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   PlanetDreamcast | Features | Skinning Alive
    Skinning the Dreamcast Alive
Don't try this at home! - By Fargo

In Part 1 of our Dreamcast series, we took a look at what the Dreamcast was capable of, and we were pretty pleased with the results. But our tech guys wanted to take it a step farther and see what makes this thing tick. Before you could say, "Put down the screwdriver!" they had this thing opened up like a can of soup.

The Dreamcast breaks down into just a few components.
(Click for enlargement).

WARNING! You void your warranty if you bust open the Dreamcast, and unless you have a couple hundred dollars to flush, you probably shouldn't be taking it apart. There's not much to do in there anyways (there's no switch to flip to give you unlimited lives in Sonic), so rather than risk permanent damage to your new Sega baby, satisfy yourself with the pictures below. In other words, "Don't try this at home!"

Your Mother!: The Dreamcast Motherboard

If you've ever cracked open a Sega Saturn, you'll remember how complicated the innards were with the dual processors and kludging. Not here, the motherboard is pretty compact. Here's what you'll find:

1. Video Memory (8MB)
2. Hitachi CPU (200MHz)
3. Main Memory (16 MB)
4. NEC PowerVR Graphics Processor
5. Video Encoding Processor

6. System ROM
7. 128K Flash RAM
8. Sound RAM (2MB)
9. Yamaha Sound Processor

The main processor, a Hitachi SH4 RISC CPU, runs at 200MHz. For reference, that's twice as fast as the Nintendo 64's processor. 200MHz doesn't sound like much to your average PC user (the system that I'm typing this article on is a 400MHz PC), but keep in mind that the operating system is customized for Sega and the processor is optimized for pure 3D gameplay (specializing in geometry, physics calculations, etc.)

The Operating system is also compatible with Windows CE. Hopefully the flexible platform will make PC ports easier, increasing the Dreamcast's gaming library. No games have shipped using Windows CE yet, so it may be a few months before we see if this gambit pays off.

Sharing the burden of pushing bits to your TV is the NEC second-generation PowerVR chipset. This thing has a rendering capacity of more than 3 million polygons per second. That Playstation you've got right now can only render up to 360,000 polygons per second -- such is the march of progress. The PowerVR chipset is about as powerful as a Riva TNT for the PC. The system has 8MB of video memory.

Sega spared no expense for sound. The Yamaha 32-bit sound processor can simultaneously process 64 channels and has support for 3D environmental audio effects and Dolby surround sound. It's also got 2MB of sound memory to play with.

The Dreamcast has 16MB of RAM as its main memory. Combined with the extra memory for sound and video, that's a pretty decent-sized chunk of real-estate to play with: expect games with larger levels and more detailed environments. (For comparison: Playstation has 2MB main memory and 1MB video memory, while the Nintendo 64 had 4MB main memory).

It's a CD, But Not as We Know It...

No, those discs you pop into your Dreamcast aren't DVDs. Nor are they standard CD-Roms. They're a proprietary system developed by Yamaha known as "GD-Roms," or "Gigabyte-Disc Roms." This is a 12x speed system capable of holding 1GB of data. The load times are noticeably faster than the Playstation, and the capacity is significantly greater (their 2x CD-Rom holds the standard 660MB of data).

The "GD-Rom" drive will hold 1GB of data.

Word on the street is that Sega didn't go with DVD because of the price (adding a DVD player to the Dreamcast would've rocked, but Sega wanted to focus on the gaming market and keep the price under $200.) It's also rumored that Sega hoped to curb piracy by using the proprietary format, since one wouldn't be able to burn CDs on a standard burner. Piracy is already pretty rampant overseas, however, so it may not have been the deterrent that was hoped.

The Modem: Is There Anybody Out There?

Dreamcast makes console history by being the first system with an onboard modem. So far no games take advantage of net-play, but when you buy the Dreamcast you'll find it comes with web-browsing software (web-surfing on TV is horrible, but score points for novelty and foresight.)

The modem is compact
and plugs into the Dreamcast separately.

The modem that ships in U.S. models of the Dreamcast is 56K, which remains the best performance you can get through standard phone lines. However, it scores big points with us for the modularity -- the thing just pops right out, lending itself for future upgrades (cable-Dreamcast? It's possible, although no plans have been announced.)

Other Notables Under the Hood:

A small disc-shaped Lithium battery is housed in the Dreamcast. This little guy is home to your language settings as well as the date/time. When you first unpack the console and plug it in, you'll want to tweak these settings. The battery charges itself whenever the Dreamcast is plugged in.

Here's the itty-bitty Lithium battery so your Dreamcast
remembers that you speak English.

Originally the Dreamcast was supposed to be liquid-cooled. We were pretty excited to open up the case and check that out -- no doubt it would involve hundreds of tiny valves and pipes and pumps and very small migrant laborers to work them. However, Sega seems to have engineered the Dreamcast to run without overheating and scrapped the liquid-cooling -- we saw no evidence of it when we poked around.

Instead, heat is distributed out through a large metal plate that acts as both shielding as well as a heat sink. A sizable fan runs when the system is on to circulate air -- it's both effective and a little noisy. We've had no overheating problems with the Dreamcast, even after extended 12-hour or more sessions.

An Ancient Weapon, the Final Word

We were pretty impressed with the Dreamcast hardware. It's clearly a generational leap above and beyond any existing console systems on the market. It also stands up fairly well against current computer technology. The outlook is pretty positive for the next year, but the boards themselves tell a story:

During development, the Dreamcast was known as the "Katana." You can still see the name stamped on the circuit board.

"Katana" was the original working title for the Dreamcast.

A Katana, of course, is the name for the traditional Japanese sword. Wielded by the Samurai, it could be the perfect weapon, the ultimate tool of destruction. Alternatively, in times of dishonor, one would fall upon one's sword to commit hara-kiri -- ritualistic suicide.

Sega knows that a lot is riding on the Dreamcast. They've fallen from a seemingly impervious industry leadership role in the early 90s to an underdog as we enter the new millennium. Their darkly hysterical television commercials in Japan (see this Slate article) make light of their past misfortunes in what one Japanese executive calls a "sort of wacky hara-kiri approach."

The Katana -- or Dreamcast -- is Sega's weapon of choice. Whether it's their tool of conquest or the instrument of their own self-destruction is up to the next twelve months to decide.

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