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MiSTer MultiSystem Portable Prototypes Hands-On - Richard From Heber Interviewed!
RMC & Heber’s “MiSTer MultiSystem” - a consolised version of the MiSTER FPGA project - was launched back in August last year. But it seems Heber’s Richard has been hard at work behind the scenes on another project - this time building a portable MiSTer setup around an actual Terasic DE-10 Nano!
I had a chance to sit down and talk to him over the weekend, so here it is - the latest portable MiSTer updates straight from the horse’s mouth, with some exclusive bits and pieces not mentioned in the announcement video from RMC - The Cave.
This past weekend I was at The Cave - RMC’s studio and museum space - for an event and Neil and Richard from his hardware partner at Heber have just announced that they’ve been working on a prototype portable MiSTer MultiSystem with a view to perhaps putting it into production so I thought I’d take the opportunity to grab Richard and get some more information out of him. The prototypes were out for everyone to have a play with - and I’ll share some of my impressions later on in the video - but I have to say the hardware is really cool even at this early stage.
And on that hardware, if you’re not familiar with the MiSTer project basically it uses a type of chip called an FPGA to recreate various computers, consoles and arcade machines in a really accurate way, but covering all of that again is a bit outside of the scope of this video so check out my previous video on the subject which is linked up above and down in the description if you’d like some more background info on what MiSTer all about.
So first up, I asked Richard for an overview of the prototypes, some of the challenges of developing a new project like this given the current situation and where the inspiration for the design came from:
OK, so here we are with our prototype handheld MultiSystem which Neil’s been asking for feedback on through the community, and today we’ve had quite a lot of people hands-on playing the system and just generally using it and giving us really great feedback about the pros and cons of a handheld system and what we could actually do if we move this forward into more of a productionised version.
There’s quite a lot of challenges with that because at the moment we’re struggling to get hold of the DE-10 Nanos - which are actually used in this device - we have to make a few modifications to some of the height to get everything a bit lower and after that really it’s down to then just getting hold of enough of the other components to either put a kit together - which people could build on their own - or maybe a fully assembled unit.
We’re still quite a long way from that and there’s still lots of chances for people to get their own ideas in about what they would like to see, and generally we’re just trying to get a bit of feedback on this. Today’s been great for that, so we’ve got loads of ideas about how we could better have positioned the D-pads and the buttons and just generally the ergonomics of the system.
It was quite interesting as well to allow people to see the original design - which is sort of version 2 - and going on to version 3 a lot of people like some of the aspects of version 2 - some of the roundedness and just generally the ergonomics so I think in the future if we do another prototype you might actually see some of that incorporated into the design and be a little bit of a hybrid between the two, and of course it was actually inspired by the Atari Lynx which is actually sort of nice to see that it’s a similar sort of size, and so that was very much my inspiration for all of this - I had a Lynx back in the day so it’s one of my favourite systems and I really do like handheld consoles, so yeah, it was an interesting project to work on and something we would probably ask more questions about the community and see how things move on it.
But we’re really just interested in what your ideas would be - so feel free to reach out to any of us and let us know what you think.
And please do let me know your thoughts down in the comments which I’ll gladly pass on, or if you’re on Twitter you can get in touch with Richard over on the official MultiSystem account at MultisystemFPGA.
So I asked about the magnetic screen bezels which I think are a really neat solution to the different resolutions of the various systems that MiSTer can run and it was certainly something that people were impressed with when they saw how easily it all worked in person.
Yeah, so we’ve got the snap-on screen bezels allowing you to do the 16x9 or 4x3 or you could do any combination in between - some of the cores on the MultiSystem or on the MiSTer project are obviously different aspect ratios so you could do bezels to fit that nicely, or just put up with the black bars top and bottom, left and right if you really wanted to.
Now, I’m not a 3D printing person - and it’s something that Richard is really passionate about - so I must say one thing that really caught my eye was the textured marble finish on the earlier prototype, as well as the different coloured bands that were seamlessly incorporated into the shell, so I had to ask.
That’s a really nice material - it’s PLA so it’s quite durable and you can sand it and things, and it’s actually got minerals in it - this is a Cotswold limestone so quite nice for this area and it actually has got mineral stone in, so that actually gives it that textured finish.
The other side people are asking quite a bit today about how we printed the sides - and that’s really just layer selective printing, so you just pause at different layers and change the colours and allow them to change each time to get all the different colours in.
So quite a bit of fun but a bit difficult to do in production - but nice for a sample and a one-off.
One thing that really stood out to me was just how nice the controls felt for a prototype - Richard had actually used tact switches similar to the ones you’d find in an old mouse and the buttons all had really nice tactile feedback so I had to ask about that decision and whether that would carry through to a future production model as well as the potential for other options - maybe even analog controls which a few other people had mentioned over the course of the day.
That was a sort of a simple thing to do just to allow- it makes the PCB actually quite large, so if you move forward I think you would probably use more lower profile- these are actually about 6mm tall so it does actually take up quite a bit of space, and you would probably move down to a smaller tact switch but you’re right - it does give quite a satisfying clicky feel and even on the D-pad as well.
The D-pad itself is a second user PlayStation replacement part, so that was a little bit easier to get hold of and to use and a little bit more accurate.
It’s got a nice dome in the middle so it allows the rocking, so you don’t actually end up sort of- with this one there was a chance that you might actually press up and down at the same time, it’s got it’s got a ball bearing in the middle to stop you doing that but this one’s just a much nicer version of that because it’s an official sort of D-pad.
But yeah, whether or not people like that or they prefer a more rounded version or even the sunk versions.
A few people have asked for analog controls and I’m not sure that makes 100% sense but the other thing we were thinking of maybe is actually having this as a slightly modular solution - so you could put different controls in to allow for different cores but we’ll see how it evolves and see how people get on with it.
Of course, any MiSTer setup is somewhat of an investment money-wise and buyers might not want to splash out on separate setups for home and on the go, so the possibility of a docking solution similar to the Nintendo Switch was mentioned quite a few times over the course of the day.
I think that’s all very doable and a few people have asked if that would be possible and I think yes, we could probably look at doing that. It makes sense really because if you’re going to invest in any of the MiSTer project electronics are not going to be cheap - they’re not going to be as cheap as a Raspberry Pi or anything like that - so you probably want to be able to use it for multiple functions.
It’s not necessarily going to be your second system - you may have a system already but if it’s your only system you might want to dock it and then use it on a screen, a TV, that sort of thing, and use some wired remote controls as well.
So it’s got a couple of USB ports on there now but actually it’s got more USB ports inside that aren’t being used, so that could easily get routed through into a dock which may have another hub on the bottom.
So yeah, all those sort of things are possible, we just need to explore what’s doable.
Of course a portable device is useless without batteries and the older prototype - which was fully functional by the way, I just didn’t switch it on for this footage - incorporated a removable battery pack into the design. So I asked what the situation was with that.
At the moment we’ve got lithium polymer batteries in there so they’re square battery packs and a little charge circuit that’s in the corner here, and at the moment they’re 5,000mAh each side - so you’ve got 10,000mAh to play with.
I think if we did the next version we’d probably slim that down to a little bit less because this is probably more than you’d need in a handheld, and it would make it a little bit lighter as well.
The other thing certainly I’ve been thinking about is whether or not we actually use more of a battery that fits in the back rather than one that’s fitted inside the case - you can actually get some of the batteries that you just slot in that makes a lot of sense if we do sell something like this and shipping it abroad or shipping it offshore, because then people can buy their own local batteries and fit them in and you don’t have to worry too much about all those problems of shipping lithiums around the world.
So that is probably more likely to be where we might end up is actually just having two slots at the back where you just click them in and then put a cover over - and that might actually make the ergonomics a bit nicer for the grips as well. So it could do two things at once - solve that battery problem and do that.
The other thing with the heatsink on the back - that’s a copper sheet at the moment.
Again, that would probably make more sense to be in aluminium, I just like the way it looked for the prototype, the copper.
But yeah, an aluminium sheet or this whole piece being a piece of aluminium - machined aluminium - for the back, which would then make quite a lot of sense because you’d get all the cooling and all the advantages of that as well.
Richard told me off camera that in his own testing he’d seen around 7-8 hours of gameplay using the newer prototype with the 10,000mAh battery, and that one charge had covered an unveiling video with RMC as well as hands-on demos at two one-day events so far, which is really impressive. But that got me thinking about his inspiration - the Lynx and other early colour handhelds like the Game Gear - and their reputation for chewing through AA batteries. So of course I had to ask the question.
It would be okay from a voltage point of view - you’d probably need 6 in there but you’d probably get-
[what that’s 2006…]
-so you’d probably get about 2 hours’ battery life from six AA’s. So yeah you could, or there is actually an external pack that you can put into there so that’s just the normal 5V you would use on a MultiSystem or a MiSTer anyway so you can either just use that if you want to or you could have an external battery pack a little bit how - you know - this was originally a battery pack that just clipped on, so that’s an off-the-shelf battery pack that just goes on there which makes it very chunky but it was good to allow us just to sort of prove the concept.
Finally, just a closing thought about shoulder button placement and how people - myself included - had preferred the big chunky buttons of the older prototype and whether he’d had any more thoughts on that.
These are actually a little bit nicer to use - the trigger buttons I haven’t quite got that quite right on this one - so these are a little bit fiddlier and they probably maybe work better as back buttons rather than being on the top.
It’s just a tiny bit too tricky to use them, so I might have to think about that - whether they’re maybe in this position on the back rather than on the top.
All feedback very welcome.
Thank you very much.
Okay no problems thanks!
So just a few other observations from the day - the prototypes actually use an off-the-shelf 1080P screen designed for a Raspberry Pi but of course they could be much nicer in the final version or - if they decide to sell this as a kit - perhaps the end user could have a few different options available, and the other thing that we didn’t touch on in the interview was the audio.
Now, both prototypes had speakers built in and all fully wired up and working, but as I’m sure you could hear, it was quite a noisy environment and Richard did say that he’d be looking to put a bigger amp in any future versions because the one that he used for the prototypes didn’t quite cut it.
Another thing that I thought was really interesting was that these were using a slightly cut down version of the full size DE-10 Nano board inside which is part of the reason why they’re so big, but of course with Heber being in the business of hardware design and manufacture there is the possibility that the production version will use a custom board designed around the Cyclone FPGA chip. The only thing holding them back - and being an Intel manufacturing partner they have made enquiries - are the lead times on that chip for the next few years, and unfortunately that’s just the way things are at the moment.
But it was a really fun piece of hardware to play with and it all worked really well even at this early stage.
So as previously mentioned they are looking for ideas so let me know down below and I’ll gladly pass anything on, or go and check out the RMC video if you haven’t seen that yet, and of course there’s also the official MultiSystem account on Twitter as well.
Big thanks to Richard for your time and to Neil for giving me the opportunity to speak to him. Thanks to my patrons and channel members whose names you see on screen as I speak, and of course a big thanks to you for watching.
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