Linked by Thom Holwerda on Sat 7th Sep 2013 09:54 UTC
Hardware, Embedded Systems

The 8-bit Z-80 processor is famed for use in many early personal computers such the Osborne 1, TRS-80, and Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and it is still used in embedded systems and TI graphing calculators. I had always assumed that the ALU (arithmetic-logic unit) in the Z-80 was 8 bits wide, like just about every other 8-bit processor. But while reverse-engineering the Z-80, I was shocked to discover the ALU is only 4 bits wide! The founders of Zilog mentioned the 4-bit ALU in a very interesting discussion at the Computer History Museum, so it's not exactly a secret, but it's not well-known either.

I have been reverse-engineering the Z-80 processor using images from the Visual 6502 team. The image below shows the overall structure of the Z-80 chip and the location of the ALU. The remainder of this article dives into the details of the ALU: its architecture, how it works, and exactly how it is implemented.

Ken Shirrif's blog is an absolute must for fans of ultra-low-level hardware stuff. This goes way over my head, but interesting nonetheless.

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This Might Explain A Few Things
by Pro-Competition on Sat 7th Sep 2013 18:36 UTC in reply to "4 Bit ALU's"
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This isn't talking about chained 4-bit units - it's a single 4-bit unit, where the slices are processed serially, not in parallel.

Actually, this probably helps to explain the high number of clock cycles the Z-80 used to perform operations. I'm not sure if this was a good design trade-off or not.

(I always admired the rich instruction set of the Z-80 in comparison to the 6502 I was working with on the VIC-20 / C-64. But then I looked at the timing data and wasn't quite so jealous. ;^) )

P.S. I remember reading about those bit-slice processors in data books as kid. (Yes, I was a nerdy kid.) I think that was an elegant solution at the time.

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