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 151

Linux User & Developer Issue 151This latest issue of Linux User & Developer magazine includes, in addition to my usual four-page news spread, a two-page review of Intel’s latest entry into the embedded market: the Quark-based Edison, an ultra-tiny single-board computer the size of a postage stamp.

Sadly, the Edison I reviewed isn’t quite the Edison that Intel originally unveiled. The original Edison was to use the SD Card form factor, making it easy to build expansion boards by using a standard SD Card slot component. It was also to run exclusively on the Quark, a low-power x86 processor built from the old Pentium microarchitecture. The latter feature was nixed when feedback from users of the Galileo, another Quark-based embedded development board, revealed that it was too underpowered to be of much use; the former when Intel discovered it didn’t have enough pins on the SD Card layout to make useful connections.

The result of these last-minute modifications is the Edison you can buy today. The SD Card layout has been ditched for a stamp-sized board featuring a high-density Samtec connector on the underside, making it more awkward for hobbyist development, while the Quark chip is still present but relegated to coprocessor status while an Atom processor handles running the operating system.

My review sample, kindly provided by Intel UK, came with the Arduino-compatible break-out board. When connected to the Edison, this creates an overly expensive and extremely large development board with Arduino-compatible headers – but one which, the promise goes, you can use to refine a design which can then be implemented in a far smaller footprint using a bare Edison board and your own custom break-out board.

As for how I got on with the Edison and whether I rate it as any better than Intel’s previous offerings – the Galileo and MinnowBoard families – you’ll have to buy the issue to find out. If you do, you’ll also be treated to my regular four-page spread of all the latest news in the world of GNU/Linux, open-hardware, open-software, open-governance, and open-anything-else-that-catches-my-eye, plus a bunch of articles written by people who aren’t me.

Linux User & Developer Issue 151 is available in all good supermarkets and newsagents, many bad ones, and digitally via services including Zinio now.

The MagPi, Issue 32

The MagPi Issue 32The MagPi magazine, created by the Raspberry Pi community, has undergone a major relaunch. Now an official product of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it enjoys a significantly larger budget under the leadership of editor Russell Barnes – with whom I have previously worked on Linux User & Developer – and the result is impressive: both quantity and quality of content has improved, but is still licensed under Creative Commons for free download and non-commercial reuse. When Russell asked me if I wanted to be involved with the relaunch, I naturally agreed and the cover story of this issue is the result.

Russell wanted a feature which highlighted the Raspberry Pi-related crowd-funding campaigns of the past and present, showing the community what they had achieved as a group. After some brainstorming, we decided on a mixed feature format which would combine coverage of the most fiscally successful crowd-funding campaigns, interview extracts with their creators, as well as advice from those who have been there and done that on how others can achieve similar success for their own crowd-funding campaigns.

Naturally, there had to be some balance to the piece, and that took the form of a section detailing a high-profile failure. I was able to talk to the company behind Ziphius – an aquatic drone powered by the Raspberry Pi, long overdue and with backers clamouring for refunds – and find out the problems it had encountered, including the exclusive admission of financial problems it had been withholding from its backers.

While the cover story is the largest of my contributions this month, I have also penned two reviews for this latest issue: a review of the Displayotron-3000 add-on board from Sheffield-based Pimoroni, and the Weaved port-forwarding software designed to make it easier to build internet-accessible services on a Raspberry Pi located behind a locked-down router or firewall.

If you’re interested and would like to read any of the above, you can download the entire magazine as a DRM-free PDF from the official website.

The Battle of Britain’s Home Computers

The Battle of Britain's Home ComputersI was recently asked to give a lecture to members of the Computer Conservation Society on the topic of early British home computers, which is very dear to my heart. For those unfamiliar the CCS is a Specialist Group of the British Computing Society, founded in cooperation with the Science Museum of London and the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, with the aim of conserving and restoring classic computers while working to develop awareness of their historical significance. The group has been responsible for a number of notable successes since its formation in 1989, from the wartime Colossus and Bombe rebuilds to the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) replica, with a complete list available on the official website.

A benefit of membership is access to the group’s regular lectures, which bring together experts and industry luminaries to share their knowledge – and, for some inexplicable reason, me. Given an hour-long slot – which I cheekily overran by about fifteen minutes, having digressed somewhat along the way – I shared what I know on the ‘golden era’ of British home computing: 1980 to 1984, boom to bust.

The talk was very well received, thanks mostly to a terrifically warm and welcoming audience, and the elongated question-and-answer session at the end was a thrill – and revealed just which of the many computers released in the UK during that time truly had the biggest impact, including the discovery that one brave soul runs his business from a handful of disguised eight-bit micros to this day!

A video of the talk was recorded, but is not yet available. If you have an hour and three quarters to kill and don’t want to wait, you can download the slide deck and stream the audio – just move onto the next slide whenever you hear the thump of me hitting the space bar and you’ll be in-sync. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to listen offline, the slides and an MP3 recording can be downloaded together.

I will be giving the lecture again to the northern branch of the CCS next year, giving you plenty of warning if you’d like to attend.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 150

Linux User & Developer, Issue 150This month’s Linux User & Developer includes both my regular four-page news spread and a review of the MinnowBoard Max single-board computer from Intel.

The MinnowBoard Max is the latest in Intel’s increasingly scattershot efforts to make an impact in the hobbyist-grade single-board computer market. Like its predecessor, the MinnowBoard Max is open hardware and produced in partnership with CircuitCo – the company behind the BeagleBoard and BeagleBone Black – and features the x86 instruction set architecture. Where it differs is in how easy it is to use and how much power it can offer.

I reviewed the original MinnowBoard design back in Issue 131, and found it lacking on a couple of levels: the single-core Atom chip was woefully underpowered compared to rival boards like the Gizmo, and its 32-bit UEFI firmware made it near-impossible to boot any operating system bar the bundled and extremely cut-down Yocto Linux installation.

The MinnowBoard Max clearly demonstrates that Intel is listening to feedback, though. The 32-bit single-core Atom is now a 64-bit dual-core model, and comes complete with a 64-bit UEFI implementation. The result: significantly improved compatibility and performance. A single-core version, slightly cheaper and drawing less power, is also available but not something I have yet tested.

As to whether the MinnowBoard Max is a worthy investment in a market near-monopolised by chips based on the ARM instruction set architecture, you’ll have to read the full review to find out.

The review, my four-page spread of all the latest happenings in the world of open-everything, and a whole bunch of stuff written by other people is available now from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 140

Custom PC, Issue 140In this month’s Hobby Tech column I interview my friend and talented maker Bob Stone, review the ZoomFloppy accessory, and review the Gizmo 2 single-board computer, in roughly that order.

Looking at the interview first, I arranged to quiz Bob after bumping into him at an event a while back. Bob was present as a representative of York Hackspace, showing off a project they had been working on dubbed Spacehack. Inspired by a mobile game, Spacehack gives players the job of keeping a rusty old spaceship in one piece by performing various tasks on a physical control panel which remaps everything between rounds. If that weren’t confusing enough, the instructions that appear on your panel may be for a control on someone else’s – leading to plenty of frantic shouting.

Talking to Bob is always a pleasure, and interviewing him was likewise. He’s a man who knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of humour into proceedings, and that hopefully comes across in the piece. Having played Spacehack, I can attest to both its difficulty and its brilliance and if anyone local builds their own – the hardware and software are both permissively licensed, naturally – I’d be up for a tournament.

The ZoomFloppy is a natural extension to the KryoFlux I reviewed back in Issue 131. Where the KryoFlux offers a means to connect old-fashioned floppy drives to a modern computer for archival-grade access, the ZoomFloppy is a little different: it’s designed specifically for Commodore devices. Its most common use, as the name suggests, is to provide an interface between a Commodore 1541/1571 floppy drive and a modern PC but it also offers the ability to talk to any Commodore-compatible serial device: printers, plotters, even modems. Better still, you can talk to these devices from directly within an emulator – I couldn’t help but grin when I loaded an Infocom game into the Vice emulator from the original floppy on an 1571 drive.

Finally, the Gizmo 2. I reviewed the original Gizmo in Issue 125 of Linux User & Developer, and was suitably impressed by its performance. The Gizmo 2, I’m pleased to say, blows its predecessor out of the water but isn’t without its own foibles. During my review, I ran into an issue in the firmware which prevented it from booting any device connected into its USB 3.0 ports. Although USB 2.0 worked fine, this had a negative effect on speed – and while the issue was still outstanding at the time of publication, I’m pleased to say a new BIOS has been released as a result of my feedback which fixes the problem and makes the Gizmo a great choice for anyone who needs x86 compatibility and impressive compute performance from a single-board computer.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your own home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Micro Mart, Issue 1349

Micro Mart Issue 1349It’s been a while since I’ve graced the pages of Dennis Publishing’s popular weekly Micro Mart, with my last being a cover feature on the ARM architecture in Issue 1235 followed by a feature on Valve’s Steam Box console plans in Issue 1251. For this latest issue, I’ve penned a review of the Raspberry Pi 2 single-board computer as kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT.

As the author of the Raspberry Pi User Guide, which will be entering its fourth edition by the end of the year, I can safely say I bring a certain amount of knowledge to the table for this particular topic. The Micro Mart coverage is one of the first print reviews to be published, with a longer review due to appear in my Hobby Tech column in a future Custom PC Magazine issue.

The Raspberry Pi itself, of course, needs little introduction. In its most recent revision, properly known as the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, the team have replaced the ageing Broadcom BCM2835 single-core ARMv6 system-on-chip (SoC) processor with a specially-designed drop-in replacement: the quad-core ARMv7 BCM2836. The result is a device significantly more powerful than its predecessor, but one for which software to take full advantage of its capabilities is still thin on the ground.

If you’d like to read the full review, Micro Mart Issue 1349 is available in all good newsagents, most supermarkets, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 149

Linux User & Developer Issue 149This month’s Linux User & Developer features my usual four pages of news from the world of openness alongside a review of some interesting software I’ve been playing with: Keybase.

Created, oddly enough, by the co-founders of dating site OkCupid, Max Krohn and Chris Coyne, Keybase is technically little more than a wrapper around the open-source Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) implementation GNU Privacy Guard (GPG). Conceptually, however, it turns the entire PGP/GPG concept on its head, and in doing so aims to make it as easy as possible for less technical types to enjoy the benefits of strong cryptography.

A quick backgrounder: PGP/GPG use public-key cryptography, which is a highly-secure method of sharing secrets. Rather than traditional encryption, which requires a secret known to both parties, public-key cryptography splits the secret in two: the public key is available to anyone, but can only be used for encryption; decryption requires the private key, kept secret. It can be best imagined as an extremely secure padlock: I can give you the padlock, but once you’ve snapped it shut only my key will open it again.

The trouble then comes from verifying that the public key you’ve encrypted to genuinely belongs to your intended recipient, and not to a third-party trying to eavesdrop on your conversation. In the PGP/GPG world, this is assured by a ‘web of trust’ in which individuals physically meet and verify the identity of others, whose public keys are then cryptographically signed. Secure, but awkward.

Keybase’s solution: automated verification powered by social networking. ‘Proofs’ are posted to various social networks, currently ranging from Twitter and Reddit to Coinbase and even the DNS records of your personal website. These proofs are cryptographically signed with your private key. When someone wants to encrypt a message to you, they can verify these proofs through the Keybase website – or, for improved security, an open-source command-line application which wraps around GPG – to confirm that the key they are using belongs to the person in control of said accounts.

Coupled with a neat web interface which allows, among other features, non-members to quickly send encrypted messages to any Keybase member, it’s a great project. While it’s currently in beta, it shows considerable promise – and given the government du jour’s focus on eroding privacy, it’s something everyone should at least consider playing with.

To read the full review, plus my ever-enlightening four-page news spread and event calendar, head to your local newsagent or supermarket, or grab a digital copy via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 139

Custom PC Issue 139My desk has been getting a little overloaded with new toys of late, so this month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is review-heavy to help clear that backlog. While the column opens with a two-page tutorial on building a PirateBox, this is followed by a spread looking at four of Pimoroni’s Raspberry Pi add-ons with a concluding page of my thoughts on Imagination Technologies’ Creator CI20 development board.

Looking at the tutorial first, I have to admit to a little trepidation in asking my editor, Ben Hardwidge, to support something called a PirateBox. Thankfully, while its name is designed to raise eyebrows, the concept is free of anything that could reasonably enrage the copyright cartel. A PirateBox is simply a Wi-Fi router running a modified version of the OpenWRT Linux distribution, tailored for localised chat and file sharing. It has no connection to the internet, and if paired with the right low-power hardware can run for days from a cheap USB battery pack. While you could certainly use it to distribute copyright content illegitimately, the fact that you have to be in close physical proximity limits its usefulness – but it’s absolutely top-tier for sharing files at events, which is the use I had in mind when I set out to build the thing.

Pimoroni, a local company just across the way in sunny Sheffield, made a name for themselves by being one of the first to build attractive and affordable add-on boards for the Raspberry Pi. Despite being good friends with the team, I’ve never actually reviewed any of their products – until Gee Bartlett took me on a tour of the factory and pressed four of their most popular creations into my hands. So, rather than spin it out over the next four months, a two-page spread was in order to review the boards: the education-centric PiBrella, the interestingly-shaped PiGlow, the impressive Displayotron-3000, and the retina-searing Unicorn HAT. Spoiler: they’re all pretty great, and the guys are working on some more advanced projects that I can’t wait to get on the test-bench for future issues.

Finally, the Creator CI20. While it sometimes feels that all I do is test single-board computers – not that I’m complaining, they’re absolutely fascinating – the CI20 breaks from the crowd by using the MIPS instruction set architecture. The creation of Imagination Technologies – the company behind the graphics hardware that powered Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast console, fact-fans – the board has clearly been taken from an existing oddly-shaped design but offers plenty of power for the maker community to hack around, including boasting significantly improved general-purpose performance compared to the majority of the ARM-based boards I’ve tested.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a visit to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 148

Linux User & Developer Issue 147As well as my usual four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes a two-page review of the CubieBoard 4 single-board computer and a chunk of work I did for the Ultimate Distro & FOSS Guide 2015.

Looking at the guide first, it’s a natural follow-on to the work I’ve done in years past for the magazine. Each year, a multi-page round-up of the ‘best’ Linux distributions is published; this year, deputy editor Gavin Thomas asked for something a little different. The result: a write-up of picks for ‘best’ distribution in a variety of categories, but also covering free and open-source software (FOSS) packages which can be installed in any distribution to extend its capabilities in a given category.

Some of the feature was written in-house by the magazine’s staff writers, but I was given four categories relevant to my expertise: Linux for developers, for enterprises, for security professionals, and for those looking for a distribution with rolling-release development methodology. In each case, a top pick was selected along with three alternatives. Five FOSS packages relating to the category were also highlighted, except in the rolling-release section where instead I highlighted five general-purpose FOSS packages which have received my personal seal of approval.

My review of the CubieBoard 4 from low-power computing specialist New IT takes the perspective of a Linux-confident user, as is usual for the magazine. As a result, some of the software-related disadvantages I highlighted in my review of the same hardware for Custom PC don’t apply – although it’s still fair to say that CubieTech should spend a little more time on polishing the sharp edges of its software releases before it brings out yet another new product.

For those unfamiliar, the big selling point of the CubieBoard 4 is that it packs eight ARM-based processing cores into a low-power fanless design. Using ARM’s big.LITTLE design paradigm, four are high-performance cores while four are low-power cores. Unlike its rivals, however, the CubieBoard 4’s AllWinner A80 chip provides the host OS with access to all eight cores simultaneously – making for a seriously powerful machine for multi-threaded use. While heat builds up quickly if you’re thrashing all eight cores, it’s one of the most powerful SBCs I’ve tested besting even the £199.99 Nvidia Jetson TK1 on CPU-bound multi-threaded tasks.

All this, plus my regular four-page look at upcoming events and everything interesting in the open source, open hardware, open governance and anything-else-open-I-think-of world, is available now at your local newsagent or digitally via Zinio and similar services. As always, my content will be republished translated into French in the coming months as part of Inside Linux Magazine.

UPDATE 20150130:

Since writing the CubieBoard 4 review, which was based on the v1.1 hardware revision, CubieTech has modified the board and released v1.2. New IT has kindly sent out an updated model, and there are numerous changes for the better: the Wi-Fi antenna no longer pushes up against a case bolt, the glue-on heatsink has been swapped out for a push-pin version with a tube of thermal interface material (TIM) and an air-gap between the fins and the top of the case, and the case itself has been revised to accommodate the push-pins. The GPIO header also now comes with a pin mapping table silk-screened directly onto the PCB for quick reference. While none of these improvements are dramatic enough to alter the overall score, they’re certainly welcomed.