A project log for Novasaur Retrocomputer

Retrocomputer with serial and video built from late 70's TTL logic

Alastair HewittAlastair Hewitt 05/09/2019 at 02:020 Comments

Overclocking usually happens after a project is complete. This one started with overclocking and the design was adapted from the outset to maximize performance. The results have been impressive.

The original goal was to use the standard VGA dot clock of 25.175 MHz. This was divided by two to generate a machine clock of around 12.5 MHz. Calculations showed this would work fine for 55ns memory, but not for the 70ns NOR flash being used in development. It looked like that wouldn't make it past 11 MHz.

However, it appears the memories are capable of significantly better performance than their quoted specs. The current design was able to support a machine clock as high as 19 MHz with NOR flash (two different types were tested). Faster memories (10ns) would easily support a machine clock in the 30-35 MHz range, so a dot clock as high as 70 MHz may be possible. The clock circuit and state machine were tested with a dot clock as high as 100 MHz and both performed well, but the NOR flash was basically a random number generator at that speed!

The plan is to use era-appropriate memory speeds for the late 70's though. This doesn't mean if a single 1,024 bit memory could do 25ns on its own, then I can use 25ns memory. It needs to be a memory sub-system of equivalent size, which could require up to a 1,000 chips to store 128k bytes in 1978. The fastest memory sub-system of that size and era would probably come out of a Cray-1 super computer. The Cray-1 memory system was capable of a 50ns access time, so that seems like the appropriate speed limit for this design.

This works out at around 30 MHz for the dot clock and a machine clock of 15 MHz. Another consideration in selecting the exact frequency is the serial communication. The margin of error in syncing with a monitor is much greater than a high-speed serial link. A UART frequency is therefore more important than a dot-clock frequency. Plus, it's almost impossible to get the old-school VGA crystals these days.

There's two options in the 30 MHz range. Both divide down to 115,200 baud in a whole number of process cycles (1/4 of the dot clock): 

The plan is to use the higher frequency, but the slower option may be used depending on stability of the final design. The higher frequency is 22.6% faster than the standard VGA dot clock, so the GPU horizontal scan length is increased from 200 to 244 process cycles. The active screen memory per line is increased from 160 bytes to 192 bytes. This increases the text mode from 80 to 96 columns.