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Would you be interested in an x86-based alternative to the Raspberry Pi, optimized for retro gaming?

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First post, by WDStudios

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So... I have this idea. A small, low-cost, low-power computer, like the Raspberry Pi, but 100% compatible with Windows 98 and heavily optimized for parallel floating-point operations. Like... imagine that I talked to AMD and convinced them to make fresh chips that combined a single Athlon 64 core, a Radeon 9800 core (or several), and an SB400 or SB450 southbridge all on a single piece of silicon. And let's say that I then incorporated that into either a bare board (like the Pi) or a somewhat more complete system with an optical drive, hard drive, and possibly even integrated 4:3 fullscreen monitor (like ye olde iMac). How many of you would buy something like that?

Since people like posting system specs:

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Reply 2 of 201, by Socket3

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WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:06:

So... I have this idea. A small, low-cost, low-power computer, like the Raspberry Pi, but 100% compatible with Windows 98 and heavily optimized for parallel floating-point operations. Like... imagine that I talked to AMD and convinced them to make fresh chips that combined a single Athlon 64 core, a Radeon 9800 core (or several), and an SB400 or SB450 southbridge all on a single piece of silicon. And let's say that I then incorporated that into either a bare board (like the Pi) or a somewhat more complete system with an optical drive, hard drive, and possibly even integrated 4:3 fullscreen monitor (like ye olde iMac). How many of you would buy something like that?

Sounds great, lots of people would love something like that, but I don't see it happening. Custom chips are expensive, and the retro gaming market is just a small niche.

The machine should also support precise clock speed control - from 100 to say 1600mhz - so that you can play dos games as well. It's definitely doable, but the SoC would be very expensive to design and manufacture.

Reply 3 of 201, by WDStudios

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Socket3 wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:21:

Sounds great, lots of people would love something like that, but I don't see it happening. Custom chips are expensive

New designs are expensive. Taking old designs and remaking them on a 7 nm process is cheap.

Socket3 wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:21:

and the retro gaming market is just a small niche.

Massively parallel floating-point operations are useful for more than gaming. Just ask any Bitcoin miner.

Socket3 wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:21:

The machine should also support precise clock speed control - from 100 to say 1600mhz - so that you can play dos games as well.

Most DOS games play just fine at any clock speed.

Since people like posting system specs:

LGA 2011
Core i7 Sandy Bridge @ 3.6 ghz
4 GB of RAM in quad-channel
Geforce GTX 780
1600 x 1200 monitor
Dual-booting WinXP Integral Edition and Win7 Pro 64-bit
-----
XP compatibility is the hill that I will die on.

Reply 5 of 201, by Jo22

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https://hackaday.com/2021/06/17/where-are-all … ngle-board-pcs/

😀

Edit:

WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:36:

New designs are expensive. Taking old designs and remaking them on a 7 nm process is cheap.

7nm isn'5t even necessary, maybe. To small structures can lead to cross-talk and too much sensitivity.
ie, radiation and thermal stress can accelerate the aging process.

Considering the age of the 386/486 generations, 0.1 to 0.5 Micron (micrometers, μm or just μ; 100 to 500 nm) would be quite an improvement still.
The original 80386 was made in 1.5 μm (later down to 0.8μm).

Edit : But the idea ist neat. Just look at this, it's an old Z80, made with modern technology (of 20 years ago).

z80onglass_01.jpg
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Z80 on Glass
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Z80 on Glass
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Source: https://original.sharpmz.org/z80glass.htm

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Reply 6 of 201, by Socket3

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WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:36:

Taking old designs and remaking them on a 7 nm process is cheap.

What you're proposing requires re-designing old hardware, adding a CPU and GPU on the same die, and fitting it to a new process. It is EXPENSIVE. You can't just take a clawhammer core and a R350 GPU , die shrink them and then super glue them together. The SOC will require a custom southbridge with appropriate I/O, a bridge interface and the whole thing will need to have a go-over in order to print it on a new process. The difference between 90nm and 7nm is so huge that just printing a clawhammer core on 7nm is unfeasible.

WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:36:

Massively parallel floating-point operations are useful for more than gaming. Just ask any Bitcoin miner.

Running win98 and DOS has nothing to do with mining. Neither the ClawHammer core (athlon64) or the R350 (radeon 9800) have enough floating point muscle to be of any use for miners. An SoC designed for retro games running real hardware not emulation will be SLOW. Going the other way, designing a highly parallel chip useful for mining, would make it useless for retro gaming, as it wouldn't even be x86 compatible and would require emulation, witch can be done using existing hardware, no need to design something new.

WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:36:

Most DOS games play just fine at any clock speed.

Really? Have you tried playing Jazz Jackrabbit on a fast machine? Or supaplex? Or Volfield? Or Commander Keen? Biomanace? The list goes on. Only SOME post 96 dos games will run well at any clock speed. The others will either refuse to run at all (Jazz), have stuttering/scrolling issues (keen, biomanece, supaplex) or run way too fast (volfield).

This topic has been discussed before. My dream retro gaming SoC should include:
- x86 compatible core capable of scaling from 286 performance all the way to say a pentium 3 tualatin
- fully VGA / VESA compliant video chip to avoid compatibility issues with some games (keen, biomance, duke1)
- glide compatible 3D core (at least trough software like nvglide)
- IDE/CF/SD interface and or SATA
- ATX powered
- AGP, PCI and ISA slots
- Windows 9x and DOS drivers

Reply 7 of 201, by digger

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The Geode SoC would have fitted the bill quote nicely. Unfortunately, AMD discontinued it in 2019. So you would have to convince them to either resurrect this product line, or to develop something new to replace it, fitting a questionable retro niche.

Wouldn't an FPGA-based solution be a better way to go? Basically take the MiSTer port of the ao486 core and enhance it to add the features on your list that it still lacks?

I know that in order to run at the performance of a Pentium or better, and to provide 3D hardware acceleration, more powerful FPGAs will be required. Eventually those will become available and affordable though, just like how the DE10-nano FPGA made the MiSTer possible.

For niche applications, the FPGA approach seems to be the only sensible one, other than software emulation. Developing dedicated hardware for something like this just wouldn't be worth the required investment. I don't think you'd be successful in convincing a company like AMD or Intel otherwise.

Reply 8 of 201, by The Serpent Rider

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Custom chips are expensive, and the retro gaming market is just a small niche.

Not only it's small, but most are satisfied with software solutions like emulation.

I must be some kind of standard: the anonymous gangbanger of the 21st century.

Reply 10 of 201, by SScorpio

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digger wrote on 2021-06-19, 12:44:

Wouldn't an FPGA-based solution be a better way to go? Basically take the MiSTer port of the ao486 core and enhance it to add the features on your list that it still lacks?

I know that in order to run at the performance of a Pentium or better, and to provide 3D hardware acceleration, more powerful FPGAs will be required. Eventually those will become available and affordable though, just like how the DE10-nano FPGA made the MiSTer possible.

The ao486 core on MiSTer is great for old games, but even cranking it up to 100Mhz it still can't hit DX-66 performance. People were looking at it comparing the speeds of different instructions versus new hardware so hopefully, it will get better optimization. It might be possible to squeeze the Pentium's architecture on it, but 90/100Mhz is a hard cap for the FGPA.

But the current state of ao486 is still very impressive. The only major thing it's lacking IMO is CD-Audio support as there are games it's able to play that used audio tracks on a CD for in-game music or even speech (CD version of Loom).

But for anyone that's never seen the MiSTer, it's a crazy device that while expensive versus a bare Pi, gives you easier setup and just somehow magically works.

The other thing about MiSTer is the FPGA cores are open source. You can take the Verilog or VHDL and have a custom ASIC created from it. Though with the MiSTer, there are ARM cores embedded on the FPGA that run a Linux backend and do a lot of the heavy lifting for things like USB controllers, accessing storage, etc. So you could still do the fantasy of Crawhammer + Voodoo on a single chip. Just develop it on an FPGA first, though an ASIC is static while an FPGA just requires a recompile ot fix bugs that will always crop up.

Reply 11 of 201, by Deksor

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digger wrote on 2021-06-19, 12:58:

With the exception of Glide compatibility, the weeCee by rasteri seems to check all the boxes on your list as well. 🙂

See Tiny Vortex86-based DOS gaming PC - weeCee

I second that, I think that thing could actually be made by some company and sell. Heck for newbies they could even make a contract with GoG, preinstall freedos and some DOS games and name it the "PC mini" (like the C64 mini, NES/SNES mini, Playstation mini ... except here it'd be the real deal 😁)

Trying to identify old hardware ? Visit Ultimate Retro - Project's thread The Ultimate Retro project - a stason.org/TH99 alternative

Reply 12 of 201, by digger

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Deksor wrote on 2021-06-19, 13:49:
digger wrote on 2021-06-19, 12:58:

With the exception of Glide compatibility, the weeCee by rasteri seems to check all the boxes on your list as well. 🙂

See Tiny Vortex86-based DOS gaming PC - weeCee

I second that, I think that thing could actually be made by some company and sell. Heck for newbies they could even make a contract with GoG, preinstall freedos and some DOS games and name it the "PC mini" (like the C64 mini, NES/SNES mini, Playstation mini ... except here it'd be the real deal 😁)

Interesting thought! 🙂 Piggy-backing on the "mini retro console/arcade" craze with a tiny appliance shipping with a lot of classic DOS games makes so much sense, that it's surprising no company has released anything like that yet. Probably because there was no single iconic "DOS game PC" that it could be shaped after. I guess you could shape it like a mini IBM PC, and some people have already 3D-printed something like that for the Raspberry Pi, but the IBM PC doesn't exactly evoke gaming in the minds of people, like it did even with the mini C64. 😁

Also, the "DOS PC gaming" era was perhaps too broad to pay tribute to with a single mini console. Would you ship Doom in a mini retro console that was shaped after the original IBM PC, for instance? That would be like releasing a single "mini Nintendo" product with an assortment of games from all the different classic Nintendo consoles they released over the years.

You're right that GoG would be the ideal company to fill such a void, though. They already have distribution licenses for many of the old classic games.

Reply 13 of 201, by the3dfxdude

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Socket3 wrote on 2021-06-19, 11:15:
WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:36:

Taking old designs and remaking them on a 7 nm process is cheap.

What you're proposing requires re-designing old hardware, adding a CPU and GPU on the same die, and fitting it to a new process. It is EXPENSIVE. You can't just take a clawhammer core and a R350 GPU , die shrink them and then super glue them together. The SOC will require a custom southbridge with appropriate I/O, a bridge interface and the whole thing will need to have a go-over in order to print it on a new process. The difference between 90nm and 7nm is so huge that just printing a clawhammer core on 7nm is unfeasible.

Well, if your Intel, you can take a pentium core, their low end graphics core and sound, die shink and slap them together, and call it atom. They even did a spin making it x86_64, with better graphics. AMD does the same things from time to time.

I guess I can't exactly comment on whether their high level logic databases and toolchains from 15-25 years ago are that easy to port on to the latest tool chains. But I've taken simple CPU designs through the process pretty quickly on different process nodes. And what was mentioned on geode, AMD (as well as Intel) has already done it, so the effort probably isn't that out of question.

Anyway, convincing these companies about the business from hobbyists for retro gaming is probably never going to happen. As was mentioned, our best bet right now is WeeCee, which is based on the already existing vortex SOC.

Reply 14 of 201, by Deksor

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digger wrote on 2021-06-19, 14:14:
Interesting thought! :slight_smile: Piggy-backing on the "mini retro console/arcade" craze with a tiny appliance shipping with a […]
Show full quote
Deksor wrote on 2021-06-19, 13:49:
digger wrote on 2021-06-19, 12:58:

With the exception of Glide compatibility, the weeCee by rasteri seems to check all the boxes on your list as well. 🙂

See Tiny Vortex86-based DOS gaming PC - weeCee

I second that, I think that thing could actually be made by some company and sell. Heck for newbies they could even make a contract with GoG, preinstall freedos and some DOS games and name it the "PC mini" (like the C64 mini, NES/SNES mini, Playstation mini ... except here it'd be the real deal 😁)

Interesting thought! 🙂 Piggy-backing on the "mini retro console/arcade" craze with a tiny appliance shipping with a lot of classic DOS games makes so much sense, that it's surprising no company has released anything like that yet. Probably because there was no single iconic "DOS game PC" that it could be shaped after. I guess you could shape it like a mini IBM PC, and some people have already 3D-printed something like that for the Raspberry Pi, but the IBM PC doesn't exactly evoke gaming in the minds of people, like it did even with the mini C64. 😁

Also, the "DOS PC gaming" era was perhaps too broad to pay tribute to with a single mini console. Would you ship Doom in a mini retro console that was shaped after the original IBM PC, for instance? That would be like releasing a single "mini Nintendo" product with an assortment of games from all the different classic Nintendo consoles they released over the years.

You're right that GoG would be the ideal company to fill such a void, though. They already have distribution licenses for many of the old classic games.

Yeah

About GoG I wasn't thinking of them doing this thing, but rather : someone makes the hardware, and then they make a contract with GoG to ship it with games 😀

You're right about the broadness, but afterall that's how the PC is. I see many ways in which it could be made tho :
Make "themed" machines (FPS machine, RPG machine, RTS machine, and so on ...), or just let people pick the games they want : for example you'd have the right to pick like 20 games for "free", and then buy more for their normal price on GoG. After all, it's just a mini PC so it's just a matter of moving some files to an SD card.

Of course as it'd be a real DOS machine you could also use your original games if you want to. Or get it without any OS for cheaper and run whatever you want on it.

The main problems of the WeeCee are the price and the fact you need to make it yourself. But the price seems to be mainly due to the fact the parts used are made for industrial purposes, but the SoC itself is probably not that expensive. I don't know how much it'd cost, but if a company makes these, they could buy directly the SoC and assemble everything. That would probably be much cheaper (I have no idea how much it'd cost but I think it could be kept under 100 bucks at least) and you wouldn't need to make your own.

Trying to identify old hardware ? Visit Ultimate Retro - Project's thread The Ultimate Retro project - a stason.org/TH99 alternative

Reply 15 of 201, by debs3759

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Would something like Vortex86 do what you want? An example can be found at https://www.digikey.co.uk/product-detail/en/v … ource=findchips (although used units are much cheaper)

See my graphics card database at www.gpuzoo.com
Constantly being worked on. Feel free to message me with any corrections or details of cards you would like me to research and add.

Reply 16 of 201, by mrau

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vortex is expensive as are most integrated toys - i would not spend such amounts on this kind of stuff
i would personally just take a redone fx cpu;an ahci and hd audio driver for windows 98 would be required, i doubt other things would be in the way of some games
having amd expand the fx line some more, say 10-12 cores can be useful either way; not everyone is a ryzen geek and if your windows of choice does not use all cores - so what?

Reply 17 of 201, by dionb

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Thing about the Pi is that it could be so cheap because it utilized surplus silicon that would otherwise have been disposed of to reach critical mass.

The original Pi used a BCM mobile phone SoC that had been produced as part of a lost bid for a phone. The whole pitch was to generate a minimal bit of revenue and some social value and goodwill with something essentially written off and without silicon design costs.

Once the Pi was a huge success that changed, but it was how it got started. To replicate that you'd need surplus x86 retro-friendly SoC out there somewhere. Unless I missed something they don't exist which means you can't go down a similar route. Silicon would need designing and mass-producing, and the potential user would have to be prepared to pay (through the teeth) for that

As was already pointed out, most of the potential market is happy with emulation, and most of the rest would rather shell out for real vintage hardware than pay even more for new hw. I really don't see the business case here, unless you manage to side-step those two biggest costs using FPGA or existing (Vortex) chips which are both already too expensive and too flawed for most.

Reply 18 of 201, by kjliew

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If he could make it cheaper than $60 bucks, then maybe he had a plan.

Expensive or affordable is subjective to one's value perception, too. Or perhaps the OP's real life is a Saudi prince whose family has controlling stake in GlobalFoundry and all he needs is to keep a couple samples for himself for the minimum wafer order to produce minimum quantity of chips. The remaining samples can be heavily subsidized and sold off to retro PC enthusiasts community for fame & praises. There are governments of countries who heavily subsidized goods & services, shun foreign competition against domestic commerce, to create the oasis of "good life & living". Not everyone is a believer of "free market" & capitalism in the West.

Never discount every remote possibilities for an open discussion. The gold mine of WWW clicks advertisements, electrics cars styled & performed in ways appealing to the public, civilian rocket business, multi-planetary human civilization etc. were/are once/still "laughable" ideas. If one would stand out, speak up & defend his point of view, then it would be very much welcome.

Reply 19 of 201, by cyclone3d

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Socket3 wrote on 2021-06-19, 11:15:
What you're proposing requires re-designing old hardware, adding a CPU and GPU on the same die, and fitting it to a new process. […]
Show full quote
WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:36:

Taking old designs and remaking them on a 7 nm process is cheap.

What you're proposing requires re-designing old hardware, adding a CPU and GPU on the same die, and fitting it to a new process. It is EXPENSIVE. You can't just take a clawhammer core and a R350 GPU , die shrink them and then super glue them together. The SOC will require a custom southbridge with appropriate I/O, a bridge interface and the whole thing will need to have a go-over in order to print it on a new process. The difference between 90nm and 7nm is so huge that just printing a clawhammer core on 7nm is unfeasible.

WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:36:

Massively parallel floating-point operations are useful for more than gaming. Just ask any Bitcoin miner.

Running win98 and DOS has nothing to do with mining. Neither the ClawHammer core (athlon64) or the R350 (radeon 9800) have enough floating point muscle to be of any use for miners. An SoC designed for retro games running real hardware not emulation will be SLOW. Going the other way, designing a highly parallel chip useful for mining, would make it useless for retro gaming, as it wouldn't even be x86 compatible and would require emulation, witch can be done using existing hardware, no need to design something new.

WDStudios wrote on 2021-06-19, 07:36:

Most DOS games play just fine at any clock speed.

Really? Have you tried playing Jazz Jackrabbit on a fast machine? Or supaplex? Or Volfield? Or Commander Keen? Biomanace? The list goes on. Only SOME post 96 dos games will run well at any clock speed. The others will either refuse to run at all (Jazz), have stuttering/scrolling issues (keen, biomanece, supaplex) or run way too fast (volfield).

This topic has been discussed before. My dream retro gaming SoC should include:
- x86 compatible core capable of scaling from 286 performance all the way to say a pentium 3 tualatin
- fully VGA / VESA compliant video chip to avoid compatibility issues with some games (keen, biomance, duke1)
- glide compatible 3D core (at least trough software like nvglide)
- IDE/CF/SD interface and or SATA
- ATX powered
- AGP, PCI and ISA slots
- Windows 9x and DOS drivers

By the time you have all that, the board wouldn't be much smaller than already available motherboards.

Might as well just use an AMD Athlon XP Barton Mobile or AMD Geode NX and be done with it. Clock speed can go up to an easy 2.3Ghz with a Mobile Barton 2800+ (on my KT7A anyway), but they used to run them up to around 2.6Ghz on air on better overclocking / higher fsb boards.

The multiplier can go as low as 3.0 on the Mobile AMD chips and can be controlled by software.

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