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.
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.
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.
This 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.
This 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.
This 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.
My 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.
It’s been a year since the last time I put together a Boards Guide for Make: Magazine, which can only mean one thing: I’ve put together another Boards Guide for Make: Magazine, along with two feature articles: a look at how Espressif’s ESP32 and Raspberry Pi’s RP2040 are having a barnstorming year in the face of rivals’ stock shortages and how RISC-V is seeing an explosion of interest in the maker sector.
First, the guide. An annual tradition, the Make: Boards Guide is a pull-out which aims to serve as an at-a-glance reference for the most popular, interesting, well-established, or increasingly simply “in-stock” development boards. It covers microcontroller boards, single-board computers, and field-programmable gate array (FPGA) boards – and, this year, sees a major refresh with some long-established entries being dropped either as a result of ongoing availability problems or their manufacturers’ choosing to discontinue the parts.
In addition to the pull-out, I contributed an article which takes a look at the ongoing supply chain issues in the electronics industry from a different perspective: how good it’s been for two companies able to fill in the gaps in their competitors’ product lines, Espressif and Raspberry Pi. I’d also like to offer my thanks to Eben Upton for taking the time to talk to me on the topic.
Espressif, in fact, forms a central pillar in my second feature for the issue: the rise of the free and open-source RISC-V architecture in the maker sector. Espressif was one of the first big-name companies to offer a mainstream RISC-V part, and has since announced it will be using RISC-V cores exclusively – and it’s no surprise to see others in the industry taking note. The feature walks through a brief history of the architecture, its rivals, and brings arguments both for and against its broad adoption in a market all-but dominated by Arm’s proprietary offerings. As always, thanks go to all those who spoke to me for the piece.
Make: Magazine Volume 83 is available now at all good newsagents or digitally as a DRM-free PDF download on the Maker Shed website.
This month’s Hobby Tech column – now in its new four-page more streamlined format – takes a look at the oddly-shaped and solidly-built hackable Keychron Q8 Alice Layout mechanical keyboard and an official Ubuntu 22.04 image for the StarFive VisionFive RISC-V single-board computer, while also covering the launch of pre-orders for the VisionFive 2 and Arduino’s plea for community assistance as it plans to add true multitasking to its embedded platform.
As someone who spends more time typing than anything else, keyboards are the most important part of a computer system. I’ve plenty, from aggressively ergonomic split models to an IBM Model F that’s 40 years old and still going strong – but the Keychron Q8 Alice Layout is perhaps the most interesting. Built in a hefty anodised aluminium shell, the keyboard boasts features you wouldn’t normally expect at the low-mid price point: a fully-floating plate and PCB on rubber gaskets, pre-taped chassis, pre-lubed switches, RGB backlighting, and full support for reprogramming its QMK firmware using the VIA cross-platform software tool.
It’s the layout that stands out the most, though. Inspired by Yuk Tsu’s original Alice layout, Keychron’s take increases the size from 60 to 65 per cent to add a few more keys and shuffles a few things around – but anyone used to the ergonomic split Alice layout will find themselves right at home. Sadly, the company is only selling the keyboard pre-assembled in US ANSI; those looking at an ISO version of the layout can buy a kit but will need to source the keycaps themselves, which isn’t as easy as it sounds given the unusual sizing of some keys and varying heights between rows.
I reviewed StarFive’s VisionFive in Issue 230 last month, and in doing so noted that the software was in a poor state – not just buggy, as you might expect from a first-launch early-adopters’ product, but built on an insecure end-of-life base. Shortly after the review went to press Canonical announced it was expanding its RISC-V support to include the release of an official Ubuntu 22.04 Long Term Support (LTS) image for the VisionFive – which is a major upgrade on the stock Fedora spin.
On the topic of upgrades, the VisionFive 2 has just closed a successful crowdfunding campaign. Designed to address all of the shortcomings of the original VisionFive, and boasting twice the processor cores, the VisionFive 2 could prove to be the best RISC-V single-board computer yet to hit the market – and we’ll find out once it hits my test bench in the coming months.
This month’s Hobby Tech feature takes a look at three very different things: The StarFive VisionFive RISC-V single-board computer, the Flipper Zero “hacker’s multi-tool,” and Zachtronics’ Last Call BBS – a game which truly marks the end of an era as the company, and founder Zach Barth, exits the games industry.
The StarFive VisionFive, kindly provided by RISC-V International, is an exciting device: it’s the first RISC-V single-board computer on the market which offers anything close to the price-performance balance of the Raspberry Pi – albeit with caveats. The first is that at $179 for a bundle with power supply, microSD, and heatsink and fan assembly, it’s still a lot more expensive than a Raspberry Pi. The second is that the silicon is buggy, an early revision with a number of flaws ranging from by-design issues like the lack of GPU to accidents including a performance-sapping cache issue.
It’s a glimpse of the future, though, and that future is closer than you might thing: since the review was written, the StarFive VisionFive 2 has been announced. Based on a revised system-on-chip design, it fixes the flaws of its predecessor, adds in a GPU, doubles the number of cores, and yet somehow comes in considerably cheaper. A follow-up review will be published comparing the two once hardware is available.
The Flipper Zero, meanwhile, is an interesting beast. Designed with a cyberpunk aesthetic and featuring a simple Tamagotchi-style virtual pet themed after the “cyberdolphin” in William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic, the device offers a range of features of interest to penetration testers, hackers, tinkerers, makers, and the curious – from Near-Field Communication (NFC) capture and playback to pet-tag scanning, sub-gigahertz radio capabilities, and infrared. Its successor, the Flipper One, will add Wi-Fi capabilities and a full Linux distribution on top – but at the time of writing had no release date.
Finally, as a big fan of the “Zach-like” genre, the release of Last Call BBS is a bittersweet moment. Designed to evoke memories of a past that never was, the game puts the user in charge of Sawayama Z5 PowerLance personal computer and a link to a bulletin-board system from which pirated games – plus a rather lovely silicon chip designer – can be slowly downloaded over time. Most games include the usual Zachtronics leaderboard system, while there are hidden extras and notes to be found along the way.
It’s also Zachtronics’ last game, marking Zach Barth’s departure from the industry. As a result, the fun is tinged with sadness – but Barth is undeniably leaving on a high note.
For my Hobby Tech column in this month’s Custom PC Magazine I’ve taken a look at the Blink smart-home security camera ecosystem, and in particularly its new doorbell camera, the shiny Raspberry Pi Pico W, and built a custom Linux distribution for the Microchip PolarFire SoC Icicle Kit.
My interest in the Blink ecosystem is not purely academic. Having recently purchased a new house, I saw the opportunity to deploy a cost-effective camera system while documenting the process for Hobby Tech – and I’m pleased to report that Blink, which is entirely battery-driven bar a mains-powered “Sync Module, made things easy. The hardware was initially photographed in my studio then installed on-site with additional imagery captured, before being tested over a period of weeks to iron out teething problems.
The Raspberry Pi Pico W, meanwhile, is a near-identical clone of the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller board – but this time it’s brought a radio along for the ride. At the time of writing, only Wi-Fi was available – with Bluetooth present in hardware but not yet enabled in the firmware – but that’s enough to vastly expand the possibilities for projects driven by the Raspberry Pi Pico and its RP2040 microcontroller. Better still, the price has been kept low: at £6 including VAT, it’s near-impossible not to recommend the Raspberry Pi Pico W.
Finally, I reviewed the PolarFire SoC Icicle Kit back in Issue 224 – and one of my biggest complaints was with the pre-installed Linux distribution, which was extremely spartan and not a little buggy. It may have only been five months since that review was published, but things have change for the better – and to prove it I used Microchip’s documentation and Yocto Linux board support package (BSP) to build a much more polished Linux operating system for the board.