Hackaday Links: April 8, 2018

SiFive raised $50 Million in funding. SiFive is a semiconductor working on two fronts: they want to democratize silicon prototyping, and they’re the people making the HiFive series of microcontrollers and SoCs. The HiFives are built on the RISC-V instruction set, a Big-O Open instruction set for everything from tiny microcontrollers to server CPUs. With RISC-V, you’re not tied to licensing from ARM or their ilk. Recently SiFive introduced an SoC capable of running Linux, and the HiFive 1 is a very fast, very capable microcontroller that’s making inroads with Nvidia and Western Digital. The new round of funding is great news for anyone who wants Open Source hardware, and the silicon prototyping aspect of it is exceptionally interesting. Great news for SiFive.

Guess what’s in just a few weekends? The Vintage Computer Festival Southeast. The VCFSE is Hotlanta’s own vintage computer festival, with a whole host of speakers, exhibits, and consignment to tickle those vintage dopamine receptors. On deck for the speakers is [Michael Tomczyk], one of the people responsible for the VIC-20, and [Scott Adams], no the other [Scott Adams], creator of adventure-style games for personal computers but not that adventure-style game. The exhibits will include Japanese retro computers, simulating an ENIAC and a mechanical keyboard meetup. If you’re around Georgia, this is an event worth attending.

Conference season is just around the corner, and you know what that means. It’s time to start ramping up for #badgelife. What is badgelife? It’s a hardware demoscene of electronic conference badges. This year, the badgelife scene has stumbled upon something everyone can get in on. Add-ons! They’re electronic hats (or shields, or capes) for all the badges. Physically, it’s a 2×2 pin header. Electronically, it’s power, ground and I2C. Want to prototype your own add-on? Good news, there’s a development board.

The Titius-Bode law states the semi-major axes of planets follow a geometric progression. The (simplified, incorrect) demonstration of this law states Mercury orbits at 0.25 AU, Venus at 0.5 AU, Earth at 1 AU, Mars at 2 AU, and continues to the outer planets. The Titius-Bode law is heavily discredited in the planetary science community, and any paper, talk, or manuscript is rejected by scientific editors out of hand. The Titius-Bode law is the planetary science equivalent of flat Earth conspiracy theories and Nazi moon bases; giving any consideration to the idea confirms you’re a moron. This week, some consulting firm posted something that is the Titius-Bode law on their blog. Why? So it could be submitted to Hacker News for that sweet SEO. This submission was upvoted to the top position, and is a wonderful springboard to argue an interesting point on media literacy. I posit the rise of news aggregators (facebook, twitter, digg, reddit, and HN), is the driving force behind ‘fake news’ as lay people become the gatekeepers. Prove me wrong.

The Department of Homeland Security has confirmed there are cell-site simulators (Stingrays, IMSI-catchers, or otherwise known as your own private cell phone base station) around Washington DC. It’s unknown who is operating these simulators, or even where they are. There are two things to read between the lines with this information: Duh, there are rogue Stingrays in DC. Holy crap duh. I bet there are also some around midtown Manhattan. You can buy the stuff to do this on eBay. Personally, I’ve found half a dozen Stingrays or other rogue cell stations this year (guess where?). Second, why is this a news item now? Is this a signal that the DHS will start clamping down on stuff you can buy on eBay? Hop to it, people; cellular hardware is a great way to make a liquid nitrogen generator.

A RISC-V That The Rest Of Us Can Understand

There is great excitement in the world of microprocessors, surrounding the RISC-V architecture. This is an open source modular instruction set specification that has seen implementations on FPGAs, and is starting to emerge in dedicated silicon.

If you are not yet up to speed on what is probably going to be the most important microprocessor development of a generation, you should watch this video. As [Robert Baruch] sets out to demonstrate, the combination of RISC technology and a modular instruction set means that the simplest processor compliant with the RISC-V specification can be surprisingly accessible. And to demonstrate this he’s building one from LSI and MSI TTL CMOS chips, something we’d more usually expect to see in a recreation of a much older architecture.

The video below the break is the first of a forthcoming series, and in it he introduces the project and gives us an easily-understandable overview of RISC-V before explaining the mechanics of a register for his RISC-V implementation. This will be his first module, and he’s created a PCB for it. He runs through its design, his choice of indicator LEDs, and then his choice of PCB house. There is also a breakout board, with two of the PCI sockets he’ll be using for his backplane. Finally we see the board being tested, with LEDs lighting up in response to values being stored in a completed register.

[Robert] has appeared on these pages many times before, among the most recent with his TMS9900-based breadboard computer. This build moves away from his retro fare though, and should be well worth watching for future installments.

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SiFive Introduces RISC-V Linux-Capable Multicore Processor

Slowly but surely, RISC-V, the Open Source architecture for everything from microcontrollers to server CPUs is making inroads in the community. Now SiFive, the major company behind putting RISC-V chips into actual silicon, is releasing a chip that’s even more powerful. At FOSDEM this weekend, SiFive announced the release of a Linux-capable Single Board Computer built around the RISC-V ISA. It’s called the HiFive Unleashed, and it’s the first piece of silicon capable or running Linux on a RISC-V core.

SiFive’s HiFive Unleashed

The HiFive Unleashed is built around the Freedom U540 SOC, a quad-core processor built on a 28nm process. The chip itself boasts four U54 RV64GC cores with an additional E51 RV64IMAC management core. This chip has support for 64-bit DDR4 with ECC and a single Gigabit Ethernet port. Those specs are just the chip though, and you’ll really need a complete system for a single board computer. This is the HiFive Unleashed, a board sporting the Freedom U540, 8GB of DDR4 with ECC, 32MB of Quad SPI Flash, Gigabit Ethernet, and a microSD card slot for storage. If you don’t mind being slightly inaccurate while describing this to a technological youngling, you could say this is comparable to a Raspberry Pi but with a completely Open Source architecture.

News of this caliber can’t come without some disappointment though, and in this case it’s that the HiFive Unleashed will ship this summer and cost $999. Yes, compared to a Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone that is an extremely high price, but it has to be borne in mind that this is a custom chip and low-volume silicon on a 28nm process. Until a router or phone manufacturer picks up a RISC-V chip for some commodity equipment, this architecture will be expensive.

This announcement of a full Single Board Computer comes just months after the announcement of the SOC itself. Already, GCC support works, Linux stuff is going upstream, and the entire Open Source community seems reasonably enthusiastic about RISC-V. It’ll be great to see where this goes in the coming years, and when we can get Linux-capable RISC-V chips for less than a kilobuck.

SiFive Announces RISC-V SoC

At the Linley Processor Conference today, SiFive, the semiconductor company building chips around the Open RISC-V instruction set has announced the availability of a quadcore processor that runs Linux. We’ve seen RISC-V implementations before, and SiFive has already released silicon-based on the RISC-V ISA. These implementations are rather small, though, and this is the first implementation designed for more than simple embedded devices.

This announcement introduces the SiFive U54-MC Coreplex, a true System on Chip that includes four 64-bit CPUs running at 1.5 GHz. This SoC is built with TSMC’s 28 nm process, and fits on a die about 30 mm². Availability will be on a development board sometime in early 2018, and if our expectations match the reality of SiFive’s previous offerings, you’ll be able to buy this Open SoC as a BGA package some months after that.

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A Smaller, Cheaper RISC V Board

Early this year, the world of electronics saw something amazing. The RISC-V, the first Open Source microcontroller was implemented in silicon, and we got an Arduino-derived dev board in the form of the HiFive 1. The HiFive 1 is just a bit shy of mindblowing; it’s a very fast microcontroller that’s right up there with the Teensy when it comes to processing power. There’s support for the Arduino IDE, so all those fancy libraries are ready to go. That’s not to say there aren’t a few problems; it’s a relatively expensive board, and it does use the ubiquitous but somewhat unfortunate Arduino form factor.

In the past few months, SiFive, the folks behind the FE310 microcontroller inside the HiFive 1, have been working to get bare chips out on the market. Now, those trays of microcontrollers are being turned into newer, slightly more development-friendly boards. Meet the LoFive RISC-V. It’s a GroupGets crowdfunding campaign from [Michael Welling], and it takes all the openness from the HiFive 1 and the FE310 microcontroller and stuffs it into a cheap, easy-to-use board.

Like the HiFive 1, the LoFive features the FE310 microcontroller and a 128 Mbit SPI flash. Unlike the HiFive 1, there’s not much else on this board. There’s a few voltage regulators, a crystal, some caps, and a button on an interrupt pin. If you’re looking for an Open Source microcontroller development board without a lot of cruft, here you go. This is a RISC-V microcontroller with the minimum amount of support circuitry.

The GroupGets campaign is offering up 1,000 of these little boards for $25 each plus shipping. If you’ve been looking for an excuse to play around with Open Source microcontrollers, this may be the best chance you’re going to get for a while.

VexRiscv: A Modular RISC-V Implementation for FPGA

Since an FPGA is just a sea of digital logic components on a chip, it isn’t uncommon to build a CPU using at least part of the FPGA’s circuitry. VexRiscv is an implementation of the RISC-V CPU architecture using a language called SpinalHDL.

SpinalHDL is a high-level language conceptually similar to Verilog or VHDL and can compile to Verilog or VHDL, so it should be compatible with most tool chains. VexRiscv shows off well in this project since it is very modular. You can add instructions, an MMU, JTAG debugging, caches and more.

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Hackaday Links: June 4, 2017

Quick question: what was the first personal computer? We love pointless arguments over technological history, so let’s just go down the list. It wasn’t an IBM, and the guy who invented the personal computer said he didn’t invent the personal computer. The Apple I is right out, and there were some weird Italian things that don’t quite count. Here’s an auction for, “The first personal computer”, a MICRAL N, released in 1974. There’s an 8080 running at 500kHz with 16kB of RAM and ‘mixed memory’. This is an important bit of history that belongs in a museum, and the auction will start at €20,000. The starting price might be a bit high; recently an original Apple I sold at auction for €90,000. This is a pittance for what these things usually go for. Is the market for vintage retrocomputers dropping out from underneath us? Only time will tell.

In Upstate NY? There’s a Hacker con going on June 16-17. You can get 20% off your ticket to ANYCon by using the code ‘HACKADAY’.

Colorblind? Hackaday readers suffer from colorblindness at a higher rate than the general population. [João] created this really neat tool to differentiate colors on a screen. Windows only, but still handy.

Everyone’s excited about the $150 3D printer that will be released by Monoprice sometime this summer. Here’s a $99 3D printer. Yes, it’s a Kickstarter so the standard warnings apply, but this bot does have a few things going for it. It uses actual NEMA 17 motors, and the people behind this printer actually have experience in manufacturing hardware. The downsides? It’s entirely leadscrew driven, so it’s going to be very, very slow.

What do you call the dumbest person with an EE degree? An engineer. It’s at this point where you should realize the value of a tertiary education is not defined by the most capable graduates; it’s defined by the least capable graduates.

Here’s your Sunday evening viewing: [Bunnie] gave a talk on RISC-V and the expectations of Open Hardware.

Hey, OpenBuilds has a new Mini Mill. It’s a basic CNC router designed for small ~1HP Bosch or Dewalt laminate trimmers. Small, but capable.

Kerbal Space Program, the only video game that should be required study materials at the Air Force Academy, Embry-Riddle and for everyone working at NASA, has been acquired by Take-Two Interactive. By all accounts, this is good news. According to reports, the original dev team left for Valve a few months ago, reportedly because of terrible conditions at Squad, the (former) developer of KSP.

The Stratolaunch carrier aircraft has rolled out of the hangar. It’s two 747s duct speed taped together.