Interview with Atari VCS 2600 PureVideo VEC Module Creators

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Last year I covered converting the VCS 2600 for composite video, replacing the aging RF output which many new televisions struggle with. The results were mixed, the picture was significantly better then it had been, but it still suffered from interference. Some months later I learned about the PureVideo VEC Module developed by Amibay users “Bluesbrothers” and “TC”.  Two chaps who like me, were not happy with the picture quality of their 2600 and wanted to offer a better solution to fellow Atari enthusiasts.

Thus was born the PureVideo board, a professional looking, easy to install mod, compatible with the Six switcher woody to the Atari Junior. I bought one of these boards and have to say they are the MUST have mod for your VCS 2600. They make using a modern flat screen telly a painless experience!

I caught up with the pair last year and pick their brain about the PureVideo module and story behind it.


Q1. What spurred you to develop the Purevideo VEC?

Bas: An order of 25 units which became 50, didn’t think for one moment there would be a further order of 200 units including a major revision for NTSC compatibility.

The Purevideo VEC module

The Purevideo VEC module


The challenge was set by Rob, and I went away to see just what we could cook up.

Rob: I’d been frustrated for quite some time that a drop in solution didn’t exist and that the hacks which were know about on the internet all seemed complicated, destructive to the PCB and none gave consistent results with every 2600 variant. I felt it was time for a proper consistent solution and so the hunt started for a proper engineer to tackle the problem.

I was always confident that this unit would sell in high numbers as long as we got it right which I believe we did though it took some effort to convince Bas that anyone would go out and buy this. I’m very pleased to say I have changed his perception on this completely and I don’t anticipate that the next order will last long once we put the product on general realise (we have kept it low key until now) and the revision to encompass NTSC compatibility should see a successful launch Stateside in August I hope

Q2. Were there any technical challenges in designing a board that not only worked with every 2600 console but also work with modern televisions?

Bas: There was no real challenge regarding the different 2600’s as long as the design stayed close to the TIA chip as this is a common device in all these different variants.
The brief I set myself however was simple;

  • Minimal intrusion on the original console, i.e. invisible.
  • No hard modifications to the PCB
  • Simple drop in, plug and play concept.
  • Blend in with the original pcb.
  • Totally reversible.
  • Consistent performance, no fine tuning.
  • Allow RF operation to be easily available.

The above points were very important as some versions of the 2600 are quite rare and expensive…

Rob: For me the problem was finding someone who would actually follow through with the brief both on time and as closely as possible to the original brief only making changes for the better rather than to save costs or effort. It took several attempts to find someone who’d follow it through to the end before Bas got involved.

The module had to be easy to fit (for someone competent at soldering),… no complicated altering of resister ladders or cutting tracks.

No defacing of the machine itself – People like their toys but they also, on the whole, want a machine that hasn’t been butchered

The module had to give the same performance in every version of the 2600

Q3. BMV has delved in to modifying the VCS for composite in the past, how is the Purevideo VEC board different to the video hacks / mods that currently exist on the internet?

A 2600 running with PureVideo

A 2600 running with PureVideo


Bas: The VEC2600 is an original solution, unique in the way it is fitted compared to internet hacks.
Careful and in depth calculations were made on paper first to ensure the correct luminance mix network and also to ensure marginal current had to be provided by the TIA..
The final Amplifier stage biasing was calculated to provide a linear output across the bandwidth and allow sufficient headroom so as not to clip the waveform, it also provides a slight lift to the black level to overcome the compression effect that LCD panels display in the darker region.
Even though the display on the oscilloscope was technically perfect, final manual tweaks were carried out to the biasing so that my eyes were happier than the scope.

It’s a testament to the amount of work that went into the design that when we trialled NTSC consoles we found no adjustment to the circuit was necessary at all.

Due to the method of install chosen it was decided to implement the module using surface mount technology, this has many advantages, mainly the noise performance remains very low and signal loss is minimised due to the short tracking and large Ground planes. The next revision actually uses even smaller surface mount components. The biggest benefit however is the module is manufactured easily offshore at a good cost ratio.

Rob: I’ll leave the tech explanation to Bas here but as Bas has said the solution needed looking at from a time served engineers point of view rather than one of an enthusiastic hobbyist and his knowledge in understanding the proper calculations gave us a solid starting point from which to begin rather than using a trial and error approach. It also needed to be driven to some extent by myself as regards the view point of the average consumer, it needed to be as simple as possible to implement whilst slick and professional in design.

Q4. How hard was it to take the idea in your head and turn it in to reality?

Rob: For my part the hardest thing was finding the right man to help me develop this and then (and he won’t mind me saying this and I often joke about it) feeding info in such a way as to make him believe he’s come up with the ideas.

One of the real bonuses to come out of this is a friendship and understanding another that has led us on to developing more stuff together and expect to see more products from the two of us in the near future

Q5. As we are on the subject of the Atari 2600, what is your favorite memory / game?

Bas: Indy 500 and Missile Command…

Rob: For me it’s Breakout because Pong/Breakout style games were just the thing back in 1980 which is my first memory of gaming and Space Invaders because where my Mum worked in a pub they had a Space Invaders machine and I was able to spend endless hours perfecting my alien blasting technique. Both games just remind me of being young and carefree. Happy times!
I’d like to thank Rob and Bas, aka Bluesbrothers and TC for participating in this interview and giving us all and insight in to this lovely piece of kit!

Any example of RF vs Composite output.

An example of RF vs Composite output.

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Raspberry Pi 2 Model B

 

 

Unless you have been hiding underneath a rock these past few months, you will likely have heard about the last release from the British based Raspberry Pi Foundation. Who last month unveiled the latest edition to their line of micro computers, the Raspberry Pi 2 – Model B. The new model is an impressive step up from the original model B and B+, both of which utilise a single 700mhz core Arm11 processor and 512MB of internal memory. With 1GB of ram, the Pi 2’s new quad-core 900Mhz Arm7 BCM2836 processor was designed by Broadcom specifically for the new Raspberry Pi. The Pi 2 Model B is substantially faster than anything the foundation has released thus far. The upgrade now pushes the Pi in to the same league as boards such as the O-Droid and other multi core boards suited for hackers and gamer’s looking to run resource heavy tasks. Such as playing hi-definition video or Mame arcade emulators.

In a previous article I wrote about my frustration when I tried to get Mame to work right on my Model B. With the new Pi 2 spec, such headaches will be a thing of the past. In fact the release of the Pi 2 Model B in my opinion is a real game changer. Up until now, I was rather disappointed with the Raspberry Pi, maybe because I wasn’t using it for the purpose it was intended for.
I’m from a generation that grew up with Spectrum’s, Commodore Amiga’s and Duran Duran on the radio. When I see a tiny micro computer, my first thoughts are not whether I can fit an LED or robotic arm to it. I’m more bothered about what games I can play on it, if it will emulate a BBC micro and whether I can use it for email and light surfing. Later down the road I look at inputting programs and learning how to make games using Python or what ever passes as the modern-day equivalent of BASIC. I don’t know why I’m saying my generation, as I’m sure any ten year old today would want to do the same as I did at that age. Not just play games, but want to tinker with the code to get an extra life or skip a level by hacking the game. That was half of the fun of having a micro computer and having games written in an easy language like BASIC.

New Potential

The Pi 2 Model B is now powerful enough to realistically perform as a cheap home computer. While you might not be able to watch BBC Iplayer or Netflix, you can use it for other things such as:

Wordprocessing
Graphic editing
Music editing
Playing games
Surfing online
Receiving email

I know some of you will be reading this and saying that these are all things the Model B could do already. To an extent I would agree with you, but my experience was that doing any of the above listed tasks caused my original Model B to have a small panic attack. After which it would sit on my desk blinking with the CPU at 100%, getting no where fast. I realise the original Raspberry Pi was meant to be a computer for schools, it was never intended to be a desktop computer. So to compare it to our laptops or towered PC’s is to be unfair on tiny micro, as your average home computer has many times the power and memory of the model B 700Mhz Arm11 processor. However I would argue that if the computer was never meant to surf the internet, why then include a web browser with the operating system? Such questions can spark heated discussions online, so I’ll simply say that the only person who can tell us, is the person who organised the Raspbian distro to begin with.

Utilising four 900Mhz cores and 1GB of 450Mhz RAM , the new Model B is roughly six times faster than the previous model and give a lot of grunt for a £30 pocket size computer. The Raspberry Pi might have started its life in the class room, but it could now potentially find itself in kids bedrooms around the world, just like the Spectrum and C64’s of the 80’s. Perhaps parents wanting to get a computer for their children but worried about it getting broken, will see the Raspberry Pi as an affordable alternative. Time will only tell if this happens, I certainly hope it does as many of those kids from the 80’s and 90’s grew up to be the game programmers of today. Working on games for the 3DS, Xbox One and the Sony Playstation 4. Many of them will no doubt be able trace their computer interests back to the days of getting home from school and playing on their Amiga, C64 or BBC Micro. Wouldn’t it be nice, if in 10-15 years time a new generation could look back, and trace their programming roots to the day their parents brought home a new shiny Raspberry Pi 2?

Closing thoughts

It’s still early days here at ByteMyVdu, but the general feeling is that the Raspberry Pi 2 is a step in the right direction, if not a little overdue. It is a pity that the Foundation didn’t bring this out instead of the B+, which is more or less a facelift of the B. I had intended to buy a B+ but with Christmas close at hand I held off until the new year. I suppose I should be grateful I did, otherwise I can imagine this new release would leave me a little annoyed. Having spent £30 on a new computer, the last thing anyone would expect to see is a new and vastly superior model released 6 months later. I only hope there is a reasonable explanation for the foundation releasing the B+ and Pi 2 B so close on its heels. I honestly can’t imagine Apple or HP doing this with an Ipad or a laptop, as it might damage customer confidence. Computer technology has always resided in the fast when it comes to progress, however most companies leave a reasonable amount of time between product releases. Which is why I was understandable surprised to hear about the Pi 2 B being released. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the foundation released the B+. Regardless of the reasons, the Pi 2 Model B is here and I’m certain people are going to like it. After using mine for several days I can honestly say I’m impressed, it performs how I’d hoped my original model B would have when I first bought it. I suppose a lot of this is down to the custom BCM2836 SoC which Broadcom made specifically for the new Pi 2. I’m really looking forward to seeing what this new computer can do and what fun things I can do with it, aside from write blog entries. This is the first time I’ve been able to write an article for ByteMyVdu on a Raspberry Pi and not only write it, but then upload it to WordPress while still using the Pi. In the past trying to log in to WordPress would kill my Model B to the point that I’d have to unplug and plug it back it in just to resuscitate it. Actually being able to log in to the site and edit my blog is simply unheard of! I have to say I’m thoroughly chuffed with the new Model B and look forward to the coming months. I wonder if I can interface my TRS80 Model 100 with it using Minicom? Let the tinkering commence!!

Till next time, keep on geeking!