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

PC Pro, Issue 268

PC Pro Issue 268My review for this month’s PC Pro is on a topic dear to my heart: hardware which not only fully supports the open GNU/Linux operating system, but even comes with it pre-installed. Specifically, it’s the Aurora laptop from Newcastle-based Nimbusoft.

Based on a Topstar Ultrabook chassis, the Aurora is designed to appeal to those who like Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air range. Though not as powerful as the former or slim as the latter, it’s a comfortable little laptop with a slick aluminium chassis – albeit one I would discover during dismantling is rather thinner than you might expect.

The hardware isn’t the main feature of the Aurora, anyway. Nimbusoft’s claim to fame is in being one of the few companies offering a range of hardware with a Linux distribution pre-installed. the company even goes further than its competitors in offering a choice of desktop environments, and I’m pleased to say that the review unit – specced with Ubuntu 16.04.1 running the stock Unity DE – proved to be entirely without bloat or branding, in stark contrast to Windows laptops I’ve looked at in the past.

Reviewing the laptop for PC Pro involved running it through a standardised battery life test: the looping of a film with the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios disabled and the display set to a brightness of 170cd/m². This makes my result of five hours exactly – give or take a couple of seconds – directly comparable with the magazine’s other reviews, even of tablet-style machines. Getting the display to exactly the right brightness, though, is always a challenge.

While the battery life proved slightly disappointing and the chassis rather thin, I came away from the Aurora rather pleased – but to get my final verdict on the machine you’ll have to pick up a copy of PC Pro Issue 268 from your nearest emporium of glossy print or digitally via Zinio or one of the many competing digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 161

Custom PC Issue 161In this latest issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine you’ll find – to no great surprise – my long-running five-page Hobby Tech column, covering the handy thermoplastic FORMcard, the Raspberry Pi powered Nextcloud Box, and Zachtronics’ Shenzhen I/O.

Looking at Shenzhen I/O first: it’s rare that I’ll write a game review as part of Hobby Tech, but Zachtronics’ output is a typical exception. The last I covered was the company’s excellent eight-bit minicomputer ‘simulator’ TIS-100, and Shenzhen I/O builds on that premise with a new near-future theme. The player is placed in the role of a newly-hired engineer at a Chinese electronics concern and given the task of building increasingly complex hardware from simple components using a drag-and-drop interface and a simple TIS-100-like instruction set.

As good as the game itself is – and it’s absolutely fantastic – it’s the manual that really caught my attention. Like the Infocom feelies of old, the document is written entirely in-universe and acts as a series of emails, manual extracts, data sheets, and reference material for the hardware and projects you’ll be tackling through the game. If TIS-100 whet your whistle, you won’t be disappointed with Shenzhen I/O.

The Nextcloud Box, meanwhile, is something a little more professional. Designed around the Western Digital Labs PiDrive product, it offers a simple means to build a single-drive low-power 1TB network attached storage (NAS) device running Nextcloud’s open-source software on top of the Ubuntu Snappy Core operating system.

My review of the Nextcloud Box goes into great detail about its features and capabilities, but there are two things that struck me during the review process and are worth highlighting here. The first is that the WD Labs’ box, emblazoned with Nextcloud branding, really needs a rethink: the cables go through very sharp bends, and those using cheaper cables may find they don’t last very long at all. The other is that getting set up for local access was an absolute breeze, without even the need to connect a monitor to the device – something other Pi-powered project creators could do with copying.

Finally, the FORMcard review. I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, a mouldable silicone putty which hardens into rubber overnight, and when I was contacted to see if I would be interested in giving rival FORMcard a try I jumped at the chance. Created by Peter Marigold and crowdfunded into production, FORMcard is a starch-based bioplastic which softens with the application of heat. Simply take one of the credit card footprint plastic sheets, dunk it in hot water for a minute, then mould it to your hearts desire. Unlike Sugru, it hardens in minutes and is fully reusable – assuming you can remove it from whatever surface you smeared it over – but it’s, for obvious reasons, not the material to use if you’re patching something that gets hot.

For my full opinions on all three items, plus the usual array of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of right where you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Create, Issue 1

Create Issue 1It’s always nice to see your name in a new publication, and doubly so when it’s the magazine’s very first issue, so imagine my pleasure when Future Publishing’s Create Magazine hit shelves this week and brought my feature on building your own Linux PC along for the ride.

Presently exclusive to North America, Create – styled [email protected] – is billed as offering “adventures in technology” to a mixed audience ranging from those with considerable technical proficiency to relative newcomers. This broad focus can be seen in the content on offer from the launch issue: my relatively technical guide to building a desktop PC from parts sits alongside tutorials on installing Minecraft on an old Apple MacBook and booting up a Raspberry Pi for the first time, along with building your own drone and seeing how camera lenses are made.

The PC-building feature itself was originally written for Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer Magazine and first appeared in Issue 161, alongside my detailed reviews of a number of Steam Machine PCs and my four-page news spread. Written in partnership with Overclockers UK, which kindly provided the parts required for the build, the guide walks the reader through choosing components with an eye on price, performance, and compatibility with the Linux kernel – the latter being a key point that can be overlooked by system builders more used to building Windows-based machines – before putting everything together in an attractive case and installing the operating system.

Those who missed the feature the first time around and are located in North America will find Create Issue 1 on shop shelves now, while international readers can purchase a copy from Future’s web store.

The MagPi, Issue 52

The MagPi Issue 52It’s a Christmas themed issue for The MagPi this month but you wouldn’t know it to look at my review of the Dremel 3000 Four-Star Kit, a new bundle packing the eponymous company’s most popular rotary tool with a range of accessories in a disappointingly cheap plastic toolbox.

That the toolbox – and bundled ‘chess set,’ which is actually just a chequerboard on the reverse of the packaging and some cardboard counters – is so poorly designed was an undeniable letdown as I unboxed the Dremel 3000 kit. Thankfully, things soon looked up: it’s been a few decades since I bought a rotary tool, and it seems things have improved immensely in that time.

My favourite of the bundled accessories – which includes a flexi-shaft add-on, cutting accessories, milling bits, polishing bits, and basically everything you might need to do a wide range of tool-suitable jobs – was the EZ-SpeedClic system. A replacement for the old screw-and-mandrel method of securing grinding and cutting discs into the tool, EZ-SpeedClic requires nothing more than a push and a twist to secure the specially-reinforced discs into place. A shame, then, that so few SpeedClic discs were included, with the majority in the kit being of the old-fashioned screw-in variety.

Still, the review was a fun opportunity to get myself back up to speed on the latest developments in Dremel’s design, and if you want to know my final opinion on the kit you can read the whole review – the whole magazine, in fact – for free by downloading the Creative Commons licensed issue from the official website.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 172

Linux User & Developer Issue 172Readers of this latest issue of Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer will find my review of the surprisingly capable Nextcloud Box, a bare-bones network attached storage (NAS) system based around a Raspberry Pi 2.

Provided as a press sample by Nextcloud, the company split from the Owncloud project, the Nextcloud Box is at its heart a rebadged – though, oddly, cheaper – Western Digital Labs PiDrive. Inside the box you find the black plastic housing, a 1TB USB hard drive, a clever splitter cable for power and data, and the screws you need to mount your own Raspberry Pi. You also get a small 4GB micro-SD card, which serves as the bootstrap device: on first run, the operating system is copied from this micro-SD to the 1TB hard drive.

It’s the contents of the micro-SD card that makes the Nextcloud Box distinct from the PiDrive: it contains a copy of Ubuntu Snappy Core and a preinstalled Snap of the Nextcloud NAS software. Administered almost entirely from a web interface, Nextcloud proved to a powerful NAS package with everything from encrypted storage and remote access to centralised calendar and contact facilities – and with additional functionality available through a built-in ‘app store’ feature.

If you’re interested to read the full review Linux User & Developer Issue 172 is on shelves now at supermarkets and newsagents throughout the land, or can be grabbed in digital format from Zinio and similar services.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, Volume 2

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 2The Raspberry Pi Foundation has published the second in its Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book series, and as usually there’s a whole raft of my material to be found within its black-clad pages.

The book begins with practical guides and tutorials, including my guide to adding a physical reset switch to the RUN header on any modern Raspberry Pi Zero. It’s the review section where you’ll find the bulk of my work, however, beginning with a look at a couple of handy tools for makers: the Proster VC99 multimeter and the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station.

Further on you’ll find detailed reviews of two microcontroller-based products which can interface with the Raspberry Pi or operate entirely standalone: the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit and the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit. The former acts as an introduction to the world of conductive thread, while the latter uses conductive ink to complete the circuits in its bundled guide.

Finally, my contributions to the Projects Book Volume 2 end with a review of the Pimoroni pHAT DAC, a compact add-on for the Raspberry Pi Zero – though mechanically compatible with any other modern Pi model bar the bare Compute Module family – which adds a high-quality digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and 3.5mm jack. Those looking to wire a Pi into the stereo systems can also solder on optional stereo RCA jacks, which I thought was a particularly nice feature.

As with the previous book in the series, the Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 2 is available to download free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.

PC Pro, Issue 267

PC Pro Issue 267This month’s PC Pro magazine features an in-depth review of the NextThingCo CHIP and its PocketCHIP companion, crowd-funded open-hardware alternatives to the overwhelmingly popular Raspberry Pi.

NextThingCo’s crowdfunding launch was met with considerable scepticism, and with good reason: at a time when the Raspberry Pi had only just proven you could sustainable sell a fully-functional single-board microcomputer with desktop-ish performance for under $30, NextThingCo was claiming to offer the same thing for $9 – and with integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radio connectivity to boot.

The campaign succeeded, and to critics’ considerable surprise nobody was ripped off: NextThingCo’s CHIP did indeed ship and, as of earlier this year, is now available to purchase direct. While certain corners have been undoubtedly cut – just like the Raspberry Pi, it comes devoid of cables and accessories – and its performance can’t hold a candle to newer Pi models, it’s functional, available, and if you’re willing to supply the extras needed to get it up and running yourself does indeed cost $9.

The PocketCHIP, meawhile, is a fantastic example of what you can do with a CHIP: an open-hardware hand-held computer, complete with clever though painful-to-use bubble-based keyboard, with a very 1990s transparent casing. The screen may be low resolution and resistive rather than capacitive touch, but if I said I didn’t have a blast using the PocketCHIP I’d be lying.

For my full verdict on the device, of course, you’ll have to head to your nearest PC Pro stockist, whether that’s a newsagent, a supermarket, or one of the digital distributors like Zinio you can browse from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this.

Custom PC, Issue 160

Custom PC Issue 160This month’s edition of Custom PC includes, as usual, my five-page Hobby Tech column covering the Dremel 3000 Four-Star Kit, the CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers, and the conclusion of the Arduino-versus-Arduino saga – in a happy ending, I’m thrilled to say.

Rotary tools like the Dremel 3000 are one of those things you don’t think you need until you get one. It’s been a long time since I played with a proper Dremel-branded example, and this month’s review was a fantastic excuse to get myself up to speed with the changes the platform has enjoyed.

Ignoring the poor-quality ‘toolbox’ the kit comes in, I was particularly excited by the EZ-SpeedClic system. My original Dremel-like tool – a Black & Decker Wizard – had long been abandoned after frustrations with the tiny screw which attaches cut-off and grinding discs to the equally tiny mandrel. EZ-SpeedClic does away with that: the discs’ reinforced centres just twist and snap onto a clever sprung holder. Coupled with some shiny new accessories, I could see why people might want to upgrade from older or rival models.

The CHIP and PocketCHIP, meanwhile, came as more of a surprise. Like many, I was dismissive of NextThingCo’s inaugural crowdfunding campaign; the idea of a $9 fully-functional microcomputer when the Raspberry Pi had only just got the things down below $30 seemed laughable, and many in the industry suggested it was an outright fraud or at least a loss-leader to be offset by future sales at a higher price.

Proving the critics wrong, though, NextThingCo launched the $9 CHIP – albeit requiring add-on cables and adaptors to get a picture out of the thing – and followed it up with the PocketCHIP, an open hardware proof-of-concept which turns the CHIP into a surprisingly capable hand-held computer straight out of the early 90s.

Finally, regular readers will remember my coverage of the legal battle between Arduino.cc and Arduino.org which had given birth to the Genuino trademark, and the follow-up piece in Issue 159 covering Pimoroni’s decision to drop all Arduino and Genuino products as a result. The final page of this month’s column is, hopefully, the last I will have to write on that particular topic: the two companies have agreed to settle their disputes, join forces, and work together under a single Arduino brand – meaning, of course, that Genuino-branded products are likely to vanish from the market in due course.

All this, and stuff written by people other than myself, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on the electronic shelf substitutes of services such as Zinio.

The MagPi, Issue 51

The MagPi Issue 51This month’s MagPi Magazine includes my first look at FORMcard, a crowdfunded bioplastic which aims to make building and repairing objects as simple as making a nice hot cup of tea.

I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, the mouldable silicone rubber, but FORMcard was new to me when the company reached out to highlight its various features. Supplied in packs of three and in a variety of colours, each FORMcard is a block of plastic the size of three or so stacked credit cards. Out of the box, they do little: they’re slightly flexible, though not very, have the logo embossed on the corner, and could be used as a ice-scraper in a pinch.

Dunk the card into hot water – anything above around 60°C works well – and the secret is revealed: the plastic, a starch-based bioplastic which is claimed to be non-toxic and food safe, softens and melts. Fish it out with a spoon and you can begin to form it into whatever shape you desire: a patch for a broken piece of more traditional plastic, a stand for your smartphone, a cube, whatever.

Unlike Sugru, FORMcard sets in minutes as it cools down; it’s also considerably harder and stronger when set, enough so that you can create a handle for a screwdriver from it. It’s also reusable, which is both a strength and a weakness: it means you can use a FORMcard for a temporary repair, unlike single-use Sugru, but it also means it’s absolutely useless for anything that might reach 60°C or more – including creating cases for hot-running electronics or insulating pan handles, both tasks to which I’ve put Sugru with considerable success.

For my final opinion, and a bunch of other interesting stuff from people who aren’t me, you can pop to your local newsagent or supermarket to pick up The MagPi Issue 51, or download your free Creative Commons licensed copy from the official website.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 171

Linux User & Developer Issue 171In this latest issue of Imagine Publishing’s popular Linux User & Developer you’ll find my two-page review of NextThingCo’s clever CHIP single-board computer and PocketCHIP hand-held computer, combined into a single piece thanks to their similarity.

The CHIP was launched to crowdfunding enthusiasts as the world’s first $9 single-board computer capable of running a fully-functional GNU/Linux desktop user interface, long before the Raspberry Pi Zero hit the market. It was met with considerable scepticism, but launch it did – and, earlier this year, became available to buy outside crowdfunding for the first time.

NextThingCo also launched the PocketCHIP, a demonstration of just what you can do with the matchbox-sized CHIP. An entirely open hardware design – meaning you can take the PocketCHIP and tweak it to your needs before building your own – the PocketCHIP acts as a carrier to a CHIP board running a custom operating system and adds a built-in touch screen, keyboard based on cheap but awkward bubble technology, and an audio output.

The software is limited, to be sure – there are only six overall applications available, and while you can install your own you won’t find them appearing in the PocketCHIP’s menu system nor are they likely to play well with the extremely low resolution screen – but I can’t deny having had a seriously fun time playing with the device and its 90s aesthetic.

For the full review, including benchmarks against the rival Raspberry Pi Zero, you’ll want to head to your local newsagent, supermarket, or pick up an electronic copy via Zinio or a similar distribution service.