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RetroN 77 - FAIL?

Posted by Thomas Jentzsch, in Atari 12 July 2018 · 730 views

RetroN 77 Hyperkin Stella

I had a few hours to test the console and I must say, I am overall disappointed.
 
Positives first:

  • Very good HDMI output (it even remembers the last 16:9 or 4:3 setting, which is a surprise)
  • Convenient form factor and nice design (though I wonder why the woodgrain is orange?)
  • Convenient to use IF it works
  • Very little lag
  • The CPU seems powerful enough for newer Stella versions
  • PAL ROMs work well too (though the picture is somewhat small for PAL50)
Negatives:
  • The software is a only stub! (at least there is hope for improvement here)
    • Not only did they use a very outdated version of Stella (5.5 years old!), but that version is almost completely unaltered.
      E.g. it says "State 0 saved", which indicates that one can save more than one state (like with Stella). But you can't! So why didn't they at least remove that number? That's a one minute change! (Stephen took the time to fix it)
    • Since the code is unaltered, Stella is writing its (of course unchanged) configuration files to the SD. If this process is interrupted, e.g. by using the cart slot or switching off the console, there is a high risk that the configuration gets corrupted. This can cause all kind of problems with Stella (e.g. not responding fire buttons) and can only be cured by manually restoring the configuration file. That's the opposite of plug and play. (fixed by Stephen Anthony)
    • The menu is extremely simple and minimal. It has only 18 entries (hard coded!), no subdirectories, no paging and the game name gets mutilated to just 8 characters. (*)
    • Initially, not even the license link was spelled correctly. Quality control???
    • You can only select a new ROM by switching off and on the console. This takes a while and I wonder how long the power button will survive this (see below). There are so many buttons on the console which could be used here (e.g. press Load and Save together). (*)
    • Finally I had a brief look at some of Hyperkin's software and I am not impressed. It looks like a cheap hack job. A far cry from the quality of Stella's code.
  • The dumper might have been a good (marketing?) idea, but as it is now, it is pretty useless.
    • It only works with very few bankswitching schemes (only Atari 8K and 16K, named F8 and F6, details here), so that bank switched games are prone to fail. (e.g. Parker, Tigervision, M-Network, CBS, Activision)
    • Even some carts using a supported bankswitching scheme fail randomly.
    • Modern homebrews (even those who don't use ARM hardware) also fail regularly.
    • Even games <= 4K fail, sometimes an inserted cart is not even detected.
    • If the dumper fails, there is not even an error message.
    • The code for the dumper is not available (yet?), so there is nothing which can be done here.
    • If the code ever become available and can be improved, it is unclear if the average user can make use of that
    • If a dump is successful, why does it not save the ROM to the SD cart? Then it would at least make some sense now.
  • Even the emulation itself has severe flaws.
    • The old Stella version does not support many modern homebrews and has problems with a few old games (e.g. Kool Aid Man, Meltdown)
    • Emulator and TV are not synced, this causes massive tearing on horizontal scrolling games.
    • For some people, Paddles are basically useless, since they react very erratically. For me they work OK.
    • Many controllers which support extra buttons do not work, they often cause the console to crash.
    • Keypad, trackballs, driving controllers etc. are not supported at all.
    • AtariVox/SaveKey does not work too.
  • The build quality seems flimsy.
    • Many people reported easily broken joysticks 
    • The console buttons are not best quality too
    • The power switch feels like it may break soon
    • The cartridge port is unprotected, so that dust may get into it. Also when plugging in a cart, the mechanic feels less sturdy than on an original console.
(I will extend the list when I have more time for testing.)
 
So the basic roots are there for a good alternative to a console. But in its current state, I would not suggest to buy one. :thumbsdown:
 
(*) Look here for an improvement.






I thought they were going to send test units out. I guess either they didn't, or they did and nobody did any proper testing, or they did and decided to ignore the results. This shouldn't be a shipping product.

 

I had considered buying one, but not unless these issues get fixed.

 

Another point to consider: Hyperkin has been shipping consoles like this for four years, and this is the best they can come up with. What chance does AtariSA have with the Ataribox? (That's a rhetorical question. The answer is still none.)

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I got a test unit, but only ~2 weeks ago. So way too late for any fixes. 

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What happens when a cartridge doesn't work? Garbled graphics? Black screen? Or does it ignore it and put up the menu?

 

Similarly, what happens when a ROM doesn't work off the SD card?

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Usually just a black screen.
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In the Stella Retron77 branch, I've just committed a fix (hopefully) for the 'config file corrupt on exiting' bug.  This branch has also been updated to 3.9.3.  So that's at least one bug fixed.  Anything further will require more work, as outlined in the Retron77 blog.

 

The source for the dumper has been released, but it's in assemby (expected), without details on how to modify/upload it.  And the license is unclear.

 

Otherwise, I agree with the analysis.

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Thanks Stephen! I updated my list above and added my first findings in the dumper code (which is even more basic than I thought).

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Disappointing to hear about these issues, some of which I was already aware of, but some are new to me.  Seems pointless to add cartridge support if that support is very much hit and miss. 

 

Your review would probably get more attention if you started a new forum thread about it.. 

 

 ..Al

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While I think I have fixed the file corruption issue, I was a bit over-zealous in completely disabling saving settings.  It seems that there is one setting that Stella can change, and needs to be saved to stellarc.  The button for 4:3/16:9 is mapped to 'toggle windowed/fullscreen mode'.  So that's where the setting is saved.  I need to have Stella save just this one setting.  And if the file is ever corrupted, all you lose is that one setting, which can be toggled by pressing the button again.

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Your review would probably get more attention if you started a new forum thread about it.. 

There are already more than enough threads, I will add some links to this to the existing ones.

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On the 2600daptor and stelladaptor page, it says the original stelladaptor and 2600daptor support joystick, paddle and driving controller with autodetect. So, the driving controller does not work with Indy 500?

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Great review. I don't disagree with anything. 

 

I had some correspondence with Andrew, the person here from RetroN, right after he signed up and posted

I was supposed to be in consideration for developer testing.

I explained I have many controllers, displays, and old and new cartridges to test things. 

Also about setting and using Stella with real Trak-ball, paddles, etc. with the 2600-dapter. I explained Trak-ball looking like a joystick, or as a mouse-like tracking device. He was genuine and fascinated by some topics.

 

At least getting some developer feedback would have given them the range of serious issues, minor annoyances, and things they got right -- or things that are great. 

Now the preorder buyers are the testers. Maybe too expensive to have a small production of consoles, when the Current and next version can be updated?

For instance there is so many good things to say about the joystick, and one serious issue. If they fix the breaking plastics and sell them separately I would order more than one or two extra joysticks. 

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I wasn't interested in this product when I first heard about it, as I think a PC running Stella and connected to the TV can basically do the same thing (and much, much more). USB adapters for original controllers already exists as well as a vast selection of USB controllers from arcade sticks to d-pads, and cartridge dumpers have been produced for other systems and are possible for the 2600 too, if one really wants the "illusion" of playing the original carts (There have been examples of DIY projects like this one: https://atariage.com...on-an-emulator/).

That  said, I admit that given the small form factor and low price, I might consider buying one in the future IF the software side is improved to solve the severe issues Thomas mentioned in the review. As Nathan said, it shouldn't be a shipping product in its current state.

I overall like the design, although it looks like the buttons and switches are placed without much thought: I would have preferred to have the original 5 switches (TV-TYPE, LEFT and RIGHT DIFFICULTY, SELECT and RESET) all aligned on the front panel, with the same labeling and order as in the original 6-switch console, and separated from the emulation related buttons (save/load, aspect ratio). The TV-TYPE switch on the back is an issue for any game using it for gameplay. I also would have preferred toggle switches for difficulty and TV-TYPE (I think it would be trivial to modify Stella to support them), while a soft power switch would have probably been better, allowing the CPU to finish write operations before shutting down thus reducing the risk of corrupting the files on the SD card.
Oh, and the cart port is backwards!!!! I'm disappointed that Hyperkin didn't correct this even if it was pointed out after the first prototype was shown. It has been speculated that it was an intentional choice for people not familiar with the original console, but I find it a questionable choice neverthless because, in this way, both the end and main label are upside down when the cart is in the system.

In order to convince me to buy this console, it NEEDs to have the following features:

- Stella 5. There's no going back!

- CRT effects, phosphor emulation, TIA interpolation (I'm not a fan of a raw TIA image displayed on a 50+ inches TV with big flat square pixels. It really detracts from the experience in my opinion)

- File browser with support for directories, no limit for number of files and long file names (8 characther DOS-style filenames? C'mon, the Harmony cart displays full filenames on a 40 years old console!)

- The Cart dumper should work with all the classic bankswitched carts. It's more a novelty for me and not something I' would likely use very much, but since it's there, it should at least play the original games as advertised. I know it could never play everything (compumate, supercharger, flash carts, modern homebrews using coprocessors, etc) but Batari wrote code for the harmony cart to work as a dumper years ago and it autodetected correctly many classic schemes, so we know it is possible to make it work.
It would be also nice if you could save the dump on the sd card, there are still a few dumps of classic games missing, and revisions of already dumped ones still to discover, but the current solutions to dump games are not user friendly and tipically also require soldering skills. (I know this is outside the scope of the product, but I think it would be a nice addition and probably easy to implement)


- It would be nice if the controller ports could support other controller types (at least driving controller and keypads should work. Adding Trackballs, Genesis pads and maybe the booster grip would cover almost every game ever released). I know autodetection could be problematic or even impossible for some of these, but a selection menu would be prefectly fine (autodetection could be reserved for paddles and joysticks that are the most common ones).


 

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Under your negative 1.5. I just leave a cart sitting high in the slot while playing from a ROM.  When I want to go back to the menu a push down and up of the cart triggers the reset.  Not ideal, but it saves the turning off and on again switch and is faster.

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Yes, I thought about this too.

 

But at least currently there is a risk that Stella is killed by the dumper and thus the config file gets corrupted. And I am not sure how well the port will survive this workaround. 

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I don't see why we need auto-detection of controller types. The original hardware didn't do it. And in emulation it can be manually selected, or selected on per-game basis via a lookup table.

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For manual selection we would need some kind of UI, even for carts in the dumper. Stella's current UI is tailored to be used via keyboard, so that cannot be used out of the box.

 

And of course we need some kind of (missing) detection, why else would some controllers not work? Stella can handle them, so the problem must be in Hyperkin's software.

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Just released rev2 of the firmware.  It contains the 'stellarc' config file bugfix, as well as the 16:9/4:3 toggle sometimes not working.  Also fixed the part of 1.1 about the '0' being in the state load/save messages.  An easy fix.  You are much better at the UI 'fit and finish' stuff than I am :)

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That stupid blog software kills my strike throughs when editing! :x

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For complicated entries (which is just about anything other than straight text) I work in BBcode mode, and copy it over to a text editor to make changes. When I have it updated, I paste it back in as BBCode, and publish it without previewing. Usually that will keep my formatting intact. Plus, it gives me an unaltered backup.

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1.4 is actually fixed in the latest (rev2) release as well.  Nothing major, just my OCD with spelling mistakes.

 

1.3 is fairly easy to fix.  But I would recommend just re-writing the frontend UI entirely, as it's a very small amount of code.  Besides, it's written for SDL1, and if Stella 5 is ever ported to this, then the frontend needs to be rewritten for SDL2 anyway.  Having it use directories, long file names, etc is a solved problem; Stella already does this stuff internally, so one could just lift the code from there (and release the frontend under the GPL, of course).

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