AMIGA alive

AMIGA alive

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Building the TerribleFire TF530 accelerator board, part 5: Testing. More testing. And... happiness.

I'm learning new things about the TF530 almost daily...

Documentation is a problem when trying to build these accelerators: there's no place where you can quickly look up how to do something. Instead you have to dig through Stephen Leary's hour-long videos on YouTube, or a single endless thread on English Amiga Board, or ask in forums. Which is not a bad thing, but it's very inconvenient if you want to make progress. That's why I created some sort of "user manual" for the TerribleFire boards:

Anyway, what's happened since part 4 of this series?

Full setup with CF-adaptor and -card
Things were actually looking pretty good. I've been using a 24Mhz oscillator to build the board, and the original firmware (from a "rev. 2 final" GitHub checkout). But I wanted to rev up the board a little... Other people are using clockrates of 36, 40, or 50 Mhz. And then there are a couple of new revisions of the firmware. And in one or the other way these have to match. I've tried a 40MHz oscillator, and two other (apart from the original) versions of the firmware. Then there's the IDE controller. Simply plugging in an IDE cable - without any device attached! - changes the A500's behaviour in combination with the 40MHz oscillator. Exchanging the 1.3 Kickstart ROM for a 3.1 one made a difference once again. Lots of testing, and lots of glitches, and more testing, and more glitches: mousepointer uncontrollable, random crashes, boot picture gone, ...

It seems that the 33Mhz 68030 doesn't like overclocking very much - but with a 32MHz oscillator (33Mhz oscillators seem to be rare), it now runs stable! I expect a few more issues - like checking RAM soldering points - but for now I declare it "working fine". It boots quickly from the 512MB CompactFlash card attached, and with the additional 2MB of RAM on the TF530 and the new 3.1 Kickstart ROM the A500 is now an up-to-date, very usable Amiga!

Yesss! I am __very__ happy with it. :-)

SysInfo speed test with the 32MHz oscillator installed
Nice to have: an LED on the CF-card-adaptor

An "in progress" conclusion

From a personal perspective, I can say that I've learned a lot. I mean: A LOT. Stephen Leary's videos give a huge amount of information, and by building the accelerator I've expanded my set of tools, improved my soldering skills, and gained some knowledge about the parts used. Overall, for me it's a huge step forward in understanding the inner workings of Amiga computers, the TF530, and electronics in general.

And of course the Amiga 500 got a huge update, it's a completely different machine now. For a very reasonable (money-wise) price.

So the whole process is a massive success for me. :-)

No outside signs of the changes on the inside... :-)

Still, there are a few things to keep in mind about the TF530 accelerator and the build process: First of all it takes an insane amount of time to build, if you don't know what you're doing beforehand. I certainly didn't. There was a lot of research involved, on all levels. Secondly, the TF530 is clearly not an industrial-grade product: it's an "in progress" project, a moving target. You have several options when it comes to CPU and oscillator, and these have some interdependence with the firmware releases, which are still going on. The physical layout of the TF530 isn't perfect, you (may) need a relocator board to fit it into your Amiga, you (may) need to use specific connectors, and still it fits only barely between the Amigas other components and casing. For example, adding a Kickstart-switch may turn out to be quite difficult now with the TF530 in place.

But all these quirks don't change a simple fact:

It's effin' great! 

Thank you, Mr. Stephen Leary!

Thank you very, very much for sharing,
and lighting up the fire - the TerribleFire!

So far, so good. I currently consider this to be the last entry in my little series about building the TerribleFire 530 accelerator board. But who knows. And there's so much more to do... maybe a TF328?

Overview and back catalogue of the series:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The passion. The scandal. The truth?

Is this the bomb everybody was hoping wouldn't go off? Looking back on the last months of phase 5 digital products' public relations.

As you might have seen on this website, on facebook, on YouTube, or on one of the numerous other news outlets, phase 5 digital products have announced several new products, and they have done so for what seems to be a very long period of time. Developing and releasing a highly complex hardware add-on for the Amiga (or any other) computer requires a ridiculous amount of knowledge and time. Everyone who has tried - and hopefully succeeded in - bringing his/her product to marketability knows the many different steps necessary to reach this goal. phase 5 have released tiny bits of information - pictures of individual parts, unpopulated PCBs, artwork, etc. - over the last year, keeping interest high and eyebrows raised. But Amigans asked for more than just tiny bits: suspicion was also raised, due to the lack of hard proof of the existence of the new devices everyone was so eagerly waiting for.

Two events seemed to change the situation, the cat-and-mouse game of announcements and curiosity: first, the release of a list of new products, with some specification-, pre-ordering- and pricing-information, and later the Amiga32 event in Neuss, Germany, on Oct. 28th 2017, where phase 5 were expected to "finally" (in the eyes of many Amigans) show some working BlizzardPPC-2 boards, or any other of their new developments.

To my knowledge, Mr. Salvador Fernandez Gomez of phase 5 briefly attended the Amiga32 event, brought with him some unpopulated PCBs, and talked to some people, among which was Mr. John "Chucky" Hertell.

The passion

The year is 2017, it's been 32 years since the Amiga was born. Everyone who's using an Amiga computer nowadays has some individual reasons for doing so, but we all share some of the motivation: a deep passion for the nostalgia we associate with the Amiga, from back in the golden days when it ruled the world, and an equally deep, and lasting, respect for the technical achievement of it's creators. With phase 5 representing the spearhead of Amiga hardware development in the mid to late 1990s, every Amigan was instantly on the edge of his/her seat, jaw dropped, when receiving the news of phase 5 being back in business again in 2016/2017.

We've been through rough times, we've taken a lot of s**t from PC and Mac users, we couldn't play DOOM for quite some time - but with the retro movement that's going on for a couple of years now, with the Vampire accelerators out and growing in numbers, and phase 5 announcing updated and new "classic" pieces of hardware the future never looked better.

We've waited for almost 20 years - no surprise the Amiga community reacts with borderline insane eagerness and curiosity to these announcements from the former kings of Amiga hardware.

The scandal

Mr. John "Chucky" Hertell is a highly respected Amiga user. He's a hardware guru like very few others, he builds stuff that lesser Amiga-mortals can only dream of. And he's one of the administrator of the biggest Amiga-related group on facebook.

Somehow, around easter this year, Mr. Hertell managed to purchase two unpopulated BlizzardPPC-2 PCBs directly from Mr. Salvador Fernandez Gomez of phase 5. He had asked for unpopulated, production-run-quality boards, waiving support and warranty. He received them, which probably makes him the first person outside of phase 5 to hold any of their new products (or: part of these) in his very hands. 

Being a highly skilled Amiga-electronics expert, he started populating one of these boards, at least to some degree, so he would be able to see at least part of the (un-)finished product in action. He recently presented the results of his work on the boards in a facebook-livestream (which can now be watched on YouTube). Now he also published his experience, including his correspondence with Mr. Salvador Fernandez Gomez regarding the issue, on his blog website.

His discovery is staggering: There is - very simply put - no electrical current flow on the new BlizzardPPC-2 PCBs he had received. They're missing essential, vital connections between electrical ground (GND) points, which are the outlets for electrical current. Without an outlet there cannot be any flow. Complex circuits have plenty of ground points, and modern multi-layer PCBs dedicate a complete layer/plane to grounding, to which these points are connected. It looks as if the BlizzardPPC-2 PCBs he had received are missing the entire ground layer/plane.

The truth?

Is ugly. Up to the Amiga32 event in Neuss, the mood had already been poisoned by what looks like false announcements by phase 5 to many, and countless harsh, sometimes downright disturbing comments by Amigans. But Mr. Hertell's experience took it to a new level. Now even derogative pictures showing Mr. Gomez are popping up. Being an administrator of the biggest Amiga-related group on facebook puts Mr. Hertell in a special position, which now has resulted in a lifetime ban of Mr. Gomez from this group (and probably others).

Did Mr. Hertell break the boards he had received? Very unlikely, close to impossible. Did he make a mistake testing the boards? Nah, comeon, he's the man, he builds stuff like this.


...did Mr. Gomez expect Mr. Hertell not to find out? Would Mr. Gomez take the risk and send something that's not even working on the most basic level to one of the highest skilled Amiga experts out there? Who, on top of that, is also one of the administrators of the biggest Amiga-related facebook-group?

Don't be ridiculous. This wouldn't make any sense, even if Mr. Gomez would be planning a blatant fraud since day one.

We know some facts, and judging from these facts there is really not much we can look forward to, phase-5-wise. (Or... is there?) What's disturbing is the fact that for Mr. Gomez it would be so easy to clear his name from any suspicion: A photograph of phase 5's production. Or of some working boards. Where's that Blizzard 560? AmigaONE-1200? Pretty much anything will do.

But some may have forgotten: Mr. Gomez and phase 5 do not owe us anything. Everything they announce or promise is up to them. We have no right to demand. We can, and should, and have to keep our eyes open, and our money safe. Every day, and everywhere. But some Amigans are crossing the line between caution, and impudence. There's a lot of passion involved - sometimes too much.

Let's hope Mr. Hertell and Mr. Gomez are able to resolve their issues. It really shouldn't be that hard. Mr. Hertell's experience speaks loud and clearly. But it still leaves (a little) room for interpretation.

Apart from this incident, has any person suffered any loss from any of phase 5's current ( pun intended... ­čśë ) actions? Probably not, and even in this case it can still be resolved.

Let's not make it uglier than it already is.
Let's hope Mr. Gomez proves all the naysayers wrong.

The truth about phase 5?
Time will show.
And we will watch closely.

What do you think? Leave a comment!

Please keep in mind that the opinions expressed here are purely my personal feelings and observations. I'm in no way affiliated with Mr. Hertell, Mr. Gomez, or phase 5 digital products.

Please report errors in the above article by leaving a comment, so they can be corrected.