What’s all this?

Question MarkTwitterKeybaseLinkedInGitHub

This 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, Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi: The Official Raspberry Pi Pico 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

Custom PC, Issue 215

Custom PC Issue 215My regular Hobby Tech column takes a look at three very different, yet related, items in this month’s Custom PC: the PiStorm accelerator for the Commodore Amiga; the Remodo X Bluetooth remote from Remotec; and Joshua M. Pearce’s Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects.

First, the PiStorm. I’ve long been a fan of Commodore’s ill-fated Amiga family of computers, and while my collection isn’t what it used to be I still have a couple keeping me company around the office. It was in one of these I installed the PiStorm, an open-source accelerator and expansion board designed to be powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ – and, in the future, by still-more-powerful models in the Raspberry Pi range.

Donated by my good fried Jaimie Vandenbergh, who had picked up a handful of the low-cost boards for his own use, the PiStorm is nothing short of incredible. Effectively turning the Raspberry Pi into an emulated Motorola processor, it increases an Amiga’s compute performance, memory, graphics capabilities, storage, and even – though not at the time of writing – gives it the ability to connect via a Wi-Fi network. In short: it’s a must-have.

The Remodo X remote, meanwhile, is another accessory aimed at the Raspberry Pi – and a smaller niche. Targeting home automation and home theatre uses, the Remodo X is a surprisingly stylish device with just four buttons on its front and the ability to distinguish between short- and long-press for eight custom-mapped functions.

The device works via both Bluetooth and infrared, though for a gadget Remotec claims is specifically designed for a Raspberry Pi there’s a distinct lack of software: customising its buttons requires a smartphone app, and can’t be done on the Raspberry Pi itself.

Finally, Using Open-Source Projects is a book I wanted to love – after all, I’m a big proponent of free and open-source software and hardware. Sadly, it entirely fails to deliver on its promise – spreading an already-slim book far too thin across far too many topics. Some of the blame lies on the author, but some on the publisher – in particular the poor print quality and bizarre failure to flag the use of a figure which compares an original black-and-white image to its colourised equivalent yet shows both before and after shots in black and white.

The full column, and much more besides, is available in your nearest supermarket or newsagent now, online with global delivery, or – as part of a limited-time offer – as a DRM-free PDF download at zero cost.

The MagPi, Issue 106

The MagPi Issue 106This month’s issue of The MagPi Magazine includes another of my tutorials for those looking to get started with the MicroPython platform on the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller: a Pico-powered burglar alarm driven by one or more passive infrared sensors.

Originally written as part of Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide, my guide to physical computing on Raspberry Pi’s first-ever microcontroller development board, the burglar alarm tutorial builds up step-by-step from introducing a single passive infrared motion sensor to interfacing with multiple sensors, printing status reports over the serial console, and triggering a piezoelectric buzzer in place of a real alarm’s rather louder horn.

As with other tutorials written for the book, full source code – in MicroPython – is provided, along with wiring references designed to make it as easy as possible to add the components to a Raspberry Pi Pico installed on a solderless breadboard. There’s scope for further extension, too: adding break-beam sensors, glass-break sensors, or a code pad for disabling and enabling the alarm on-demand.

The MagPi Issue 106 is available at now at all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, or as a Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free zero-cost PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 214

Custom PC Issue 214My Hobby Tech feature for Custom PC takes a look at two compact but very different pieces of keyring-compatible open-source hardware, the Solo V2 security key and the FunKey S, and also a colouring book. No, really, a colouring book: the Retro Computer Colouring Book.

The Solo V2 is, as the name suggests, a second-generation follow-up to the original Solo. The core of the project hasn’t changed: it’s an open-source project which aims to create a FIDO/FIDO2-compatible security dongle. Like its proprietary equivalents, the Solo V2 includes both USB and NFC communication capabilities, supports standard protocols, and even has a tamper-proof design with the bulk of the circuit held on a module encased in transparent resin.

Where the Solo V2 splits from its competition is in the firmware. Written in Rust, the biggest change from the original variant, the firmware is entirely open – allowing anyone to not only inspect the code for any reason, from finding security vulnerabilities to ensuring there are no deliberate back doors, but to modify the code in order to add new features.

The FunKey S is, like the Solo V2, designed to hang on your keyring. It’s not a security dongle, though: it’s an entirely functional self-contained games console, running a customised Linux distribution packed with emulators for everything from the Nintendo Game Boy to the Sony PlayStation. Designed to mimic, roughly, the look of the Game Boy Advance SP, the folding console is ridiculously compact – and absolutely everything, from the circuit design to the plastic case, is open source.

Finally, Retro Computer Colouring Book from Quick Web Books sounds like a joke, and it at least partially is: as the bumph on the back of the book makes clear, vintage computers from the 1970s and 1980s were primarily beige or black – and one of the machines included, the Sinclair ZX80, was the same white as the underlying paper. A joke, then, but one which is also usable: machines are represented with custom-drawn line art, and it’s entirely serviceable as a colouring book – and there’s nothing to stop you reimagining machines like the Altair 8800 in a hot pink or lurid purple.

Custom PC Issue 214 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery on the official website, or as a free PDF download without DRM restrictions.

The MagPi, Issue 105

The MagPi Issue 105This month’s The MagPi Magazine includes a six-page tutorial I originally wrote as part of Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide, my well-received guide to physical computing on Raspberry Pi’s first-ever microcontroller development board: a two-player reaction-testing game.

As with all projects in the book, the reaction game is designed to build up gradually. The reader is first taken through wiring up a simple circuit with a single LED and a single button, using one to trigger the other. Gradually, the complexity is increased: using the LED to trigger a countdown stopped only when the button is pushed, giving the user a look at how quickly they can react.

The project’s culmination comes with the integration of multiplayer: two buttons are used, and whichever player hits their button first is declared the winner. It’s a simple game, admittedly, but a surprisingly competitive one – and one which introduces a range of core concepts for input handling, timing, and conditional statements.

The MagPi Issue 105 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free no-cost PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 213

Custom PC Issue 213In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at how GL shaders can make the video output from emulators – in particular DOSBox – look an awful lot closer to how you remember the same software running on real hardware, review the Argon One M.2 case for the Raspberry Pi 4 family of single-board computers, and take a look at an unusual children’s book: Big Data Girl by Fred Wordie with illustrations by Santiago Taberna.

First, the shaders. Few would argue that the move away from bulky and power-hungry cathode-ray tube displays to modern liquid-crystal displays was a bad thing, except for possibly vintage game enthusiasts. The “pixel art” of old, you see, was never meant to show big, blocky, individual pixels: the CRT would smooth and blend things as a by-product of its relative inaccuracy, meaning when you fire up a classic like Doom or Moraff’s World and feel disappointed in its appearance it’s not entirely down to rose-tinted spectacles.

Shaders, typically but not exclusively written in GL Shader Language, can help. In the opening piece for this month’s column, I look at how these handy add-ons can turn the block output of an emulator into a surprisingly convincing simulation of a CRT – complete with curvature and overscan, if that’s your wont. The difference in appearance is little short of astounding – though it may take some customisation before you’re fully satisfied with the results.

The Argon One M.2, meanwhile, looks externally a lot like the previous entries in the Argon One case family. There’s the same metal shell, which doubles as a heatsink and means the built-in temperature-controlled fan rarely activates, the same magnetic cover hiding a colour-coded and silkscreened general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header, and the same layout which puts all the Raspberry Pi’s various ports to the rear for neater cabling.

Where the new design differs is in a larger base, which hides the circuitry for converting an M.2 SATA SSD into a USB-attached storage device. Unlike the NESPi 4, reviewed back in Issue 210, this one works properly in USB Attached SCSI (UAS) mode, giving a throughput of 387/300MBps read/write on a test SSD rated at 500/320MBps.

Finally, Big Data Girl is a bit of a departure for the column, as it’s a children’s book – but one with a difference: Wordie’s crowdfunded title aims to introduce the concept of “big data,” anthropomorphised as a friendly little girl, highlighting both how useful it can be and how it can impact your privacy. It’s a smart idea, and Taberna’s illustrations are fantastic, but serves more as a conversation starter for parents already familiar with the concepts than a stand-alone guide to the subject.

Custom PC Issue 213 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, digital distribution platforms, and from the official website with international delivery.

The MagPi, Issue 104

The MagPi Issue 104Inside The MagPi Magazine this month you’ll find five pages of step-by-step tutorial walking through the creation of a functional traffic light simulator using the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller board – taken from my latest book, Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide.

All the projects in the book, the traffic light simulator being no exception, work step-by-step in building the simplest possible incarnation of each then adding increasing complexity – and in doing so introducing new concepts. In the case of the traffic light simulator, it starts off as a simple set of three LEDs which are under timed control.

As the project progresses, the reader adds a button to act as a trigger for a pedestrian crossing – which adds the concept of threading, taking advantage of the second CPU core on the Raspberry Pi Pico’s RP2040 microcontroller – before finishing the project with a buzzer providing audible feedback for when it’s safe to cross.

The MagPi Issue 104 is available in all good supermarkets and newsagents now, online with global delivery, or as a Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 212

Custom PC Issue 212In my Hobby Tech column for Custom PC this month I take a look at the intriguing and somewhat awkwardly-named BBC Doctor Who HiFive Inventor Coding Kit, the low-cost Raspberry Pi Pico, and a comic billed as “for hackers, by hackers”: Robert Willis’ Initiating Paraneon.

The BBC Doctor Who HiFive Inventor Coding Kit is an interesting mash-up of ideas. From the BBC’s side is the Doctor Who IP, with current Doctor Jodie Whittaker loaning her voice to the step-by-step programming lessons which are unlocked with a single-use code included in the box; SiFive, meanwhile, provides the hardware platform, a hand-shaped microcontroller development board based on its RISC-V microcontroller cores.

It doesn’t stop there, though: the HiFive Inventor was originally launched solo as a device “inspired” by the BBC micro:bit – an inspiration which runs so deeply it’s entirely possible to use BBC micro:bit accessories with the HiFive Inventor’s edge connector. Now, the board is available exclusively as part of the BBC bundle – though apart from a new colour, it’s entirely unchanged in design.

The Raspberry Pi Pico, on the other hand, is a lot simpler to trace: it’s a wholly in-house creation from Raspberry Pi, representing both its first microcontroller board and the first outing for its RP2040 microcontroller chip – the first product of its application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) team. Designed to offer a wealth of functionality, including clever programmable input/output (PIO) state machines, at a very low cost, the Raspberry Pi Pico is proving a device to watch.

Finally, Initiating Paraneon is a short graphic novella designed to act as a precursor to Robert Willis’ upcoming Paraneon comic book series. Billed as being written by hackers for the next generation of hackers, it’s a book that wears its inspiration – from 2000 AD to The Matrix – on its sleeve, but sadly never truly comes out of the shadow of its forebears.

Custom PC Issue 212 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and online via the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 103

MagPi Issue 103This month’s The MagPi Magazine carries my six-page guide to getting started with physical computing projects using the newly-launched Raspberry Pi Pico, the first microcontroller in the Raspberry Pi family.

Taken from my book, Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide, the tutorial walks the reader through programming the Raspberry Pi Pico using MicroPython – starting with the physical computing equivalent of “hello, world,” lighting up an LED. No additional hardware is needed for this part: the Raspberry Pi Pico includes a surface-mount user-addressable LED at the top of the board.

The reader is then shown how solderless breadboards work, introduced to importing MicroPython libraries and handling delays, how external LEDs require resistors, how to read a button input, and finally how to put it al together into a simple circuit which can toggle the LED based on the user’s button presses.

The MagPi Issue 103 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free no-cost PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 211

Custom PC Issue 211My regular Hobby Tech column this month spans the worlds of network attached storage, input devices, and retro gaming, courtesy of reviews covering the Kobol Helios64 open-spec NAS, the Keybordio Atreus ergonomic keyboard, and Neil Thomas’ Retro Tea Breaks.

The NAS, first, is a device I was excited to put on the test bench. A follow-up to Kobol’s earlier and considerably more Heath Robinson Helios4, the Helios64 is an open-spec network attached storage system built around the Rockchip RK3399 six-core Arm processor – not, sadly, the faster RK3399Pro, following an unplanned downgrade when SARS-CoV-2 hit the supply chain.

The board has five SATA ports, one shared with an on-board M.2 SATA slot for an SSD, a chunky heatsink, and both gigabit and 2.5-gig Ethernet – though the first batch of the devices suffers from an unfortunate design flaw in the latter. Other issues abound in the design of the very smart-looking bundled case and plastic drive sleds, though if Kobol’s promise to address these in future production runs is fulfilled the Helios64 could well take its place at the top of the hobby-friendly NAS league.

The Keyboardio Atreus, meanwhile, is an interesting beast: it’s an ultra-compact ergonomic mechanical keyboard based on switching between multiple layers to make up for the reduced number of physical keys. It’s also not Keyboardio’s own design: the company has made a name for itself in mechanical keyboard circles by adopting open-source keyboard designs, with the full consent of their original creators, and bringing them to the mass market via crowdfunding.

Finally, Retro Tea Breaks is a compact hardback tome which also owes its existence to a crowdfunding campaign, this time courtesy of Neil Thomas’ RMC – formerly Retro Man Cave – YouTube channel. The book gathers together transcripts, lightly edited and in some cases updated, of interviews carried out with some big names from the classic gaming scene – ranging from the Oliver twins to George “The Fat Man” Sanger and, surprisingly, Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem himself.

You can find the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine on all good supermarket shelves, at your local newsagent, or online with global delivery now.

The MagPi Magazine, Issue 102

The MagPi Issue 102This month’s MagPi Magazine celebrates the launch of the new Raspberry Pi Pico with my 14-page feature introducing the first Raspberry Pi microcontroller, the first in-house silicon which powers it, and walking the reader through getting started programming the device with MicroPython – as well as talking to three of the people behind the effort.

Built around the RP2040, the first silicon chip produced by Raspberry Pi’s in-house ASIC team, the Raspberry Pi Pico is a fascinating device. While accessible enough for education, thanks to MicroPython support and a breadboard-friendly layout, it’s also designed to work as a module for industrial and embedded projects – and even launches with a port of TensorFlow Lite for machine learning work.

My feature begins with a look at the Raspberry Pi Pico and the RP2040, covering all the major features from RP2040’s programmable input/output (PIO) to the handy single-wire debug (SWD) header at the bottom of the Raspberry Pi Pico. As always, there’s plenty of photography.

The feature then moves on to an interview with Nick Francis, senior engineering manager, James Adams, chief operating officer, and Eben Upton, chief executive officer, covering the work done on both RP2040 and Pico, their hopes for the device, and how it aims to pack a surprising amount of functionality into a £3.60 gadget – “cheap as chips,” Adams told me.

Finally, the feature closes with a series of hands-on tutorials walking the reader through setting the Raspberry Pi Pico up on their Raspberry Pi or other computer, flashing the MicroPython firmware, and working on their first physical computing program.

MagPi Issue 102 is available now from all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download under a free-as-in-speech Creative Commons licence. The Raspberry Pi Pico is also the topic of my latest book, Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide.