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’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.
There’s no missing my contribution to this month’s The MagPi: it’s plastered all over the cover. The launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ ends a four-year absence of the compact form factor from the Raspberry Pi line-up, and there’s no better way to celebrate its launch than with a massive cover feature.
The spread begins with a two-page introduction dominated by imagery of the board, before moving on to a plan view which calls out the individual components that make up the board – including the single USB port, BCM2387B0 system-on-chip (SoC), and the radio which, for the first time in a Model A variant, adds WiFi networking and Bluetooth connectivity. Each part includes macro photography, all taken in my in-house studio.
The next section of the feature runs through a series of benchmarks which, in-keeping with previous launches I’ve covered, compares the Pi 3A+ with other mainstream Pi models going all the way back to the original Raspberry Pi Model B. The feature also includes a look at the size and weight, the first time I’ve used that particular metric, along with comparative thermal imagery showing how the smaller surface area of the PCB copes with running the same high-performance processor as the larger Pi 3B+ – again, all captured in-house.
Finally, the cover feature closes with a two-way interview I conducted with project co-founder Eben Upton and principal hardware engineer Roger Thornton. In it, Eben confirms that the Pi 3A+ represents “tidying up ‘classic’ Raspberry Pi,” and that the Raspberry Pi 4 – still very much on the drawing board – will launch a whole new era for the low-cost single-board computer family.
The launch issue is available now from your nearest newsagent or supermarket in print, or can be downloaded free of charge under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.
This month’s maker-focused HackSpace Magazine includes my relatively long-term review of an extremely clever, though far from perfect, temperature-controlled soldering ‘station’: the Miniware TS100.
First, some necessary definitions: brushing aside standard, fixed-power soldering irons, you’ll find adjustable-temperature and temperature-controlled irons on the market. The former are, typically, not much larger than a standard soldering iron and include a small knob on the body for adjusting the power and, thus, temperature of the tip. The latter go a step further, reading the temperature of the iron and using the feedback to dynamically adjust the power output to keep the tip as close to a chosen temperature as possible, and most often come with a bulky base station to which the iron is tethered.
The Miniware TS100, and its not-yet-available-in-the-UK successor the TS80, is different. While it’s a fully-fledged temperature-controlled iron, there’s no base station in sight: instead, the iron packs everything it needs into a surprisingly compact body, including a small OLED screen for live feedback and adjustment of its settings.
What’s most interesting about the design, though, is that the firmware that drives its internal microcontroller is open source. It’s entirely possible to download the source code, modify it, and flash it onto the iron with nothing more than a simple USB cable – and many have done that, producing alternative firmwares which either improve its performance or turn it into something else, including a Tetris-playing games console and a functional oscilloscope, entirely.
The TS100 is clever, then, but not perfect. A design which lacks any form of flaring to stop your fingers drifting forward onto the hot tip is one thing, but a larger problem is an ungrounded power design which leaves the tip floating at voltages more than enough to damage sensitive components. Thankfully, the reviewed unit came with a bundled grounding strap – but that leaves you with two wires rather than one, hampering the portability somewhat.
The full review can be read in the print and digital copies of HackSpace Magazine Issue 13, with the latter available for free download now under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.
Back in March, the release of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+—the Pi 3 B+ to its friends—brought a chance to take stock and review just how far the project had come since its launch via a series of benchmarks. Now the launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ brings a bold claim: a dramatic drop in size, weight, and price over the Pi 3 B+, but without any loss in performance.
In other words: it’s benchmark time once again.
Hobby Tech this month takes a look at a trio of very different products: the Clockwork GameShell modular hand-held console, the Dexter GiggleBot BBC micro:bit-powered robot, and the Coinkite Coldcard hardware cryptocurrency wallet.
First, the Coldcard. Designed by the company behind the Opendime (reviewed in Issue 175, and dead due to an apparent design flaw a week later), the Coldcard is roughly the size of a small stack of credit cards but provides a full hardware wallet for the Bitcoin and Litecoin cryptocurrencies. At least, that’s the theory: sadly, in practice, the device proved difficult to use owing to software glitches, hardware flaws, and a lack of third-party software support which reduces you to using only one wallet package to interface with the Coldcard.
The GiggleBot, by contrast, is a significantly more polished product. While the documentation still needs work, the robot itself – featured two individually-addressable motors, a line- or light-following sensor board, RGB LEDs, and expansion potential from Grove-compatible connectors and a pair of servo headers – is exceptionally impressive, and a great introduction to basic robotics for younger programmers. Those looking to make the leap from the block-based MakeCode environment to Python, though, will discover that the two libraries are far from equivalent in terms of feature availability – something that, again, will hopefully be addressed in the future.
Finally, the Clockwork GameShell. Produced following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the device is based around a Raspberry Pi-like single-board computer dubbed the Clockwork Pi and runs a customised Linux distribution with neat menu system. Its internals, interestingly, are modular, with each contained inside a snap-together transparent plastic housing – a decision which makes for a slightly bulky Game Boy-like outer shell and, sadly, is the direct cause of some overheating problems for the system-on-chip (SoC) during more intensive games like Quake. These issues, though, are largely outweighed by sheer novelty value: a few minutes of FreeDoom in the palm of your hand is sure to raise a smile.
The full reviews can be read in Custom PC Issue 184, available from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
In Hobby Tech this month, there’s a look at a project which has genuinely transformed my mornings, a tiny temperature-controlled soldering iron with a hackable firmware, and the latest brain-melting program-’em-up from Zachtronics.
Starting with the game first, Exapunks caught my eye as soon as I saw it announced by developer Zachtronics. Taking the assembler programming concept of earlier titles TIS-100 and Shenzhen-IO, Exapunks wraps them up in a 90s near-future cyberpunk aesthetic alongside a plot driven by a disease called “the phage” which turns victims into non-functional computers. Because of course it does.
Anyone familiar with Zachtronics’ work will know what to expect, but Exapunks really dials things up. From the puzzles themselves – including one inspired by an early scene in the classic film Hackers – to, in a first for the format, the introduction of real though asynchronous multiplayer on top of the standard leaderboard metrics, Exapunks excels from start to oh-so-tricky finish.
The MiniWare TS100 soldering iron, meanwhile, sounds like it could be straight from Exapunks – or, given its name, TS-100: a compact temperature-controlled soldering iron with built-in screen and an open-source firmware you can hack to control everything from default operating temperature to how long before it enters power-saving “sleep mode.” While far from a perfect design – and since supplanted by the TS80, not yet available from UK stockists – the TS100 is an interesting piece of kit, with its biggest flaw being the need to use a grounding strap to avoid a potentially component-destroying floating voltage at the iron’s tip.
Finally, the project: an effort, using only off-the-shelf software tied together in a Bash shell script, to print out a schedule of the days’ tasks on my Dymo LabelWriter thermal printer. Using the code detailed in the magazine, the project pulls together everything from weather forecasts to my ongoing tasks and Google Calendar weekly schedule – along with a word of the day and, just because, a fortune cookie read out by an ASCII-art cow.
All this, and a variety of other topics, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine on newsagent and supermarket shelves or electronically via Zinio and similar services.