This is a portfolio site for Gareth Halfacree, the former systems administrator to the left – or above, on a mobile device – currently earning a living as a full-time technology journalist and technical author. You may know him from his best-selling books the Raspberry Pi User Guide and the Official BBC micro:bit User Guide, or his contributions to national magazines, radio programmes, and publications including Imagine Publishing’s Genius Guide and Tips, Tricks, Apps & Hacks series – or even his eponymous “Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech” feature, a five-page spread in Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine each month. Read more
The big news of the last few weeks has, of course, been the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – covered in considerable detail in my benchmark piece over on Medium. To support its in-house review coverage, PC Pro Magazine commissioned me to come up with project ideas that take full advantage of the Raspberry Pi 4’s new capabilities.
The first of a new family of Raspberry Pi products designed to do away with some of the biggest criticisms levelled at earlier models, the Raspberry Pi 4 includes a significantly more powerful processor, improved graphics capabilities, dual-4K video output and hardware H.265 4K video decoding, up to 4GB of RAM, true gigabit Ethernet networking, and two USB 3.0 ports sharing a high-speed PCI Express link back to the Broadcom BCM2711B0 system-on-chip (SoC) at the board’s heart.
My feature covers how these new capabilities can be used in a variety of real-world use-cases, from acting as a desktop replacement for lightweight browsing and productivity use to a low-power 4K-capable home cinema system. The new USB 3.0 ports are perfectly suited to turning a couple of external hard drives into a low-cost network-attached storage (NAS) system, while the improved graphics make gaming more tempting.
There’s even something for the enterprise crowd to sink its teeth into: the dual display capabilities mean that the Raspberry Pi 4 is perfect for digital signage, Citrix support on day one turns it into a dual-screen thin client, and the more powerful networking can be combined with a USB 3.0 Ethernet adapter to create an energy-efficient router, firewall, or other network appliance.
For the full low-down on what the Raspberry Pi 4’s new features could do for you, pick up the latest PC Pro from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Pocketmags or similar services.
This week saw the release of the Raspberry Pi 4, first in a new generation of single-board computers from the not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation. As is usual for the launches, I was approached by The MagPi Magazine – the Foundation’s official publication – to prepare coverage for the launch, including interviews, imagery, and a wealth of benchmarks.
My coverage for the magazine, spread across a whopping 12 pages, begins with a high-resolution hero shot of the board with macro-image call-outs for its key features and components – including the new USB Type-C power connector, BCM2711B0 system-on-chip, and shiny dual-micro-HDMI video outputs capable of driving high-resolution 4K displays.
Next, there’s an interview with Foundation co-founder Eben Upton covering everything from the reason the board is available now when a 2020 launch had previously been suggested, how it can potentially replace a desktop PC in a range of environments, backwards compatibility with the existing Raspberry Pi ecosystem, and a hidden Easter Egg on the PCB – only accessible to those brave or foolhardy enough to unsolder the USB connector.
The benchmarking section, spread across four pages, marks a departure from previous launches: this time around I pulled the focus away from synthetic benchmarks, though the classic Linpack still makes an appearance if only to demonstrate how the Arm processors’ NEON extensions can dramatically improve performance, in favour of a variety of real-world workloads: image editing with the GIMP, file compression with bzip2 and lbzip2, browser performance in Chromium, and gaming performance with OpenArena, alongside USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi throughputs. In all cases, the workloads are entirely reproducible: all packages used for the real-world workloads are available at launch in the Raspbian Buster software repositories. If four pages isn’t enough, additional benchmarks are available on my Medium post.
As usual, the benchmarking also includes a thermal analysis: images of the Raspberry Pi 4 and its immediate predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ were taken after a ten-minute CPU-heavy workload using a Flir thermal imaging camera, the data processed to a fixed temperature scale of 22-80°C to avoid noise from ambient surfaces, then overlaid on an edge-enhanced high-resolution visible-light image of their respective boards using a high-contrast rainbow colour palette. These images represent a fair amount of work, but there’s no better way to see both how hot the Pis get under continuous load and which components are responsible for that heat – not to mention how effective the design is at bleeding the heat off through the PCB, something with which the older Raspberry Pi models with plastic-encased chips have struggled.
Finally, the piece closes with a two-page interview with Simon Long on the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system – launching ahead of the upstream Debian 10 ‘Buster’ release, interestingly – and its revised, flatter user interface. While much of the under-the-hood work for Buster was to get it ready for the Raspberry Pi 4 – previous Raspbian releases won’t work on the new board – it’s also available for older Raspberry Pi models, and comes with some convincing reasons to upgrade along with a handful of software compatibility issues that offer a reason to hang fire.
As always, The MagPi Issue 83 is available to buy in print format from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and book sellers; a free digital copy, released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence, is also available from the official website.
While today’s big news is the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – which I have treated to a wealth of benchmarks over on Medium – it comes with a supporting product release: the second edition of the popular Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, updated for the new hardware.
Inside the book, which is being made available for purchase in a print edition and for free download and redistribution under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence, the content has been overhauled and updated for the Raspberry Pi 4 and latest Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system. From the two HDMI ports to the new USB Type-C power connector, all imagery and instructions are bang up-to-date for today’s new hardware release.
The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide 2nd Edition is also being bundled with the Raspberry Pi 4 as part of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s official starter pack: those opting to buy their Pi that way will receive the Raspberry Pi 4, microSD with NOOBS and Raspbian ‘Buster’ pre-loaded, power supply, case, keyboard, and mouse, plus a printed copy of the book to help get them started.
As with the first edition, there’s more to the book than just plugging it in and clicking around the Raspbian desktop: you’ll find step-by-step instructions for programming in Scratch and Python, hardware projects for the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO port, and instructions and examples which use the Sense HAT and Camera Module accessories.
The book is available now in print from all good bookshops and Raspberry Pi resellers, in the Raspberry Pi Store in Cambridge, or can be downloaded for free under the Creative Commons licence on the official Raspberry Pi website.
This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Nvdia’s first-ever entry into the maker market with the Jetson Nano, guides the reader through assisting the Internet Archive with its Sisyphean task, and takes a look at the Xiaomi Wowstick cordless screwdriver.
First, Nvidia’s offering. While the original Jetson TK1 single-board computer was sold through the since-departed high-street electronics outlet Maplin in the UK, its near-£200 price tag meant it wasn’t of much interest to the pocket-money shopper. Its successors in the Jetson family have been successively more expensive, culminating in the £1,199 Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier reviewed last month. The Jetson Nano, by contrast, is just £95 – £101.50 if you include shipping – and is specifically aimed at makers and tinkerers.
The board uses a system-on-module (SOM) on carrier design, dominated by a massive heatsink. Although it’s perfectly possible to view the device as a souped-up and considerably more expensive Raspberry Pi, general-purpose computing isn’t Nvidia’s primary market: instead, it’s aiming to bring a new generation of developers into the CUDA GPU-accelerated computing ecosystem by using the Jetson Nano as a jumping-off point for deep learning and machine intelligence projects, including its own Jetbot autonomous robot platform.
The guide, meanwhile, walks the reader through using almost any PC to assist the Internet Archive with its goal of storing all the world’s information for immediate retrieval. Written as I was firing up a Warrior – the name given by the Archive Team to its distributed data capture systems – to assist with the archiving of the last bits of Google+ before its closure, the step-by-step instructions will let anyone contribute to the not-for-profit effort.
Finally, the Wowstick comes from a company better known in the UK for its cut-price smartphones: Xiaomi. Designed, as with much of the company’s output, to give a premium feel, the USB-rechargeable electric screwdriver is aimed at fine electronics work rather than flat-pack assembly – and does a surprisingly good job of it. Only limited torque for locked-down or larger screws and a terrible case whose tiny magnets are improperly attached let the bundle down.
For the full run-down on all this and more you can pick up Custom PC Issue 191 from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or snag a digital copy from Zinio or similar services. Alternatively, a new subscription offer will get you the next three issues for just £5 – renewing at £25 every six issues if you don’t cancel beforehand.
The Labs Test in this month’s PC Pro is something of a bumper one: I ran a whopping 14 miniature PCs, from a cleverly cased Raspberry Pi up to a behemoth of a system squeezing in an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, through a gamut of tests including size and weight, power draw, productivity and gaming benchmarks to see which would come out on top.
The work of a solid few weeks, the Labs saw system after system bouncing onto and off the test bench. As well as requiring the actual testing, all photography was carried out in-house – with thanks to my wife, who served as a hand model for the article’s hero shot – with each system photographed from all angles and internally, plus a smart isometric view in which the scale is maintained so the reader can easily compare the relative sizes of each machine on test. Given that the feature is about miniature PCs, such easy at-a-glance comparison is key to knowing which machine meets the readers’ personal requirements.
A Labs Test like this wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of a range of companies, of course, and I’d like to thank the suppliers of machines for the test: ASRock, Asus, Intel, Mini-ITX.com, Lenovo, QuietPC, Raspberry Pi, and Shuttle. Additional thanks go to Intel, Nvidia, and Overclockers UK, who provided components required to build up the bare-bones systems on test.
As is traditional for a PC Pro Labs Test, the content is split between reviews – four 700-word focus reviews and ten 350-word supplementary reviews – and features, including an interview with Intel’s Ed Barkhuysen on the company’s modular vision for the future of computing, a buyer’s guide covering things to consider when making the move to an ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) system, a two-page features table covering everything you could want to know about each system on test, a look at external GPU (eGPU) products as a way of expanding the performance of mini-PCs, and a “View from the Labs” opinion editorial to round things out.
This feature also marks the first time the in-house PC Pro benchmark suite – which measures system performance for image editing, video playback, and multitasking workloads – has been run not only on Linux-based, rather than Windows, systems but also on a Raspberry Pi. To achieve that, I worked to port the PowerShell-based suite to the Bash shell while using the same cross-platform applications to ensure each platform can be compared as fairly as possible.
PC Pro Issue 297 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally via Zinio and similar services.
In my first piece for Linux Format I look at the Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier system-on-module, an incredibly powerful device the company hopes will transform the field of autonomous machines and other machine learning initiatives – and the precursor to the recently-launched and significantly more affordable hobbyist device the Jetson Nano.
In contrast to the Jetson AGX Xavier review in Custom PC Issue 190, which takes an exclusively hands-on approach, my piece for Linux Format opens with a look at the history of Nvidia’s Jetson family and the company’s various efforts to make the name synonymous with autonomous machines.
The piece then moves on to the device itself, which is impressively powerful for its sub-30W power draw – but many features of which are inaccessible pending software updates which are still not available. This issue, which extends in part at least to the documentation supporting the platform, is something Nvidia really needs to address if it’s serious about having the device – and the hobbyist Jetson Nano – appeal to the educational market as well as experienced developers looking to build high-end machine learning implementations.
Linux Format Issue 250 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, and can be downloaded in electronic form from Zinio and similar services.
My Hobby Tech column this month, wrapped in Custom PC’s newly-redesigned layout, takes a look at a powerful yet low-power machine likely out of the reach of most hobbyists along with the mind-bending 90s web simulator Hypnospace Outlaw and the book Robotics with Raspberry Pi by Matt Timmons-Brown.
First, the headline act: Nvidia’s Jetson AGX Xavier is its flagship entry in the Jetson range of Arm-based embedded computers, which launched with the Jetson TK1 I reviewed way back in Issue 133, and comes with a price tag to match: £1,199, dropping to £819 with educational discount. At that price, it’s a device aimed at professional developers more than hobbyists – but it provides a hint as to what to expect from the far more affordable and hobbyist-focused Jetson Nano, a full review of which will appear in next month’s column.
Hypnospace Outlaw, meanwhile, is Jay Tholen’s attempt at marrying what is effectively a 90s web simulator with a sci-fi plot involving headsets which let you browse while you sleep. Crowdfunded via Kickstarter, the game isn’t quite what was originally promised – but, frankly, that’s no bad thing: what has been delivered is impressively immersive and likely to thrill anyone who was around during the heyday of Geocities and Angelfire.
Finally, Robotics with Raspberry Pi is the first full book from self-styled “Raspberry Pi Guy” Matt Timmons-Brown. Designed with a very friendly hands-on approach in mind, the book walks the reader through the proces sof building a robot with each chapter adding new functionality: line following, Bluetooth remote control, user-addressable LEDs, a speaker, and even machine vision via the Raspberry Pi Camera Module. While a little muddled in places, it’s one of the better tomes on the subject – and one that avoids the usual pitfall of being little more than an elongated instruction manual for a single off-the-shelf robot kit.
Custom PC Issue 190 is available in all good newsagents and supermarkets now, and will shortly land on digital distribution platforms.
This month, my regular Hobby Tech column opens with a look at a RISC-V based not-quite-off-the-shelf personal computer build by AB Open, walks readers through building a weather monitor powered by a Raspberry Pi and a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT, and marvels at the excesses of the computer retail scene in the 1970s and 1980s via David Pleasance’s Commodore: The Inside Story.
First, the PC. The majority of PCs on desks around the world today are based on processors which use the x86 architecture or its 64-bit equivalent; a small handful are based on similar Arm chips to the ones you might find in your smartphone; and an even smaller number are powered by things like Zilog Z80s, MOS 6502s, and Motorola 68000s belonging to people who just don’t like to throw away a perfectly good decades-old system. The system built by AB Open recently, though, is different: it’s based on RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture (ISA) for which anyone can – given time, money, and a fair smattering of expertise – build a chip.
“It might be some time before there’s an off-the-shelf chip that can compete with x86 on raw performance and traditional benchmarks,” AB Open’s Andrew Back, who for full disclosure is a client of mine, admits, “but the open nature of the ISA, and the ecosystem developing around it, is driving a renaissance in novel computer architectures.” By way of proof: a fully-functional Linux-based desktop PC, built in a custom-designed laser-cut chassis, created using the SiFive HiFive Unleashed development board and Microsemi expansion board.
From a PC you can browse the web on to one which flashes a few lights: the Raspberry Pi weather monitor is a remix of a project I published in Issue 153, to use a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT LED matrix to graph energy usage in my home. This time, the same hardware is repurposed to show animated weather icons based on data downloaded from OpenWeatherMap – and, despite the low resolution of the LED matrix, it works an absolute treat.
Finally, Commodore: The Inside Story sounds like it should be an exhaustive history of the company behind one of the world’s biggest-selling home computers. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a two-part affair: the first is a series of personally recollections, presented in a very similar fashion to the stories you might hear if you took author David Pleasance to the pub and asked him about his time working in Commodore’s sales and marketing division; the second is a collection of guest chapters, and as fun as it is reading about orgies in Consumer Electronics Show hotels and drink-driving incidents the second half is, for me, the better half.
All this, and a raft more, can be found at your nearest newsagent or supermarket; the electronic version, meanwhile, is enjoying a brief holiday while background administration relating to its recent switch of publishers takes place.
This month’s Hobby Tech, my regular five-page column for Custom PC Magazine, takes a look at the Argon One aluminium case for the Raspberry Pi, the now Flash-free Scratch 3 visual programming environment, and Sean McManus’ Mission Python.
First, the case. Created as a single piece of aluminium with a plastic base-plate, the Argon One is more than just a means of protecting a Raspberry Pi: it includes a daughterboard that pulls the HDMI and analogue AV ports to the rear for neater cabling, another that adds a fan for active cooling and a smart power button while also bringing the GPIO header out with colour coding and silk-screened pin references on the case itself, and a magnetic cover to hide said GPIO port when it’s not in use.
More importantly, though, it’s one of only a few cases that actually improves the thermal performance of the Raspberry Pi when installed. Even ignoring the fan, which makes little practical difference to operating temperatures, the difference between uncased and cased is an impressive 24°C thanks to the use of the upper half of the case as a giant heatsink. The only real problem, and it’s one creator Argon Forty claims to be working to resolve, is the hefty voltage drop from the fan-and-power daughterboard: unless you’re using the Argon One 5.25V Power Supply or a similar compatible, expect to see frequent undervoltage throttling.
Scratch 3, meanwhile, has proven itself a worthy upgrade for the popular block-based visual programming environment first created at MIT. While switching the stage and script area around and shuffling a few of the block colours is unnecessary and potentially confusing, new features including integration with translation and text-to-speech APIs and an easy extension manager are definitely welcome – as is the departure from relying on Adobe’s Flash technology. Sadly, though, at the time of writing Scratch 3 still did not support the Raspberry Pi, though work is in progress on that front.
Finally, Mission Python: as the author of a few books myself I know only too well how tricky it is to walk the line between introducing concepts in a friendly and approachable manner and being patronising, as well as trying to aim a publication at a broad age range. Sean McManus, who is no stranger to bookstore shelves, proves it can be done with Mission Python as he walks the reader through creating a game in Python using the Pygame Zero wrapper around the Pygame library. The result is colourful and fun without being in any way condescending, and a definite recommendation for anyone interested in flexing their Python skills.
All this, and the usual selection of articles not written by me, can be found on the shelves of your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.