OpenDingux release 2019.05.17

Just a small update to tell you I made a small update to the OpenDingux firmware for the RetroMini.

Changelog

  • V3.0 boards should be supported now. Run flash_v30.bat on Windows or flash_v30.sh on Linux to flash the device.
  • It is now possible to change the brightness level from within the settings panel.
  • The DMA is used for SD card transfers now, so these should be a bit faster.
  • The battery level should be a bit more accurate now.

Download links

The update OPK can be downloaded here: OpenDingux update OPK

For those who did not flash already, an updated flasher can be downloaded here: Flasher tool download

Enjoy!

OpenDingux release 2019.04.30

Hi folks,

Here is the first release of the official OpenDingux firmware for the RS-90 (RetroMini). The root FS is based on Buildroot 2019.02.1, the Linux kernel is based on 5.1-rc5.

Download links

The flasher can be downloaded here: Flasher tool download

The toolchain (for developers) can be downloaded here: Toolchain download

Additionally, for Windows users the drivers required for the flasher tool can be obtained here: Windows drivers download

All the sources can be found on the Github page of the OpenDingux project.

DISCLAIMER

Flashing OpenDingux to your RetroMini will permanently remove the native OS, all the games it contains, as well as your savegames. I cannot be held responsible for any damage that this software causes to your RetroMini device or the software it contains. Use it as your own risk.

How to flash

Attention: This flasher has been mostly tested under Linux, and it seems to be a hit-or-miss on Windows. If you cannot flash from Windows, try it from a Linux live-CD.
  1. With the device powered OFF, connect it to your PC through USB.
  2. Power it ON while pressing A. If done properly, the device will now be in USB Boot mode. On Windows, to continue to the following step you will need to have the driver properly installed.
  3. Extract the ZIP of the flasher tool to a directory. On Linux, run flash.sh from the terminal. On Windows, double-click on flash.bat.
  4. The RetroMini should power up, and show the welcome notice of the flasher tool. To continue, just follow the instructions. The flash operation should take a few minutes.
  5. After the installation completed and the device rebooted, OpenDingux has been successfully installed.

Usage

Those who already used a handheld running the official OpenDingux firmware (Dingoo A320 or GCW Zero) will feel at home. The firmware makes uses of the GMenu2X user interface, and OPKs as the format for the applications.

  • The firmware is standalone, and does not come with games nor emulators. These will need to be installed separately.
  • For file transfers, you can either use a FTP software and connect to 10.1.0.2 (anonymous login). Alternatively, you can use a SSH client and connect as the od user. The default password is odrocks.
  • The games or ROMs should be transferred somewhere inside the home directory or a subfolder. The OPK files must be placed inside the data/apps subfolder in order to appear in the menu.
  • The firmware supports overclocking the CPU. A list of frequencies are provided, from 216 MHz to 456 MHz, but I cannot guarantee that your RetroMini will be able to overclock that much. Mine does, though. To choose the frequency at which an application should run, select it in the menu, press SELECT then Edit; the frequency can be selected through the "Clock frequency" setting. Of course, overclocking will reduce the battery life. On the other hand, underclocking will increase the battery life. The default frequency is 360 MHz.

Final words

This project represents more than four hundred hours of work just on my side, all for free. If you value my work, please consider sending me a tip via PayPal using the "Donate" button on the top-right coner of my blog (or if you're on mobile, at the bottom of the page).

One picture is better than a thousand words

There are still some bugs here and there, but the kernel now supports all the hardware of the RS-90: mth got the LCD screen working, I worked on getting the sound output, USB networking, and NAND support in the bootloader, and zear worked on a ADC driver for the SELECT (and apparently, L) button, and a driver for the battery.

The focus now is to bring a GUI for this little handheld. We could use GMenu2X, but we need a new theme for the 240x160 screen. Also, we need to create an installer to automatize installation of the custom firmware from USB, just like in the good old Dingoo A320 days.

But now I can play Pokémon again, and under ReGBA this time 😀

Saving my Pokémons

The last few days I’ve been toying with the possibility of installing OpenDingux directly on the internal NAND. What I’ve been doing so far, was to boot the kernel from USB, and have it load the root filesystem (an unmodified OpenDingux rootfs for the Dingoo A320) from the SD card. It worked fine, but I had to unplug the SD card everytime I wanted to boot the kernel (required for booting over USB), and I didn’t like the idea of having proprietary software on the NAND.

Problem was, to be able to install OpenDingux on the NAND, I had to format the NAND first. And lose my savestate of Pokémon Emerald, on which I spent more than 30 hours.

After figuring out the changes needed to the memory controller and the NAND controller, I was able to make a full dump of the NAND directly to the SD card, complete with Out-Of-Band (OOB) data (that’s the part that contains meta-data, like error correction codes). I then got the BCH (error correction) controller to work, so I could make a dump of the NAND without the OOB.

The problem is that a dump of the NAND is useless if you don’t know how the data is stored.

NAND flashes are very prone to wear. Each eraseblock (128 KiB of data) can be written only about 1000 times before it starts to fail. To counter this issue, the OS has something called a Flash Translation Layer (FTL). It is basically a table that maps logical eraseblocks to physical eraseblocks. With the FTL, if you store a MP3 on the NAND, your OS will see the file as a continuous stream of bytes till the end of the file, but in reality each block of 128 KiB will be stored at a pseudo-random address somewhere in the whole NAND. If you overwrite the MP3 with another one, the file’s data will appear at the same address, but the new data written will be stored in completely different eraseblocks. The FTL is then a mechanism to prevent the damage done to the eraseblocks by repeated writting to the same files.

Back to my problem. By hex-editing the NAND dump I figured that the filesystem used was FAT16; the problem was that the filesystem lies on top of a FTL, so it was cut in 128 KiB pieces scattered across the whole NAND. I had to figure out a way to map each physical eraseblock to a logical eraseblock. Sure enough, by spending some time hex-editing, I figured out that the first page of each eraseblock starting from address 0x20000 had incorrect error-correction data in its OOB area. By looking closer, I could figure out that one 32-bit word contained a different number for each erase block: most likely that value corresponded to the logical erase block that was mapped to that physical erase block. And sure enough, after modifying the FTL driver that was used on the Dingoo A320 to fit the Retromini’s NAND, I could access the files and save my precious Pokémons!

Now, to finish this post, I have a good news and a bad news.

I’ll start with the good one: I cleaned and pushed my jz-4.18-retromini branch on Github. It contains all the work I did so far on the Retromini, including the FTL driver. By combining all the information I’ve written in this blog so far, it should be possible for other people to boot their own kernels.

The bad news: I know that will deceive some, but I think I’m done with this for this year. I’m about to start a 1800km walk, then probably travel in Spain and South America for a bit. My Retromini will stay at home, like my laptop.

Till next time!

Linux on the Retromini

Time for a progress report.

I successfully booted a Linux kernel on the Retromini some weeks ago. I won’t paste the whole kernel boot here, but you can read it by clicking here.

Since then, I"ve been adding support for the various hardware components of the Retromini in the upstream drivers if they exist, or writting new drivers otherwise.

Here is a list of the hardware components, and their current state:

UART Working Upstream
IRQ controller Working Upstream
PLL and Clocks Working Not upstream
Clocksource Working Sent upstream
System timer Working Sent upstream
Watchdog (reboot) Working Sent upstream
PWM (backlight) Working Sent upstream
RTC (power-off) Working Upstream
Pinctrl + GPIO Working Sent upstream
DMA Working Sent upstream
SD card Working Upstream
Memory controller Working Not Upstream
NAND Working Not Upstream
BCH (error correction for NAND) Working Not Upstream
Audio Not working
USB Ethernet / mass storage Not working
Buttons Working except SELECT Upstream
ADC (SELECT button) Not working
LCD Not working

If I find some time in the next few days, I will clean up and push on Github the current git tree I’m working on.

Some things I thought I’d share:

  • The JZ4725B SoC used by the Retromini is actually newer than the JZ4740. Some hardware blocks are more similar to the JZ4770 than the JZ4740.
  • The RTC does not retain the date across reboots. This sucks, as I won’t be able to play Pokémon games then, as they rely a lot on time. Maybe a hardware modification could make it work?
  • The buttons are for the most part GPIO-mapped. The R button is not available when serial logging is enabled, is it uses the same pin as RX. Also, for some reason the SELECT button is not GPIO-mapped, but connected to the Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC). Whoever thought it was a good idea, should burn in hell.

That’s all folks!

UBIBoot on the RetroMini

Hello there,

For those who don’t know, I had written a bootloader called UBIBoot, quite a long time ago, for the Dingoo A320. As its name suggests, it supported booting from a UBI volume on the NAND. That is to say, it was able to boot a Linux kernel on the only Dingoo A320 with the internal NAND formatted as UBI: my own. I trashed the native OS and was running OpenDingux directly on the internal NAND.

The job of UBIBoot was to initialize the main PLL, the clocks, set the pins of the SoC in the right mode, initialize the SDRAM, initialize the NAND, initialize the SD card controller, and then finally, boot Linux from the first FAT partition of the SD card if there’s one inserted, or from the “kernel” UBI drive of the internal NAND.

All of that in about 5 kilobytes.

Before the GCW Zero came out, I got a prototype (with 256 MiB RAM), and ported UBIBoot to it. It then became the default and official bootloader for the GCW Zero when it was retailed months later.

There’s a fun story about it: the GCW Zero prototype didn’t have marks on the main board to show where the UART pads were, so I ported UBIBoot without having any output log: instead, I was blinking the LCD. My test passed? LCD turned on. It failed? The LCD remained off. Repeat for everything you need to test in your code. Next time it will be faster for me to learn Morse code and make the LCD blink Morse code to me 🙂

Anyway, I disgress. I ported UBIBoot to the RetroMini, and the code is in the master branch now, which means it’s officially supported. The code is available here.

Note that right now, it only supports booting from an external micro-SD card. I did not try to flash it on the NAND; I want to dump the NAND before starting to overwrite it with random stuff.

To compile:
CONFIG=rs90 make

For the stage1 variant, where UBIBoot will only initialize the hardware then return to the USB loader:
CONFIG=rs90 STAGE1_ONLY=y make

Note that right now, it’s only useful for people with a UART cable soldered and who want to boot their own Linux kernel (or other operating system).

Next step: boot Linux!

Adding UART to the RetroMini

I recently bought a RetroMini.

For those who don’t know, the Retromini is a cheap ($25) chinese handheld gaming console, like there exist hundreds of variants.

What sets it apart, in my opinion, is that it’s perfectly tailored for emulating GameBoy and GameBoy Advance games. The D-pad and face buttons are the best ones I’ve seen since the original GameBoy, and the screen is beautiful (I heard it’s actually the exact same screen as in the GBA Micro). The shape is also perfect, I don’t get cramps playing, which I had on the original GBA. The sound is good, the device is small enough to fit in a pocket (size of a GameBoy Pocket more or less). The only critic I have is for the L/R buttons, which are microswitches, and awkward to use. But I can live with that, I’d mostly play Pokémon anyway 🙂

Besides, the reason I bought it isn’t really for playing GBA games, but because its System-on-chip (SoC), the central piece containing the processor and the device controllers, is an old Ingenic JZ4725B. I’ve been playing with the JZ4740 on the Dingoo A320, the JZ4770 on the GCW Zero, and the JZ4780 on the MIPS Creator CI20, trying to upstream support for this SoC into the Linux kernel. Owning the RetroMini means I can test the drivers I write to one more Ingenic SoC, and start to support it upstream.

To write code for the RetroMini, I need two things:

  • a way to load my code into the RAM and have the CPU execute it;
  • a way to see what my code is actually doing.

 

Loading the code

Point 1). is easy; by powering ON the RetroMini while pressing B, the CPU will switch into a special mode where it will listen for commands on the USB bus. By sending specially crafted commands, it is possible to load custom code to the RetroMini. To make the process easier, I wrote a tool called jzboot that will upload the code to the RetroMini.

 

Debugging the code via UART

The simplest way to debug your code is to just make it print stuff to the output console. Print register contents, print “success” if your check worked, print “oh noes” if it failed… If your program outputs text to the console, the whole process of writing a program becomes much easier.

The problem is getting the text output.

When you load code to the RetroMini, its hardware is in an uninitialized state; the RAM won’t work, the micro SD won’t work, and the LCD won’t work. This means that unless you write code to initialize it, you won’t be able to display text on the LCD. Thanksfully, there is another way, called UART. By connecting the TX and RX pins of the UART of the SoC  to an external UART receiver, we can receive on a PC the output of our program.

By looking at the datasheet (section 2.3.2) I could deduce that the TX pin was the pin number 58, and the RX pin was the pin number 57. Following closely the traces on the PCB (with a multimeter), I ended up soldering wires to the following points (click to enlarge):

You should connect these pins to a UART-to-USB adapter. Search for FTDI on your favourite online store. Here is an example: UART to USB adapter. The important thing is that it should work in 3.3V. Most of these modules come with a jumper to toggle between 5V and 3.3V I/O, it must be set to 3.3V if you don’t want to toast your RetroMini.

Then, solder the PCB’s TX to the adapter’s RX, the PCB’s RX to the adapter’s TX, and the two GND points together.

 

Making the RetroMini more retro

I didn’t want to solder my UART-to-USB module directly on the PCB, it wouldn’t look good and wouldn’t be practical should I want to actually play on the RetroMini. So I just drilled a hole on the back of the case and put a SUBD-9 connector there, the “official” connector for UART:

Looks good right? 😉

Next step: write some code!