its green rusty mits on.

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Of course, it had spread. The terminal and battery pack isolation switch were the main victims. Fortunately, it didn't seem that the tracks or other components were affected?

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Both Isopropyl alcohol and cleaning wipes were used to clean up the board. Light scrubbing was also required in the hard to get areas.

Powering it up

After all the cleaning and soldering above, it was time to bite the bullet. I found 4 random AA batteries and slotted them into the pack. My multimeter showed 6 volts, so I slapped it in an gave it a go.

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Flicking the power switch on the side gave no response. I had read online somewhere that the first thing to check is the "Back Up Power" switch. I initially thought this meant "use the internal battery", but it doesn't. It actually means "use the batteries you've just inserted". With this switched over, the power switch on the side saw the unit come to life... well... there were at least a few electrons flowing.

Black Screen Of Death

For now, we're going to disregard the damage to the LCD. you can see that something pointy has taken out a sizable area of the screen... but 95% of it will still be usable prior to needing to replace that.

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After the power switch was flicked, the screen produced the result you see above. Trouble-shooting this is pretty straight forward. As per the instructions here, press Enter, then type BEEP and press Enter again. If you get a beep, then your mainboard is fine and your screen is crap. My mainboard was not fine!

The next bit of googlin' found this result on diagnosing and repairing a black screen. Turns out one of the 245 chips was only half-functioning. I love that the author also found errors in the service manual. Either way, the repair-man found a defective IC and replaced it... as that I had no way of determining what was defective, I started replacing everything.

Component Shopping List

From the service manual, I found the following replaceable chips at my local electronics store.

Original Chip Jaycar's Version
40H139 : U1, U53, 74HC139 (ZC-4848)
40H386 : U51 74HC86 (ZC4835) IS NOT PIN COMPATIBLE!
Jaycar therefore doesn't have a replacement.
40H245 : U13, U42 74HC245 (ZC4870)
40H373 : U15 74HC373 (ZC4874)
40H367 : U??, U?? 74HC367 (ZC4872)
40H138 : U2, U3, U4, U5, U6 74HC138, but Jaycar doesn't stock it!
40H175 : U11, U12 74HC175, but Jaycar doesn't stock it!
603 Transistors BC547?
115 Transistors BC556/560?

Note: The above list is a work-in-progress. I'll update this as I continue identifying and replacing parts.

Find and Replace

Removing components from PCBs is always a challenge. Even with the best solder-sucker, you can still have a very hard time making sure every pin is free. In the end, as long as you don't need the existing IC, snipping legs and then removing those can be a much better option.

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I've used sockets for each IC I'm putting in as well... I've no idea if this whole board is pointless, so I'd prefer to waste a socket more than an IC. I started with the 245 that was mentioned above and got nowhere... still the blank screen... I then replaced a 367 and had no luck either. This was really a crap-shoot and a very slow process. From here I thought there had to be a better option... so I consulted the service manual.

Troubleshooting via the Service Manual

I really should've started here when diagnosing the issues in this machine but, when I had first read it, I saw the word 'Oscilloscope' and got scared off. I don't have one of these, so I didn't think to pursue this area of investigation. I had since come back to it after realising that replacing each of the ICs was going to take a REALLY long time.

On page 54 you actually get to test each of the pins on the CPU itself. It indicates the pin and the expected voltage. Note that the CLK pin is meant to flip/flop and this can't be seen from a multimeter. All you can really look for is a 'half' voltage, as the flicking effectively provides 50% 0v and 50% 5v totalling 2.5v. All of the pins on my CPU came up OK as per the values stated!?

From page 85 of the manual, you get instructions on what voltages are meant to be seen from the power supply board when the computer is powered on. All but one of these turned out to be OK. Pin 10 was meant to be greater than 7.5v, but mine was only just over 7.0v. The manual then tells you that U2, Q16, C1, or D7 of power board are bad. Ok... this is good! Let's replace everything we can.

Something weird happened next. I didn't have the required components to repair the power supply, so I tidied up the desk for the evening. As I put the machine back together (aka. placed it into a pile of loose parts), I accidentally toggled the power switch.

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Wait... what... we've got movement! The screen displayed a bunch of random rubbish. Sometimes a cursor, other times a heap of LOAD statements and at one point I could even type in a command... I didn't get a BEEP though.

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The only thing I can attribute this to is that the power supply board received attention. I had shifted the caps around and also wiggled transistors. Maybe some of these had faulty solder joints? I should've measured pin 10 again here, to see if it all happened because of a 7.5v reading. Unfortunately, I couldn't get it back into such a state. I went ahead and purchased parts to fix the power supply. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the correct transistors at Jaycar to replace Q16 as per the instructions above.

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I replaced all I could but still couldn't get the machine to do what I wanted. Actually, as I first started tinkering, the display of crappy text was satisfying. Towards the end, I hardly had a jumble of pixels. Toying with the ROM did seem to help... I wonder if the chip or socket area was damaged? Maybe static had fried it? Out of desperation, I attempted to swap some transistors around on the power board. Maybe that Q16 was the final issue. I did note that the 7.5v was still very intermittent. It didn't quite appear when the machine was half-working and only appeared at other random times... maybe the board was pulling too much current due to other issues and therefore was never actually going to let the power supply do it's thing?

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Playing switch-a-roo with transistors revealed some information on the power supply. Swapping the 603s between Q2, Q16 and Q3 made either the speaker click, the relay click or nothing at all. To me this meant that one/some of the transistors were faulty. It didn't matter which as I didn't have a replacement. Trying to find actual 603s was impossible but, using the cross-reference tool here, I have just found out that BC556s are a valid substitute.

Or are they? Let's rewind a bit... I assumed that the transistor was a 2SA603... but it actually can't be. Using this complimentary transistor table, it seems that my transistors are 2SC2603 and 2SA1115. It would make sense that one was NPN and the other PNP. I therefore need BC547s (although they seem to be rated 100mA less and the pins are reversed!) for the '603' and BC560s for the '115'. Unfortunately, Jaycar doesn't have 560s, so I'll choose 556s instead, which are just have a higher voltage tolerance and a lower amperage. I might also order the correct components from eBay.

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So, transistors... turns out that on page 108 of the service manual, the components are listed. I was totally correct on the transistor model... well, after I corrected myself. I therefore bought 20 of each from Jaycar.

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Of course, I jumped the gun and didn't correctly review each component. The pins weren't backwards, they were actually out of order!

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So, with the legs crossed, just enough, the order of the pins could be adjusted...

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Whilst replacing the transistors, I also replaced the capacitors. Of course, one had to have exploded. Happened to be the 33uf that assists with the -5v output. I assume it's a cap that stabilises the voltage. I simply used solder to bridge the damage.

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The results started off erratic... but then seemed closer to rendering a real screen?

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And then it happened!

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Keyboard didn't work.. screen was frozen... but shiiiiit... that's the actual main menu! I actually nearly have a real computer! I then replaced all the signal diodes on the power supply.

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With the diodes replaced, the keyboard worked! Note that at this point in time, the board relay was not actuating on power on. It had previously, intermittently... but doesn't seem to be essential? Either way, as above, the menu worked and BASIC loaded. Unfortunately, once loaded, BASIC was useless with a screen full of junk. Any keypress resulted in Memory Full and a system beep.

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I opened up TEX, typed in the obligatory sentence, pressed enter and the machine froze up... the work continues!

One step forward...

And then back to the beginning. I did something stupid over the weekend. On Saturday night I placed the ICs I had purchased over the top of the ICs they were to replace, so as to be able to see what ICs I still needed to replace/purchase. With these piggy-backed loosely, I closed the machine and put it aside.

Forgetting that I'd done this, I attempted to boot the machine the next morning... It presented the infamous black screen and not much else. As I shifted the machine to the center of the workbench, I heard parts move and instantly remembered what I'd done the night before. What a bloody waste of time I am; forgetting that I'd left the ICs in there and hence possibly doing all kinds of damage.

For the life of me, I could not get the machine back to where I was on Saturday afternoon. Such a let down! The only real goal was to hope that I'd only damaged mounted items and not the new items I'd purchased... then again, I could just re-purchase as I'll socket all the ICs.

IC Replacement

Solder suckers are fun, but Desoldering Braid is the best thing since sliced bread! Once you've removed the IC+legs from the mainboard, you'll find it quite difficult to remove the solder from the holes. Desoldering braid does this for you and does it quickly and cleanly. All you have to do is unreel enough to cover the hole and then press your soldering iron directly into the center of the area. The chemicals in the braid them somehow manage to attract the solder!

If it doesn't work the first time, then re-apply solder first. Only use the braid on holes that are full. If there's a gap, then the solder wont jump, it'll only flow! Also, the longer you hold the soldering iron there, the better. Watch as the solder flows into the braid and lift when it stops flowing up.

After removing the TC40H386P, and thinking that the 74HC86 was a replacement, I worked out that it wasn't. A hack was employed to get around this.

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I lost a lot of faith with hacks like the above. Regardless, I ended up replacing half the chips on the mainboard and didn't get anywhere... it was time to wait for the oscilloscope to arrive.

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About stevenh

Trains... trains... trains... + Electronics + Japan.
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