The "AnimalSNES"
By Chris Phillips
Posted on October 28, 2003
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Well that was the physical side of things, onto the software. Why go to the trouble of making a case as cool as most of the projects I've seen and then ruin the whole thing with Windows??? Linux it baby! One of the features I was most surprised with was PXE, having never touched it before. A few stages are involved in booting it, but once done they seem really trivial:


This was easy enough, I already had a working DHCP server on my network, and just had to specific details of the MAC address to the dhcpd.conf file, as PXE won't load up at all without it. So to the end I just added:

host animal {
    hardware ethernet 12:34:56:78:90:ab;
    filename "/pxelinux.0";

After this I turned the machine on and it picked up an IP address and started trying to find a boot file to boot to.

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PXE searching for a DHCP server


Originally I installed the netkit-tftp server and configured it via xinetd. It complained on reboot that the server did not support the tsize option though (and google confirmed this) so it was then replaced with tftpd-hpa, which I ran as a full service, and it works fine. It ishere that we choose the actual location to export, which I chose to be /home/netboot. The full tftpd server command then is:

/usr/sbin/in.tftpd -l -s /home/netboot -u netboot -v

And this is run as a startup service. So now I had a way to transfer files, I needed something to transfer.


PXELinux is a version of the common syslinux tools for booting Linux from floppies etc, which has been modified to allow booting of PXE systems. A bit of messing around here due to a slight lack of correct documentation, but eventually all I needed to do was copy the pxelinux.0 to the root of my exported root file system. Rebooting now left PXE searching the PXE configuration for a config file to boot from (it’s quite clever as it searches subnets of increasing scope until it gets back to a full default config. This configuration file, /pxelinux.cfg/default (relative to the networked file system), simply reads

name linux
kernel boot/vmlinuz
    append nfsroot= vga=788     initrd=boot/initrd
    ipappend 1

the ipappend attribute is a nifty PXE only thing which tags the previously obtained IP address to the kernel, so the eth0 interface will come up instantly.

Linux Kernel

I now needed an actual image to boot. This was yet another step easier than I had hoped. First I tested it just by copying my existing Athlon image there, and it found it and begin to boot. Unsurprisingly it quickly fell to a kernel panic, but that’s to be expected.

To make a real kernel I just cloned my standard server source and modified it for C3 architecture. Over a number of revisions I ended up removing a huge amount of stuff from the kernel, including any IDE support and any file systems other than NFS and tmpfs. Also no module support as I had such a small default image I just added the via86cxxx module in to the kernel directly. The closest thing I had to a problem was allowing NFS root file systems, which relied on a couple of other features I was slow at tracking down.

The current .config can be seen here (remove the .txt extension)


NFS is always easy. All I did here was to add to my currently /etc/exports:


and restart the server, what a doddle!


At this stage we were getting as far as a nice manageable...

No init found! Try passing init= to kernel

No suprise there as there was still no OS as such. I was thinking about trying something new for me, like Arch, Slackware or Debian, but as I already had a full stage 3 tarball for Gentoo, it was too tempting to ignore. A superbly hands on yet simple distro to use. After untarring the tarball onto the exported root system and rebooting it booted first time! A few personalisations and bam, all done. One OS booting fine.

There are still a number of software issues separate to the actual install, which I'll mention now.

Tv-Out / Framebuffer

During the months I'd been drooling over the thought of getting one of these things I'd read of people having issues with the TV-Out under Linux, and I'd found a number of driver projects I’d planned on getting to grips with. These were never relevant though, the TV-Out is still fed by a standard VESA 2.0 compliant framebuffer chipset, which I’d assumed was not the case, and when I added vga=788 to the PXE config I wasn't even expecting a result. I was happily proved wrong though. A little fuzzy on coloured text, but that's just a little quibble.

The one thing that was an issue though was the fact that, as you can tell if you compare a program watched on a real tv and a TV Capture card, the TV screen loses a lot of picture round the edge of the screen (when the BIOS is set to display in overscan mode). This meant that I couldn’t actually see what I was typing etc, as the bottom of the screen was chopped off. Ack! Gentoo to the rescue though, as a superb thread on their forums gives a guide on installing a full framebuffer with background images using bootsplash, which - most critically - involves defining a box on the screen for text. So I was able to put an 80 pixel border round the screen, reducing the amount of text I can see on the screen, but hardly an issue if you can actually see what you're typing. So my screen ended up looking like this:

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Screenshot of the bootsplash-ed framebuffer console

And in the photo below you can see just how much is missing when the bootsplash is shown on a TV.

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Real life version of the bootsplash-ed framebuffer console

And yes, I do have a fetish for the Muppet Show (other machines at home are Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie and Crazy Harry).

Watching Videos

MPlayer was the obvious contender for watching titles on the system, as it has a number of good framebuffer outputs already built in – VESA, fbdev, DirectFB, SDL(vesa) and a couple of more obscure ones. The generic VESA worked great first time, and the audio was never an issue in the first place.

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MPlayer in a window

Heat/airflow seemed to be an little issue. The temperature of the Northbridge heat sink while watching a video was very hot. Luckily this and much of the CPU fan is directly beneath the game slot, so I decided to remove the spring loaded flap there - and immediately got decent airflow. Within 5 minutes of finishing the CPU intensive DivX decoding, the heatsink was back to being very cool.

Other Applications

I'm not planning on even trying to use X, as the framebuffer does everything I'm expecting, and I'm not going to be using it as just another computer. I have been looking at other framebuffer compatible applications though, such as links, the web browser. When compiled right links will use a VESA compliant driver giving full graphic web pages. This runs at full screen though, so as above, the edges are not visible in overscan mode. A work-in-progress though. I did also look into DirectFB for running some GTK applications, but DirectFB doesn't seem to work on the TV-Out at all. You never know though…

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links running on the fb driver

Future Plans

There are a few things still hoping to be developed:

  • Infrared input via the FIR connector
  • An interface to use the SNES controller in Linux itself
  • Some sort of file browser so we can avoid typing in file names, maybe in SDL


So that's that. It's a superb little machine that is finally letting me watch downloaded and otherwise obtained videos. It works better than I ever expected it too, superb!

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AnimalSNES in residence beneath the TV