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Change of product direction, good and bad news!


What should we do?  

341 members have voted

  1. 1. Should we release the Commander X8?

    • Yes, it should replace Phase-3. It's good enough.
    • Yes, but you should still offer a Phase-3 Commander X16 eventually too.
    • No, don't release the X8, stick with the original plan.
  2. 2. Should we still make a Phase-2 product?

    • Yes, Phase-2 is what I want
    • No, skip and go straight to Phase-3
  3. 3. For the X16 Phase-1, do you prefer a kit or a somewhat more expensive pre-assembled board?



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I wanted to address the recent departure of Perifractic and talk about some of the change in direction.  This could be a long one, so settle in.

The absolute first thing I want to clear up just in case anyone is thinking this, Christian (Perifractic) and I are not mad at each other, we didn't have a fight or a falling out or anything like that.  We are still friends.  This was a mutual decision and it is really mostly to do with his personal issues as he has already stated. 

That being said, Perifractic and I often disagreed over certain aspects of this project.  And because I respect his opinion and experience, I often gave in to his advice on matters.  There were two issues specifically that we disagreed on, which was the inclusion of a case on phase-1 systems, and whether or not the Commander X8 should ever see the light of day.  So, now that he's stepped back from the project, I want to talk about both of these issues and a general change in direction for the entire project.

Dropping the case, moving to kit sales.

One huge issue that Kevin and I have been dealing with (mostly Kevin) is trying to figure out how we can get this manufactured.  In order to get the cases we needed a minimum order of 1,000 units.  And that in an of itself isn't a problem, but assembling 1,000+ motherboards would be.  As I've shown in some recent videos with kit computers, it can take an entire day just to solder one together.  So, 1,000 units (or more) means 1,000 days of work.  So, the obvious answer would be to have them commercial built and wave-soldered.  PCB-Way even offers this.  But, this becomes more of a nightmare than most people can possibly imagine.  I'm not going to go into the nitty gritty details.  It wasn't until Kevin spent hours discussing the issues to me, that I was able to comprehend the enormity of that challenge myself.   Here are just a few of the issues involved.  Getting them the parts.  They have to be shipped to China.  Tens of thousands of dollars worth of parts.  And they have to get through customs and actually arrive at the factory.  If even one piece is missing, then the whole project stalls. Shipping to China is often a crapshoot with packages mysteriously disappearing.  Many of the parts are custom or rare parts that cannot be sourced easily in China. And of course, factories like this require parts to be in reels and various forms designed for their machines to do.  When you actually look at the BOM on the X16 and realize how many parts we're talking about, it becomes a nightmare to find all of the right parts in the right form factor for their machines, and get them those parts.  And everything has to be right the first time.  Every single part.  

And then there's the issue of where to store 1000+ cases, keyboards, and motherboards while it is all being assembled.  We'd probably have to rent a space to do that. Somebody has to pay for that. And then somebody has to actually assemble all of this into a box.  Thousands of boxes.  Incredible amounts of labor here.

And to top things off, there is a chip supply shortage right now.  Some of the chips we need aren't even available at the moment.  And those that are have gone up in price by 50%.  This is hopefully a temporary problem.

Then of course, we had a sample case from the manufacturer.  When Kevin mounted the X16 board inside the power supply died after about 10 minutes.  And our board is only pulling somewhere like 10% of the max load of that power supply.  So, it was definitely a bad power supply.  This made us very concerned about buying 1,000 of these cases and potentially having a bunch of dead power supplies.  That was sort of the straw that broke the camel's back.

And one last thing I'd like to mention.  All of us on the X16 team have spent uncountable number of hours developing this product.  And many of us have also invested quite a bit of money.  In fact, most anytime an expense comes along, all eyes and fingers point to me.  I know Perifractic has already invested a 4-digit number of Dollars towards this project.  Myself, that number is 5 digits.  And up to this point, none of us have made a dime back.  Moving forward with the original plans of full case and fancy packaging was going to require another large infusion of cash (most likely from me) that I just don't have.  I have no desire to mortgage my house to fund this project.  The risk is just too high, and despite what some people think, YouTubers like me are not millionaires.  So, bottom line is we're in over our heads.  So, unless there is some wealthy benefactor out there that would be willing to finance this project and take on the high risk, things needed to change.

So, after much discussion, Kevin and I decided the fastest and easiest way to bring this system to market would be to take a new approach.  As you all know, we had always planned a stage-2 and stage-3 of this product.  I always knew those would be the mass market versions because they would be cheaper.  But I wanted to have the "real thing" with DIP style chips as the basis for the design.  And I wanted it to be available along side the phase 2/3 products for those that wanted it.  And we have that now.  So, what we'd like to do is just start selling the product we have in two ways. 

  • One option is a kit that you solder together yourself.  It would include no warranty and no tech support, other than community support here on this forum or facebook.  Obviously, we'd be able to supply individual replacement parts if somebody fries or somehow destroys some part in the process of assembly.  We just won't be able to help every Tom, Dick, and Harry to troubleshoot why their kit isn't working after they assembled it.  
  • The second option would be to build-to-order.  So you place the order, we build the computer and add a substantial mark up for the 8-hours of labor to assemble it.  But you get a fully working and tested board, which would come with some minimal warranty.  I don't have specific numbers for cost.  But I'd imagine a fully assembled kit would have a markup somewhere in ballpark of $100 to $200 over the kit version.  I know that sounds like a lot, but when you see how much time is involved, it only makes sense. 

Also both the kit and pre-built machine will come with the custom keyboard.  I've already paid 50% down for the PS/2 keyboards, so it makes sense for me to pay the rest and have those included with the computer.  

So, the bad news is, you don't get a case with phase-1.  But on the bright side, this change means the kits could be available relatively soon.  However, as you saw in the last video there are still some Kernal bugs that need fixing and our primary Kernal developer has taken a small hiatus due to some other large project that is consuming his time.  We're not sure at this point when these bugs would be fixed.  However, we could start shipping limited number of "development" systems to people who are already writing code.  And hopefully all we'd need is a ROM update to fix these boards when the kernal bugs are addressed.  

Phase 2, Phase 3, and the Commander X8

So, once phase-1 gets underway, we will consider a few future options based on demand and popular opinion. 

  • Phase 2 would be an all surface-mount product.  It would still have discrete CPU, RAM, ROM, etc.  But it may drop some logic chips in favor of a CPLD to reduce size, complexity, and cost.  It should be substantially cheaper.  Because it is surface mount, assembly actually becomes MUCH easier on a mass-production scale.  In fact, Kevin said he could possibly even assemble them at his own place of business (TexElec) which would simplify the situation a lot.  This product could be sold as a board or possibly include a custom case, unlike Phase-1.  But, we could potentially skip Phase-2 all together if it seems like people would be more interested in Phase 3.
  • Phase 3 would be a small board like a raspberry Pi where the entire system is basically in an FPGA.  I suppose if there were enough demand (like tens of thousands of units) we could maybe get a custom ASIC produced.  
  • The Commander X8 - Believe it or not, this product already exists.  I've had one sitting on my desk the last 6 months.  This is entirely designed by Frank.  It's a 100% FPGA implementation.  It is sort of a subset of the Commander X16.  It has mostly the same architecture, but it has minor differences. There is also already an emulator for it.  It's about the size of a Raspberry Pi.

So what is the deal with the X8?  Frank and I were in favor of bringing this product out 6 months ago due to the delays of the X16.  But some team members didn't like the concept, saying it would dilute the image of the X16.  And they made some good points.  So, we decided not to release it at that time.  But now that things are changing, I thought at minimum I should explain what it is and see what kind of interest people have in it.  On the bright side, it is a product basically ready to be released.  But does fall short of some of the cool things on the X16.  So let me explain how it differs. Most of these concessions and incompatibilities boil down to using a smaller, cheaper FPGA design.

  • It has 64K of base RAM and 64K of VRAM. It does not have any banked RAM beyond that.
  • BASIC works essentially the same and should be compatible with most X16 programs that are coded in BASIC.
  • VRAM access is fundamentally different.  There is a 256 byte window into the VRAM which is mapped to a section of base RAM.  You can move the window around. This is actually more efficient than what we do with the X16 and is only possible because it is all inside an FPGA. This does mean software written in assembly language will need to be tweaked to be compatible.
  • The Vera is more or less the same.  All of the same registers.  Same PSG sound features too.  But, programs that use more than 64K VRAM would need to be modified.
  • There is no Yamaha sound chip.  However, as we've seen already.  The 8-voice sound system in the Vera is pretty darned capable!
  • Uses a USB keyboard instead of PS/2.  and USB for controllers (so, no SNES ports)
  • Runs at 12 Mhz instead of 8.

So, the big question is, if we were to release the X8, would that essentially replace Phase-3 of the X16?  How would this product live along side the X16?  Would it have an effect that people would simply code software for the X8, thus making the X16 be sort of like the Commodore 128 or the Plus/4, where all of the software is written for the lowest compatible system and therefor never taking advantage of the full system?  So, to explore that, I would counter and remind people of what features the X16 has that the X8 would never have and see if that is enough to justify writing software for it?

  • X16 has a TON more RAM
  • X16 has twice the video RAM
  • X16 has 4 expansion slots
  • X16 has a Yamaha sound chip
  • X16 has an IEC disk drive port (although admittedly that is not implemented in the kernel yet, but should be working at some point)
  • X16 is infinitely more "hackable"
  • X16 has SNES ports.

So this product is "really close" to what I envisioned the X16 phase 3 to be like, but not quite.  But on the bright side, it could literally be available almost immediately (pending getting a batch produced) if people are interested in this.  

So, at this point I'm looking for feedback on the future.  Should we continue as planned to phase-2, then phase-3?  Or should we drop phase-2 and move straight to phase-3?  Again, phase-1 would still be available concurrently, and indefinitely for those that want it.  In other words, Phase 3 doesn't replace Phase-1.  Or, should we scrap phase-2 and phase-3 and release the already finished Commander X8?  Or, should we do some other combination of things?

 

 

 

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For some people who lives in other countries like me (Brazil), buying a fully assembled PC can bring a lot of taxes (over the whole price of the product), bringing a product whose price is lower and the size smaller could help us a lot. On the other hand, was a fully FPGA PC really the goal of the project? Why not porting the emulator to arm SBCs, then?

 

About the X16: I prefer buying separate diy modules and assembly/solder the parts by myself, I don't mind having a case btw

Edited by Chandler Klüser
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My preferred option would be the dip-variant to assemble myself... Maybe the Board could get some other form Factor... Maybe to fit in a c64c Case?
Im also currently Dev'ing an advanced ide for the x16 and would also Like to have a Dev board^^ want to try to Upload Code via spi (announcement in that soon)


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I do like the idea of a common case for the X16. Giving it a brand image, something to help make it recognisable as the X16. Help give the X16 the retro feel with manual/book/etc. I would happily buy a kit computer with a X16 custom case to help move the project forward. The case hopefully would be the same for phase 1 and 2. The X8 I suspect would split the community and I'm not sure that's a good idea.

Edited by Justin Baldock
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48 minutes ago, The 8-Bit Guy said:

Would it have an effect that people would simply code software for the X8, thus making the X16 be sort of like the Commodore 128 or the Plus/4, where all of the software is written for the lowest compatible system and therefor never taking advantage of the full system?

This pretty much always happens.
The X8 sounds really cool ... but it's too similar.

I think Phase2 X16 is the right goal for the spirit of the project, too - Phase 1 is good for dev kits and people who want to make hardware for it ... Phase2 is what people are more likely going to want to buy.

If you wanted to then release the X8, perhaps market it as Commander X-Series Portable.

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If the Phase 2 or 3 products will still have expansion slot capabilities then I wouldn't care if you skip Phase 1. And if the boards will still follow ATX form factor (or similar, like Mini ITX) then the case isn't such a big deal since it's purely for cosmetic appeal. 

The X8 sounds fun too so it would be nice to have that as an option, especially if it gets something out there sooner. The X8 actually sounds almost more in line with the spirit of your original drive to start the project, like the worst pain points of the VIC-20/C-64 removed but the classic experience and some modern touches. 

I primarily hope there's a system with RS-232 or some serial port capabilities for BBS/Internet capabilities. I wish this project would just merge with the MEGA65 or Colour Maximite 2 worlds to make both stronger, but sorry to say such heretical thoughts out loud on this forum 😉

 

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3 minutes ago, Jay Crutti said:

If the Phase 2 or 3 products will still have expansion slot capabilities then I wouldn't care if you skip Phase 1. And if the boards will still follow ATX form factor (or similar, like Mini ITX) then the case isn't such a big deal since it's purely for cosmetic appeal. 

Phase 2 would likely have 1 or possibly 2 expansion slots compatible with the phase-1 system.  Phase 3 would have no expansion capabilities.

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Sad to hear bad news, but happy to hear you are looking for options to keep the project moving on!

Very sad to hear the Phase-1 case go... Would it be possible to get the case later as separate purchase? Or may be get an instructions on how to modify the existing case to make it into X16 Phase-1 case? Not the same, but still... I'm just looking for options to save the case...

Edited by Cyber
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51 minutes ago, Chandler Klüser said:

For some people who lives in other countries like me (Brazil), buying a fully assembled PC can bring a lot of taxes (over the whole price of the product), bringing a product whose price is lower and the size smaller could help us a lot. On the other hand, was a fully FPGA PC really the goal of the project? Why not porting the emulator to arm SBCs, then?

Regardless of the project rules about whether or not that can be discussed in these forums, there is the ultimate problem of using licensed ROMs from Cloanto. I don't know if the current ROMs are being included in the emulator and everyone is looking the other way because there isn't any money in it yet, but an emulator for ARM SBCs would be much more of a competitor to a phase 3 style product. Though they are still very different products. The X8 or X16 phase 3 is an FPGA and that is very different from an emulator on a foreign platform.

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This may sound weird, but I find the X8 more interesting than the X16, at this point.

The compact form factor, FPGA design, and USB connectivity all mean that it actually fits what many people want to do better than the X16. All the people complaining about PS/2 keyboards and mice... there's the X8. The only downside I can see to the X8 (aside from the 64K RAM limit) is the lack of I/O for serial devices, so no using this as a BBS terminal or terminal for my Altair.

Regardless, I'd love to see the X8, and if the price is right, I'd buy an X8 and an X16 - the X8 for BASIC hacking and assembly language development, and the X16 because  of course I want one. And the X8 being available right now may give you an infusion of cash that you can put toward finishing the X16 project. 

 

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Ive been a fan even though I am from the philippines.

for me, release the x8 for you to gain capital until the release x16.

i am a fan of DIY like RasperryPi. But may if I might suggest, if possible,

1. Just have the board less to have you solder things. Btw, i am okay as well not to have a case.

2. Use regular keyboard. Have a programmable code to swap or change mapping of the keys or have like an adapter or something.
 

Thanks!

Edited by Themikeeffect
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I must admit the only product I ever actually wanted was the phase 1 product and would be ok if phase 2 and 3 were never released. The DIP dev board would be a dream come true and opens a world of possibilities. The idea of a market for expansions cards and other products is incredibly exciting. I was also never interested in the case, however, the keyboards are nice. I don't see the value in the x8 and would recommend sticking to the x16 line for now to build one consistent ecosystem and then diversify later as you learn more on where the ecosystem goes.

I can't wait to buy one! Great work guys despite the challenges. Thanks!

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For me, the Commander X16 has always been about education.  You can look at it and see how it works.  The parts are not abstract concepts implemented inside an FPGA.  They are physical chips with datasheets connected by higher level block and circuit diagrams.

I want the Commander X16 to be my 6 year old daughter's first computer.  I've never given her a tablet or a video game console.  I want her to understand what a computer is.  I want her to see a computer with all its parts exposed.

A kit will give her this.  An FPGA will not.

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I look at the poll and I have a hard time answering. So much of it to me depends on "what are the price points"? You may have no way to even say at this time.

What is the price for the kit? I don't mind trying to assemble my own, though it isn't something I have a ton of experience with. Given that the board has already been designed to go in an available case form factor, I can source my own case. The fact that there are so many different cases to put a Raspberry Pi in certainly hasn't hurt its adoption (though a completely different market).

What is the price for the preassembled machine? I'm not adverse to buying one of each so I can have both experiences.

If the price for either is $1, then sold! If the price for either is $10,000, I can't afford it. Answering the question either way feels misleading to David and the team without having some estimate, because if I say "I'll buy a kit" then the kit comes out too expensive, then I'll have to pass even though I want to. I hope that makes sense.

As for a phase 2, at the right price I'd like that too.

As for a phase 3, more of the same.

X8 & X16 phase 3, ditto.

One thing I'd be interested in is the HDL for phase 3. It would then be possible to target larger / more capable FPGA boards for those who are interested, much as the Mega 65 used various FPGA trainer boards with various IO capabilities during their dev process. I can appreciate why one might be hesitant to let that genie out of the bottle.

Another thing I'd be interested in is a non-Cloanto ROM based system. There is the open ROM project that already exists in the repo. That doesn't help on the BASIC side, but I don't care, I'd enjoy just being able to hack on that aspect of it!

Anyway ... if price estimates can be provided on the various tiers, it'll help me answer the questions honestly. It may be that a series of kickstarter-esque that establishes reward levels so that people can "buy in" to the level they want is not a bad idea just to gauge interest (though I realize kickstarter has its own problems).

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I think I'm far more interested in a phase 1 kit than either phase 2 or phase 3. I think there will be ongoing demand for a phase 1 kit, even if phase 2 or 3 were available.

There are reasons for wanting the phase 1 format that go well beyond functionality alone, and that would be the format that tinkerers would get the most out of.

It occurs to me that phase 3 may as well be a Mister FPGA rom with X16 branded custom USB keyboard, which would greatly expand the X16's user base.

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I never had any interest in phase 3. A Raspberry Pi running an emulator would give the same experience.

I have mixed feelings about the X8. Honestly in some ways it's better for games than X16. Same display modes. Less VRAM but a portable WI Dow means you could work with less VRAM. In the end though, I feel like this would fracture the development community ivy too much.

The strongest feature of the X16 is your reach, having over 1m subs. This means the system has a real chance to get a real, vibrant ecosystem going. I just don't think there's enough of an audience to feed both systems.

Me, I'm happy to pay the extra to have you or Kevin assemble mine, and will purchase a phase 1 system the very day it's available.

 

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While I'd personally be fine with only having access to a phase 2 or phase 3 product, I'd gladly buy a phase 1 kit on day one to help support the project - just name a price and create an order page and I'll sign right up.  Having an official case is nice and all, but I think that getting the actual hardware out, especially to the people who've been invested early on in terms of software development, is more important - accessories like a case can come along later if demand and budget permit. 

Also, the X8 sounds like an interesting product, but releasing it now would effectively dilute the 'Commander' brand - the X16 has been the primary product the community has been built around, and so releasing something else, even if it's kinda-sorta compatible with the X16, doesn't feel like the right thing to do at the moment.

As for phase 2 versus phase 3, I personally think that skipping phase 2 and going straight to 3 would be fine.  Most people are going to either be early adopters (who will want phase 1 kits or pre-builts anyway), or people looking for a lower cost option (who would be happy with phase 3 systems), so having a phase 2 which doesn't fully meet the need of either group becomes less important.  As long as you keep phase 1 kits available for people who like tinkering and building their own, I think going straight to phase 3 would be best.

 

Edited by Damaniel
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One of the selling point for me was to have a single architecture frozen in time and available forever. The cx8 would basically be a different incompatibile system thus creating a second one, with a different software library etc. It would diluite the software effort. So i'm for NO. It would be a nice platform on its own but not as a second one. 

For the rest, i understand the problems and i'm in for the cheapest option, probably phase 3 (i wouldn't have space for a full case too). 

Keep strong 🙂

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Although, business-wise it's probably smarter to skip phase2. I think the majority of X16 would-be adopters are not here, and not as hardcore as we are, so sampling the forums is not necessarily the most accurate reflection of the general public's view.

Edited by ZeroByte
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I would look at the Commander X8 and the Commander X16 like the Vic 20 and the Commodore 64. I like the idea of both. I am not opposed to kit versions and would more likely consider one as I understand the time and cost associated with populating the board. 

I think I like the two different products for different reasons - the X8 is ready to go, has USB, and as you mention the sound capabilities are more than enough. I liked the dual sound chips in the X16 as I was always interested in music production with it.

Now I do wonder if it is a possibility to release a case design so that if people were to choose to they could 3D print or make one of their own, or find an off the shelf case that works and slap fancy sticker on it. I think the lack of case is a bummer but not a deal breaker, especially if it gets the computer in people's hands today. And while it may not be much it may be able to infuse some cash into the continuation of the project.

I don't think the X8 dilutes the brand. I personally think it builds on it. I am unfamiliar with the feasibility of it but in the end would it be possible to make the X8 compatible with the X16 end product?

Edited by Kevin Kelley
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Been following this for a good while with great interest.. It looked like I wouldn't have been able to afford it myself and my soldering skills are rather crap. As a backer of the Spectrum Next Kickstarter 2, I understand about the chip shortages and inflated prices. 

As for the power supply, it's surprising that there were problems with them. Makes you wonder about the lack of quality control where they're made.

Price permitting, I'd love to get the X8.. I've got a USB keyboard at hand which would really suit it and if needed, I can 3D print a case. 

As for finances, have you considered doing crowdfunding to help? 

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