Archive for June, 2015

June 27th, 2015 ~ by admin

The 16-bit Transistor level MegaProcessor

16-bit MegaProcessor ALU

16-bit MegaProcessor ALU

James Newman in Cambridge (UK) is creating a 16-bit discrete Processor Design called the Megaprocessor (there is nothing micro about it).  Not a VLSI version either, a 16-bit processor built of discrete transistors, hand wired, hand soldered, with debugging provided by…3500 LEDs.  He admits perhaps things got a bit out of hand when a co-worker remarked that it would be helpful if a signal had an LED on it, thus providing the motivation to go out and build a complete 16-bit processor.

James estimates that the design (he is still building it) will take 14,000 discrete transistors, 3,500 of which are actually to drive the LEDs.  ROM and RAM (256 bytes each, assuming he doesn’t get carpal tunnel from soldering it all) will be an extra 16,000+.

An original Intel 8086 used 29,000 transistors, and was a similar 8/16 bit architecture.  The Novix NC4016 stack processor, also 16-bits, was a very clean design using only 16,000 transistors.  HPs original BPC 16-bit processor from 1975 was 6,000, so James design is certainly inline with expectations (though his sanity maybe in question).

While this seems like a crazy amount of work (it is), This is how the first transistor computers were made.  The original DEC PDP-1 from 1959, used 2,700 discrete transistors, and was an 18-bit design.  The Apollo Guidance computer from 1966 was a 16-bit design (using IC’s with 3 transistors each, so a bit easier construction) used 12,300.

So while James’ design may be a bit over the top, it provides a good look back at where we have come.  Today chips can have well over a billion transistors on a die smaller then a fingernail.

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Just For Fun

June 16th, 2015 ~ by admin

MCS-4/40 Test Boards once again in stock

After much delay the 4004/4040 Test Boards are now back in stock.  Only 9 of them so if you need one, order away.

June 11th, 2015 ~ by admin

Dallas: Reaffirming the Viability of the 8-bit Processor

The introduction of the Dallas Semiconductor DS87C520 reaffirms the viability of 8-bit processors for new and demanding applications.  Those were the words written about the the Dallas DS87C520 (and its ROMLess version the DS80C320) in 1994. The Intel MCS-51 architecture it was based on had been released 13 years prior, in 1981 and ran at up to 12MHz.  By 1994 the Pentium had been released, with speeds of up to 100MHz.  Full 64-bit processors were also available, yet the 8-bit processor continued to hold on, and grow.

Dallas Semi. was founded in 1984, by former Mostek employees.  Their first products were lithium battery backed SRAMs, a product pioneered by Mostek.  Dallas added power saving and sensing circuitry to them though, greatly enhancing their usefulness.  In 1987 they combined with with an MCS-51 microcontroller to make the DS5000, which ran at 16MHz and provided battery backed SRAM.

With the release of the DS87C520 in 1994 they redesigned the MCS-51 core, allowing it to complete a machine cycle in 4-clocks vs the original 12.  They were plugin compatible, providing a simple speed up for 8051 systems.  Max clock was also raised, to 33MHz as well as additional interrupts, 16K of EPROM, an extra 1KB of SRAM and many power saving features/modes.  Other companies (such at Philips, and Atmel) began to also make enhanced 8051s, including things such as Flash memory and expanded instructions/features.

Its now 2015, and the 87C520 continues to be made, as does hundreds of other MCS-51.  It was surprising in 1994 that the 8-bit processor continued to be viable, and perhaps to some, even more so, that 21 years later, it is still viable, and shows no signs of slowing down.  The recent push into the Internet-of-Things (IoT) market has 8-bit MCUs in Internet of Things yet again.  While many companies have marked numerous 16-bit and 32-bit designs as ‘a migration path from 8-bit’, that migration is yet to be seen.  There simply is no reason, no need, and no desire to plug a 32-bit processor in where an 8-bit processor, implemented in a few thousand transistors, will do nicely.


June 2nd, 2015 ~ by admin

MG80386SX: Pin counts: How low can you go?

Intel MG80386SX16 in a 88-pin PGA

Intel MG80386SX16 in a 88-pin PGA

Seeing this pin out, the first processor that comes to mind probably isn’t an Intel 80386.  The 80386DX came in a 132 pin package (PGA or QFP) and the 386SX came in a 100 pin QFP.  The 386SX was the low end version of the 386.  It made do with 16 bits of Data bus, and 24 bits of Address, as opposed to the full 32-bit buses of the DX.  This accounts for 27 less pins (16 Data + 7 Address, 2 data byte selects and a 16/32 bit pin).  That covers all but 6 of the difference in package sizes.  Where are the rest from?  As with most processors, the signaling pins are not the only pins used, or not used on a package.

The 80386DX has 84 signal pins, pins that carry information to or from the processor.  It also has 40 pins for power and ground.  In the early days, when processors had only 40 pins or less, it made sense, and was feasible to have a single power and ground for the entire chip.  As complexities increased, routing became harder, and it became easier to have multiple power and ground pins to the die.  Not to mention electrically more stable, as current requirements were also increasing.  In addition the 386DX has 8 pins not used at all.  These are known as ‘No Connects.’  They are reserved for future use, or were there for testing, or simply just not needed.

Intel 5962-9453301MXA MG80386SX16 - 16MHz 80386SX - 1996 Full Milspec

Intel 5962-9453301MXA MG80386SX16 – 16MHz 80386SX – 1996 Full Milspec

Moving to the 386SX, which has 26 less signal pins (58), the standard 100 pin package used 10 No Connects and the rest (32) for power and ground.  The pictured 386SX is a late production (1996) military spec processor in an 88 pin package.  88 pins still leave plenty (30 pins) for power, ground, and no connects.  The PGA 386SX was only produced for military/industrial uses.

Why use an expensive PGA package on a low end SX processor?  The reduced bus sizes were plenty for many industrial applications while the ceramic package was much more reliable, and mechanically strong when soldered on to a board then a plastic QFP.  The PGA could work over the entire military specification, for temperature, voltage etc.  Its likely the 386SX could run on an even smaller pin count, but the PGA88 package was a standard package already in production, which often dictates how many pins a processor will have.  The same is true today, pin-count is usually driven more by what works for the package, then what the processor actually strictly needs.