Monday, 24 October 2016

...8...9... and he's up!

If it's not disappointing enough that one person has announced the imminent release of a flash cartridge, having a second one appear out-of-the-blue accepting pre-orders and promising a shipping date of next month certainly adds another nail to the coffin.

So it should surprise no-one should I throw my hands up and admit defeat.

However, after a few positive interactions on the forum, reading of other recent developments, and evaluating the situation, I'm starting to believe that perhaps all is not lost. It may be that bringing to market a pure flash cart as I first envisaged isn't going to be as lucrative as I'd hoped, but there may be some room for a product that differentiates itself with other features. And even more promising, low-cost spin-off cartridges for specific functions that aren't being catered to at this point.

So I have some thinking to do. And some convincing of a few fellow conspirators to do as well. I guess if anything is to happen though, it needs t happen soon. I've been sitting on a fully laid-out PCB for 18 months now... I don't even know if all the parts are still in production!

Stay tuned...

Monday, 27 June 2016

It was only a matter of time...

User Mohammad has pointed out in a comment on the previous entry in this blog that someone else is now working on a programmable cartridge for the Neo Geo.

It was always going to be on the cards that someone else would at least start on a similar project before I had the chance to finish it myself.

So where am I at with the project these days?

Well, closing down your office and working for yourself from home with two young kids has its advantages and disadvantages. Obvious benefits are increased family time and less commuting. On the down side, as far as side projects are concerned, is that there's far less opportunity to work on non-revenue generating projects, not to mention the fact that there's also less revenue already as I no longer have other engineers working for me.

The original plan was to allocate one day per week to NGPACE, but thus far I haven't been able to manage this due to an ongoing arrangement with a prior client and also - you guessed it - there always seems to be some work to be done around the home. And to be completely honest, lately I've been more focused on other interests outside work and the only retro-related activities I've been pursuing are all purely software-based.

FWIW I will shortly be freeing up a day per week in my work schedule. Having said that, at this point I can't guarantee that the extra day will end up 'free' in a sense that will allow me to work on NGPACE, for example. There's always overflow work from my current employer and even if not, I am working from home... enough said.

In conclusion, any sort of commercial success from a project like this almost certainly requires you to be the first product off the line. Either that, or offer significantly enhanced functionality over the existing market. It's doubtful that I'll be in a position to do either anytime soon. But they do say that life is what happens whilst you're busy making other plans...

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Like riding a bicycle?

It's been a long time between posts, for several reasons. Babies, closing the office... resulting in not having the time nor the inclination to tackle engineering-related extra-curricular activities, especially those requiring significant effort!

So... an update? Unfortunately not related to NGPACE, but my first foray back into FPGA development for quite some time. I haven't been working with FPGA's at all in the last few years until very recently, and now I've been contracted to work on a design incorporating a rather nice FPGA (in fact the exact same device I am using for the NGPACE motherboard) that we are bringing up right now; a design that is perfect for retro video game emulation! ;)

I discovered only a few days ago that a colleague involved in the project at work owns a Tempest cabinet! That got me curious and after some research I re-discovered that Jeroen Domburg, a.k.a. Sprite, implemented Black Widow in an FPGA sometime around 2012, (very similar hardware to Tempest) although he interfaced that to a vector monitor.

Turns out that Tempest, unlike Black Widow, uses the Atari Mathbox hardware, which I don't have the time to implement right now. Rather, I thought I'd get Black Widow up and running on our new board, just for kicks. I used the same crude rasterising/decay technique that I did for Asteroids several years ago, although I added colour! It gives surprisingly good results, more than adequate for a proof-of-concept demonstration.

Maybe now I'm on a roll I'll be able to get back to NGPACE...

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Vaporware rendered in glorious 3D

Here's a very, very preliminary 3D rendering of the flash cartridge PCB.

The large euro connector at the bottom mates with the system adapter boards we designed and prototyped last year, allowing the cart to be used in both AES and MVS systems. The connectors down the right (near) side include serial debug connector, JTAG in/out chain, external power and cartridge PCB interconnect cable. On the left (far) side is the SD card slot.

The prototype is intended to be programmed stand-alone from the SD card before being inserted into the motherboard. A complete cartridge comprises 2 PCB's and the interconnect cable enables both to be programmed from the one SD card image.

Early days yet and features are still subject to change.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Laying it all out

Some pretty exciting (for me, anyway) news - I've been informed that layout is now complete on the flash cartridge!

I can assure you that this is NOT an April fools joke; at least if it is, I've been fooled as well!

So what does that mean from here? Well there's the tedious but necessary review of firstly the schematic (including checking FPGA pin assignments) and then the PCB, including footprints, layout and physical factors. This is a task ideally performed by someone other than the engineer that put it all together; namely, me. It's not fun at all, but ultimately a lot better than having to re-spin and manufacture a 2nd prototype run.

That aside, work-wise it probably couldn't have come at a worse time. I can't see us being in a position to be able to proceed with prototype manufacture for a few months yet, but hopefully no longer than that. In some ways the delay may encourage more rigorous review. Years ago with our first homebrew design we could only afford a single prototype run and we were so paranoid we reviewed the design to death; the result was a perfectly working board with zero patches!

Until then, I'll get stuck into the comprehensive review, and also enlist my former co-conspirator to review the top level design. Realistically it would probably take me at least a month anyway, given my work and family commitments, so perhaps work will sort itself out in time.

I'll post some eye candy - a 3D rendering of the PCB - in the next few days.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Mid March Update

It's been a fortnight since the last update, and I'm pleased to say that there has been more progress again since then. I can't say how much longer it will take at this stage, but from appearances I'd estimate that approximately 70% of the layout is complete now. I'm secretly hoping that the closer it nears completion, the more David will be eager to complete it... and that this will be the last blog update before it is done.

Once layout is done I'll post a 3D rendering of the PCBA.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Feb Update

I'm pleased to be able to say that my learned colleague is progressing well with layout of the flash cartridge prototype. Most of the component & connector placement has been finalised with routing for traces not connected to FPGA I/O pins nearing completion. Reportedly there's still a few weeks work remaining, based on his current time allocated to the project.

Aside from the above, there's not a lot else happening on the project. I've taken the FPGA HDL and software about as far as practical without actual hardware, so that's on hold, though it will probably be cracked open again when it's time to review the final flash cartridge schematic before production.

I've taken the opportunity to snap up a few cheap AES cartridges - for testing the main project of course. My latest acquisition was Art Of Fighting (1), which I was particularly interested in because the source code was found for it on a former developer's hard drive and is freely available for download on the net.

More when it happens...