UP board, first impressions for emulation
In the previous post I went through the hardware specs for both the ODroid XU4 ARM embedded board, as well as the x86 based UP SoC board. Based on their specs I also defined some predictions regarding the performance I expect them to deliver, what tasks they would be best suited for – and what they would mean for you as a developer – or indeed an emulation enthusiast
In this post we are going to start digging into the practical side of things. And what is probably on everyone’s mind is: will the UP board be powerful enough to emulate and run Amiga OS 4.1 final edition? What about retrogaming, HTML5 and general use?
Well, let’s dig into it and find out!
Note: If emulation is not your cup of tea, I urge you to reconsider. I am a dedicated developer and can tell you that emulation is one of the best methods to find out what your hardware is capable of. Nothing is as demanding for a computer as emulating a completely different cpu and chipset, especially one as elaborate and complex as the Commodore Amiga. But I also use a Smart Pascal demo as a general performance test -so even if gaming is not you thing, the board and its capabilities might be.
EMMC storage, a tragedy without end
The UP-board uses something called EMMC storage; this is quite common for embedded devices. Your TV tuner probably has one of these, your $100+ router and in all likelihood so your NAS or laser printer. To make a long story short this storage medium is flexible, cheap and easy for vendors to add to their custom chipset or SoC. It is marketed as a reasonable alternative to SSD, but sadly these two technologies have absolutely nothing in common except perhaps -that they both are devices used to store data. But that’s where any similarities stop; and truth be told the same would be the case for pen and pencil.
EMMC is an appalling technology, honestly. It works for some products, in the sense that you would gladly wear a cardboard box if the alternative is to walk around naked in public. For devices where responsiveness and efficiency is not the most pressing factor (like routers, TV tuners, set-top boxes and similar devices) it can even work well, but for devices where responsiveness and data throughput is the most important thing of all (like a desktop or emulation) EMMC is a ridiculous choice.
Just imagine, a powerful x86 embedded board with 4 gigabytes of ram, 4 x USB 3 ports, outstanding graphical performance, excellent audio capabilities – and all of it for $80?
Honestly, there are many cases where embedded boards are better off without them. I used to hate that the Raspberry PI 3 didn’t ship with EMMC, but that was before I got the pleasure of trying the storage medium myself and experience how utter shit it truly is. It reminds of ZIP disks, remember those? Lumpy overgrown floppy disks that went extinct in the 90’s without realizing it?
In terms of speed EMMC sits somewhere between USB 2 and your average SD card. The EMMC disk on the UP-board falls in the usable category at best. It works ok-ish with a modern operative system like Windows 10 or Ubuntu, but just like the Latte Panda and similar devices are haunted by a constant lag or dullness whenever IO is involved, the same is true for the UP-board. It saturates the whole user experience and its like the computer is constantly procrastinating. Downloading a file that should take 5 minutes suddenly takes 20 minutes. Copying a large file over the network, like a bluray HD file is borderline absurd. It took over half an hour! It normally takes less that 20 seconds on my desktop PC.
I might get flamed for this but my Raspberry PI 3 actually performed better when using a high-speed USB stick. I did the exact same test:
- Download the same file from my NAS right here at home
- The data goes straight from my NAS to the router and straight to disk
- On the PI i used a Sandisk 256 gigabyte USB pen-drive
I don’t have the exact number at hand, but we are talking 10-12 minutes tops, not half an hour. The PI is hopelessly inferior to the UP-board in every aspect, but at least the PI foundation was smart enough to choose low-price over completeness. The people behind UP could learn a thing or two here.
I simply cannot understand what they were thinking. Consider the following factors:
- The speed of running a server is now determined by the read/write performance of your storage device. Forget about factors like memory, number of active threads, socket capacity or network throughput.
- Should the operating system start paging, for example if you run a program that exceed the memory Windows has left (Windows eats 1 gigabyte of ram for breakfast) you are screwed. The system will jitter and lag while Windows desperately map regions of the pagefile to a fixed memory address, perform some work, then page it back again before switching to the next process.
I really wish the architects of the UP-board had just ditched EMMC completely because it creates more problems than it solves. The product would be in a different league had they instead given it four USB 3 ports (it presently have only one USB 3 port, the rest are USB 2). While I can only speculate, I imagine the EMMC unit costs between $20 to $40 depending on model (8 Gb, 16Gb or 32Gb). The entire kickstarter project would be way more successful if they had cut that cost completely. Just imagine, a powerful x86 embedded board with 4 gigabytes of ram, 4 x USB 3 ports, outstanding graphical performance, excellent audio capabilities – and all of it for $80?
It would be nothing short of a revolution.
When it comes to graphics the board just rocks! This is where you notice how slow Raspberry PI 3 truly is. Raspberry PI 3 (RPI3) ships with a fairly decent GPU, and that GPU has been instrumental for the success of the whole endeavour. Without it all you have is a slow and boring ARM processor barely capable of running Linux. Try to compile something on the RPI3 (like node.js from source like I did) and it will quickly burst your bubble.
The UP board ships with a very capable little graphics chipset:
- Intel® HD 400 Graphics
- 12 EU GEN 8 up to 500MHz
- Support DirectX 11 through 12
- Supports Open GL* 4.2, Open CL*1.2, OGL ES3.0
- Built in H.264, HEVC, VP8 encoding/decoding
Here are some figures for this particular demo. It will help you get a feel for the performance:
- Raspberry PI 2b, 1 frames per second
- Overclocked 2 frames per second
- Raspberry PI 3b, 3 frames per second
- Overclocked 7 frames per second
- UP-board 18 frames per second
- Overclocked: not overclocked yet
As you can see, out of the box the UP board delivers 6 times the graphics throughput of a Raspberry PI 3b. And remember, this is a browser demo. I use this because webkit (the browser engine) involves so many factors, from floating point math to memory management, sub pixel rendering to GPU powered CSS3 effects.
Where the RPI3 went through the roof and is almost incapable to responding while running that demo in full-screen, the UP-board hardly breaks a sweat.
It’s strolls along with a CPU utilization at 23%, which is nothing short of fantastic! Needless to say, its allocating only a fraction of its potential for the task. It is possible under Windows to force an application to run at a higher priority. The absolute highest mode is tp_critical, which means your program hogs the whole processor. Then you have tp_highest, tp_higher, tp_high, to_normal – and then some slow settings (tp_idle for example) that is irrelevant here.
Still, six times faster than the Raspberry PI 3b yet only utilizing 23% of its available horsepower? That means we got some awesome possibilities at our fingertips! This board is perfect for the dedicated retrogamer or people who want to emulate more modern consoles, emulation that is simply too much for a Raspberry PI 3 or ODroid to handle. Personally I’m looking forward to the following consoles:
- Playstation 1 and 2
- Nintendo Wii
- XBox one
- Nintendo Gamecube
- Sega Saturn
Keep in mind that we are running Windows 10, not some esoteric homebrew Linux distro. You can run the very best emulators the scene has to offer. Hyperspin? No problem. Playstation 2 emulation? No problem. Sega Saturn emulation? A walk in the park. And before you object to Saturn, this console is actually a very difficult chipset to emulate. It has not one but 3 risc processors, a high quality sound chip and a distributed graphics chipset. It represents one of the most complex architectures even to this day.
As you can imagine, emulating such a complex piece of hardware requires a PC with some punch in it. But that’s not a problem for the UP board. It will happily emulate the Saturn while playing you favorite MP3’s and stream a movie from NetFlix.
Conclusion: the UP-board delivers a really good graphics experience. It has support for the latest DirectX API and drivers; OpenGL (and associated libraries) is likewise not a problem. This board will deliver top retro gaming experiences for years to come.
Right, since I own Amiga forever from Cloanto and recently bought Amiga OS 4.1 to use exclusively with that – it made more sense for me to just install Amiga forever directly on the UP-board and copy the pre-installed disk image over. I do have the ordinary and latest build of UAE, but I wanted to just see how it performed.
This is where I first noticed just how darn slow EMMC is. Even simple things like downloading Amiga Forever from Cloanto’s website, not to mention copying the OS 4.1 disk image over the local network took 10-15 minutes each (!). This is something that on my ordinary work PC would have taken seconds.
At this point I became painfully aware of its limitations. This is just a low-priced x86 embedded board after all, it’s not going to cure cancer or do your dishes. Just like the Raspberry PI 3 suffers whenever you perform disk IO – so will all embedded boards bound to less than optimal storage devices. So the CPU is awesome, memory is great, USB 3 port blazing, graphics and GPU way ahead of the competition; in short: the UP board is a fantastic platform! So don’t read my negative points about EMMC storage as being my verdict on the board itself.
Now let’s look at probably the most advanced emulation task in the world: to emulate the Commodore Amiga with a PPC accelerator.
Emulating Amiga OS 4.1, is the UP board capable of it?
If we look away from the staggering achievement of emulating not one chipset, but two (both 68k and PPC) side by side, I can tell you that AmigaOS 4.1 works. I write works because in all honesty, you are not going to enjoy using Amiga OS 4.1 on this board. Right now I would categorize it as interesting and impressive, but it’s not fast and it’s not enjoyable. Then again, OS 4.1 and PPC emulation is probably the hardest and most demanding emulation there is. It is a monumental achievement that it even works, let alone boots up a $150 embedded computer the size of a credit card.
So if you are considering the UP-board solely to emulate a next generation Amiga, then you either wait for the “UP 2 board” that will be released quite soon (march 2017) or look at alternatives. I honestly predicted that it would pull this off, but sadly that was not the case. It lacks that little extra, just a little bit more horse-power and it will be a thing of beauty.
Had I known how slow the EMMC storage was I would have gone for the UDOO ultra instead, which is a big step up both is power and price. It retails at a hefty $100 above the UP board, but it also gives you a much faster CPU, 8 gigabyte memory and hopefully – a faster variation of EMMC storage. But truth be told I sincerely doubt the disk IO on the EMMC is significantly faster than for the UP-board.
Either way, if fast and furious PPC emulation is your thing, then $250 for the ODOO Ultra is still half the price of the A1222 PPC board. I mean, the A1222 next generation Amiga motherboard is just that: a motherboard. You don’t get a nice reasonably priced Amiga in a sexy case or anything like that. You get the motherboard and then you need to buy everything else on the side. $500 buys you a lot of x86 power these days so there is no way in hell im buying a PPC based Amiga motherboard for that price. Had it been on sale 10-15 years ago it would have been a revolution, but those specs in 2017? PPC based? Not gonna happen.
So if you really want to enjoy OS 4.1 and use it as a real desktop, then I have to just say go for the real deal. Get the A1220 if you really want to run OS 4.1 as your primary desktop. I think it’s both a waste of time and money, but for someone who loves the idea of a next generation Amiga, just get it over with and fork out the $500 for the real thing.
Having said all this, emulating OS 4.1 on the UP board is not terrible, but it’s not particularly usable either. If you are just curious and perhaps fire up OS 4 on a rare occasion – it may be enough to satisfy your curiosity; but if you are a serious user or software developer then you can forget about the UP-board. Here it’s not just the EMMC that is a factor, the CPU simply don’t have the juice.
Classic Amiga is a whole different story. Traditional UAE emulating an Amiga 4000 or 1200 is way beyond anything the Raspberry or ODroid can deliver. The same goes for retrogaming or using the board for software development.
Unless you are prepared to do a little adaptation that is.
Overcoming the limitations
Getting around the slow boot time (for OS 4) is in many ways simple, as is giving the CPU a bit of kick to remove some of the dullness that is typical for embedded boards. The rules are simple:
- Files that are assessed often, especially large files should be dumped on a USB thumb-drive. Make sure you buy a USB 3.0 compliant drive and that its class 10 (the fastest read/write speed). And naturally, use the USB 3.0 socket for this one
- Adding a fan and then doing some mild tweaking in CPU-Z and GPU-Z overclocking tools for Windows. As mention in other articles, you don’t want to mess around with overclocking if you don’t have the basic setup. Lack of cooling will burn your SoC in a couple of minutes. There is also much to be said about restraint. I find that mild overclocking does wonders, it also helps preserve the cpu for years to come (as opposed to running the metal like a hound from hell, burning it to a crisp within a year or less).
- Drop using the EMMC completely and install Windows on a dedicated USB 3.0 external harddisk. But again, is it a full PC you want? Or is it a nice little embedded board to play with?
Since Amiga forever and Amiga OS 4.1 was where I really had problems, the first thing I did was to get the Amiga system files out of the weird RP9 file format. Its is basically just a zip-file containing the harddisk image, configuration files and everything you may need to run that Amiga virtual machine. But on a system with limited IO capacity, that idea is useless.
Once I got the harddisk HDF file exported, I mounted that and also added harddisk folder. Then its just a matter of copying over the whole Amiga OS disk to the folder. This means that the Amiga files will now reside on the PC drive directly rather than in some exotic structured storage file mimicking a harddisk from the mid 90’s.
As expected, booting from Windows to Workbench went from 1 minute (yes, I kid you not!) to 20 seconds. Still a long wait by any measure — but this can be easily solved. It become clear to me that maybe, just maybe, the architect of an otherwise excellent embedded board had a slightly different approach to storage than we do.
I know for a fact that it’s quite common to use EMMC purely as a boot device, and then distribute IO payload to external drives or USB sticks. Some also do the opposite and place the OS on a high-speed USB stick (as mentioned above) and use the EMMC to store their work. With “work” I am here referring to documents, email, perhaps some music, images and your garden variety assortment of data.
Add overclocking to the mix and you can squeeze out much better performance of this fantastic little machine. I still cant believe this tiny little thing is capable of running Windows 10 and Ubuntu so well.
I could play with this board all day long, but I think people get the picture by now.
The UP-board is fantastic and I love it. I was a bit let down by not having enough juice to run Amiga OS 4.1 final edition, but in all honesty it was opportunistic to expect that from an Intel Atom processor. I’m actually impressed that it could run it at all.
I was also extremely annoyed with the EMMC storage device (a topic I have exhausted in this article I think), and in the end I just disabled the whole bloody thing and settled on a high-quality USB 3 stick with plenty of space. So it’s not the end of the world, but it does feel like I have just thrown $50 down the toilet for a feature I will probably never use. But who knows, when I use it to run my own programs and design a full system – perhaps it wont matter as much.
Is it worth $150 for high-end model? I cannot get myself to say yes. It is worth it compared to the high-end ARM boards that go for $80-$120, especially since x86 runs Windows, and that opens up for a whole universe of software that Linux just don’t have; at least not with the same level of user-friendlyness.
Having said that, there are two new x86 boards just around the corner, both cheaper and more powerful. So would I buy this board again if I could return it? No.
I love what I can do with it, and its way ahead of Raspberry PI or the ODroid boards I have gotten used to and love, but the EMMC storage just ruins the whole thing.
Like I wrote – perhaps it will grow on me, but right now I feel it’s overpriced compared to what I would have gotten elsewhere.
UP-board for software developers
So far I have focused exclusively on retrogaming and emulating the next generation PPC based Amiga systems. This is an extremely demanding task, way beyond what a normal Windows application would ever expect of the system. So I havent really written anything substantial about what UP has to offer software developers or system integrators.
Using this board to deliver custom applications written in Delphi, C++ or Smart Pascal [node.js] is a whole different ballgame. The criteria in my line of work are very different and it’s rare that I would push the board like I have done here. It may happen naturally, perhaps if I’m coding a movie streaming server that needs to perform conversion on demand. Even a SVN or Github server can get a CPU spike if enough people download a repository in ZIP format (where a previously made file is not in the cache). But if you have ever worked with embedded boards you should know what to avoid and that you cannot write the code like you would for the commercial desktop market.
If you need an affordable, powerful and highly versatile embedded board for your Delphi, C++ or Smart Pascal [node.js] products, then I can recommend the UP boards without any hesitation!. The board rocks and has more than enough juice to cover a wide range of appliances and custom devices.
As a Delphi or Smart Pascal centric board it’s absolutely brilliant. If you work with kiosk systems, information booths or media servers along the lines of PLEX or Asustor, then no other board on the market gives you the same bang for your bucks. There is simply no traditional embedded retailer than can offer anything close to UP in the $90- $150 range.
If we compare it to traditional embedded boards, for instance a similar configuration sold by Advantec, you save a whopping 50% by getting the UP board instead (!)
Take the MIO-2261N-S6A1E embedded board. This has roughly the same specs (or in the same ballpark if you will), but if you shop at Advantec you have to fork out 215 euros for the motherboard alone! No ram, no storage – just the actual motherboard. You don’t even get a power supply.
What you do get however, is a kick ass sata interface, but you still have to get a drive.
If we try to match that board to what UP gives you for $150 (and that is the high-end UP board, not the cheap model) you hit the 300 euro mark straight away, just by getting the ram chips and a power supply. And should you add a tiny SSD disk to that equation, you have now reached a price tag of 350 euros ($366). So the UP-board is not just competitive, it’s trend setting!
So even though I would refrain from getting the UP board purely for emulating next generation PPC Amiga computers, I will most definitively be using it for work! It is more than capable of becomming a kick-ass NAS, a fast and responsive multimedia center, a web server for small businesses, a node.js service stack or cloud machine – and when it comes to kiosk systems, the UP-board is perfect!
So for developers I give it 4 out of 6 stars!
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