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 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.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 154

Linux User & Developer Issue 154As always, this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes my four-page news spread along with a review: the PiBorg UltraBorg robot-centric controller board.

I originally reviewed the UltraBorg in The MagPi Issue 33, where I focused on its use as a Raspberry Pi-driven accessory. In the more general-audience Linux User & Developer, however, I was free to take a broader view – which is good, because the UltraBorg is happy working with any microcontroller or microcomputer that can talk I²C to it.

Designed for robotics use, the UltraBorg combines two requirements: sensing and control. There are eight channels, split into two: four are used to control up to four servos or stepper motors via pulse-width modulation (PWM), something the Raspberry Pi can’t do without add-on hardware; the other four are used to pull in values from popular models of ultrasonic distance sensor. The result: using a single board, you can interface with everything you’d need for quite a complex robotics project.

There’s a lot to light about the UltraBorg: it’s small, it’s reasonably affordable, and it combines the two requirements for basic robotics projects. It’s also surprisingly high-resolution, and includes non-volatile memory which is used to store movement limits and zero positions – and if you’ve ever watched your robot shake itself to death on a reset because these were forgotten, you’ll be glad of it. It can also be extended by daisy-chaining multiple units together, if you need more than four channels of motor control or distance sensing.

If you want to read my full conclusion, though, you’ll need to pick up the latest issue, and if you do you’ll discover that the news pages have had an overhaul. The often-ignored calendar section is gone, in favour of a chart run-down powered by data from Distrowatch. There’s also a regular top-five section, and a few other improvements which I think readers should enjoy.

All this, plus things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux & Open Source Genius Guide, Volume 7

Linux & Open Source Genius Guide Volume 7Each year, Imagine Publishing takes the content from its Linux User & Developer publication and repackages it in ‘Bookazine’ format – a portmanteau of ‘book’ and ‘magazine,’ equivalent to Dennis Publishing’s rival ‘MagBook’ brand. The Linux & Open Source Genius Guide Volume 7 is the latest, and includes as one of its central offerings a cover feature I wrote for the magazine.

Originally published in Linux User & Developer Issue 148, the Ultimate Distro & FOSS Guide 2015 does exactly what it says on the tin: attempts to provide the information required for users to sort through the thousands of Linux distributions and free software packages available and pick the one that best fits their needs.

It’s a spin on the traditional format: rather than simply listing the ‘best’ distributions in general, I took a selection of categories and selected the front-runners for each: Linux for developers, for enterprises, for security professionals, and for those looking for a distribution with rolling-release development methodology.

To keep things interesting, the piece also included five related free and open source software (FOSS) packages related to each category, aside from the last which instead highlighted five general-purpose FOSS packages to which I gave my personal seal of approval. The result is a detailed guide which is significantly larger and more involved than in previous years, and one which was a pleasure to research.

There’s plenty more to be found in the ‘Bookazine,’ of course, and if you’re interested I’d recommend heading to your local newsagent, supermarket, or staying in and picking up a copy electronically via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 143

Custom PC Issue 143My Hobby Tech spread continues in Issue 143 of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with two reviews and a review-slash-walkthrough: the Orange Pi Plus, the GrovePi+ Starter Kit, and the Kim Uno kit.

For me, the most interesting toy of the month was undoubtedly the Kim Uno. Designed by Oscar Vermeulen, the Kim Uno is a kit-form microcomputer designed to emulate the classic MOS Technologies KIM-1, designed by Chuck Peddle to showcase the company’s at-the-time cutting-edge 6502 microprocessor. Naturally, there’s no 6502 to be found in the Kim Uno: instead, an Arduino Pro Mini – based on one of Atmel’s popular microcontrollers – sits at the rear of a calculator-sized circuit-board and provides the grunt required to run any KIM-1 application you care to name, including the famous Microchess.

A simple solder-it-together kit – or pay extra to have one built by Oscar’s own fair hand – the Kim Uno is a great way to practice your skills even before you tackle the joys of 6502 machine-code programming. Oscar’s online documentation is thorough and detailed, and for anyone who knows 6502 the Kim Uno is a must-have especially at just £10 plus shipping.

The Kim Uno was the most fun project of the month, but it was closely followed by a GrovePi+ Starter Kit kindly supplied by Dexter Industries. Designed to bring Seeed’s Grove ‘smart module’ design to the Raspberry Pi, the kit includes a piggyback board which connects to the Pi’s GPIO port and a wealth of additional inputs and outputs, all of which connect via simple keyed wires. For newcomers to electronics, the Grove platform takes the complexity out of wiring up even relatively complex projects – and the GrovePi+ board itself makes using Grove hardware a cinch.

Finally, the Orange Pi Plus is one of the growing number of would-be Raspberry Pi beaters coming out of the technology markets of China. Using the AllWinner H3 system-on-chip processor the Orange Pi Plus can’t match the performance of the latest Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, but it does offer significantly more built-in capability: SATA, gigabit Ethernet, infra-red, even 802.11b/g/n wireless with bundled ultra-compact dipole antenna. The Orange Pi Plus, and the other members in the Orange Pi family, are clearly inspired by Lemaker’s Banana Pi and offer much of the same software compatibility, including platforms like Android not supported by the Raspberry Pi itself.

If you want to know my final opinion on all this hardware, or if you’re for some reason interested in things written by people who aren’t me, Custom PC Issue 143 is available now in print or digital form.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 153

Linux User & Developer Issue 153In addition to my regular four-page news spread at the front of the magazine, this month’s issue of Linux User & Developer includes a review of the Gizmo 2 single-board computer – a powerful follow-up to the original, which I reviewed back in Issue 125.

Like its predecessor, the Gizmo 2 is based around an AMD Accelerated Processing Unit – specifically, the G-Series GX210HA dual-core chip running at 1GHz – in an open-hardware 4″-square board. Offering improved performance over the original model, the new Gizmo 2 is also available for the first time as a stand-alone system – although this does mean the death of the Explorer Kit, a bundle which included a handy-dandy break-out board for the PCIe-style low-speed expansion connector at the front of the board.

During my review, which took place a few months ago, I did encounter one issue: the BIOS refused to boot from the USB 3.0 ports, limiting OS installation to the Micro-SD Card slot or USB 2.0 ports. As the device offers so much performance – around 85 gigaFLOPS including the integrated Radeon HD 8210E graphics chip – that was a disappointing limitation, but one an updated BIOS has since resolved.

I was a big fan of the original Gizmo, which was significantly better than Intel’s rival MinnowBoard. Although the MinnowBoard Max has since levelled the playing field, I have to say that the Gizmo 2 would still be my board of choice for SBC tasks requiring high graphics performance or x86 compatibility – despite the addition of an annoying active cooling fan – but for my thoughts beyond that you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine.

If you do, you’ll find the review, my news spread, and a bunch of stuff written by other people. Linux User & Developer Issue 153 is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and similar services. My work will also appear in the translated Inside Linux magazine in France in the coming months.

The MagPi, Issue 34

The MagPi Issue 34Another month, another cover feature for the official Raspberry Pi magazine The MagPi. This time around, I take a look at Microsoft’s generous offer of a free copy of Windows 10 IoT Core for all Raspberry Pi 2 owners, and what it could mean for the Raspberry Pi community – and if that wasn’t enough, I take some time to review the 4tronix Agobo robot kit as well.

The cover feature is a two-part affair: the first section, which looks at exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core actually is – which is vastly different from the impression given by the mainstream press that Microsoft was giving away a full desktop-class operating system – as well as how it can be used is my work; a following section looking at a selection of projects which are already powered by the Raspberry Pi 2 and Windows 10 was written by editor Russell Barnes.

As well as helping to clarify exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core is and can do, my section of the feature includes a guide to getting started with the software – which is not as easy to obtain as, for example, Raspbian, requiring registration with Microsoft and to search on a surprisingly user-unfriendly section of the company’s website before agreeing to a pair of end-user licence agreements – and an analysis of B15, the HoloLens- and Raspberry Pi-powered robot Microsoft showed off at its Build event earlier this year.

The review, meanwhile, involved building an Agobo robot kit supplied by the lovely 4tronix. Simpler than the Pi2Go-Lite I reviewed for Custom PC Issue 135, the Agobo is designed exclusively for the Raspberry Pi Model A+ and as a result is compact and lightweight. It’s also great fun, and a kit I’d heartily recommend to anyone wanting a simple and straightforward Pi-powered robot kit.

All this, plus plenty of projects, reviews and features written by people other than myself, is available to download for free as a DRM-free and Creative Commons-licensed PDF from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 142

Custom PC Issue 142Continuing my regular column, the five-page Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, I spent this month’s page allowance on a look at the Arachnid Labs Tsunami, the Banana Pro, and analysed the legal battle underway between two companies claiming to be Arduino.

To begin, the Tsunami. I first looked at this interesting Arduino-compatible open-hardware device for another client, oomlout, publishing a hands-on preview of the device in early April. Created by Nick Johnson and crowd-funded via Kickstarter, the Tsunami is an interesting beast: while it shows itself to the Arduino IDE as an Arduino Leonardo compatible, the Tsunami is designed exclusively for signal generation and analysis work.

Priced at a fraction of the cost of a commercial signal analyser, the Tsunami is surprisingly capable. While code samples were limited at the time of writing, I was able to generate sine waves based on input from the serial console and even complex waveforms based on the Kansas City standard – the standard required to communicate with eight-bit microcomputers via their tape inputs. Nick’s own demonstrations include using the input and output simultaneously to graph the frequency response of audio equipment.

While the Tsunami is only available as a pre-order at present, the Banana Pro is readily available from your favourite Chinese wholesalers. Based on Lemaker’s Banana Pi but with a different manufacturing partner, the device offers a number of upgrades while still boasting compatibility with the Raspberry Pi from which it takes its inspiration. While the presence of a 40-pin GPIO header and integrated Wi-Fi is good news, the use of a dual-core processor when the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B offers a quad-core at roughly the same price is an undeniable disappointment – but you’ll need to read the review to make your mind up as to whether it’s worth the sacrifice.

My final two pages are spent looking at the current spat between Arduino LLC and Arduino Srl., the latter being the company founded under a different name to manufacture boards under licence from the former. With a new owner and a confusing new name, Arduino Srl. has earned the ire of many in the Arduino community – especially as it has begun releasing boards of its own which are direct clones of the Arduino LLC designs. The full story, naturally, is more complex, and I do the best I can to present both sides in the limited word-count available.

All this, plus the usual collection of things that are written by people that aren’t me – including the return of Richard Swinburn’s Our Man in Taiwan column, long absent from the magazine – can be yours for a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.