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 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.

Custom PC, Issue 130

Custom PC Issue 130This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC magazine is something of a Pi-extravaganza, featuring a tutorial on how I built a Python-powered doorbell so I wouldn’t miss deliveries when I’m in the upstairs office and a review of the Wolfson Audio Board add-on. If you’re not a Pi-fan, fear not: there’s also my write-up of the first RetroCollect Video Games Market event in Leeds.

That’s a good place to start, in fact. The brainchild of RetroCollect founder Adam Buchanan, the RCVGM brought sellers and buyers from across the UK under the roof of Leeds Town Hall to see what happened. The turn-out was far higher than expected, with a queue snaking through the building and half-way around the outside, but those who stuck with it and got inside were in for a treat.

Exhibitors at the event included people selling 8-bit inspired Hama-bead art, hand-made game-themed jewellery and clothing, and hardware and software from the early 8-bit era right the way through to modern day. Personal highlights included a tour of BetaGamma’s Bas Gialopsos’ latest creations, including hot-rodded Spectrums and a composite video adapter for the Atari 2600, and a chance to chat with Philip Murphy about his North-East Retro Gaming events where over a hundred arcade cabinets, classic consoles and pinball tables are set to free play for the weekend.

For the Pi fan, the tutorial this month demonstrates how a relatively simple hardware hack – a switch connected to the GPIO port – can be used to bring some intelligence to every-day objects. Although I work from home, I often miss deliveries because I’m listening to music and can’t hear the doorbell. While I could have purchased a wireless door-chime with two receivers, I had Pis and switches a-plenty and decided to go for a homebrew solution with Twitter integration – with great success.

Finally for this month, the review of the Wolfson Audio Board. Kindly provided by CPC, the board connects to the GPIO header on the Model A and Model B Revision 2 – but not Revision 1 – Raspberry Pi boards and provides a considerable upgrade to its audio capabilities. To get a full idea of what it can do, you’ll have to buy the magazine – but its highlights include SPDIF digital audio inputs and outputs, high-definition playback, on-board amplification and even a pair of MEMS microphones for stereo recording.

All this, plus a bunch of fascinating stuff that I didn’t write, can be yours at your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 139

Linux User & Developer Issue 139In addition to my usual four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes a pair of reviews: the PiFace Control & Display add-on for the Raspberry Pi, and the Cubieboard 2 single-board computer.

First, the Cubieboard 2. Despite its name, the Cubieboard 2 is near-identical to the original Cubieboard; where the original had an AllWinner A10 system-on-chip (SoC) processor, however, its successor boasts the more powerful AllWinner A20 – cleverly designed to be pin-compatible for easy upgrades.

Buying the Cubieboard in the UK was never easy, especially given the original model’s limited production run. Low-power computing specialist New IT has solved that problem, becoming a reseller for the boards. That’s good news, because the Cubieboard 2 – and its more powerful follow-up, the Cubietruck – is an impressive device: as well as the dual-core Cortex-A7 1GHz processor, it boasts 1GB of DDR3 memory, 4GB of on-board NAND flash storage – pre-loaded with a customised version of Google’s Android by default – and includes on-board SATA in addition to the usual Ethernet, USB and audio connectivity.

The Cubieboard’s true power is hidden on the underside of the board: a pair of 48-pin headers provide access to almost every single feature on the AllWinner A20 chip, from hacker-friendly I2C and SPI to LVDS and VGA video signals. In my opinion, this alone – even ignoring the significantly improved performance – is a reason to consider paying the premium the board demands over the popular Raspberry Pi.

Speaking of the Pi, the PiFace Control & Display add-on is an impressive piece of equipment. A piggyback board designed to mount onto the Pi’s GPIO header, the PiFace C&D offers a 16×2 character-based LCD panel, a series of buttons and an infra-red receiver – all of which can be addressed using a simple Python-based library, replete with example projects from a game of hangman to a system monitor script.

With the Pi being well-suited to embedded projects thanks to its GPIO capabilities, low power draw and impressive pricing, the PiFace C&D makes implementing such projects without local access to a display and keyboard a cinch. While the pricing is perhaps a little high – doubling the cost of a Model A-based project – it does make life a lot easier.

Finally, my news spread this month covers the launch of the WebScaleSQL MySQL fork, Nvidia’s Jetson K1 developer board, Facebook’s Hack language, the brief tenure of Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich, the Canonical-KDE display server spat, the rebirth of the Full Disclosure mailing list and more.

For all this, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t write, head to your local newsagent or supermarket, or pick up a digital copy from Zinio. French readers can expect to see the same content, translated and published under the Inside Linux title, on shop shelves next month.

Custom PC, Issue 129

Custom PC Issue 129In this month’s Hobby Tech spread, settling nicely into its expanded five-page format, I show readers how to build a near-field communication (NFC) power switch for their PCs, reuse some classic keyboard key caps from an Amstrad CPC 464, review the CubieBoard 2 and interview Ryanteck’s Ryan Walmsley; it’s a bumper column, in other words.

First the review. The CubieBoard 2 has been available internationally for some time, but has only recently reached our shores courtesy low-power PC specialist New IT. Designed as an alternative to the ever-popular Raspberry Pi, the CubieBoard 2 boasts a dual-core AllWinner A20 processor, 1GB of RAM, and – something that will likely interest many – an on-board SATA port with 5V power for 2.5″ storage devices.

The CubieBoard 2 is supplied with a terrible Android port on its internal flash storage, but software support is excellent – unusual for consumer-grade single-board computers like this, which usually abandon the user with a years-old copy of Ubuntu and a hearty handshake. The CubieBoard 2 is, in fact, the official platform used by Fedora for its ARM port. Does that make it a good buy? You’ll have to read the review to find out, I’m afraid.

The cover-flash tutorial was the result of a social visit from John McLear, a friend and fellow hacker who is the brain behind Kickstarter success story the NFC Ring. As its name implies, the NFC Ring packs a pair of near-field communication tags – fully rewritable – into a wearable form-factor. Having supplied me with an early prototype some time ago, John let me rummage through a pile of rejects to find a thinner and more modern version indicative of the final product quality – and thus the concept, a PC power supply that would trigger when the NFC Ring comes into range, was born. A quick shopping trip to the ever-dependable oomlout later, and I was finished in record time.

I’ve recently made the move from my dependable IBM Model F keyboard to a modern Cherry MX mechanical model from Filco. It’s nice, but lacks a little in the style department; which is where a deceased Amstrad CPC 464, already missing some keys, comes in. With a little modification, it turns out you can take the keys from the CPC and use them on a Cherry MX switch – and my keyboard now has a classic Escape key for my troubles.

Finally, Ryan Walmsley. Just 17 years old, Ryan has set up a business creating accessories for the Raspberry Pi. I caught up with him following a successful crowd-funding run on Tindie for his first product, the Ryanteck Motor Control Board or RTK-000-000-001. He’s a fascinating guy, and a real inspiration to anyone who thinks they could never break into the world of hobbyist electronics.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via services including Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 138

Linux User & Developer Issue 138Aside from my regular four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes two reviews: the Intel Galileo board, the company’s Quark-based answer to the Raspberry Pi; and the Pogoplug Safeplug, a Linux-based privacy-enhancing TOR gateway.

First, the Galileo. I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the first retail units to hit the UK, and was eager to see what Intel had come up with. Based on its low-power Quark processor, which is a die-shrunk version of the classic Pentium instruction set architecture, the Galileo boasts full x86 compatibility and plenty of on-board connectivity. Where it differs from its rivals – and anything Intel has ever produced before – is that it’s also Arduino certified, and fully compatible with shields developed for that microcontroller’s esoteric pin layout.

It promises much: on-board Ethernet, out-of-the-box support for existing Arduino sketches, the ability to run a Linux environment, and even a mini-PCI Express slot on the rear for adding in wireless connectivity or other additional hardware. Can it live up to expectations? Well, you’ll have to read the review to find out.

The Pogoplug Safeplug, despite what the contents page splash might suggest, is not a storage device; rather, it’s a modified version of the company’s existing embedded storage gateway product to find a new market in the post-Snowden world. Connected to your internal network, the Safeplug acts as a gateway to the TOR network; all traffic is encrypted and anonymised with little client configuration required. As an added bonus, there’s even an advertising removal feature.

My verdict on both devices, plus stories covering Ubuntu 14.04, the Intel Next Unit of Computing, the Penn Manor School’s move to Linux, a £15 Firefox OS smartphone, Cisco’s IoT security challenge, the Nokia X and more can be yours in newsagents now. Alternatively, you can get the magazine digitally via Zinio.