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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.

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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.

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.

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.

Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide

Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico

Today’s launch of the Raspberry Pi Pico, an affordable breadboard-friendly development board accessible enough for education and powerful enough for industrial use, comes alongside the launch of my latest book: Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Raspberry Pi Pico Guide.

Building on my earlier title The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico offers newcomers to both the Raspberry Pi Pico and the MicroPython programming language an easy way to get started. Building up from an introduction to the board, electronic circuit concepts, MicroPython in general, and MicroPython on the Raspberry Pi Pico specifically, the book walks through a series of physical computing projects – some requiring only the Raspberry Pi Pico, others using low-cost and readily-available additional hardware components.

Each successive project introduces a new concept, from simply lighting an LED and reading a button input to using hardware interrupts, running code on the second CPU core, and making use of the on-board non-volatile flash memory to store logged data. By the end of the book, the reader should know how to use all the most important features of the Raspberry Pi Pico in MicroPython – even if they started knowing nothing about electronics or programming at all.

As always, thanks must be given to those who helped during the production of the book. Particular thanks must go to Ben Everard, who acted as co-editor and also contributed a chapter on using I2C and an appendix on using the programmable input/output (PIO) functionality; Sam Adler, too, returned to provide eye-catching illustrations without which the book would be a considerably duller read.

Also to be thanked are those who provided technical assistance: Alasdair Allan, Aivar Annamaa, Damien George, Gordon Hollingworth, Graham Sanderson, and Andrew Scheller, along with all those who proofed the book ahead of publication. Not forgetting, of course, others at Raspberry Pi Press who work to bring these books to life and to shelves across the world.

Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico is available to purchase in print from Raspberry Pi Press with global delivery; it is also available to download as a DRM-free PDF, under a Creative Commons free-as-in-speech licence which allows for unlimited distribution under share-alike terms – making it perfect for schools and clubs.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 39

HackSpace Magazine Issue 39Six years ago, I was proud to work with The MagPi Magazine on a feature which saw the world’s first cover-mounted computer attached to the front of every print copy: the Raspberry Pi Zero on Issue 40. Now, I’m just as proud to have been involved in putting the newly-launched Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller on the front of every print copy of HackSpace Magazine.

Launched today, the Raspberry Pi Zero represents two firsts for the company: it’s the first microcontroller development board, after years of single-board computers designed to offer a desktop-like experience; and it’s the first board to feature a silicon chip, the RP2040, designed entirely in-house. Not that it’ll be the last: companies including Adafruit, Arduino, Pimoroni, and SparkFun have already confirmed plans to launch their own RP2040-based boards.

Having been working with the Raspberry Pi Pico since the prototype stage, as part of preparing Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide, it’s fantastic to see it launch – and HackSpace’s launch coverage is nothing if not exhaustive. From technical details to interviews, there’s plenty to get stuck into in Issue 39 – and all you need to get started with the cover-mounted Pico is a micro-USB cable and a handy computer.

You’ll also find a hands-on project under my byline, extracted from the book: a traffic-light system which builds up from a simple trio of LEDs to include a buzzer and a button to trigger a pedestrian crossing signal, mimicking the Puffin Crossings here in the UK.

HackSpace Magazine Issue 39 is available now from all good newsagents and supermarkets, or online with global delivery. It’s also available as a DRM-free Creative Commons-licensed download – but, naturally, the digital version doesn’t include the cover-mounted Pico.

Custom PC, Issue 210

Custom PC Issue 210For Custom PC Magazine, the new year starts with another installation of my Hobby Tech five-page column, this month starting with an in-depth investigation of the Raspberry Pi 400, the RetroFlag NESPi 4 Nintendo-themed case, and Ubuntu 20.10 for the Raspberry Pi.

First, the Raspberry Pi 400. The first device to come from Raspberry Pi with an explicit design focus on producing a consumer device, rather than a bare-bones educational circuit board, the Raspberry Pi 400 packs the core technology from the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B into a keyboard housing to produce an almost-all-in-one PC reminiscent of a classic Atari 400, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, or Commodore VIC-20.

For the Custom PC review, I investigated the device’s internals – a custom-designed single-board computer which is the largest Raspberry Pi ever made, along with the first to include a heatsink in the form of a large slab of metal attached to the system-on-chip – and ran the system through a series of benchmarks to check its performance and thermal characteristics.

Similarly, the RetroFlag NESPi 4 saw a few benchmarks – focusing primarily on whether its small and always-running internal fan could keep a Raspberry Pi 4 cool and how the clever SATA-to-USB adapter, which accepts a 7mm SSD disguised in a plastic housing shaped after a NES cartridge, handled throughput. Sadly, testing also revealed a few issues with the otherwise-clever casing – in particular the fact that the SATA adapter is unusable in the Raspberry Pi’s default USB Attached SCSI (UAS) operation mode and takes a performance penalty if you manually override it.

Finally, Ubuntu 20.10 is the first release of Canonical’s Linux distribution to prove the company’s promise that it will treat the Raspberry Pi family as a first-class citizen going forward. In addition to 32- and 64-bit variants of the Ubuntu Server operating system, available in earlier releases, Ubuntu 20.10 is available in a new Ubuntu Desktop release – which includes a full graphical user interface and a handy range of pre-installed software, along with support for installing more via the apt package manager or Canonical’s Snap Store platform.

Custom PC Issue 210 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, or online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 209

Custom PC Issue 209In this month’s instalment of my regular Hobby Tech feature, I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 family, Nvidia’s lower-cost Jetson Nano 2GB, and Sid Meier’s Sid Meier’s Memoir! – a book with what must be the most well-fitting title in history.

The Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 is, as the name suggests, a successor to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3+ and Compute Module 3 ranges – themselves designed as a follow-up to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, which took the core technology from the Raspberry Pi single-board computer and placed it into a system-on-module (SOM) form factor.

In my two-page review I take the new Compute Module through its paces, take a look at the redesigned and considerably cheaper carrier board, and warn of one major caveat: the redesigned module ditches the SODIMM form factor of its predecessors, meaning it’s not backwards-compatible with earlier carrier boards without a third-party interposer board between the two.

The Nvidia Jetson Nano 2GB, meanwhile, isn’t as identical to the original Nvidia Jetson Nano reviewed back in Issue 191. While, yes, the headline change is the drop from 4GB to 2GB of RAM, there are other modifications – including the loss of a hidden slot for an optional Wi-Fi card, fewer and slower USB ports, and the dropping of the second MIPI Camera Serial Interface (CSI) port added to its bigger sibling in a mid-stream refresh.

Finally, Sid Meier’s Memoir! – named in the style of the man’s games like Sid Meier’s Civilization and Sid Meier’s Pirates! – is a potted history of one of the pioneers of strategy gaming’s career, as told to author Jennifer Lee Noonan. It’s a text-heavy tome split into roughly chronological chapters, and absolutely fascinating – even if it does finally put to bed the myth of Gandhi’s overflow bug in Civilization.

Custom PC Issue 209 is available now from your local supermarket, newsagent, or online with global delivery from the official website.

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021This year’s holiday release from Raspberry Pi Press is The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021, a tome which collects 200 pages of content previously published in The MagPi and makes it available ready for wrapping and nestling under the tree.

My primary contribution for this year’s Handbook centres around the Raspberry Pi 400, the latest single-board computer in the Raspberry Pi family. Built into a keyboard housing, the most-in-one layout is a new venture for Raspberry Pi – and you’ll find my imagery in the book’s getting started section for newcomers.

You’ll also find a six-page abridged edition of my Raspberry Pi 400 feature from The MagPi Issue 100, down from the original twelve with the main removal being the detailed benchmarking. The new thinner variant still includes plenty of imagery, including a graphical tour of all the external features and ports found on the Raspberry Pi 400, plus my interview with its designer Simon Martin and Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton.

You’ll find more of my work scattered throughout, too, including screenshots and tutorials cribbed from The Official Raspberry PI Beginner’s Guide 4th Edition – along with a wealth of material from my fellow MagPi contributors.

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021 is available to buy now with global delivery, or to download as a DRM-free Creative Commons-licensed PDF, on the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 100

The MagPi Issue 100For this bumper issue of The MagPi, celebrating 100 issues since its launch as a fanzine and subsequent adoption as the official Raspberry Pi magazine, I take a deep dive into the company’s latest single-board computer: the very-nearly-all-in-one Raspberry Pi 400.

Built into a keyboard housing, the Raspberry Pi 400 is almost everything you need: just add a USB Type-C power supply, microSD, mouse, and display. For those buying the Personal Computer Kit – previously the Desktop Kit – that’s reduced to only needing an external display. Better still, the design includes the Raspberry Pi family’s first passive cooling system – and a speed boost from 1.5GHz to 1.8GHz.

Across the hefty 12-page feature I take the reader on a visual tour of the new board’s external ports and internal features – stripping it down to the surprisingly large single-board computer ensconced within – before taking a break for an interview with principal hardware engineer Simon Martin and Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton on the project’s origins and development.

Benchmarks follow, putting hard numbers to the speed boost that has seen the CPU clocked from the default 1.5GHz on the Raspberry Pi 4 to 1.8GHz on the Raspberry Pi 400. As with previous launches, these include historical measurements going all the way back to the original Raspberry Pi Model A and Model B – detailing the performance of every board, bar the industrial-focus Compute Modules, across synthetic and real-world workloads.

The full review is available now in The MagPi Issue 100 from supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a free Creative Commons licensed PDF download on the official website.