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

The MagPi, Issue 38

The MagPi Issue 38In this month’s official Raspberry Pi magazine, The MagPi, you’ll find my review of the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit, as kindly supplied by CPC – a great follow-on to Issue 37’s review of the more basic Kitronik Electro-Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Starter Pack.

Like the Kitronik bundle, the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit is focused on teaching the user about the uses of conductive thread for wearable and soft-circuit projects. Like the Kitronik bundle, it’s heavily focused on making things light up. Unlike Kitronik’s creation, though, it offers more than just simple on-off circuit potential: the kit is based around a Gemma, a small Arduino-compatible microcontroller designed by Adafruit in partnership with Arduino.cc.

While basic compared to a full Arduino Uno or similar, having just three GPIO pins and no user-accessible serial port, the Gemma is nevertheless surprisingly flexible. It’s also accessible: there’s a USB port right on the board, while support is included in the Arduino IDE as standard. Although the 3.3V logic can be annoying for those coming from 5V Arduino projects, it’s nothing a level-shifter can’t fix – and for The MagPi’s audience of Raspberry Pi enthusiasts, 3.3V logic will be entirely familiar and compatible with their existing parts bucket.

The rest of the kit is well thought out, too. There’s a number of NeoPixel RGB LEDs, offering a wide range of lighting effects, and a generous amount of fine conductive thread pre-wound onto a machine-compatible bobbin. Better still, there’s a pack of needles – something the Kitronik bundle missed, making a trip to the shops necessary for anyone who hasn’t already got a sewing kit with a wide-gauge needle to hand. There’s even a set of leads with crocodile clips, making testing your circuit prior to sewing the components down a breeze.

It’s fair to say that I’m a fan of the Gemma kit, but to get my full opinion you’ll need to pick up a copy of The MagPi Issue 38. It’s available in print from Tesco and WH Smith, or as a free PDF download from the official website if you’d comfortable where you are.

Custom PC, Issue 146

Custom PC Issue 146This month’s Hobby Tech column begins with a look at a topic that has been close to my heart for a number of years now: thermal imaging, and how it can be applied to the field of hobbyist electronics and technology review. If that weren’t interesting enough, there’s also a review of the Novena open-hardware all-in-one desktop, and a look at a little-known bug-fix applied to Sinclair’s classic ZX81 microcomputer.

For years, I’ve wanted a thermal camera. Recently, the price of cameras has plummeted and I was finally able to justify – just about – the cost of the entry-level Flir C2. While it takes a while to get used to thinking in resolutions of 80×60 – the total resolution of the Flir Lepton thermal imaging module featured in the C2 – I’ve been having no end of fun capturing thermal data on everything from single-board computers to my cat.

In the column, though, I argue for the application of thermal imaging in the hobbyist realm. With smartphone-connected thermal cameras now available in the low-hundreds, and a broken-out Lepton module the equal of the one found in the C2 available for just £160, a thermal imaging sensor is no longer the preserve of well-heeled professionals. I’ve found mine useful for tasks from finding hot-spots on a board design to spotting heatsinks which were not properly mated to the components below.

When I wasn’t playing with the thermal camera, I was playing with the Kosagi Novena. Born from the mind of noted hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang, the Novena is remarkable: it’s a truly open computer, with everything from the firmware through to the board designs being published under an open-source licence. Loaned by UK hobbyist electronics shop oomlout, I was sad to give the crowd-funded Novena back – despite an ARM-based processor outclassed by even the cheapest of x86 laptop parts.

Finally, the ZX81. I’ve been clearing out much of my classic computer collection as I shift to a smaller office, and while I had to get rid of my rather rare Sinclair ZX81 I wanted to record its existence for posterity. From the very original production run, this machine boasted the ‘cockroach’ – a bug-fix for a fault in the ROM implemented in hardware, with a hand-soldered board attached to the top of the system’s CPU. It’s a jarring sight, and one that I was privileged to see in person: only a handful of cockroach-model ZX81s, fixed while the company waited for corrected ROM chips to arrive, exist and they’re all externally identical to non-cockroach models.

All this, plus a wide selection of stuff written by people who aren’t me, is available now from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 156

Linux User & Developer Issue 156This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine features a review of a rather special device, Bunnie Huang’s Novena, on top of my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the open source world.

When noted hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang announced that he was to create an open-hardware and open-software laptop, driven by the increasingly closed nature of off-the-shelf alternatives, I was immediately interested. Sadly, when the Novena project’s crowd-funding campaign went live, the pricing – entirely justified by the small production run planned – meant I couldn’t justify a purchase. Thankfully, I have numerous friends in the open hardware community who could – and one, Aaron Nielsen of local Arduino specialist oomlout, was kind enough to lend me his once it had arrived.

The unit I reviewed was the desktop Novena variant, which lacks the battery and charging hardware of the laptop model. Otherwise, it’s the same: an ARM-based open hardware computer in a smart aluminium chassis, designed to be as hackable as possible. It’s also the only system I’ve ever reviewed that came with a selection of tools and a tube of thread-locking compound – required to assemble the device, which arrives in pieces. Even the screen, a Full HD LCD panel, is separate upon delivery – and the assembly instructions include stern warnings on exactly where not to hold it if you want a working Novena at the end of the process.

The Novena certainly isn’t for everyone. Its performance is good for an ARM-based system, but orders of magnitude slower than an x86 machine for computationally-intensive tasks. To concentrate on performance is missing the point, though: the Novena is billed as the hacker’s playground, with everything from the board design and firmware to the microcontroller that drives the optional battery charger available for a sufficiently knowledgeable user to investigate and modify. Add to that a grid-based hardware prototyping area and clever add-ons, including a software defined radio module based on the Myriad-RF 1 from client Lime Microsystems, and you’ve got a seriously tempting device.

The full review, plus my regular news spread, can be read now by visiting your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or by staying where you are and picking up a digital copy via Zinio or similar service.

The MagPi, Issue 37

The MagPi Issue 37In this month’s MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, you’ll find the first in a series of more generally maker-themed reviews. This time around it’s a look at the Kitronik Electro Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Pack, kindly supplied by CPC.

For me, this review was a chance to try my hand at wearable electronics, a branch of the maker movement I had previously ignored. While there’s a lot to be said for more complex projects, such as the growing number of hobbyist-friendly PCB manufacturing houses who can produce flexible boards in small quantities, there’s nothing quite as accessible as conductive thread. Coupled with specially-designed components, or through-hole parts quickly modified for mounting onto fabric, it allows the maker to easily build simple wearable circuits at a very low cost and with no complex or expensive tools.

The Kitronik bundle, sold under the company’s Electro Fashion brand, is a cheap and fairly solid starter kit with one curious omission: there’s no needle. Having stolen one from the household sewing tin, I was able to get started with a simple project: fitting a small LED to the fingertip of an old glove. Sadly, that’s about as complex a project as you’re likely to achieve with the kit: unsurprisingly, given its low price, there’s nothing like a microcontroller among its components. Aside from a button and a couple of switches, the smartest any of the parts get are a set of through-hole LEDs with built-in flasher circuits.

That’s not to put the kit down, though. For a taster of what’s possible with conductive thread, it’s near-unbeatable for the price – and for more complex projects Kitronik’s Electro Fashion range has plenty of compatible components and accessories.

You can pick up a print copy of The MagPi Issue 37 now at WH Smiths, or – as always – download a digital version, licensed under Creative Commons, from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 145

Custom PC Issue 145In the pages of this month’s Custom PC magazine you’ll find my regular Hobby Tech column split into three segments: a two-page review of the Velleman 3D Printing Pen, a further two pages of coverage from the Liverpool MakeFest, and a final page reviewing the excellent Petduino from Circuitbeard.

First, the Velleman pen, kindly provided by CPC. Considering that I write a column about – among other topics – maker culture, it’s a real surprise I’ve never really delved into 3D printing before. It’s a topic that interest me, but one which is difficult to address easily: printers are bulky, expensive, and even when review samples are available they typically need hours of assembly and fine-tuning which can be difficult to fit into a freelancer’s budget.

The Velleman 3D Printing Pen, on the other hand, requires close to zero set-up. Connect the mains adapter, insert some of the bundled PLA filament, and hold down the motorised feed button, and it starts chucking soft filament out of the nozzle like a good ‘un. It’s a simple design, based on glue guns and ‘inspired’ by the pre-existing 3Doodler, but it lacks the fine control of a true 3D printer: the box shows someone ‘drawing’ the Eiffel Tower, but I call shenanigans on that one.

The event coverage comes courtesy of client oomlout, on whose behalf I attended the first Liverpool MakeFest. It was, as these events often are, a stunning success and great fun, despite a hiccough where my cheap Jessops speed-flash died a few minutes into the day – an issue I was thankfully quickly able to resolve by running to a nearby photography shop and picking up a second-hand Nikon replacement, thusly also blowing any hope of seeing a profit.

Regardless, there were several personal highlights from the day including a great chat with the event founders and seeing friends including Ben Grey of MeArm fame and Adrian McEwan of DoES Liverpool with his ever-popular Nerf shooting range. I was also pleased to learn that the response of the public was good enough that the Liverpool Central Library is keen to work with organisers to run the MakeFest as an annual event.

Finally, the review. I met up with Circuitbeard – more properly known as Matt Brailsford, and yes his beard is impressive in the hairy flesh – at the recent Halifax Mini Maker Faire, where he was kind enough to provide me with a prototype of his Petduino design. Based on the Arduino platform, the Petduino is part development board and part virtual pet. Designed to get kids – and the young-at-heart – interested in software and hardware development, the Petduino comes with a range of open-source ‘personality’ Arduino sketches which can be installed and hacked about to change its behaviour. It’s a great tool for teaching, and with sales of the initial batch off to a flying start one I predict will be very successful – and I can’t wait to see the promised add-on kits Matt has planned.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services now.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 155

Linux User & Developer Issue 155This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine, in addition to my usual four-page news spread at the front, includes just one review from my keyboard: the LeMaker Banana Pro single-board computer.

The story of China’s Banana-themed SBCs is one of intrigue, and bears a brief recap. The family started with the Banana Pi, a functional clone of the popular Raspberry Pi with enhanced specifications. Retaining the overall layout of the original Model B, the Banana Pi included a more powerful dual-core AllWinner A20 processor and an on-board SATA port, along with a few less explicable extras like a built-in microphone.

Sales in China were fair, but it’s the ecosystem which is of interest: various models of Banana Pi-based SBCs have been released, thanks to its open-hardware nature, including units that double as wireless routers or even network switches.

The Banana Pro is a direct replacement for the Banana Pi, designed by LeMaker. While keeping most of the specifications – the AllWinner A20 chip, 1GB of RAM, a gigabit Ethernet port – the board has received an overhaul, boasting a more streamlined design which borrows from both the Raspberry Pi Model B and Model B Plus. As a result, you’ll find an extended GPIO header – finished in fetching yellow – and the removal of the dedicated composite video output jack, but only two USB ports – plus the USB OTG port.

When the Banana Pi launched, it offered more power and wider compatibility than the Raspberry Pi it aimed to emulate; with the launch of the quad-core Raspberry Pi 2, however, the two leapfrogged once more. Keeping the dual-core A20 may have been a mistake, as for roughly the same price the official Raspberry Pi 2 offers far more performance – but, that said, real USB ports and SATA connectivity, along with gigabit Ethernet, are features not to be sniffed at.

If you want to read my full conclusion, along with my four-page spread of the latest news from the world of Linux, open hardware and open source, pick up your copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 155 from your nearest newsagent or supermarket now, or get it from the comfort of your own home electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.

The MagPi, Issue 36

The MagPi Issue 36This month’s The MagPi, the official Raspberry Pi magazine, is rather special: it’s the first print issue since the community-created publication was taken under the wing of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. While previous issues were available in limited-edition print runs created through crowd-funding efforts, from now on the magazine will be found in major high-street shops as standard – starting with WH Smith. This doesn’t mean the free digital download is going away, though: all content is still Creative Commons licensed, and the PDF download will be available free of charge at the same time as the print issue hits shelves.

Publication changes aside, there are two pieces of note in this month’s issue: a review of Wetgene’s Swanky Paint, and another of the Velleman 3D Printing Pen.

Going for the hardware first, local electronics giant CPC was kind enough to send over a box of goodies including the printing pen and some wearable kits – about which you’ll read more in future issues – when they found out I was running low on review hardware. Created by Velleman, a company better known for its test equipment, the 3D Printing Pen is a near-direct copy of the 3Doodler: the extrusion system of a PLA-based 3D printer stripped out of its three-directional housing and placed inside a pen-like grip.

The idea, the instructions explain, is that you can ‘draw’ three-dimensional objects freehand – taking away the complexity and expense of a traditional 3D printer. The remaining technology is simple, and nothing particularly new: you can think of the pen as a glue-gun using plastic in place of glue. The box shows someone drawing a scale model of the Eiffel Tower freehand, but I found it a major struggle to even get my simple cubes and pyramids looking recognisable.

I had a lot more luck with Swanky Paint, created by local coding house Wetgenes. I had previously interviewed the two programmers behind the software back in Custom PC Issue 141, but this time I took their most famous creation in-hand and gave it a thorough testing: Swanky Paint. Available in cross-platform browser-based flavours as well as native versions for traditional PCs, smartphones, tablets, and the Raspberry Pi, Swanky Paint is inspired by EA’s classic Deluxe Paint – the go-to art package for an entire generation of game artists – and shares UI and UX similarities, down to the keyboard shortcuts on offer.

Where Deluxe Paint had its pixels on show due to the low resolution of computing equipment at the time, though, Swanky Paint revels in it. Designed for retro ‘pixel-art’ projects, the software makes everything as easy as possible and includes a surprising level of polish for an early alpha release – including various effects designed to emulate the smoothing glow of a traditional CRT display.

If you want to find out my conclusions on both products, as well as read a bunch of great stuff by people who aren’t me, you can pick up a print copy of The MagPi Issue 36 in your local WH Smith, or download the free PDF from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 144

Custom PC Issue 144In this month’s Hobby Tech column, I report from the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, build a 4tronix Agobo robot, and take a look at the Acorn x86 Card – a device that let Acorn users try out the joys of Microsoft’s Windows 95.

First, the robot. Designed as a lower-cost and simpler alternative to the Pi2Go-Lite robot I reviewed back in Issue 135, the Agobo is one of the few kits out there designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi Model A+. While that means that you miss out on a few niceties, few of these – like the wired Ethernet port – are all that important to a portable robot build. The advantages outweigh the negatives, too: the Model A+ draws less power, is smaller, lighter, and costs less; the only real shame is that there is no quad-core Raspberry Pi Model A yet available, leaving users stuck with the outdated single-core BCM2835 system-on-chip processor.

As with the Pi2Go-Lite, I enjoyed building the Agobo – a process which was a lot simpler, involving zero soldering and only a little bit of swearing as I tried to get the bearings in the front caster to cooperate – and programming it was a cinch thanks to 4tronix’s great samples. While it’s undeniably more limited than the Pi2Go-Lite or its full-fat Pi2Go brother, the Agobo could well be a good choice for beginners or the budget-conscious – but for a full conclusion, you’ll have to read the review.

I spent two days this month covering the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, with travel expenses very kindly covered by my client oomlout – for whom I’ve been doing regular blog posts – and it was, as these events always are, an absolute pleasure. Housed at Eureka, the national children’s museum, the event – a community-driven spin-off from Make’s Maker Faires – was well-attended, including by numerous guests who had never been to maker-themed events before. There were soldering workshops, hackspaces, a chap who builds automata out of toys, all kinds of wondrous things – and you can read about them in detail this month.

Finally, the Acorn x86 Card. I wasn’t planning to write about it, but I happened to find it while clearing out the office and thought it would be of interest to readers. A relic of the days before x86 compatibility was the norm in personal computers, the add-in card allowed Acorn’s ARM-based Risc PC to run Windows – even Windows 95, at the time the cutting-edge in operating systems. My particular example is a second-generation card featuring a Texas Instruments 486 processor, and I still haven’t got around to fitting it into my Risc PC despite having received it a couple of years ago…

All this, plus a selection of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, is available in Custom PC Issue 144 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

PC & Tech Authority, Issue 211

PC & Tech Authority, Issue 211While I don’t write for the Australian market directly, I do sometimes appear in PC & Tech Authority as a result of Nextmedia’s content-sharing deal with Dennis Publishing’s PC Pro magazine. Issue 211 is just such an issue, reprinting the Rise of the Makers feature which originally appeared in PC Pro Issue 248.

For those who missed it, the feature was designed as both an introduction to the maker movement in general and as a guide for getting involved – including everything from finding and joining your nearest hackspace to setting one up from scratch. I was aided by several friendly makers, without whom the piece could never have happened: Dominic Morrow, John Cole and Taryn Sullivan of Dexter Industries, Paul Beech and Jon Williamson of Pimoroni, Chris Leach, and Bob Stone of York Hackspace, as well as the team at Leeds Hackspace.

If you’re interested in the piece, it was also published to the PC & Tech Authority website this morning where you can read it free of charge – albeit without the box-outs that the original feature included.