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

Custom PC Magazine, Issue 158

Custom PC Magazine Issue 158This month, my regular Hobby Tech column is interview-heavy. You’ll find two pages dedicated to Grant Macaulay of Theo Lasers, another two to Barry Getty of the Dark Water Foundation, and a final page reviewing the Genuino Zero microcontroller simply for a change of pace.

First, Grant. I met Grant at the recent Maker Faire UK, where he was showcasing prototypes of the Theo Laser laser cutters. These devices immediately caught my eye: rather than the usual red or beige metal, the cases were made from unfinished laser-cut wood. Each housed a low-power diode laser, and the top-end model was set to retail for around £1,000. A few months later Grant was getting ready to hit the go-live button on a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, and kindly took some time to walk me through his hopes for Theo Lasers – not to mention the thinking behind his decision to release everything from the hardware designs to the source code under a permissive, open-source licence.

Barry’s another contact from an event: Liverpool MakeFest 2015. There, I talked to Barry as his Dark Water Foundation ran a Lego-based workshop teaching the young and the not-so-young how to build open-source remote-operated submersible vehicles (ROSVs). Like Grant, Barry’s work didn’t stop when my original interview ended and I recently caught up with him to discuss some new designs: the Dark Control boards. Designed for use with the Raspberry Pi, these add-on boards allow for connecting up to six motors – important, he tells me, for full freedom of movement – quickly and easily, while also adding support for radio control systems and inertial measurement units.

Finally, the Genuino Zero. Kindly provided by oomlout as part of a collection of hardware I’m slowly working my way through testing, the Genuino Zero – known as the Arduino Zero in the US – drops Arduino’s traditional 8-bit ATmega microcontroller family in favour of a 32-bit ARM Cortex-M0+. The result is a board that looks for all the world like an Arduino Uno, but which offers considerably different capabilities and improved performance.

All this, and the usual selection of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be found in your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

The Raspberry Pi User Guide, Fourth Edition

Raspberry Pi User Guide Fourth EditionWriting a book on a technical topic is like trying to nail fog. The more popular a topic is the faster it moves and the thinner the fog gets. Nowhere is this more true than the Raspberry Pi, which this month celebrated shipping its ten millionth single-board computer to makers, educators, hackers, tinkerers, and curious types worldwide. Accordingly, The Raspberry Pi User Guide was in need of an overhaul – and an overhaul it has indeed received.

The fourth edition of my best-selling guide to all things Pi now includes coverage of the Raspberry Pi 3 with its Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, an entire chapter on choosing and using add-ons including the official Raspberry Pi Touchscreen, Sense HAT, and Wi-Fi adapter, a completely rewritten guide to Raspbian which covers the latest changes to the distribution, and a shift in other chapters to cover more popular software including LibreOffice – now a default install option – and the OSMC media software.

Elsewhere, you’ll find things tweaked, polished, and brought bang-up-to-date. The networking instructions now cover the use of the DHCP configuration file for setting a static IP address, the GPIO chapter is refreshed, and you’ll even find instructions for correctly soldering GPIO headers onto the ultra-low-cost Raspberry Pi Zero.

For UK readers, The Raspberry Pi User Guide Fourth Edition is available to purchase now from Amazon; for international readers, check with your local booksellers or find links to other outlets via the official Wiley book listing.

The MagPi, Issue 49

The MagPi Issue 49The latest issue of The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, includes my two-page interview with Grant Macaulay of Theo Lasers, along with what is now rapidly becoming a go-to image I took of a Raspberry Pi 3 artfully rotated and pasted onto the cover.

I first met Grant at the Maker Faire UK event earlier this year, and got talking to him about the project he had quit his job to build: Theo Lasers. Designed to address the lack of affordable entry-level laser cutters and engravers for hobbyist and educational use, Theo Lasers came from a simple idea: “I’m going to make a laser cutter with a laser cutter,” he laughingly explained in front of a stand of prototypes proving he could do just that.

In the months since the event, Grant has been hard at work improving upon his design. In particular, with the aid of a developer friend, he’s moved from basing the hardware on an Arduino Mega microcontroller to using a Raspberry Pi Zero. In doing so his team developed Theo Controller, a browser-based control and monitoring system which runs entirely on the Pi and which can accept input from any web-compatible device. Coupled with an on-board display, SD card reader, and even the ability to run from battery or solar power, and Grant’s design definitely stands out from the competition even before you see its eye-catching wooden chassis.

Grant’s due to launch a Kickstarter campaign to begin mass production of the Theo Laser cutters in early September, with more details available from the official website. The interview, meanwhile, can be read for free in the Creative Commons licensed The MagPi Issue 49, out now.

Custom PC, Issue 157

Custom PC Issue 157This month’s Hobby Tech column demonstrates how to use the Raspberry Pi Camera Module to create smooth timelapse footage and reviews the WeMos D1 R2 ESP8266-based Arduino-alike board and Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang’s Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen.

Looking to the tutorial, this is far from the first time I’ve covered the use of the Raspberry Pi Camera Module add-on. Since its initial launch, however, the software has come on in leaps and bounds including means of finally addressing a longstanding issue with the board: the difficulty in using the timelapse functionality. Where previously you needed a surprisingly complicated script to control the camera, now timelapse capture is handled entirely within the raspistill software. Coupled with avconv – ffmpeg, which I had previously recommended for the task, having been deleted from the Raspbian software repositories – the two packages are all you need to create high-quality timelapse footage directly on any Raspberry Pi.

The WeMos D1 R2 is one of a range of low-cost devices based on the ESP8266 microcontroller and Wi-Fi radio. While getting on in age, the ESP8266 is extremely popular due to its rock-bottom pricing; the only snag being that its form factor makes it difficult to integrate into hobbyist projects. The WeMos D1 R2 aims to fix that by providing a breakout board for the compact ESP8266 in the familiar Arduino Uno layout. While more feature-packed equivalents exist, the WeMos D1 R2 costs just £3.30 in single units – an absolute bargain for an easy-to-use microcontroller with integrated Wi-Fi connectivity.

Finally, The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen. Kindly loaned by my friend Aaron at hobbyist electronics specialist oomlout, this latest book from noted hacker Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang is a major departure from the norm. Rather than a how-to guide or white paper analysis, the book is designed to be used as a functional sourcing tool while visiting the Shenzhen area of China complete with maps, point-to-translate pages covering everything from travelling back to your hotel to enquiring as to the tolerance of resistors and capacitors. A pair of prose sections also provide information on doing business in China, including how to spot fake or missold components and how each could affect your project. Niche, perhaps, but a fascinating read – and an invaluable tool for anyone planning a trip to Shenzhen any time soon.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or as a string of zeroes and ones on Zinio and other digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 156

Custom PC Issue 156The latest installment of my long-running Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is four-strong this month: as well as a two-page review of the Particle Electron GSM microcontroller, you’ll find reviews of the Pimoroni Black Hat Hack3r family of Raspberry Pi add-on boards, vintage computing simulator TIS-100, and a look at open-source laser-cut tool holder designs from Wim Van Gool.

First, the tool holders. I’ve never been known for keeping my workspace neat and tidy, but I’ve found that as long as there is something nearby to slot things in I can be trusted to put things back at least half of the time. Trouble is, pen holders are somewhat ill-suited to smaller tools and dedicated tool holders are expensive. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that Wim Van Gool had published design files for a pair of tool holders designed specifically for the sort of compact tools you need for detail electronics work to Thingiverse – and, better still, that they could be cut from cheap medium-density fibreboard (MDF).

The Particle Electron, meanwhile, came to me courtesy a Kickstarter campaign I backed following my delight with the Particle Photon – or, as it was known when I reviewed it back in Issue 132, the Spark Core – Wi-Fi microcontroller. Like its predecessor, the Particle Electron is Arduino-like and powered by Particle’s excellent web-based IDE and cloud infrastructure; where the Photon uses Wi-Fi to connect, though, the Electron uses international mobile infrastructure in either 2G (as reviewed) or 3G flavours. For remote projects where Wi-Fi connectivity can’t be guaranteed, that’s fantastic – but be aware that there are ongoing costs, and that the device is locked down to Particle’s own SIM card (supplied).

Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r boards, meanwhile, are significantly less ‘clever’: at their hearts, the Black Hat Hack3r and Mini Black Hat Hack3r are nothing more than break-out boards for the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin GPIO header. Designed in-house to speed Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) development and released as a product following considerable demand, the ‘dumb’ break-out boards are nevertheless a treat to use: it’s possible to connect a HAT to any model of Pi minus the Compute Module and still retain access to all 40 pins for additional hardware or debugging purposes, or even to daisy-chain the boards to connect multiple HATs to a single Pi – if you don’t mind hacking around the EEPROM issues that may cause.

Finally, TIS-100. I don’t normally review games, but TIS-100 isn’t a normal game: developed by Zachtronics, the creator of Spacechem and the Ruckingeneur series, TIS-100 gives the player control of a fictional 1980s computer system – the Tessellated Intelligence System – with a simplified instruction set. The task: to rewrite corrupted segments of the computer’s firmware, and in doing so uncover the mystery of what happened to the machine’s last owner ‘Uncle Rudy.’ In short: it’s half-game, half-programming-exercise – and pretty much all fantastic.

All this, plus a wealth of other stuff from people other than myself, is awaiting you at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 167

Linux User & Developer Issue 167This month’s Linux User & Developer includes my review of Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r family of break-out boards, designed for both the mainstream Raspberry Pi and ultra-compact Raspberry Pi Zero single-board computers (SBCs).

While Pimoroni isn’t exclusively focused on the Raspberry Pi platform, it’s no secret that the Sheffield-based company has plenty of ideas in mind for enhancing the popular devices. The Black Hat Hack3r range started out as an internal development tool, designed to make it easier to debug Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) devices – add-on boards which cover the 40-pin general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header on top of the Raspberry Pi – without having to deal with a rat’s nest of cables or easily-knocked debug clips.

The boards are simple at their heart: with no active components, all they do is mirror the GPIO header. A ribbon cable connects the board – available in full-size and a Mini variant designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi Zero – to the Pi’s GPIO header, and the HAT under investigation is connected to the mirrored header. A third header then provides full access to all 40 pins, which opens up a wealth of possibilities: you can add additional hardware at the same time as the HAT, sniff signals coming to or from the HAT for debugging or reverse engineering reasons, or even connect more than one HAT to a single Pi by daisy-chaining multiple boards.

I’ve long been a fan of Pimoroni’s designs, and the Black Hat Hack3rs are no exception to the company’s rule of clever boards with attractive layouts and finishes. To get my full opinion, though, you’ll have to pick up a copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 167 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 155

Custom PC Issue 155This month’s Hobby Tech column features my field report from the Maker Faire UK 2016 event, an interview with my good friend Daniel Bailey about his brilliant homebrew computers, and a review of the Genuino MKR1000 microcontroller.

First, the event. Attending events like the Maker Faire is always a blast, especially as press when you have an excuse to stick your nose into absolutely everything that’s happening. My attendance this year was sponsored by oomlout, a local hobbyist electronics shop and a client for whom I do blog work, as highlighted in a “Sponsored By” call-out over the two-page spread. As for the event itself, you’ll find coverage of everything from DoES Liverpool’s excellent shooting gallery to affordable laser cutters and even the world’s only crowd-funded and wholly amateur manned space programme.

The event also gave me a chance to catch up with Daniel Bailey at the York Hackspace stand, after nearly a year of trying to find a good time to interview him about his impressive homebrew computers. Built on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and inspired by the classic Manchester Baby, the 8-bit C88 and 32-bit C3232 are incredibly impressive machines – and I can think of no project that better fits with the magazine’s title!

Finally, the MKR1000. Known under the Arduino brand in the US and Genuino brand elsewhere thanks to ongoing trademark disputes, the MKR1000 is Arduino.cc’s answer to the popular Particle Photon Wi-Fi microcontrollers. Featuring a breadboard-friendly layout and integrated 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio, it represents an interesting new direction for the company – albeit one somewhat hobbled by a high price compared against the competition.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people other than me, is awaiting your attention at your local newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 166

Linux User & Developer Issue 166This month’s Linux User & Developer includes a review of the Cubietruck Plus – also known as the Cubieboard 5 – I previously reviewed in Custom PC Issue 154.

CubieTech’s latest design, the Cubietruck Plus borrows the overall design from its predecessor but swaps out the weedy dual-core Allwinner A20 processor for an altogether beefier H8 octa-core chip. Kindly supplied for review by low-power computing specialist New IT, I was eager to put the board through its paces – especially as previous octa-core single-board computer (SBC) designs have suffered from some reliability issues when fully loaded for extended periods.

Sadly, as with my earlier review, there’s one piece of information which didn’t come to light prior to the deadline: devices, including single-board computers, based on Allwinner chips and using the company’s modified Linux kernel source have been found to suffer from a back-door which allows any process running on the system to silently and immediately gain root-level (superuser) privileges. While it doesn’t allow for remote execution, it can make existing bugs more readily exploitable – and if you’re using the Cubietruck Plus or any other Allwinner-based device, it’s worth checking to see if you’re affected.

This aside, the Cubietruck Plus certainly impressed during both reviews – though if you want to find out if I think it justifies its considerable price premium over the four-core Raspberry Pi 3, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 154

Custom PC Issue 154In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a good long look at the BBC micro:bit, CubieTech’s latest Cubietruck Plus (Cubieboard 5) single-board computer, and a pack of Top Trumps-inspired playing cards based on vintage computers.

Beginning with the micro:bit, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a press sample when the much-redesigned educational device was finally ready to ship to schools across the UK. Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller and boasting integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the micro:bit’s main selling point is its excellent support: the web IDE includes four languages suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to experts, there is documentation galore, and the BBC’s TV output includes shows which remind me of the glory days of the BBC Micro and its related programming.

At least, that would be a selling point if the board was actually up for sale. Despite having now mostly fulfilled its promise to ship free micro:bits to all Year Seven pupils in the UK, the BBC has still made no announcement about commercial availability for the educational gadget. Those whose appetites are whetted by the review, then, are best off looking at the CodeBug on which the micro:bit was based, or the new Genuino/Arduino 101 if Bluetooth LE support is a requirement.

The Cubietruck Plus, meanwhile, is an altogether different beast. Kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the board is – as the name suggests – a follow-up to CubieTech’s original Cubietruck. The old dual-core processor is long gone, replaced with an Allwinner H8 octa-core chip that blazed through benchmarks with aplomb – and without hitting the boiling-point temperature highs of the rival Raspberry Pi 3.

Sadly, there’s one piece of information that didn’t make it into the review: shortly after the issue went to press, security researchers discovered a debug vulnerability left in Allwinner’s customised Linux kernel which allows any application on the system to gain root permission. Although affecting only selected operating systems, it’s something to be aware of if you’re in the market for an Allwinner-powered SBC.

Finally, the playing cards. Created by start-up 8bitkick following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the deck is nostalgia in a box. The idea is to bring the Top Trumps concept of collectable, trivia-esque comparison gaming to vintage computing: the cards feature everything from the Acorn Atom to the TI-99/4A, plus a joker in the deck in the form of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.

The cards are printed with a very high quality finish, but it’s the source of the images that is of most interest: rather than take the pictures itself, 8bitkick has instead scoured the web for images in the public domain or licensed as Creative Commons. It’s no theft, though: while most Creative Commons licenses allow for even commercial reuse if properly attributed, 8bitkick has promised to upload the full deck design to its website for free download and printing.

All this, plus lots of interesting things by people who aren’t me, is only a short trip to the newsagent’s away – or you can stay exactly where you are and grab a digital copy from Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 165

Linux User & Developer Issue 165For my regular review in Linux User & Developer this month I had the great pleasure to spend time with the BBC’s first serious hardware project since it teamed up with Acorn in the 80s: the BBC micro:bit.

Originally known as the Micro Bit, the micro:bit is a teeny-tiny microcontroller-based educational programming platform based on the CodeBug. Like the CodeBug, the micro:bit uses a 5×5 LED matrix on its front side as its main method of communicating with the outside world; unlike the CodeBug, the micro:bit includes built-in Bluetooth Low Energy support as well as a gyroscope and magnetic compass, along with the two-button input layout the two share.

With the backing of the BBC, and a major funding drive from Barclay’s which has seen a micro:bit promised to ever Year Seven pupil the UK entirely free of charge, it’s no surprise to see that plenty of companies are involved in the project. At launch, the device boasted no fewer than four programming languages – three provided by Microsoft – in its web-based IDE, along with a neat smartphone app built by Samsung allowing for Bluetooth LE-based interaction and even wireless flashing of programs.

Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller (and, oddly, a significantly more powerful Cortex-M0+ which is used exclusively to handle the USB Mass Storage implementation, allowing for mbed-style drag-and-drop flashing without the need to install drivers or a toolchain locally) the micro:bit is impressive, as is the wealth of documentation and supporting materials the BBC has compiled. There’s a catch, mind you: so far, the BBC has not announced commercial availability – meaning we have no idea how much the gadget is going to cost people not included in the generous Barclay’s-funded giveaway programme.

For the full low-down, plus a lot more interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local magazine outlet or stay where you are and pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.