Commodore 64 on the Internet | IRC

The Commodore 64 was my first computer and as such, now holds a special place in my heart and probably forever more, or at least until I lose my mind completely. In all the years I had a C64, I never visited a BBS as I didn’t get that bit of tech until I got my Commodore Amiga 600. Due to the wonders of the Internet, and a global effort to keep these old machines relevant from guys like The 8-Bit Guy, Perifractic Retro Recipes, Retro Man Cave, Dan Wood, LGR and so many others, I was inspired to take the time to make my Commodore 64 more than just a stroll down vintage lane for me. I have seen others make use of it for writing and developing new games and such for it but how could I incorporate it into my life was the question. That answer, IRC, it must do IRC.

So, lets use the “scientific method” on this as I make my kids do it, so why not force myself to do the same.

Purpose

Make use of my beloved Commodore 64, my first computer, in some practical way. I am going to use “practical” fast an loose for this. I have seen many examples of using the Commodore 64 in some sort of networked fashion but I wanted to see if I could have it serve a specific purpose. Chat on IRC, Connected through the Ethernet into my home network using it’s own power and capability.

Hypothesis

I think I am able to get the Commodore 64 to access the IRC function on the Internet without having to telnet into another server as a bridge to make it happen. I also think this is going to be a bit of a headache and everything is going to fight me along the way.

Materials

Here is my list of “materials” in order to conduct this experiment.

Commodore 64

This computer has a whopping 64K of memory to which, in it’s time was an extraordinary amount of memory, generally about 16 times that of its contemporaries at the time. If you know anything about the Commodore 64, nothing I am going to tell you here will be new. If you don’t know much about the commodore 64, this is a great video on YouTube with a great breakdown of the chip design.

SD2IEC drive

Purchased from The Future Was 8-Bit, this is a fantastic device that came included with an 8 GiB SD Card filled with all kinds of goodness. It is a joy to use and makes for reliving the Commodore 64 history so much more enjoyable. Although, you don’t get to enjoy the warm purring the 1541 5¼” Floppy Drive, this is a more practical and sustainable solution. If you purchase newer software for the C64, they usually build it to be compatible with this device. It was a great deal and allowed me to be able to use the .d81 image Contiki OS image that will be described below.

RR-Net MK3

This is a 10Mbit network card from icomp.de that comes form a rather long line of similarly designed devices. This is said to work with Contiki, Codenet and WarpCopy. The nice feature of this card is that it can be used as a stand alone or on a Carrier Card so that you can add this “feature” to another device like the MMC Replay or Chameleon. This will not work with a C128, SX-64 and very old C64 main boards. I don’t have a “very old” main board (just really old), so this works fine with my computer.

Wired Ethernet line

There really isn’t much to report here. I just made a cable and strung it from my router over to the Commodore 64. It is neat to see the flashing activity light when it’s running and doing it’s network activity.

CRT display

Why a CRT? To be more genuine to the period in which it came from? No, it is because it is what I have and it should also be noted that this is an old SVGA, CAD monitor that I once used for such activities. Now it serves are more noble function as my “retro corner” display. I have a ViewSonic that converts the S-Video and Composite signals to SVGA.

Contiki OS

Software package that is accessible from here on GitHub that comes in a few different builds. I used the .d81 image as that would eliminate the need to swap disks, or at least the risk of me screwing up the process of disk swapping should that become necessary.

Procedure

Assemble the components, plug the computer into a working Ethernet line and attempt to get online to chat in an IRC room. The intent here is to use the Commodore 64 as the client, not to use any other machine as a spring board.

Results

The results are mixed but I am going to break it down a bit so that you can replicate it and adjust the process to fit your situation.

Since I have the SD2IEC, I used the .d81 image and put it on the root directory of my SD Card that is in my SD2IEC. Why the root directory? Just to make it quicker to access it.

With the RR-Net MK3 installed in the cartridge port, the start screen is quite different, displaying information about the card. With the SD2IEC connected and the SD Card inserted, I loaded the drive management software which is a simple interface for navigating the contents of the drive. After all, it is 8 GiB of storage so the traditional methods are a bit cumbersome in this regard.

There are two applications that you have to run before you can begin doing the IRC you have to set up what is the “Ethernet device” and set the IP Addresses.

I am not sure if it is critical to do them in any particular order but I started with ETHCONFIG to set the Ethernet device.

Once it is set, all you can do is power cycle the machine to perform the next step. That means, enjoying the lackadaisical loading times of the Commodore 64. Even with an SD Card… not real fast.

Next was to run IPCONFIG to define the IP addresses of the Contiki OS. To navigate up and down in the fields, use the F5 and F7 keys. ENTER to select Save & Close

After this ready prompt, you will have to power cycle the machine once again to load the IRC application. The first run of this, I went for just IRC as opposed to IRC80 as that 80 means column and I like the C64 font.

When the application completes loading from the SD Card, you are the prompted for the IRC server and nickname. Using F5 and F7 to navigate up and down will take you to each of the fields and RETURN to Connect. I want to note here that you must write your IRC nickname in all lowercase and numbers. If you use any uppercase numbers, the IRC server will not be able to recognize the characters.

It will take just a bit but you will see the typical IRC “chatter” fly past on the screen.

Well… I wouldn’t say “fly past” for this. More like trot steadily through. To join a channel enter

/join #<room name here>

In my case, I decided to join the #bigdaddylinuxlive room because, why not? I know the people there, they are friendly and I knew that someone would get a kick out of it.

I made some observations that whatever you type into the prompt, whatever case it is, will be displayed as all uppercase.

I further compared it against what I see in comparison between the Qt based IRC application Konversation. How would it be displayed to “normal” or I guess, “modern” clients.

I was able to see that the Commodore 64 client could only send all lowercase characters, display it locally as Uppercase characters but be able to receive a mix of characters. I thought it all to be quite interesting.

I did test the 80 column mode of the IRC client. It did indeed work and was readable but but I have had it crash on me a few times. I can’t say as to why so I have decided to stick with the 40 column mode for now.

It should also be noted that the screen scrolling is quite a bit slower in this mode. Not terrible, just quite noticeable. The

Conclusion

The Commodore 64 is very much able to, under it’s own, power, unmodified with the additional components is able to access the Internet and perform communication in IRC chat rooms. It does work better in 40 column mode than it does 80 column but is very usable.

Getting online with the Commodore 64 to hang out in IRC chatrooms is really quite a satisfying experience. The fact that it is a computer from an age before the internet and when BBS systems were in their early stages, having the ability to plug an Ethernet line into it and with a little configuration was able to get onto the World Wide Web… of sorts, at least a part of it.

Final Thoughts

I am impressed that I am able to do this much with an unmodified Commodore 64. I am quite impressed that with 64 KiB of RAM, it is still a productive and usable tool. It is quite single purpose but absolutely useful.

I want to note that the web browser does work in this Contiki OS but not with HTTPS so that is out. It does make requests as you would expect and I think I just may revisit the rest of this on another blathering at some point in time.

Future plans, I really want to be able to telnet into a Linux machine with the Commodore 64, I have some other hardware and software I want to try out with this machine to see what other greatness can become of it.

References

Contiki OS for 6502 based computers from GitHub
25c3: The Ultimate Commodore 64 Talk
RR-Net MK3 from icomp.de
The Future Was 8-Bit SD2IEC Drive

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