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

Linux & Open Source Genius Guide, Volume 7

Linux & Open Source Genius Guide Volume 7Each year, Imagine Publishing takes the content from its Linux User & Developer publication and repackages it in ‘Bookazine’ format – a portmanteau of ‘book’ and ‘magazine,’ equivalent to Dennis Publishing’s rival ‘MagBook’ brand. The Linux & Open Source Genius Guide Volume 7 is the latest, and includes as one of its central offerings a cover feature I wrote for the magazine.

Originally published in Linux User & Developer Issue 148, the Ultimate Distro & FOSS Guide 2015 does exactly what it says on the tin: attempts to provide the information required for users to sort through the thousands of Linux distributions and free software packages available and pick the one that best fits their needs.

It’s a spin on the traditional format: rather than simply listing the ‘best’ distributions in general, I took a selection of categories and selected the front-runners for each: Linux for developers, for enterprises, for security professionals, and for those looking for a distribution with rolling-release development methodology.

To keep things interesting, the piece also included five related free and open source software (FOSS) packages related to each category, aside from the last which instead highlighted five general-purpose FOSS packages to which I gave my personal seal of approval. The result is a detailed guide which is significantly larger and more involved than in previous years, and one which was a pleasure to research.

There’s plenty more to be found in the ‘Bookazine,’ of course, and if you’re interested I’d recommend heading to your local newsagent, supermarket, or staying in and picking up a copy electronically via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 143

Custom PC Issue 143My Hobby Tech spread continues in Issue 143 of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with two reviews and a review-slash-walkthrough: the Orange Pi Plus, the GrovePi+ Starter Kit, and the Kim Uno kit.

For me, the most interesting toy of the month was undoubtedly the Kim Uno. Designed by Oscar Vermeulen, the Kim Uno is a kit-form microcomputer designed to emulate the classic MOS Technologies KIM-1, designed by Chuck Peddle to showcase the company’s at-the-time cutting-edge 6502 microprocessor. Naturally, there’s no 6502 to be found in the Kim Uno: instead, an Arduino Pro Mini – based on one of Atmel’s popular microcontrollers – sits at the rear of a calculator-sized circuit-board and provides the grunt required to run any KIM-1 application you care to name, including the famous Microchess.

A simple solder-it-together kit – or pay extra to have one built by Oscar’s own fair hand – the Kim Uno is a great way to practice your skills even before you tackle the joys of 6502 machine-code programming. Oscar’s online documentation is thorough and detailed, and for anyone who knows 6502 the Kim Uno is a must-have especially at just £10 plus shipping.

The Kim Uno was the most fun project of the month, but it was closely followed by a GrovePi+ Starter Kit kindly supplied by Dexter Industries. Designed to bring Seeed’s Grove ‘smart module’ design to the Raspberry Pi, the kit includes a piggyback board which connects to the Pi’s GPIO port and a wealth of additional inputs and outputs, all of which connect via simple keyed wires. For newcomers to electronics, the Grove platform takes the complexity out of wiring up even relatively complex projects – and the GrovePi+ board itself makes using Grove hardware a cinch.

Finally, the Orange Pi Plus is one of the growing number of would-be Raspberry Pi beaters coming out of the technology markets of China. Using the AllWinner H3 system-on-chip processor the Orange Pi Plus can’t match the performance of the latest Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, but it does offer significantly more built-in capability: SATA, gigabit Ethernet, infra-red, even 802.11b/g/n wireless with bundled ultra-compact dipole antenna. The Orange Pi Plus, and the other members in the Orange Pi family, are clearly inspired by Lemaker’s Banana Pi and offer much of the same software compatibility, including platforms like Android not supported by the Raspberry Pi itself.

If you want to know my final opinion on all this hardware, or if you’re for some reason interested in things written by people who aren’t me, Custom PC Issue 143 is available now in print or digital form.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 153

Linux User & Developer Issue 153In addition to my regular four-page news spread at the front of the magazine, this month’s issue of Linux User & Developer includes a review of the Gizmo 2 single-board computer – a powerful follow-up to the original, which I reviewed back in Issue 125.

Like its predecessor, the Gizmo 2 is based around an AMD Accelerated Processing Unit – specifically, the G-Series GX210HA dual-core chip running at 1GHz – in an open-hardware 4″-square board. Offering improved performance over the original model, the new Gizmo 2 is also available for the first time as a stand-alone system – although this does mean the death of the Explorer Kit, a bundle which included a handy-dandy break-out board for the PCIe-style low-speed expansion connector at the front of the board.

During my review, which took place a few months ago, I did encounter one issue: the BIOS refused to boot from the USB 3.0 ports, limiting OS installation to the Micro-SD Card slot or USB 2.0 ports. As the device offers so much performance – around 85 gigaFLOPS including the integrated Radeon HD 8210E graphics chip – that was a disappointing limitation, but one an updated BIOS has since resolved.

I was a big fan of the original Gizmo, which was significantly better than Intel’s rival MinnowBoard. Although the MinnowBoard Max has since levelled the playing field, I have to say that the Gizmo 2 would still be my board of choice for SBC tasks requiring high graphics performance or x86 compatibility – despite the addition of an annoying active cooling fan – but for my thoughts beyond that you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine.

If you do, you’ll find the review, my news spread, and a bunch of stuff written by other people. Linux User & Developer Issue 153 is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and similar services. My work will also appear in the translated Inside Linux magazine in France in the coming months.

The MagPi, Issue 34

The MagPi Issue 34Another month, another cover feature for the official Raspberry Pi magazine The MagPi. This time around, I take a look at Microsoft’s generous offer of a free copy of Windows 10 IoT Core for all Raspberry Pi 2 owners, and what it could mean for the Raspberry Pi community – and if that wasn’t enough, I take some time to review the 4tronix Agobo robot kit as well.

The cover feature is a two-part affair: the first section, which looks at exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core actually is – which is vastly different from the impression given by the mainstream press that Microsoft was giving away a full desktop-class operating system – as well as how it can be used is my work; a following section looking at a selection of projects which are already powered by the Raspberry Pi 2 and Windows 10 was written by editor Russell Barnes.

As well as helping to clarify exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core is and can do, my section of the feature includes a guide to getting started with the software – which is not as easy to obtain as, for example, Raspbian, requiring registration with Microsoft and to search on a surprisingly user-unfriendly section of the company’s website before agreeing to a pair of end-user licence agreements – and an analysis of B15, the HoloLens- and Raspberry Pi-powered robot Microsoft showed off at its Build event earlier this year.

The review, meanwhile, involved building an Agobo robot kit supplied by the lovely 4tronix. Simpler than the Pi2Go-Lite I reviewed for Custom PC Issue 135, the Agobo is designed exclusively for the Raspberry Pi Model A+ and as a result is compact and lightweight. It’s also great fun, and a kit I’d heartily recommend to anyone wanting a simple and straightforward Pi-powered robot kit.

All this, plus plenty of projects, reviews and features written by people other than myself, is available to download for free as a DRM-free and Creative Commons-licensed PDF from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 142

Custom PC Issue 142Continuing my regular column, the five-page Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, I spent this month’s page allowance on a look at the Arachnid Labs Tsunami, the Banana Pro, and analysed the legal battle underway between two companies claiming to be Arduino.

To begin, the Tsunami. I first looked at this interesting Arduino-compatible open-hardware device for another client, oomlout, publishing a hands-on preview of the device in early April. Created by Nick Johnson and crowd-funded via Kickstarter, the Tsunami is an interesting beast: while it shows itself to the Arduino IDE as an Arduino Leonardo compatible, the Tsunami is designed exclusively for signal generation and analysis work.

Priced at a fraction of the cost of a commercial signal analyser, the Tsunami is surprisingly capable. While code samples were limited at the time of writing, I was able to generate sine waves based on input from the serial console and even complex waveforms based on the Kansas City standard – the standard required to communicate with eight-bit microcomputers via their tape inputs. Nick’s own demonstrations include using the input and output simultaneously to graph the frequency response of audio equipment.

While the Tsunami is only available as a pre-order at present, the Banana Pro is readily available from your favourite Chinese wholesalers. Based on Lemaker’s Banana Pi but with a different manufacturing partner, the device offers a number of upgrades while still boasting compatibility with the Raspberry Pi from which it takes its inspiration. While the presence of a 40-pin GPIO header and integrated Wi-Fi is good news, the use of a dual-core processor when the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B offers a quad-core at roughly the same price is an undeniable disappointment – but you’ll need to read the review to make your mind up as to whether it’s worth the sacrifice.

My final two pages are spent looking at the current spat between Arduino LLC and Arduino Srl., the latter being the company founded under a different name to manufacture boards under licence from the former. With a new owner and a confusing new name, Arduino Srl. has earned the ire of many in the Arduino community – especially as it has begun releasing boards of its own which are direct clones of the Arduino LLC designs. The full story, naturally, is more complex, and I do the best I can to present both sides in the limited word-count available.

All this, plus the usual collection of things that are written by people that aren’t me – including the return of Richard Swinburn’s Our Man in Taiwan column, long absent from the magazine – can be yours for a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 152

Linux User & Developer Issue 152The pages of this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine include, in addition to my regular four-page news spread near the front, a review of the interesting Bq Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition smartphone.

While it’s a shift from my usual review fodder – although I have reviewed Android tablets for a LU&D group-test a few years ago – the Bq Aquaris is an interesting beast. Based on hardware designed for an entry-level Android smartphone, the operating system has been replaced with a very-early-release build of Ubuntu Touch, otherwise known as Ubuntu for Phones and born from the abortive Ubuntu for Android project.

As the name suggests, Ubuntu for Phones is designed specifically for smartphones and includes UI modifications as required. Its biggest innovation is in Scopes, app-like ‘views’ which gather information from multiple – though, at present, very limited – sources for at-a-glance viewing. The Today scope, for example, shows weather and upcoming appointments, while a Nearby scope shows weather and nearby Yelp listings.

The whole thing feels like a mash-up between Android 1.5, webOS, and Sailfish, complete with a card-like multitasking environment and gesture-based access to various system functions. Ubuntu for Phones’ biggest selling-point, though, is the ability to act as a converged device by connecting to a display, keyboard and mouse and switching to a desktop-style user interface – a feature entirely missing from the entry-level Aquaris, which will be a disappointment for anyone who remembers the failed crowd-funding campaign for the top-end Ubuntu Edge device.

If you want to know my conclusions, Linux User & Developer Issue 152 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio: Linux User & Developer and similar services.

The MagPi, Issue 33

The MagPi Issue 33This month’s The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, includes two of my reviews: the GrovePi+ Starter Kit and the PiBorg UltraBorg.

The GrovePi+ Starter Kit was kindly provided by the US-based Dexter Industries, which developed the bundle with Chinese electronics experts Seeed Studios. As the name suggests, the GrovePi+ is a Raspberry Pi add-on designed to introduce compatibility with Seeed’s Grove platform of add-on modules. The main part of the system is an add-on board – not a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT)-standard board, but a ‘dumb’ piggyback board – which adds the quick-connect headers required for Grove compatibility.

Installation is easy – a script is provided by Dexter – and the bundle includes a number of Grove modules for experimentation, from LEDs and a rotary angle sensor to an ultrasonic distance sensor and a liquid-crystal display with RGB backlight. Naturally, any other Grove-compatible modules can be added if you need to expand from the stock bundle.

Where the GrovePi+ is a kit aimed at beginners who have no real project in mind, the UltraBorg is very specific in its target market: people looking to build robots. Supplied by UK-based PiBorg, the UltraBorg is an I²C device which offers high-precision 16-bit control of servos or stepper motors, alongside four interfaces for HC-SR04 ultrasonic distance sensors – the same popular sensor type found in the GrovePi+ kit.

For a basic robot project, the UltraBorg can be connected to a Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or any other device which speaks I²C; for more complex projects UltraBorgs can be daisy-chained for a near-unlimited number of inputs and outputs, although I was sadly unable to test this particular function during my review.

If you’re wondering what my opinions were on both these add-ons, you can download The MagPi Issue 33 for free from the The MagPi: Issue 33.

Custom PC, Issue 141

Custom PC Issue 141If you’re a fan of my work, this month’s Custom PC magazine is going to be something of a treat: as well as the usual five-page Hobby Tech column, I’ve penned an eight-page special cover feature on the Raspberry Pi 2 single-board computer.

The special blends nicely into Hobby Tech itself: a two-page review of the Raspberry Pi 2 straddles the two features, leading in to a two-page round-up of the best operating systems available for the Pi – along with a preview of Windows 10, coming to the platform in the summer. Four pages of tutorials then follow: turning the Raspberry Pi 2 into a media streamer, a Windows- and Mac-compatible file server, and getting started with Canonical’s new Snappy Ubuntu Core and its innovative packaging system.

The next page walks the reader through a series of tips-and-tricks to help squeeze the most from the £30 marvel: overclocking the new quad-core Broadcom BCM2836 processor, built specifically for the Raspberry Pi 2 and offering a significant improvement over the single-core original BCM2835; expanding the capabilities of the Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header; setting up a multi-boot platform to try out different operating systems; and updating the firmware and kernel modules to the very latest revisions using rpi-update.

Finally, the feature finishes with a single-page round-up of the best and brightest rivals to the Raspberry Pi’s crown: Lemaker’s Banana Pro, a dual-core Pi-compatible device with impressive operating system options; the SolidRun HummingBoard, a computer-on-module (CoM) design which promises future upgrade potential; the CubieTech Cubieboard 4, which packs an octa-core processor; the low-cost Hardkernel Odroid C1, the only entry in the list I haven’t personally tested; and the Imagination Technology Creator CI20, which bucks the trend by packing a MIPS-architecture processor in place of the more common ARM chips.

The remaining three pages of my regular Hobby Tech column – which celebrates its second birthday with this issue – feature an interview with local game devs Kriss and shi of Wetgenes regarding their clever Deluxe Paint-inspired pixel-art editor Swanky Paint and a review of Intel’s diminutive Atom- and Quark-powered Edison development platform.

All this, plus a smaller-than-usual amount of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours from a newsagent, supermarket, via subscription or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

PC Pro, Issue 248

PC Pro Issue 248This month marks a return to Dennis Publishing’s excellent PC Pro with a piece commissioned by editor Tim Danton: The Rise of the Makers.

Designed as both an introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the maker movement and a guide for those who want to get more involved, the piece starts with a history of Sheffield-based gadget maker Pimoroni. Paul Beech and Jon Williamson kindly gave up their time to chat to me about the founding of their company and how the maker movement helped them get started, and it hopefully makes for a fascinating insight into how big an impact the movement can make to individual lives.

Pimoroni’s origin story is followed by a guide to hackspaces, with many thanks to Nottinghack co-founder Dominic Morrow who provided both a history of the hackspace he helped to set up along with a list of tips for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps. John Cole and Taryn Sullivan, of US hobbyist robotics specialist Dexter Industries, also provided invaluable insight of the culture over the pond, while Winchester House School’s Chris Leach described his TinkerShed project to found a hackspace on school grounds.

The following pages look at the hardware you can use at your average hackspace, and how it helped people like Paul and Jon bootstrap their company in a way that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, and a description of some of the big-name projects that have been born of the maker movement: Arduino, the BrickPi, and Pimoroni’s Pibow, as well as events including the Maker Faire franchise. My good friend Bob Stone also features, having worked with York Hackspace on the fascinating Spacehack project.

The piece finishes on a guide to getting involved, including these words of wisdom from Pimoroni’s Paul:

Start doing something. If you haven’t got a hackspace, set it up. Hackspaces are not about laser cutters and 3D printers. They’re a nice fringe benefit, they’re a useful tool. Hackspaces are about people and space. Start finding like-minded people, start talking to them, and that’s a community. You don’t create a community, you just start doing stuff and it grows.

PC Pro Issue 248 is available on shelves of all major supermarkets, most decent newsagents, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Oh, and there’s a glitch in the colophon at the front of the magazine: my name has an arrow pointing to advice about a wine-related smartphone app, whereas my actual tip is the one above regarding using the excellent Fake Name Generator to avoid spam from captive-portal Wi-Fi hotspots.

CCS Resurrection, Issue 69

CCS Resurrection, Issue 69I recently joined the Computer Conservation Society (CCS) arm of the British Computer Society (BCS), a working group dedicated to preserving the heritage of computing that we have in this country. In addition to a lecture on classic British home computers, I was asked to contribute to the official CCS journal Resurrection with a piece on the Raspberry Pi.

While, as my feature for the magazine points out, the Raspberry Pi itself needs to age a few more decades before it will be of direct interest to computer conservationists, the story of its rise from nowhere to become the dominant force in hobbyist-targeted single-board computers is a fascinating one – and, interestingly, mirrors similar growth experienced by Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser’s Acorn Computers in the 1980s in more ways than one.

Taking in the history of the project from its origins as a microcontroller-based development system built on Veroboard through to the launch of the quad-core Raspberry Pi 2, my feature builds on my early experience with the project – having met co-founder Eben Upton during an event at Bletchley Park, where he showed off an early prototype – and interviews I have performed in the intervening years.

The latest issue of Resurrection is sent out to members automatically, or can be viewed online in any web browser.