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

Linux User & Developer, Issue 144

Linux User & Developer Issue 144In addition to my regular four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes a detailed review of the Nvidia Jetson TK1 single-board computer (SBC) as so very kindly provided by Zotac.

Impressive popularity in the US coupled with regulatory red-tape delayed the Jetson TK1’s release in the UK and prevented press from getting their hands on the gadget. Thankfully, Zotac – the company chosen to take on the logistical details of international availability by Nvidia – was kind enough to provide me with the only press sample in Europe ahead of its formal launch at high-street retailer Maplin.

A review of the board was published in Custom PC Issue 133 from a hobbyists perspective as part of an extended seven-page Hobby Tech column, but this coverage concentrates much more closely on the device’s suitability for the Linux developer. As a result, you’ll find more in-depth analysis of the bundled operating system – Linux 4 Tegra, a customised variant of Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux – and a critical look at the lack of OpenCL support, despite its presence in the Tegra K1 process on which the Jetson TK1 is based.

I won’t give too much away here, but I’d urge you to pick up a copy of the magazine and read the review before shelling out the £200 – far higher than the $192 of its US launch, even taking VAT and import tax into account – Maplin is charging for the device, especially if you have plans to use it in hobbyist electronics projects or for GPGPU offload tasks.

A visit to your local supermarket, newsagent, or pointing your browser at digital distribution services like Zinio will also reward you with four pages of the latest happenings in the worlds of open source, open hardware and open governance, along with a selection of interesting features written by people who aren’t me. The contents of this magazine will also be later republished in France, translated as Inside Linux Magazine.

Custom PC, Issue 134

Custom PC Issue 134In this month’s Hobby Tech column I spend a fair amount of my time looking at the excellent Gamebuino, an Arduino-compatible hand-held games console I had the pleasure of backing on Indiegogo. As well as an interview with its creator, Aurélien Rodot, there’s a tutorial on building a cut-down variant on a breadboard, alongside a pair of reviews covering the Banana Pi and HummingBoard i2eX.

First, the reviews. I’ve had a prototype HummingBoard and a retail-model Banana Pi for a while, but have held off on giving either a proper review – although Issue 131 did include a preview of both. In the case of the HummingBoard, I needed to wait for final-release hardware; the Banana Pi, meanwhile, suffered from low-quality early-release software. Thankfully, both issues have now been addressed – the former thanks to the ever-lovely New IT, the latter due to the diligent work of the software developers working on the Banana Pi project – and I’ve been able to dedicate two pages this issue to a full head-to-head review of both devices.

My interview with Rodot comes off the back of his hugely successful Indiegogo campaign to build an Arduinio-compatible hand-held games console. Ending more than a thousand per cent above his original goal, the project caught the public’s attention in a major way – and with one of the finished products in my hand, it’s easy to see why. Although its 32KB of program storage, 2KB of RAM and tiny Nokia LCD are minimalist, the device is easily accessible for those wanting to learn game programming and can even act as an I²C controller thanks to two broken-out buses on the top-side.

Sadly, there’s no way to get your hands on a Gamebuino post-Indiegogo until Rodot launches his web store – planned for October, he tells me – so to tide readers over this month’s column includes a two-page tutorial on building your own. Although significantly cut down compared to the real thing – there’s no light sensor, speaker, battery, or micro-SD card reader – it’s a quick and easy project that allows users to start playing with the Gamebuino ecosystem ahead of the device’s general availability.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

Raspberry Pi User Guide, Third Edition

Raspberry Pi User Guide Third EditionThe recent launch of the Raspberry Pi Model B+, a redesign of the popular single-board computer that addresses some issues with the original while doubling the number of USB ports and increasing the size of the GPIO header, unsurprisingly means that there’s a need for a new user guide. As a result, it should come as no surprise that J. Wiley & Sons has published the Raspberry Pi User Guide Third Edition, a revised work that adds details regarding the new Model B+.

Completed earlier this year thanks to pre-release access to a prototype Model B+ provided by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the latest edition of my book includes everything a reader needs to know about the latest model. The chapter on using GPIO has been updated to include a full pin-out of the new elongated header and details on how best to use the new USB ports have been added. It’s not all about the Model B+, however: there are entirely new chapters in this edition, including one covering basic programming with Minecraft: Pi Edition from Mojang.

The release of this third edition comes surprisingly soon after the Raspberry Pi Second Edition hit shelves, but those who have already purchased the previous edition needn’t panic: unless you have a Model B+ there’s little you desperately need to know that isn’t contained in the previous release, and if you have a burning desire to use Minecraft: Pi Edition you can find a similar tutorial in my recently-published MagBook 21 Brilliant Projects for the Raspberry Pi from Dennis Publishing – along with, as the title suggests, another 20 projects that you won’t find in the User Guide.

The Raspberry Pi User Guide Third Edition is due to arrive in stock at most outlets within the next couple of weeks, with Amazon UK taking pre-orders for a 19th of September delivery date. If you can’t wait that long, the Kindle Edition is already available for immediate download. Those buying in other countries or high-street book shops should ask their retailer for ISBN 978-1118921661. As with previous editions, numerous translations will follow in the near future.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 143

Linux User & Developer Issue 143In this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine you’ll find, in addition to my usual four-page news spread, a review of the Banana Pi – a ‘clone’ of the Raspberry Pi featuring upgraded specifications.

I first discussed the Banana Pi in Custom PC Issue 131, where I compared it to the impending launch of the SolidRun HummingBoard. I shied away from offering a true review of either device, however: the HummingBoard had not been released at the time and I was working on pre-production hardware, while the Banana Pi suffered from glitchy software that its creators assured me would be addressed in future updates. Sure enough, the software has now been bolstered and works like a charm – giving me the chance to really put the Banana Pi through its paces.

There’s been plenty of negative sentiment towards the Banana Pi since it hit the Chinese market, mostly centring around its clearly Raspberry Pi-inspired name and more-or-less cloned layout. I, however, welcome its release: with a more powerful Raspberry Pi at least a year or more away from release, the Banana Pi is a perfect upgrade for those who find the Raspberry’s single-core ARMv6 processor – woefully out of date by modern standards, having been near-obsolete when the board launched two years ago – lacking.

The Banana Pi isn’t just a slavish copy, either. Sure, the 26-pin GPIO header is present and correct and you’ll find the right ports in more or less the right places, but the board includes a dual-core ARMv7 processor, 1GB of RAM, SATA connectivity and even an on-board microphone. In short, it’s a serious upgrade and offers considerably more software compatibility than the device from which it takes its inspiration – including the ability to run Android, something that was promised for the Raspberry Pi shortly after launch but never materialised.

If you want to read my conclusion on whether the board is worth the £41.95 that UK reseller New IT is charging, you’ll have to pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 143 either physically or via Zinio and similar digital distribution service. If you do, you’ll also find four pages of the latest open source and open hardware news, an events calendar, and a variety of things written by people who aren’t me.

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.