Retro computing is much easier when you don’t have to deal with actual physical disks. Commodore retro computing is that much more so, because you can’t write a 1541 disk image with a standard PC. There are three major ways to use flash-based media on Commodore computers today. People most frequently ask about the two cheapest methods, Pi1541 and SD2IEC. So let’s compare and contrast the Pi1541 vs SD2IEC.
Both the Pi1541 and SD2IEC allow a Commodore computer to use SD cards instead of disks. The major difference is the Pi1541 closely emulates the real 1541 drive, so it works with a larger number of titles than an SD2IEC does.
Why does Pi1541 vs SD2IEC matter? Why not original hardware?
Flash-based media is attractive for a number of reasons. Even if you have a 5.25-inch drive in a PC, a PC can’t write Commodore disks. So a flash-based solution makes it much easier to get software to your Commodore from a modern computer. The second problem is finding working 1541 drives these days. I bought several back when they were dirt cheap because I knew I’d want at least two someday. Two don’t work at all. Two worked, but I had to align them.
But to align them, I needed a way to load an alignment disk. Having a Pi1541 let me do that. And now I can use the Pi1541 to copy disk images to real disks on the real drives if I want a more authentic experience.
But most of the time, I prefer using the Pi1541. It’s much more convenient than dealing with disks and fiddly 35-year-old drives that haven’t aged well.
The ultimate solution for flash-based storage is called the 1541 Ultimate. It plugs into the cartridge port and IEC port and emulates the 1541 perfectly, while also providing you almost any fastloader you want, RAM expansion, and probably some other things I’ve forgotten about. It’s dreamy. It’s also really expensive and there’s always a waiting list for it.
Being able to skip the wait and have something half as good for a third the price seems like a good deal to me.
Advantages of the SD2IEC
The SD2IEC was the first of the inexpensive flash solutions, so it has the advantage of incumbency. People who already had an SD2IEC automatically tend to like it best.
But it has compelling attributes besides just being the first. You can buy one ready-assembled. It doesn’t work with all fastloaders, but it works with the major ones. And it’s really fast. Since it doesn’t have to be cycle-exact, it can saturate the IEC bus. It’s faster than a real 1541 for the same reason a 1581 is faster than a 1541. It has better seek times.
It’s not a 1541 emulator. It’s more like an SSD for your Commodore. Sure it sounds ridiculous, but it’s nicer than crusty old floppies. Some people thought putting a 3.5-inch drive on a 64 was ridiculous in 1986 too. A few hundred thousand of us did it anyway.
Disadvantages of the SD2IEC
The disadvantage is software compatibility. You can get around that to a degree. Most C-64 software you find online these days is cracked, so it doesn’t require perfect 1541 emulation. The bigger problem is if the game had its own fastloader that the SD2IEC doesn’t recognize. The SD2IEC works with common fastloaders by faking it. If it can’t fake it enough for the fastloader in the game you want to run, you’re out of luck.
But a lot of popular games, especially multi-disk games, have been remastered in recent years for higher-capacity, low-compatibility devices like the 1581. These versions will usually work on an SD2IEC too.
The other issue I had with the SD2IEC was that whenever I went to look for one, many of the ones I found mounted internally. I wanted an external one, so I could unplug it and use it with other machines. I use a C-64 the most but I have other Commodore machines.. Maybe when you read this, external units will be easier to find.
Advantages of the Pi1541
The Pi1541 came about when hobbyist Steve White proposed a cycle-exact 1541 emulator based on a cheap Raspberry Pi. He wanted something that could be about as cheap as an SD2IEC but as compatible as a 1541 Ultimate. And to a large degree, he succeeded.
The advantage is compatibility. No one knows exactly how compatible it is, but when an incompatibility arises, White fixes it quickly and releases an update. Using it with a fastloader requires a tweak, but it’s easy enough to do. Once you do that, it works with any fastloader you want, except for those exotic ones that add a parallel connection. That’s completely understandable.
And it’s inexpensive. I spent $20 on a Raspberry Pi Model A+, $8 on a power supply, and maybe $10 to build a Pi hat to plug the Commodore IEC cable into. Or you can buy a variety of pre-made Pi1541 hats. It’s also not a bad idea to kick a few bucks over to Steve White to thank him for his work.
You may very well end up spending $50-$60 by the time you’re done, but the result is a very compatible SD card solution for your Commodore. And that’s in line with the cost of a real 1541 once you factor in shipping.
Disadvantages of the Pi1541
Of course there are trade-offs. That’s part of the Pi1541’s design. The speed really is the same as a properly functioning 1541. Even with a fastloader, it won’t keep up with an SD2IEC.
And while the SD2IEC isn’t necessarily a plug-and-go solution, the Pi1541 never is. You’ll have to buy the Pi1541, prepare an SD card, build or buy a Pi hat, assemble it, then use it. It probably took me an hour or two to get mine up and running.
Pi1541 vs SD2IEC: In conclusion
So when considering the Pi1541 vs SD2IEC, which one do I prefer? If you haven’t figured it out yet, I prefer the Pi1541. The SD2IEC isn’t bad, mind you. But the Pi1541’s better compatibility is a big advantage for me, and the Pi1541 keeps getting better. In a few years, it’s possible people will be asking why anyone ever bought anything but a Pi1541.
If you want the cheapest, fastest solution, the SD2IEC is definitely faster, and it’s usually a bit cheaper. But if you want greater compatibility and you’re fine with paying $10 more to get it, the Pi1541 is the one you want.