Well, 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
The latest installment of my long-running Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is four-strong this month: as well as a two-page review of the Particle Electron GSM microcontroller, you’ll find reviews of the Pimoroni Black Hat Hack3r family of Raspberry Pi add-on boards, vintage computing simulator TIS-100, and a look at open-source laser-cut tool holder designs from Wim Van Gool.
First, the tool holders. I’ve never been known for keeping my workspace neat and tidy, but I’ve found that as long as there is something nearby to slot things in I can be trusted to put things back at least half of the time. Trouble is, pen holders are somewhat ill-suited to smaller tools and dedicated tool holders are expensive. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that Wim Van Gool had published design files for a pair of tool holders designed specifically for the sort of compact tools you need for detail electronics work to Thingiverse – and, better still, that they could be cut from cheap medium-density fibreboard (MDF).
The Particle Electron, meanwhile, came to me courtesy a Kickstarter campaign I backed following my delight with the Particle Photon – or, as it was known when I reviewed it back in Issue 132, the Spark Core – Wi-Fi microcontroller. Like its predecessor, the Particle Electron is Arduino-like and powered by Particle’s excellent web-based IDE and cloud infrastructure; where the Photon uses Wi-Fi to connect, though, the Electron uses international mobile infrastructure in either 2G (as reviewed) or 3G flavours. For remote projects where Wi-Fi connectivity can’t be guaranteed, that’s fantastic – but be aware that there are ongoing costs, and that the device is locked down to Particle’s own SIM card (supplied).
Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r boards, meanwhile, are significantly less ‘clever’: at their hearts, the Black Hat Hack3r and Mini Black Hat Hack3r are nothing more than break-out boards for the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin GPIO header. Designed in-house to speed Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) development and released as a product following considerable demand, the ‘dumb’ break-out boards are nevertheless a treat to use: it’s possible to connect a HAT to any model of Pi minus the Compute Module and still retain access to all 40 pins for additional hardware or debugging purposes, or even to daisy-chain the boards to connect multiple HATs to a single Pi – if you don’t mind hacking around the EEPROM issues that may cause.
Finally, TIS-100. I don’t normally review games, but TIS-100 isn’t a normal game: developed by Zachtronics, the creator of Spacechem and the Ruckingeneur series, TIS-100 gives the player control of a fictional 1980s computer system – the Tessellated Intelligence System – with a simplified instruction set. The task: to rewrite corrupted segments of the computer’s firmware, and in doing so uncover the mystery of what happened to the machine’s last owner ‘Uncle Rudy.’ In short: it’s half-game, half-programming-exercise – and pretty much all fantastic.
All this, plus a wealth of other stuff from people other than myself, is awaiting you at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on digital distribution services such as Zinio.
This month’s Linux User & Developer includes my review of Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r family of break-out boards, designed for both the mainstream Raspberry Pi and ultra-compact Raspberry Pi Zero single-board computers (SBCs).
While Pimoroni isn’t exclusively focused on the Raspberry Pi platform, it’s no secret that the Sheffield-based company has plenty of ideas in mind for enhancing the popular devices. The Black Hat Hack3r range started out as an internal development tool, designed to make it easier to debug Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) devices – add-on boards which cover the 40-pin general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header on top of the Raspberry Pi – without having to deal with a rat’s nest of cables or easily-knocked debug clips.
The boards are simple at their heart: with no active components, all they do is mirror the GPIO header. A ribbon cable connects the board – available in full-size and a Mini variant designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi Zero – to the Pi’s GPIO header, and the HAT under investigation is connected to the mirrored header. A third header then provides full access to all 40 pins, which opens up a wealth of possibilities: you can add additional hardware at the same time as the HAT, sniff signals coming to or from the HAT for debugging or reverse engineering reasons, or even connect more than one HAT to a single Pi by daisy-chaining multiple boards.
I’ve long been a fan of Pimoroni’s designs, and the Black Hat Hack3rs are no exception to the company’s rule of clever boards with attractive layouts and finishes. To get my full opinion, though, you’ll have to pick up a copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 167 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via digital distribution services such as Zinio.
This month’s Hobby Tech column features my field report from the Maker Faire UK 2016 event, an interview with my good friend Daniel Bailey about his brilliant homebrew computers, and a review of the Genuino MKR1000 microcontroller.
First, the event. Attending events like the Maker Faire is always a blast, especially as press when you have an excuse to stick your nose into absolutely everything that’s happening. My attendance this year was sponsored by oomlout, a local hobbyist electronics shop and a client for whom I do blog work, as highlighted in a “Sponsored By” call-out over the two-page spread. As for the event itself, you’ll find coverage of everything from DoES Liverpool’s excellent shooting gallery to affordable laser cutters and even the world’s only crowd-funded and wholly amateur manned space programme.
The event also gave me a chance to catch up with Daniel Bailey at the York Hackspace stand, after nearly a year of trying to find a good time to interview him about his impressive homebrew computers. Built on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and inspired by the classic Manchester Baby, the 8-bit C88 and 32-bit C3232 are incredibly impressive machines – and I can think of no project that better fits with the magazine’s title!
Finally, the MKR1000. Known under the Arduino brand in the US and Genuino brand elsewhere thanks to ongoing trademark disputes, the MKR1000 is Arduino.cc’s answer to the popular Particle Photon Wi-Fi microcontrollers. Featuring a breadboard-friendly layout and integrated 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio, it represents an interesting new direction for the company – albeit one somewhat hobbled by a high price compared against the competition.
All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people other than me, is awaiting your attention at your local newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.
This month’s Linux User & Developer includes a review of the Cubietruck Plus – also known as the Cubieboard 5 – I previously reviewed in Custom PC Issue 154.
CubieTech’s latest design, the Cubietruck Plus borrows the overall design from its predecessor but swaps out the weedy dual-core Allwinner A20 processor for an altogether beefier H8 octa-core chip. Kindly supplied for review by low-power computing specialist New IT, I was eager to put the board through its paces – especially as previous octa-core single-board computer (SBC) designs have suffered from some reliability issues when fully loaded for extended periods.
Sadly, as with my earlier review, there’s one piece of information which didn’t come to light prior to the deadline: devices, including single-board computers, based on Allwinner chips and using the company’s modified Linux kernel source have been found to suffer from a back-door which allows any process running on the system to silently and immediately gain root-level (superuser) privileges. While it doesn’t allow for remote execution, it can make existing bugs more readily exploitable – and if you’re using the Cubietruck Plus or any other Allwinner-based device, it’s worth checking to see if you’re affected.
This aside, the Cubietruck Plus certainly impressed during both reviews – though if you want to find out if I think it justifies its considerable price premium over the four-core Raspberry Pi 3, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.
For my regular review in Linux User & Developer this month I had the great pleasure to spend time with the BBC’s first serious hardware project since it teamed up with Acorn in the 80s: the BBC micro:bit.
Originally known as the Micro Bit, the micro:bit is a teeny-tiny microcontroller-based educational programming platform based on the CodeBug. Like the CodeBug, the micro:bit uses a 5×5 LED matrix on its front side as its main method of communicating with the outside world; unlike the CodeBug, the micro:bit includes built-in Bluetooth Low Energy support as well as a gyroscope and magnetic compass, along with the two-button input layout the two share.
With the backing of the BBC, and a major funding drive from Barclay’s which has seen a micro:bit promised to ever Year Seven pupil the UK entirely free of charge, it’s no surprise to see that plenty of companies are involved in the project. At launch, the device boasted no fewer than four programming languages – three provided by Microsoft – in its web-based IDE, along with a neat smartphone app built by Samsung allowing for Bluetooth LE-based interaction and even wireless flashing of programs.
Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller (and, oddly, a significantly more powerful Cortex-M0+ which is used exclusively to handle the USB Mass Storage implementation, allowing for mbed-style drag-and-drop flashing without the need to install drivers or a toolchain locally) the micro:bit is impressive, as is the wealth of documentation and supporting materials the BBC has compiled. There’s a catch, mind you: so far, the BBC has not announced commercial availability – meaning we have no idea how much the gadget is going to cost people not included in the generous Barclay’s-funded giveaway programme.
For the full low-down, plus a lot more interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local magazine outlet or stay where you are and pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.
My regular Hobby Tech column celebrates its third year this month, and I’d like to think it does so in style. As well as a two-page review of the Raspberry Pi 3, the column details how to build a Raspberry Pi Zero-based energy usage graph into a cheap box frame and interviews Raspberry Pi Foundation director of hardware James Adams about his designs and inspiration.
First, the Pi 3. I’ve previously written about the board in a cover feature for The MagPi and in Linux User & Developer, so there should be no major surprises in this review – beyond a focus more on the hobbyist community’s desires and concerns, given the title of the column. The interview, though, is all-new: a small, separate extract of my interview was published in The MagPi’s Raspberry Pi 3 launch issue, but the material used in Hobby Tech is fresh – including detailed information on just how that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio module talks to the new BCM2837 SoC and the challenges of conformance testing something that has an intentional radio emitter inside.
The build was a project I worked on after picking up a cheap electricity and gas monitor for my house. While the website works well for viewing live usage and historical graphs, I wanted something that wouldn’t look out of place in the living room and hopefully remind everyone to turn things off when they leave! A cheap Raspberry Pi Zero was the perfect platform, and combine with a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT fits snugly in the back of a wooden box frame. Some paper on the front diffuses the LEDs to prevent glare and make it look less like a hack and more like a piece of furniture – though with the consequence that the photos look a little washed out compared to the bright, colourful display in the flesh – and everything else is a software concern.
All this, and interesting things written by people who aren’t me, is available from your local supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar services.
My review for this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine is of a device I’ve been playing with for a while now: the Raspberry Pi 3, the first single-board computer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation to include a 64-bit CPU and integrated radio chip.
Following my cover feature for The MagPi magazine, the Raspberry Pi 3 once again graces a magazine cover – and well it should. The switch from ARM Cortex-A7 to ARM Cortex-A53 processors cores in the new Broadcom BCM2837 system-on-chip (SoC) brings with it a considerable performance boost over the Raspberry Pi 2, which itself left the original single-core Raspberry Pi in the dust.
That’s even before discussing the integrated wireless connectivity. Boasting 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1, and Bluetooth Low Energy, the Raspberry Pi 3 certainly ticks a lot of boxes on the connectivity front – even if the integrated Ethernet port still communicates with the SoC through a shared single USB channel. Best of all, the board is entirely compatible with accessories and software written for earlier models – going all the way back to the early raft of add-ons for the original Raspberry Pi.
One discovery that cropped up between the MagPi launch feature and this review, though, was heat generation: testing under my thermal camera, published on imgur for the curious, revealed that the Raspberry Pi 3 gets considerably hotter than its predecessors – over 100°C under CPU load. This leads to a couple of issues: potential burns if you poke the chip and thermal throttling which dramatically harms performance if the Pi 3 is installed in a case. Coupled with even harsher throttling – from 1.2GHz to just 600MHz – when used with marginal power supplies or low-quality micro-USB cables, there are caveats aplenty.
For the full low-down, pick up a copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 164 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via services such as Zinio.
This month’s Linux User & Developer includes my review of the Arduino-produced and Intel-chip-toting Genuino 101 microcontroller and the final five-page news spread, with publisher Imagine shuffling things around and taking the news coverage in-house after lo these many years.
Kindly supplied as a press sample by Intel, the Genuino 101 is special for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s one of the first commercially-available devices to be sold under the new Genuino brand outside the US – a necessity thanks to some hairy legal wrangling between two competing companies who have a claim to the Arduino trademark. Secondly, it’s the first outing for Intel’s new Curie module, a wearable-centric system-on-chip that combines microcomputer and microcontroller functionality.
Where Intel’s previous efforts at developing boards for the maker market have been somewhat hard to love, it’s definitely doing something right with the Genuino 101. The board is based on the popular Arduino Uno layout, includes 5V-safe pins despite running 3.3V logic, and can run most Arduino sketches unmodified. Better still, the Curie module includes integrated Bluetooth Low Energy support and an accelerometer sensor.
The design of the chip, though, is odd, and it’s something on which I focus during the review: the Curie uses two processors, an x86 Quark based on the old Pentium microarchitecture to run an underlying real-time operating system (RTOS) and an Argonaut RISC Core (ARC) which takes care of being a microcontroller and actually running the Arduino sketch. At the time of writing, the divide was stark: the Quark is entirely locked off from user access, taking over automatically for tasks like Bluetooth communication when requested by the ARC. While Intel has promised to release the source for the RTOS, allowing users to run their own code on the Quark as well as the ARC, this has yet to materialise.
Despite this, I was impressed with the Genuino 101 – but to read my full conclusion, you’ll have to hie thee hence to a supermarket, newsagent, or snag an electronic copy via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.
In this month’s Hobby Tech column I review the Proster VC99 multimeter, the Intel/Arduino Genuino 101 microcontroller development board, and discuss the challenges in developing meaningful benchmarks for testing devices where memory is measured in kilobytes.
Unusually for a hardware review, the multimeter was actually a personal purchase: I’d been using a Maplin-branded multimeter for quite some time, but the low cost and seemingly broad features of the Proster VC99 – also known as the Vichy 99, and sold under a variety of badges – convinced me it was time for an upgrade. While doing so cost me a back-lit display, I gained a variety of functions from frequency counting up to a neat analogue bar-graph on the display for seeing spikes and dips that would otherwise be lost on a numerical output.
The frequency counter came in particularly handy for my Genuino 101 review: writing a simple Arduino Sketch which does nothing more than toggle a pin on and off as fast as possible, I was able to read how quickly that happened to give me an idea of the IO performance of the Genuino compared with other Arduino boards I have lying around. Coupled with a look at the Intel Curie module which powers the device, providing Bluetooth connectivity and an integrated accelerometer, that’s enough for a solid review.
I don’t want to do solid reviews, though, I want to do great reviews, so the last page of this month’s five-page spread looks at how I benchmarked the compute performance of the Genuino 101 against an Arduino Nano for a direct, head-to-head comparison. It’s not as easy as it sounds: with mere kilobytes of memory, it’s not like I could just install PC Mark and be done with it. Interested parties will find a detailed explanation of how I went about modifying the traditional Dhrystone and Whetstone benchmarks to run on both devices, including trimming things to fit into the Arduino Nano’s tiny memory allowance, and how to interpret the results.
All this, plus stuff by people who aren’t me, is available at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your home via digital distribution services including Zinio.