What’s all this?

Question MarkWell, it’s a portfolio of Gareth Halfacree’s work, silly. He’s the former systems administrator to the left, currently earning a living as a full-time technology journalist and technical author. You may know him from his best-selling book the Raspberry Pi User Guide, which has sold over 100,000 copies and has been translated into numerous languages, or his contributions to national magazines, radio programmes and books including Imagine Publishing’s Genius Guide and Tips, Tricks, Apps & Hacks series and his eponymous “Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech” feature, a five-page spread in Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine each month. Read more

Custom PC, Issue 133

Custom PC Issue 133This month’s Hobby Tech is an absolute giant: seven pages long, owing to a bonus two-page review of the Nvidia Jetson TK1 development board – and many thanks to the guys at Zotac for granting me exclusive access to the UK’s only press sample ahead of its retail launch! The usual five pages are filled with a tutorial on using relays with the Raspberry Pi, an in-depth look at the Phenoptix MeArm, and a tour of the excellent DOSBox software.

The Jetson TK1 is a good place to start. It’s no Raspberry Pi: launching at £199.99 via Maplin – despite a far lower $192 US RRP – the board is designed for developers with big pockets. Despite this, it may actually be worth the cash: it’s by far the fastest single-board computer I’ve ever had on my test bench, with four 2.3GHz Cortex-A15 CPU cores, a fifth ‘Shadow Core’ for background tasks, and 192 Kepler-class graphics processing cores on its sadly actively-cooled chip. There are, however, issues that will trouble hobbyists looking to use the system. Most surprising of these is a lack of OpenCL support, despite the Tegra K1 on which the Jetson TK1 is based supporting it just fine.

From the high-end to the pocket-friendly with the next review: the Phenoptix MeArm. Supplied by Ben Gray, its designer, the MeArm is a kit of laser-cut acrylic parts and a selection of hobby servos for building a desktop robotic arm. Compatible with anything that can drive servos – or even things, like the Raspberry Pi, that can’t, if you add an I2C controller board – the MeArm is a fascinating entry point to hobbyist robotics, and doubly so thanks to its open nature and extremely low cost.

The tutorial this month is an extension to the Twitter-connected doorbell which appeared in Issue 130. Although the original design worked fine, it lacked an audible alert. The solution: using a relay to trigger the original doorbell’s sounder unit, turning my design into a drop-in upgrade for any wired doorbell while also teaching the basics of how relays can extend the capabilities of a microcontroller or microcomputer platform.

Finally, DOSBox. While I’m a big believer in using real-metal hardware for my vintage computing, even I have to admit that sometimes emulators can be extremely handy – and DOSBox is one of the handiest around. More properly termed a simulator, DOSBox allows you to run old MS-DOS software on modern systems – complete with filters that improve the graphics and full network support. Designed primarily for gaming, its compatibility with images created using the KryoFlux – reviewed in Issue 131 – mean it’s perfect for retrieving data from ageing floppy disks, as well as playing Doom the way it should be played!

All this, plus a bunch of other interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your nearest newsagent or supermarket. If you’d prefer not to leave the house, try a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

PC & Tech Authority, Issue 201

PC & Tech Authority Issue 201It’s always a pleasure to get your name in a new publication, and doubly so when it’s in foreign climes. As a result, I was thrilled to find that my recent review of the Intel Galileo has been reprinted in Australia’s PC & Tech Authority, making the first time to my knowledge I have been published in the region.

The original review appeared in PC Pro Issue 238, and if you’re thinking that the cover stories look similar you’d be right. PC & Tech Authority’s publisher, NextMedia, operates a republishing agreement with Dennis Publishing which results in the magazine being an Antipodean rewrite of PC Pro.

The review itself is unchanged, beyond a switch to the local price of the Galileo. It has also been published on the official website, while you can pick up a copy of the magazine itself in a variety of formats if you’d like to see what else is on offer.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 142

Linux User & Developer Issue 142This month’s Linux User & Developer includes, in addition to my usual four-page news spread, a review of the Cubietruck single-board computer from the creators of the Cubieboard family.

I reviewed the Cubietruck’s predecessor, the lower-cost Cubieboard 2, back in Issue 139. Glancing at the specifications, it’s easy to see they’re related: the same AllWinner A20 dual-core system-on-chip ARMv7 processor is present and correct, although the DDR3 memory has been doubled to 2GB. The general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header is also shifted, moved from the underside location of the Cubieboard 2 to the top side in a more traditional layout, but in doing so its creators have chopped the number of pins from 96 to 54.

The loss of GPIO pins is matched by the addition of extra features not present in the Cubieboard 2: integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity using an on-board chip antenna and a gigabit Ethernet connection. That makes the Cubietruck an interesting device for low-power storage: the system comes bundled with a case that allows a 2.5″ hard drive to be slung under the unit with both 5V power and SATA data passing up to the Cubieboard’s on-board ports via a small cut-out in the PCB. It’s clever, although a slightly bottlenecked network means you won’t get the full gigabit throughput you’d see on a more powerful x86-based server.

The real question with the Cubietruck, however, is whether it’s worth the price. Supplier New IT sells the Cubietruck for £89.95, a £40 premium over its predecessor. While that price does come with the features listed above plus the aforementioned acrylic case and a small, optional, heatsink for the SoC, whether it’s worth the extra will depend on your target application.

To find out my final opinion on the device, plus to read about all the latest news in the world of free, libre and open-source software, open governance and more, pick up a copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 142 at your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or a similar service. French readers will, as always, see a translation of my news and review appear in Inside Linux Magazine in the coming months.

Custom PC, Issue 132

Custom PC Issue 132In this month’s Hobby Tech column I show the reader how to make an Internet of Things ticker-tape system using a cheap thermal printer, talk about the wonderful Internet Archive, review the Cubietruck single-board computer and the Spark Core wireless microcontroller.

First, the Internet Archive. A not-for-profit organisation based in the US, the Internet Archive has no lesser goal than to preserve and provide public access to all media. It’s home to video and audio recordings, text files, books, and the famous WayBack Machine that provides a user-friendly interface to its archived websites. For Hobby Tech, the key feature is found in one particular area of the site: the Computer Magazine Archives, which includes full-colour scans of every issue of BYTE, Commodore Format, Dragon User and more. It’s a treasure-trove of information, and one that relies on public funding to operate.

This month’s tutorial is a riff on the tutorial in Issue 122. Where that used an Arduino to turn a thermal printer into a 21st century fax machine, this tutorial uses the same printer connected to a Raspberry Pi to print a daily summary of your digital life, including local weather reports and a Sudoku puzzle. It also monitors Twitter for mentions of any keyword you like and prints messages as they arrive. Based on the Adafruit IoT Printer project, it’s a neat way to integrate a little physicality into today’s increasingly electronic lifestyle.

Finally, the reviews. First up is the Cubietruck, also known as the Cubieboard 3. Supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the Cubieboard takes the same AllWinner A20 processor as its predecessor but packs it into a new, larger chassis that includes some major improvements. Perhaps the best of these is a bundled acrylic chassis which houses both the board itself and a 2.5in hard drive in an over-under fashion, creating what I’m pretty certain is the smallest network-attached storage (NAS) device I’ve ever seen.

The Spark Core, meanwhile, is another ARM-based single-board computer, but one that aims at a vastly different market. Supplied by CPC following its massively successful début on crowd-funding site Kickstarter, the Spark Core is a microcontroller featuring a teeny-tiny breadboard-compatible layout and a Texas Instruments Wi-Fi chip. Configuration takes place from a smartphone, while the chip itself can be programmed and flashed wirelessly using a browser-based IDE. It’s a neat creation, and one for which I already have several projects in mind.

All this, plus various features written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Raspberry Pi: 21 Brilliant Projects

Raspberry Pi: 21 Brilliant ProjectsA few months ago I was approached by PC Pro’s Priti Patel with a project proposal: a MagBook featuring a number of interesting projects for the low-cost Raspberry Pi microcomputer. I, naturally, jumped at the chance, and the fruit – pun entirely intended, I’m afraid – of my labour is now available.

Entitled Raspberry Pi: 21 Brilliant Projects, the MagBook features 141 full-colour pages of projects designed for beginner to intermediate users. The introductory projects are, as you might expect, gentle indeed: unboxing and connecting the Pi, installing an operating system via the New Out-Of-Box Software (NOOBS), and the like. From there, the MagBook then covers four project categories: Productivity, Entertainment, Plug-In Hardware and DIY & Advanced.

In the Productivity chapter, I walk the reader through safely overclocking the Pi to boost its performance, sharing a keyboard and mouse with a desktop without the need to move any cables, using the Pi as a thin client for a desktop or laptop running Windows, OS X or Linux, setting up a TOR proxy, and installing and running the popular WordPress blogging platform.

In Entertainment, readers see how to convert any TV with HDMI, DVI, SCART or composite video inputs into a smart TV, work with Minecraft Pi Edition, emulate vintage gaming platforms, and build a headless Internet radio receiver.

For the Plug-In Hardware chapter, I wrote up how to build a digital photo frame, the use of USB-connected application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to mine Bitcoins, a Twitter-powered motion-sensing security system, how to configure the Pi for fully wireless use, and how to combine the power of the Pi with that of the Arduino microcontroller.

Finally, in the DIY & Advanced section, the reader learns how to use the Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) capabilities to build a traffic light system, create a doorbell that sends Twitter messages when activated, drive motors for a robotics system, build a custom arcade controller, create an Internet of Things printer, and how to cluster multiple Raspberry Pi units together to boost performance.

The MagBook is available in supermarkets and newsagents now, and will soon start shipping from Amazon UK for £9.99.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 141

Linux User & Developer Issue 141In the latest issue of Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer, in addition to my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the world of open source, I review the Synology DS414j network attached storage (NAS) system and the Duo Security two-factor authentication platform.

I actually came across Duo Security when I learned that support for the platform had been added to the LastPass password management service. Signing up for an account and registering my details, I found that the software could be quickly and easily used to protect an SSH server – and with more than one public-facing SSH server, that piqued my interest.

Duo Security is a two-factor authentication system which uses push messaging to a smartphone application, turning your phone into the ‘thing-you-have’ portion of the setup and precluding the need to buy a dedicated security token. There’s fallback to other authentication measures, from offline token generation similar to Google Authenticator through to SMS and even voice call functionality. Better still, an account is free for ‘enterprises’ of fewer than ten users.

The Synology DS414j, meanwhile, is the latest NAS device to appear from the company and one designed as an upgrade from its popular dual-bay boxes. Featuring four 3.5″ SATA drive bays, the DS414j comes with Synology’s excellent DiskStation Manager (DSM) Linux distribution, but there’s little doubting corners have been cut: the drive bays are not hot-swappable for a start, which means downtime if you need to swap out a failed drive.

My conclusions on both products, plus my take on the most interesting open-source stories of the month, can be yours with a simple trip to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via digital distribution services like Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 131

Custom PC Issue 131Continuing my terrifically successful Hobby Tech column this month, I cover the building of an arcade controller for the Raspberry Pi using genuine parts and the board’s handy-dandy general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, the Software Preservation Society’s KryoFlux floppy imaging device, review the Matrix TBS2910 mini-PC and offer a preview of the first real competitors to the Pi’s reign: the Banana Pi and the Hummingboard.

First, the Matrix: yes, it’s the same board I reviewed for Linux User & Developer this month, so don’t expect any surprises. It’s still a quad-core Freescale i.MX6 design with pre-loaded XBMC-based Linux distribution, designed for use as an open-source platform to encourage sales of TBS’ digital tuner devices. I was a little more generous this time around, mind, as the majority of Custom PC’s readership use Windows as their primary operating system; as a result, the use of a Windows-only utility to switch operating systems on the Matrix isn’t the no-no that it was for Linux User’s readers.

The KryoFlux is probably my personal highlight from this month’s column. Designed and produced by the Software Preservation Society, a not-for-profit group with no lesser aim than the storage and preservation of every game ever released on almost any computing platform, the KryoFlux is a universal floppy drive controller with a USB interface. Combined with the SPS’ software, it allows very low-level sampling of any floppy disk regardless of format, storing details on the magnetic flux transition timings for later decoding. Oh, and you can write disk images back to fresh media. For a collector with a large quantity of decaying magnetic media surrounding him, it’s an absolute lifesaver – if somewhat expensive for its small component count.

This month’s tutorial focuses on turning some old arcade components into a joystick for a Raspberry Pi-powered games console. It’s actually a lot simpler than you might think: digital joysticks are little more than a set of switches, and fire buttons are single switches; the process is no more complicated than the introductory switch-reading project I wrote for the Raspberry Pi User Guide. Combined with some handy-dandy open-source software, it works a treat – as long as your chosen game doesn’t tax the Pi’s poor 700MHz processor too much, of course.

Finally, the Banana Pi and Hummingboard. Both announced at roughly the same time, the two boards are the first in what I’m sure is to be a long line of Raspberry Pi clones. They’re not slavish copies, however: both bring new features to the table, starting with the promise of more power. The Banana Pi, from Chinese embedded computing specialist Lemaker, boasts an AllWinner A20 dual-core module that offers a rough quadrupling of the Pi’s CPU power; the Hummingboard, previously known as SolidRun’s Carrier One, will be available in models up to and included a Freescale i.MX6 quad-core unit. Add in SATA connectivity and even PCI Express, and you’ve got an interesting pair of designs.

I very deliberately didn’t include a review of either device, however: the Banana Pi’s board design is finalised, but the software is in pre-alpha status and is not comparable to the Raspberry Pi’s years-polished offerings. The Hummingboard, meanwhile, has yet to be fully released with my version being a limited-run single-core developer-only prototype kindly provided by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT. The finished version is due soon, and there’s a dual-core mid-range model with my name on it.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your nearest newsagent, supermarket or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services like Zinio.

PC Pro, Issue 238

PC Pro Issue 238I return to the pages of PC Pro this month, having been approached as the guy-in-the-know when it comes to single-board computers and embedded development platforms. The platform is question is Intel’s Galileo, my review of which enjoys the header splash on the front page. Oh, and before anyone assaults the comments section: yes, I know the Galileo isn’t designed as a direct rival to the Raspberry Pi; that wording is an editorial decision in which I had no part.

This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed the Galileo: I covered it back in March for Custom PC and again in April for Linux User & Developer, having received one of the first boards to hit the UK. I was more than happy to revisit the subject, however: as the first commercial implementation of the low-power Quark processor and Intel’s only device to boast Arduino compatibility and certification, the Galileo is a fascinating board.

Sadly, an update to the latest software and an afternoon of thorough testing revealed little has changed since my earlier reviews. The Quark is still desperately slow, easily outclassed by even the weedy BCM2835 on the far cheaper Raspberry Pi, while its cleverly-emulated Arduino compatibility offers easy access to its GPIO capabilities only if you don’t need accurate timings or any kind of speed.

That’s not to say the Galileo doesn’t have its advantages: the on-board Ethernet is undeniably useful, its partial compatibility with Arduino-format add-ons makes it easy to get started, and the Arduino IDE is always a welcome sight for beginners. Could it have been better? Well, I’d recommend buying PC Pro to find out.

PC Pro Issue 238 is available at all good newsagents, many supermarkets, or digitally on services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 140

Linux User & Developer Issue 140In this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine, I take a look at two devices from the world of single-board computers – just for a change. The first is the Wolfson Audio Card, an add-on for the Raspberry Pi that promises to boost its sound capabilities considerably; the second, a quad-core Freescale i.MX6-based machine that tries its hardest to be an open-source set-top box. Plus, as usual, there’s my usual four-page news spread to enjoy.

The Wolfson Audio Card – or Wolfson Audio Board, depending on who you’re talking to – was supplied, as is usual for this kind of gear, by the lovely people at CPC. It’s the same device I reviewed for Custom PC Issue 130, so if you’ve read that review you’ll know what to expect: a piggyback board which takes up the GPIO port at the top-left of the Pi and adds digital audio inputs and outputs, significantly higher quality analogue audio support, a quality high-definition codec and even on-board microphones.

The quad-core SBC, however, is new. Supplied by UK distributor PCI Express – and yes, that’s a very awkward name for which to search – the Matrix TBS2910 is a powerful system based around the Freescale i.MX6 processor. I was especially excited to give this system a try, as the i.MX6 is considerably more powerful than the dual-core systems I’m used to – and, as an added incentive for giving it a thorough examination, will be the basis for SolidRun’s upcoming Hummingboard SBC design.

The Matrix is pretty unique in the market, in the respect that it comes from a company – TBS – more usually associated with digital television equipment. The reason is simple: the device is supplied pre-loaded with an XBMC-based Linux distribution and drivers for the company’s digital tuners, which can be connected via USB or through the on-board mini-PCI Express slot. I can see the latter interesting those who fancy adding new features to embedded projects, but there is a catch: switching to a different operating system requires the use of a Windows-only software utility, which sadly cost the Matrix some points in a review for a Linux magazine.

You can read these, plus coverage of the Hummingboard and its rival the Banana Pi, Google’s adoption of IBM’s Power architecture, more news from the Linux Foundation on its Core Infrastructure initiative and the death of Canonical’s Ubuntu for Android project, in the latest issue of Linux User & Developer in shops now or digitally via Zinio and similar services. Readers in France will be able to read the same in a couple of months as the localised title Inside Linux.