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, the upcoming Official Micro:bit User Guide, 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

HackSpace, Issue 1

HackSpace Issue 1I’m proud as punch to announce the launch issue of HackSpace Magazine, from the creators of The MagPi Magazine, a Creative Commons-licensed monthly publication aimed firmly at the hobbyist, tinkerer, maker, and crafter community – and you’ll find a four-page head-to-head of education-centric games consoles within.

Designed to sit alongside The MagPi, which focuses on the Raspberry Pi community, HackSpace’s remit is considerably broader: you’ll find everything from features on rival single-board computers through to non-electronic projects – including, in the launch issue, tips on smoking your own bacon and building a three-foot siege weapon from wood.

My contribution to today’s launch issue is a ground-up revisit to four handheld games consoles aimed at those looking to write their own games: the Gamebuino, MAKERbuino, Creoqode 2048, and Arduboy. I’ve written about these four devices in the past for a more general audience, but for HackSpace I was free to really dive into what makes them special – and, of course, include all the latest updates and features since the last time they were reviewed.

As with The MagPi, each HackSpace Magazine issue is available on the day of release for free download under the permissive Creative Commons licence. If you’d like to read the launch copy for yourself you can simply download a PDF from the official website, while print copies are available for purchase online and from all good magazine outlets.

 

The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide

The Official BBC Micro:bit User GuideToday marks the launch of The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide, the culmination of a year-long project to create the most complete and accessible guide to using the BBC’s amazing low-cost embedded computing platform everywhere from the home and the hackspace to the classroom.

Written in partnership with the Micro:bit Educational Foundation, The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide is a collaborative effort. From project editor John Sleeva who worked so tirelessly on The Raspberry Pi User Guide and has brought that same energy to The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide and technical editor David Whale who made sure that not a semicolon was out of place to the small army of typesetters, proofreaders, copy editors, and others at publisher J. Wiley & Sons, The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide owes its existence to far more than the person whose name appears on the cover.

Special thanks, too, must go to Zach Shelby, chief executive of the Micro:bit Educational Foundation, for his early support of the project and chief technical officer Jonny Austin who worked to see the project through from start to finish and provided exhaustive feedback to ensure it launched in the best possible condition – not to mention offering his perspective of the BBC micro:bit’s meteoric rise around the globe in the book’s foreword.

Inside the 300-page publication you’ll find step-by-step instructions from unboxing the BBC micro:bit and learning about its components to programming it in JavaScript Blocks, JavaScript, and Python, as well as practical projects which make use of its sensors, buttons, display, and radio module. You’ll have the opportunity to build everything from a wearable rain-sensing hat to a hand-held game, and links to further resources from lesson plans and community-driven content hubs to add-on hardware to expand the BBC micro:bit’s already impressive capabilities are also included.

The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide is available now in print and electronic formats from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Kobo, Waterstones, Target, O’Reilly, WH Smith, Booktopia Australia, and direct from Wiley, while it can be ordered in at other booksellers under ISBN 978-1119386735.

For those looking for non-English resources, translations are currently in the works with a French edition confirmed for early next year and more expected to follow in due course – and if you’d like to see the book in your own native language, get in touch to discuss how to make that happen!

PC Pro, Issue 279

PC Pro Issue 279This month’s PC Pro includes a review of something a little out of the ordinary: the open-source, microcontroller-powered OpenScope MZ oscilloscope from Digilent.

Based on the original OpenScope and manufactured following a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the OpenScope MS is designed primarily for education and hobbyist use. While it lacks the bandwidth you’d need for professional use, it makes up for it in ease of use: it can be connected to your wireless network for tangle-free operation, includes cables which mate handily with the 2.54mm headers common to hobbyist electronics, and uses cross-platform software capable of running on everything from a powerful desktop to a low-end smartphone.

Better still, the OpenScope MZ is, as the name implies, open: the hardware design, firmware, and software are open source, allowing anyone with the knowledge to add features or customise the device as they see fit.

More information on the OpenScope MZ is available on the official website, while you can read my review in full by picking up a copy of PC Pro Issue 279 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 172

Custom PC Issue 172That this month’s Hobby Tech column includes the review of a single-board computer should come as no surprise; that it’s a Windows 10 machine, though, certainly shakes things up a bit – as do a guest appearance by my trusty Cambridge Computers Z88 and an interview with Indiegogo’s Joel Hughes on the topic of crowdfunding.

The DFRobot LattePanda isn’t a new device, but it’s new to me. While I’ve probably reviewed more single-board computers than any other device category – and written the book on more than one – the LattePanda stands out from the crowd for two reasons: it uses an Intel Atom processor with considerable grunt, and it runs Microsoft’s Windows 10 Home operating system. Add in to that an on-board Arduino-compatible microcontroller and you’ve got a very interesting system indeed – and one which only got more interesting when I popped it under the thermal camera.

My interview with Indegogo’s Joel Hughes, meanwhile, took place in the spacious hall of Copenhagen’s former meat-packing district as part of the TechBBQ event. “We want to democratise funding as much as possible and level the playing field for great ideas,” he told me, before I threw a few tricky questions about some high-profile campaigns that had perhaps fallen short of greatness – or even mediocrity. “I don’t feel, the majority of the time, that it’s malicious,” he claimed on the topic of campaign operators who fail to keep their backers in the loop on post-fundraising progress. “I think they’re busy doing their own thing and almost forget about the comment section a little.”

Finally, the Cambridge Computers Z88. Although it’s been in my possession for many years, has a bag-friendly A4 footprint, and runs for a full day’s work on a set of double-A batteries, I’ve shied away from using Uncle Clive’s portable for serious work owing to the difficulties in actually getting documents off its internal memory and onto something more modern. The purchase of a PC Link II kit and some clever open-source software, though, has solved the problem, and if you see me out and about at events don’t be surprised if I’m taking notes on a rubber-keyed classic.

All this, plus a bunch of other stuff, is available at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 171

Custom PC Issue 171This month’s Custom PC magazine has a bumper crop for fans of Hobby Tech: a four-page shoot-out of do-it-yourself handheld games consoles on top of my usual five-page column, which this time around looks at setting up Syncthing on a Raspberry Pi, building the Haynes Retro Arcade Kit, and my time running a soldering workshop at the Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG) UK OSHCamp gathering.

The workshop first: organiser Andrew Back got in touch with me shortly before the OSHCamp workshop day, held in Hebden Bridge as part of the annual Wuthering Bytes technology festival, was due to take place. The scheduled soldering workshop was at risk, he explained, as the person due to run it was no longer available. I was happy to help, and I’m pleased to report a great day was had by all assembling Cuttlefish microcontroller kits – despite the use of some particularly ancient soldering irons with tips which appeared to be made of freshly-hewn coal!

The Haynes Retro Arcade Kit feels like a device which could have been in the DIY console shootout, but it wouldn’t have fared well. Designed by Eight Innovation and slapped with the Haynes brand, the Retro Arcade Kit is a fiddly and distinctly unrewarding soldering kit which ends up as a particularly basic version of Pong. The coin activation system is its only redeeming feature: two pieces of thick solid-core wire sit side by side, and are shorted out by an inserted metal coin to start a fresh game. Not an original trick, but one well implemented – if you ignore the terrible instructions and poor build quality.

Syncthing, meanwhile, has been a mainstay of my toolbox for years. An open-source project designed to keep files on two or more computer systems synchronised, Syncthing is built with security and convenience in mind – and works a treat on the Raspberry Pi. Given that I was needing to find a new home for my off-site backups anyway, as my regular provider CrashPlan is ceasing its cheapest product line, it seemed natural to write up the process of turning a Pi and a USB hard drive into an off-site backup destination.

Finally, the four-page DIY console shoot-out is a reprint of the same feature as it appeared in PC Pro Issue 277 in mid-September. As before, four Arduino-compatible devices are covered: the Gamebuino, MAKERbuino, Creoqode 2048, and Arduboy.

All this, and the usual selection of things written by others, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.

PC Pro, Issue 277

PC Pro Issue 277This month’s issue of PC Pro includes a four-way Battle Royale of DIY handheld games consoles, starting with the MAKERbuino and Creoqode 2048 also reviewed in this month’s Custom PC and including the original Gamebuino and Arduboy to complete the round-up.

There’s never been a higher focus on teaching kids to program – not even during the height of the microcomputing boom in the 1980s, when every home had a Spectrum and every school a BBC Model B partially funded by the government’s Computers in Schools initiative – but there’s a risk of turning kids off if all they’re doing is moving sprites around on a screen. To address this, a number of inventors have come up with physical devices to target instead: from the BBC micro:bit, the spiritual successor to the original Acorn-designed BBC Micro, to the handheld consoles in this month’s group test.

Each of the consoles on test have two things in common. The first is obvious: the focus is more on writing your own games, rather than just playing things other people have created. The second lies under the hood: all four consoles on test are based on Atmel microcontrollers and are compatible with the popular Arduino IDE programming environment.

There are more differences than similarities, though. The Creoqode 2048 is the most physically impressive – and imposing – machine on test thanks to its large footprint and bright RGB LED display, but falls down with poor supporting documentation and rebranded off-the-shelf parts sold at a massive markup; the Arduboy is, by contrast, the tiniest on test with a wallet-friendly design but limited capabilities. The Gamebuino has long been one of my favourite Arduino-compatible projects, but the MAKERbuino takes the concept a stage further with small hardware improvements and a shift from a pre-assembled unit to a solder-it-yourself kit using entirely through-hole components.

If you want to know which device walks away as the king of the hill, though, you’ll have to pick up the latest issue of PC Pro either physically at all good newsagents and supermarkets or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 170

Custom PC Issue 170This month’s Hobby Tech column has a particular focus on do-it-yourself handheld gaming, looking at two Arduino-compatible yet totally different kits: the Creoqode 2048 and the MAKERbuino. As an added bonus, there’s also a review of a set of Arlent-brand soldering iron tips coupled with a lesson on just why keeping your tips in tip-top condition is so very important.

First, the Creoqode 2048. Initially produced following a successful crowdfunding campaign, London-based Creoqode has since improved and expanded the original 2048 design. Built around a hefty 64×32 RGB LED matrix display, the laser-cut chassis is eye-catching but not pocket friendly in any sense of the word: the entire unit is the largest handheld I’ve seen since the 1980s and you won’t get change from £200 once you’ve added shipping to the sky-high £189 asking price.

If Creoqode had done a better job of putting the kit together, that pricing could be overlooked. Sadly, the design is a mishmash of off-the-shelf parts – including a Mega2560 Pro Mini microcontroller, entirely unmodified save a cheeky change to the silkscreen to plaster the Creoqode logo where it most definitely does not belong – with some of the most awkward wiring imaginable. Worse still, the solder-free assembly turns out to be misleading: the use of too-thin cables in the battery holder means you’ll need to whip out a soldering iron and effect your own repairs if you want your console to do anything other than reset itself after a few minutes of use.

The MAKERbuino, by contrast, couldn’t be more different. Created as a soldering kit variant of the open-hardware Gamebuino, reviewed back in Issue 134, the MAKERbuino is a fraction of the price but infinitely more usable. Like the Gamebuino, the MAKERbuino loads its games from a bundled SD Card – whereas the 2048 is limited to a single ‘game’ (in reality incredibly basic demonstration of its capabilities, provided for some reason as Microsoft Word documents rather than INO files) which can only be swapped out by connecting it to a computer. The MAKERbuino also benefits from the incredible Gamebuino community, built up over the years since its launch, with dozens of available games and a great quality framework for building your own.

The Arlent-brand soldering iron tip review came about as I was preparing to build the MAKERbuino kit and spotted that the tip on my soldering station was somewhat past its prime. If you’ve ever found your soldering skills appearing to worsen, rather than improve, over time, then you’re probably the victim of an ageing tip. At less than a tenner for ten tips of varying shape and size from supplier Persder, they were definitely worth a shot – and I’m pleased to say have been performing admirably since.

All this, and the usual raft of interesting stuff written by other people, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 169

Custom PC Issue 169My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC features three reviews: the CubieBoard 6 single-board computer, the Digilent OpenScope MZ open-hardware multi-function oscilloscope, and a book detailing the rise and fall of gaming legends the Bitmap Brothers.

The CubieBoard 6, to start, was kindly provided by low-power computing specialist New IT. Despite its high version number, the device felt like a blast from the past as soon as I opened the box: it’s based on almost exactly the same form factor as the original CubieBoard and its successor the CubieBoard 2, after which creator CubieTech moved towards bulkier designs with up-to-eight-core processors. A return to form is no bad thing: CubieTech boasts that the CubieBoard 6 can be used as a drop-in replacement for most CubieBoard 1 and 2 projects.

For the review, I ran the device through the usual raft of benchmarks and gave it a direct comparison to the Raspberry Pi 3 with which it competes. One interesting shift from the norm, though, was in thermal imagery analysis which revealed that the CubieBoard’s SATA-to-USB bridge chip draws considerable power even when no SATA device is connected – something that would have been difficult to ascertain any other way.

The OpenScope MZ, meanwhile, is a very different beast – though, technically speaking, also a single-board computer of sorts. The successor to Digilent’s original OpenScope, the OpenScope MZ is a hobbyist- and education-centric open-hardware dual-channel oscilloscope with additional functionality as a function generator, power supply, and logic analyser. Where it differs from its competition, though, is in the presence of a Wi-Fi chip which allows you to connect to the device remotely – which, coupled with the browser-based software used to drive the thing makes it compatible with everything from Windows desktops to a Raspberry Pi or smartphone running the Linux variant of your choice.

Finally, The Bitmap Brothers Universe is a fantastic coffee table tome charting the history of the titular giants of gaming familiar to any Amiga owner present or former. Written based on painstaking interview work by Duncan Harris and published by Read Only Memories, the bulk of the book is in single-colour print with reproduced concept art and illustrations breaking up the prose; the exception comes in the form of colour plates on glossy black paper, which use a series of neat post-process effects in an attempt to simulate their appearance on an old cathode-ray tube (CRT) display – the way they were originally meant to be seen.

All this, and the usual interesting things written by others, can be found on the shelves of your local supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 168

Custom PC Issue 168This month’s Hobby Tech column is taken up with a trio of reviews covering the pretty darn impressive Mooltipass Mini hardware password manager, Automattic’s Blog in a Box distribution for the Raspberry Pi, and Mark Hardisty’s A Gremlin in the Works.

Starting with the latter, A Gremlin in the Works is another fantastic coffee-table book from retro computing publisher Bitmap Books (the founder of which, Sam Dyer, I interviewed back in Custom PC Issue 136). Written by Mark Hardisty based on exhaustive interviews – and retaining the question-and-answer style of the transcripts, making for an accurate rendition of the subjects’ thoughts but a slightly tiresome read – the two-volume book chronicles the rise and fall of gaming pioneer Gremlin Graphics. As a massive fan of Gremlin’s output – to this day the intro music to Hero Quest brings joy to my heart, and I blame my sweet tooth on a Zool addiction – A Gremlin in the Works is a book I’d long been looking forward to reading, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.

Blog in a Box, meanwhile, is an interesting beast. At its heart, it’s a single-purpose GNU/Linux distribution for the Raspberry Pi created by Automattic as a means of making it easier for people to run the WordPress blogging platform from the device. It’s not provided as a downloadable drive image, as with most distributions, though; instead, Automattic has written a cross-platform program which customises various settings – title, passwords, email accounts, things like that – and configures them so the Pi is ready to rock on first boot. It’s a neat idea, but one which still needs polish: I found the Linux version failed to run properly on my Ubuntu 16.04 desktop, and several features promised by the tool were disabled when the Pi actually started up. It’s a tool with promise, though, and I look forward to revisiting it should Automattic release an update.

Finally, the Mooltipass Mini. The brainchild of Mathieu Stephan, the Mooltipass Mini builds on its non-Mini predecessor to create a pocket-sized hardware password safe for all your accounts – or, at least, as many as will fit in 8Mb (1MB) of internal memory. The Mooltipass Mini is a tool for the adequately paranoid: passwords, though not usernames, are stored in the device’s internal memory under AES-256 encryption with the private key located on a removable smart card itself locked with a four-hexadecimal-character PIN. When a password is required, its entry can be found on the screen and the Mooltipass does its best impression of a USB keyboard by typing the account details in on your behalf – or, when the optional software is installed, filling in forms in browser windows automatically upon manual confirmation on the device itself.

Having long advocated for the use of password managers to promote high-quality password use and discourage password reuse, the Mooltipass Mini is a near-perfect companion. It addresses the majority of the problems with traditional password managers, like how to keep the encrypted database accessible while preventing its theft. While there are undeniable issues, such as the £61 (inc. VAT) retail price and the need to buy two so you have a backup to use if the primary one fails, it has become a part of my security arsenal – and one I feel comfortable using thanks to the project’s open-source nature for both the software and underlying hardware.

All this, and a whole mess of other things written by people who aren’t me, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 167

Custom PC Issue 167This month’s Custom PC features a look at the effect of compiler optimisation on applications plus reviews of Google’s AIY Voice Kit for the Raspberry Pi family and Jimmy Wilhelmsson’s Generation 64.

The tutorial, to begin, stemmed from investigations I was carrying out into Google’s Guetzli perceptual JPEG encoder. Having cut my teeth in computing back when every byte – never mind kilobyte – really counted, I have a soft-spot for compression both lossy and lossless. Over the years I’ve toyed with a range of compression algorithms, from LZMA and Robert Jung’s ARJ through to the clever if short-lived Fractal Image Format (FIF). Like most, though, I eventually settled on two popular formats for my image compression needs: JPEG where lossy compression is acceptable and PNG where it isn’t.

Guetzli aims to cut the file size of JPEG files by around a third for no apparent loss in perceived image quality. That was enough to pique my interest, but it comes at a cost: a runtime of minutes per megapixel to recompress each image. As an open-source project, Guetzli is provided in source-code form – so I began to play with the optimisation options available in the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) to see if I couldn’t speed things up.

As readers of my column will discover, I could indeed speed things up – cutting the time taken to compress the small sample image provided with Guetzli from 14.3 seconds using Google’s precompiled binary version down to just 9.56 seconds. Although not an exhaustive guide to compiler optimisation in general nor even GCC-specific options – a topic which would take a book, rather than a couple of magazine pages, to cover adequately – hopefully the write-up of my experiments will help shine a light on the gains that can be made, the potential pitfalls of excessive optimisation, and the benefits of open-source distribution.

The Google AIY Voice Kit, meanwhile, is something quite special: an add-on for the Raspberry Pi family of microcomputers which, in essence, turns them into a somewhat cut-down version of the company’s Google Home voice-activated assistant platform. Initially distributed with The MagPi Magazine as a cover-mounted giveaway, the kit should soon be available for purchase by the general public – and it’s definitely worth seeking one out.

The kit itself centres around a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) add-on board, which includes servo and motor control, connectivity for an arcade-style button, and links to a break-out board with a pair of MEMS microphones. Combined with some simple software and a link to Google’s cloud computing platform, the AIY Kit can be made to respond to your natural-language queries or even control external hardware via voice recognition – with some major caveats regarding how often you can use it before you need to start handing over cash for the voice recognition platform.

Finally, Generation 64. Originally written in Swedish by Jimmy Wilhelmsson and with design by Kenneth Grönwall, Generation 64 investigates the influence the Commodore 64 had on the Swedish computing scene – complete with an introduction by the founder of Digital Illusions, also known as DICE, and MOS 6502 creator Chuck Peddle. Translated into English and re-released by Bitmap BooksGeneration 64 is an absolutely fantastic read which I would have otherwise missed had it remained untranslated.

Full details on all of these, plus a bunch more stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be found in Custom PC Issue 167 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and rival distribution platforms.