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

The MagPi, Issue 40

The MagPi Issue 40This month’s MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is just a little bit special: it is, to my knowledge, the first magazine ever to include a cover-mounted computer. The release of the magazine today also represents the launch of a brand-new Raspberry Pi model: the Raspberry Pi Zero.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been playing with the Pi Zero for some time, having worked on three of the hardware projects you’ll find between the covers of this extra-special issue. After peeling the Pi Zero from the cover, readers will be shown how to solder general-purpose input/output (GPIO) headers onto its otherwise extremely flat face, connect its serial port to a computer for use as a true random number generator (TRNG), and use it with an existing HAT add-on to act as a mood lamp.

The three projects I created for this issue were chosen from a long, long list. The Pi Zero is an exciting device: it features the same specifications as the Raspberry Pi Model A, but in a brand-new form factor a fraction of the size of the original. Naturally, some features have been cut: just like the Model A there’s no Ethernet chip, but there are also no CSI or DSI connectors and no analogue audio or video ports – though composite video is broken out to a solder pad for the adventurous. The ports that do remain have also been modified: the full-size HDMI port is replaced by a mini-HDMI, and the full-size USB port is a micro-USB port which requires a USB On-The-Go (OTG) adapter before it can be connected to standard USB peripherals.

In doing this, the Foundation has created a device that excites me even more than the full-size models. With a production cost so low that it can be cover-mounted on a high-street magazine, it’s now possible to put a full Linux computer in more project than ever before – and with a simple low-cost USB OTG adapter and a Wi-Fi dongle, it can be networked for a total outlay of well below $10. It is, in short, a game-changer, and I look forward to working on many more Pi Zero-related projects in the near future.

If that wasn’t enough, you’ll also find my review of the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station which has been my trusty companion in various projects over the last couple of years. It’s always nice to be able to give a device a good, long-haul test before drawing your conclusions and I’ve certainly put the miles in on the Tenma. As I warn in the review a hobbyist doesn’t strictly need a soldering station, but it does make life easier – and the low cost of this unit, purchased from CPC, makes it easy to recommend for those who fancy an upgrade.

All this, plus more – and, remember the cover-mounted Pi Zero – is available in your nearest WH Smith. The magazine itself is also available as a DRM-free PDF download from the official website, licensed under Creative Commons terms, but obviously you’ll have to buy a Pi Zero separately if you want to follow along with any of my projects.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects BookI’ve been writing for The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, since its major relaunch under the editorial leadership of Russell Barnes. That’s long enough to have built up a reasonable amount of content – and it’s that content you’ll find the The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, published today under a Creative Commons licence.

Inside the 200 page book, which is available in print and as a DRM-free PDF download, you’ll find several pieces of my work. The first is entitled ‘Crowdfundings Greatest Hits,” an eight-page investigation of some of the biggest Pi-related crowd-funded projects around – and some of its biggest failures, too. This was a great piece to work on, involving plenty of research and interviews, and was the first to break the news that Azorean was relying on additional external investment to fulfil rewards in its Ziphius campaign – rewards which have still not been fulfilled, more than a year after its original launch date.

You’ll also find reprints of several of my reviews: there’s the Pimoroni Display-o-Tron 3000 add-on, the Weaved IoT remote access system, the 4Tronix Agobo low-cost robot chassis, Velleman’s 3D Printing Pen, and the excellent Swanky Paint from local coding outfit WetGenes. Naturally, each is accompanied by photography which is also published under a Creative Commons licence – and is, as always, available for reuse from my Flickr page.

This marks the first book to which I have contributed which is published under a Creative Commons licence, but it certainly won’t be the last. Allowing for free non-commercial reuse and encouraging sharing and copying, it’s an approach at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to that taken by most publishers – and one of which I heartily approve.

You can download The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book for free from the official website, while print copies are available from the swag store or the usual high-street outlets.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 159

Linux User & Developer Issue 159My review for this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine is the frankly impressive CompuLab Fitlet miniature PC, which joins my usual four-page news spread between the publication’s ever-colourful covers.

I first reviewed the Fitlet in Custom PC Issue 148, published last month, but where that review focused on the device’s suitability for the hobbyist and for general-purpose computing my version for Linux User naturally takes the perspective of a die-hard Linux… well, user. As a result, the fact that CompuLab supplied it with a pre-installed version of Linux Mint 17.2 was a bonus – although there’s nothing to stop you wiping the system and installing any other flavour you fancy, thanks to its entirely standard architecture.

Traditionally, driver support in Linux has always been a pain when it comes to shiny new hardware. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a device on the test-bench and found that it requires a bleeding-edge kernel or an array of patches to even boot – but not so the Fitlet. Everything, from the wireless to accelerated graphics, was working just fine out-the-box with the sole exception of the General Purpose Input-Output (GPIO) header – an oversight the company has since corrected with the release of an official SDK.

The sheer array of options on offer is enough to turn anyone’s head, too. Those who like an uncluttered desk will find the VESA bracket accessory a must-have; others might find the DIN rail mount a better choice; still more could opt for the larger passive heatsink to overclock the CPU – a one-setting feature directly in the BIOS, requiring no modification and with no effect on warranty – to wring some more performance out. It’s even possible to spec the Fitlet with different ports thanks to its modular Function And Connectivity Extension T-card (FACET) system: the dual-Ethernet single-eSATA default can be quickly modified to quadruple-Ethernet, if that’s your sort of thing.

It’s fair to say I’m a big fan of the Fitlet, and to read the review in full – plus all the latest happenings in the world of open source – all you need do is head to your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or download the issue digitally via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 148

Custom PC Issue 148My regular Hobby Tech column is undeniably review-heavy this month, with three separate items spread across its five pages: the CompuLab Fitlet, the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit, and the Widdop.

To deal with the latter first, the Widdop is a bit of an odd thing to review at first glance as it was available exclusively to those who attended this year’s Wuthering Bytes festival. There’s method in my madness, though: it’s a variant of the Cordwood puzzle designed by Saar Drimer at Boldport, and a review of the Widdop is equally applicable to its predecessor. In short, it’s a soldering kit sans instructions: two artistically designed and matching circuit boards are supplied along with a fistful of components, and it’s up to the user to not only work out how it should be assembled but then how to interface it to a microcontroller or other controlling system – great fun!

The Bare Conductive Touch Board, by contrast, is readily available. I had previously experienced the delights of the Touch Board, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller with built-in capacitive touch sensing and audio playback capabilities, at the Manchester MakeFest where the Manchester Arduino group were demonstrating Touch Board-powered musical food bowls. The Starter Kit, though, is something else entirely. Packed in an oversized box it contains everything you need to get started, from the conductive paint which made Bare Conductive famous to the Touch Board itself pre-loaded with a voice-led 12-step tutorial.

The booklet is the real prize, though. Walking the user through three projects, it’s one of the best I’ve seen: well produced with exciting photographs and a great attention to detail. The primary project, too, is innovative: a stencil and overlay in the shape of a house demonstrates how the conductive paint can be used to create interactive art, with the remaining two projects offering an intruder alarm – for bare-footed intruders, at least – and a look at adding interactivity to household objects.

Finally, the Fitlet. I’ve been a fan of CompuLab’s tiny Linux-compatible PCs for a while, but the Fitlet is the first I’ve had a chance to review. Supplied in its top-end form with an AMD A10-Micro6700T quad-core processor, it has the grunt of a low-mid-range office desktop but in a passively cooled form factor little larger than a cased Raspberry Pi. Compared to the already diminutive Intel NUC, it’s absolutely tiny: the smallest NUC has a volume of 0.417 litres, while the Fitlet is just 0.215 litres in volume.

Despite its size, there’s a bit of everything: as reviewed, the Fitlet offers on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, dual gigabit Ethernet ports, three USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, powered eSATA, and even a GPIO connector – which, sadly, lacked driver support at the time of my review, an issue CompuLab has now resolved with the release of an official Software Development Kit (SDK). Running Linux Mint 17.2 but compatible with most any operating system that would run on an x86-64 desktop, the CompuLab is definitely one of the most exciting devices I’ve had the privilege to test recently – although that excitement is tempered by a £300 selling price in the UK, putting it on-par with the more computationally powerful Intel NUC.

All this, plus interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be found between the covers of Custom PC Issue 148 at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 158

Linux User & Developer Issue 158As always, you’ll find two pieces of mine in this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine: the four-page news spread, and a review of Hewlett Packard’s latest Ubuntu-based entry-level laptop, the HP 255 G3.

Based on low-power AMD accelerated processing units, there are three devices to HP’s Ubuntu-powered laptop range: the entry-level 255 G3, as tested; the mid-range 355 G3; and the top-end, yet still budget-friendly, 455 G3. Prices increase by £50 each step up the ladder you take, jumping from just shy of £200 for the 255 G3 to £300 for the 455.

It’s fair to say HP’s hedging its bets with the x55 G3 family: while the model I tested arrived with Canonical’s Ubuntu installed, all versions are also available with Microsoft’s Windows on instead – a fact telegraphed by the use of the Windows logo on the Super key across all models, including the Ubuntu variants. That’s not something I can hold against the company, though: Linux on desktops and laptops has always been a hard sell, though in my opinion it would do better concentrating on higher-end models for developers – as rival Dell did with its Project Sputnik.

Supplied by nearby e-tailer Ebuyer, I had a blast reviewing the laptop – it made a real change from the usual teeny-tiny microcomputers, and photographing something with a back-lit screen is always a fun challenge. I was also surprised to see just how capable the entry-level model was, although it was disappointing to find the now more than three-year-old Ubuntu 12.04 LTS as the operating system of choice.

For my final conclusion on the device, my regular four-page news spread, and a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 158 in your nearest newsagent or supermarket now, or grab it digitally from Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 147

Custom PC Issue 147This month’s Hobby Tech column kicks off with a two-page head-to-head review of rival starter kits for those interested in having a crack at e-textiles technology: the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit and the Kitronik Electro-Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Pack, both courtesy CPC.

The field of e-textiles, or soft circuits, is driven by one invention: conductive thread. There are various ways of making thread that can conduct electricity, and the two companies featured in my review have opted for different methods: Adafruit weaves thread directly out of stainless steel, which produces a thin yet strong thread; Kitronik takes traditional thread and coats it in a layer of silver before weaving it into a thicker denier which is softer and more flexible than Adafruit’s version. Either way, the result is the same: a thread you can sew, by hand or machine, and which conducts electricity to any electronic components your heart desires – up to a power draw of a handful of micro-amps, of course.

The two kits both look to introduce the user to e-textiles, and there’s a shared approach which concentrates on that most traditional of hardware Hello, World projects, making LEDs light up. The lower-cost Kitronik kit focuses on dumb switches, although some bundled full-size LEDs have built-in blinking circuitry for a modicum of intelligence; the more expensive Adafruit kit, meanwhile, includes the company’s Arduino-compatible Gemma wearable microcontroller, giving it considerably more flexibility. It also includes needles, a strange omission from the otherwise ready-to-go kit put together by Kitronik. As to which came out on top, you’ll just have to read the review to find out.

Another two pages of this month’s column are spent on my report from Manchester MakeFest, unrelated to the recent Liverpool MakeFest, and my personal highlights from the Museum of Science and Industry’s first home-brew maker-centric event. These included Bare Conductive Touch Board powered signing bowls used in the education of special needs pupils, a teletype clattering out ASCII art from a paper tape courtesy the Manchester Vintage and Retro Computing Enthusiasts group, and the wonderful blend of analogue and digital that is the B0rkestra project. There’s plenty more I couldn’t fit into the wordcount, with more coverage of the event available on the oomlout blog for the curious.

Finally, I had the opportunity to talk to Ben Gray about his MeArm project. Reviewed in an early form back in Issue 133, the MeArm is a low-cost hobbyist robot arm built from a single piece of laser-cut acrylic and released under an open hardware licence. Since my original review, Ben has closed down his hobbyist supply company Phenoptix in order to concentrate on MeArm full time, and it shows – the new design is a considerable improvement, and now comes with optional joypad attachment and even a dedicated microcontroller option. Ben’s promised to send across a review sample of the new and improved MeArm as soon as he’s able, so expect to see it covered more fully in a future issue.

All this, plus other interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this from via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

The MagPi, Issue 38

The MagPi Issue 38In this month’s official Raspberry Pi magazine, The MagPi, you’ll find my review of the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit, as kindly supplied by CPC – a great follow-on to Issue 37’s review of the more basic Kitronik Electro-Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Starter Pack.

Like the Kitronik bundle, the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit is focused on teaching the user about the uses of conductive thread for wearable and soft-circuit projects. Like the Kitronik bundle, it’s heavily focused on making things light up. Unlike Kitronik’s creation, though, it offers more than just simple on-off circuit potential: the kit is based around a Gemma, a small Arduino-compatible microcontroller designed by Adafruit in partnership with Arduino.cc.

While basic compared to a full Arduino Uno or similar, having just three GPIO pins and no user-accessible serial port, the Gemma is nevertheless surprisingly flexible. It’s also accessible: there’s a USB port right on the board, while support is included in the Arduino IDE as standard. Although the 3.3V logic can be annoying for those coming from 5V Arduino projects, it’s nothing a level-shifter can’t fix – and for The MagPi’s audience of Raspberry Pi enthusiasts, 3.3V logic will be entirely familiar and compatible with their existing parts bucket.

The rest of the kit is well thought out, too. There’s a number of NeoPixel RGB LEDs, offering a wide range of lighting effects, and a generous amount of fine conductive thread pre-wound onto a machine-compatible bobbin. Better still, there’s a pack of needles – something the Kitronik bundle missed, making a trip to the shops necessary for anyone who hasn’t already got a sewing kit with a wide-gauge needle to hand. There’s even a set of leads with crocodile clips, making testing your circuit prior to sewing the components down a breeze.

It’s fair to say that I’m a fan of the Gemma kit, but to get my full opinion you’ll need to pick up a copy of The MagPi Issue 38. It’s available in print from Tesco and WH Smith, or as a free PDF download from the official website if you’d comfortable where you are.

Custom PC, Issue 146

Custom PC Issue 146This month’s Hobby Tech column begins with a look at a topic that has been close to my heart for a number of years now: thermal imaging, and how it can be applied to the field of hobbyist electronics and technology review. If that weren’t interesting enough, there’s also a review of the Novena open-hardware all-in-one desktop, and a look at a little-known bug-fix applied to Sinclair’s classic ZX81 microcomputer.

For years, I’ve wanted a thermal camera. Recently, the price of cameras has plummeted and I was finally able to justify – just about – the cost of the entry-level Flir C2. While it takes a while to get used to thinking in resolutions of 80×60 – the total resolution of the Flir Lepton thermal imaging module featured in the C2 – I’ve been having no end of fun capturing thermal data on everything from single-board computers to my cat.

In the column, though, I argue for the application of thermal imaging in the hobbyist realm. With smartphone-connected thermal cameras now available in the low-hundreds, and a broken-out Lepton module the equal of the one found in the C2 available for just £160, a thermal imaging sensor is no longer the preserve of well-heeled professionals. I’ve found mine useful for tasks from finding hot-spots on a board design to spotting heatsinks which were not properly mated to the components below.

When I wasn’t playing with the thermal camera, I was playing with the Kosagi Novena. Born from the mind of noted hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang, the Novena is remarkable: it’s a truly open computer, with everything from the firmware through to the board designs being published under an open-source licence. Loaned by UK hobbyist electronics shop oomlout, I was sad to give the crowd-funded Novena back – despite an ARM-based processor outclassed by even the cheapest of x86 laptop parts.

Finally, the ZX81. I’ve been clearing out much of my classic computer collection as I shift to a smaller office, and while I had to get rid of my rather rare Sinclair ZX81 I wanted to record its existence for posterity. From the very original production run, this machine boasted the ‘cockroach’ – a bug-fix for a fault in the ROM implemented in hardware, with a hand-soldered board attached to the top of the system’s CPU. It’s a jarring sight, and one that I was privileged to see in person: only a handful of cockroach-model ZX81s, fixed while the company waited for corrected ROM chips to arrive, exist and they’re all externally identical to non-cockroach models.

All this, plus a wide selection of stuff written by people who aren’t me, is available now from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 156

Linux User & Developer Issue 156This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine features a review of a rather special device, Bunnie Huang’s Novena, on top of my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the open source world.

When noted hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang announced that he was to create an open-hardware and open-software laptop, driven by the increasingly closed nature of off-the-shelf alternatives, I was immediately interested. Sadly, when the Novena project’s crowd-funding campaign went live, the pricing – entirely justified by the small production run planned – meant I couldn’t justify a purchase. Thankfully, I have numerous friends in the open hardware community who could – and one, Aaron Nielsen of local Arduino specialist oomlout, was kind enough to lend me his once it had arrived.

The unit I reviewed was the desktop Novena variant, which lacks the battery and charging hardware of the laptop model. Otherwise, it’s the same: an ARM-based open hardware computer in a smart aluminium chassis, designed to be as hackable as possible. It’s also the only system I’ve ever reviewed that came with a selection of tools and a tube of thread-locking compound – required to assemble the device, which arrives in pieces. Even the screen, a Full HD LCD panel, is separate upon delivery – and the assembly instructions include stern warnings on exactly where not to hold it if you want a working Novena at the end of the process.

The Novena certainly isn’t for everyone. Its performance is good for an ARM-based system, but orders of magnitude slower than an x86 machine for computationally-intensive tasks. To concentrate on performance is missing the point, though: the Novena is billed as the hacker’s playground, with everything from the board design and firmware to the microcontroller that drives the optional battery charger available for a sufficiently knowledgeable user to investigate and modify. Add to that a grid-based hardware prototyping area and clever add-ons, including a software defined radio module based on the Myriad-RF 1 from client Lime Microsystems, and you’ve got a seriously tempting device.

The full review, plus my regular news spread, can be read now by visiting your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or by staying where you are and picking up a digital copy via Zinio or similar service.