Atari VCS Daily Driver

Using the Atari VCS Console as a Primary PC

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The Atari VCS was released as a game console that could double as a home PC. I plan to put that claim to the test and push it to the limits with video production, gaming, and game development.

The hardware used will initially be the Atari VCS Black Walnut All In kit. The system is a dual care, 4 thread AMD APU, with built in Vega 3 GPU. It's not a very powerful system by today's AMD Ryzen mobile standards, but it is a very capable little system that can drive a 4K display.

The display is a 55" Sony A80J OLED TV. Audio is sent from the TV to a Mee Audio dual bluetooth transmitter to Mee Audio Cinema ANC headphones. This project started in an apartment, so neighbors must be taken into consideration.

The system has been modified to run at 54 watts TDP, instead of the factory 45 watts TDP. 2GB of the 8GB of stock RAM have been dedicated to the GPU.

The current OS is Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, running on the built in eMMC chip, with a capacity of 32GB. Transfer speeds of the eMMC average around 90MB/s. The secondary drive is a Samsung Evo 860 1TB M.2 SATA SSD, which is used for all data storage. It averages around 550MB/s in transfers. The eMMC was chosen as the boot drive due to a failure to boot any OS installed in the M.2 SSD.

User inputs are handled by a Logitech K780 wireless keyboard, and a Logitech M575 Ergo trackball mouse. The keyboard was chosen as it supports fast switching between 3 different devices, including one connected with the Unifying USB receiver. The receiver offers the most reliable connection, and are used with the VCS. The trackball was chosen because it does not require a flat or consistent surface. It sits on the arm of my recliner while the keyboard is used in my lap. This makes for quite a comfortable working position.

The goal of this project is to get the most out of the simple, but capable system. I could not find anything that blended in with my new home better than the VCS, so it has earned a place on my mantle above the fireplace.

Eventually, Steam Link will be installed, with a proper workstation PC in the office to run all the games remotely to the VCS. Video production is currently being done locally on the VCS, instead of the Raspberry Pi 400. When the new workstation PC arrives, all video production will be shifted to the workstation, with the VCS acting as a remote terminal to access it.

  • New OS, New Purpose

    Dustin07/04/2023 at 14:18 0 comments

    It's been nearly a year since I posted any updates on this project. Much has changed in that time. I finally got Pop!_OS to install on the 1TB internal SSD and can now run my favorite OS on the VCS. A while back I bought a mini gaming PC and forgot all about the VCS. A recent work trip prompted me to dig it out and try to turn it into a portable media server. I run a Jellyfin media server on my main PC these days, and made a duplicate of that on the VCS. It worked very well, and I was the only one who could watch anything at the hotel when the wifi was unusable. It was an excellent experience. I currently have my media on a 2TB external HDD, but am going to get a 2TB internal SSD for the VCS to replace it. The wireless USB media remote is already on the way. With those 2 upgrades, I'll have a very portable media server that I can take on trips and to other peoples' homes. I think I need to create a mini portable movie theater out of this. A portable projector and inflatable screen would be perfect. I can install some light Steam games and emulators to add gaming as well. I still need to fix the front left USB port, which I broke the internal connection for a while back during the fist upgrade.

    Overall, I have been very happy with the VCS, even as a daily driver. It's not for everyone, and is very underpowered for anything beyond basic tasks. As a portable media server it is excellent. When it drops in price, I would highly recommend it as a home theater PC.

  • RAM, Thermal Paste, Retro Keyboard, 4K Blu Ray

    Dustin08/27/2022 at 03:39 0 comments

    I've got quite a few updates on the VCS, and other projects to update, so I shall keep this brief.

    RAM Upgrade

    After ripping some 4K Blu Rays of mine with the VCS, I found the need for more RAM. The system only had around 6GB of system memory after splitting it with the GPU. This was all used up immediately when ripping discs or editing 4K videos I created. I found someone on Reddit who confirmed that a specific set of RAM works well with the system. I shall link it below. I am using this 32GB kit now and can comfirm it is working well.

    Team Group 32GB RAM Kit: TED432G3200C22DC-S01

    Thermal Paste

    While I had the case open for the memory upgrade, I replaced the crappy thermal pad with proper thermal paste. I haven't tested it yet, but the fan does seem a little quieter. Just nice knowing it's proper now. I also managed to break both front USB port ribbon connectors. I wedged them and taped them back in place, but the left port is still dead. I shall fix it later.

    Retro Keyboard

    I've started restoring my IBM Model M keyboard once again, but needed something suitable in the meantime. After some research, I settled on a Keychron C2 with brown switches as my first new mechanical keyboard. Though not as satisfying as the Model M(not much else is), I find it to be excellent. I don't often game. My apartment is a 122 year old original Victorian, so it's hard to not go retro when I can. This keyboard looks great with the VCS, which looks great on my mantle. Outside of my Model M when I was able to use it, this is the best keyboard I have ever used/ I ripped off the tip of my index finger at work by accident today, and can still type well on this keyboard. I like the sounds as well, though I may get silicone rings and quiet it down a tad. Amazing keyboard for the money

    4K Blu Ray

    With the Pioneer USB 4K Blu Ray drive I have been able to rip 4K discs and play them back on the VCS. The VCS isn't great for 4K, but I am bale to output 4K60 and have a reasonably useful desktop experience. I recenlty turned it down to 4K30 to save a bit on CPU power. The system seems to be a very reasonable modern Linux PC. I haven't run Windows, and I have no plans to do so.

    Overall, the VCS is a massive upgrade over my Pi 400 daily driver, which I tried to use the other day. I got so annoyed I gave up. I'd say the VCS is a usable PC for basic tasks, and does so while looking very unique. I enjoy it for the most part. I still haven't gotten it to boot from the SSD though.

  • Daily Driver Worthy

    Dustin07/24/2022 at 05:57 0 comments

    I've been using the VCS for everything for a few months now as I don't have anything else. My Pidock 400 died. The fan still ramps to 100% under any load at all, but I usually have my cinema headphones on and can't hear it anyway. I leave the system on at all times so it's ready to go. I have a wireless keyboard and trackball which makes for an excellent TV experience from a recliner. I feel like an old man, but enjoy it.

    I've recently hooked up my old USB CD burner to the VCS and have been backing up my favorite CDs, I ordered a Pioneer USB 3.0 4K Blu Ray burner and bought a copy of MakeMKV for backing up my growing media collection.

    The system has handled video production admirably considering it's limited CPU power. I actually feel the Pi 400 handles 4K rendering faster than this thing. It's a set and forget affair for me, so I hardly mind.

    Overall, this is an excellent home theater PC and looks great on the antique stone mantle of my Victorian apartment. There aren't many other systems that would fit in so well, aside from the System76 Thelio line, which is overkill for a HTPC.

    Despite the OS being run from a very slow internal eMMC flash chip, the OS is responsive and usable. It's more responsive than a Pi 400, but I wouldn't recommend it as a daily driver for those who really need or want a properly fast PC.

  • Initial Interactions

    Dustin06/14/2022 at 20:58 0 comments

    The initial setup went well, and worked as it should. However, getting an alternate Linux OS installed was a huge pain. My preferred OS, Pop!_OS wouldn't even boot from USB, even after disabling all the secure boot and fast boot options. Ubuntu 20.04 LTS would boot and install from USB, but would not boot from the M.2 SSD. The SSD is recognized by both the BIOS and OS, but would not boot in either standard or legacy boot modes. Getting into the BIOS in the first place was a nightmare. To Atari's credit, their tech support was quite good until the BIOS password they gave me didn't work. I ended up just finding something on Reddit saying to reinstall a downgraded BIOS version as Atari changed the password in the most recent update. I'd bought a PC that I was locked out of. I was furious and let Atari know so. I ended up installing Ubuntu onto the eMMC flash and using the 1TB SSD as data storage. Now I only get about 90MB/s read times on the OS drive instead of 550MB/s... Lovely.AAt least it works. Kind of.

    The wifi is terrible under Ubuntu and will drop out randomly. I can get 16 ping replies before it drops out. I tried installing new wifi drivers and got no where. My Pi 400 does the same thing. Very disappointed with both right now. I currently have both systems hardwired into my router, which required extending my ISP's fiber wire and redoing my entire physical network layout. Luckily both systems are next to the TV and the TV hides all the router and cable mess.

    Initial video editing and rendering tests were rough, until I remembered that I have to manually set the proxy clips up in Kdenlive. The VCS was doing a surprisingly good job of scrubbing through 4K video footage. The fan is very annoying stock. The moment the CPU comes under heavy load the fans immediately hits 100%, then drops off instantly. The fan constantly cycles like this the entire time I'm using it for anything intensive. There's no fan control through Ubuntu, and I haven't had time to adjust the fan thresholds in the BIOS. I've read that the solution is to replace the terrible thermal pad with proper thermal paste. I happen to have some laying around, so I'll do that and test it again.

    Overall, it's been a good home theater PC and light gaming system. Video editing is quite good on it, as long as proxy clips are used. I love how it looks on the mantle of my Victorian era living room as well. Any other system I've seen would look very out of place. I enjoy the system and will continue using it as my daily driver until I can build a proper PC.

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