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, 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 five-page spread in Raspberry Pi Press’ Custom PC Magazine each month.
This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the upcoming Mooltipass BLE hardware password dongle, FLIR’s ETS320 thermal camera for electronics testing, and has a word from Eben Upton about the cost-reduced Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB single-board computer.
First, the Mooltipass BLE. I reviewed the Mooltipass Mini – itself a successor to the original, bulkier Mooltipass – back in Issue 168: a compact, metal-encased device, the Mooltipass Mini holds your passwords in encrypted storage accessible only using a smartcard and four-digit hexadecimal PIN. I’ve been using the Mooltipass Mini with great success since its launch, but it’s always a bit of a pain to use with a mobile device – requiring a USB cable and OTG adapter.
The Mooltipass BLE aims to fix that, by integrated a Bluetooth Low Energy radio. While it can still operate in tethered USB mode, the Bluetooth radio plus internal battery give it a newfound freedom – though my experience is as a beta tester, with finalised and fully-functional firmware still under active development before the device goes on open sale.
The FLIR ETS320, by contrast, is a fully-finished piece of hardware. Regular readers will know that I’ve long been an advocate of thermal imaging analysis for revealing the secrets of electronic devices, and the ETS320 is a considerable upgrade from my usual FLIR C2: the 80×60 resolution thermal sensor of the C2 is replaced by an impressive 320×240 version in the ETS320, at the cost of a dramatically reduced maximum focus distance. I’d also like to thank FLIR for its partnership: the ETS320 has become a permanent fixture in my toolkit, and will be used alongside the C2 for thermal analysis in future hardware reviews.
Finally, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB. While the board itself isn’t new, its pricing is: Raspberry Pi Trading recently decided, prompted by falling RAM prices, to retire the 1GB model and make the 2GB model the new entry point into the family. “2GB is a much more viable desktop platform than 1GB,” RPT chief executive Eben Upton told me in an interview for the column. “1GB is great for embedded, but for a desktop platform it’s just a little bit too tight. What it means is that we’re now back to having a really viable desktop machine at our signature price point.”
The full column is available now in Custom PC Issue 201 at your local newsagent, supermarket, or for global delivery from the official website.
In this milestone issue of Custom PC Magazine you’ll find a look at the impressively retro tilde.club service and the wider tildeverse, the edge-AI-focused Orange Pi 4B single-board computer, and the Pi Hut ZeroDock accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero.
First, tilde.club – which requires a little history lesson for context. In the early days of networked computing, particularly on systems based on UNIX or the later POSIX standard, users hosted shared files in their home folders – which were given the shortcut ~. Today, shared systems have given way to virtual private servers (VPSes), but tilde.club offers a reproducible platform for those who miss the early days: your own directory, with public and private areas, on a truly shared POSIX-compliant server.
As well as hosting simple websites – there’s no server-side scripting here – you can join in internal email discussions, an on-server BBS, a text-based interface for the popular Reddit social network, and even play multiplayer games, all in the comfort of your terminal. A major delay in approving accounts for the original tilde.club – five years before a volunteer took over the service and began clearing the queue – also gave rise to the tildeverse, a network of tilde.club-based servers many of which focus on particular topics of interest.
The Orange Pi 4B, by contrast, is very much not a throwback but a piece of hardware designed to sit at the cutting edge. Mimicking, with a few modifications, the layout of a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, the Orange Pi 4B offers a Rockchip RK3399 six-core processor – two high-performance cores, four low-power cores – alongside a neural processing unit (NPU) coprocessor for edge-AI acceleration. As usual, my review looks at software support, hardware performance, and thermal imaging – along with an investigation of what the NPU brings to the table.
Finally, the Pi Hut ZeroDock is a handy but sadly pricey accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero family of single-board computers. Constructed from laser-cut acrylic, the ZeroDock houses a Pi Zero, a bundled compact solderless breadboard, and a small number of accessories like USB dongles and SD Card adapters. For those using a Pi Zero for prototyping, it’s a great tool – but at £10, twice the price of the Pi Zero board itself, it’s a little too expensive to be a must-have.
The full feature can be found on newsagent and supermarket shelves now, or purchased for global delivery from the official Custom PC website.
Hitting shop shelves just two days before the Raspberry Pi Foundation celebrates its eighth birthday, this month’s MagPi brings a surprise: A permanent reduction in the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB’s price down to that of the original 1GB entry-level model.
In a three-page feature on the move I investigate exactly what doubling the RAM means for the user, demonstrate how to use the Terminal to see exactly how much RAM your particular Raspberry Pi has available – along with how much is being used by programs and cache, and how much is free or can be freed – and interview Raspberry Pi Trading chief executive Eben Upton on how the price has been brought down, the explosive growth in the Raspberry Pi’s specifications over the past eight years, and exactly how 2GB makes for a great desktop in a world where even entry-level smartphones frequently come with 4GB.
“If you look at Windows, or even a traditional Linux desktop distro, there’s been a sort of relaxation,” Upton told me during our interview for the piece. “As there’s been more memory available, people have loosened their belts a little bit and sort of flumped down and started consuming more memory, when we really haven’t. We’re still using an LXDE-derived desktop environment; you know, we care about every 10MB of memory usage. That’s the reason why the 2GB model is a really, really useful desktop.”
The shift effectively sees the 1GB model retired, though it will still be made available at the original $35 price point for those who have designed precisely that amount of RAM into their projects – but with the 2GB model costing the same, it’s not likely to be selling in any real volume from this point forward.
MagPi Issue 91 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, and can be ordered for global delivery or downloaded as a free Creative Commons-licensed PDF from the official website. The price cut, meanwhile, is live globally today.
This month’s Hobby Tech column breaks out the thermal camera once again for a look at Pimoroni’s Heatsink Case for the Raspberry Pi 4, discusses the new Code the Classics educational programming book with Eben Upton, and reviews Bitmap Books’ The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games.
Pimoroni’s surprisingly robust case for the Raspberry Pi 4 – and not, thanks to changes made in the ports on the board, for any other model of Raspberry Pi – is something of an anomaly in the company’s stock: it’s not an in-house design, but rather a third party creation placed in Pimoroni packaging. There’s also not that much to it: the case is nothing more than two pieces of aluminium, some screws, and three thermal interface material (TIM) pads – of which, Pimoroni’s instructions inform the buyer, you should only use one.
Aside from mechanical fit and feel, the majority of the testing took place using my in-house thermal throttling benchmark – ten minutes of heavy CPU and GPU workload plus a five-minute cooldown period, tracked over one-second intervals – and via thermal imaging. The latter is an increasingly important tool for this type of review: placing the heatsink under the thermal camera revealed that there was little thermal headroom in the design, meaning it may not be wholly appropriate for extreme environments or overclocking scenarios – despite handling the benchmark well.
Upton’s Code the Classics, meanwhile, is a programming book with a difference: It takes an in-depth look at a series of classic game types and teaches the reader not only how to program their own but what went into the creation of the originals, including interviewing some big names from the industry. It’s half coffee-table, half-educational and wholly clever – and while Eben Upton provided the code, it’s a definite team effort with Sean Tracey, Dan Malone, Alastair Brimble, David Crookes, Andrew Gillet, and Liz Upton all contributing according to their own skills. Impressively, the entire book is also available to download free of charge under a Creative Commons licence.
Finally, The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games is yet another colourful coffee-table tome from Bitmap Books’ Sam Dyer, and one well worth picking up. Reviewed in the since sold-out Collector’s Edition form – packaged in an oversized cardboard housing designed to mimic big-box PC games of yore, complete with a USB stick disguised as a somewhat shrunken 3.5″ floppy disk – it makes an excellent companion piece to The CRPG Book from the same publisher, and is up to Bitmap’s usual excellent quality.
Custom PC Issue 199 is available now from all good supermarkets and newsagents, via several digital distribution platforms, or for online purchase with global delivery from the Raspberry Pi Press store.
This month’s MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, comes with a surprise bonus: a cover-mounted stand, available to download for 3D printing or laser cutting in the digital version, designed to hold up to three Raspberry Pi 4s in a vertical orientation. Naturally, it needed testing – and so you’ll find a feature comparing the stand to five commercial cases also designed to improve cooling.
My thermal testing feature in Issue 88 proved that putting the Raspberry Pi on its edge, rather than flat on a desk, could improve cooling and allow it to run faster for longer. The same test workload is repeated here on the bundled vertical stand plus cases from FLIRC, Argon40, Pimoroni, The Pi Hut, and SensorEq – and many thanks to all involved for their assistance with review samples.
Each case is installed as per the manufacturer’s instructions, then the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 4GB inside is given a ten-minute run of a very thermally-intensive workload – an unlocked glxgears to put load on the GPU and a four-thread stress-ng FFT run for the CPU – followed by five minutes cooling. The temperature of each is graphed along with the operating speed of the CPU – which drops as the temperature rises above 80 degrees Celsius.
Finally, each case was placed underneath a thermal camera to see how effective it is at distributing the heat from the SoC. With the notable exception of one case – the case from The Pi Hut, which is constructed from light-transparent but thermally-opaque Perspex acrylic – the imagery helps to indicate whether a design has thermal headroom for longer workloads or is already working as hard as it can.
The feature is available in full in The MagPi Issue 90, which can be purchased in print from newsagents and supermarkets now or with global delivery from the Raspberry Pi Press store. It’s also available for free download under a Creative Commons licence; while the digital version doesn’t include the cover-mounted stand for obvious reasons, the design can be downloaded for home or commercial 3D printing or laser cutting from the magazine’s GitHub repository.
This month’s Hobby Tech opens on an interview with Bitmap Books founder Sam Dyer, covering what his nostalgia-driven coffee-table book specialist publisher has been up to in the half-decade since last we spoke, moves on to a preview of the soft-launched Sensoreq CooliPi Raspberry Pi 4 case and heatsink, and ends with a look at UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan.
I last interviewed Dyer on the back of the launch of Bitmap Books’ inaugural publication, the crowdfunded Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium – the spelling of the latter, he was at pains to tell me at the time, a deliberate pun. In the five years since, Dyer’s press has moved from collecting screenshots of Commodore 64 and Amiga games to producing some big-budget hardback titles, most recently including officially licensed titles – a rarity in the all-too-often copyright-ignorant retro gaming sphere. There’s more to come, too, Dyer told me in this latest interview – including some non-gaming works, including a Micro Machines-focused book dubbed Micro But Many due later this year.
The CooliPi case, meanwhile, is an interesting beast – not least because not only is the plastic base 3D printed rather than laser-cut or injection-moulded, but the design files to print your own are provided for free download. That’s because the secret sauce sits on top: a custom-milled and surprisingly hefty aluminium heatsink, available in a variety of colours. The case is cleverly designed and its cooling performance, even operating without the optional mount for a 5V fan, is the best I’ve seen – though the Hobby Tech piece is a preview, rather than review, as creator Sensoreq finishes a few last tweaks before the design can be considered fully final.
Finally, Kernighan’s memoir – written by a man who, in his own words, was “present at the creation [of the UNIX operating system] but not responsible” – is a thoroughly enjoyable first-person perspective on some of the most important works in computing history, and the precursor to the Linux-based operating system on which I’m typing right now. A vanity press publication, created through Amazon’s print-on-demand service, the book’s print quality isn’t great – most obvious on the cover, where an extremely low-resolution image has been stretched blurringly around the book giving the impression of a knock-off – but the content more than makes up for its production values.
All this, and more, can be found on the shelves of your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or for worldwide delivery from the official website.
Raspberry Pi Press has launched the fifth entry in the ongoing Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book series, a family of bookazine-style publications gathering hands-on content previously published in The MagPi Magazine – and, as usual, my content is included.
The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 5 is the first volume to be published since the introduction of the Raspberry Pi 4 family – the first in a new generation of single-board computers which brings with it a considerably more powerful processor, the first new graphics processor in Raspberry Pi history, two high-speed USB 3.0 ports, true gigabit-capable Ethernet, and dual-4k display compatibility.
While the bulk of the projects in the book are suitable for any model of Raspberry Pi, there’s some Raspberry Pi 4 exclusive stuff too – in particular my detailed look at the boards, originally written for the Mag Pi’s launch feature. The first feature in the book, it covers the specifications and features of the new board, a look at its performance in a range of synthetic and real-world workloads and including throughput on both Wi-Fi and Ethernet network connections, and two two-page interview spreads with user experience engineer Simon Long and Raspberry Pi Foundation co-founder Eben Upton on both the Raspberry Pi 4 and the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system launched at the same time.
There’s only one thing missing compared to the original version of the feature: thermal performance, including the high-resolution thermal imagery I take of devices on test. There’s a good reason for that: in the latest issue of The MagPi I provided a twelve-page in-depth investigation into the thermal performance of the Raspberry Pi 4 since its launch to the present day through a string of firmware updates designed to decrease power usage and heat output. This represents a considerably more up-to-date look at the board’s thermal performance than in the original launch feature, and it’s entirely sensible to exclude the original test from its republication.
The book is available to buy now in all good supermarkets, newsagents, and for global delivery from the official website; alternatively, a DRM-free PDF copy can be downloaded free of charge under a Creative Commons licence.
This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Argon 40’s revised Argon One – or Argon 1, depending on which bit of the packaging you’re looking at – case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the RISC-V-based Sipeed Longan Nano development board, and Toshi Omagari’s Arcade Game Typography.
First, the Argon 1 Pi 4 case. Externally, this looks a lot like the Argon One reviewed back in Issue 188; internally, though, things have been shifted around to provide support for the latest Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – and the brown-outs caused by the smart power and cooling board drawing too much power are now a thing of the past.
As with its predecessor, the Argon 1 Pi 4 is impressively solid and does a great job at cooling the Raspberry Pi 4 by using the aluminium housing as a heatsink – even running a heavy synthetic workload, the temperature didn’t reach the minimum required to activate the built-in PWM-controlled cooling fan. It also adds some neat features, such as a labelled and colour-coded GPIO header, neater cabling through the shifting of audio and video ports to the rear, and a smart power button.
Shortly after the review was completed, but thankfully before the magazine went to press, the power board on the Argon 1 Pi 4 died – thankfully without taking the Raspberry Pi 4 with it. The review was updated accordingly, and since then Argon 40 has been stellar in attempting to resolve the problem – paying to have the faulty board returned for analysis and replacing both the faulty board and the entire unit in order to get things back up and running. While it will be a short while before it’s clear whether the failure was a one-off or not, it’s certainly impossible to fault the company’s customer service ethos.
The Sipeed Longan Nano, supplied by Seeed Studio, is an interesting beast: costing less than $5, the board is based on a low-power RISC-V microcontroller with a breadboard-friendly board design and a built-in low-resolution colour LCD display. For the money, the hardware is absolutely incredible – especially as Seeed has even designed a rough but serviceable acrylic case for the board, bundled at no additional cost.
The software and documentation, however, is definitely an issue. The libraries provided failed in a variety of ways – including an inability to use printf() or open a serial port – and the English documentation is extremely sparse. Particularly lacking is anything to demonstrate the use of the LCD – bar a single example program documented using Chinese in-line comments.
Finally, Arcade Game Typography. I’ve reviewed a lot of retro-computing coffee-table books over the years, but Omagari’s book is the first to concentrate solely on fonts and typography as used in classic arcade games – and given Omagari’s work as a designer for Monotype UK, it’s fair to say he knows his stuff. The result is a fascinating book, and one which is currently available in a limited 1,000-copy hardback print run from Read-Only Memory if the standard paperback isn’t shiny enough for you.
Custom PC Issue 197 is available on supermarket and newsagent shelves now, or can be ordered for global delivery from the official website.
The latest issue of The MagPi Magazine includes a whopping 12-page feature investigating the thermal performance of the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B single-board computer as it is affected by a series of firmware updates released since its launch earlier this year.
When I reviewed the Raspberry Pi 4 at launch, I highlighted its dramatically increased power draw and heat output compared with its predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. In the months since, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been working to address the issue through a series of firmware updates – and, with assistance from Eben Upton and Tim Gover, my feature runs through each release and sees what difference it actually makes.
For the feature, I had to develop a method of benchmarking the Raspberry Pi. Power draw was relatively straightforward: the built-in current meter in a bench-top power supply is used to measure the minimal draw at idle and peak draw at load. For thermal performance, I wrote a custom benchmark which uses two open-source utilities – glxgears and stress-ng – to place a heavy load on both the CPU and the GPU while measuring the resulting temperature rise and the speed of the CPU, which throttles at 80°C to protect the silicon.
These measurements provided a graph of temperature rise and fall, the latter thanks to a five-minute cool-down period built into the benchmark, but for a more visual approach I also took thermal imagery of the board at idle and load to demonstrate which components are responsible for the heat output and better highlight the improvements made at each firmware revision. This was no small undertaking: the benchmarking and thermal imagery was completed for five firmware revisions, the last of which was not publicly available at the time of testing, plus a baseline Raspberry Pi 3B+ for comparison.
The feature also takes a look at a real-world workload, in which temperature and clock speed is measured while a four-worker compile of the Linux kernel is carried out. This revealed something which may come as a surprise to critics of the board: Using the latest firmware, the Raspberry Pi 4 did not throttle at all during the compilation – something that can’t be said for the Raspberry Pi 3B+, which throttled to 1.2GHz from 1.4GHz almost immediately. For the final bit of testing, there’s even a comparison of the Raspberry Pi 4 running sat flat on a desk and balanced vertically – at Upton’s suggestion – with a resulting dramatic impact on the throttle point and operating temperature.
Finally, firmware developer Tim Gover was kind enough to answer my questions on what the Raspberry Pi 4 firmware actually does, how it is developed, and how it can have such a dramatic impact on power usage – along with the confirmation that USB mass-storage booting and IPv6 network booting are on the to-do list for future releases.
The full feature, and plenty more beside, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or downloaded at no cost in digital form under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.
My Hobby Tech column this month opens with a look at a surprisingly swish programming environment for the Nintendo Switch, of all things, walks through the creation of a power-saving networked display using the Pimoroni Inky wHAT and a Raspberry Pi, and looks at a book which purports to chart the history of Apple Macintosh gaming.
First, the programming environment. Fuze4 Nintendo Switch, available now on the Nintendo eShop, builds on the Fuze BASIC programming language originally developed for the Raspberry Pi and reviewed – alongside its BBC Micro-inspired housings – in Issue 124 and Issue 136. This time around, though, the language is considerably less BASIC and more like a hybrid between BASIC, Python, and a bit of C thrown in for good measure. It’s also less focused on things like sensor reading and GPIO control – for obvious reason – and instead designed specifically for a single task: making games.
There are aspects that need polish – in particular the sharing of created projects, which at present can only be done via Nintendo’s clunky friends-list system – but overall Fuze4 Nintendo Switch is impressive. You’ll want a keyboard, but once you get started it’s easy to build some impressive projects – one demo supplied with the game showcases a fluid 3D engine with dynamic lighting, created in a remarkably short number of lines.
The Inky wHAT project, meanwhile, was largely a means of documenting something I created for my own use: an electrophoretic display that would display the output of the schedule printer I detailed in Issue 183 without needing to print on physical paper. There’s a twist, too: after finding that the only box-frame available that would fit the project depth-wise was too large, I created a mock-up of an Amiga Workbench desktop to frame the smaller Inky wHAT display – and the effect is surprisingly convincing.
Finally, Richard Moss’ The Secret History of Mac Gaming was a pleasure to read, though a few aspects of Apple’s history are presented from the eyes of a fanboy rather than a historian. Switching between recollection, research, interview content, and contributed material, the book does a great job of documenting the largely-forgotten history of gaming on Apple Macs – though it could have benefited from another editing and layout pass, in particular to avoid the recurring issue where screenshots either appear out-of-order or without any reference in the text.
As always, the latest Custom PC Magazine is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets, or can be ordered for worldwide delivery from Raspberry Pi Press.