New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

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Dethmunk
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New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby Dethmunk » Sat Feb 04, 2017 5:53 pm

I was reading about the new ZX Spectrum Next 8bit coming soon. Which I'm fully up for getting. It looks sexy as heck. :-) Surely there must be appetite for a new 8bit Acorn machine? I mean the Master was pretty good, may be something along those lines, but with added sprite handling and screen modes and a slightly more powerful CPU. We can start the old computer wars all over again. ;-) The new Acorn NEUTRON 512k. :D

Make it backwards compatible with BBC/Electron/Master as well as having its own new BASIC and features.

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby roland » Sat Feb 04, 2017 6:39 pm

We already have the Atom 2014 and its successor Atom 2k15 with 128k ram, improved audio and video, mouse and mass storage device up to 16 GB :lol:

http://diy.acornatom.nl
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MAN WOMAN :shock:

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby lazarusr » Sat Feb 04, 2017 9:35 pm

I think the question is, how much of a market would there be for such a thing? The Spectrum sold about 5 million. Almost all of those would have been for home use. That means that there are potentially millions out there with a nostalgia for the machine. In addition, the original 16K and 48K spectrums were very much built down to a price and so there is an awful lot of room for improvement and upgrade.

The BBC Micro was a very different machine. It sold about 1.5 million. Furthermore, many (and possibly the majority) were bought by schools and colleges. As a consequence, it has become the Shakespeare of the 8-bit world. Undoubtedly the most beautiful thing ever created; but somehow hated by so many people because it was forced upon them at school.

Plus, I think whilst there are all sorts of things that could be potentially improved, it is far less necessary than it is with the Spectrum. I think my Master series, with switchable ROM and internal DataCentre is not far short of perfect. :-D

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby JonC » Sat Feb 04, 2017 9:39 pm

Yep, just give it a new swish case and you're away, the innards are just fine as they are! :lol:
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby RobC » Sat Feb 04, 2017 10:04 pm

lazarusr wrote: I think my Master series, with switchable ROM and internal DataCentre is not far short of perfect.

That Spectrum Next looks great but I think this is a really good point. The Beeb was always designed to be expanded and, with modern upgrades, you can easily turn a bog-standard Beeb into a killer machine.

There are loads of options for fast mass storage (DC, IDE, GoSDC, MMC and BeebSCSI on the way) - add a matchbox or Pi co-pro and you have access to loads of different processors, processing power, operating systems and software.

There are a plethora of other expansions (new and old) that mean you can take the Beeb in a variety of directions and already do pretty much everything that the Spectrum Next promises.

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby 1024MAK » Sat Feb 04, 2017 11:16 pm

All very good comments, but...

Would you like, that is how much interest would there be, in a brand new, modern version of a Beeb that came as standard with a bunch of new features (like lots of extra RAM, flash ROM, solid state mass storage, fast PI based co-processor, HDMI graphics output, etc) all in a brand new case, with a brand new keyboard, all running on a modern 5V PSU?

Yes, of course you can expand a Elk/BBC/Master etc. The Spectrum can also be expanded massively. That's not really the point. The point is would you buy a brand new "8 bit" computer (new PCB, new chips, new keyboard, new case, new everything...) :?:

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby lazarusr » Sat Feb 04, 2017 11:25 pm

I would buy something like that in a shot. And I suspect so would quite a few people on this forum. But that's not going to get the numbers to make it commercially viable. Things like an injection-moulded case and a custom keyboard are only viable in large numbers. I would imaging one would have to sell in the 1000s to make it worthwhile. Even then, it would probably be approaching £200.

Look at the Matchbox CoPro. That's a superb peripheral that considerably enhances the functionality of the Beeb. It was extremely popular by forum standards, but probably only about 200 have been sold (and it was only £40 to £50).

Having said that, all the skills and expertise to make a thing like that are on this forum and much of the technology has already been developed. The Beeb FPGA is the obvious starting point...

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby flynnjs » Sun Feb 05, 2017 8:39 am

Agree Beeb FPGA is a sane starting point. Would keep in with the expandability ethos.

I would guess that we could build a Beeb FPGA motherboard to fit into a cheap netbook and with the right cheap Chinese manufacturer we could persuade them to do a small batch of keyboards and cases with different markings.

That solution obviously doesn't get you all the original expansion ports but with FPGA coprocessor and m500 etc there might no be much call for that anyway.

One also has to consider the benefit over software emulators.

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby kieranhj » Sun Feb 05, 2017 10:56 am

This is an interesting idea but for me it would have to be substantially better than a Master to make it worthwhile. I'm thinking things like being able to run the main CPU at 2/4/8/16 MHz, much larger contiguous memory (with the limited 16-bit address space of the 6502 I'm presuming we'd page in 64k at a time rather than 16k banks at fixed address), Rob's 4096 colour ULA and RTW's sprite enhanced CRTC as standard, some new screen modes, SID or OPL as standard. And still make it backwards compatible of course. This would all require a substantial upgrade to the OS.

Hmm, I've just basically described an Archimedes, haven't I? :D

IMHO the Master is great but is visibly pushing up against the limitations of Acorn's original BBC design, hence all the extra bits of memory having to be shoehorned in here, overlaid there, the main CPU can't be clocked up so having a 2nd processor as standard (Turbo) to claim 4MHz. As somebody else pointed out on an older thread, I could have bought a 16-bit machine at the same time, for the same price back in the day.

If a new 8-bit computer had to remain directly compatible with the original Beeb, I'm not sure there's much more you could do. An alternative interesting question might be what is the "best" 8-bit machine one could design from scratch now?
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby kieranhj » Sun Feb 05, 2017 10:58 am

lazarusr wrote:the Shakespeare of the 8-bit world.

PS. I love this description! How succinctly apt.
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby lazarusr » Sun Feb 05, 2017 11:09 am

I think the idea would be if it were implemented in an FPGA, one could load in a variety of different cores (i.e. vanilla versions of Elk, Beeb, Master, Atom plus various pimped out wonder-8 bit machines). There are FPGA implementations of OPL and the Music 500 and I believe it was commented that there wouldn't be enough room for such a core and all the other stuff in the Beeb FPGA. This then leads to the need either to have to have more than one FPGA chip on the board or some new high end ultra-large FPGA and then the cost rises further.

I have to confess to have spent quite some time (too much time?) day dreaming about such a machine. One idea I had would be the possibility of putting one of Intel's modern ultra low end processors (Atom? :lol: ) on the board so that it could be switched over to a very basic PC (good enough to do email, browsing and word docs). That might make the price justifiable to more people as it would be more than just a toy. The flip side would be that it would become significantly complex to design and we would be looking at a complex multi-layered board. But I suspect it is do-able.

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby lazarusr » Sun Feb 05, 2017 11:33 am

lazarusr wrote:One idea I had would be the possibility of putting one of Intel's modern ultra low end processors (Atom? :lol: ) on the board so that it could be switched over to a very basic PC (good enough to do email, browsing and word docs).

Actually, scratch that. Put an ARM core on the board (similar to that used on the Pi). That could do email, browsing and word (compatible) documents and be much cheaper. Plus, when in Acorn 8-bit mode, the ARM core would do the CoPro emulation without having to change much of the existing Pi CoPro code.

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby paulb » Sun Feb 05, 2017 12:20 pm

lazarusr wrote:I think the idea would be if it were implemented in an FPGA, one could load in a variety of different cores (i.e. vanilla versions of Elk, Beeb, Master, Atom plus various pimped out wonder-8 bit machines).


This was already done with the C-One and MIST boards, and you can actually still buy these. (See here for similar projects.)

flynnjs wrote:One also has to consider the benefit over software emulators.


I gave some of my own opinions about this kind of thing before, which probably didn't go down that well because I'm more interested in evolving authentic hardware than a black box that magically runs everything because it happens to be generic, modern hardware running an emulator. That's where you can very easily end up once people start stacking up the desirable features.

Actually, I'd be quite interested in changing some of the design decisions about various machines and seeing what can be achieved, within historical parameters, of course. Doing stuff like changing the way screen memory is addressed in order to make graphical operations faster, and so on. It would undoubtedly require experimentation with the hardware that an FPGA might be useful for, and the software would need changing or even rewriting, but such things would be valid exercises and still distinct from, say, running an emulator and pretending that an 8-bit computer can now do "4K video" or whatever floats people's boats on social media.

As for whether there's an audience, it's difficult to say. The audience here is limited to people who have the old kit, and it isn't necessarily useful to extrapolate from that. One inhibiting factor might be the way in which the "BBC Micro" name has been repurposed or evoked by things like the Micro:Bit and Raspberry Pi, which could easily lead to nostalgia fatigue ("not another BBC something") and expectation mismatches ("it doesn't run Minecraft unlike all the other BBC stuff").

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby kieranhj » Sun Feb 05, 2017 12:44 pm

Ooh, a bit of idle Sunday Wikipedia browsing has turned up the 65816 chip which is 16-bits but compatible with the 8-bit 65C02. Another fun thought experiment: what might Acorn's alternative timeline have looked like if they hadn't invented their own chipset with ARM but instead relied on existing microprocessor designs? 16-bit Archie? Unthinkable!

(The alternative history without ARM is almost unimaginable as I certainly wouldn't be typing this on my iPad..!)
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby kieranhj » Sun Feb 05, 2017 12:51 pm

Doh! I just discovered the Acorn Communicator which uses the 65816 and is basically a 16-bit Electron, LOL! Yeah, glad they created ARM...
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby Lardo Boffin » Sun Feb 05, 2017 9:50 pm

When is a Beeb not a Beeb?

When it's not a Beeb. [-X

On a serious note I would happily spend a coupe of hundred pounds on a new Beeb providing it was 'in keeping' with the original Beeb! How you define in keeping is of course a difficult thing.

For me having it do too much leads to a point where you may as well put a low power laptop motherboard in a Beeb case and rewrite Beebem to run on it so it can do all the extras.

I personally only have a model B so would obviously prefer one of those to be remade rather than a Master as, rather strangely given my love of Acorn, I never really wanted a Master. I love the clean purposeful shape of the model B but never really liked the shape of the Master (personal opinion only!).

What I would like to see is basically a model B remade largely as is with a few of the harder to obtain add ons built in. With the exception of modern mass storage (and faster co-procs) ideally it shouldn't be able to do anything that couldn't have been done BITD given that you had limitless cash back then of course!

I guess overall that the main driver for me for one of these is that sooner or later it will no longer be possible to fix beebs or get a working sideways ROM board etc. due to a lack of the required parts and a new one takes that worry away.

Anyway just my thoughts! :D
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby richardtoohey » Sun Feb 05, 2017 10:39 pm

@lardoboffin - pretty much my thoughts exactly. :D

But maybe a flick of the switch makes it a Master for those that want ...

The old machines aren't going to last forever (but then I guess neither are we.) But will a modern version ever be 100% compatible? For the Spectrum the ULA was completely decoded so can be accurately copied (I think, I'm not an expert!), don't think that's been done for the Acorn ULAs?

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby Lardo Boffin » Sun Feb 05, 2017 10:50 pm

richardtoohey wrote:But maybe a flick of the switch makes it a Master for those that want ...


No problem with that! It would be nice to play some of the Master enhanced games.
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby vanpeebles » Mon Feb 06, 2017 9:03 am

How about a new board that could fit into an original case and use the keyboard connector etc. This would be a good way of getting BBCs with faulty boards etc back to life.

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby BigEd » Mon Feb 06, 2017 9:22 am

(I think[1] the Spectrum ULA was reconstructed according to its behaviour - very thoroughly, but without reverse-engineering the chip. Similarly, although we have reverse-engineered the Tube chip, it didn't have much to do with the accurate Tube models that we now have.)

[1]: but am completely wrong, and I know it. Parity error in brain? Thanks to Danielj for the correction.

A hobby rebuild of a retro 8bit machine is a great idea - even more if it's a cooperative project and open source. It's still the case that to build larger batches and get any kind of bulk discounts, some serious money is needed up front. Most people wouldn't take the risk. So probably it's small batches, relatively high prices, and no beautiful plastic moulded cases.

A commercial rebuild, now that's a very different animal. At volumes of a 100, or a few 100, I can't see that it's viable. But anyone trying it would be figuring that out as their first step. (Highly recommended link.)

Having said that, I would think there are enough dead and dying Electrons in the world to keep all the present Acorn enthusiasts happy, if those Elks could be stuffed with modern hardware. Or indeed, Beebs and Master cases and keyboards. For me, it's the cases and keyboards which trigger the nostalgia circuits. If it was a 100% accurate FPGA reimplementation in there, or even an embedded emulation, I could be happy. (I see vanpeebles just said the same thing!)

I do think that the state of reimplementation and emulation can be extremely accurate these days, and I doubt there's any discrepancy which can't be fixed, if someone has the skills and the energy.

For people who like hardware hacking - building sideways RAM/ROM boards, or the like - you'd need a very different approach to keep them happy. I think that's a major point, in fact - retro people fall into a number of rather different tribes. Some will be completely happy with an emulator on a smartphone, some will demand a 1MHz bus with glitchy address decoding.
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby danielj » Mon Feb 06, 2017 9:52 am

Speccy ULA was actually reversed from the die and then reworked into discrete logic.

The Spectrum ULA book is well worth a read:
http://www.zxdesign.info/book/insideULA.shtml

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby BigEd » Mon Feb 06, 2017 10:40 am

You are absolutely right! I have that book, and often recommend it, but somehow earlier today utterly missed the point of it. Will edit my post.

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby trixster » Mon Feb 06, 2017 11:03 am

I'm not sure what the point is of producing new 8bit machines like the Spectrum Next. Is the idea just to create a modern, turnkey, reliable version of the old stuff? Or is it to produce a new, expanded 'take' on the old systems and address legacy problems?

There is a certain romance about collecting and repairing / maintaining old hardware. Likewise there is much to be said about expanding the capabilities of old hardware with modern kit - the matchbox CoPro, the rpi CoPro, the beebopl etc spring to mind. The proposed 4096 colour ULA looks tremendous.

And using fpga to recreate old stuff, or a modern PC to emulate old stuff, has a lot of merit and is a fun and satisfying pastime.

But I still struggle to see the point of making a Spectrum Next or a new 8bit Acorn. If you like hardware, buy the old stuff, it's readily available. If you like just playing the games, fire up an emulator. But spending £175 on a Speccy clone seems a little odd to me.

I think I've missed the point entirely! :?
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby danielj » Mon Feb 06, 2017 11:46 am

No, I think you're bang on. I built a harlequin 128k as it's basically a 128k speccy with reliable and available components. Given that someone's now producing new membranes, cases, keypads and faceplates, you could knock together a 48k or 128k "clone" for under £130 that would look/behave like the original. No one's going to be able to make an Acorn clone in a box that meets the original quality at a price which competes with the 2nd hand systems you can pick up. The new Atom's a bit different as it was there to revive dead ones.

If it's a concern over custom ICs etc dying, then it's easy enough to start thinking about replacements or enhancements without trying to sell a whole new machine (again, the Video ULA is a great case in point)! :D

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby Dethmunk » Mon Feb 06, 2017 1:13 pm

The point is its an 8 bit machine. The ethos would have to be in keeping with that. The Master is a good approach. A machine that runs BBC Basic, 512k ram to keep the built in limitations. Keep the expandable rom sockets and interfaces if possible. But like the NEXT introduce more colours to the machine and dedicated sprite handling in an exclusive mode to make development easier. In fact creating a suite of dev tools would be nice too. :wink:
Would have to be compatible with ATOM (Maybe), BBC, ELK and Master too. ;-)
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby lurkio » Mon Feb 06, 2017 1:13 pm

lazarusr wrote:I think the question is, how much of a market would there be for such a thing? The Spectrum sold about 5 million. Almost all of those would have been for home use. That means that there are potentially millions out there with a nostalgia for the machine. In addition, the original 16K and 48K spectrums were very much built down to a price and so there is an awful lot of room for improvement and upgrade.

The BBC Micro was a very different machine. It sold about 1.5 million. Furthermore, many (and possibly the majority) were bought by schools and colleges. As a consequence, it has become the Shakespeare of the 8-bit world. Undoubtedly the most beautiful thing ever created; but somehow hated by so many people because it was forced upon them at school.

Yes! This is kind of what I was trying to get at here in the BBC Micro In Pixels book thread. The Speccy and the Beeb served very different (if overlapping) markets. And the hatred the Beeb inspired (which I was trying to avoid mentioning explicitly because it still hurts :wink: ) was very different from the rivalry between, say Speccy users and C64 users.

Perhaps a "New Beeb" would be beset by the same sales problems as a "coffee table" book about Beeb games. And perhaps something like Now The Chips Are Down is better suited to the market, if there is one, for Beeb nostalgia. By the way, has anyone read it?

:?:

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby Dethmunk » Mon Feb 06, 2017 1:18 pm

As for actual interest, I get what people are saying. That could be the thing that curbs development. The NEXT has created a lot of interest and could spell a new time of bedroom coders producing some nice 8bit stylee games. Certainly with some new Game Creating software starting to appear such as Jonathan Cauldwell's PC update of his Arcade Game Designer which he's hoping to update for development on Next it should spur on some people to be creative again. :-)
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby DutchAcorn » Mon Feb 06, 2017 1:22 pm

lurkio wrote:...Perhaps a "New Beeb" would be beset by the same sales problems as a "coffee table" book about Beeb games. And perhaps something like Now The Chips Are Down is better suited to the market, if there is one, for Beeb nostalgia. By the way, has anyone read it?

:?:

Have you? Do recommend it?
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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby lurkio » Mon Feb 06, 2017 1:27 pm

DutchAcorn wrote:
lurkio wrote:...perhaps something like Now The Chips Are Down is better suited to the market, if there is one, for Beeb nostalgia. By the way, has anyone read it?
:?:

Have you? Do recommend it?

No, I haven't! I've only read the description of it on Amazon!

:idea:

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Re: New Acorn 8bit? Should there be one?

Postby BigEd » Mon Feb 06, 2017 9:01 pm

As a calibration, here are some of the features of the Spectrum Next, which might help us understand why it exists:
- nice new plastic case and usable keyboard
- HDMI, VGA, and normal video out
- standard Spectrum video modes and several enhanced modes, including use as video overlay or underlay
- sprites
- much extra RAM
- Z80 in normal and turbo mode
- solid state storage
- 3 AY/FM sound chips, stereo
- 9-pin joystick port, standard PS/2 port for keyboard and mouse
- Wifi as a serial interface
- original Spectrum expansion port, also a Raspberry Pi port and a GPIO port
- contains a Pi, which supports USB and a second monitor
- "Extra cores" which presumably means something other than Z80 in the FPGA

So, it offers all the external peripherals and behaviour of a fully expanded Spectrum, and then more on top.

If we had the same for a Beeb, we'd have a Tube and a user port and a 1MHz bus and so on. We might also want the ROM slots we get on a Master or expanded Elk. It would a lot more I/Os, I think, but that's the Beeb for you.


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