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 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.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 151

Linux User & Developer Issue 151This latest issue of Linux User & Developer magazine includes, in addition to my usual four-page news spread, a two-page review of Intel’s latest entry into the embedded market: the Quark-based Edison, an ultra-tiny single-board computer the size of a postage stamp.

Sadly, the Edison I reviewed isn’t quite the Edison that Intel originally unveiled. The original Edison was to use the SD Card form factor, making it easy to build expansion boards by using a standard SD Card slot component. It was also to run exclusively on the Quark, a low-power x86 processor built from the old Pentium microarchitecture. The latter feature was nixed when feedback from users of the Galileo, another Quark-based embedded development board, revealed that it was too underpowered to be of much use; the former when Intel discovered it didn’t have enough pins on the SD Card layout to make useful connections.

The result of these last-minute modifications is the Edison you can buy today. The SD Card layout has been ditched for a stamp-sized board featuring a high-density Samtec connector on the underside, making it more awkward for hobbyist development, while the Quark chip is still present but relegated to coprocessor status while an Atom processor handles running the operating system.

My review sample, kindly provided by Intel UK, came with the Arduino-compatible break-out board. When connected to the Edison, this creates an overly expensive and extremely large development board with Arduino-compatible headers – but one which, the promise goes, you can use to refine a design which can then be implemented in a far smaller footprint using a bare Edison board and your own custom break-out board.

As for how I got on with the Edison and whether I rate it as any better than Intel’s previous offerings – the Galileo and MinnowBoard families – you’ll have to buy the issue to find out. If you do, you’ll also be treated to my regular four-page spread of all the latest news in the world of GNU/Linux, open-hardware, open-software, open-governance, and open-anything-else-that-catches-my-eye, plus a bunch of articles written by people who aren’t me.

Linux User & Developer Issue 151 is available in all good supermarkets and newsagents, many bad ones, and digitally via services including Zinio now.

The MagPi, Issue 32

The MagPi Issue 32The MagPi magazine, created by the Raspberry Pi community, has undergone a major relaunch. Now an official product of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it enjoys a significantly larger budget under the leadership of editor Russell Barnes – with whom I have previously worked on Linux User & Developer – and the result is impressive: both quantity and quality of content has improved, but is still licensed under Creative Commons for free download and non-commercial reuse. When Russell asked me if I wanted to be involved with the relaunch, I naturally agreed and the cover story of this issue is the result.

Russell wanted a feature which highlighted the Raspberry Pi-related crowd-funding campaigns of the past and present, showing the community what they had achieved as a group. After some brainstorming, we decided on a mixed feature format which would combine coverage of the most fiscally successful crowd-funding campaigns, interview extracts with their creators, as well as advice from those who have been there and done that on how others can achieve similar success for their own crowd-funding campaigns.

Naturally, there had to be some balance to the piece, and that took the form of a section detailing a high-profile failure. I was able to talk to the company behind Ziphius – an aquatic drone powered by the Raspberry Pi, long overdue and with backers clamouring for refunds – and find out the problems it had encountered, including the exclusive admission of financial problems it had been withholding from its backers.

While the cover story is the largest of my contributions this month, I have also penned two reviews for this latest issue: a review of the Displayotron-3000 add-on board from Sheffield-based Pimoroni, and the Weaved port-forwarding software designed to make it easier to build internet-accessible services on a Raspberry Pi located behind a locked-down router or firewall.

If you’re interested and would like to read any of the above, you can download the entire magazine as a DRM-free PDF from the official website.

The Battle of Britain’s Home Computers

The Battle of Britain's Home ComputersI was recently asked to give a lecture to members of the Computer Conservation Society on the topic of early British home computers, which is very dear to my heart. For those unfamiliar the CCS is a Specialist Group of the British Computing Society, founded in cooperation with the Science Museum of London and the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, with the aim of conserving and restoring classic computers while working to develop awareness of their historical significance. The group has been responsible for a number of notable successes since its formation in 1989, from the wartime Colossus and Bombe rebuilds to the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) replica, with a complete list available on the official website.

A benefit of membership is access to the group’s regular lectures, which bring together experts and industry luminaries to share their knowledge – and, for some inexplicable reason, me. Given an hour-long slot – which I cheekily overran by about fifteen minutes, having digressed somewhat along the way – I shared what I know on the ‘golden era’ of British home computing: 1980 to 1984, boom to bust.

The talk was very well received, thanks mostly to a terrifically warm and welcoming audience, and the elongated question-and-answer session at the end was a thrill – and revealed just which of the many computers released in the UK during that time truly had the biggest impact, including the discovery that one brave soul runs his business from a handful of disguised eight-bit micros to this day!

A video of the talk was recorded, but is not yet available. If you have an hour and three quarters to kill and don’t want to wait, you can download the slide deck and stream the audio – just move onto the next slide whenever you hear the thump of me hitting the space bar and you’ll be in-sync. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to listen offline, the slides and an MP3 recording can be downloaded together.

I will be giving the lecture again to the northern branch of the CCS next year, giving you plenty of warning if you’d like to attend.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 150

Linux User & Developer, Issue 150This month’s Linux User & Developer includes both my regular four-page news spread and a review of the MinnowBoard Max single-board computer from Intel.

The MinnowBoard Max is the latest in Intel’s increasingly scattershot efforts to make an impact in the hobbyist-grade single-board computer market. Like its predecessor, the MinnowBoard Max is open hardware and produced in partnership with CircuitCo – the company behind the BeagleBoard and BeagleBone Black – and features the x86 instruction set architecture. Where it differs is in how easy it is to use and how much power it can offer.

I reviewed the original MinnowBoard design back in Issue 131, and found it lacking on a couple of levels: the single-core Atom chip was woefully underpowered compared to rival boards like the Gizmo, and its 32-bit UEFI firmware made it near-impossible to boot any operating system bar the bundled and extremely cut-down Yocto Linux installation.

The MinnowBoard Max clearly demonstrates that Intel is listening to feedback, though. The 32-bit single-core Atom is now a 64-bit dual-core model, and comes complete with a 64-bit UEFI implementation. The result: significantly improved compatibility and performance. A single-core version, slightly cheaper and drawing less power, is also available but not something I have yet tested.

As to whether the MinnowBoard Max is a worthy investment in a market near-monopolised by chips based on the ARM instruction set architecture, you’ll have to read the full review to find out.

The review, my four-page spread of all the latest happenings in the world of open-everything, and a whole bunch of stuff written by other people is available now from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 140

Custom PC, Issue 140In this month’s Hobby Tech column I interview my friend and talented maker Bob Stone, review the ZoomFloppy accessory, and review the Gizmo 2 single-board computer, in roughly that order.

Looking at the interview first, I arranged to quiz Bob after bumping into him at an event a while back. Bob was present as a representative of York Hackspace, showing off a project they had been working on dubbed Spacehack. Inspired by a mobile game, Spacehack gives players the job of keeping a rusty old spaceship in one piece by performing various tasks on a physical control panel which remaps everything between rounds. If that weren’t confusing enough, the instructions that appear on your panel may be for a control on someone else’s – leading to plenty of frantic shouting.

Talking to Bob is always a pleasure, and interviewing him was likewise. He’s a man who knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of humour into proceedings, and that hopefully comes across in the piece. Having played Spacehack, I can attest to both its difficulty and its brilliance and if anyone local builds their own – the hardware and software are both permissively licensed, naturally – I’d be up for a tournament.

The ZoomFloppy is a natural extension to the KryoFlux I reviewed back in Issue 131. Where the KryoFlux offers a means to connect old-fashioned floppy drives to a modern computer for archival-grade access, the ZoomFloppy is a little different: it’s designed specifically for Commodore devices. Its most common use, as the name suggests, is to provide an interface between a Commodore 1541/1571 floppy drive and a modern PC but it also offers the ability to talk to any Commodore-compatible serial device: printers, plotters, even modems. Better still, you can talk to these devices from directly within an emulator – I couldn’t help but grin when I loaded an Infocom game into the Vice emulator from the original floppy on an 1571 drive.

Finally, the Gizmo 2. I reviewed the original Gizmo in Issue 125 of Linux User & Developer, and was suitably impressed by its performance. The Gizmo 2, I’m pleased to say, blows its predecessor out of the water but isn’t without its own foibles. During my review, I ran into an issue in the firmware which prevented it from booting any device connected into its USB 3.0 ports. Although USB 2.0 worked fine, this had a negative effect on speed – and while the issue was still outstanding at the time of publication, I’m pleased to say a new BIOS has been released as a result of my feedback which fixes the problem and makes the Gizmo a great choice for anyone who needs x86 compatibility and impressive compute performance from a single-board computer.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your own home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.