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Delphi Developer Competition

September 28, 2018 Leave a comment

The Delphi Developer group on Facebook has been around for a few years, and in that time we have held two very interesting demo competitions. The last competition we held was for Smart Pascal (Smart Mobile Studio) only, but we are extending it to include the dialects supported by our group; meaning Delphi, Smart Pascal, Freepascal and Remobjects Oxygene!

Embarcadero shipped over some extra goodies for us, so the competition this year is indeed a magical one. The top 3 contestants all get the official Embarcadero T-Shirt. We also throw in 10 Sencha ball-pens for each of the top 3 contestants; this is in addition to the actual prizes listed below (!)

The #1 winner not only get the 100€ FPGA devkit (see prizes below), he or she walks off with a high-quality, stainless steel Embarcadero branded coffee mug that holds half a litre of breakfast! (I seriously wanted to keep this for myself).

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The prizes in all their glory!

Submission rules are:

  • Source submission (GPL, LGPL) + binary
  • No dependencies on commercial libraries or components
  • Submissions must be available through GIT or BitBucket
  • Submission must include everything it needs to be compiled

Submission categories are:

  • Graphical demo (demo-scene style)
  • Games and multimedia
  • General purpose (utility programs)

Use the following Google form to register:

The purpose of the submissions is to show off both the language and your skills. Back in 2013 we got a ton of really cool demo-scene stuff, demonstrating timeless techniques; everything from bouncing meta-balls, gouraud shaded vectors, sinus scroll-texts and webgl landscape flight. We also had a fantastic fractal explorer program, bitmap rotozoom generator – and two great games! Which both made it onto AppStore and Google Play!

First prize

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The winner walks off with some exciting stuff!

The first prize this year is something really, really special. The winner walks off with a spiffing Altera Cyclone IV FPGA starter board. This is a spectacular FPGA kit that allows you to upload a wide range of ready-to-rock FPGA core’s, as well as your own logic designs.

But to make it more accessible we added a retro daughter board, this gives you VGA, audio, keyboard, mouse, MicroSD, serial and two old school joystick ports. The daughterboard is needed if you plan on using some of the retro-cores out there. I personally love the Amiga core (shock, I know) but you can run anything from a humble Spectrum to Sega Megadrive, SNES, Atari ST/E, Neo-Geo and many others.

While the daughter-board makes this wonderful for retro-computing and gaming, fpga is first and foremost a tool for engineering. It ships with a USB-Blaster which allows you to connect it directly to your PC and it will be recognized as a device. FPGA modeling applications will pick this up and you can test out designs “live”, or just place a core on the SD-card and edit the boot config.

The kit sells for roughly 100€ with a case, but getting both the motherboard and the retro daughter-board is difficult. These things are sold separately, and the daughter board is produced in small numbers by dedicated hackers. So winning a kit that is pre-assembled, soldered and ready to go is quite a prize!

If you are even remotely interested in FPGA programming, this should give you goosebumps!

Second prize

tinker

The most powerful SBC I have ever used

The silver medal is the powerful Asus Tinkerboard, this is probably the most powerful SBC you can get below 100€. It delivers 10 times the firepower a Raspberry PI 3b can muster – and is superbly suited for Android development, Smart Mobile Studio kiosk systems and much, much more.

Of all the board I have tested and own this is the one with enough CPU grunt (even the mighty ODroid XU4 can’t touch this) to rival a low-end x86 laptop. You have to fork out for a SnapDragon IV to beat the Tinkerboard.

I have two of these around the house myself, one as a game console running Emulation Station (emulates PSX 1, 2 and 3 games), and another under my TV with Kodi and a 2 terabyte movie collection.

Third prize

Last but not least the bronze medal is a Raspberry PI 3b. The PI should be no stranger to programmers today, it more or less defines the IOT revolution and has, by far, the biggest collection of software available of all SBC (single board computers) available today.

Raspberry_Pi_3_Large

The device that represents the IOT phenomenon

The PI is a wonderful starter board for Delphi developers who want to play with hardware under android. It’s also a fantastic board for Smart and FPC development.

I use a PI to test node.js services written in Smart Mobile Studio.

Dates

We start the clock on the 1st of october and submission must be delivered by the 31st. So you have a full month to code something cool!

Remember comments

While not always possible, try to write clean code. Part of the point here is to use these demos as an educational source.

We wont reject non-commented code, but please try to avoid 20k lines of spaghetti.

Hints and tips

Delphi has brilliant support for DirectX and OpenGL, so taking advantage of hardware acceleration should not be a problem. FMX is largely powered by the GPU and has 3d rendering and modeling as an integral feature – so Delphi developers have a slight advantage there.

16_bit_smb2_smm_wip_by_trackmasterfan341-da3nch3

Tilesets are graphics-blocks that can be used to create large game levels with a map-editor

If you want to use DIB’s under vanilla WinAPI there is always Graphics32, a wonderful and exceptionally detailed library for fast graphics.

Music: Most demo-scene code use mod music (actually today people play MP3’s as well), and there are good wrappers for player libraries like Bass. It’s always a nice touch to add a spot of music (and literally millions of free mod tracks freely available). So give your demo some flair by adding a kick-ass mod track, or impress us by writing a score yourself?

In the world of demo coding anything goes! Bring out that teenage spirit and go wild, create wonderful graphical effects, vector objects, scrolling texts, games or whatever tickles your fancy. If you need inspiration, check out the demo scene videos on YouTube (if that is what you would like to submit of course). A kick-ass database application, X server renderer, paint program or a compiler — it’s all good!

Make people go WOW that is cool!

Tile graphics: which is often used in games and demos, can be found almost anywhere. If you google “tileset” or “game tiles” you should get more than you need. Brilliant for parallax scrolling. Why not give Super Mario a run for its money? Show the next generation how to code a platform game! Check out the Tiled map-editor, this has a JSON export filter for you Smart Pascal coders.

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Tiled is a powerful map editor. There is also mappy, which I believe have a Delphi player

OK guys, the game is a-foot! May the best coder win!

Nano PI Fire 3, part two

July 18, 2018 Leave a comment

If you missed the first installment of this test, please click here to catch up. In this installment we are just going to dive straight into general use and get a feel for what can and cannot be done.

Solving the power problem

pi-powerLike mentioned in the previous article, a normal mobile charger (5 volt, 2 amps) is not enough to support the nano-pi. Since I have misplaced my original PI power-supply with 5 volt / 3 amps I decided to cheat. So I plugged the power USB into my PC which will deliver as much juice as the device needs. I don’t have time to wait for a new PSU to arrive so this will have to do.

But for the record (and underlined) a proper PSU with at least 2.5 amps is essential to using this board. I suggest you order the official Raspberry PI 3b power-supply. But if you should find one with 3 amps that would be even better.

Web performance

The question on everyone’s mind (or at least mine) is: how does the Nano-PI fire 3 perform when rendering cutting edge, hardcore HTML5? Is this little device a potential candidate for running “The Smart Desktop” (a.k.a Amibian.js for those of you coming from the retro-computing scene)?

Like I suspected earlier, X (the Linux windowing framework) doesn’t have drivers that deliver hardware acceleration at all.

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Lubuntu is a sexy desktop no doubt there, but it’s overkill for this device

This is quite easy to test: when selecting a rectangle on the Lubuntu desktop and moving the mouse-cursor around (holding down the left mouse button at the same time) if it lags terribly, that is a clear indicator that no acceleration exists.

And I was right on the money because there is no acceleration what so ever for the Linux distribution. It struggles hopelessly to keep up with the mouse-pointer as you move it around with an active selection; something that would be silky smooth had the GPU been tasked with the job.

But, hardware acceleration is not just about the desktop. It’s not some flag you enable and it magically effect everything, but rather several API’s at either the kernel-level or immediate driver level (modules the kernel loads), each affecting different aspects of a system.

So while the desktop “2d blitting” is clearly cpu driven, other aspects of the system can still be accelerated (although that would be weird and rare. But considering how Asus messed up the Tinkerboard I guess anything goes these days).

Asking Chrome for the hard facts

I fired up Google Chrome (which is the default browser thank god) and entered the magic url:

chrome://gpu

This is a built-in page that avails a detailed report of what Chrome learns about the current system, right down to specific GPU features used by OpenGL.

As expected, there was NO acceleration what so ever. So I was quite surprised that it managed to run Amibian.js at all. Even without hardware acceleration it outperformed the Raspberry PI 3b+ by a factor of 4 (at the very least) and my particle demo ran at a whopping 8 fps (frames per second). The original Rasperry PI could barely manage 2 fps. So the Nano-PI Fire is leagues ahead of the PI in terms of raw cpu power, which is brilliant for headless servers or computational tasks.

FriendlyCore vs Lubuntu? QT for the win

Now here is a funny thing. So far I have used the Lubuntu standard Linux image, and performance has been interesting to say the least. No hardware acceleration, impressive cpu results but still – what good is a SBC Linux distro without fast graphics? Sure, if you just want a head-less file server or host services then you don’t need a beefy GPU. But here is the twist:

Turns out the makers of the board has a second, QT oriented distro called Friendly-core. And this image has OpenGL-ES support and all the missing acceleration lacking from Lubuntu.

I was pretty annoyed with how Asus gave users the run-around with Tinkerboard downloads, but they have thankfully cleaned up their act and listened to their customers. Friendly-elec might want to learn from Asus mistakes in this area.

Qtwebenginebrowser

QT has a rich history, but it’s being marginalized by node.js and Delphi these days

Alas, Friendly-core xenial 4.4 Arm64 image turned out to be a pure embedded development image. This is why the board has a debug port (which is probably awesome if you are into QT development). So this is for QT developers that want to use the board as a single-application system where they write the code on Windows or Linux, compile and it’s all transported to the board with live debugging back to the devtools they use. In other words: not very useful for non C/C++ QT developers.

Android Lolipop

2000px-Android_robot.svgI have only used Android on a pad and the odd Samsung Galaxy phone, so this should be interesting. I Downloaded the Lolipop disk image, burned it to the sd-card and booted up.

After 20 minutes with a blank screen i gave up.

I realize that some Android distros download packages ad-hoc and install directly from a repository, so it can take some time to get started; but 15-20 minutes with a black screen? The Android logo didn’t even show up — and that should be visible almost immediately regardless of network install or not.

This is really a great shame because I wanted to test some Delphi Firemonkey applications on it, to see how well it scales the more demanding GPU tasks. And yes i did try a different SD-Card to be sure it wasnt a disk error. Same result.

Back to Lubuntu

Having spent a considerable time trying to find a “wow” factor for this board, I have to just surrender to the fact that it’s just not there. . This is not a “PI” any more than the Tinkerboard is a PI. And appending “pi” to a product name will never change that.

I can imagine the Nano-PI Fire 3 being an awesome single-application board for QT C/C++ developers though. With a dedicated debug port making it a snap to transport, execute and do live debugging directly on the hardware — but for general DIY hacking, using it for native Android development with Delphi, or node.js development with Smart Mobile Studio – or just kicking back with emulators like Mame, UAE or whatever tickles your fancy — its just too rough around the edges. Which is really a shame!

So at the end of the day I re-installed Lubuntu and figure I just have to wait until Friendly-elec get their act together and issue proper drivers for the Mali GPU. So it’s $35 straight out the window — but I can live with that. It was a risk but at that price it’s not going to break the bank.

The positive thing

The Nano-PI Fire 3 is yet another SBC in a long list that fall short of its potential. Like many others they try to use the word “PI” to channel some of the Raspberry PI enthusiasm their way – but the quality of the actual system is not even close.

In fact, using PI in their product name is setting themselves up for a fall – because customers will quickly discover that this product is not a PI, which can cause some subconscious aversion and resentment.

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The Nano rendered Amibian.js running some very demanding demos 4 times as fast as the PI 3b, one can only speculate what the board could do with proper drivers for the GPU.

The only positive feature the Fire-3 clearly has to offer, is abundantly more cpu power. It is without a doubt twice as fast (if not 3 times as fast) as the Raspberry PI 3b. The fact that it can render highly demanding and complex HTML5 demos 4 times faster than the Raspberry PI 3b without hardware acceleration is impressive. This is a $35 board after all, which is the same price.

But without proper drivers for the mali, it’s a useless toy. Powerful and with great potential, but utterly useless for multimedia and everything that relies on fast 2D and 3D graphics. For UAE (Amiga emulation) you can pretty much forget it. Even if you can compile the latest UAE4Arm with SDL as its primary display framework – it wouldn’t work because SDL depends on the graphics drivers. So it’s back to square one.

But the CPU packs a punch that is without question.

Final verdict

Top the x86 UP board, left bottom a Raspberry PI 3, bottom right the ODroid XU4

There are a lot of stable and excellent options out there, take your time

I was planning to test UAE next but as I have outlined above: without drivers that properly expose and delegate the power of the mali, it would be a complete disaster. I’m not even sure it would build.

As such I will just leave this board as is. If it matures at some point that would be great, but my advice to people looking for a great SBC experience — get the new Raspberry PI 3b+ and enjoy learning and exploring there.

And if you are into Amibian.js or making high quality HTML5 kiosk / node.js based systems, then fork out the extra $10 and buy an ODroid XU4. If you pay $55 you can pick up the Asus Tinkerboard which is blistering fast and great value for money, despite its turbulent introduction.

Note: You cannot go wrong with the ODroid XU4. Its affordable, stable and fast. So for beginners it’s either the Raspberry PI 3b+ or the ODroid. These are the most mature in terms of software, drivers and stability.

Nano-pi Fire 3: The curse of Mali

July 5, 2018 1 comment

Being able to buy SBCs (single board computers) for as little as $35 has revolutionized computing as we know it. Since the release of the Raspberry PI 1b back in 2012, single board computers have gone from being something electrical engineers work with, to something everyone can learn to use. Today you don’t need a background in electrical engineering to build a sophisticated embedded system; you just need a positive spirit, willingness to learn and a suitable SBC starter-kit.

Single board computers

If you are interested in SBC’s for whatever reason, I am sure you have picked up a few pointers about what works and doesn’t. In these times of open forums and 24/7 internet, the response-time from customers are close to instantaneous; and both positive and negative feedback should never be taken lightly. It’s certainly harder to hide a poor product in 2018, so engineers thinking they can make a quick buck selling sloppy-tech should think twice.

Fire3_02-900x630I have no idea how many boards have been released since 2016, but some 20+ new boards feels like a reasonable number. Which under normal circumstances would be awesome, because competition can be healthy. It can stimulate manufacturers to deliver better quality, higher performance and to use eco-friendly resources.

But it can also backfire and result in terrible quality and an unhealthy focus on profit.

The Mali SoC

The MALI graphics chipset is a name you see often in connection with SBC’s. If you read up on the Mali SoC it sounds fantastic. All that power, open architecture, partner support – surely this design should rock right? If only that were true. My experience with this chipset, which spans a variety of boards, is anything but fantastic. It’s actually a common factor in a growling list of boards that are unstable and unreliable.

I don’t have an axe to grind here, I have tried to remain optimistic and positive to every board that pass my desk. But Mali has become synonymous with awful performance and unreliable operation.

Out of the 14 odd boards I have tested since 2016, the 8 board that I count as useless all had the Mali chipset. This is quite remarkable considering Mali has an open driver architecture.

Open is not always best

If you have been into IOT for a few years you may recall the avalanche of critique that hit the Raspberry PI foundation for their choice of shipping with the Broadcom SoC? Broadcom has been a closed system with proprietary drivers written by the vendor exclusively, which made a lot of open-source advocates furious [at the time].

Raspberry_Pi_3_LargeYou know what? Going with the Broadcom chipset is the best bloody move the PI foundation ever did; I don’t think I have ever owned a SBC or embedded platform as stable as the PI, and the graphics performance you get for $35 is simply outstanding. Had they listened to their critics and used Mali on the Raspberry PI 2b, it would have been a disaster. The IOT revolution might never have occurred even.

The whole point of the Mali open driver architecture, is that developers should have easy access to documentation and examples – so they can quickly implement drivers and release their product. I don’t know what has gone wrong here, but either developers are so lazy that they just copy and paste code without properly testing it – or there are fundamental errors in the hardware itself.

To date the only board that works well with a Mali chipset, out of all the boards I have bought and tested, is the ODroid XU4. Which leads me to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong with the art of making drivers. This really should not be an issue in 2018, but the number of bankrupt mali boards tell another story.

Nano-PI Fire 3

When reading the specs on the Nano-pi fire 3 I was impressed with just how much firepower they managed to squeeze into such a tiny form-factor. Naturally I was sceptical due to the Mali, which so far only have ODroid going for it. But considering the $35 price it was worth the risk. Worst case I can recycle it as a headless server or something.

And the board is impressive! Let there be no doubt about the potential of this little thing, because from an engineering point of view its mind-blowing how much technology $35 buys you in 2018.

Fire3_en_03

I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old coder, but when you have been around as many SBC’s as I have, you tend to hold back on the enthusiasm. I got all worked-up over the Asus Tinkerboard for example (read part 1 and part 2 here), and despite the absolutely knock-out specs, the mali drivers and shabby kernel work crippled an otherwise spectacular board. I still find it inconceivable how Asus, a well-respected global technology partner, could have allowed a product to ship with drivers not even worthy of public domain. And while they have updated and made improvements it’s still not anywhere near what the board could do with the right drivers.

The experience of the Nano-PI so far has been the same as many of the other boards; especially those made and sold straight from smaller, Asian manufacturers:

  • Finding the right disk-image to download is unnecessarily cumbersome
  • Display drivers lack hardware acceleration
  • Poor help forums
  • “Wiki” style documentation
  • A large Linux distro that max out the system

More juice

The first thing you are going to notice with the Nano-pi is how important the power supply is. The nano ships with only one usb socket (one!) so a usb hub is the first thing you need. When you add a mouse and keyboard to that equation you have already maxed out a normal 5v 2a mobile power supply.

I noticed this after having problems booting properly when a mouse and keyboard was plugged in. I first thought it was the SD card, but no matter what card I tried – it still wouldn’t boot. It was only when I unplugged the mouse and keyboard that I could log in. Or should we say, cant log in because you don’t have a keyboard attached (sigh).

Now in most cases a Raspberry PI would run fine on 5v 2a, at least for ordinary desktop work; But the nano will be in serious trouble if you don’t give it more juice. So your first purchase should be a proper 5 volt 3 amp PSU. This is also recommended for the original Raspberry PI, but in my experience you can do quite a lot before you max out a PI.

Bluetooth

A redeeming factor for the lack of USB ports and power scaling, is that the board has Bluetooth built-in. So once you have paired and connected a BT keyboard things will be easier to work with. Personally I like keyboard and mouse to be wired. I hate having to change batteries or be disconnected at random (which always happens when you least need it). So the lack of USB ports and power delegation is negative for me, but objectively I can live with it as a trade-off for more CPU power.

Lack of accelerated graphics

It’s not hard to check if X uses the gpu or not. Select a large region of the desktop (holding the left mouse button down obviously) and watch in terror as it sluggishly tries to catch up with the cursor, repainting every cached co-ordinate. Had the GPU been used properly you wouldn’t even see the repaint of the rectangle, it would be smooth and instantaneous.

SD-card reader

I’m sorry but the sd-card reader on this puppy is the slowest I have ever used. I have never tested a device that boots so slow, and even something simple like starting chrome takes ages.

I tested with a cheap SD-card but also a more expensive class 10 card. I’m really trying to find something cool to write about, but it’s hard when boot times is worse than Raspberry PI 1b back in 2012.

1 gigabyte of ram

One thing that I absolutely hate in some of these cheap boards, is how they imagine Ubuntu to be a stamp of approval. The Raspberry PI foundation nailed it by creating a slim, optimized and blistering fast Debian distro. This is important because users don’t buy alternative boards just to throw that extra power away on Ubuntu, they buy these boards to get more cpu and gpu power (read: better value for money) for the same price.

Lubuntu is hopelessly obese for the hardware, as is the case with other cheap SBC’s as well. Something like Pixel is much more interesting. You have a slim, efficient and optimized foundation to build on (or strip down). Ubuntu is quite frankly overkill and eats up all the extra power the board supposedly delivers.

When it comes to ram, 1 gigabyte is a bit too small for desktop use. The reason I say this is because it ships with Ubuntu, why would you ship with Ubuntu unless the desktop was the focus? Which again begs the question: why create a desktop Linux device with 1 gigabyte of memory?

The nano-pi would rock with a slim distro, and hopefully someone will bake a more suitable disk-image for it.

Verdict so far

I still have a lot to test so giving you a final verdict right now would be unfair.

But I must be honest and say that I’m not that happy about this board. It’s not that the hardware is particularly awful (although the mali drivers renders it almost pointless), it’s just that it serves no point.

In order to turn this SBC into a reasonable device you have to buy parts that brings the price up to what you would pay for a ODroid XU4. And to be honest I would much rather have an ODroid XU4 than four nano-pi boards. You have plenty of USB ports, good power scaling (ODroid will start just fine on a normal charger), Bluetooth and pretty much everything you need.

For those rare projects where a single USB is enough, although I cannot for the life of me think of one right now, then sure, it may be cost-effective in quanta. But for homebrew servers, gaming rigs and/or your first SBC experience – I think you will be happier with an original Raspberry PI 3b+, a ODroid XU4 or even the Tinkerboard.

Modus operandi

Having said all that .. there is also something to say about modus-operandi. Different boards are designed for different systems. It may very well be that this system is designed to run Android as it’s primary system. So while they provide a Linux image, that may in fact only be a “bonus” distro. We shall soon see as I will test Android next.

Next up, how does it fare with the multi-threaded uae4arm? Stay tuned for more!

The Amiga ARM project

April 19, 2018 5 comments

This has been quite the turbulent week. Without getting into all the details, a post that I made with thoughts and ideas for an Amiga inspired OS for ARM escaped the safe confines of our group, Amiga Disrupt, and took on a life of its own.
This led to a few critical posts being issued publicly, which all boiled down to a misunderstanding. Thankfully this has been resolved and things are back to normal.

The question on everyone’s lips now seem to be: did Jon mean what he said or was it just venting frustration? I thought I made my points clear in my previous post, but sadly Commodore USA formulated a title open for interpretation (which is understandable considering the mayhem at the time). So let’s go thrugh the ropes and put this to rest.

Am I making an ARM based Amiga inspired OS?

Hopefully I don’t have to. My initial post, the one posted to the Amiga Disrupt comment section (and mistaken for a project release note), had a couple of very clear criteria attached:

If nothing has been done to improve the Amiga situation [with regards to ARM or x86] by the time I finish Amibian.js (*), I will take matters into my own hand and create my own alternative.

(*) As you probably know, Amibian.js is a cloud implementation of Amiga OS, designed to bring Amiga to the browser. It is powered by a node.js application server; a server that can be hosted either locally (on the same machine as the html5 client) or remotely. It runs fine on popular embedded devices such as Tinkerboard and ODroid, and when run in a full-screen browser with no X or Windows desktop behind it – it is practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

We have customers who use our prototype to deliver cloud based learning for educational institutions. Shipping ready to use hardware units with pre-baked Amibian.js installed is perfect for schools, libraries, museums, routers and various kiosk projects.

smart_desktop

Amibian.js, here running Quake 3 at 60 fps in your browser

Note: This project started years before FriendOS, so we are not a clone of their work.

Obviously this is a large task for one person, but I have written the whole system in Smart Mobile Studio, which is a product our company started some 7 years ago, and that now has a team of six people behind it. In short it takes object pascal code such as Delphi and Freepascal, and compiles this to JavaScript. Suitable for both the browser and NodeJS. It gives you a full IDE with form designer, drag & drop visual components and a wast and rich RTL (run-time library) which naturally saves me a lot of time. So this gives me an edge over other companies working with similar technology. So while it’s a huge task, it’s leveraged considerably by the toolchain I made for it.

So am I making a native OS for ARM or x86? The short answer: I will if the situation havent dramatically improved by the time Amibian.js is finished.

Instead of wasting years trying to implement everything from scratch, Pascal Papara took the Linux kernel and ran with it. So Aeros boots by virtue of the Linux Kernel, but jumps straight into Aros once the drivers has loaded

If you are thinking “so what, who the hell do you think you are?” then perhaps you should take a closer look at my work and history.

I am an ex Quartex member, which was one of the most infamous hacking cartels in europe. I have 30 years of software development behind me, having worked as a professional developer since the age of 17. I have a history of taking on “impossible” projects and finding ways to deliver them. Smart Mobile Studio itself was deemed impossible by most Delphi developers; It was close to heresy, triggering an avalanche of criticism for even entertaining the idea that object pascal could be compiled to JavaScript. Let alone thrive on JSVM (JavaScript Virtual Machine).

assembler

Amibian.js runs javascript, but also bytecodes. Here showing the assembler prototype

You can imagine the uproar when our generated JavaScript code (compiled from object pascal) actually bested native code. I must admit we didn’t expect that at all, but it changed the way Delphi and object pascal developers looked at the world – for the better I might add.

What I am good at, is taking ordinary off the shelves parts and assembling them in new and exciting ways. Often ways the original authors never intended; in order to produce something unique. My faith is not in myself, but in the ability and innate capacity of human beings to find solutions. The biggest obstacle to progress is ultimately pride and fear of losing face. Something my Buddhist training beat our of me ages ago.

So this is not an ego trip, it’s simply a coder that is completely fed-up with the perpetual mismanagement that has held Amiga OS in captivity for two decades.

Amiga OS is a formula, and formulas are bulletproof

People love different aspects of the same thing – and the Amiga is no different. For some the Amiga is the games. Others love it for its excellent sound capabilities, while some love it for the ease of coding (the 68k is the most friendly cpu ever invented in my book). And perhaps all of us love the Amiga for the memories we have. A harmless yet valuable nostalgia of better times.

image3

Amiga OS 3.1 pimped up, running on Amibian [native] Raspberry PI 3b

But for me the love was always the OS itself. The architecture of Amiga OS is so elegant and dare I say, pure, compared to other systems. And I’m comparing against both legacy and contemporary systems here. Microsoft Windows (WinAPI) comes close, but the sheer brilliance of Amiga OS is yet to be rivaled.

We are talking about a design that delivers a multimedia driven, window based desktop 10 years before the competition. A desktop that would thrive in as little as 512 kb of ram, with fast and reliable pre-emptive multitasking.

I don’t think people realize or understand the true value of Amiga OS. It’s not in the games (although games is definitively a huge part of the experience), the hardware or the programs. The reason people have been fighting bitterly over Amiga OS for a lifetime, is because the operating system architecture or “formula” is unmatched to this very day.

Can you imagine what a system that thrives under 512 KB would do to the desktop market? Or even better, what it could bring to the table for embedded and server technology?

And this is where my frustration soars up. Even though we have OS 4.1, we have been forced to idly stand by and watch, as mistake after mistake is being made. opportunities that are ripe for the taking (some of them literally placed on the doorstep of Hyperion), have been thrown by the wayside time and time again.

And they are not alone. Aros and Morphos has likewise missed a lot of opportunities. Both opportunities to generate income and secure development as well as embracing new technology. Although I must stress that I sympatize with Aros since they lack any official funding. Morphos is doing much better using a normal, commerical license.

Frustration, the mother of invention

When the Raspberry PI was first released I jumped of joy. Finally a SBC (single board computer) with enough power to run a light version of Amiga OS 4.1, with a price tag that everyone can live with. I rushed over to Hyperion to see if they had issued a statement about the PI, but nothing could be found. The AEON site was likewise empty.

The PI version 2 came and went, still no sign that Hyperion would capitalize on the situation. I expected them to issue a “Amiga OS 4.1 light” edition for ARM, which would put them on the map and help them establish a user base. Without a user base and fresh blood there is no chance in hell of selling next generation machines in large enough quantities to justify future development. But once again, opportunity after oppertunity came and went.

Sexy, fast and modern: Amiga OS 4.1

Sexy, fast and modern: Amiga OS 4.1 would do wonders on ARM

Faster and better suited SBC’s started to turn up in droves: The ODroid, Beaglebone black, The Tinkerboard, The Banana PI – and many, many others. When the SnapDragon IV CPU’s shipped on a $120 SBC, which is the same processor used by Samsung Galaxy 6S, I was sure Hyperion would wake up and bring Amiga OS to the masses. But not a word.

Instead we were told to wait for the Amiga x5000 which is based on PPC. I have no problem with PPC, it’s a great platform and packs a serious punch. But since PPC no longer sell to mainstream computer companies like it used to, the price penalty would be nothing short of astronomical. There is also the question of longevity and being able to maintain a PPC based system for the forseeable future. Where exactly is PPC in 15 years?

Note: One of the reasons PPC was selected has to do with coding infrastructure. PPC has an established standard, something ARM lacked at the time (this was first established for ARM in 2014). PPC also has an established set of development platforms that you can build on, with libraries and pre-fab modules (pre fabricated modules, think components that you can use to quickly build what you need) that have been polished for two decades now. A developer who knows PPC from the Amiga days will naturally feel more at home with PPC. But sadly PPC is the past and modern development takes place almost exclusively on ARM and x86. Even x86 is said to have an expiration date now.

The only group that genuinely tried to bring Amiga OS to ARM has been the Aros team. They got their system compiled, implemented some rudimentary drivers (information on this has been thin to say the least) and had it booting natively on the Raspberry PI 3b. Sadly they lacked a USB stack (remember I mentioned pre-fab modules above? Well, this is a typical example. PPC devtools ship with modules like this out of the box) so things like mouse, keyboard and external peripherals wouldn’t work.

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Aeros, the fastest Amiga you will ever play with. Running on the Raspberry PI 3b

And like always, which is the curse of Amiga, “something came up”, and the whole Raspberry PI / ARM initiative was left for dead. The details around this is sketchy, but the lead developer had a personal issue that forced him to set a new direction in life. And for some reason the other Aros developers have just continued with x86, even though a polished ARM version could have made them some money, and helped finance future development. It’s the same story, again and again.

But then something amazing happened! Out of the blue came Pascal Papara with a new take on Aros, namely AEROS. This is a distro after my own heart. Instead of wasting years trying to implement everything from scratch, Pascal took the Linux kernel and ran with it. So Aeros boots by virtue of the Linux Kernel, but jumps straight into Aros once the drivers has loaded. And the result? It is the fastest desktop you will ever experience on ARM. Seriously, it runs so fast and smooth on the Raspberry PI that you could easily mistake it for a $450 Intel i3.

Sadly Pascal has been more or less alone about this development. And truth be told he has molded it to suit his own needs rather than the consumer. Since his work includes a game machine and some Linux services, the whole Linux system is exposed to the Aros desktop. This is a huge mistake.

Using the Linux kernel to capitalize on the thousands of man hours invested in that, not to mention the linux driver database which is massive, is a great idea. It’s also the first thing that came into my mind when contemplating the issue.

But when running Aros on top of this, the Linux aspect of the system should be abstracted away. Much like what Apple did with Unix. You should hardly notice that Linux is there unless you open a shell and start to investigate. The Amiga filesystem should be the only filesystem you see when accessing things from the desktop, and a nice preferences option for showing / hiding mounted Linux drives.

My plans for an ARM based Amiga inspired OS

Building an OS is not a task for the faint of heart. Yes there is a lot of embedded / pre-fab based systems to pick from out there, but you also have to be sensible. You are not going to code a better kernel than Linus Torvalds, so instead of wasting years trying to catch up with something you cannot possibly catch up with – just grab the kernel and make it work for us.

The Linux kernel solves things such as process contexts, “userland” vs “kernel space” (giving the kernel the power to kill a task and reclaim resources), multitasking / threading, thread priorities, critical sections, mutexes and global event objects; it gives us IPC (inter process communication), disk IO, established and rock solid sound and graphics frameworks; and last but perhaps most important: free access to the millions of drivers in the Linux repository.

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Early Amibian.js login dialog

You would have to be certified insane to ignore the Linux Kernel, thinking you will somehow be the guy (or group) that can teach Linus Torvalds a lesson. This is a man who has been writing kernel’s for 20+ years, and he does nothing else. He is surrounded by a proverbial army of developers that code, test, refactor and strive to deliver optimal performance, safety and quality assurance. So sorry if I push your buttons here, but you would be a moron to take him on. Instead, absorb the kernel and gain access to the benefits it has given Linux (technically the kernel is “Linux”, the rest is GNU – but you get what I mean).

With the Linux kernel as a foundation, as much as 50% of the work involved in writing our OS is finished already. You don’t have to invent a driver API. You dont have to invent a new executable format (or write your own ELF parser if you stick with the Linux executable). You can use established compilers like GCC / Clang and Freepascal. And you can even cherry pick some low-level packages for your own native API (like SDL, OpenGL and things that would take years to finish).

But while we want to build our house on rock, we don’t want it to be yet another Linux distro. So with the kernel in place and a significant part of our work done for us, that is also where the similarities end.

The end product is Amiga OS, which means that we need compatibility with the original Amiga rom libraries (read: api). Had we started from scratch that would have been a tremendous effort, which is also why Aros is so important. Because Aros gives us a blueprint of how they have implemented these API’s.

But our main source of inspiration is not Aros, but Amithlon. What we want to do is naturally to pipe as much as we can from the Amiga API’s back to the Linux kernel. Things like device detection, memory allocation, file IO, pipes, networking — our library files will be more thin wrappers that expose Amiga compatible calls; methods that calls the Linux Kernel to do the job. So our Amiga library files will be proxy objects whenever possible.

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Amithlon, decades ahead of it’s time

The hard work is when we get to the window manager, or Intuition. Here we can’t cheat by pushing things back to Linux. We don’t want to install X either (although we can render our system into the X framebuffer if we like), so we have to code a window manager. This is not as simple as it sounds, because our system must operate with multiple cores, be multi threaded by design and tap into the grand scheme of things. Things like messages (which is used by applications to respond to input) must be established, and all the event codes from the original Amiga OS must be replicated.

So this work wont be easy, but with the Linux kernel as a foundation – the hardest task of all is taken care of. The magic of a kernel is that of process management and task switching. This is about as hard-core as you can get. Without that you can almost forget the rest. But since we base our system on the Linux kernel, we can focus 100% on the real task – namely to deliver a modern Amiga experience, one that is platform independent (read: conforms to standard Linux and can thus be recompiled and run anywhere Linux can run), preserves as much of the initial formula as possible – and can be successfully maintained far into the future.

By pushing as much of our work as possible into user-space (the process space where ordinary programs run, the kernel runs outside this space and is thus unaffected when a program crashes) and adhering to the Linux kernel beneath the bonnet, we have created a system that can be re-compiled anywhere Linux is. And it can be done so without any change to our codebase. Linux takes care of things like drivers, OpenGL, Sound — and presents to us a clean API that is identical on every platform. It doesn’t matter if it’s ARM, PPC, 68k, x86 or MIPS. As long as we follow the standards we are home free.

Last words

I hope all of this clears up the confusion that has surrounded the subject this week. Again, the misunderstanding that led to some unfortunate posts has been resolved. So there is no negativity, no drama and we are all on the same page.

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Early Amibian.js prototype, running 68k in the browser via uae.js optimized

Just remember that I have set some restrictions for my involvement here. I sincerely hope Hyperion and the Aros development group can focus on ARM, because the community needs this. While the Raspberry PI might seem too small a form-factor to run Aros, projects like Aeros have proven just how effective the Amiga formula is. I’m sure Hyperion could find a powerful ARM SOC in the price range of $120 and sell a complete package with profit for around $200.

What the Amiga community needs now, is not expensive hardware. The userbase has to be expanded horizontally across platforms. Amiga OS / Aros has much to offer the embedded market which today is dominated by overly complex Linux libraries. The Amiga can grow laterally as a more user-friendly alternative, much like Android did for the mobile market. Once the platform is growing and established – then custom hardware could be introduced. But right now that is not what we need.

I also hope that the Aros team drops whatever they are working on, fork Pascal Paparas codebase, and spend a few weeks polishing the system. Abstract away the Linux foundation like Apple have done, get those sexy 32 bit OS4 icons (Note: The icons used by Amiga OS 4 is available for free download from the designer’s website) and a nice theme that looks similar to OS 4 (but not too similar). Get Lazarus (the freepascal IDE) going and ship the system with a ready to use Pascal, C/C++ and Basic development environments. Bring back the fun in computing! The code is already there, use it!

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Aeros interfaces directly with linux, I would propose a less direct approach

Just take something simple, like a compatible browser. It’s actually not that simple, both for reasons of complexity and how memory is handled by PPC. With a Linux foundation things like Chromium Embedded could be inked into the Amiga side of things and we would have a native, fast, established and up-to-date browser.

At the same time, since we have API level compatability, people can recompile their Aros and Morphos applications and they would run more or less unchanged.

I really hope that my little protest here, if nothing else, helps people realize that there are viable options readily at hand. Commodore is not coming back, and the only future this platform has – is the one we make. So people have to ask themselves how much they want a future.

If the OS gains momentum then there will be grounds for investors to look at custom hardware. They can then choose off the shelves parts that are inexpensive to cover the normal functionality you expect in a modern computer – which more resources can go into custom hardware that sets the system apart. But we cant start there. It has to be built up brick by brich, standing on the shoulders of giants.

OK, rant over 🙂

Why buy a Vampire accelerator?

August 24, 2017 2 comments

With the Amiga about to re-enter the consumer market, a lot of us “old timers” are busy knocking dust of our old machines. And I love my old machines even though they are technically useless by modern standards. But these machines have a lot of inspiration in them, especially if you write code. And yes there is a fair bit of nostalgia involved in this, there is no point in lying about any of this.

I mean, your mobile phone is probably 100 times faster than a vintage Amiga. But like you will discover with the new machines that are about to hit the market, there is more to this computer than you think. But vintage Amiga? Sadly they lack the power to anything useful [in the “modern” sense].

Enter the vampire

The Vampire is a product that started shipping about a year ago. It’s a FPGA based accelerator, and it’s quite frankly turning the retro scene on its head! Technically it’s a board that you just latch onto the CPU socket of your classical Amiga; it then takes over the whole machine and replace the CPU and chipset with its versions of these. Versions that are naturally a hell of a lot faster!

vanpireThe result is that the good old Amiga is suddenly beefy enough to play Doom, Quake, MP3 files and MPG video (click here to read the datasheet). In short: this little board gives your old Amiga machine a jolt of new life.

Emulation vs. FPGA

Im not going to get into the argument about FPGA not being “real”, because that’s not what FPGA is about. Nor am I negative to classical hardware – because I own a ton of old Amiga gear myself. But I will get in your face when it comes to buying a Vampire.

Before we continue I just want to mention that there are two models of the vampire. There is the add-on board I have just mentioned which is again divided into different models for various Amiga versions (A600, A500 so far). The second model is a completely stand-alone vampire motherboard that wont even need a classic Amiga to work. It will be, for all means and purposes, a stand alone SBC (single board computer) that you just hook up power, video, storage and mouse – and off you go!

This latter version, the stand-alone, is a project I firmly believe in. The old boards have been out of production since 1993 and are getting harder to come by. And just like people they will eventually break down and stop working. There is also price to consider because getting your 20-year-old A500 fixed is not easy. First of all you need a specialist that knows how to fix these old things, and he will also need parts to work with. Since parts are no longer in production and homebrew can only go so far, well – a brand new motherboard that is compatible in every way sounds like a good idea.

There is also the fact that FPGA can reach absurd speeds. It has been mentioned that if the Vampire used a more expensive FPGA modules, 68k based Amiga’s could compete with modern processors (Source: https://www.generationamiga.com/2017/08/06/arria-10-based-vampire-could-reach-600mhz/). Can you imagine a 68k Amiga running side by side with the latest Intel processors? Sounds like a lot of fun if you ask me !

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Amiga 1000, in my view the best looking Amiga ever produced

But then there is emulation. Proper emulation, which for Amiga users can only mean one thing: UAE in all its magnificent diversity and incarnations.

Nothing beats firing up a real Amiga, but you know what? It has been greatly exaggerated. I recently bought a sexy A1000 which is the first model that was ever made. This is the original Amiga, made way back before Commodore started to mess around with it. It cost me a small fortune to get – but hey, it was my first ever Amiga so I wanted to own one again.

But does it feel better than my Raspberry PI 3b powered A500? Nope. In fact I have only fired up the A1000 twice since I bought it, because having to wait for disks to load is just tedious (not to mention that you can’t get new, working floppy disks anymore). Seriously. I Love the machine to bits but it’s just damn tedious to work on in 2017. It belongs to the 80s and no-one can ever take away its glory or it’s role in computer history. That achievement stands forever.

High Quality Emulation

If you have followed my blog and Amiga escapades, you know that my PI 3b based Amiga, overclocked to the hilt, yields roughly 3.2 times the speed of an Amiga 4000/040. This was at one point the flagship Commodore computer. The Amiga 4000’s were used in movie production, music production, 3d rendering and heavy-duty computing all over the world. And the 35€ Raspberry PI gives you 3.2 times the power via the UAE4Arm emulator. I don’t care what the vampire does, the PI will give it the beating of its life.

Compiling anything, even older stuff that is a joke by today standard, is painful on the Raspberry PI. Here showing my retro-fitted A500 PI with sexy led keyboard. It will soon get a makeover with an UP board :)

My retrofitted Raspberry PI 3b Amiga. Serious emulation at high speed allowing for software development and even the latest Freepascal 3.x compiler

Then suddenly, out of the blue, Asus comes along with the Tinkerboard. A board that I hated when it first came out (read part-1 here, part-2 here) due to its shabby drivers. The boards have been collecting dust on my office shelf for six months or so – and it was blind luck that i downloaded and tested a new disk image. If you missed that part you can read the full article here.

And I’m glad I did because man – the Tinkerboard makes the Raspberry PI 3b look like a toy! Asus has also adjusted the price lately. It was initially priced at 75€, but in Norway right now it retails for about 620 NKR – or 62€. So yes, it’s about twice the price of the PI – but it also gives you twice the memory, twice the graphics performance, twice the IO performance and a CPU that is a pleasure to work with.

The Raspberry PI 3b can’t be overclocked to the extent the model 1 and 2 could. You can over-volt it and tweak the GPU and memory and make it run faster. But people don’t call that “overclock” in the true sense of the word, because that means the CPU is set to run at speeds beyond the manufacturing specifications. So with the PI 3b there is relatively little you can do to make it run faster. You can speed it up a little bit, but that’s it. The Tinkerboard can be overclocked to the hilt.

A1222

The A1222 motherboard is just around the corner [conceptual art]

Out of the box it runs at 1.5 Ghz, but if you add a heatsink, fan (important) and a 3A PSU – you can overclock it to 2.6 Ghz. And like the PI you can also tweak memory and gpu. So the Tinkerboard will happily run 3 times faster than the PI. If you add a USB3 harddisk you will also beef up IO speeds by 100 megabyte a second – which makes a huge difference. Linux does memory paging and it slows down everything if you just use the SD card.

In short: if you fork out 70€ you get a SBC that runs rings around both the vampire and the Raspberry PI 3b. If we take height for some Linux services and drivers that have to run in the background, 3.2 x 3 = 9.6. Lets round that off to 9 since there will be performance hits by the background services. But still — 70€ for an Amiga that runs 9 times faster than A4000 @ MC68040 cpu ? That should blow your mind!

I’m sorry but there has to be something wrong with you if that doesn’t get your juices flowing. I rarely game on my classic Amiga setup. I’m a coder – but with this kind of firepower you can run some of the biggest and best Amiga titles ever made – and the Tinkerboard wont even break a sweat!

You can’t afford to be a fundamentalist

There are some real nutbags in the Amiga community. I think we all agree that having the real deal is a great experience, but the prices we see these days are borderline insane. I had to fork out around 500€  to get my A1000 shipped from Belgium to Norway. Had tax been added on the original price, I would have looked at something in the 700€ range. Still – 500€ for a 20-year-old computer that can hardly run Workbench 1.2? Unless you add the word “collector” here you are in fact barking mad!

If you are looking to get an Amiga for “old times sakes”, or perhaps you have an A500 and wonder if you should fork out for the Vampire? Will it be worth the 300€ pricetag? Unless you use your Amiga on a daily basis I can’t imagine what you need a vampire for. The stand-alone motherboard I can understand, that is a great idea – but the accelerator? 300€?

I mean you can pay 70€ and get the fastest Amiga that ever existed. Not a bit faster, not something on second place – no – THE FASTEST Amiga that has ever existed. If you think playing MP3 and MPG media files is cool with the vampire, then you are in for a treat here because the same software will work. You can safely download the latest patches and updates to various media players on the classic Amiga, and they will run just fine on UAE4Arm. But this time they will run a hell of a lot faster than the Vampire.

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My old broken A500 turned into an ass-kicking, battle hardened ARM monster

You really can’t be a fundamentalist in 2017 when it comes to vintage computers. And why would you want to? With so much cool stuff happening in the scene, why would you want to limit your Amiga experience to a single model? Aros is doing awesome stuff these days, you have the x5000 out and the A1222 just around the corner. Morphos is stable and good on the G5 PPC — there has never been a time when there were so many options for Amiga enthusiasts! Not even during the golden days between 1989-1994 were there so many exciting developments.

I love the classic Amiga machines. I think the Vampire stand-alone model is fantastic and if they ramp up the fpga to a faster model, they have in fact re-created a viable computer platform. A 68080 fpga based CPU that can go head to head with x86? That is quite an achievement – and I support that whole heartedly.

But having to fork out this amount of cash just to enjoy a modern Amiga experience is a bit silly. You can actually right now go out and buy a $35 Raspberry PI and enjoy far better results than the Vampire is able to deliver. How that can be negative? I have no idea, nor will I ever understand that kind of thinking. How do any of these people expect the Amiga community to grow and get new, young members if the average price of a 20-year-old machine costs 500€? Which incidentally is 50€ more than a brand new A1222 PPC machine capable of running OS 4.

And with the Tinkerboard you can get 9 times the speed of an A4000? How can that not give you goosebumps!

People talk about Java and Virtual-Machines like its black magic. Well UAE gives you a virtual CPU and chipset that makes mince-meat of both Java and C#. It also comes with one of the largest software libraries in the world. I find it inconceivable that no-one sees the potential in that technology beyond game playing – but when you become violent or nasty over hardware, then I guess that explains quite a bit.

I say, use whatever you can to enjoy your Amiga. And if your perfect Amiga is a PI or a Tinkerboard (or ODroid) – who cares!

I for one will not put more money into legacy hardware. I’m happy that I have the A1000, but that’s where it stops for me. I am looking forward to the latest Amiga x5000 PPC and cant wait to get coding on that – but unless the Appollo crew upgrades to a faster FPGA I see little reason to buy anything. I would gladly pay 500 – 1000 € for something that can kick modern computers in the behind. And I imagine a lot of 68k users would be willing to do that as well. But right now PPC is a much better option since it gives you both 68k and the new OS 4 platform in one price. And for affordable Amiga computing, emulation is now of such quality that you wont really notice the difference.

And I love coding 68k assembler on my Amibian emulator setup. There is nothing quite like it 🙂

The Tinkerboard Strikes Back

August 20, 2017 Leave a comment

For those that follow my blog you probably remember the somewhat devastating rating I gave the Tinkerboard earlier this year (click here for part 1, and here for part 2). It was quite sad having to give such a poor rating to what is ultimately a fine piece of hardware. I had high hopes for it – in fact I bought two of the boards because I figured there was no way it could suck with that those specs. But suck it did and while the muscle was there, the drivers were in such a state that it never emerged for the user. It was released prematurely, and I think most people that bought it agrees on this.

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The initial release was less than bad, it was horrible

Since my initial review those months ago good things have happened. Asus seem to have listened to the “poonami” of negative feedback and adapted their website accordingly. Unlike the first time I visited when you literally had to dig into recursive menus (which was less than intuitive in this case) just to download the software – the disk images are now available at the bottom of the product page. So thumbs up for that (!)

They have also made the GPIO programming API a lot easier to get; downloading it is reduced to a “one liner” for C developers, which is the way it should be. And they have likewise provided wrappers for other languages, like ever popular python and scratch.

I am a bit disappointed that they don’t provide freepascal units. A lot of developers use object pascal on these board after all, because Object Pascal gives you a better balance between productivity and depth. Pascal is easier to learn (it was designed for that after all) but avoids some of the pitfalls of C/C++ while retaining all the good things. Porting over C headers is fairly easy for a good pascal programmer – but it would be cool of Asus remember that there are more languages in the world than C and python.

All of this aside: the most important change of all is what Asus has done with the drivers! They have finally put together drivers that shows off the capabilities of the hardware and unleash the speed we all hoped for when the board was first announced. And man does it show! My previous experience with the Tinkerboard was horrible; it was the text-book example of a how not to release a product (the whole release has been odd; Asus is a huge, multi-national corporation. Yet their release had basement 3 man band written all over it).

So this is fantastic news! Finally the Tinkerboard delivers and can be used for real life projects!

Smart IOT

At The Smart Company we both create and use our core product, Smart Mobile Studio, to deliver third-party solutions. As the name implies Smart is a software development system initially made for mobile applications; but it quickly grew into a much larger toolchain and is exceptionally good for making embedded applications. With embedded applications I mean things that run on kiosk systems, cash machines and stuff like that; basically anything with a touch-screen that does something.

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The Smart desktop gives you a good starting point for embedded work

One of the examples that ship with Smart Pascal is a fully working desktop embedded environment. Smart compiles for both ordinary browsers (JavaScript environments with a traditional HTML5 display) but also for node.js, which is JavaScript unbound by the strict rules of a browser. Developers typically use node.js to write highly scalable server software, but you are naturally not limited to that. Netflix is written 100% in Node.js, so we are talking serious firepower here.

Our embedded environment is called The Smart Desktop (also known as Amibian.js) and gives you a ready-made node.js back-end that couples with a HTML5 front-end. This is a ready to use environment that you can deploy your own applications through. Things like storage, a nice looking UI, user logon and credentials and much, much more is all implemented for you. You don’t have to use it of course, you can write your own system from scratch if you like. We created “Amibian” to demonstrate just how powerful Smart Pascal can be in the right hands.

With this in mind – my main concern when testing SBC’s (single board computers) is obviously web performance. By default JavaScript is a single core event-driven runtime system; you can spawn threads of course but its done somewhat different from how you would work in Delphi or C++.  JavaScript is designed to be system friendly and a gentle giant if you like, which has turned out to be a good thing – because the way JS schedules execution makes it ideal for clustering!

Most people find it hard to believe that JavaScript can outperform native code, but the JavaScript runtimes of today is almost a whole eco system in themselves. With JIT compilers and LLVM optimization — it’s a whole new ballgame.

Making a scale

To give you a better context to see where the Tinkerboard is on a scale, I decided to set up a couple of simple tests. Nothing fancy, just running the same web applications and see how each of them perform on different boards. So I used the same 3 candidates as before, namely the Raspberry PI 3b, the Hardkernel ODroid XU4 and last but not least: the Asus Tinkerboard.

I setup the following applications to compile with the desktop system, meaning that they were compiled with the Smart project. We got plenty of web applications but for this I wanted to pack the most demanding apps in our library:

  • Skid-Row intro remake using the CODEF library
  • Quake 3 asm.js build
  • Plex

OK let’s go through them and see where the chips land!

The Raspberry PI 3b

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Bassoon ran well, its not that demanding

The Raspberry PI was aweful (click here for a video). There is no doubt that native applications like UAE4Arm runs extremely well on the PI (which contains hand optimized assembler, not exactly a fair fight)- but when it comes to modern HTML5 the PI doesn’t stand a chance. You could perhaps use a Raspberry PI 3b for simple applications which are not graphic and cpu intensive, but you can forget about anything remotely taxing.

It ran Bassoon reasonably fast, but all in all you really don’t want a raspberry when doing high quality IOT, unless its headless code and node.js perhaps. Frameworks like Johnny #5 gives you a ton of GPIO features out of the box – in fact you can target 40 embedded systems without any change to your code. But for large, high quality web front-ends, the PI just wont cut it.

  • Skid-Row: 1 frame per second or less
  • Quake: Can’t even start, just forget it
  • Plex: Starts but it lags so much you can’t watch anything

But hey, I never expected $35 to give me a kick ass ARM experience anyways. There are 1000 things the PI does very well, but HTML is not one of them.

ODroid XU4

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The ODroid packs a lot of power!

The ODroid being faster than the Raspberry PI is nothing new, but I was surprised at how much power this board delivers. I never expected it to give me a Linux experience close to that of a x86 PC; I mean we are talking about a 45€ SBC here. And it’s only 10€ more than the Raspberry PI, which is a toy at best. But the ODroid XU4 delivers a good Linux desktop; And it’s well worth the extra 10€ when compared to the PI.

Personally I don’t understand why people keep buying PI’s when there is so much better options on the market now. At least not if web technology is involved. A small server or emulator sure, but not HTML5 and browsers. The PI just cant handle it.

  • Skid-Row: 4-5 frames per second
  • Quake: Runs at very enjoyable speed (!)
  • Plex: Runs well but you may want to pick SD or 720p to avoid lags

What really shocked me was that ODroid XU4 can run Quake.js! The PI can’t even start that because it’s so demanding. It is one of the largest and most resource hungry asm.js projects out there – but ODroid XU4 did a fantastic job.

Now it’s not a silky smooth experience, I would guess something along the lines of 17-20 fps. But you know what? Thats pretty good for a $45 board.

I have owned far worse x86 PC’s in my day.

The Tinkerboard

Before i powered up the board I was reluctant to push it too far, because I thought it would fail me once again. I did hope that something had been done by Asus to rectify the situation though, because Asus really should have done a better job before releasing it. It’s now been roughly 6 months since I bought it, and roughly 8 months since it was released here in Europe. It would have been better for them to have waited with the release. I was not alone about butchering the whole board, its been a source of frustration for those that bought it. 75€ is not much, but no-one likes to throw money out the window like that.

Long story short: I downloaded the latest Ubuntu image and burned that to an SD card (I actually first downloaded the Debian Jessie image they have, but sadly you have to do a bit of work to turn that into a desktop system – so I decided to go for Ubuntu instead). If the drivers are in order I have a feeling the Jessie image will be even faster – Ubuntu has always been a high-quality distribution, but it’s also one of the most demanding. One might even say it’s become bloated. But it does deliver a near Microsoft Windows like experience which has served the Linux community well.

But the Tinkerboard really delivers! (click here for the video) Asus have cleaned up their act and implemented the drivers properly, and you can feel that the moment the desktop comes into view. With the PI you are always fighting with lagging performance. When you start a program the whole system freezes for a while, when you quit a program the system freezes – hell when you move the mouse around the system bloody freezes! Well that is not the case with the Tinkerboard that’s for sure. The tinkerboard feels more like running vanilla Ubuntu on a normal x86 PC to be honest.

  • Skid-Row: 10-15 frames per second
  • Quake: Full screen 32bit graphics, runs like hell
  • Plex: Plays back fullscreen HD, just awesome!

All I can say is this: if you are going to do any bit of embedded coding, regardless if you are using Smart Mobile Studio or some other devkit — this is the board to get (!)

Like already mentioned it does cost almost twice as much as the PI, but that extra 30€ buys you loads of extra power. It opens up so many avenues of code and you can explore software far more complex than both the PI and ODroid combined. With the tinkerboard you can finally deliver a state of the art product built with off the shelves web components. It’s in a league of its own.

The ‘tinker’ rocks at last

When I first bought the tinker i felt cheated. It was so frustrating because the specs were so good and the terrible performance just came down to sloppy work and Asus releasing it prematurely for cash (lets face it, they tapped into the lucrative market established by the PI foundation). By looking at the specs you knew it had the firepower to deliver so much, but it was held back by ridicules drivers.

There is still a lot that can be done to make the Tinkerboard run even faster. Like I mentioned Ubuntu is not the racecar of distributions out there. Ubuntu is fat, there is no other way of saying it. So if someone took the time to create a minimalistic Jessie image, recompile every piece with maximum llvm optimization and as few running services as possible — the tinkerboard would positively fly!

So do I recommend it? I am thrilled to say that yes, I can finally recommend the tinkerboard! It is by far the coolest board in my collection now. In fact it’s so good that I’m donating one to my daughter. She is presently using an iMac which is overkill for her needs at age 10. Now I can make a super simple menu with Netflix and Youtube, buy a nice touch-screen display and wall mount it in her room.

Well done Asus!