Author Topic: Duo's NEOFlash Review [English]  (Read 4221 times)

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Offline DuoDreamer

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Duo's NEOFlash Review [English]
« on: May 11, 2005, 05:09:59 PM »
This is the text from my NEOFlash review on http://duo.gbadev.org

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NEOFlash 3-In-1 GBA/SP/DS Magic Key 512Mbit flash kit   

Date: May 10, 2005
Reviewer: Duo

Introduction:

The Nintendo DS. A brand new system with tons of fun hackable possibilities. Okay, so how do we get it to run our own code? Pretty simple with the NEOFlash DS kit. Due to bus encryption on the DS cartridge slot, we can't just make our own DS carts like we could with the GBC and GBA. However, the DS has a feature that will allow it to run code from the GBA slot. Taking advantage of a small window of unencrypted data on the DS cart allows us to tell the DS to start executing code from the GBA slot. To do this, the NEOFlash team has put together a kit with a special dongle and a GBA Flash cart. The result is a system that will run code on a GBA/SP and the DS.

When my evaluation kit arrived from Hong Kong, I was pleasantly surprised to find it well-insulated in a box secured with several layers of tape. Those boys sure like tape. =) Another surprise is the size of the box. Its barely the size of a DS. Opening it revealed a nicely packaged kit with everything nessecary to get code onto your DS.


Specifications:

Quoting directly from the packaging, here are the NEOFlash specs:

128Mb~4Gb flash cart for NDS/SP/GBA 3in1
Come with Mini High-Speed USB loader, the size of loader just same as one gba cartridge.
Build-in battery changeable system
Directly support *.txt / *.html / *.htm / *.bmp / *.dib / *.gif / *.jpg / *.wmf / *.emf / *.ico / *.cur / NES / PC-E / GB / Sega GG / etc... many file formats.
Real UNCOMPRESSED High-Speed NOR-Flash memory system, support 128M~1G rom directly
Whole set included 1pc NEOFlash cart / 1pc USB 2.0 full speed extension cable / 2pc 3V Li-Ion cell battery / 1pc Slim USB loader / 1pc NEO Magic Key.

These specs are quoted word-for-word from the packaging. Obviously English isn't the native language of Hong Kong, but they get an A for effort. Lets take a more detailed look at the specs. The package I received came with the following:
1 NEOFlash 512MBit cartridge
1 USB Slim Loader III Flash Writer
1 USB 2.0 extension cable
1 NEO Magic Key
1 Driver Mini-CD
1 NEOFlash Badge Sticker
3 3V Lithium Button-Cells


Description:

I'm going to take a look at each of the elements. First is the support for 128Mbit~1GBit flash carts for the DS and SP/GBA. The cartridge included in my evaluation kit is a 512Mbit cart, which is fairly identical to the XG-Rom flash cart. A smokey-clear plastic cartridge with a ***y purple PCB inside of it. As of this writing, there are only two cartridges sizes available in the NEOFlash kit, 512Mbit and 1Gbit. The cartridge I received is a fairly slick little piece of technology. The single flash chip on the back of the PCB appears to be an Intel Z412LA35A, a BGA 512M part. Its not even half the size of my fingernail. On the top of the PCB is a mini daughterboard with a glop-top custom IC (handling banking of the large SRAM and Flash chips) and an SRAM chip.

Second we have the High-Speed USB Loader. This is the device that you plug the flash cartridge into when you want to program it. It is very small, and has a 2-inch long USB connector. This, to me, is great. I plug it right into the USB port on the front of my computer case, and it doesn't have a huge cord taking up desk space or making it unwieldy. But, in case you need a longer USB cable, the kit comes with a USB 2.0 rated extension cable.

Next we have the NEO Magic Key. This little device is the key to running DS programs from the GBA Flash cart. This little device plugs into the DS cartridge slot and then you plug a standard DS game cart into it. When the DS boots up, it reads the DS cart looking for information on booting the game. The Magic Key intercepts this read and instead tells the DS to start running program code from the GBA slot, where your flash cart is that has a DS program on it. That is the simple explanation of it. While there are a few different solutions for this piece of hardware, the NEOFlash team has come up with a slick and well-packaged design. The fact that it has a blinking blue LED in it is a bonus for me. ;-)

Then we have the additional stuff. A driver CD, a neat little badge sticker, and three little lithium button-cell batteries for the flash cartridge. The Driver CD is pretty much useless, after they were made, the drivers were updated to a newer version without certain bugs. The badge sticker is cool, if you're into collecting those. Some people might feel special by having it on their NDS. And finally, the little batteries. What are those for? They're for the flash cart's save RAM. Most flash carts have one of a couple of varieties of battery backup for their SRAM. Almost all of them are soldered in place and can't be easily replaced. The flash cart included in this kit has a removable battery in the case that one dies. Just pop out the little battery holder, put a new one in it, and pop it back in. Great idea.


Evaluation:

I was really excited to get my kit, I was definately looking forward to having a flash kit for DS Development. After tearing through the packaging and getting all the parts out, I popped a battery into the flash cart. Easy enough. Now, I know from plenty of experience that you don't plug a USB device in before installing its drivers. Windows just screws everything up. Being that there were newer drivers on the website, I went and downloaded and installed those. I followed the included instructions for installing, plugged the device in, pointed it to the right driver, etc. All of that is in the instructions. Okay, no problems there. Starting up the flasher software, I noticed that it was very very basic and not very intuitive. It performs all of the functions it needs to, however its not very easy to figure out just how to do them correctly. The software for this product is very immature, like it was rushed to production to get the product out as soon as possible. There isn't much in the way of documentation either. I don't have a problem with the motive, but it might turn off some people who can't easily figure out things. (read as N00BS) Hopefully the NEOFlash team has a team hard at work on improving their flash software quickly.

No matter what DS program I threw at it, the NEOFlash always performed perfectly. No lags, delays, or incompatability problems. I also loaded some GBA demos and homebrew games onto the flash cart and tested out the multi-rom menu. Perfect operation yet again. Not surprising on that part, the NEOFlash cart is merely a repackaged XGRom2 cart, from the look of it. No use in re-inventing the wheel on that part. Also, writing programs to the cart was very very fast, it took about half the time to flash a full 512Mbit as my XRom 512Mbit cart takes, but that cart uses the GBA to do the programming, not a separate programming device.


Conclusion:

In my opinion, this is a great kit for DS and GBA development. It supports every function you could need, and flashes very quickly. I'm in the US, so my local NEOFlash distributor is www.alienimports.net. They currently sell the 512Mbit and 1Gbit NEOFlash kits for $199.99 and $269.99, respectively. That might seem like a lot of money, but the kit is quite powerful and unique in the fact that no one else offers a similar kit at this time. The NEOFlash website has forums and other information.

Verdict: 90%

Good kit and very handy, but immature flashing software and lacking documentation prevented me from giving it a perfect score.
 
« Last Edit: May 11, 2005, 05:21:11 PM by DuoDreamer »