With Intel attempting to get into 3D gaming graphics again, Custom PC’s Ben Hardwidge looks at the time it failed to take on 3dfx in the late 1990s.
Back in the late 1990s, I worked at a computer shop in Derby, where we sold components over the counter, while pointing to a sign that said ‘components are sold on the basis that the customer is competent to fit it themselves’. There were often compatibility issues between components, but there were two cards I’d always try to steer customers away from, as they nearly always came back to the shop, accompanied by a tired, angry face and colourful vocabulary.
One was a PCI soft modem that required an MMX CPU and refused to cooperate with Freeserve, Dixons’ free ISP that was taking the UK by storm. The other was Express 3D graphics card, based on Intel’s 740 gaming chip.
This was before Nvidia had coined the term ‘GPU’ for its first GeForce cards, which could take the burden of transform and lighting calculations away from the CPU. The CPU was still expected to do a fair bit of work in the 3D pipeline, but you bought a 3D card to speed up the process and make games look much smoother than software rendering.
However, unlike the 3dfx Voodoo and VideoLogic PowerVR cards at the time, which required a 2D card to output to a monitor, the i740 wasn’t a sole 3D card – it could function as a 2D and a 3D card in one unit, and at £30 it was also cheap. You can see why people were drawn to it.
Another factor in its popularity was being made by Intel; thanks to the company’s relentless marketing campaigns, this meant people assumed it would just work without problems. It also used the brand-new Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) interface, which people often assumed meant it would be faster than the PCI-based 3D accelerator cards.
The problem for us was that people who wanted cheap graphics cards usually also wanted cheap CPUs and motherboards, which meant going for an AMD K6 or Cyrix 6×86 CPU and a non-Intel motherboard chipset. The i740 didn’t like the AGP implementation on non-Intel chipsets very much, and it particularly didn’t like the ALi Aladdin chipset on which our most popular Super Socket 7 motherboards were based.
If you wanted the i740 to run properly, you really needed a Pentium II CPU and Intel 440LX or 440BX motherboard, and they were expensive. Then, once you’d paired your cheap graphics card with your expensive foundation gear, the i740 wasn’t actually that great, with comparably poor performance and still a load of compatibility issues. However, it had some interesting tech and history behind it that’s worth revisiting.
Intel didn’t have much in the way of graphics tech in the 1990s, but it had spotted a big market for 3D acceleration. The ATX motherboards for its latest Pentium II CPUs also came with an AGP slot, and a 3D AGP graphics card could potentially encourage people to upgrade (more on this later).
With little 3D accelerator expertise in house, Intel teamed up with US aerospace company Lockheed Martin to develop a consumer graphics card. That might seem a bit left field, but Lockheed Martin had acquired a variety of assets through various mergers and takeovers. In 1993, GE Aerospace was sold to Martin Marietta, and in 1995, Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin.
GE Aerospace was a division of General Electric, and its main business was providing systems and electronic gear to the aerospace and military industries, including simulators. In 1994, it started to branch out, working with Sega to produce the hardware for its Model 2 arcade machines, including 3D graphics tech for texture-mapped polygons and texture filtering. It was used for titles such as Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter 2.
In 1995, Lockheed Martin created a spin-off dedicated to consumer 3D graphics tech called Real3D, mostly using employees from GE Aerospace. Real3D worked with Sega on the 3D graphics hardware in its Model 3 cabinet, which was released in 1996, and then later began working with Intel to produce a consumer 3D graphics card, codenamed ‘Auburn’, which would become the 740.
An AGP showcase?
Intel had clear aims for the i740 when it was released in 1998 – it needed to be cheap and it needed to showcase the new AGP interface featured on the latest Pentium II motherboards. AGP had huge potential.
Although AGP was mainly based on the existing PCI interface, it had a direct connection to the CPU, as opposed to sharing the PCI bus with other cards. This not only freed up bandwidth, but also meant the AGP bus could run at a higher clock speed than the PCI bus.
Another one of its benefits was sideband addressing via a dedicated bus, meaning that all the usual address/data lines could be used solely for data throughput rather than both addressing and data functions, with the sideband bus handling address requests.
This massively increased the speed at which an AGP card could read from system memory compared with a PCI card, and meant an AGP card could practically use system memory as well as its on-board memory. You may remember the ‘AGP aperture’ setting in old motherboard BIOS screens – that was the amount of system memory you could allocate to your graphics card.
Most 3D cards didn’t rely on this feature, instead being piled with fast on-board memory to maximise performance, but Intel decided to go all out on it with the i740. The result was a card that only used its on-board memory as a frame buffer, with textures being stored in system memory.
This meant Intel could save money on memory (the cheapest i740 cards only came with 2MB compared to 8MB on the cheapest Voodoo2 cards), while also ensuring the cards required the new AGP interface.
The first problem, of course, was that using system memory and its interface wasn’t anywhere near as fast as using on-board graphics memory. The other problem was that the need for the graphics card to constantly access system memory ended up starving the CPU of memory bandwidth.
That was a big problem at a time when the CPU was still doing a fair bit of the work in the 3D pipeline. The growing use of larger textures in 3D games to improve detail made the situation even worse. What’s more, as I mentioned earlier, the AGP implementations on most Super Socket 7 motherboards just weren’t designed with a card such as the i740 in mind.
It also didn’t help that some board makers (including Real3D under the Starfighter brand) started making PCI versions of the i740 with a bridge chip and more on-board memory, and these cards were usually faster than the AGP equivalents, as they didn’t rely on system memory for texture storage.
Curtains for the i740
What seems bizarre now is that, at the time, I remember a lot of discussion before the launch about how Intel’s work with Real3D was going to result in Intel having a monopoly on 3D graphics, and putting the likes of ATi, 3dfx and VideoLogic out of business.
Intel had access to huge silicon manufacturing facilities, it had a massive research and development budget, and it had the proven expertise of Real3D at its disposal. In reality, the i740 was soon cancelled and almost completely forgotten by the end of 1999.
Ben Hardwidge travels back to August 1981, when IBM released its Personal Computer 5150 and the PC was born.
A big ape had only just started lobbing barrels at a pixelated Mario in Donkey Kong arcade machines, Duran Duran’s very first album had just rolled off the vinyl presses and Roger Federer was just four days old. In this time, the UK was even capable of winning Eurovision with Bucks Fizz. It’s August 1981, and IBM has just released the foundation for the PCs we know and love today, the PC 5150.
‘By the late 1970s the personal computer market was maturing rapidly from the many build-it-yourself hobbyist kits to more serious players like Apple, Commodore and Tandy,’ retired IBM veteran Peter Short tells us. ‘As people realised the greater potential for personal computers in business as well as at home, pressure grew on IBM to enter the market with their own PC.’
Short is now a volunteer at IBM’s computer museum in Hursley, which holds a huge archive of the company’s computing machines and documentation, from Victorian punch card machines to the company’s personal computers. We ask him if it felt like the beginning of a new era when the PC was first launched 40 years ago. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but probably not the beginning of something so huge that its legacy lives on today.’
At this time, the home computer market was really starting to take off, with primitive 8-bit computers, such as the Sinclair ZX80 and Commodore VIC-20, enabling people at home to get a basic computer that plugged into their TV. At the other end of the scale, large businesses had huge mainframe machines that took up entire rooms, connected to dumb terminals.
There was clearly room for a middle ground. IBM was going to continue producing mainframes and terminals for many years yet, but it also wanted to create a powerful, independent machine that didn’t need a mainframe behind it, and that didn’t cost an exorbitant amount of money.
The PC 5150’s launch price of $1,565 US (around £885 ex VAT) for the base spec in 1981 equates to around £3,469 ex VAT in today’s money. That’s still very far from what we’d call cheap, but it was a colossal price drop compared with IBM’s System/23 Datamaster, an all-in-one computer (including screen) that had launched earlier the same year for $9,000 US – six times the price. And even that was massively cheaper than some of IBM’s previous microcomputer designs, such as the 5100, which cost up to $20,000 US in 1975.
IBM needed to act quickly. Commodore had already got a foothold in this market several years earlier with the PET, for example, and IBM realised that it couldn’t spend its usual long development time on the project. The race was on, with the project given a one-year time frame for completion.
‘At the time, IBM was more geared up to its traditional, longer-term development processes,’ explains Short. ‘But it eventually realised that, with a solid reputation in the marketplace, it was time to look for a way to do fast-track development that would not produce a machine three, four or five years behind its competitors.’
Processors and coprocessors
We opened up a PC 5150 for this feature, so we could have a good look at the insides and see how it compares with PCs today. It’s hugely different from the gaming rigs we see now, but there are still some similarities. For starters, the floppy drive connects to the PSU with a 4-pin Molex connector, still seen on PC PSU cables today. The PC was also clearly geared towards expansion from the start.
The ticking heart of the box is a 4.77MHz 8088 CPU made by AMD – Intel had given the company a licence to produce clones of its chips so that supply could keep up with demand. It’s for this reason that AMD still has its x86 licence and can produce CPUs for PCs today, but at this point, the two companies weren’t really competitors in the way they are now. To all intents and purposes, an AMD 8088 was exactly the same as an Intel one, and PCs generally came with whichever one was in best supply at the time of the machine’s manufacture.
The CPU itself is an interesting choice. It’s a cut-down version of Intel’s 8086 CPU that it had launched in 1978. The 8088 has the same execution unit design as the 8086, but has an 8-bit external data bus, compared with the 8086’s 16-bit one. As with today’s PCs, the CPU is also removable and replaceable, but in the case of the PC 5150, it’s in a long dual in-line package (DIP) with silver pins, rather than a square socket.
Immediately above the CPU sits another DIP socket for an optional coprocessor. At this point in time, the CPU was only an integer unit with no floating point processor. This was generally fine in an era when most software didn’t overly deal with decimal points, but you had the option to add an 8087 coprocessor underneath it. This worked as an extension of the 8088 CPU. ‘Adding the 8087 allowed numeric calculations to run faster for those users who needed this feature,’ explains Short.
The decision to use a CPU based on Intel’s x86 instruction set laid the machine code foundation for future PCs, and hasn’t changed since. Comparatively, Apple’s Mac line-up has had a variety of instruction sets, including PowerPC, x86 and now Arm. Nvidia might be making big noises about the future of Arm in the PC, but the x86 instruction set has stood its ground on the PC for 40 years now.
IBM itself has also dabbled with different instruction sets, including its own 801 RISC processor. Why did it go with Intel’s CISC 8088 CPU for the first PC? The answer, according to Short, is mainly down to time and a need to maintain compatibility with industry standards at the time.
‘The first prototype IBM computer using RISC architecture only arrived in 1980 and required a compatible processor,’ he explains. ‘In order to complete the 5150 development in the assigned one-year time frame, IBM had already decided to go with industry-standard components, and there was existing experience with the 8088 from development by GSD (General Systems Division) of the System/23. RISC required the IBM 801 processor, but the decision was made to go with industry standard components.’
In addition to the ability to add a coprocessor, the IBM PC 5150’s motherboard also contains five expansion slots, with backplate mounts at the back of the case, just like today’s PCs. Three of the slots in our sample were also filled.
One card is actually two PCBs sandwiched together – it’s a dual-monitor video card with the ability to output to both an MDA screen and a CGA screen simultaneously (more on these standards later) – each standard required a separate PCB on this card – there’s a composite TV output in addition to the pair of 9-pin monitor outputs as well. Bizarrely, this card also doubles as a parallel port controller, with a ribbon cable providing a 25-pin port. It’s typical of the Wacky Races vibe seen on cards at the time, with multiple features shoehorned into one expansion slot.
Similarly, there’s also a 384KB memory expansion card, which also doubles as a serial I/O card, with a 25-pin port on the backplate. The final card is an MFM storage controller for the 5.25in floppy drive at the front of the machine.
Although the PC was clearly built with expansion in mind, Short points out that ‘IBM was not the first to introduce expansion slots. As far back as 1976, Altair produced the 8800b with an 18-slot backplane, the Apple II also featured slots from 1977 and there was also an expansion bus on the BBC Micro from 1981. No doubt market research and competitive analysis showed that this approach would provide additional flexibility and options without having to redesign the motherboard’.
Interestingly, though, Short also says IBM was keeping an ‘eye on the hobby market. A standard bus with expansion slots would allow users to create their own peripherals. IBM even announced a Prototyping Card, with an area for standard bus interface components and a larger area for building your own design’. It’s a far cry from the heavily populated PCI-E cards with complex machine soldering that we see today.
That 384KB memory card shows a very different approach to memory expansion than the tidy modules we have today. Believe it or not, at launch, the PC 5150 base spec came with just 16KB of memory (a millionth of the amount of memory in today’s 16GB machines), which was supplied in the form of DRAM chips on the bottom right corner of the motherboard.
The top spec at launch increased that amount to 64KB, although you could theoretically also install the DRAM chips yourself if you could get hold of exactly the right spec of chips and set it up properly. The chips on the motherboard are split into four banks, each with nine chips (eight bits and one parity bit). In the original spec, the 16KB configuration filled one bank, while the 64KB configuration filled all four banks with 16KB of memory each.
A later revision of the motherboard expanded this to 64KB as the base spec with one bank filled, and 256KB with all four banks filled (this is the spec in our sample). If you then added a 384KB memory card, such as the one in our sample, you ended up with 640KB of memory – the maximum base memory addressable by PCs at this time.
Graphics and displays
As we previously mentioned, our PC 5150 sample has a dual-monitor card, which supports both the display standards available to the IBM PC at launch. A Mono Display Adaptor (MDA) card could only output text with no graphics, while a Color Graphics Adaptor (CGA) card could output up to four colours (from a palette of 16) at 320 x 200, or output monochrome graphics at 640 x 200.
However, as Short notes, ‘the PC was announced with the mono 5151 display in 1981. The CGA 5153 was not released until 1983’. Even if you had a CGA card in your PC 5150, if you used the original monitor, you wouldn’t be able to see your graphics in colour. Seeing colour graphics either required you to use the composite output or a third-party monitor.
‘Once the colour monitor became available,’ says Short, ‘it could either be attached as the sole display with its own adaptor card, or equipped with both a mono and colour adaptor card, and could be attached together with a mono screen. Now you could run your spreadsheet on the mono monitor and display output graphics in colour.’
There’s an interesting connection with the first PC monitors and the legacy of IBM’s computing history too. When we interviewed the Hursley Museum’s curator Terry Muldoon (who has now sadly passed away) in 2011, he told us the reason why the first PC monitors had 80 columns. ‘It’s because it’s the same as punch cards,’ he said. ‘All green-screen terminals had 80 columns, because they were basically emulating a punch card.’
Storage is another area where the PC is at a crossroads between new tech. As standard, the PC 5150 came with a single 5.25in double-density floppy drive, with 360KB of storage space on each disk. There was the option to add a second floppy drive in the empty drive bay, but there was no hard drive at launch.
‘The first hard drive for microcomputers did not arrive until 1980 – the Seagate ST506 with a capacity of 5MB,’ explains Short. ‘By that time, the PC specifications had already been agreed and the hardware development team in Boca Raton was in full swing. The requirement was for a single machine developed within a one-year time frame.
‘A small company called Microsoft was also developing the first version of DOS under sub-contract. The 5150 BIOS therefore had no hard disk support – DOS 1.0 and 1.1 are the same. The power supply selected for the 5150 wasn’t beefy enough at 63W to power the 5150 and a hard drive.’
Later versions of the 5150, such as our sample, came with a 165W PSU, and future DOS versions enabled you to run a hard drive, but it wasn’t until the IBM PC 5160 XT in 1983 that there was a hard drive option with an IBM PC as standard.
The PSU also connects to a massive red switch power switch on the side, which is very different from the delicate touch-buttons we have today. You had to literally flip a switch to power on the first PCs. This was another legacy of IBM’s past – a time when, if a machine needed to be shut down drastically, you would ‘BRS it’ – BRS stands for big red switch.
The back of the PC 5150 also alludes to another form of storage. There are two DIN sockets on the back, one of which is labelled for the keyboard – the other is labelled ‘cassette’. ‘It was common at the time to provide software on cassette tapes, which could also be used to store user written programmes,’ says Short. ‘My own Radio Shack TRS80 in 1979 used this method. A standard cassette tape machine such as the Philips could be connected through this socket.’
This brings us neatly to the subject of software support. We’re now used to graphical user interfaces such as Windows as standard, but in 1981 Microsoft was a small company, which had developed a popular version of the BASIC programming language.
‘Microsoft Basic was already very much an industry standard by 1980,’ says Short. ‘It was Microsoft’s first product. This fitted with the concept of using industry standard components. IBM chose to sub-contract its operating system development to Microsoft, perhaps for this reason. Again, the compressed development schedule influenced these decisions.’
Terry Muldoon gave us some more insight into the development of the PC’s first operating system, IBM PC DOS 1.0, when we spoke to him in 2011. ‘The story I heard is that basically IBM needed an operating system,’ he said, ‘and IBM didn’t have time to write one – that’s the story. So they went out to various people, including Digital Research for CPM, but Digital Research didn’t return the call. Bill Gates did, but he didn’t have an operating system, so he went down the street and bought QDOS.
‘The original DOS was a tarted-up QDOS, supplied to IBM as IBM Personal Computer DOS, and Gates was allowed to sell Microsoft DOS (MS-DOS). And they carried on for many years with exactly the same numbers, so 1.1 was DOS 1 but with support for us foreigners, then we went to DOS 2 with support for hard disks, DOS 2.1 for the Junior, DOS 3 for the PC80 and so on.’
You can have a play with DOS 1.0 on an emulated PC 5150 at custompc.co.uk/5150, and it’s a very basic affair. Even if you’ve used later versions of DOS, there are some notable absences, such as the inability to add ‘/w’ to ‘dir’ to spread out the directory of your A drive across the screen, rather than list all the files in a single column.
What’s also striking is the number of BASIC files supplied as standard, which can be run on the supplied Microsoft BASIC. One example is DONKEY.BAS, a primitive top-down game programmed by Bill Gates and Neil Konzen, where you move a car from left to right to avoid donkeys in the road (really). What’s more, this game specifically requires your PC to have a CGA card and to run BASIC in advanced mode – you couldn’t run it on the base spec.
A future standard
With its keen pricing compared with previous business computers, the IBM PC 5150 was well received in the USA, paving the way for a launch in the UK in 1983, along with DOS 1.1 and the option for a colour CGA monitor. Clone machines from companies such as Compaq soon followed, claiming (usually, but not always, rightly) to be ‘IBM PC compatible’, and the PC started to become the widespread open standard that it is today. Was this intentional on IBM’s part?
‘Industry standard components, an expansion bus and a prototyping card would naturally lead to an open standard,’ says Short. ‘Not publishing the hardware circuitry would make it difficult to capture the imagination of “home” developers. Open architecture was part of the original plan.’
Muldoon wasn’t so sure when we asked him back in 2011. ‘Now where did IBM make the mistake with DOS?’ He asked. ‘This is personal opinion, but IBM allowed Bill Gates to retain the intellectual property. So we’ve now got an Intel processor – the bus was tied to Intel – and another guy owns the operating system, so you’ve already lost control of all of your machine in about 1981. The rest is history.
‘The only bit that IBM owned in the IBM PC was the BIOS, which was copyright. So, to make a computer 100 per cent IBM compatible, you had to have a BIOS. There were loads of software interrupts in that BIOS that people used, such as the timer tick, which were really useful. You get that timer tick and you can get things to happen, so you have to be able to produce something that hits the timer tick, because the software needs it.’
Rival computer makers could circumvent the copyright of the BIOS by examining what it did and attempting to reverse-engineer it. Muldoon explained the process to us.
‘The way people did it is: with one group of people, say: “this is what it does”, and another group of people take that specification, don’t talk to them, and then write some code to make it do that – that’s called “clean room”. So one person documents what it does, and another person now writes code to do it – in other words, nobody has copied IBM code, and there’s a Chinese wall between these two people.
‘What some of the clone manufacturers did is, because we published the BIOS, they just copied it. Now, the BIOS had bugs in it, and we knew they’d copied our BIOS because they’d copied the bugs as well. This was only the small companies that came and went. Phoenix produced a clean room BIOS, so if you used a Phoenix chip in your clones, you were clean.’
Of course, any self-contained personal computer can technically be called a PC. Peter Short describes a PC as a machine that ‘can be operated directly by an end user, from beginning to end, and is general enough in its capabilities’. It doesn’t require an x86 CPU or a Microsoft OS. In fact, there was and still is a variety of operating systems available to x86 PCs, from Gem and OS/2 in the early days, through to the many Linux distributions available now.
However, the PC as we generally know it, with its x86 instruction set and Microsoft OS, started with the PC 5150 in 1981. Storage and memory capacities have hugely increased, as have CPU clock frequencies, but the basic idea of a self-contained box with a proper CPU, enough memory for software to run, its own storage and a display output, as well as room to expand with extra cards, started here. Thank you, IBM.
Custom PC issue 217 out NOW!
You can read more features like this one in Custom PC issue 217, available directly from Raspberry Pi Press — we deliver worldwide.
In the latest issue of Custom PC magazine, Gareth Halfacree reviews Oratek’s TOFU, a carrier printed circuit board for Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4.
The launch of the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 family (reviewed in Issue 209) last year sparked an entirely unsurprising explosion of interest in designing carrier boards. This was aided in no small part by the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s decision to release its own in-house carrier board design under a permissive licence from which others could springboard with their own creations.
Oratek doesn’t hide its inspiration. ‘Inspired by the official CM4IO board,’ chief executive Aurélien Essig openly admits, ‘it is intended for industrial applications. With user-friendly additions, it may also be used by enthusiasts looking for a compact yet complete solution to interface the many inputs and outputs of the single-board computer.’
The board is undeniably compact, although it bulks out when paired with the optional 3D-printed Switchblade Enclosure designed by Studio Raphaël Lutz. The reason for the name is that there are hinged lids on the top and bottom, which swing out for easy access, locking into place with small magnets when closed.
At least, that’s the theory. In practice, the magnets are a little weak; there’s also no way to fasten the lid shut beyond overtightening the screw in the corner. Otherwise, it’s a well-designed enclosure with top and bottom ventilation. Sadly, that’s not enough to prevent a Compute Module 4 from hitting its thermal throttle point under sustained heavy load, so you’ll need to budget for a third-party heatsink or fan accessory.
The Tofu board itself is well thought out, and finished in an attractive black. Two high-density connectors accept a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 board – or one of the increasing number of pin-compatible alternatives on the market, although you’ll need to provide your own mounting bolts.
The 90 x 90mm board then breaks out as many features of the computer-on-module as possible. The right side houses a Gigabit Ethernet port with Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) support if you add a Raspberry Pi PoE HAT or PoE+ HAT, two USB 2 Type-A ports, along with barrel-jack and 3.5mm terminal-block power inputs. These accept any input from 7.5V to 28V, which is brought out to an internal header for accessories that need more power than is available on the 40-pin general-purpose input/output (GPIO) port.
Meanwhile, the bottom has 22-pin connectors for Camera Serial Interface (CSI) and Display Serial Interface (DSI) peripherals, a full-sized HDMI port and an additional USB 2 port. These ports aren’t available outside the Switchblade Case by default, although a quick snap of the already-measured capped-off holes fixes that.
The left side includes a micro-SD slot for Compute Module 4 variants without on-board eMMC storage, plus a micro-SIM slot – hinting at another feature that becomes visible once the board is flipped. There’s also a USB Type-C port, which can be used for programming or as an On-The-Go (OTG) port. Oddly, there’s no cut-out at all for this in the Switchblade Case; if you want one, you’ll need to take a drill and file to it.
Turning over the board reveals the micro-SIM slot’s purpose. The Compute Module 4’s PCI-E lane is brought out to an M.2 B-Key slot, providing a connection for additional hardware including 3G/4G modems. For storage, you can use an optional adaptor board to convert it to M-Key for Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) devices, with a spacer fitted for 2230, 2242, 2260, or 2280 form factor drives.
That’s not as flexible as it sounds, unfortunately. The spacer is soldered in place and needs to be chosen at the time of ordering. If you want to switch to a different-sized drive, you’ll need another adaptor.
There’s one other design point that makes the Tofu stand out: the inclusion of a user-replaceable fuse, a Littelfuse Nano 2 3.5A unit that was originally designed for automotive projects.
While it’s primarily there for protection, it also enables you to cut off the on-board power supply when the board is driven through PoE. With the fuse in place, there’s clearly audible coil whine, which can be silenced by carefully popping the fuse out of its holder. Just remember to put it back in if you stop using PoE.
The biggest problem is price. At 99 CHF (around £78 ex VAT) you’ll be into triple figures by the time you’ve picked up a suitable power supply and Compute Module 4 board. The M.2 M-Key adaptor adds a further 19 CHF (around £15 ex VAT), and the Switchblade Case is another 35 CHF (around £28 ex VAT). If you have access to a 3D printer, you can opt to print the latter yourself, but you’ll still pay 8 CHF (around £6 ex VAT) for access to the files.
The Tofu is available to order now from oratek.com. Compatible Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 boards can be found at the usual stockists.
Custom PC issue 217 out NOW!
You can read more features like this one in Custom PC issue 217, available directly from Raspberry Pi Press — we deliver worldwide.
Officially, the Commodore Amiga died in 1996, 11 years after Commodore brought the innovative machines to market with the Amiga 1000. In reality, there are people out there from whom you will never take their Amigas – even if the legal rights surrounding the trademarks, technology, hardware, software and so on are increasingly muddied in the face of competing legal claims.
It’s this band of enthusiasts that’s keeping the Amiga alive with new hardware, typically designed to bridge the gap between classic and modern computing. The most popular of these are accelerators, designed to increase a stock Amiga 1000 or 500 from its aging 7MHz Motorola 68000 to a system that’s a little faster.
PiStorm stands out from the crowd
The PiStorm, designed by Amiga fan Claude Schwarz, is just one of them, but one that stands out from the crowd for a variety of reasons. The first is its open hardware; Schwarz doesn’t sell the PiStorm, but instead publishes the source code and design files for anyone to submit to a PCB fabricator. If you don’t fancy fighting with minimum order quantities, the community around the PiStorm organises semi-regular group buys, in which an assembled board, requiring only the headers to be soldered in place, can cost as little as $13 US (around £9 ex VAT).
In a market where your average Amiga accelerator costs 5-15 times as much money, an accelerator for that little would be remarkable, but the PiStorm is far from a simple accelerator. The board itself is simple, driven by an Intel Altera MAX II complex programmable logic device (CPLD) – akin to a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), but simpler and cheaper.
The CPLD acts as ‘glue logic’ between the host Amiga and a Raspberry Pi single-board computer in an unusual fashion. Connected via the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header, the PiStorm allows the Amiga to treat the Raspberry Pi as a replacement processor and more.
Installation is simple – remove the processor from your Amiga 1000, 500 or 500 Plus, and push the PiStorm into its place. Add the Raspberry Pi on top, with a micro-SD card loaded with the lightweight Linux distribution of your choice, and you’re done.
The software side is a little trickier. PiStorm is a constantly evolving project, and there’s no ready-to-run software image. The documentation walks you through downloading and compiling the software, updating the CPLD and finally loading the Muhashi emulator. It’s here that the PiStorm cuts its costs – rather than having a real processor or an FPGA loaded with a soft core, the PiStorm connects the Amiga to a software emulator.
This unusual blend of real and emulated hardware unlocks additional features too. By default, the PiStorm is configured to act as a Motorola 68020 and a 128MB chip memory expansion. Tweak the configuration and you can increase that to a Motorola 68040 – albeit with a few compatibility issues that are still being worked on – with 8MB of additional Zorro II memory – just about the most you could ever fit in a classic Amiga.
Just the beginning…
Handling the CPU and RAM is just the beginning though. The PiStorm’s keyboard and mouse pass-through also allow you to connect USB peripherals to the Raspberry Pi and have them control the Amiga. Meanwhile, a network pass-through, which will allow the Amiga to use the Raspberry Pi’s Wi-Fi connection, is on the road map.
The PiStorm can also turn hard drive images, or physical block devices, into SCSI Amiga drives, making it easy to expand your Amiga’s storage. The board acts as a real-time clock as well, setting the Amiga’s clock to the Raspberry Pi’s clock – which is, in turn, set automatically over the network via NTP.
The board isn’t finished there either. The PiStorm can also emulate a retargetable graphics (RTG) card, a common form of add-in card that gives an Amiga high-resolution and high-colour-depth capabilities. Better still, when configured as an RTG – a task that requires adjusting the configuration on both the Raspberry Pi and the Amiga itself – the video is output from the Raspberry Pi’s HDMI port, making it easy to connect your Amiga to modern monitors and TVs.
In short, the PiStorm is remarkable. It’s not perfect – the ability to boot from physical Kickstart ROMs didn’t work during testing, for example, with the PiStorm failing unless a ROM dump file was provided, and when the Amiga is powered off, the Raspberry Pi loses power without shutting down safely. Also, among other compatibility issues, it’s currently limited to the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+, with Raspberry Pi 4 and Compute Module 4 support in progress, but for the money there’s still nothing else like it.
More information on the PiStorm is available from custompc.co.uk/PiStorm, where you’ll also find a readme file containing a link to the Discord channel where group buys are organised.
Read the latest issue of Custom PC for free!
You can read more features like this one in Custom PC magazine, available directly from Raspberry Pi Press.
What if you could give the joy of opening a Raspberry Pi–themed gift every single month for a whole year? But what if the thought of wrapping 12 individual things fills you with Scrooge-level dread?
Snap up a magazine subscription for one of your nearest and/or dearest and we’ll take care of the packaging and delivery while you sit back and reap all the credit!
You could end up with a few extra gifts depending on what you sign up for so, read on and take your pick.
The MagPi magazine
The official Raspberry Pi magazine comes with a free Raspberry Pi Zero W kit worth £20 when you sign up for a 12-month subscription. You can use our tiniest computer in tonnes of projects, meaning Raspberry Pi fans can never have enough. That’s a top gift-giving bonus for you right there.
Every issue of The MagPi is packed with computing and electronics tutorials, how-to guides, and the latest news and reviews. They also hit their 100th issue this month so, if someone on your list has been thinking about getting a subscription, now is a great time.
HackSpace magazine is the one to choose for fixers and tinkerers of all abilities. If you’re looking for a gift for someone who is always taking things apart and hacking everyday objects, HackSpace magazine will provide a year of inspiration for them.
12-month subscriptions come with a free Adafruit Circuit Playground Express, which has been specially developed to teach programming novices from scratch and is worth £25.
Custom PC is the magazine for people who are passionate about PC technology and hardware. And they’ve just launched a pretty cool new giveaway with every 12-month subscription: a free Chillblast Aero RGB Gaming mouse worth £40. Look, it lights up, it’s cool.
Wireframe magazine lifts the lid on video games. In every issue, you’ll find out how games are made, who makes them, and how you can code them to play for yourself using detailed guides.
The latest deal gets you three issues for just £10, plus your choice of one of our official books as a gift. By the way, that ‘three for £10 plus a free book’ is available across ALL our magazines. Did I not tell you that before? My bad. It’s good though, right?
And as an extra Christmas gift to you all, we’ve decided to keep our Black Friday deal rolling until Christmas Eve, so if you buy just one teeny tiny book from the Raspberry Pi Press store, you get two more completely FREE!
Better still, all of the books in the deal only cost £7 or £10 to start with, so makes for a good chunky batch of presents at a brilliantly affordable price.
Eagle-eyed Raspberry Pi Press fans might have noticed some changes over the past few months to the look and feel of our website. Today we’re pleased to unveil a new look for the Raspberry Pi Press website and its online store.
Did you know?
Raspberry Pi Press is the publishing imprint of Raspberry Pi (Trading) Ltd, which is part of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a UK-based charity that does loads of cool stuff with computers and computer education.
The Raspberry Pi Press online store ships around the globe, with copies of our publications making their way to nearly every single continent on planet earth. Antarctica, we’re looking at you, kid.
It’s upgrade time!
With all this exciting work going on, it seemed only fair that Raspberry Pi Press should get itself a brand new look. We hope you’ll enjoy skimming the sparkling shelves of our online newsagents and bookshop.
Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little tsundoku
You can pick up all the latest issues of your favourite magazines or treat yourself to a book or three, and you can also subscribe to all our publications with ease. We’ve even added a few new payment options to boot.
New delivery options
We’ve made a few changes to our shipping options, with additional choices for some regions to make sure that you can easily track your purchases and receive timely and reliable deliveries, even if you’re a long way from the Raspberry Pi Press printshop.
Customers in the UK, the EU, North America, Australia, and New Zealand won’t see any changes to delivery options. We continue to work to make sure we’re offering the best price and service we can for everyone, no matter where you are.
Did you know: the first machine to break the exaflop barrier (one quintillion floating‑point operations per second) wasn’t a huge dedicated IBM supercomputer, but a bunch of interconnected PCs with ordinary CPUs and gaming GPUs.
With that in mind, welcome to the [email protected] project, which is targeting its enormous power at COVID-19 research. It’s effectively the world’s fastest supercomputer, and your PC can be a part of it.
Put simply, [email protected] runs hugely complicated simulations of protein molecules for medical research. They would usually take hundreds of years for a typical computer to process. However, by breaking them up into smaller work units, and farming them out to thousands of independent machines on the Internet, it’s possible to run simulations that would be impossible to run experimentally.
Back in 2004, Custom PC magazine started its own [email protected] team. The team is currently sitting at number 12 on the world leaderboard and we’re still going strong. If you have a PC, you can join us (or indeed any [email protected] team) and put your spare clock cycles towards COVID-19 research.
Getting your machine folding is simple. First, download the client. Your username can be whatever you like, and you’ll need to put in team number 35947 to fold for the Custom PC & bit-tech team. If you want your PC to work on COVID-19 research, select ‘COVID-19’ in the ‘I support research finding’ pulldown menu.
Enter team number 35947 to fold for the Custom PC & bit-tech team
You’ll get the most points per Watt from GPU folding, but your CPU can also perform valuable research that can’t be done on your GPU. ‘There are actually some things we can do on CPUs that we can’t do on GPUs,’ said Professor Greg Bowman, Director of [email protected], speaking to Custom PC in the latest issue.
‘With the current pandemic in mind, one of the things we’re doing is what are called “free energy calculations”. We’re simulating proteins with small molecules that we think might be useful starting points for developing therapeutics, for example.’
If you want your PC to work on COVID-19 research, select ‘COVID-19’ in the ‘I support research finding’ pulldown menu
Bear in mind that enabling folding on your machine will increase power consumption. For reference, we set up folding on a Ryzen 7 2700X rig with a GeForce GTX 1070 Ti. The machine consumes around 70W when idle. That figure increases to 214W when folding on the CPU and around 320W when folding on the GPU as well. If you fold a lot, you’ll see an increase in your electricity bill, so keep an eye on it.
Folding on Arm?
Could we also see [email protected] running on Arm machines, such as Raspberry Pi? ‘Oh I would love to have [email protected] running on Arm,’ says Bowman. ‘I mean they’re used in Raspberry Pis and lots of phones, so I think this would be a great future direction. We’re actually in contact with some folks to explore getting [email protected] running on Arm in the near future.’
You don’t need me to tell you about the unprecedented situation that the world is facing at the moment. We’re all in the same boat, so I won’t say anything about it other than I hope you stay safe and take care of yourself and your loved ones.
The other thing I will say is that every year, Raspberry Pi Press produces thousands of pages of exciting, entertaining, and often educational content for lovers of computing, technology, games, and photography.
In times of difficulty, it’s not uncommon for people to find solace in their hobbies. The problem you’ll find yourself with is that it’s almost impossible to buy a magazine at the moment, at least in the UK: most of the shops that sell them are closed (and even most of their online stores are too).
We’re a proactive bunch, so we’ve done something about that:
From today, you can subscribe to The MagPi, HackSpace magazine, Custom PC, or Digital SLR Photography at a cost of three issues for £10 in the UK – and we’re giving you a little extra too.
We like to think we produce some of the best-quality magazines on the market today (and you only have to ask our mums if you want a second opinion). In fact, we’d go as far as to say our magazines are exactly the right mix of words and pictures for making the most of all the extra home-time you and your loved ones are having.
Take your pick for three issues at £10 and get a free book worth £10!
If you take us up on this offer, we’ll send the magazines direct to your door in the UK, with free postage. And we’re also adding a gift to thank you for signing up: on top of your magazines, you’ll get to choose a book that’s worth £10 in itself.
In taking up this offer, you’ll get some terrific reading material, and we’ll deliver it all straight to you — no waiting around. You’ll also be actively supporting our print magazines and the charitable work of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
I hope that among our magazines, you’ll find something that’s of interest to you or, even better yet, something that sparks a new interest. Enjoy your reading!
The humble jump got a kick in 1984 with the introduction of the double jump, a physicist’s worst nightmare and one of video gaming’s most iconic moves. Subsc…
Are you looking to upgrade your computer monitor? Last week, Custom PC magazine, a publication of Raspberry Pi Press, released their latest video discussing HDR monitors. Are you ready to upgrade, and more importantly, should you?
So, what makes a mechanical keyboard ‘mechanical’? And why are some mechanical keyboards more ‘clicky’ than others? Custom PC’s Edward Chester explains all. Check out our Elite List of mechanical keyboards: https://rpf.io/elite-list-mechanical-keyboard Subscribe to our channel: https://rpf.iopressytsub Visit the Custom PC magazine website: https://rpf.io/ytcustompc Our magazines and books: https://rpf.io/ytpress Raspberry Pi Press is the publishing imprint of Raspberry Pi Trading Ltd., a subsidiary of The Raspberry Pi Foundation.
Custom PC is one of the many magazines produced by Raspberry Pi Press, the publishing imprint of Raspberry Pi Trading Ltd; it does exactly what it says on the tin cover: provide everything you need to know about the ins and outs of custom PC building and all the processes that make the topic so fascinating.
Raspberry Pi Press, the publishing branch of Raspberry Pi Trading, produces a great many magazines and books every month. And in keeping with our mission to make computing and digital making as accessible as possible to everyone across the globe, we make the vast majority of our publications available as free PDFs from the day we release new print versions.
The MagPi was originally created by a group of Raspberry Pi enthusiasts from the Raspberry Pi forum who wanted to make a magazine that the whole community could enjoy. Packed full of Pi-based projects and tutorials, and Pi-themed news and reviews, The MagPi now sits proudly upon the shelves of Raspberry Pi Press as the official Raspberry Pi magazine.
The maker movement is growing and growing as ever more people take to sheds and makerspaces to hone their skills in woodworking, blacksmithing, crafting, and other creative techniques. HackSpace magazine brings together the incredible builds of makers across the world with how-to guides, tips and advice — and some utterly gorgeous photography.
“Lifting the lid on video games”, Wireframe is a gaming magazine with a difference. Released bi-weekly, Wireframe reveals to readers the inner workings of the video game industry. Have you ever wanted to create your own video game? Wireframe also walks you through how you can do it, in their ‘The Toolbox’ section, which features tutorials from some of the best devs in the business.
Hello World is our free magazine for educators who teach computing and digital making, and we produce it in association with Computing at Schools and the BCS Academy of Computing. Full of lesson plans and features from teachers in the field, Hello World is a unique resource for everyone looking to bring computing into the classroom, and for anyone interested in computing and digital making education.
Educators in the UK can subscribe to have Hello World delivered for free to their door; if you’re based somewhere else, you can download the magazine for free from the day of publication, or purchase it via the Raspberry Pi Press online store. Follow Hello World on Twitter and visit the website for more.
Custom PC magazine
New to Raspberry Pi Press, Custom PC is the UK’s best-selling magazine for PC hardware, overclocking, gaming, and modding. With monthly in-depth reviews, special features, and step-by-step guides, Custom PC is the go-to resource for turning your computer up to 11.
Magazines aren’t our only jam: Raspberry Pi Press also publishes a wide variety of books, from introductions to topics like the C programming language and Minecraft on your Pi, to our brand-new Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide and the Code Club Book of Scratch.
We also bridge the gap between our publications with one-off book/magazine hybrids, such as HackSpace magazine’s Book of Making and Wearable Tech Projects, and The MagPi’s Raspberry Pi Projects Book series.
Getting your copies
If you’d like to support our educational mission at the Raspberry Pi Foundation, you can subscribe to our magazines, and you can purchase copies of all our publications via the Raspberry Pi Press website, from many high street newsagents, or from the Raspberry Pi Store in Cambridge. And most of our publications are available as free PDFs so you can get your hands on our magazines and books instantly.
Whichever of our publications you choose to read, and however you choose to read them, we’d love to hear what you think of our Raspberry Pi Press offerings, and we hope you enjoy them all.
After buying top PC hobbyist mag Custom PC earlier this year, we’ve buffed it to a shine and we’re now ready to share our slightly tweaked formula with you.
We’re offering 5000 free copies of Issue 190 of Custom PC
Raspberry Pi and Custom PC
“We’ve been fans of Custom PC for a long time, so when the opportunity arose to add it to the Raspberry Pi Press stable, we couldn’t resist,” says Raspberry Pi co-founder and Raspberry Pi Trading CEO, Eben Upton.
“You’ll already have seen some of the investments we’ve made in the title, from higher-quality paper to more (and more technical) feature content, and this redesign is the next step in that process. This is the Custom PC that we always wanted to see and that our shared communities deserve.”
“We’re looking forward to hearing your feedback, and to many more years of hacking, modding, and learning. The engineering skills you learn as you work through the trade-offs of building a custom gaming rig on a budget are every bit as valuable as those you learn from building a robot or writing a computer game on a Raspberry Pi.”
Get the relaunch issue for free
The first issue with our new-look design is now on sale at all good newsagents, and the Raspberry Pi Store, Cambridge. With a dash of electric pink and a lovely spot-gloss finish, it will be easy to spot on the shelf. What’s more, you can try it out for free! We’re giving away 5000 copies to the first people who take advantage of this offer. Postage is free in the UK and heavily subsidised overseas.
Custom PC has regularly featured computer hobbyist content
Custom PC issue 190
Custom PC is all about making the computer that you want, and issue 190’s lead cover feature is a great example, showing you how to turn a standard PC into a lavish system with your own personal stamp. We take you through the whole process of building a dream PC, from the initial inspiration, through to design, planning, and cooling considerations, and then onto painting and cutting.
Also in this issue:
Monitors with FreeSync and G-Sync
How to cut air vents
How LCD monitors work
£200–£300 graphics cards group test
The latest issue’s lead cover feature is all about turning a standard PC into something really special
We hope you enjoy reading the new-look Custom PC as much as we’ve enjoyed making it. And while we were at it, we’ve also launched a new Custom PC website. If you’re interested in the wonderful world of PC building, overclocking, modding, and gaming, then visit the site to order your free copy now!
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