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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 four-page spread in Raspberry Pi Press’ Custom PC Magazine each month.

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Digital Roundup – April 2024

The calendar has flipped over once more, meaning it’s time to take stock of everything I’ve covered over the past month – and what a month it’s been.

April has seen my interview with Matt Venn on the Tiny Tapeout project and related topics land on the Make: website, fresh newsletters for the MyriadRF project and the Free and Open Source Silicon Foundation (FOSSi Foundation), the launch of new Raspberry Pi Compute Module boards – though, sadly, not the ones for which everyone’s waiting – Espressif’s acquisition of M5Stack right before it launches a device powered by competitor STMicro’s silicon, a tiny ZX Spectrum-inspired games console, a major hardware upgrade for the MNT Reform laptop, and the promise from Syntiant that its latest “Neural Decision Processor” can deliver 30 giga-operations per second (GOPS) of compute in a microwatt power envelope.

The biggest news, however, was Zilog’s decision to discontinue the venerable eight-bit Z80 microprocessor family – just short of it reaching its 50th anniversary. The move does, at least, finally put to rest many a 1980s playground argument over whether the Zilog Z80 or the MOS 6502 is the superior chip – the 6502 having been selected to prove a foundry model for the production of fully-flexible semiconductors, a paper on which was published this month.

Special thanks to Professor Hamish Cunningham who, following my covering the project on Hackster.io, kindly sent me an unPhone to try – expect to see a hands-on review of that clever little gadget in the near future.

Now to see what May brings!

Digital Roundup – March 2024

March has been another busy month for digital work, with plenty of news coverage – everything from stealing a car with a Flipper Zero to the launch of the first 64-bit STMicro STM32 microcontrollers (which, confusingly, retain the “32” moniker) and Renesas’ first to feature its in-house proprietary RISC-V core design.

I’ve covered Andrew “bunnie” Huang’s continued work on the Infrared In-Situ (IRIS) silicon inspection project, a vacuum-tube PDP-8 clone, the third-generation “wafer scale” chip from Cerebras, and a 30-cubit quantum computer for your desk – in simulation, at least — along with an “invisible drone,” the KingKong edge AI camera system, and an “inception” attack against virtual reality users.

In chronological order:

Digital Roundup – February 2024

Another month has gone by, so it’s time to gather together everything I’ve written for digital publication over the past four-or-so-weeks.

It’s been a busy February, and a day longer than usual to boot, but if I had to pick some personal highlights they’d include this dual-display sunlight-readable PDA build, a tiny $5 mechanical keyboard, Paul Krizak’s amazing Wire Wrap Odyssey microcomputer, an anonymously-published 6,000 PPI boardview of the Nintendo Switch Lite, Wojciech Graj’s audio-only Doom port, and Tankgrrl’s Commodore 1541-style housing for a USB floppy drive.

Digital Roundup – January 2024

An increasing proportion of my work is now for publication online rather than in print, leading to this: the first in a new monthly round-up series covering all the articles I’ve had published over the past calendar month.

Make: Magazine, Volume 87

It’s that time of year again: the 2024 issue of Make: Magazine’s Guide to Boards is on-shelves, with the annual insert offering at-a-glance comparisons of a total of 81 microcontroller and single-board computer development boards. Inside the main magazine you’ll also find a four-page feature on Matt Venn’s remarkable Tiny Tapeout project, while my annual piece on the state of the industry sits at the front of the insert.

First, the insert itself. For those unfamiliar, Make: Magazine’s Guide to Boards is a definitive pamphlet designed to provide the specifications – from size and power requirements to processor cores and memory – of the most popular, interesting, or unusual microcontroller and single-board computer development boards around. Updated annually, it offers at-a-glance comparatives to help you pick the hardware for your next project – and, as in previous years, I was given the opportunity to select boards for inclusion and update the data ready for the new year.

At the front of the 12-page insert, which covers a total of 81 boards this year, I also penned a piece on the industry’s exit – by and large, with a few exceptions – from the long-running component shortage crisis. The majority of boards which had been out-of-stock or in short supply for a year or more are now flowing freely, and both Arduino and Raspberry Pi have even been able to launch new designs: the Arduino Uno R4 family and the Raspberry Pi 5. Thanks here go to Adafruit’s Limor Fried and Raspberry Pi’s Eben Upton for taking the time to talk to me for the piece.

Thanks, too, are due to Matt Venn, creator of the Zero to ASIC Course and recently-launched Tiny Tapeout – educational courses which teach anybody how to make their own application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC), with hardware delivered at the end for you to try. From its origins in being prepared at just the right time to the success of its initial production runs, this four-page feature in the magazine proper offers an insight into Venn’s impressive work in democratising chip design.

As an added bonus, I was also selected to provide my opinion on the world’s greatest fictional spy to tie in with the issue’s feature on DIY spy gadgetry: see the contributors’ boxout on Page 4 for my answer!

All this and more is available in Make: Magazine Volume 87, available in well-stocked bookshops and newsagents now or online with global delivery from the Maker Shed.

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, 5th Edition

I am thrilled to announce the release of The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, 5th Edition – the latest incarnation of my book on the world’s most popular single-board computer, brought bang up to date for the Raspberry Pi 5 and the new Debian Bookworm-based Raspberry Pi OS software.

The new Beginner’s Guide has enjoyed a complete overhaul. Brian Jepson, the new head of publishing at Raspberry Pi Press, has introduced a new production approach which has resulted in a book that’s sleeker, cleaner, and more accessible than ever before – and at a beefy 278 pages, it’s also the longest edition yet.

That extra length comes courtesy of the inclusion of a bonus chapter on the Raspberry Pi Pico and Pico W microcontrollers, which serve as excellent companions to the main Raspberry Pi single-board computers. There’s also a fully updated getting started guide for setting up the Raspberry Pi 5, as well as the Raspberry Pi 400 and Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W.

This is my first time working with Brian, and it’s been a blast – from getting to grips with a whole new and considerably sleeker production process, which will mean easier updates in the future, to going through the material with a fine-tooth comb to make the book the best it could possibly be. Thanks too go to everyone else involved in the process: editor Liz Upton, interior designer Sara Parodi, Nellie McKesson in production, Brian O’Halloran for new photography, graphics editor Natalie Turner, head of design Jack Willis, and of course returning illustrator Sam Alder, plus all the others at Raspberry Pi Press.

The publication of the 5th Edition in English won’t be alone on the shelves for long, either, with Brian having confirmed translations into more languages than ever before: Danish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, 5th Edition is available in all good bookstores now, in Raspberry Pi Stores and authorised resellers, and online with global delivery from the Raspberry Pi Press store; a digital copy will also appear, free of charge, in the Raspberry Pi Bookshelf app on Raspberry Pi OS in the next few days.

I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it.

Custom PC, Issue 235

Custom PC Issue 235This month’s Custom PC Magazine brings with it some sad news: the magazine is no more, with the printers falling silent in the face of growing print and distribution costs. That doesn’t mean Custom PC, long a staple of the enthusiast sector, is going away: editor Ben Hardwidge is to lead a new website, dedicated to the magazine’s core topics of mainstream Intel/AMD Windows-based PCs – which, unfortunately, means that my Hobby Tech column will not be making the transition.

Custom PC was my first print byline, and I’ve been writing for the magazine near-continuously my entire career. Hobby Tech itself has been running in the magazine for two months short of a full decade without a single missed deadline, over which time I’ve seen hobbyist products launch and prosper or wither on the vine – along with, of course, a sprinkling of vapourware. I’ve created benchmarks for microcontrollers and single-board computers, put together a custom workflow for high-resolution thermal imagery with visible-light backdrops, taken and edited quite literally thousands of photographs, reviewed hardware, software, and books, interviewed a broad range of people, and penned guides for everything from a hardware RSS feed reader to compiler optimisation.

I am determined that this will not be the end of Hobby Tech, which has long been a popular section of the magazine. In the coming months I’ll be seeking a new outlet for the column – and if you have a publication you think may be interested, please do send the editor my way!

For this final issue of Custom PC, meanwhile, I took a look at the impressive Open Circuits, the CRUMB Circuit Simulator, and the news of Sipeed’s upcoming LM4A system-on-module and PINE64’s PineTab2.

Open Circuits, to start, is Eric Schlaepfer and Windell H. Oskay’s love-letter to electronics. Published by No Starch Press, the hardback tome is a full-colour investigation of what actually goes into electronic components – from multi-layer printed circuit boards and integrated circuits to vintage devices like valves and simple gadgets like switches. We’re not just talking theory, here: the authors literally grind the components down to reveal their inner workings, capturing cross-sectional imagery which you won’t find anywhere else.

Originally a mobile app and now available on Valve’s Steam, Mike Bushell’s CRUMB is another way of looking at electronics – allowing you to build surprisingly complex circuitry in a realistic 3D environment from virtual components. Using SPICE for the actual simulation work, CRUMB offers a drag-and-drop approach to breadboard projects which keeps your desk free of clutter and which is surprisingly detailed – though perhaps a little tricky to operate at times.

All this, and more, is available for a limited time at your nearest newsagent or supermarket – for the last time ever. Goodnight, Custom PC Magazine, and rest well.

Custom PC, Issue 234

Custom PC Issue 234This month’s Hobby Tech dives into the Fediverse, an open alternative to the increasingly-closed corporate social media ecosystem, and takes a look between the covers of Christine Farion’s The Ultimate Guide to Informed Wearable Technology.

First, the book. Published by Packt, Farion’s book comes with a hefty promise in the title – but it’s one which is backed by a wealth of content spread over more than 500 pages. Despite Farion’s academic success as a post-grad lecturer at the Glasgow School of Arts, the Guide is no dry textbook. Instead, it takes a hands-on approach and walks the reader through building a range of projects – mostly centred around the accessible Arduino IDE.

That’s not to say it’s just a collection of tutorials, though: Farion goes into considerable detail about both the history of wearable technology and its potential future – with digressions including a look at prototyping with foam and the potential for a “hyper-body system” which integrates with three or more of the user’s five senses. The book even covers human-centric design, a critical topic all too often ignored in technical works.

The Fediverse, meanwhile, is also human-centric. The name given to a whole host of otherwise-independent sites and services joined by a common protocol, ActivityPub, the Fediverse – a portmanteau of “federated” and “universe” – has received a massive shot in the arm of late thanks to a major user exodus from recently taken-over microblogging service Twitter.

In my brief two-page tour, I take a look at the history of ActivityPub, the growth of Twitter alternative Mastodon, a range of other Fediverse services including Instagram alternative Pixelfed and YouTube alternative PeerTube – and, crucially, how they can all interoperate together, federating content from not only one server to another but one service to another. For those who remember the days of webrings or Usenet, it will all feel at once nostalgic and exciting.

Elsewhere in the column I cover the welcome news that the LibreOffice productivity suite has received a port to the free and open-source RISC-V architecture, just in time for the delivery of shiny new desktop-class single-board computers powered by RISC-V processors, and the release of a square alternative to SB Components’ Roundy displays – called, imaginatively, Squarey.

All this is available now at your nearest newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 233

Custom PC Issue 233This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at two pieces of hardware which couldn’t be more different: the compact Eaton 3S Mini UPS and the Keyboardio Model 100 keyboard, an input device and an input device.

The Eaton 3S Mini UPS comes from a company well-known for its uninterruptible power supplies, but it’s something new. There’s no chunky IEC or British Standard plug socket to be found, no sleek black casing. It’s not rack-mountable, and you won’t put your back out carrying it – in fact, it’s smaller than many external hard drives. That’s because it completely lacks the inverter of a traditional UPS, which takes alternating current from the mains, uses it to charge a large sealed lead-acid battery, then converts the direct current output of that back into alternating current again for the device(s) to be protected.

The Eaton 3S Mini, by contrast, uses a couple of 18650 lithium-ion batteries, and does everything in direct current. A bundled power supply charges the batteries, while a tethered “universal” output connects to a single DC-powered device – selectable from 9V, 12V, 15V, and 19V options. It’s designed with network equipment in mind, like routers and access points, but with a 27-36W output limit can’t handle top-end MIMO devices. The claimed 120-minute runtime is generous, too, with testing on an unloaded mid-range AC1900 router losing power 75 minutes after disconnection.

Where the Eaton 3S Mini provides a connected device with power as an input, the Keyboardio Model 100 provides keystrokes. As with Keyboardio’s other designs, the Model 100 – a successor to the earlier Model 1 – is an aggressively-ergonomic mechanical keyboard with more than a few twists. For starters, it’s split into two separate units – roughly shaped like the wings of the butterfly in the company’s logo – which are milled from a choice of walnut or beech.

There’s programmable RGB lighting, curved custom keycaps, the ability to join the two halves together or have them as far apart as you like via an interconnecting cable with Ethernet-like RJ45 connectors, and clever “spider mounts” to adjust the angle of each half for more or less “tenting” between the two. Everything is open-source, too, with tinkering encouraged – the bundled carry case even including a branded screwdriver should you want to take the keyboard apart.

Elsewhere in my column I also take a look at Hardkernel’s relaunch of the ODROID-H family of x86 single-board computers, now available with a choice of Intel Celeron N5105 or Pentium Silver N6005 processors, and the release of 133 million – and counting – recovered vintage computing files on Textfiles.com for all to browse.

All this, and more, is available at your nearest newsagent or supermarket, online with global delivery, or as a free-of-charge PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 232

Custom PC Issue 232My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at something cutting-edge and something vintage: the Jolly Module drop-in Arduino Uno upgrade and Shareware Heroes, Richard Moss’ latest look at a bygone era of software.

The Jolly Module is an interesting beast. Created by Gianluca Martino, one of the founding members of the Arduino team, it’s designed to address a very real problem: drawers packed with Arduino Uno development boards which have been made obsolete by modern equivalents boasting integrated Wi-Fi networking. Thus, the Jolly Module: pop out the ATmega328 microcontroller in the socket on top of the Arduino Uno and put the Jolly Module in its place and you can do everything you used to do with the added benefit of Wi-Fi connectivity.

It’s not a perfect device, by any means. Its pricing means that you could be better off buying something like a Raspberry Pi Pico W or an ESP32-based board, unless you’re tied into the Arduino Uno form factor already, while it doesn’t quite fit as well as it should – and strains the socket to the point where you can’t go back to the original ATmega328 chip. It’s clever, though, and for those with Arduino Uno shields to spare can mean a whole new lease of life for otherwise-abandoned hardware.

Shareware Heroes, meanwhile, is the follow-up to Moss’ The Secret History of Mac Gaming, which I reviewed back in Issue 196. This time, Moss turns his attention to shareware software – that bygone era before high-speed internet made distribution a non-issue, when the easiest way for a software house to get its wares in peoples’ hands was to encourage them to copy and distribute it among themselves. As with its precursor, Shareware Heroes is a fantastically well-researched tome and a delight to read – and comes with the added benefit of a DOS-themed website providing access to a full bibliography and reference database.

Finally, I also cover two bits of news in the column: Framework announcing the release of its first modular laptop design for Google’s Chromebook platform, and the launch of an upgrade module for the Clockwork Pi DevTerm (reviewed in Issue 222) which offers compatibility with the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 family.

All this and more is available at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free digital download on the official website.