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The Ultimate Cartridge
by Magic/Nah-Kolor

Attitude has an exclusive talk with the engineer behind the Ultimate cartridge, Gideon. Included is a sneak preview of the coming new Ultimate II+ version!

Introducing Gideon

Magic: Welcome Gideon to this interview... People might know you from the ultimate catridge but how and when did you first get involved with the Commodore 64 computer and what did you do with the good old breadbox?

Gideon: My first time that I have seen a Commodore 64, was through my older brother. He was a teenager at that time, excelled in math, and had an extraordinary interest in computer programming. He started with the Sinclair ZX81. I was never allowed to touch his tech stuff, but sometimes I would quietly experiment and try to imitate what my older brother did. The ZX81 was quickly replaced with a Commodore 64. By this time, I was 9. It was not until I reached the age of 11 that I got my own Commodore 64. Basically there were two things that kept me busy with the old breadbox: collecting games and programs, and some programming. Actually, I spent more time on collecting and copying games than actually playing them. There were only a few titles that caught my interest, such as Giana Sisters. I must have been 14 or so, when I reverse engineered the game, figured out how levels were stored, wrote a simple level editor and shared it with my friends. Together we made 33 new levels, and packed it together in the so called "Giana Sisters II" game. Oh yes, I remember using the Commodore 64 also in the first few years of secondary school. I wrote my reports using PrintFox from Hans Haberl.

Ultimate cartridge history

Magic: Do you remember when the first idea has come to mind for creating the Ultimate cartridge? What were they? What was the goal back than in creating such cartridge?

Gideon: That's quite a big jump, Magic! So many things happened between the top years of the Commodore 64 and the Ultimate cartridge! I must admit that I totally abandoned the Commodore 64 and the Amiga in 1996 when I got my first PC. In retrospect, I think I stepped into the PC world quite late, as my first machine was a Pentium! Anyways, I went to university, studied electronics and found myself a nice job. In this job, I was able to develop the use of FPGAs in the company, due to my combined interest in electronics and programming. I was convinced of the potential power of FPGA parts, and I realized that they could contain CPUs as well. FPGAs were not big at that time, but I thought: it may be possible to implement a 6502/6510 in an FPGA. So I did, placed it inside of an old C64, and debugged it with an external logic analyzer until it would boot into the blue C64 screen!

At this point, around 2003, I joined the computer club in Maarssen and found out that the Commodore 64 was not "dead" at all. First I was working on a 32-bit variant of the 6502, but I never got to finish this. I got to know Jeri Ellsworth, a nice young lady from Oregon. She was working on bringing the whole C64 into an FPGA. Later, her design ended up in the DTV as many of you know. I had been playing around with this idea as well, but I didn't want to play the "me too" role, so I decided that it would be good to implement something else. The idea of the 1541 came up. Not much later, I took an evaluation board of a Spartan 3, and demonstrated the first 1541 emulation inside the FPGA, attached to a real C64. It was a design with some hassle: you needed a PC in order to download a floppy disk image into the emulator. Not user friendly. At this point, I was sharing a room at work with another Commodore enthusiast. We discussed the 1541 emulation, and thought about possible ways to make this idea into a usable and portable emulator. Here the idea of the 1541 Ultimate was born: a cartridge with an integrated 1541 drive, with an SD card to store the floppy images.

Not much later, this must have been in 2007, a first prototype was demonstrated at the computer club in Maarssen. I remember well how skeptic I was about actually taking such a thing into production. It was Twoflower from TRIAD that happened to visit the computer club on that day, who talked to me about this. He asked me: If you were to take this into production, how many do you have to produce to make it even possible? I answered: "I don't think it won't be possible for less than 40 pieces." His answer was clear: "Go ahead with it. I will spread the word, and I am sure you will sell more than 40 in Sweden alone." And so it happened. Note that this was before the Ultimate I was released. Feedback from production, as well as the desire to build something more expandable in terms of features, led me to make the 1541 Ultimate II, which was released in 2009.

Magic: What else did you do with Commodore 64 and Amiga after the release of Giana Sisters II and your demise of both in 1996?

Gideon: I remember that I first experimented with electronics and the C64. One of my first experiments was the attachment of an NTC to the paddle port input of the C64 to measure the temperature. Later I built my own audio sampler on the user port, and I made some software tools to program my own EPROMs. The C64 left a bit sooner than the Amiga. The Amiga was mostly used for C programming, and desktop publishing. It worked well together with the HP DeskJet Plus, one of the first inkjet printers for consumers. I also played around with 3D modeling, but the machines at that time were actually too slow for it to be fun.

The Ultimate cartridge I and II

Magic: What are the main differences between the Ultimate I and Ultimate II?

Gideon: Hardware-wise, the Ultimate II was optimized for manufacturability. I experienced quite some issues with the fine pitch PQFP package. I also moved up to a bigger FPGA in a BGA package, and added USB to the equation. The firmware got completely rewritten from scratch, so basically there are not too many similarities under the hood. The Ultimate I was written to run on a 6502, but the limitations of its 16 bits address space quickly became evident. The first "escape" was to split data and instruction space to get 128 kB of usable space. But all the bank switching was too much hassle. It simply was not anymore a maintainable piece of code. The Ultimate II started off with a tiny 32-bit stack processor, so a flat memory programming model could be used.

Magic: What makes the Ultimate II cartridge stand out to other similiar devices on sale today anno domini 2016?

Gideon: From what I picked up from user feedback is that people really appreciate that it is an "add-on" to a real C64 machine, and not a complete replacement. On top of this, the emulation of the 1541 drive is pretty good. There are not that many titles that don't run on the 1541 Ultimate II. It, being a cartridge and not a stand alone device, gives many more possibilities. In fact, the 1541 Ultimate II is so much more than just a floppy drive emulator. Think of all the cartridges it emulates, the extra audio features, the extra RAM it provides to the C64 by means of the integrated Ram Expansion Unit (REU) and the tape deck emulation. Just to name a few. Over time it really has become a feature packed device.

The Ultimate II+ cartridge is coming!

Magic: Time doesn't stand still... It's 2016 now... You recently told me you are working on The Ultimate 2.5 cartridge.. What is new in this version and will there ever be the Ultimate III cartridge?

Gideon: What is new in the Ultimate II+ is the addition of Ethernet, which is directly attached to the FPGA, without the need of using a USB2LAN adapter. Again, the size of the FPGA increased somewhat. The speed of the memory has increased, and the unit will have 3 USB ports instead of one. The connectors moved a bit, to facilitate the use on a C128, and it now "officially" has an external 5V power supply connection (MicroUSB), in order to use the cart in a standalone mode, as well as to decrease demand on the poor C64 power supply. It will still run the same 3.x software as was already available on the Ultimate II. There are no plans for the Ultimate III.

Biggest differences Ultimate II+

  • No more MicroSD (that needs to be pushed in with something sharp, could fall into the case, etc.)

  • More USB ports (one to compensate for the lost SD, and just one bonus: 3 in total)

  • IEC connector moved (further back to facilitate use on some C128 models)

  • Integrated Ethernet (no more need for an external USB2LAN adapter, and a smaller step to CS8900A compatibility)

  • Dual Flash (no more worry that a software bug or upgrade failure leads to a bricked device)

  • Integrated speaker (who connects a speaker set to the audio jack for hearing drive sounds?)

  • External power supply connector with auto-switch over circuit (for standalone mode, and to lower the demand on the power supply of the C64)

  • Improved Audio (audio codec, 24 bit/96 kHz, for sampled sounds and SID emulation)

  • Improved tape connector (no more custom board and able that snaps in on the bottom, but standard USB 3.0 cable)

  • Improved power supply circuits (for some reason they seemed to break down relatively often)

  • Slightly bigger and faster FPGA, as to control the new features
For more information about the Ultimate II+ cartridge check out the official website!

See the next page for a preview image of the Ultimate II+ cartridge.


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