Meet the PiS2: A PS2 Portable Built with a Raspberry Pi 2 Server


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Redditor and modder darkwingmod has posted a video of his new, homemade Sony PS2 portable — which isn’t actually a thing Sony ever built, but after seeing this, possibly should have been. According to posts he’s made, the well-named “PiS2” is based on a Raspberry Pi 2 board connected to a PS2-to-HDMI output, which is connected to a 5.6-inch HDMI display.

Ingredients. Photo by Darkwingmod.

Instead of installing a DVD drive, the portable unit uses a Raspberry Pi SMB server to deliver games. Making the Raspberry Pi fit in the back of the console shell was a bit difficult, and Darkwingmod wound up stripping most of the headers off the board. There’s an extensive thread on BitBuilt.net that dives into the construction of the unit, with various users chiming in with documents showing how components are wired together and contributing ideas towards the overall fit and finish.

It’s a rather interesting read if you are into the whole homebrew console scene. Projects like this can take years to complete — the thread picks up in 2017 after Darkwingmod took a four-year break, and continues up to the present day, showing how the various components of the platform came together. There are photos with breadboard details showing how everything is wired up internally.

One point I want to draw out is that this portable unit actually contains a physical motherboard from a PS2. The Raspberry Pi 2 SMB server is being used to transfer games to the PS2 over an Ethernet port, replacing the role of a DVD drive. So what you’ll see in the video below isn’t an emulator — it’s the motherboard from a PS2 doing the heavy lifting, with games served off a Raspberry Pi.

Don’t sneeze. Image by Darkwingmod.

The amount of wiring and soldering required to pull all of this together is rather impressive. The PiS2 even supports the option to switch the console between portable and TV output — you can still play it with the video being displayed on a larger TV, in other words.

Battery life is limited and the system displays a warning when voltage drops below 6.3V. This provides approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes of playtime. That’s not great, but remember, he’s using an original PS2 board, not a modern emulator running on a more efficient platform. In this case, an emulator running on top of the RBP natively would probably actually result in lower power consumption, but it would also come with the various headaches associated with emulation. I messed around with getting a PS2 emulator up and running on a PC this year, and while it’s absolutely do-able, there’s still some significant troubleshooting involved. A six-year project with some pretty hefty construction requirements may not qualify as less work, but it’s a really cool way to create a unique product.

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Pour One Out for the Dreamcast, Sega’s Awesome, Quirky, Gone-Too-Soon Console


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On September 9, 1999, Sega launched the Dreamcast in North America — it’s last, best hope for relevance in the console market. The console, which was intended to put Sega on a more even footing against competitors like Sony, wound up being the company’s hardware swan song. Sega never launched another console — the company’s Genesis Mini, which releases on September 19, is the first Sega-branded hardware to ship in 20 years (not counting the products Tectoy produces in the Brazilian market).

The Dreamcast is a rare example of a platform that failed despite having relatively few weaknesses or flaws relative to other consoles at the time. The N64 wasn’t as popular as Nintendo hoped because the cartridges of the day had limited storage capacity and therefore limited space for detailed textures. Despite these limits, they were also quite expensive compared with CD-based media. The previous Sega console, the Sega Saturn, was difficult to program and had been rushed out the door in an attempt to beat Sony’s PlayStation to market. The original Xbox One was less powerful than the PlayStation 4SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce and debuted with a confused, half-baked marketing strategy that saw Microsoft attempt to launch a new game console by focusing on everything it could do besides gaming, and pour substantial resources into a camera add-on rather than the actual machine.

The Dreamcast, in contrast, was a solid piece of kit. It used a 32-bit two-way superscalar RISC CPU designed by Hitachi, the SH-4, rated for 360 MIPS and clocked at 200MHz. The CPU offered an 8KB instruction cache and 16KB data cache and interfaced with a GPU designed by NEC, the PowerVR2. While reportedly not as powerful as the 3dfx hardware that Sega had originally planned to use for the Dreamcast, the PowerVR solution was an affordable option and an effective one. The Dreamcast was designed to use off-the-shelf components to make it an easier target for developers, but the platform was ahead of its time in several respects.

Dreamcast Controller

The Dreamcast controller, with Video Memory Unit (VMU)

The Dreamcast shipped with a modem at a time when 80 percent of the US population was still using dial-up to get online. It used a GD-ROM format that could hold up to 1GB of data — not as large as DVDs, but more capacity than a typical CD-ROM offered. It offered a memory card that doubled as a miniature gaming device, the Visual Memory Unit. Sega’s overall goal with the Dreamcast was to build excitement around its products in the months before the PlayStation 2 would debut, to give it a leg up on the next-generation competition.

From the beginning, however, the console faced an uphill battle. Retailers who had been burned by short-lived Sega products like the Sega CD or 32X (not to mention the Sega Saturn) were unhappy with the company. Sega had initially intended to use hardware from 3Dfx, but when 3Dfx filed for its own IPO it revealed the Dreamcast before Sega had been prepared to make the announcement. Meanwhile, EA decided not to support the Dreamcast, despite having been a major partner on previous Saturn systems. According to a retrospective on the console, this decision was driven by a host of factors, including the specific component choices Sega made, the company’s indecision over whether to make a modem standard on the entire console range, and Sega’s hardball tactics during licensing may have killed EA’s interest in the platform. A different source in the same article, however, claims that EA walked away from Dreamcast because Sega wouldn’t give it a guaranteed exclusive on all sports’ titles for the console, given that Sega had just purchased a development studio, Visual Concepts, to build these titles.

Sony’s PS2 Marketing Blitz

The other factor that has to be factored into the Dreamcast’s demise is the absolute torrent of marketing Sony unleashed. In September 1999, all eyes were on Sony’s PlayStation 2, still over a year away. In theory, this should have opened a window for the Dreamcast to establish itself. In practice, that didn’t happen. Sony put an all-out marketing blitz behind the PlayStation 2, with its “Emotion Engine.” Sony’s reputation, by this point, was also better. The company had shipped one massive hit, the original PlayStation. Sega, in contrast, had shipped a number of half-baked, expensive flops. The Sega Saturn debacle was only part of the problem. The Sega CD and Sega 32X — both Genesis / Mega Drive add-ons — had failed to impress the market. Handheld products like the Sega Nomad had flopped.

If you were on the fence between Sega and Sony in the late 1990s, Sony looked like the safer bet. Sega’s Dreamcast enjoyed a very strong North American launch, but sales dropped off as the PS2’s launch date approached. Sony had the deep pockets to dramatically outspend Sega in terms of marketing dollars, while Sega was losing money despite brisk hardware sales. It cut Dreamcast prices to boost demand, but that meant taking a loss on the platform. While the attach rate for games was reportedly high, the install base wasn’t large enough for the company to achieve profitability this way. By the time the PS2 actually launched, Sega was hemorrhaging cash. Unable to compete with the PS2, Sega threw in the towel on hardware manufacturing altogether.

Image credit: TheDreamcastJunkyard, which has additional screenshots of comparisons between PS2 and Dreamcast visuals in Ferrari F355 Challenge, for the curious.

Compare Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 games today, and it’s clear that the gap between them wasn’t as large as Sony wanted it to seem. Sega Retro notes:

Compared to the rival PlayStation 2, the Dreamcast is more effective at textures, anti-aliasing, and image quality, while the PS2 is more effective at polygon geometry, physics, particles, and lighting. The PS2 has a more powerful CPU geometry engine, higher translucent fillrate, and more main RAM (32 MB, compared to Dreamcast’s 16 MB), while the DC has more VRAM (8 MB, compared to PS2’s 4 MB), higher opaque fillrate, and more GPU hardware features, with CLX2 capabilities like tiled rendering, super-sample anti-aliasing, Dot3 normal mapping, order-independent transparency, and texture compression, which the PS2’s GPU lacks.

Today, the Dreamcast is remembered for the uniqueness of its game library. In addition to absolutely stunning arcade ports like Soul Calibur, the Dreamcast had Phantasy Star Online, which was the first online console MMORPG. Games like Shenmue are considered to be progenitors of the open-world approach favored by long-running series like Grand Theft Auto (which itself began life as a top-down game, not a 3D, open-world, third-person title). Games like the cel-shaded Jet Set Radio and Crazy Taxi established the Dreamcast at a platform willing to take chances with game design. Titles like Skies of Arcadia offered players the chance to be sky pirates. Games like Seaman were… really weird.

Really, really weird.

Sometimes, the issues that sink a console are technical. Sometimes, the hardware is fine and it’s everything else that goes wrong. Here’s to one of the short-lived champions of a bygone age — and a more daring era in gaming, when developers and AAA publishers took more chances with quirky titles than they do today.

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The New Nintendo Switch Delivers Vastly Improved Battery Life


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The new, barely changed Nintendo Switch has finally hit the market. It hasn’t been clear what benefits end-users could expect from this new revision of the console — data pointed to better battery life, but not much more than that as far as overall improvements were concerned. Now we’ve got an idea what improvements the new console delivers. Sometimes manufacturers sneak in improvements that aren’t widely played up beforehand, but that’s (mostly) not the case here.

Digital Foundry took the new Switch for a spin and finds that Nintendo lived up to their promises as far as battery life is concerned. Overall system longevity is vastly improved and power consumption has been cut nearly in half, from 13.3W to 7W while playing Breath of the Wild.

Digital-Foundry-Switch-Tests

Image and data by Eurogamer

Battery life at half brightness is now 1.64x better, while full-brightness battery life is 1.78x better. Switching from full brightness to 50 percent brightness improves Switch battery life by 1.17x, for those wondering what the impact of the screen setting is. Overall temperatures are not much reduced — the heat off the internal SoC is 50C instead of 54C. However, DF notes that the Switch is also physically quieter than before, implying that Nintendo may have reduced the fan RPM, choosing to limit noise as opposed to keeping equal cooling and therefore further reducing temperature.

One known reason for the improved battery life may be changes to the display. There are reports that Sharp provided an IGZO panel for the Switch Lite, but it isn’t clear if this covers the new Switch modelSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce as well. However, the display is definitely different, with a magenta tint and an off-white background color compared with the OG Switch.

Image by Eurogamer

As for performance, the two devices are almost equivalent. I say almost because, while average frame rates wind up in pretty much exactly the same places on both consoles, there are some specific spots where performance is improved. Digital Foundry has more details on this. Outside of some corner cases, however, overall performance is the same.

Customers who want to try and pick up the newer model with better battery life should look for a console labeled HAC-001(-01) as opposed to HAC-001. Nintendo’s guidance is slightly different, however, indicating that the new Switch will start with a “HAD” label rather than “HAC.” That’s official guidance from the company, so it’s possible that the old HAC-001(-01) / HAC-001 split was for the Asia-Pacific market, and Western consoles will have a different label.

It has not been formally confirmed whether the new Switch is using a Tegra X1 chip built on a more advanced process node, but we suspect it is. The new Switch uses the same size battery as the old Switch. While screens are major drivers of power consumption, the Switch uses a comparatively low-resolution display to start with. While changing the displayed resolution of a panel does nothing to change how much power it consumes, the absolute number of pixels in the display does impact overall power consumption. Android Authority did a comparison of the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL earlier this year and calculated out the impact of 1440p versus 1080p on power consumption after taking the XL’s larger battery into account. Using a 1080p panel instead of a 1440p panel increased battery life by 1.1x at the same battery capacity.

Since the Switch uses a lower-resolution panel to start with, we wouldn’t expect the panel technology alone to account for a gain this large, but details will have to wait for a formal device teardown. There’s no sign of a fix for JoyCon drift — this problem continues to hit Switch owners, though Nintendo now offers a free repair program for affected customers. There’s also no secondary improvements, like the better Wi-Fi, improved 3D effects, NFC support, or other improvements that Nintendo introduced with the New 3DS relative to the 3DS, but Nintendo also isn’t trying to position this like a major console update. The entire idea is that customers with the newer variant get better battery life, but nobody should feel left behind if they don’t have the latest edition.

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AMD Reports Q2 2019 Market Share as Intel Sticks to Its Guns on Pricing


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Over the past month, AMD let fly with two-thirds of its 7nm product lineup. Both the desktop and server spaces have now been refreshed with 7nm CPUs. Intel’s response? Meh.

Let’s do the market share data first. Heading into Q2, AMD has a series of pushes and drags on its market performance. Positive factors include Intel’s ongoing CPU shortage (expected to peak in Q2 2019) and the strong overall market response to Ryzen in desktop, laptop, and server. Negative factors include ongoing trade disputes with China and the possibility of a 12/14nm sales slowdown as the 7nm launch approached.

Data on AMD’s market share in desktop, server, and laptops was provided by Dean McCarron of Mercury Research via THG. We’ve covered Mercury Research’s figures before — sticking with one firm allows us to create an apples-to-apples comparison for how AMD’s market share is evolving over time. There’s good news on multiple fronts for the smaller CPU manufacturer:

AMD-Market-Share-Q2-2019

Data by Dean McCarron, Mercury Research. Chart by ExtremeTech

AMD’s desktop market share was flat in Q2, at 17.1 percent of the channel. This isn’t necessarily surprising. AMD has been cutting prices on its older 2000 series parts to stimulate uptake, but there was an unmistakable surge of interest in third-generation RyzenSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce after those chips launched. We don’t know how strong the surge will be, but European retailer Mindfactory released July sales data showing that AMD shipments skyrocketed after July 7. The DIY retail market for CPUs is typically estimated to be between 10-20 percent of the space. If AMD continues to enjoy high retail demand, we will see that reflected in the Q3 2019 figures for overall desktop market share. As always, when considering data from a single company or source, keep in mind that it reflects information at that specific retailer, not the wider market.

Notebook share is the major winner, both year-on-year and quarter-on-quarter. AMD has picked up two percentage points of share since the beginning of the year and grown its market share by 1.6x relative to Q2 2018. The challenge for the company will be keeping that share as Intel’s CPU shortage lessens. Some analysts have predicted that AMD would lose its gains in this area as Intel shipped more cores; we’ll see what Q3 shows us in that regard.

The server market continues to tick upwards, with AMD claiming 3.4 percent of the space now, up from 1.4 percent the previous year. AMD didn’t hit its previous goal of taking 5 percent of the entire server market by Q4 2018 (the company told us earlier this year that it believed it had secured at least 5 percent of the 2S / dual-socket server space). We’re not concerned by the relatively slow server ramp — the Epyc CPUs AMD just launched are the most impressive performance leap the company has ever delivered in that market.

Overall, AMD’s market share figures show a company executing well and gaining share. AMD has predicted that its Compute and Graphics revenue will increase by 1.2x over 2018 when the impact of slowing semi-custom design sales is taken into effect (Xbox One and PS4 sales are falling as the new console cycle builds momentum).

As for Intel, the larger CPU vendor is sticking to its guns. Intel’s August CPU Price List gives the expected list prices in 1K units for its complete product lineup. There are no changes whatsoever. These official price guides don’t necessarily reflect the price that chips are selling for in the retail channel, and they certainly don’t reflect the price that OEMs pay in bulk, but they represent Intel’s officially communicated pricing.

IntelPricesAugust

The full document is available for your perusal, but it looks like the above straight down the line. Intel may adjust its pricing quietly behind the scenes, or it may make larger, formal cuts at a later date, but the firm is sticking to its guns for now. From Intel’s perspective, this makes good sense. AMD may have just launched an impressive suite of products, but Intel presumably wants to see how the market responds to them before it makes a determination about what to do.

Intel’s response to AMD since 2017 has been to avoid direct price cuts and instead introduce different products at adjusted price points. That might not work in server, given that Cascade Lake has already launched and there aren’t going to be opportunities to respond to AMD with a new family deployment in the near term. Intel might cut prices later this year, or opt to wait to change its product alignments until Cooper Lake or Ice Lake are ready to ship. For now, AMD continues to gain market share with expected improvements in the back half of 2019 related to the 7nm Ryzen refresh.

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Microsoft: Xbox Next Will Bring Faster Load Times, 60fps, Backward Compatibility


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The next console generation is less than 18 months away, and Microsoft is starting to share a little more information about what it’s prioritizing for the next generation of Xbox consoles. Playability, load times, and backward compatibility for controllers and software are all top priorities for Redmond with the launch of Xbox Next.

“I think the area that we really want to focus on next-generation is frame rate and playability of the games,” Spencer told Gamespot:

Ensuring that the games load incredibly fast, ensuring that the game is running at the highest frame rate possible. We’re also the Windows company, so we see the work that goes on [for] PC and the work that developers are doing. People love 60 frames-per-second games, so getting games to run at 4K 60 [fps] I think will be a real design goal for us.

The thing that’s interesting is, this generation, we’ve really focused on 4K visuals and how we bring both movies through 4K Blu-ray and video streaming, and with Xbox One X allowing games to run at 4K visuals will make really strong visual enhancements next generation. But playability is probably the bigger focus for us this generation. How fast do [games] load? Do I feel like I can get into the game as fast as possible and while it’s playing? How does it feel? Does this game both look and feel like no other game that I’ve seen? That’s our target.”

This is more or less what ET predicted earlier this year. 60fps is a much more realistic target for the Xbox Next than the 240fps rumor that was going around. Despite various vague statements that the Xbox Next will support 8K, Spencer sensibly makes no mention of it as a gaming resolution target. There’s no chance a 2020 console will have a GPU powerful enough to support this resolution and we’re glad to see the company pivoting towards an emphasis on other aspects of gaming.

According to Microsoft, backward compatibility is a key pillar for Xbox moving forward. Xbox One, Xbox 360, and OG Xbox games will all continue to be supported on Xbox Next, Spencer told Gamespot. The company has promised that this backwards compatibility pledge extends to controllers as well, saying, “So really, the things that you’ve bought from us, whether the games or the controllers that you’re using, we want to make sure those are future compatible with the highest fidelity version of our console, which at that time will obviously be the one we’ve just launched.”

Will Microsoft Actually Push a 60fps Target?

Historically, there have been a handful of games that specifically targeted 60fps for console play, but it’s been an uncommon frame rate target. The Xbox One X and PS4 Pro expanded the list of titles that offered this frame rate by encouraging developers to release updates for new and existing games that would add new resolution options or the ability to play at higher frame rates than the base title supported. Actually moving the game industry (back) towards a 60 fps target, however, would be a feat.

There’s some reason to think both console manufacturers could pull it off. The Xbox Next and PlayStation 5 will both target performance levels above the existing Xbox One and PS4 Pro.SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce The use of Ryzen and an RDNA-derived GPU for both platforms guarantees that the consoles will pack more performance, but the level of perceived visual quality improvement one console generation offers over the next has been shrinking every cycle. Instead of simply chasing improved levels of detail, Spencer wants developers to target smoothness and load times — two other objective areas where it’s possible to deliver major generational gains, particularly with SSDs being adopted for the first time.

Statista-TV-Market-Share

One major question is how the 1080p/4K split will be addressed. Spencer refers to a 4K/60fps target, but 1080p still accounts for a large percentage of TVs sold and the install base for the older standard is enormous. The simplest way for Microsoft to handle a 1080p output limit is to render internally at 4K and then output at 1080p. This effectively applies supersampled AA to the entire image and would deliver a substantial improvement in image quality over standard 1080p. With the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, both Microsoft and Sony gave developers a variety of ways they could use the additional power of the newer consoles to punch up the base experience, and we expect a similar approach here. One of the advantages of having a powerful GPU paired with a lower-resolution display is that you can crank up secondary features like AA without worrying about the performance impact, and we’re hoping Microsoft brings some of that flexibility to its Xbox Next design.

The PC gamer in me can’t help noting that the already barely-there line between consoles and PCs will be even thinner next cycle. Consoles have provided backward compatibility before, but it’s often come up with qualifiers related to your hardware version and been limited to one previous platform. Microsoft isn’t just going to support Xbox One games on Xbox Next, it’ll continue supporting Xbox 360 and OG Xbox, as well as Xbox One peripherals. That’s exactly the kind of backward compatibility support we would expect when upgrading from PC build to the next and it’s nice to see consoles catching up after a few decades.

The flip side, of course, is that the console-versus-PC debate gets goofier every generation. At this point, you might as well just ask “controller or keyboard?” (keyboard, natch). Functionally, at the hardware level, we’re all gaming on PCs.

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