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
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.
In this month’s issue of The MagPi Magazine you’ll find my review of the Argon One, a clever case for the Raspberry Pi that if creator Argon Forty’s name is anything to go by will be followed up by 39 successive designs.
Raspberry Pi cases are ten a penny, but the crowdfunded Argon One stands out for one very heavy reason: the majority of the case, bar a plastic base, is made from a single piece of aluminium. It gives the case heft, but serves a real purpose too: the Raspberry Pi’s system-on-chip (SoC) is connected to the body of the case via a pillar of aluminium – turning the entire case into a giant heatsink.
It’s a great idea, and definitely works, but means the case has restricted compatibility: only the Rasbperry Pi 3 Model B and Model B+ will fit, with other models having their SoCs in a different position. If your Pi does fit, you’ll find the Argon One works a charm – though a built-in fan appears to make little practical difference to temperature levels.
The only real fly in the ointment, though, is that a daughterboard which provides a smart power button on the rear and power for the fan – joined by a second that moves the analogue AV and HDMI ports to the rear with the others – causes enough voltage drop to trigger ‘undervolt’ warnings and throttling on most power supplies. Only Argon Forty’s own 5.25V/3A supply, or an equivalent, avoids this – information that came too late for backers of the original Kickstarter campaign.
The full review, and a lot more beside, is available at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or for free download under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.
This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a pair of my reviews, the first looking at a computer that’s also a ruler – because that’s not only a thing but the second thing of its kind to come from the same designer – and a new set of charitable Top Trumps-style collectable cards.
First, the ruler-computer. Designed by Brads Projects, the Digirule2 is – as the name suggests – a second-generation design of a compact microcomputer which is also a functional ruler. Printed onto a single circuit board and built around a PIC32 microcontroller, the Digirule2 is inspired by the classic MITS Altair 8800: its memory is displayed on a series of LEDs, and is programmed one bit at a time using push-button switches.
Where the Digirule improves on the Altair, aside from being considerably more affordable and not taking up a huge chunk of your desk, is in having memory slots for saving and loading programmes. These slots come pre-loaded with demonstrations ranging from simple reaction games to a neat persistence-of-vision hack, while the edges of the board are printed with measurements – in binary, naturally – in both centimetres and inches.
The cards, meanwhile, are something a little less technical but no less geeky. Designed by 8bitkick and sold by the Centre for Computing History to fund its restoration and preservation works, the Games Consoles Collectable Cards partner high-quality colour images of classic videogame consoles with statistics that can be compared for a nerdy game of Top Trumps. They also partner well with the Home Computers Collectable Cards, an earlier release now repackaged to match, though sadly the two decks use different statistics and thus can’t be combined into a single mega-deck.
You can read both reviews, and a lot more beside, by picking up a copy of HackSpace Magazine Issue 16 from your nearest newsagent or by downloading a copy for free under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.
This month’s Custom PC is a special one, and not because of anything in my column – though I’d like to think my column is always special – but because it’s the first issue to be published under Raspberry Pi Press rather than Dennis Publishing. It’s immediately obvious that a change has happened: putting Issue 187 next to Issue 186 reveals a considerably thicker tome for the same page count, thanks to vastly improved paper quality and a corresponding boost in print quality.
Between the covers, though, it’s pretty much business as usual – but regular readers should watch out for a survey, due to be published in the next issue or two, which will float some ideas for bringing back classic features or adding new content – with editor Ben Hardwidge unwilling to make any dramatic changes until the readership has had its say.
From background publication details to the column at hand: this month’s Hobby Tech includes a detailed review of a desk calculator – no, really – alongside a look at Netflix’s Bandersnatch interactive film and the 8bitkick Centre for Computing History Games Consoles Collectible Cards set.
First, the calculator. Created by Lofree, a Chinese company known for retrofuturistic designs, the Digit’s claim to fame is the use of mechanical keyswitches with a pleasing ‘click’ as they’re depressed. Beyond that, it’s a fairly sedate devices: surprisingly chunk yet light, and with an LCD display that’s difficult to see at the best of times, the Digit feels like a wasted opportunity. If it had launched with a USB port and doubled as a keypad for those using tenkeyless keyboard layouts, things could have been different.
Bandersnatch, meanwhile, was not a disappointment at all. A feature-length episode of speculative fiction series Black Mirror, Netflix’s highest-profile interactive film yet puts the player in at least partial control of a computer programmer working on the titular game – based, incredibly loosely, on the real-world never-released ‘Megagame’ Bandersnatch from Imagine Software. My look at Bandersnatch focuses on its links to real-world computer history and the experience as a game; elsewhere in the same issue you’ll find a lengthy interview with writer and series co-creator Charlie Brooker, to which I contributed some questions.
Finally, the collectible cards from 8bitkick will be familiar to regular readers: back in Issue 154 I reviewed their vintage computing predecessors. This time around, the topic for the Top Trump-style card game is consoles rather than computers – and they’re now an official product of the Centre for Computing History, with all profits going to support its preservation and education works.
Custom PC Issue 187 is available now from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, while the electronically-published version may take a while later to arrive thanks to the change of publisher.
This month’s Hobby Tech column features an interview with Eric Yockey on his company’s PC Classic microconsole, a review of the it-really-blows IT Dusters CompuCleaner, and of Eric Amos’ coffee-table tome The Game Console.
To start with the interview, Eric surprised the gaming world late last year by announcing what at first glance appears to be a me-too product following in the footsteps of the Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini and Sony PlayStation Classic, not to mention the raft of Atari- and Sega-licensed devices that came before them: the PC Classic, which aims to bring older games back to the living room.
“Our principal engineer saw that people were joking about things like ‘the VCR Classic’ and ‘the PC Classic’ and he pitched it to me because he felt we could actually make a PC Classic, and moreover make it really cool,” Eric told me during our interview. “I discussed the project with a bunch of people from various backgrounds and varying amounts of technical ability, and most people took an immediate liking to it and would say something like ‘oh, yeah, if I could play Jill of the Jungle on my couch, I’d totally buy one!'”
The CompuCleaner, meanwhile, is an attempt on my part to reduce my environmental impact and fatten my wallet: an electric air-blower which aims to replace cans of compressed air for cleaning electronics. Anyone who has an actively-cooled PC will know that the vents and fans need to be kept clear, but the problem only gets worse when you need to take photos of things for a living – and the CompuCleaner, bar a few little niggles, is a fantastic way to do that without running through half a dozen air cans a week.
Finally, Eric Amos’ The Game Console is an impressive book covering many – but far from all – games consoles from the early days of the Atari VCS up to more modern systems. Light on text, the book’s focus is Eric’s high-quality photography – imagery he took, initially, to contribute to Wikipedia in place of the often low-quality photography that adorned classic console pages. While it’s not something you’re likely to sit and read cover-to-cover, it’s not only a pleasing thing to flick through but a great way to support Eric’s work in taking ever more photographs of increasingly-esoteric hardware.
For all these, head to your favourite newsagent, supermarket, or stay where you are and download the digital version via Zinio or similar distribution services.
This month’s HackSpace Magazines includes my review of an easy-to-use but surprisingly feature-rich robot from Dexter Industries: the BBC micro:bit-powered GiggleBot.
At first glance, the GiggleBot seems like a straightforward two-motor wheeled robot chassis. A closer look, though, reveals where it differs from the norm: RGB LEDs, a built-in line-following sensor, Grove headers for additional hardware, and even a pair of servo headers to add additional motion into the mix.
All this hardware is controlled from a standard BBC micro:bit microcontroller board, and doesn’t interfere with any of its existing components – meaning you’re still free to use the LED matrix display, compass, accelerometer, and Bluetooth radio, the latter even allowing you to use one BBC micro:bit as a handheld remote for another powering the robot.
For the full review you can either pop to your nearest supermarket or newsagent for a print copy of the magazine or, as with all Raspberry Pi Press publications, you can download a Creative Commons licensed digital version free of charge from the official website.
If you’ve ever wanted to tackle an electronics project but didn’t quite know where to start, my latest article for The MagPi Magazine should get you up and running: it’s a look at resources for learning beginner-level electronics.
Centred, naturally enough, around the Raspberry Pi itself, my feature walks through a number of different resources: books, including Phil King’s Simple Electronics with GPIO Zero, all-in-one electronics kits of components and project sheets, online courses, and video tutorials for everything from connected LEDs and switches to the Raspberry Pi through to core concepts surrounding precisely what electricity is and how it works.
As with all Raspberry Pi Press publications, The MagPi Issue 77 is available for free download under a Creative Commons licence from the official website, or you can pick up physical copies in your favourite newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you are right now via the Raspberry Pi Press Store.
In my regular Hobby Tech column this month you’ll find a detailed review of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ single-board computer, another of the ever-so-slightly less-powerful Digirule2, and of Adam Fisher’s exhaustive Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley.
First, the Raspberry Pi. The first model to use the A+ form factor – smaller PCB, only one USB port, full-size display (DSI), camera (CSI), and HDMI ports, analogue audio-video (AV) – in the last four years, the Pi 3A+ is an impressive beast for cramming the full performance of the larger, more expensive Pi 3B+ into a smaller form factor. I was concerned, upon first unpacking, that the smaller PCB would undo the good work on the thermal-transfer front that made the Pi 3B+ such a good improvement on the original Pi 3B; a quick test under a thermal imaging camera, though, showed that I was worrying over nothing.
The Digirule2 is a markedly different beast. While it’s a single-board computer, it’s one which is designed more for fun than functionality: built into the form factor of a ruler, complete with inches and centimetres marked in binary along the upper and lower edges, the Digirule2 is inspired by classic machines like the Altair 8800. Press a series of buttons to program a particular memory location; press another button to switch to the next; and press a third to see your program run on the built-in LEDs. One particularly impressive feature is an eight-slot program storage, allowing you to save and load your programs directly on the device – and all without having to hook up your punch-tape reader/writer.
Finally, Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius is a book in the mould of Fire in the Valley: an attempt to document the rise and, frankly, continued rise of Silicon Valley and the companies it has birthed. Culled from over 200 individual interviews, the book uses direct quotation rather than any attempt to weave a narrative but dodges dryness by weaving multiple subjects’ remembrances into each themed chapter. The final effect is less an interview and more a conversation between some of the industry’s biggest names, from the birth of the mouse right through to the modern age.
To read the full column, pick up Custom PC Issue 185 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution platforms.
Today sees the release of The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, my latest educational book on the remarkable single-board computer and its software and the first to be made available for free download and redistribution courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribition-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence.
Written in partnership with Raspberry Pi Press, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide walks newcomers through a tour of the Raspberry Pi and what it can do, setting up both the hardware and the software, learning how to navigate the Raspbian desktop, how to write programs in Scratch 2 and Python 3, and even building custom circuits that use the Raspberry Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header. If that weren’t enough, there are chapters on using the Sense HAT add-on board, the Raspberry Pi Camera Module, and a handy list of additional resources for when you’ve finally exhausted the book itself.
While it’s my name on the cover, this book is very much a team effort. I’d like to thank everyone at Raspberry Pi Press who was involved in its creation, from the authors of the original projects pulled in and updated in this new publication to eternally-patient project editor Phil King, fantastic technical editor Simon Long, amazing illustrator Sam Alder, and a whole host of others without whom the book would be nowhere near as good as it has turned out.
The book is available to buy now in all good newsagents, supermarkets, and bookstores, or direct from Raspberry Pi Press. The digital edition, as a Creative Commons-licensed PDF without any digital rights management (DRM) restrictions, is available from The MagPi website now.