Saturday, April 23, 2016

AMD AM1 5350 Emulation Box

  What can you do with 25 watts?

  Well lets take a moment to think about it. Today you can get light bulbs that put out about the same amount of light as a 60W or 70W bulb. You can get a pair of speakers that put out twice as much sound than a 25W speaker could only years ago. 25 watts can do a lot of things these days. As technology advances and power requirements continue to shrink, more and more can be done with less. With smaller and smaller manufacturing techniques, power efficiency will continue to increase. What took hundreds of watts to achieve years ago, can now be done with a fraction of the power. Today I am writing this blog to shed some light on a processor that is rated at 25W. AMD's Athlon 5350 happens to be the APU in the spotlight. It's a full quad core CPU and a GPU all in one! It amazes me to think that's even possible. Remember when AMD stuck the first GPU onto a CPU die when they introduced Llano.  To think it was only a few years back and now we have the same thing, but using so much less power is quite remarkable. 

AMD Athlon 5350 APU


 When I first approached AMD about doing a project on this little APU, they were a bit surprised. I mean out of everything they have, this little power house was the one I was interested in. Apparently this thing is a huge seller in the latin America region. Should be here too if you ask me! I feel all the high end products get the most attention in tech. But sometimes those high end products don't always fit the bill. See the great thing about low end products like this, is the much smaller power requirements. Hench my big thing on 25 watts. With such a low draw, you can fit this bad boy into such smaller places. High end CPU's and GPU's suck massive amounts of power from your outlet. In doing so yes they are powerful, but also generate lots of heat. They require large power supply's and cooling solutions. This limits how small your build can go. Why do you want such a small build? Well one great use is for a console sized HTPC. In this case I am using it to make a small emulation PC. 

   Now before we get into the in's and out's of this build, we have to have a talk since I said the word "Emulation". I don't condone software piracy! Please do yourself a favor and make sure you own any games you plan on playing via emulators. Whether it be a physical copy or a ROM file that was extracted say from a Steam version download. Just make sure the people that deserve the money for their work get paid. We all want to see developers continue to make great games. But if they aren't making any money doing it, its not going to happen. For those not in the know, emulation is the action of copying one computers functions with another. Classic video game consoles are computers and can be essentially simulated via emulation on PC's. 

   So with that out of the way, lets see just how small and what kind of performance you can expect with such a small power envelope.



  Yes... That my friends is a Sonic The Hedgehog Sega Genesis cartridge. As you can see from this picture, the case I selected for this build is smaller than a Model 2 Sega Genesis. I found the Super Micro case on NewEgg in the server case section. It's just about the exact size of a mini-ITX motherboard. Your not going to fit a high end 125W APU in there without modification of the case. Let alone trying to get the power supply in order for such a small build.  

  Its a fairly simple case with two USB 2.0 ports on the front. There is a slim 60mm fan on the side for a exhaust. The power button and the USB ports share a PCB that spans the width of the case along the very front. It's extremely compact and makes for a awesome little console! 

  I decided on using USB Super Nintendo controllers for the input. These work great and can be snagged off eBay rather cheaply. 



   I swapped out the stock AM1 cooler for this cooler form Arctic Cooling. I had read the stock cooler can get on the noisy side. The Arctic is extremely quite and probably a bit overkill. For storage I was lucky to get this 240gb PNY SSD extremely cheap off NewEgg. Think I paid $60 for it? Super deal!



Arctic Cooling Alpine M1 and PNY 240gb SSD

 Amazing to think how far we have come in storage too. The Sega Genesis cartridge is actually bigger in physical size, but pales in comparison in storage capacity.


240gb on the left, 384k on the right!



  I must admit, I love me some MSI products and tend to use their motherboards a lot. For this build I chose their AM1i motherboard.  It's a basic board but does offer HDMI out which is something I wanted to have.

MSI AM1i motherboard

 Powering this little beast can be tricky due to the space limitations. Obviously you can't use a standard ATX power supply. A Pico PSU is a special PSU that makes use of a power brick to keep it's size extremely small. They are great for such small builds and work fairly well. Cheap and effective, you can get them form online retailers for mini-ITX or eBay. 

120W Pico PSU

   Taking a closer look at the AMD Athlon 5350 you can see it's a bit smaller than a typical CPU. My Hands are not that of giants like they might appear in these photos. The APU is just on the smaller size. Quick look at the specs of this little monster..

AMD Athlon 5350 APU: 25w with 4 CPU cores running @ 2.05 GHz and 1 GPU core running at 600mhz. Created on the 28nm manufacturing process and sports 2MB of L2 cache.

I promise I don't have giant hands!
Small but effective

 With everything installed, there is little room left to be spared. Just need to make sure the cooler gets proper ventilation through the exhaust fan. I used a single stick of 4gb DDR3 1600 memory. These AM1 APU's only make use of single channel memory, but it does not hinder performance.

Tight fit


For testing I ran a few emulators targeting the 32/64 bit era. For fun I threw in a run of Sonic the Hedgehog. This APU is more than enough to run NES, Sega Genesis, or Super Nintendo. The 32 bit systems and up are the more challenging systems to emulate. I'm pleased to report the AMD Athlon 5350 handles Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 1 games easy. Granted I did not play around much with settings, everything ran well. My PlayStation game of choice "Crash Bandicoot 2" did drop to about 57 fps in spots. But again no tweaking so I probably could have improved this. The games were running higher than the original systems internal resolutions. So they were slightly enhanced, but I did not tinker with AA or AS settings. They looked and performed great on my 42" LED TV. Now I did shoot some video but I forgot to take pictures. So I took some screen grabs from the video for this blog post. Once I better learn my editing software, I will try to put the video up as well.

Crash Bandicoot 2 PS1

Super Mario 64 Nintendo 64

Sonic The Hedgehog Sega Genesis\ Scan Lines enabled make it look messy in the video but great in person...

 With console emulation it's extremely important to keep a solid 60 frames per second. If not the game will skip and stutter and not run as how it did on the original hardware. With emulation everything runs as is on the regular hardware giving the emulation is proper. This means in game slowdown is present just as it was on the original systems. But if 60FPS is not maintained, you experience added stuttering and skipping not present in the original. The games ran awesome and kept a solid 60 except with the mention of Crash on the PS1. So I can conclude this APU is the perfect console emulator for a super small form factor. Currently this APU is about $45 on NewEgg. That is a insanely cheap price for what you are getting. This system cost around $250 total to build. Just think about that and remember you get a fully functional PC out of it as well. Just goes to show that bigger isn't always better.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Retro Series build 1: The DOS era 486 PC (UPDATED)

C:\>mkdir C:\AMD486\RetroPC

Miss these commands anyone?

   If your familiar with the command line above, then there is a great chance you used a PC with the operating system MS-DOS installed on it. These PC's flourished during the mid 80's and into the early 90's. Once windows became the norm, DOS began to slowly fade into the wayside. Windows was flashy and easy to use. A few clicks of the mouse did as much as all those command lines could do and then some. Yet the early versions of Windows had there shortfalls. Watching your PC freeze up or reboot became the norm for some. For gaming Microsoft tried to get most companies to release games exclusively for the operating system. But a major benefit of DOS was minimal amount of resources required to run the OS. This was particularly beneficial to gaming as more memory and CPU headroom could be used for the game. Early versions of windows were very resource hungry and because of this, the performance of gaming suffered. So while in the end, most of us gave into the colossal juggernaut know as Microsoft. We still remember the DOS era PC as a gateway into gaming on the PC. With a catalog of some of the more influential games every created for the OS. Titles like Doom, Warcraft, Sim City all helped create great new genres of gaming.

ID Software's Iconic Doom

   If you haven't noticed, I have a deep passion for classic gaming. I grew up playing all the classic gaming consoles from Coleco to the NES. I first lived in a ruff neighborhood and gaming was the only friend I could count on during those days. It wasn't till I was about 11 or 12 that I begged my mom to pull out the credit card for a shiny new PC. Our first family PC was a Packard Bell 486 with MS-DOS and Windows 3.1. It had a Intel 486 DX2 @ 66mhz along with a whopping 4MB of RAM. I remember playing Doom till the early hours of the morning. It was a experience like no other with all the lights turned off. Besides killing demons I also blasted a few X-Wings in Tie Fighter during those late hours. (Sorry rebels out there) DOS gaming felt like it was ahead of everything once VGA graphics and fast CPU's came into play.


  This computer became my gateway into PC building and computers in general. A few months after we got the computer into our home, I became very curious about what was inside. One night while my parents were asleep, I decided to take our only family PC apart and check it out. It honestly wasn't a full disassemble, but enough to check everything out. Mind you I was probably 11 or 12 at this time. Once I had my fill I hurried and put it back together. I thought I heard someone getting up, so I didn't even get to reboot to make sure it still worked! To my great relief, the next day she fired right up and was as nothing happened. Needless to say had my father found out about it, I would have been no longer part of this world.

Legendary CPU of the time. The 486 DX2 66mhz

 So missing the glory days of command lines and blazing fast processors, I decided to build a retro DOS based PC. Then it hit me, why not do a series of retro AMD builds working my way up to today's systems. Thus the Retro Series was born... For those who either have been asleep or not present in the past few years. AMD bought out the graphics card manufacture ATI and they are a major part of the company today. ATI was 3DFX's (Bought out by Nvidia) and Nvidia's major competition. They delivered graphic cards that were on par with the other guys at excellent prices. Once Raja Koduri joined ATI and released the Radeon 9700 Pro, the gloves were officially off and ATI was a force to be reckoned with. But that's a story for my next generation of retro builds to come later. With that said and being a member of Red Team Plus, my builds will be AMD/ATI based.


This is the first in a series of builds spanning DOS to the later iterations of Windows PC's. My DOS era PC features the following hard ware specs.


OS= MS-DOS 6.22

CPU= AMD 486 AM5x86 @133mhz

RAM= 16MB of 72-pin SIMMs  (2x8MB)

Motherboard= Zida Tomato 4DPS Ver 2.1

Graphics Card= ATI 3D Rage II

Sound Card= Creative Sound Blaster 16 VIBRA 16XV

CD-Rom Drive= Creative/Sony Quad Speed

Floppy Drive= Sony

Zip Drive= Internal Zip 750

Hard Drive= Kingston Compact Flash card 8GB 

Power Supply= Star Tech 230w AT PSU 

Monitor= HP 7540 CRT

Creative Sound Blaster 16 VIBRA 16XV


Zida Tomato 4DPS Ver 2.1

ATI 3D Rage II and AMD AM5x86 Processor



















    Compact flash cards are basically IDE drives with a different interface. A simple adapter can make them work with old motherboards as boot drives. Some of the faster cards will have trouble booting once DOS is installed. But this Kingston card is know to work great with DOS and is the reason I chose it. I would have used a traditional mechanical IDE hard drive, but the smaller drives are getting hard to find new. Plus these flash cards are silent and more reliable.

Kingston CF card in IDE adapter

    MS-DOS 6.22 can only see 8GB of drive space with a motherboard that supports LBA. This though has to be in 2GB partitions as those are the largest size you can make. So I have 4 Partitions created, basically 4 drives of 2GB. Plenty of space for those DOS classics.


 The case for this build is a tower AT, Not ATX. AT was the first PC layout created in those days before the ATX spec was released. Cases typically have just a 6 pin din port opening for the keyboard and spots for serial and game ports. Not like the ATX spec of today with it's cutout for the IO shield for all your connections. I thought about getting a desktop style case that the monitor sits on top of. Just like my first Packard Bell computer. But decided on the tower in the end so I could show off the build inside. Cases back then came in one color primarily. Beige... No windows or fancy LED fans like today's DIY PC's. So with this build I decided to use a classic case but add a little modern flair with a window cut in and a basic white LED strip. I was extremely lucky to land the case I did. I found this beauty on eBay from a guy whose Uncle used to own a PC store back in the mid 90's. He had put all the inventory he never sold in storage where it sat for years. His nephew offered to sell his stuff on eBay and that's where I came in. All I paid was $50 shipped for a brand new in the box AT tower case! These were going for $80+ used at the time I got it. It had a power supply and was in pristine shape.
Brand New!


$50 Unreal...


 The stock power supply was very loud. Manufactures didn't care about noise in those days and the fan speed was killer. Then again the exhaust fan on the PSU is the only exhaust for the case. But these components don't get too hot and a slower, quite fan would have gotten by just fine... So I bought a new PSU that is much, much quieter. A Star Tech 230w AT power supply fit the bill. It had a faulty AT switch so I had to swap it out with the original one. These power supplies power on with a switch, not through a motherboard header like today's ATX power supplies.

AT Power Supply On Switch

  Speaking of not getting to hot, the CPU heat sink is cute compared to today's standard behemoths. With liquid cooled or massive tower style heat sinks. Today's hardware cooks and needs some metal and airflow to keep it in check. The initial 486 processors didn't even need a heat sink! But with later models, it was recommended to at least have a passive one installed. I found a new heat sink off eBay for $14. It features a mind blowing 40mm fan! I replaced the stock fan on the heat sink with a after market one. I went with Fractal Design fans for this build, with nice white blades.

Stock fan replaced with a Fractal Design 40mm fan. 80mm intake fan for the case.

   With all my builds I tend to try to come up with something different than the norm. Since floppy disk were part of the build, I came up with a cool idea of dressing up the case with them. Three disk placed next to the window I cut out on the side panel. Two with a company logo, plus one for my personal initials. The classic AMD green arrow and the red ATI logo of old. Both logo's as they were back when these components were new and in the wild.
Laying it out
Window cut

The result, disk held in place with double sided tape.


The other side panel is more simple with just some logos and such.

Nice and clean


    Input consist of a standard AT keyboard and a classic ball style mouse. Before fancy optical and laser mice, we had to clean out the crap stuck around this ball. Good times!









   For audio I picked up some great and cheap speakers with a awesome wood grain. Figured this look definitely had a retro feel as everything was covered with fake wood laminate back then. These Genius 14w wood speakers are perfect and sound great as long as your not trying to throw a party with them.


   Last but not least, we need a monitor to view all the action on. I scored a brand new HP 7540 CRT off eBay for $75 shipped! It's a fantastic monitor packing a max resolution of 1280 x 1024. Granted my DOS build won't need resolutions that high. My next PC in the series will share the same monitor and will make use of the higher resolution.
Dazzle screen saver running on the HP 7540
Duke Nukem!



  I decided that I needed some way of transferring large files to and from this PC. I was originally going to get a network card and connect it over LAN to my Windows 10 rig. But I decided to do it in a more retro fashion. So I went and got a ZIP drive. I have a external ZIP 250 for my Windows 10 machine, and a internal ZIP 750 drive for the DOS rig. Picked up a couple ZIP 250 disk and it all works great. Zip drives other than being a little noisy aren't to bad.

ZIP 250 disk

ZIP 750 drive below my standard floppy drive



   I originally only had planned on having MS-DOS installed for a OS. But my memories of clicking through Windows 3.11 came back. That's what was installed on my first PC, so I said why not? 

Install just getting underway
Windows 3.11 Install screen

Look mom, no start menu!


   That completes this build. With everything in place it's time to load up some classics and enjoy the past. My kids get to see what I experienced growing up with some awesome AMD/ATI hardware powering it.