There’s little doubt that optical media was revolutionary for games consoles back in the 1990s. Free from the increasingly restrictive storage space of cartridges, CD-ROM consoles dominated the market in the fifth generation, with only the N64 still flying the flag for the cartridge format. While almost undoubtedly the right decision at the time, optical media has left a legacy of broken and unreliable systems as the moving parts and lasers in these vintage systems wear out and become unreliable. Like any machine with moving parts, eventual failure of optical drives is pretty much a certainty, leaving a bleak future for these historically significant systems. Clearly, something needs to be done and luckily, thanks to the hard work of yet another dedicated team of retro console hackers and engineers, the future of original PlayStation consoles looks a lot brighter.
Rather than continue to use the old, unreliable optical drives in classic consoles, wouldn’t it be great if they could be replaced with some kind of modern storage system? Sure, you can always use a full blown emulator, but emulation is always an approximation of the real, original hardware and will never be a complete replacement. For those wanting to use authentic hardware, a new breed of optical drive emulators is starting to emerge. By moving the consoles primary storage device to something more modern, like an SD card, the unreliable optical drive is eliminated, while keeping all other aspects of the console intact and otherwise completely authentic. PSIO (pronounced sigh-o, we’re reliably informed) from Australian based Cybdyn Systems is a new upgrade cartridge for the original PlayStation console. Like similar projects for the Dreamcast and Saturn, the PSIO is an optical drive emulator, allowing for CD images to be played from an SD card or via a USB link to a PC. PSIO works on any PlayStation console that has the Parallel I/O port at the back (this port was removed on later machines for cost saving and to prevent piracy enabled hardware from being sold). As long as you have that, you’re good to go.
The cartridge itself arrives in a simple brown cardboard box (as shown above) with the PSIO logo printed proudly on the front. Inside the box, the standard kit contains the PSIO cartridge itself and a switch board, as well as a quick start guide. The PSIO cartridge comes in a sturdy grey plastic case that matches the colour and finish of the standard PlayStation console pretty much perfectly. There are no exposed/bare PCBs with this device, everything looks to be made to a professional standard.
In order to start using PSIO there are a few things you need to do. First of all, the switch board that comes with the unit needs installing inside your PlayStation console. Installing this modification requires some soldering skills and involves cutting traces on the motherboard. This is certainly more complex than installing a GDEmu into a Dreamcast, for example. If you need help with this step, Cybdyn offer a fitting service themselves, or you can order the installation service from our store here.
Installing the switch board does not prevent the PlayStation’s CD-ROM drive from working and there’s no need to worry if you already have some kind of mod chip in your console, this won’t cause any compatibility issues. By retaining compatibility with original optical disc based games, PSIO allows you to test out any disc based software you might purchase for your collection and enjoy the benefits of optical drive emulation, all without needing two separate consoles.
With the modification board installed, you then need to prepare a suitable SD card for use with the PSIO. Cards up to 32GB in size are officially supported, though you can go for something a little bigger than this if you’re prepared to jump through some hoops. The SD card must be formatted as FAT32, officially Windows only supports FAT32 on SD cards of 32GB or smaller. To get around this limitation you can use a program like Paragon Hard Disk Manager, which will let you format your SD card (or any other device) however you please. We used a 128GB Kingston SD card and once formatted to FAT32 using Paragon, Windows had no problems reading or writing to it and it performed perfectly with the PSIO hardware.
To prepare your freshly formatted SD card, it’s simply a matter of visiting the PSIO downloads page and downloading the menu system, then placing this file on the root of your SD card. Updating the units firmware is super easy too, to do this you simply download the firmware files and place them on the root of your SD card. Once this is done, pop the SD card into your PSIO system and power it on, updating then takes just a few seconds.
The very first time you fire up the PSIO you will get a little introduction video before you’re sent to the main menu. This video mostly shows footage of PlayStation games, somewhat pointless but a nice little tease of what’s in store. Once this is done, you’re sent to the devices main menu and can browse the contents of your SD card. There’s even a little tune that plays while you browse the menu and configure the devices options. Unlike GDEmu, for instance, where the menu system was clearly an afterthought, PSIO feels like a very polished product both in terms of software and hardware.
Oppa ISO Style
PSIO itself isn’t an awful lot of use without some software to run on it. In order to run a CD game on the device, you will need to use your computer and convert it to a .BIN/.CUE, .ISO or .IMG format file. The popular free CD/DVD recording software Imgburn can handle this for you and is easy to use. For many games, all that is required is this simple format shifting and then copying the produced image file to the SD card you prepared with your PSIO system files. Each CD image file should be placed in its own directory on your SD card. We found that some images were not properly recognised if their file names contained spaces, so it’s probably best to name your image files without them (i.e. FinalFantasy7.bin rather than Final Fantasy 7.bin).
PSIO is region free, you can run disc images from any region on any console. Running NTSC software on PAL systems can cause issues with some HDTVs however, since the vertical refresh rate is quite a bit off spec. This isn’t a fault with PSIO, more a design limitation of the PlayStation itself. We’ll have a solution to this problem in our workshop soon, so watch this space.
If your game uses CD audio, you will need to go through an additional step to prepare your CD image. Visit the download section on the PSIO homepage and download and run the Systems Console program (currently this is for Windows only). Using this program and the instructions in the systems manual you can convert BIN/CUE images into the CU2 format that PSIO requires. For those of you with large catalogues of PlayStation images already ripped, it can be an extra inconvenience, but the conversion only takes a few seconds so it’s hardly anything more than a trivial annoyance at worst. If you miss out this step, your game will still start, but you won’t hear any in-game music.
It’s even possible to place a small (80×84 pixels) bitmap image into your games folder on the SD card. If you do this, the PSIO menu will display this when you select your game.
Compatibility and performance
Like similar hardware for the Saturn and Dreamcast, having PSIO installed in your PS1 is like having the best, most reliable CD-ROM drive ever built. Loading times are quicker than from a real CD-ROM, games never skip, struggle or fail to read. Seek times are always minimal and the PlayStation becomes whisper quiet.
Compatibility is very good in our tests, but not quite perfect. A small number of games exhibit glitches and some simply won’t load at all. Notable titles that aren’t compatible include quirky rhythm action game Vib Ribbon (apparently this is unlikely to ever work due to its unusual way of handling CD audio) and 2D run and gun game Gunners Heaven (this simply freezes while loading). Cybdyn are working on new firmware updates all the time and compatibility is likely to be improved as time goes on. If you need to play an incompatible game, there’s still the option of loading it from the original CD, which is, of course, still 100% compatible.
Using the USB
The USB port on the PSIO can be used to connect the unit to a Windows PC. From here, you can stream game images from your PCs hard drive, giving you potentially unlimited storage space to use with your PSIO cartridge. To use this mode, simply load the Systems Console program on your PC, connect the USB cable between your PS1 and your PC and then power on your PSIO equipped PlayStation. The Systems Console tool should then recognise your PSIO and you can stream a CD image to the unit. If your game has CD audio, things get a little more complicated. In this situation you need to first send the PSIO menu software (MENU.SYS) down the USB. Once that has loaded, you tell the Systems Console software to open the virtual CD drive and load in another image, which must then be started from the PSIO menu screen. It’s considerably more of a faff than just using an SD card, so perhaps not that useful.
In our tests, compatibility with USB mode was definitely not as good as just using an SD card. Some games which ran from SD card perfectly would freeze when streamed via USB. Others would run but with no CD audio, even when run through the menu system first. We imagine the USB mode will be the most useful to homebrew developers who want to cross compile and test PlayStation code on a real console rather than on an emulator.
Tantalisingly, there are indications that future versions of the Systems Console will include even more features, including the ability to transmit and run PlayStation executable files directly and the ability to upload and download files from your PlayStation’s memory card. This latter feature is great for gamers who want to use a mixture of PlayStation emulation (with its fancy upscaling) and genuine hardware.
Cybdyn Systems have really delivered an excellent, feature complete product with the PSIO device, producing not only excellent hardware but software too. Going beyond the features we’ve come to expect in optical drive emulators thus far, the PSIO adds its superb functionality without requiring the removal of your PlayStation’s optical drive. While the largest supported SD cards won’t accommodate bigger libraries of PlayStation games, for most users a reasonably sized SD card is entirely adequate and we’d question the wisdom of trying to cram and then navigate through every available PlayStation game on a device like this anyway.
Supported by a friendly community of developers and users (our questions were answered extremely quickly on the official forums), the device looks like it will go from strength to strength. The small number of compatibility problems are disappointing, but realistically unavoidable and likely to improve over time. At 149.95 Australian dollars (approximately $120 US/£95 GBP/110 Euro ) the price compares favourably with other optical drive emulators we’ve seen, while offering more functionality than any others we’ve yet tested. Like these similar products, obtaining the unit can be difficult as demand typically outstrips supply, so if you want one, be sure to get your name on the waiting list here. PSIO is another triumph for skilled homebrew software and hardware engineers and an essential purchase for PlayStation retro gamers.