Build an FPGA Microbee in Three (Not so) Easy Steps

Microbee,_Melbourne_Museum

[Brad Robinson] was feeling a bit nostalgic for his Microbee, so he rebuilt it in an FPGA. Not once, but three times. For the uninitiated, the Applied Technology Microbee was a Z80 based computer 1980’s. Designed in Australia, the Microbee did not see much popularity outside its home continent. Even so, the introduction to home computers many Australians was on a Microbee. [Brad] actually wrote several programs for the Microbee, including some games sold by Applied Technology themselves.

Fast forward to 2012, [Brad] is learning FPGAs, and wants to build a Microbee in VHDL. The FPGAbee was born. The first iteration of the FPGAbee began with the CPU, which came from the T80 open source VHDL Z80 core. Around this core [Brad] added the video controller, keyboard, and sound. When he started adding disk functionality, [Brad] ran into some problems. He wanted to use a FAT formatted SD card for cassette and hard disk emulation.

The relative complexities of the FAT format meant he would have to use some custom software to make this work. [Brad] decided to run this software on a second Z80 core. Both cores would need access to memory, and this is where [Brad] learned what he calls “a hard lesson in cross domain clocks” on FPGAs. Multiple clock nets can cause major propagation delay issues. [Brad] was able to work through the problems, but it caused him to step back and re-evaluate the entire design. This was the start of FPGABee2.

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SDRAM controller for low-end FPGAs

There are very few ‘recent’ FPGAs out there that can be easily soldered. Due to their important number of IOs, they usually come in Ball Grid Array (BGA) packages. The Xilinx Spartan 6 LX9, a TQFP144 FPGA (having pins with a 0.5mm pitch) is one of the few exceptions that can be used to make low end development boards. However, it doesn’t have a lot of logic and memory resources or an on-chip Memory Control Block implemented in the silicon. Therefore, [Michael] designed an SDRAM controller with a small footprint for it.

Writing an SDRAM controller from scratch isn’t for the fainthearted – first of all you really have to know how SDRAM  works (RAS, CAS, precharges, refresh cycles), and because of the high speed and accurate timing required you also have to learn some of the finer points of FPGA off-chip interfacing. In addition, most publicly available open cores are very complex – for example just the RTL core of the sdr_ctrl controller on opencores.org adds up to over 2,700 lines of Verilog. Even if it is not an accurate comparison metric, [Michael]’s controller is only 500 lines long.