Today, we’re pivoting towards the future and the new Neoverse V1 and Neoverse N2 generation of products. Arm had already tested the new products last September, teasing a few characteristics of the new designs, but falling short of disclosing more concrete details about the new microarchitectures. Following last month’s announcement of the Armv9 architecture, we’re now finally ready to dive into the two new CPU microarchitectures as well as the new CMN-700 mesh network. These are looking really good.
Over the last few months I have been on and off digging into the history of early PC networking products, especially Ethernet-based ones. In that context, it is impossible to miss the classic NE2000 adapter with all its offshoots and clones. Especially in the Linux community, the NE2000 seems to have had rather bad reputation that was in part understandable but in part based on claims that simply make no sense upon closer examination. A deep dive into this very popular and widespread NE2000 adapter.
ServeTheHome attended Arm Vision Day 2021 and posted a quick overview. At the event, the company introduced Armv9 which will bring about key advancements for machine learning, digital signal processing, and security. One of the key drivers of Arm expecting to see massive shipment growth is the need for specialized compute. Or another way to look at this is that a number of traditional analog devices will convert to some level of “smart” and connected over the next few years. An example was given of a mechanical pump (like a water pump) that could be monitored for failure signs and efficiency versus just pumping water. For each of those applications, there will be different needs in terms of sensor connectivity and processing, general-purpose and accelerated compute (CPU and AI as examples), memory, and communications infrastructure. Arm sees the lower power cost of new chips enabling a wider array of chips and therefore more chips being sold. Another key push will be for Arm SystemReady. This is building on Arm ServerReady which helped Arm servers go from being a science experiment to boot each server to our experience with the Ampere Altra Wiwynn Mt. Jade Server where it worked (mostly) out-of-the-box using a standard image. Arm SystemReady is probably the biggest thing for OS enthusiasts. One of the weaknesses of the Arm hardware ecosystem, compared to the x86 ecosystem, is the lack of a standardized boot environment. x86 has a BIOS or UEFI, and Arm has UEFI (server) and something (probably devicetrees and a fork of Das U-Boot). Going forward Arm SystemReady systems will be able to boot via UEFI to allow for a standard OS image like x86. They could have picked something else (coreboot, Barebox, Das U-Boot), but UEFI is at least better then what it was.
I have once stumbled upon an interesting article from 2018 published on retrocmp.de, discussing about provisions on connecting an 8″ floppy disk drive to a PC. You know, those huge “boat anchors” that accept flexible disks just four inches shy of an LP record, in exchange of a couple of hundred kilobytes data storage. That sort of type. The experiment there was to connect that big ol’ mainframe-era drive to a normal PC, as to be used under DOS as an archival tool. In 2019, the author got mixed results from his experiments: he was able to fool the system BIOS, tricking the 8″ drive to work with a geometry that of a 5 1/4″ 1,2MB DS HD drive. For the rest, he’d use a proprietary controller card paired with some paid software. As a follow-up to his article, I’ve decided to tinker around on how to have fun with these clunkin’ beasts using a classic PC equipped with a vanilla floppy-disk controller (FDC); without any commercial hardware, software, or some USB controlled thing-a-magic with Windows 10 support. Besides, 8 inch drives predate PCs as we know them, and classic floppy drives with PCs were mostly used during the DOS/Win9x decades. Behold! Completely absurd and pointless. Just the way I like it.
This afternoon, I was updating the streaming apps on my 2020 LG CX OLED TV, something I do from time to time, but today was different. Out of nowhere, I saw (and heard) an ad for Ace Hardware start playing in the lower-left corner. It autoplayed with sound without any action on my part. Now I’m fully aware that it’s not unusual to see ads placed around a TV’s home screen or main menu. LG, Samsung, Roku, Vizio, and others are all in on this game. We live in an era when smart TVs can automatically recognize what you’re watching, and TV makers are building nice ad businesses for themselves with all of the data that gets funneled in. But this felt pretty egregious even by today’s standards. A random, full-on commercial just popping up in LG’s app store? Is there no escape from this stuff? We’re just going to cram ads into every corner of a TV’s software, huh? Imagine if an autoplay ad started up while you were updating the apps on your smartphone. People want cheap TVs, so people get cheap TVs – warts and all. Someone should set up a website and list TVs that are “safe to buy” and do not contain or display any ads. Of course, this still doesn’t solve the issue of “smart” TVs being security nightmares, but it’d be a step.
What a long, strange trip it’s been. MIPS Technologies no longer designs MIPS processors. Instead, it’s joined the RISC-V camp, abandoning its eponymous architecture for one that has strong historical and technical ties. The move apparently heralds the end of the road for MIPS as a CPU family, and a further (slight) diminution in the variety of processors available. It’s the final arc of an architecture. Interestingly, MIPS and RISC-V share an architect in Dave Patterson, and MIPS could be seen as an ancestor of RISC-V.
There’s a spectrum of openness when it comes to computers. Most people hover somewhere between fully closed – proprietary hardware, proprietary operating system – and partly open – proprietary hardware, open source operating system. Even if you run Linux on your AMD or Intel machine, you’re running it on top of a veritable spider’s web of proprietary firmware for networking, graphics, the IME, WiFi, BlueTooth, USB, and more. Even if you opt for something like a System76 machine, which has open firmware as a BIOS replacement and to cover some functions like keyboard lighting, you’re still running lots of closed firmware blobs for all kinds of components. It’s virtually impossible to free yourself from this web. Virtually impossible, yes, but not entirely impossible. There are options out there to run a machine that is entirely open source, from firmware all the way up to the applications you run. Sure, I can almost hear you think, but it’s going to be some outdated, slow machine that requires tons of tinkering and deep knowledge, out of reach of normal users or people who just want to buy a computer, take it out of the box, and get going. What if I told you there is a line of modern workstations, with all the modern amenities we’ve come to expect, that is entirely open? The instruction set, the firmware for the various components, the boot environment, the operating system, and the applications? No firmware blobs, no closed code hiding in various corners, yet modern performance, modern features, and a full, modern operating system? Now you’re playing with POWER Most people’s knowledge and experiences with the Power ISA begins and ends with Apple. The company used Power-based processors from 1994 until 2006, when it switched to using processors from Intel and the x86 ISA. Aside from Apple, there are two other major cornerstones of the Power ISA that most people are familiar with. First, game consoles. The GameCube, Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 all used PowerPC-based processors, and were all widely successful. Second, various embedded systems use Power processors as well. Aside from Apple, game consoles, and embedded systems, IBM has been developing and using processors based on the Power ISA for a long time now. IBM released the first Power processor in 1990, the POWER1, for its servers and supercomputers. They’ve steadily kept developing their line of processors for decades, and they are currently in the process of rolling out POWER10, which should be available later this year. Other Power ISA processors you may have heard of, such as the PowerPC G4 or G5 or the various gaming console processors, do not necessarily correspond to IBM’s own POWERx generations of processors, but are implementations of the same ISA. The nomenclature of the Power ISA has changed quite a bit over time, and companies like Apple and Sony using their own marketing names to advertise the processors they were using certainly didn’t help. To this day, PowerPC is often used as the name of the entire ISA, which is incorrect. The proper name for the ISA today is the Power ISA, but the confusion is understandable. The Power ISA, and related technologies, have been made freely available by IBM for anyone to use, and the specifications and reference implementations are open source, overseen by the OpenPOWER Foundation. The goal of the OpenPOWER Foundation is to enable the various partners involved in making Power hardware, like IBM, NXP, and others, to work together and promote the use and further development of the open Power ISA. In 2019, the OpenPOWER Foundation became part of the Linux Foundation. With Apple no longer making any Power-based computers, and with game consoles all having made the transition to x86, you may be left wondering how, exactly, you can get your hands on this fully open hardware. And, even if you could, how exotic and quirky is this hardware going to be? Is this another case of buying discard IBM POWER servers and turning them into very loud workstations with tape and glue, or something unrealistic and outdated no sane person would use? Thank god, no. Luckily for us, one company sells mainboards, POWER9 processors, and fully assembled POWER workstations: Raptor Computing Systems. Last year, they sent me their Blackbird Secure Desktop, and after many, many shipping problems caused by UPS losing packages and the effects of COVID-19, I can now finally tell you what it’s like to use this truly fully open source computer. Specifications The Blackbird Secure Desktop is built around Raptor’s Blackbird micro-ATX motherboard. This motherboard has a Sforza CPU socket, 2 DDR4 RAM slots compatible with EEC registered memory with a maximum combined capacity of 256GB, 2 PCIe 4.0 slots (16x and 8x), 2 gigabit Ethernet ports, another Ethernet port used for the BMC (OpenBMC – more on that later), 4 SATA ports (6Gb/s), and more than enough USB options (4 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0), and two RS-232 ports (one external, one internal using a header). On top of that, it has a CMedia 5.1 audio chip and associated jacks, an HDMI port driven by the on-board ASpeed graphics chip, as well as the ASpeed BMC. The board also comes with amenities we’ve come to expect from modern motherboards, like fan headers, an internal LED panel that displays the status of the motherboard, standard front panel connectors, a header for external audio, and so on. You also get a number of more exotic features, such as various headers to control the BMC, headers to update the open source firmware packages on the board, a FlexVer connector, and more. The only modern amenity that’s really missing from this board is an M.2 slot, which is something Raptor should really add to future revisions or new boards. In what will be a running theme in this review, for an exotic non-x86 ISA, the Blackbird motherboard is decidedly… Normal. Anyone who knows their way around a regular x86 motherboard won’t be confused by the Blackbird. Nor the
At Framework, we believe the time has come for consumer electronics products that are designed to last. Founded in San Francisco in 2019, our mission is to empower you with great products you can easily customize, upgrade, and repair, increasing longevity and reducing e-waste in the process. Today, we are excited to unveil our first product: the Framework Laptop, a thin, lightweight, high-performance 13.5” notebook that can be upgraded, customized, and repaired in ways that no other notebook can. This product – be sure to read the description and features – seems too good to be true. I hope they can keep their promises, because this is exactly what a lot of people are looking for.
In the middle of last year I reviewed System76’s Lemur Pro, a lightweight, battery-life focused Linux laptop. I concluded that the Lemur Pro did not have any big failings, and packed a few stand-out features such as the amazing battery life and open source firmware few – if any – other laptop makers can offer. Linux user or not, the Lemur Pro was a great all-rounder that could go toe-to-toe with competing Windows laptops any day of the week. Since the publication of that review, System76 has released a new version of the Lemur Pro, focusing entirely on upgrading the internals of the machine. The casing, the keyboard, the trackpad, the display, and so on, remain unchanged, but this time around, it comes packing with Intel’s latest 11th Gen Core i5 or i7 processor – the 1135G7 or 1165G7 – and thus with Intel Iris Xe graphics, which should prove to be a massive boost over the previous generation’s UHD graphics. This won’t be a full review – other than the spec bump, nothing has changed regarding the rest of the Lemur Pro. Aside from possible changes mentioned here, the review of last year’s model still applies. As such, I decided to use the term “re-review”, which I think better describes this article. I opted for the Core i5 model this time around, since I feel the difference between it and the i7 are relatively small, especially considering the intended use case for a lightweight ultrabook such as this. This gave me some more financial room to max out the RAM at 40GB (DDR4 at 3200Mhz) and pick the 1TB SSD (M.2 PCIe gen4). The price of this specific configuration is $1613.00. The remainder of the specifications are identical to last year’s machine. It has the same fairly standard 1920×1080 14.1″ 60Hz panel, which won’t win any awards, but isn’t bad in any way either. Much like last year, I do wish System76 offered higher resolution and especially higher refresh rates as options, since once you go high refresh rate, you just can’t go back. At the same time, however, I know a lot of people are still using 60Hz displays, and wouldn’t care one bit about sticking to it. The ports situation remains the same as well, so you get one USB 3.1 Type-C Gen 2 port (these names…), two USB 3.0 Type-A ports, a MicroSD slot, an HDMI port, a barrel connector for the included charger, a combined headphone/microphone jack, and that Kensington lock thing for corporate or public environments. The Type-C port can be used a DisplayPort as well, and USB-C charging is supported as well. The stand-out feature of last year’s model makes a return here, with the 73Wh battery once again delivering astonishing battery life. I can easily go over 10 hours of normal use – some browsing, some video, some basic document work – and for this model, they’ve fixed the issue I had last year where setting the laptop to battery-saving mode would cause signficiant slowdowns in playing video. I’m sure the brand new Iris Xe graphics play a big role here, and I just leave the battery-saving mode on at all times, since I didn’t notice any downsides. Not noticing any downsides to the battery-saving mode is definitely one of the main advantages of the move to 11th Gen Intel processors and the Iris Xe GPU, but that’s not the only benefit – the laptop gets less hot too, which is great for those of us using laptops on our, you know, laps. Kicking in an open door, overall performance is improved too, with applications opening faster, complex web pages loading faster, and less fans spinning up, too. This being a full Intel machine also means it’s already, well, ready for Wayland, without having to resort to workarounds or hacks. Sadly, if using System76’s own Pop!_OS, you need to manually enable Wayland by commenting out WaylandEnable=false in /etc/gdm3/custom.conf/. Once you’ve done this, Wayland is an option in GDM and you can login. I’m taking Wayland compatibility into account when it comes to my purchasing decisions, and I figured I’m probably not alone in this. I hope System76 makes Wayland easier to enable – or even the default – on its fully Intel machines soon, because it definitely improves responsiveness and performance across the board. This is hard to quantify, and people will understandably ask for proof, but on all three machines I’m currently running in Wayland – my Dell XPS 13 9370, this Lemur Pro, and a Blackbird POWER9 machine – there’s less stutter, less tearing, better video playback performance, and lower heat output when using Wayland compared to X.org. As I mentioned at the beginning, this new Lemur Pro is a spec bump, and as such, the trackpad and keyboard are still the same. While the keyboard was already a solid one, I was less happy with the trackpad, and that remains the same here. It’s still of the diving board type, and its surface doesn’t feel nearly as nice as that of my XPS 13 – which has an excellent trackpad – or other competitors, such as the best-in-class trackpads found on Apple’s laptops. It’s not a bad trackpad, but it’s not particularly good or great either – just average. In conclusion, this new generation of the Lemur Pro is by all accounts an excellent upgrade, with better performance, less heat output and fewer fan spin-ups – all without sacrificing the excellent battery life of its predecessor. If you have one of the earlier generations Lemur Pros with the same design, there’s probably not enough here to warrant an upgrade, but if you were on the fence last year, the spec bump definitely warrants a new, fresh look. System76 took their already excellent all-rounder, and made it even better, without rocking the boat, without large changes in pricing, and still with System76’s unique open source firmware and coreboot which you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. And that’s exactly what
A group of enthusiasts are proposing a new set of graphics instructions designed for 3D graphics and media processing. These new instructions are built on the RISC-V base vector instruction set. They will add support for new data types that are graphics specific as layered extensions in the spirit of the core RISC-V instruction set architecture (ISA). Vectors, transcendental math, pixel, and textures and Z/Frame buffer operations are supported. It can be a fused CPU-GPU ISA. The group is calling it the RV64X as instructions will be 64-bit long (32 bits will not be enough to support a robust ISA). There’s a lot of activity around RISC-V, and with it being open and freely usable, a lot of – at first – cheaper, embedded uses will be taken over by RISC-V, hopefully followed by more performant use cases in the near future.
The new BeagleV is a little different. It’s a small single-board PC with a RISC-V processor and support for several different GNU/Linux distributions as well as freeRTOS. With prices ranging from $120 to $150, the BeagleV is pricier than a Raspberry Pi computer, but it’s one of the most affordable and versatile options to feature a RISC-V processor. The makers of the BeagleV plan to begin shipping the first boards in April and you can sign up to apply for a chance to buy one of the first at the BeagleV website. It’s a good sign that RISC-V hardware is getting more accessible – a truly open source ISA is something we need to compete with the proprietary mess that is ARM.
For decades, my perception of USB was that of a technology both simple and reliable. You plug it and it works. The two first iterations freed PCs from a badly fragmented connector world made of RJ-45 (Ethernet), DA-15 (Joystick), DE-9 (Serial), DIN (PS/2), and DB-25 (Parallel). When USB-3.0 came out, USB-IF had the good idea to color code its ports. All you had to do was to “check for blue” in the chain to get your 5 Gbit/s. Even better, around the same time were introduced type-C connectors. Not only the world was a faster place, now we could plug things with one try instead of three. Up to that point in time, it was a good tech stack. Yet in 2013 things started to become confusing. USB and ThunderBolt have become incredibly complex, and it feels like a lot of this could’ve been avoided with a more sensible naming scheme and clearer, stricter specifications and labeling for cables.
In a major push to give Europe pride of place in the global semiconductor design and fabrication ecosystem, 17 EU member states this week signed a joint declaration to commit to work together in developing next generation, trusted low-power embedded processors and advanced process technologies down to 2nm. It will allocate up to €145bn funding for this European initiative over the next 2-3 years. Recognizing the foundational nature of embedded processors, security and leading-edge semiconductor technologies in everything from cars, medical equipment, mobile phones and networks to environmental monitoring, and smart devices and services, the European Commission said this is the reason it is crucial for key industries to be able to compete globally and have the capacity to design and produce the most powerful processors. It’s kind of odd that Europe does not command a more prominent position in the semiconductor industry, since the one company that enables the constant progress in this sector isn’t American, Chinese, or Japanese – but Dutch. ASML is by far the world’s largest developer and producer of photolithography systems, which are the machines companies like Intel and TSMC use to fabricate integrated circuits. Their machine are some of the most advanced machines in the world, and all the advanced, high-end chips from Intel, Apple, AMD, and so on, are built using machines from ASML. It seems odd, then, that Europe’s own semiconductor industry lags behind that of the rest of the world. This investment seems to aim to correct that, and that’s a good thing for all of us, no matter if you’re European, American, or from anywhere else – this can only increase competition.
Fujifilm has announced that it has set a new world record by creating a magnetic storage tape that can store a staggering 580 terabytes of data. The breakthrough, developed jointly with IBM Research, uses a new magnetic particle called Strontium Ferrite (SrFe), commonly used as a raw material for making motor magnets. Fujifilm has been investigating Strontium Ferrite as a possible successor to Barium Ferrite (BaFe), which is the leading material today. Tape is still, by far, the most efficient and cheapest way to store loads of data that doesn’t need to be accessed regularly. I find tape-based storage mediums fascinating, and this is right up my alley.
If you were writing reality as a screenplay, and, for some baffling reason, you had to specify what the most common central processing unit used in most phones, game consoles, ATMs, and other innumerable devices was, you’d likely pick one from one of the major manufacturers, like Intel. That state of affairs would make sense and fit in with the world as people understand it; the market dominance of some industry stalwart would raise no eyebrows or any other bits of hair on anyone. But what if, instead, you decided to make those CPUs all hail from a barely-known company from a country usually not the first to come to mind as a global leader in high-tech innovations (well, not since, say, the 1800s)? And what if that CPU owed its existence, at least indirectly, to an educational TV show? Chances are the producers would tell you to dial this script back a bit; come on, take this seriously, already. And yet, somehow, that’s how reality actually is. ARM is one of Britain’s greatest contributions to the technology sector, and those men and women at Acorn, the BBC, and everyone else involved in the BBC Computer Literacy Project were far, far ahead of their time, and saw before a lot of other governments just how important computing was going to be.
The Altra overall is an astounding achievement – the company has managed to meet, and maybe even surpass all expectations out of this first-generation design. With one fell swoop Ampere managed to position itself as a top competitor in the server CPU market. The Arm server dream is no longer a dream, it’s here today, and it’s real. AnandTech reviews the 80-core ARM server processor from Ampere – two of them in one server, in fact – and comes away incredibly impressed.
We’ve reviewed the most powerful BBC Micro model B disc protection scheme I found, across an audit of most of the copy protected discs released for the machine. It’s clever in that you don’t need specialized hardware to create the disc, or read the disc. But you’re going to struggle to duplicate the disc. Copy protection schemes from the ’80 and early ’90s are fascinating, and this one is no exception.
The new CPU configuration gives the new SoC a good uplift in performance, although it’s admittedly less of a jump than I had hoped for this generation of Cortex-X1 designs, and I do think Qualcomm won’t be able to retain the performance crown for this generation of Android-SoCs, with the performance gap against Apple’s SoCs also narrowing less than we had hoped for. On the GPU side, the new 35% performance uplift is extremely impressive. If Qualcomm is really able to maintain similar power figures this generation, it should allow the Snapdragon 888 to retake the performance crown in mobile, and actually retain it for the majority of 2021. At this point it feels like we’re far beyond the point of diminishing returns for smartphones, but with ARM moving to general purpose computers, there’s still a lot of performance gains to be made. I want a Linux-based competitor to Apple’s M1-based Macs, as Linux is perfectly suited for architecture transitions like this.
Ars Technica summarises and looks at the various claims made by Micro Magic about their RISC-V core. Micro Magic Inc.—a small electronic design firm in Sunnyvale, California—has produced a prototype CPU that is several times more efficient than world-leading competitors, while retaining reasonable raw performance. We first noticed Micro Magic’s claims earlier this week, when EE Times reported on the company’s new prototype CPU, which appears to be the fastest RISC-V CPU in the world. Micro Magic adviser Andy Huang claimed the CPU could produce 13,000 CoreMarks (more on that later) at 5GHz and 1.1V while also putting out 11,000 CoreMarks at 4.25GHz—the latter all while consuming only 200mW. Huang demonstrated the CPU—running on an Odroid board—to EE Times at 4.327GHz/0.8V and 5.19GHz/1.1V. Later the same week, Micro Magic announced the same CPU could produce over 8,000 CoreMarks at 3GHz while consuming only 69mW of power. I have some major reservations about all of these claims, mostly because of the lack of benchmarks that more accurately track real-world usage. Extraordinary claims requite extraordinary evidence, and I feel like some vague photos just doesn’t to the trick of convincing me. Then again, last time I said anything about an upcoming processor, I was off by a million miles, so what do I know?
A few weeks ago, we linked to an article that went in-depth into UEFI, and today, we have a follow-up. But the recent activity reminded me that there was one thing I couldn’t figure out how to do at the time: Enumerate all the available UEFI variables from within Windows. If you remember, Windows has API calls to get and set UEFI variable values, but not to enumerate them. So I started doing some more research to see if there was any way to do that – it’s obviously possible as the UEFI specs describe it, a UEFI shell can easily do it, and Linux does it (via a file system). My research took me to a place I wouldn’t have expected. We can always go deeper.