CyberStorm PPC (060/50, 604e/150)
Jason Compton

Where were you when Phase5 announced they would be releasing a PowerPC accelerator board for the Amiga?

Regardless of where you were, you were there some time ago. But just before 1997 closed, Phase5 made good on their commitment to ship PPC cards for Amiga computers. Sure, the original premise of a PPC-only approach, much like the Macintosh, was scrapped in favor of the less elegant 060 (or 040) plus PPC combination. And no, your existing applications won't be sped up by the presence of the PowerPC.

But--and this is the important part--the boards are in fact out. And they do in fact have software that supports them. Admittedly, not a whole lot, but the cards have introduced a totally new wrinkle into Amiga software development, so it's only to be expected that it will take some time to -really- catch on.

I'm happy enough with what I'm playing around with these days--but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Installation

The Phase5 CyberStorm PPC cards are laden with components. There are two areas of interest: the 0x0 socket and the SIMM slots.

At this point I'd like to remind everyone of something which seems so common-sensical yet is terribly easy to forget: be very, very careful whenever you poke around with new hardware and your Amiga. During the installation process, because of my impatience, I caused damage to the PPC board AND my 4000T, which required both to get professional service. (More on how, exactly, I did that later.)

If you are installing your own 040 or 060 chip, be sure it is oriented correctly (check the instructions if you're unsure) and be careful when pushing the chip down into the socket. Because of the board's design it may be difficult to get good leverage. Part of the initial problem I had was that it didn't seem that the chip was seated far enough down in the socket. If you are unsure, it's best to test the board, rather than -really- whale away at the card and cause damage (which was part of what I did).

RAM is easier to install physically, but there's something you should know about. When Phase5 put out their Cyberstorm Mark II 060 card, it was a real breakthrough for RAM installation: you could mix and match any size SIMMs and the card would configure it into a single contiguous block. Because of the bus design on the PPC card, this is no longer possible. You must add SIMMs of the same size and speed in pairs, and preferably from the same manufacturer. I was unable to use the original pair of 16 meg SIMMs from my Mark II board: I had to swap a 16 meg SIMM from elsewhere to get the board to work. If this has happened to you, you'll notice that only part of the RAM you installed is configured and you will be unable to run PPC software (it won't be able to open the ppc.library). Just be patient and try different SIMMs.

(For the curious, the other half of the damage incurred while installing the PPC board came on my 4000T, where it is necessary to remove two ribbon cables from the I/O daughtercard before you can get at the accelerator slot. I accidentally replaced them on the opposite headers, which fried one of the cables and made it impossible to use the mouse or keyboard. Of course, I didn't -know- I'd fried just the cable, I thought I'd killed the CIAs. Six weeks at the shop later, they figured out it was just the cable.)

Using the Board: Existing Applications

Well, there's not a whole lot to say. This board brings an 060/50 to the table (or an 040 if you're thrifty). As well, you get a fast SCSI interface with a high-density 68 pin connector. This connector isn't -custom-, but it is -unusual-, and not the sort of thing you're likely to find cheap cables for--as well, it requires something other than "connect A to B" interface-to-drive hookup. All of this is well detailed in the manual, but the bottom line is that to get cables and terminators and so forth will likely cost upwards of US$60. I have not yet taken this plunge as I am still reasonably pleased with the performance of my 4000T SCSI.

My previous card was a Cyber Mark II 060, so I noticed no real change. The memory system is alleged to be somewhat faster on the PPC boards, but various benchmark reports indicate that this card is anywhere from the same speed to 10% faster in most tests. Certainly nothing to write home about, but on the other hand, any improvement is always welcome.

Your existing applications will be blissfully unaware of the introduction of the PPC board to the system. I have yet to encounter anything which does not function as it should under my new setup.

(Note: The CyberStorm Mark III Phase5 is selling is essentially just a PPC board with all of the PPC components missing. It is not upgradable.)

Using the Board: PPC

Now, this is the interesting stuff. Under a heat sink and a fan, next to a bunch of components, is a little chip that can: in my case, a PPC 604e/150.

To activate it requires the ppc.library. The boards ship with floppies and a CD-ROM containing installation software to get the necessary 060 and PPC libraries installed on your system.

The CD-ROM PPC software is essentially of two sorts: developer material (the GNU C compiler, PPC aware) and a handful of PPC apps, mostly of the eyecandy variety. A couple of rudimentary diagnostic applications round out the set.

Of the demo software, I enjoyed Mountains the most. Since I loved playing with Scenery Generator years ago (and enjoying the increase in detail and speed I could get as I moved from an A500 to an 020 2000 to a 3000), I felt right at home. Of course, the 16 bit CyberGraphX display is a far cry from the low-res 16 color display SG was better suited to.

Running PPC software will require you to learn a few new tricks. A full discussion of exactly how a PPC Amiga program is constructed isn't necessary, but suffice it to say that they typically come in one of two forms:

1. A two-file executable. You launch the first in the customary Amiga fashion (from CLI or Workbench), and the first calls the second. (The second file is usually, but not always, suffixed with ".elf")

2. A single-file, ".elf" file. I have seen a LoadSeg patch which developers have to allow you to run these directly (much like the XLoadSeg program which let you run XPK packed files directly). If you can't get your hands on that, you'll have to run a program like RunElf, which you can find on the CD and in other PPC archives.

Getting used to launching the .elf files with an external program like RunElf takes a little getting used to, especially for programs like gzip or unlzx which you'd like to put in your C: path.

Unfortunately, the hard and fast truth is that as of this writing there just isn't a lot of serious, top-quality software available for the PPC. Personal Paint takes advantage of it, Wildfire is very PPC aware, and some resourceful programmers have ported a number of programs, both useful and novelty, to the card. You can play Doom on the PPC card (although I was quite comfortable with the speed the 060 offered).

I don't mean to diminish their efforts, but it makes it very difficult to identify a PPC killer app because at present there just isn't quite one. I know what makes the PPC a killer for -me-, but it's not quite the same.

Some of what I -have- enjoyed about the PPC follows...

MAME (Multi Arcade Machine Emulator): You just knew it would have to be an emulator, didn't you? If nothing else it proves that time may change everything but my love of emulation remains. Mats Eirik Hansen's port of MAME to the 060 was a godsend but a terrible tease: many games could be played at a decent speed, but you had to sacrifice audio to get an acceptible framerate. But he got hold of a PPC board and did a port, and "wow!" is all I can say. On my system, some games run at 60 fps with full audio, with double buffering. Others can dip just below so it's more comfortable to run at 30 fps. I imagine that the faster PPC boards will offer more 60 fps action, but I'm extremely happy with these results. Frankly, the PPC opens up a lot of possibilities for emulation and I think we've seen the surface just barely scratched.

Andreas Kleinert's many PPC ported programs: The man behind the AK datatypes has ported those as well as a whole set of other useful and notable programs over to the Phase5 ppc.library. UU-coders, unlzx, DMS, as well as a BASIC interpreter (!), and other interesting bits. Kleinert attempted a Zip/Unzip port but I found a serious bug (the reasons for it involve the original Amiga port, I forget the exact details) and the project is on hold. Still, his home page at http://home.t-online.de/home/Andreas_Kleinert/support.htm is worth raiding.

UAE PPC: The Unix (or the U word of your choice) Amiga Emulator was ported to the 68K Amiga, but was so miserably slow it wasn't worth running. The good news is that it's faster on the PPC. The bad news is that on my system it's still pretty slow. I wasn't able to get anywhere near a reasonable framerate. I shouldn't feel too bad since the PC guys have some trouble with it too (although they keep getting great gimmicks to make it faster). I'm not sure how much I trust the framerate calculator on the UAE ARexx interface, but with the sound off I'm able to get something which approximates a tolerable attempt at A500 speed. A faster PPC board (Phase5 has been shipping 604e/233s) would undoubtedly be more impressive. Some optimization would be nice to see but I may be wishing for a bit too much.

VGB PPC: The Virtual Gameboy (yes, another emulator) got a PPC port which needs a speed control since it's a bit too big. You slow it down by making the window bigger, which isn't exactly the most efficient way to do it. Sound would be nice, but if I want >100% speed out of a Gameboy emulator without worrying about it refusing to work (Wzonkalad) or randomly crashing my machine (AmiGameBoy) I'll turn to this emulator.

ADoom PPC: I had trouble getting the other two PPC Doom clones working, so I was encouraged when ADoom PPC (converted to PPC by Joe Fenton of Emplant/Fusion fame) got up and running with little trouble. The best part about this port is the guide to getting good performance in high resolution screenmodes--for example, 640x480 is actually a very -poor- choice (but resolutions so near they may as well be 640x480 are -good- choices--it's got something to do with caches, leave it at that), so you can get very crisp displays at good speed if you're patient with the manual. Like I said earlier I was happy enough with the 060 speed, but more is, well, better.

There's a competing standard for PPC software on Phase5 boards known as WarpOS. I have not yet installed WarpOS and attempted to use this software. As far as I can tell it is fairly firmly in the minority--probably owing to Phase5's standard used by GCC (the populist, low-budget compiler) and SAS/C (the high-end software used by most commercial developers today). WarpOS, by Haage and Partner, revolves around StormC.

The Future of PPC

There are other programs out there, and many manufacturers of commercial software have committed to converting their programs to PPC. The conversion of SAS/C to support the PPC was a huge step forward.

These conversions have not quite flown into the market. Sales of PPC boards are ongoing, and more announcements of real dates are expected, but we have only their words to go on at this point.

The bottom line is that PPC technology has finally arrived for the Amiga. Maybe it's not exactly what you expected, and maybe there's not 2,000 programs out that take advantage of it just yet. But new PPC software is released every week, and it is the cutting edge of Amiga hardware. If you are interested in being a part of that, now is a very good time to buy a PPC card.


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