A homebrew computer with a RISC-V CPU

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I love homebrew computers, but since most of them are built from older or even obsolete CPUs we often find ourselves programming them using older techniques and awkward toolchains.

By using a RISC-V core at the heart of RISCoVite, while retaining other common homebrew computer characteristics of low clock speed and other hardware features of a prior era, I hope to create an interesting blend of using modern programming environments such as Rust to target what is otherwise an 80s/90s-inspired computer design.

This project is a labor of love that I'm making slow progress on in my spare time. It's likely to never be finished.

This design is still very early, but I'm planning to draw design elements from my previous (unfinished) 68000 homebrew computer project, so for the moment I'm assuming a similar design aside from the CPU choice and will adjust as needed as I dig into the details.

The high-level design includes:

  • A RV32I CPU core in an ICE40 FPGA, wrapped in an external memory bus similar to the 68SEC000 MPU and a very simple MMU of my own design. Might implement the RISC-V privileged ISA itself or a simplified model; not sure yet.
  • A generous but not excessive amount of SDRAM as working memory.
  • A simple operating system in ROM.
  • 12-bit-per-channel 720p DVI video output via another ICE40 FPGA and some dedicated video RAM.
  • A rather incongruous small ARM microcontroller both as a bootup controller (to load the FPGAs) and as a straightforward interface to external buses, hopefully including USB but might end up using simpler buses like PS/2 in the end.

So far I have only very early prototypes of all of the above, some of which are still embedded in the former 68000 computer project and awaiting adaptation. This project is definitely a labor of love and I'll be surprised if it ever reaches a point I could call "finished".

  • 1 × TFP410 Parallel RGB to DVI encoder
  • 2 × ICE40 UltraPlus 5K FPGA Exact models still TBD, but this part is what's on the development boards I'm using for initial prototyping; one is for the CPU board and the other for the video board.

  • Early Video Output Experiments

    Martin Atkins11/02/2019 at 15:41 0 comments

    I'm currently at the stage of exploring this project in isolated parts, some of which I'm drawing in from my previous (unfinished) 68000 homebrew computer project.

    I had originally planned for the 68000 computer to have 800x600 VGA output with 12-bit color (4 bits per channel), and a long time ago I had built a little prototype with an FPGA dev board and a resistor DAC. I only seem to have taken video of the 1-bit-per-channel variant:

    However, after that I'd largely ignored the video part and shifted my focus to other details, such as the CPU itself, a basic emulator I could use to work on software when away from my bench, and very early iterations of a simple operating system.

    I recently rediscovered that early video experiment and decided to iterate on its some more, with the intent of eventually including it in RISCoVite. This time I was a little more adventurous and decided to generate 720p HD video over DVI, after finding the TFP410 DVI encoder part that can convert from a parallel RGB signal to a DVI signal with very few supporting components and while allowing me to continue to run the FPGA logic at the relatively low clock speed that often befits a homebrew computer.

    This time I settled just for a static test pattern rather than an animated demo, but did produce suitable output:

    My camera and/or subsequent image scaling seemed to find some moire interference patterns in the image, but in "real life" the image is nice and crisp. Still 12 bits per channel, but now with fully digital signalling rather than a sloppy resistor DAC!

    I've also been experimenting with rendering small "sprite" images from a block RAM, but so far the internal organization of the block RAM on ICE40 parts is still eluding me and I'm only managing a corrupt image that vaguely resembles the mouse cursor image I'm trying to produce as a test. I ran out of time for this round, but will have another attempt later.

    I'm not sure yet if generating 720p HD output will actually be practical within the RAM limitations of the final design, because I'm planning for a bitmap-based display and at this resolution would need to dedicate about 1.3MB RAM just to the visible display, and I was hoping to also have enough video RAM left over for at least a back buffer to help keep things smooth on a system with a relatively slow CPU. We'll see! For now, I'm shifting my focus back to the CPU portion, wrapping a RISC-V core with a 68SEC000-like bus design so that I can continue to adapt portions of the former 68000 computer project.

    I have more details on producing the above static test pattern in my personal blog article 720p Video from an FPGA.

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