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 – 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 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

Micro Mart, Issue 1349

Micro Mart Issue 1349It’s been a while since I’ve graced the pages of Dennis Publishing’s popular weekly Micro Mart, with my last being a cover feature on the ARM architecture in Issue 1235 followed by a feature on Valve’s Steam Box console plans in Issue 1251. For this latest issue, I’ve penned a review of the Raspberry Pi 2 single-board computer as kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT.

As the author of the Raspberry Pi User Guide, which will be entering its fourth edition by the end of the year, I can safely say I bring a certain amount of knowledge to the table for this particular topic. The Micro Mart coverage is one of the first print reviews to be published, with a longer review due to appear in my Hobby Tech column in a future Custom PC Magazine issue.

The Raspberry Pi itself, of course, needs little introduction. In its most recent revision, properly known as the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, the team have replaced the ageing Broadcom BCM2835 single-core ARMv6 system-on-chip (SoC) processor with a specially-designed drop-in replacement: the quad-core ARMv7 BCM2836. The result is a device significantly more powerful than its predecessor, but one for which software to take full advantage of its capabilities is still thin on the ground.

If you’d like to read the full review, Micro Mart Issue 1349 is available in all good newsagents, most supermarkets, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 149

Linux User & Developer Issue 149This month’s Linux User & Developer features my usual four pages of news from the world of openness alongside a review of some interesting software I’ve been playing with: Keybase.

Created, oddly enough, by the co-founders of dating site OkCupid, Max Krohn and Chris Coyne, Keybase is technically little more than a wrapper around the open-source Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) implementation GNU Privacy Guard (GPG). Conceptually, however, it turns the entire PGP/GPG concept on its head, and in doing so aims to make it as easy as possible for less technical types to enjoy the benefits of strong cryptography.

A quick backgrounder: PGP/GPG use public-key cryptography, which is a highly-secure method of sharing secrets. Rather than traditional encryption, which requires a secret known to both parties, public-key cryptography splits the secret in two: the public key is available to anyone, but can only be used for encryption; decryption requires the private key, kept secret. It can be best imagined as an extremely secure padlock: I can give you the padlock, but once you’ve snapped it shut only my key will open it again.

The trouble then comes from verifying that the public key you’ve encrypted to genuinely belongs to your intended recipient, and not to a third-party trying to eavesdrop on your conversation. In the PGP/GPG world, this is assured by a ‘web of trust’ in which individuals physically meet and verify the identity of others, whose public keys are then cryptographically signed. Secure, but awkward.

Keybase’s solution: automated verification powered by social networking. ‘Proofs’ are posted to various social networks, currently ranging from Twitter and Reddit to Coinbase and even the DNS records of your personal website. These proofs are cryptographically signed with your private key. When someone wants to encrypt a message to you, they can verify these proofs through the Keybase website – or, for improved security, an open-source command-line application which wraps around GPG – to confirm that the key they are using belongs to the person in control of said accounts.

Coupled with a neat web interface which allows, among other features, non-members to quickly send encrypted messages to any Keybase member, it’s a great project. While it’s currently in beta, it shows considerable promise – and given the government du jour’s focus on eroding privacy, it’s something everyone should at least consider playing with.

To read the full review, plus my ever-enlightening four-page news spread and event calendar, head to your local newsagent or supermarket, or grab a digital copy via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 139

Custom PC Issue 139My desk has been getting a little overloaded with new toys of late, so this month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is review-heavy to help clear that backlog. While the column opens with a two-page tutorial on building a PirateBox, this is followed by a spread looking at four of Pimoroni’s Raspberry Pi add-ons with a concluding page of my thoughts on Imagination Technologies’ Creator CI20 development board.

Looking at the tutorial first, I have to admit to a little trepidation in asking my editor, Ben Hardwidge, to support something called a PirateBox. Thankfully, while its name is designed to raise eyebrows, the concept is free of anything that could reasonably enrage the copyright cartel. A PirateBox is simply a Wi-Fi router running a modified version of the OpenWRT Linux distribution, tailored for localised chat and file sharing. It has no connection to the internet, and if paired with the right low-power hardware can run for days from a cheap USB battery pack. While you could certainly use it to distribute copyright content illegitimately, the fact that you have to be in close physical proximity limits its usefulness – but it’s absolutely top-tier for sharing files at events, which is the use I had in mind when I set out to build the thing.

Pimoroni, a local company just across the way in sunny Sheffield, made a name for themselves by being one of the first to build attractive and affordable add-on boards for the Raspberry Pi. Despite being good friends with the team, I’ve never actually reviewed any of their products – until Gee Bartlett took me on a tour of the factory and pressed four of their most popular creations into my hands. So, rather than spin it out over the next four months, a two-page spread was in order to review the boards: the education-centric PiBrella, the interestingly-shaped PiGlow, the impressive Displayotron-3000, and the retina-searing Unicorn HAT. Spoiler: they’re all pretty great, and the guys are working on some more advanced projects that I can’t wait to get on the test-bench for future issues.

Finally, the Creator CI20. While it sometimes feels that all I do is test single-board computers – not that I’m complaining, they’re absolutely fascinating – the CI20 breaks from the crowd by using the MIPS instruction set architecture. The creation of Imagination Technologies – the company behind the graphics hardware that powered Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast console, fact-fans – the board has clearly been taken from an existing oddly-shaped design but offers plenty of power for the maker community to hack around, including boasting significantly improved general-purpose performance compared to the majority of the ARM-based boards I’ve tested.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a visit to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 148

Linux User & Developer Issue 147As well as my usual four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes a two-page review of the CubieBoard 4 single-board computer and a chunk of work I did for the Ultimate Distro & FOSS Guide 2015.

Looking at the guide first, it’s a natural follow-on to the work I’ve done in years past for the magazine. Each year, a multi-page round-up of the ‘best’ Linux distributions is published; this year, deputy editor Gavin Thomas asked for something a little different. The result: a write-up of picks for ‘best’ distribution in a variety of categories, but also covering free and open-source software (FOSS) packages which can be installed in any distribution to extend its capabilities in a given category.

Some of the feature was written in-house by the magazine’s staff writers, but I was given four categories relevant to my expertise: Linux for developers, for enterprises, for security professionals, and for those looking for a distribution with rolling-release development methodology. In each case, a top pick was selected along with three alternatives. Five FOSS packages relating to the category were also highlighted, except in the rolling-release section where instead I highlighted five general-purpose FOSS packages which have received my personal seal of approval.

My review of the CubieBoard 4 from low-power computing specialist New IT takes the perspective of a Linux-confident user, as is usual for the magazine. As a result, some of the software-related disadvantages I highlighted in my review of the same hardware for Custom PC don’t apply – although it’s still fair to say that CubieTech should spend a little more time on polishing the sharp edges of its software releases before it brings out yet another new product.

For those unfamiliar, the big selling point of the CubieBoard 4 is that it packs eight ARM-based processing cores into a low-power fanless design. Using ARM’s big.LITTLE design paradigm, four are high-performance cores while four are low-power cores. Unlike its rivals, however, the CubieBoard 4’s AllWinner A80 chip provides the host OS with access to all eight cores simultaneously – making for a seriously powerful machine for multi-threaded use. While heat builds up quickly if you’re thrashing all eight cores, it’s one of the most powerful SBCs I’ve tested besting even the £199.99 Nvidia Jetson TK1 on CPU-bound multi-threaded tasks.

All this, plus my regular four-page look at upcoming events and everything interesting in the open source, open hardware, open governance and anything-else-open-I-think-of world, is available now at your local newsagent or digitally via Zinio and similar services. As always, my content will be republished translated into French in the coming months as part of Inside Linux Magazine.

UPDATE 20150130:

Since writing the CubieBoard 4 review, which was based on the v1.1 hardware revision, CubieTech has modified the board and released v1.2. New IT has kindly sent out an updated model, and there are numerous changes for the better: the Wi-Fi antenna no longer pushes up against a case bolt, the glue-on heatsink has been swapped out for a push-pin version with a tube of thermal interface material (TIM) and an air-gap between the fins and the top of the case, and the case itself has been revised to accommodate the push-pins. The GPIO header also now comes with a pin mapping table silk-screened directly onto the PCB for quick reference. While none of these improvements are dramatic enough to alter the overall score, they’re certainly welcomed.

Custom PC, Issue 138

Custom PC Issue 138In my Hobby Tech column for Custom PC this month I explain how to convert a cheap floppy drive emulator for use with an Amiga, review the eight-core CubieBoard 4, and get an object lesson in the difference between professionally- and self-published books.

First, the tutorial. I’m indebted to my friend Harry ‘Hakk’ Morris for bringing my attention to a project by Hervé Messinger to create a user-friendly alternative to floppy disks for any Amiga system. Using the cheap – typically sub-£20 – Gotek Floppy Drive Emulator as its base, Hervé’s replacement firmware converts it for use with the Amiga’s esoteric disk format. Coupled with a user-friendly menu-based boot system, a Gotek running Hervé’s Cortex firmware can load up to 999 disk images from any USB storage device on a real-world Amiga.

With Amiga floppy drives becoming increasingly unreliable as time goes on, and replacements hard to come by, the project is a great way to breathe new life into an otherwise deceased system. Better still, it offers an extremely low-cost storage expansion for early Amigas like the Amiga 500 and 500-Plus, both of which lack the IDE port of the Amiga 600 and 1200. I’d thoroughly recommend the project to anyone with an Amiga, although be warned that internal fitting can require modification to the plastic shell of the system – an ethical dilemma for the conservationist in me, which I neatly bypassed by buying replacement plastics from an orphaned system.

I’d been looking forward to getting my hands on the CubieBoard 4 from the moment Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT told me it was on the way. I’ve reviewed CubieTech’s products before, but the CubieBoard 4 is something special. Its design is centred around an AllWinner A80 ARM-based processor, which packs four high-performance and four low-power cores on a system-on-chip (SoC) designed according to ARM’s big.LITTLE paradigm. In short: it’s an absolute beast.

While most big.LITTLE architectures switch between the low-power and high-performance cores automatically, exposing only four cores to the host operating system at any one time, the CubieBoard 4 works a little differently: all eight cores are exposed to the host operating system, allowing eight simultaneous threads to be run at any one time. Doing so, however, exposes a slight flaw in the design: serious thermal constraints, with the processor downclocking to protect itself as the heat rose.

My test scenario – running the BOINC distributed computing client at 100 per cent load continuously – is perhaps a little unfair, however. Under more real-world scenarios, the CubieBoard 4 will run its processor at full speed – and it’s worth mentioning that the board was rock-solid stable even after several days of continuous load across all eight cores. While the software is, as is typical for CubieTech, a little rough around the edges, it’s a fun board to have played with.

Finally, the book. I had originally planned to review the Arduino Project Handbook, a crowd-funded full-colour guide for newcomers to the popular open-source microcontroller platform. Author Mark Geddes was kind enough to send a copy across, but there was a problem: struck by inconsistencies in coding style, I did some digging and found that the entire contents of the book was plagiarised from other sources – ranging from websites to books published by some big-name authors.

I had a long discussion with Mark about the problem, in which he admitted to taking the projects – including directly cut-and-pasted source code – from a variety of sources but claimed that the fact he had built and photographed them himself meant he had done no wrong. I attempted to explain the vagaries of international copyright law and the trouble he could find himself in for publishing the book as it was, and eventually he agreed.

So, in place of the planned review, a page on the risks of self-publishing. The book as it was provided to me would never have reached shelves if it had gone through a traditional publisher, whose legal departments are very switched-on about this sort of thing – and I say that with confidence as a traditionally-published author. By taking on all the tasks associated with publishing himself, however, Mark has opened himself up for considerable legal trouble – and I can only hope that listened to my concluding advice to remove the book from sale and only re-publish when all plagiarised content is removed.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, can be yours in Custom PC Issue 138, either from your local newsagent or digitally through Zinio and similar services.

UPDATE 20150130:

Since writing the CubieBoard 4 review, which was based on the v1.1 hardware revision, CubieTech has modified the board and released v1.2. New IT has kindly sent out an updated model, and there are numerous changes for the better: the Wi-Fi antenna no longer pushes up against a case bolt, the glue-on heatsink has been swapped out for a push-pin version with a tube of thermal interface material (TIM) and an air-gap between the fins and the top of the case, and the case itself has been revised to accommodate the push-pins. The GPIO header also now comes with a pin mapping table silk-screened directly onto the PCB for quick reference.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 147

Linux User & Developer Issue 147This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes my review of a device I’ve been wanting to play with ever since I first interviewed its creator, Andreas Olofsson: the Adapteva Parallella.

I was introduced to the Parallella project way back in November 2012, when I interviewed Olofsson ahead of the launch of a Kickstarter campaign to create a low-cost development board for his company’s many-core tile-based Epiphany chip architecture. The promise: a single-board computer boasting a dual-core ARM processor, user-accessible field-programmable gate array (FPGA) and a 16- or 64-core Epiphany co-processor for the bargain-basement sum of $99. The Kickstarter campaign ended its run successfully, and the boards were produced – but there was a long delay between the Kickstarter production run and general availability, and a further delay before the boards became available in the UK.

Thanks to RS Components’ UK arm, availability is a solved issue. While the price of the boards might have increased – the attention-grabbing $99 price having proved unsustainable – the specifications remains the same, with 16-core Epiphany-III boards available now and 64-core Epiphany-IV boards just around the corner. For the Linux user, the magazine’s target audience, they’re tempting indeed: low-power enough to run on battery, a Parallella has the grunt to handle even complex tasks like machine vision but lacks readily-available software written for the Epiphany architecture. With partial OpenCL compatibility, it’s relatively straightforward to get parallelisable code running on the co-processor – and while optimisation is a harder task, the board is nevertheless tempting for anyone familiar with OpenCL and other multi-threading interfaces.

As to whether the Parallella is worth the asking price, you’ll have to buy the magazine to find out – and if you do, you’ll also be treated to my usual four pages of news from the world of open source, open hardware, open governance and open-anything-else-that-catches-my-eye.

Linux User & Developer Issue 147 is available at all god newsagents and most bad ones, supermarkets, or electronically via Zinio and similar services now. As always, the content in this issue will be republished in a French translation as Inside Linux in the coming months.

Custom PC, Issue 137

Custom PC Issue 137My Hobby Tech column continues in this month’s Custom PC magazine with a tutorial for building a gesture-recognition media controller, a review of the clever Adapteva Parallella single-board computer, and an interview with a personal hero of mine: designer Rick Dickinson.

Looking at the tutorial first, I was recently sent a Hover Board from Hover Labs. Rather than my planned review, I decided the hands-on nature of the gadget – which tracks the user’s finger movements in mid-air – was better suited to a tutorial-style write-up. The result: a simple build using an Arduino Leonardo and the Hover Board to control the playback of media in VLC using gestures. Wave your hand upwards to increase the volume, downwards to decrease it; left skips forwards, right skips backwards; tapping in the centre of the board pauses and resumes.

I was extremely impressed with how easy the Hover Board was to work with, although somewhat disappointed that it would only track gestures rather than absolute positioning. The latter, I have been told by its creators, is coming in a future software upgrade – at which point I’ll be revisiting the board with a more complex project.

This month’s review is a device I’ve been covering from the sidelines for some time: Adapteva’s Parallella. Created as a Kickstarter project to encourage adoption of the company’s many-core Epiphany co-processor architecture, this dinky little single-board computer packs everything a tinkerer could want: a dual-core ARM processor, 16-core Epiphany-III chip and even a user-accessible field-programmable gate array (FPGA) for custom chip design work. If your target application can be made to run on the Epiphany, you can expect impressive compute performance – but before buying one, there are a few points in the review you should read carefully, in particular the GPIO accessibility and ARM core performance.

Finally, my interview. I said Rick Dickinson was a personal hero of mine, and I wasn’t lying: a designer by trade, Rick was hired by Sinclair Research and designed the ZX80 and ZX81 systems, worked on the team that designed the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and designed the ill-fated business-oriented Sinclair QL. He’s done plenty since, of course – having won awards for work on devices as different as a field microscope and the Gizmondo hand-held console – but the interview focused on a new design project he’s taken on to imagine what a modern computer might look like if Sinclair hadn’t gone bust – starting with a 21st century update to the Sinclair QL.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff I didn’t write, can be yours with a quick visit to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 146

Linux User & Developer Issue 146In this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine, my usual four-page news spread is joined by a review of the remarkably compact SolidRun CuBox-i4Pro ARM-based microcomputer – but don’t let its diminutive size fool you into thinking that it lacks grunt.

Kindly supplied by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT, the CuBox-i4Pro can be considered a companion product to SolidRun’s Raspberry Pi-like HummingBoard. Where the HummingBoard is clearly aimed at electronics enthusiasts, with its bare circuit board and easily-accessible – and undeniably Raspberry Pi-inspired – general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header, the CuBox-i family is more polished. Like its predecessor, the CuBox, it’s supplied in a roughly cubic plastic case which achieves its tiny footprint with clever use of a dual-board mezzanine design and includes features – like eSATA and optical audio connectivity – that highlight its targeting of the home theatre market.

I was undeniably impressed by the performance of the CuBox-i4Pro, the top-end model in the CuBox-i range. As well as 2GB of memory, the system packs a quad-core Freescale i.MX6 processor. Its biggest feature, however, is compatibility: software created for the enthusiast-centric HummingBoard can be run on the CuBox-i family without modification, and vice-versa. Ever the sceptic, I proved this to myself by taking a micro-SD card I’d prepared for the HummingBoard and sticking it into the CuBox-i4Pro; it booted up perfectly and without complaint.

That cross-compatibility makes SolidRun one of the only companies to offer product ranges aimed at both enthusiasts and those who want a finished plug-and-play product. Whether it will tempt anyone into making the leap from rival platforms, of course, remains to be seen – but it’s worth mentioning that the HummingBoard has already seen adoption as the go-to ARM testbed platform for several Linux distributions.

If you want to know my final verdict, as well as giving yourself a chance to catch up on the month’s happenings in the open source, open hardware, open governance and open-anything-else-interesting world, you’d best head over to your local newsagent or supermarket and pick up a copy. Alternatively, you can read it from the comfort of wherever you happen to be right now via digital distribution services including Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 136

Custom PC Issue 136This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC magazine reviews a next-generation version of the Fuze Powered by Raspberry Pi kit, previews the upcoming MinnowBoard Max from Intel, and publishes an interview with Sam ‘MrSidC64′ Dyer, author of Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium – the spelling a deliberate pun on ‘Commodore,’ if you were wondering.

First, the Fuze T2 review. I’d already looked at the original Fuze, courtesy its inventor Jon Silvera, back in Issue 124, and little has changed from the aerial view: it’s still a robust steel case inspired by the BBC Micros of the 80s, designed to house a keyboard, Raspberry Pi and a break-out board for the general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, sold either on its own or as a bundle with child-friendly electronics tutorials and a handful of simple components for experimentation. Looking in more detail, however, shows that plenty has changed: following feedback, Jon has redesigned to case to include the ability to mount the Pi sideways to prevent little fingers pulling out the SD card, added Lego-compatible holes to the side, and best of all included a four-port USB hub with integrated power supply that provides proper 5V/500mA ports while simultaneously powering the Pi itself. A much-improved GPIO break-out board is another welcome addition, featuring compatibility with existing add-on boards as well as integrated analogue-to-digital and hardware pulse-width modulation (PWM) pins – something the Pi alone sorely lacks.

The MinnowBoard Max, meanwhile, is easily recognisable as a new design entirely. Designed to replace Intel’s old MinnowBoard, reviewed back in Issue 122, the Max features a proper 64-bit dual-core Atom processor with 64-bit UEFI implementation – meaning that the limited compatibility of its predecessor is a thing of the past. The design is more compact, the entire platform more accessible to beginners, and as usual it’s entirely open in both software and hardware – even the UEFI BIOS is based on Intel’s open-source code. For those who find ARM development boards too much of a stretch after years of x86 programming, it’s certainly worth investigating and I was impressed with the pre-release prototype I was provided. Sadly, the release of the final production model has hit a few last-minute delays – although I’m expecting stock of both the dual-core and single-core variants to appear in the channel before the end of the year.

Lastly, my interview with Sam Dyer. A graphic designer by trade, Sam launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund a new coffee table book all about the software available for the Commodore 64, his first real computer. As a massive Commodore fan myself, I was a backer and when the book arrived earlier this year I knew I would have to write about it. Sam was kind enough to give me some of his time to answer questions about his early days of computing, the technology behind capturing the images that make up the book, and its at-the-time impending successor Commodore Amiga: A Visual Commpendium – which yesterday closed funding with a massive £130,000 raised from fellow Commodore fans. Yes, including me.

All this, plus a variety of words written by people who aren’t me, can be yours now with a trip to the newsagent or supermarket, or from the comfort of your home or office via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.