What’s all this?

Question MarkThis is a portfolio site for Gareth Halfacree, the former systems administrator 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, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s 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 Raspberry Pi Press’ Custom PC Magazine each month.

Continue reading

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, Volume 5

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 5Raspberry Pi Press has launched the fifth entry in the ongoing Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book series, a family of bookazine-style publications gathering hands-on content previously published in The MagPi Magazine – and, as usual, my content is included.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 5 is the first volume to be published since the introduction of the Raspberry Pi 4 family – the first in a new generation of single-board computers which brings with it a considerably more powerful processor, the first new graphics processor in Raspberry Pi history, two high-speed USB 3.0 ports, true gigabit-capable Ethernet, and dual-4k display compatibility.

While the bulk of the projects in the book are suitable for any model of Raspberry Pi, there’s some Raspberry Pi 4 exclusive stuff too – in particular my detailed look at the boards, originally written for the Mag Pi’s launch feature. The first feature in the book, it covers the specifications and features of the new board, a look at its performance in a range of synthetic and real-world workloads and including throughput on both Wi-Fi and Ethernet network connections, and two two-page interview spreads with user experience engineer Simon Long and Raspberry Pi Foundation co-founder Eben Upton on both the Raspberry Pi 4 and the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system launched at the same time.

There’s only one thing missing compared to the original version of the feature: thermal performance, including the high-resolution thermal imagery I take of devices on test. There’s a good reason for that: in the latest issue of The MagPi I provided a twelve-page in-depth investigation into the thermal performance of the Raspberry Pi 4 since its launch to the present day through a string of firmware updates designed to decrease power usage and heat output. This represents a considerably more up-to-date look at the board’s thermal performance than in the original launch feature, and it’s entirely sensible to exclude the original test from its republication.

The book is available to buy now in all good supermarkets, newsagents, and for global delivery from the official website; alternatively, a DRM-free PDF copy can be downloaded free of charge under a Creative Commons licence.

Custom PC, Issue 197

Custom PC Issue 197This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Argon 40’s revised Argon One – or Argon 1, depending on which bit of the packaging you’re looking at – case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the RISC-V-based Sipeed Longan Nano development board, and Toshi Omagari’s Arcade Game Typography.

First, the Argon 1 Pi 4 case. Externally, this looks a lot like the Argon One reviewed back in Issue 188; internally, though, things have been shifted around to provide support for the latest Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – and the brown-outs caused by the smart power and cooling board drawing too much power are now a thing of the past.

As with its predecessor, the Argon 1 Pi 4 is impressively solid and does a great job at cooling the Raspberry Pi 4 by using the aluminium housing as a heatsink – even running a heavy synthetic workload, the temperature didn’t reach the minimum required to activate the built-in PWM-controlled cooling fan. It also adds some neat features, such as a labelled and colour-coded GPIO header, neater cabling through the shifting of audio and video ports to the rear, and a smart power button.

Shortly after the review was completed, but thankfully before the magazine went to press, the power board on the Argon 1 Pi 4 died – thankfully without taking the Raspberry Pi 4 with it. The review was updated accordingly, and since then Argon 40 has been stellar in attempting to resolve the problem – paying to have the faulty board returned for analysis and replacing both the faulty board and the entire unit in order to get things back up and running. While it will be a short while before it’s clear whether the failure was a one-off or not, it’s certainly impossible to fault the company’s customer service ethos.

The Sipeed Longan Nano, supplied by Seeed Studio, is an interesting beast: costing less than $5, the board is based on a low-power RISC-V microcontroller with a breadboard-friendly board design and a built-in low-resolution colour LCD display. For the money, the hardware is absolutely incredible – especially as Seeed has even designed a rough but serviceable acrylic case for the board, bundled at no additional cost.

The software and documentation, however, is definitely an issue. The libraries provided failed in a variety of ways – including an inability to use printf() or open a serial port – and the English documentation is extremely sparse. Particularly lacking is anything to demonstrate the use of the LCD – bar a single example program documented using Chinese in-line comments.

Finally, Arcade Game Typography. I’ve reviewed a lot of retro-computing coffee-table books over the years, but Omagari’s book is the first to concentrate solely on fonts and typography as used in classic arcade games – and given Omagari’s work as a designer for Monotype UK, it’s fair to say he knows his stuff. The result is a fascinating book, and one which is currently available in a limited 1,000-copy hardback print run from Read-Only Memory if the standard paperback isn’t shiny enough for you.

Custom PC Issue 197 is available on supermarket and newsagent shelves now, or can be ordered for global delivery from the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 88

The MagPi Issue 88The latest issue of The MagPi Magazine includes a whopping 12-page feature investigating the thermal performance of the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B single-board computer as it is affected by a series of firmware updates released since its launch earlier this year.

When I reviewed the Raspberry Pi 4 at launch, I highlighted its dramatically increased power draw and heat output compared with its predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. In the months since, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been working to address the issue through a series of firmware updates – and, with assistance from Eben Upton and Tim Gover, my feature runs through each release and sees what difference it actually makes.

For the feature, I had to develop a method of benchmarking the Raspberry Pi. Power draw was relatively straightforward: the built-in current meter in a bench-top power supply is used to measure the minimal draw at idle and peak draw at load. For thermal performance, I wrote a custom benchmark which uses two open-source utilities – glxgears and stress-ng – to place a heavy load on both the CPU and the GPU while measuring the resulting temperature rise and the speed of the CPU, which throttles at 80°C to protect the silicon.

These measurements provided a graph of temperature rise and fall, the latter thanks to a five-minute cool-down period built into the benchmark, but for a more visual approach I also took thermal imagery of the board at idle and load to demonstrate which components are responsible for the heat output and better highlight the improvements made at each firmware revision. This was no small undertaking: the benchmarking and thermal imagery was completed for five firmware revisions, the last of which was not publicly available at the time of testing, plus a baseline Raspberry Pi 3B+ for comparison.

The feature also takes a look at a real-world workload, in which temperature and clock speed is measured while a four-worker compile of the Linux kernel is carried out. This revealed something which may come as a surprise to critics of the board: Using the latest firmware, the Raspberry Pi 4 did not throttle at all during the compilation – something that can’t be said for the Raspberry Pi 3B+, which throttled to 1.2GHz from 1.4GHz almost immediately. For the final bit of testing, there’s even a comparison of the Raspberry Pi 4 running sat flat on a desk and balanced vertically – at Upton’s suggestion – with a resulting dramatic impact on the throttle point and operating temperature.

Finally, firmware developer Tim Gover was kind enough to answer my questions on what the Raspberry Pi 4 firmware actually does, how it is developed, and how it can have such a dramatic impact on power usage – along with the confirmation that USB mass-storage booting and IPv6 network booting are on the to-do list for future releases.

The full feature, and plenty more beside, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or downloaded at no cost in digital form under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 196

Custom PC Issue 196My Hobby Tech column this month opens with a look at a surprisingly swish programming environment for the Nintendo Switch, of all things, walks through the creation of a power-saving networked display using the Pimoroni Inky wHAT and a Raspberry Pi, and looks at a book which purports to chart the history of Apple Macintosh gaming.

First, the programming environment. Fuze4 Nintendo Switch, available now on the Nintendo eShop, builds on the Fuze BASIC programming language originally developed for the Raspberry Pi and reviewed – alongside its BBC Micro-inspired housings – in Issue 124 and Issue 136. This time around, though, the language is considerably less BASIC and more like a hybrid between BASIC, Python, and a bit of C thrown in for good measure. It’s also less focused on things like sensor reading and GPIO control – for obvious reason – and instead designed specifically for a single task: making games.

There are aspects that need polish – in particular the sharing of created projects, which at present can only be done via Nintendo’s clunky friends-list system – but overall Fuze4 Nintendo Switch is impressive. You’ll want a keyboard, but once you get started it’s easy to build some impressive projects – one demo supplied with the game showcases a fluid 3D engine with dynamic lighting, created in a remarkably short number of lines.

The Inky wHAT project, meanwhile, was largely a means of documenting something I created for my own use: an electrophoretic display that would display the output of the schedule printer I detailed in Issue 183 without needing to print on physical paper. There’s a twist, too: after finding that the only box-frame available that would fit the project depth-wise was too large, I created a mock-up of an Amiga Workbench desktop to frame the smaller Inky wHAT display – and the effect is surprisingly convincing.

Finally, Richard Moss’ The Secret History of Mac Gaming was a pleasure to read, though a few aspects of Apple’s history are presented from the eyes of a fanboy rather than a historian. Switching between recollection, research, interview content, and contributed material, the book does a great job of documenting the largely-forgotten history of gaming on Apple Macs – though it could have benefited from another editing and layout pass, in particular to avoid the recurring issue where screenshots either appear out-of-order or without any reference in the text.

As always, the latest Custom PC Magazine is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets, or can be ordered for worldwide delivery from Raspberry Pi Press.

Get Started with Raspberry Pi

Get Started with Raspberry PiFollowing on from releasing the world’s first magazine with a computer on the cover, for which I provided the launch documentation that made up the historic MagPi Magazine Issue 40, Raspberry Pi Press has done it again: Its new publication, Get Started with Raspberry Pi, once again includes a cover-mounted computer – this time the more powerful Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ – along with a case and pre-loaded microSD card with adapter.

The book, as its name suggests, is designed for absolute beginners to the Rasbperry Pi – but it’s not a replacement for my Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, now in its third edition. Instead, it offers a broader but shallower overview of what the Raspberry Pi can do – starting with setting it up and moving on to both hands-on projects and an overview of community projects and third-party add-on hardware.

Inside Get Started with Raspberry Pi you’ll find a range of contributors’ work, including of course my own: The set-up guide and instructions on using the Raspbian desktop and other software, much taken from the Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, bear my hallmark; the book also republishes the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ launch feature I wrote for The MagPi Magazine Issue 76, which includes an overview of the device, detailed benchmarking including how it relates to ever other model in the Raspberry Pi range, and an interview with its creators.

Those looking to get the bundled Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ will need to head to their nearest supermarket, newsagent, or order a copy with free worldwide delivery from the Raspberry Pi Press Store; as with most Raspberry Pi Press publications, Get Started with Raspberry Pi is also available for free download under a Creative Commons licence – though, obviously, the download doesn’t include the cover-mounted computer!

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, 3rd Edition

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner's Guide Third EditionThe latest version of my beginner-focused Raspberry Pi book, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, is now available – and it brings with it a major change to the projects included within.

The Second Edition release of the book concentrated on bringing the popular publication – bundled with all Raspberry Pi Desktop Kits – up-to-date for the release of the Raspberry Pi 4 and the Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system. This Third Edition, meanwhile, migrates the programming and electronics projects to newer versions of their respective development environments: Scratch 3 and the Thonny IDE.

Thonny, the default integrated development environment for Python programs, is largely just a visual change: the latest version of the software simplifies the user interface compared to earlier releases, so all instructions and screenshots in the book have been updated accordingly.

Scratch 3 is a bigger shift. As well as coming with a refreshed user interface, Scratch 3 changes certain core aspects of its operation compared to Scratch 2 – with the result that Scratch 2 programs aren’t guaranteed to work within Scratch 3 without modification. This Third Edition updates all the Scratch-based projects to ensure they work correctly in Scratch 3, complete with all-new instructions.

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide Third Edition also includes a number of other improvements, from updates for other new and changed software through to a few minor errata from earlier editions.

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide Third Edition is available now from all good bookshops and e-tailers, while a free PDF copy can be downloaded from the MagPi Magazine website –  or you can order a print copy for international delivery.

PC Pro, Issue 302

PC Pro Issue 302Following on from my group test of small form factor machines in Issue 297, this month’s PC Pro magazine sees me take the helm of the regular Labs Test once again to put nine more traditional desktop PCs through their paces – with some available for as little as £300 including a Windows 10 Home licence.

The feature follows the usual Labs format: an introduction is followed by a features table listing all the key specifications, including pricing and warranty data, on each of the nine machines on-test; four large focus reviews follow, along with six shorter reviews; there’s a two-page buyer’s guide with hints and tips on getting the most bang for your buck; the View from the Labs opinion editorial; and a full-page feature-in-feature which, this month, takes a tour of the desktop PC’s storied history from the minicomputer era forwards – with special mention, of course, to IBM’s Personal Computer and the horde of ‘IBM Compatibles’ which followed.

Each machine on test was photographed inside and out in my in-house studio, disassembled to check the fit and finish as well as confirm how upgradeable each design is post-purchase, and tested through a gamut of benchmarks including power draw, productivity performance, gaming performance – less of a focus for this Labs than most, owing to the fact many machines are at the very bottom of the budget and designed more for general-purpose computing than blasting aliens – as well as browser performance and disk speed. This Labs also comes with an added bonus: boot timings for each machine, measuring how long it takes each to load Windows ready for use from a cold start.

As always, these group tests wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of the hardware vendors themselves. My thanks go out to CCL, Palicomp, PC Specialist, QuietPC, Chillblast, Cyberpower, and Currys PC World for their assistance with hardware loans, and also to Box.co.uk for the loan of a system which was unfortunately not able to be included in the group this time around. A special thanks, too, goes to UL Benchmarks and Unigine for the provision of benchmarking software used in the test.

The full feature is available in PC Pro Issue 302, on-shelves now at supermarkets, newsagents, and on the hard drives of the usual digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 195

Custom PC Issue 195This month’s Hobby Tech column opens on an interview with Ryan Brown on the impressive Quarter Arcades miniature fully-licensed reproduction arcade cabinets, moves on to a review of the RISC-V-based Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT for the Raspberry Pi, and closes with a look at Pimoroni’s clever Inky wHAT electrophoretic display.

First, the interview. Answering the important question first, Brown admitted that “the pun certainly helps” when it came to deciding to what scale the Quarter Arcades cabinets should be produced: each carefully-designed reproduction, modelled on real period-appropriate cabinets, is built to a quarter scale both as a means of having it sit nicely on a desk and of providing a name which echoes the most commonly-required coin of US arcade cabinets.

While the Quarter Arcade range is currently limited to licensed properties including Pac-Man and Galaga, Brown has indicated there’s potential there to expand: “Starting with the most beloved classics really helps us open doors to other, more niche arcade games, and even potentially games that never reached the arcade.”

The Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT, by contrast, was an undeniable disappointment. Based on the Kendryte K210 system-on-chip, which uses the RISC-V instruction set architecture and includes a co-processor designed to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads, the AI HAT can be used as a stand-alone development board or attached on top of a Raspberry Pi – but in the latter mode is almost entirely divorced from the Pi itself, to the point where it’s not even possible to program the AI HAT without detaching it again and connecting it to a more traditional PC.

Finally, the Inky wHAT. Another Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) board, the Inky wHAT offers a 4.2″ electrophoretic display in three colours: red, black, and white in the model reviewed, with a yellow variant available alongside a slightly cheaper black-and-white two-colour version. Forming the heart of a project which will appear in next month’s magazine, the Inky wHAT impressed – though it would be nice to see the price drop a little, given how cheap full-colour though considerably more power-hungry LCD panels are these days.

Custom PC Issue 195 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally through the usual outlets.

Custom PC, Issue 194

Custom PC Issue 194My regular Hobby Tech feature provided two opportunities to break out the thermal camera, thanks to a detailed analysis of a range of cooling products for the Raspberry Pi 4 and a review of the Libre Computer Project’s La Frite single-board computer – and there was even time to take a look at Brian Dear’s exhaustive title The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture.

First, La Frite. Funded, as with all Libre Computer Project boards, via crowdfunding, the compact single-board computer is designed to compete with the like of the Raspberry Pi. It certainly has its selling points: there’s a mounting point on the underside for an eMMC storage module, though it uses proprietary mounting holes; there’s a clever midship-mounted Ethernet port to reduce the overall height; and it even comes with the option of a clever two-piece aluminium case that doubles as a heatsink. Sadly, the board’s performance isn’t there, its software support struggles, and despite the name of the organisation its openness is limited to targeting mainstream Linux kernels; the board itself is a proprietary design.

Moving on to the topic of the Raspberry Pi 4, there’s no secret now that the new high-performance processor at its heart runs a little warm. For my analysis of the issue and a look at some potential solutions, a benchmarking workload was executed while temperature and clockspeed were measured and charted – demonstrating handily the loss of performance you get when the system-on-chip begins to heat up.

These data are joined by the same workload while the Raspberry Pi 4 is enjoying the benefits of a range of third-party cooling products: the Pimoroni Heatsink and Fan Shim options, the former running in passive-only and fan-assisted modes and the latter in always-on and software-controlled modes, along with the 52Pi Ice Tower heatsink and fan assembly as supplied by Seeed Studio and running in 5V, 3V3, and wholly passive modes. The temperatures across the run are then charted, while thermal imagery provides a visual insight into how the whole board heats under passive and active cooling.

Finally, The Friendly Orange Glow is a book I’d heartily recommend to anyone interested in the history of a surprising range of modern technologies – from flat-panel plasma displays and multiplayer gaming to Microsoft’s FreeCell. Charting the rise and fall of PLATO, a computer-assisted learning platform now largely forgotten by history, the book is about more than just technology: as its subtitle, The Untold History of the Rise of Cyberculture, suggests, PLATO and those who built and used it were responsible for cultural movements that wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere in the world for decades.

You can pick up the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or online at the Raspberry Pi Press Store, or grab it in digital form via the usual distribution services.