Hands on: Building an MP3 player for an Apple II computer

We follow along as KansasFest workshop participant Andy Molloy assembles and demos Briel Computers' A2MP3 card.

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Apple didn't always rule the digital music industry. It wasn't until the introduction of the iPod a decade ago that Apple started defining itself as more than just a computer company. Today, it's expected that any Apple product will feature some version of iTunes.

But what about the machine that first made Apple a juggernaut? Before the iPod and even the Macintosh, there was the Apple II, the computer the company launched with in 1977. Officially discontinued in 1993, the Apple II is antiquated by today's standards -- but retrocomputing fan Vince Briel recently gave it a boost.

His new A2MP3 expansion card gives the 1MHz machine the ability to play MP3 music files loaded from a USB drive. Its included software, written in Basic, runs in the background, letting Apple II enthusiasts listen to their tunes while simultaneously working in AppleWorks or playing Lode Runner. Future programs may load their own soundtracks from the card, giving classic-looking games a decidedly modern sound.

Briel debuted the A2MP3 card in 2009 at KansasFest, an Apple II convention held every July in Kansas City, Mo., but it didn't become commercially available until KansasFest 2011. There, Briel instructed attendees on how to assemble his A2MP3 kit. I followed along as workshop participant Andy Molloy (see his website) built and tested his MP3 card, specially branded with the KansasFest logo.

Those who missed the event can pre-order the card (sans KansasFest logo) from Briel Computers at $99.95 for the kit or $109.95 preassembled.

Getting started: Andy Molloy unpacks his A2MP3 kit, featuring a blank A2MP3 card specially branded for KansasFest 2011. A second board pre-populated with the USB and audio interfaces will be attached to the main card.

The kit contains only 11 parts -- one-eighth the number of parts in Briel's Apple-1 replica kit. Not included with the A2MP3 kit but essential for the assembly process is a soldering iron.

Upper left: The first step is to place the 28-pin socket, which will house the card's Asynchronous Communications Interface Adapter (ACIA) chip, into its designated location.

Andy then turns the board over and solders the socket into place under the watchful eye of A2MP3 card developer Vince Briel.

The lower-right photo shows the board populated with a soldered socket.

Next, Andy inserts a 20pF capacitor. Once inserted, the wires on the other side of the capacitor are bent and soldered into place, and the long ends are snipped with wire cutters.

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