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, the upcoming Official Micro:bit User Guide, 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
This month’s issue of PC Pro includes a four-way Battle Royale of DIY handheld games consoles, starting with the MAKERbuino and Creoqode 2048 also reviewed in this month’s Custom PC and including the original Gamebuino and Arduboy to complete the round-up.
There’s never been a higher focus on teaching kids to program – not even during the height of the microcomputing boom in the 1980s, when every home had a Spectrum and every school a BBC Model B partially funded by the government’s Computers in Schools initiative – but there’s a risk of turning kids off if all they’re doing is moving sprites around on a screen. To address this, a number of inventors have come up with physical devices to target instead: from the BBC micro:bit, the spiritual successor to the original Acorn-designed BBC Micro, to the handheld consoles in this month’s group test.
Each of the consoles on test have two things in common. The first is obvious: the focus is more on writing your own games, rather than just playing things other people have created. The second lies under the hood: all four consoles on test are based on Atmel microcontrollers and are compatible with the popular Arduino IDE programming environment.
There are more differences than similarities, though. The Creoqode 2048 is the most physically impressive – and imposing – machine on test thanks to its large footprint and bright RGB LED display, but falls down with poor supporting documentation and rebranded off-the-shelf parts sold at a massive markup; the Arduboy is, by contrast, the tiniest on test with a wallet-friendly design but limited capabilities. The Gamebuino has long been one of my favourite Arduino-compatible projects, but the MAKERbuino takes the concept a stage further with small hardware improvements and a shift from a pre-assembled unit to a solder-it-yourself kit using entirely through-hole components.
If you want to know which device walks away as the king of the hill, though, you’ll have to pick up the latest issue of PC Pro either physically at all good newsagents and supermarkets or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.
This month’s Hobby Tech column has a particular focus on do-it-yourself handheld gaming, looking at two Arduino-compatible yet totally different kits: the Creoqode 2048 and the MAKERbuino. As an added bonus, there’s also a review of a set of Arlent-brand soldering iron tips coupled with a lesson on just why keeping your tips in tip-top condition is so very important.
First, the Creoqode 2048. Initially produced following a successful crowdfunding campaign, London-based Creoqode has since improved and expanded the original 2048 design. Built around a hefty 64×32 RGB LED matrix display, the laser-cut chassis is eye-catching but not pocket friendly in any sense of the word: the entire unit is the largest handheld I’ve seen since the 1980s and you won’t get change from £200 once you’ve added shipping to the sky-high £189 asking price.
If Creoqode had done a better job of putting the kit together, that pricing could be overlooked. Sadly, the design is a mishmash of off-the-shelf parts – including a Mega2560 Pro Mini microcontroller, entirely unmodified save a cheeky change to the silkscreen to plaster the Creoqode logo where it most definitely does not belong – with some of the most awkward wiring imaginable. Worse still, the solder-free assembly turns out to be misleading: the use of too-thin cables in the battery holder means you’ll need to whip out a soldering iron and effect your own repairs if you want your console to do anything other than reset itself after a few minutes of use.
The MAKERbuino, by contrast, couldn’t be more different. Created as a soldering kit variant of the open-hardware Gamebuino, reviewed back in Issue 134, the MAKERbuino is a fraction of the price but infinitely more usable. Like the Gamebuino, the MAKERbuino loads its games from a bundled SD Card – whereas the 2048 is limited to a single ‘game’ (in reality incredibly basic demonstration of its capabilities, provided for some reason as Microsoft Word documents rather than INO files) which can only be swapped out by connecting it to a computer. The MAKERbuino also benefits from the incredible Gamebuino community, built up over the years since its launch, with dozens of available games and a great quality framework for building your own.
The Arlent-brand soldering iron tip review came about as I was preparing to build the MAKERbuino kit and spotted that the tip on my soldering station was somewhat past its prime. If you’ve ever found your soldering skills appearing to worsen, rather than improve, over time, then you’re probably the victim of an ageing tip. At less than a tenner for ten tips of varying shape and size from supplier Persder, they were definitely worth a shot – and I’m pleased to say have been performing admirably since.
All this, and the usual raft of interesting stuff written by other people, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC features three reviews: the CubieBoard 6 single-board computer, the Digilent OpenScope MZ open-hardware multi-function oscilloscope, and a book detailing the rise and fall of gaming legends the Bitmap Brothers.
The CubieBoard 6, to start, was kindly provided by low-power computing specialist New IT. Despite its high version number, the device felt like a blast from the past as soon as I opened the box: it’s based on almost exactly the same form factor as the original CubieBoard and its successor the CubieBoard 2, after which creator CubieTech moved towards bulkier designs with up-to-eight-core processors. A return to form is no bad thing: CubieTech boasts that the CubieBoard 6 can be used as a drop-in replacement for most CubieBoard 1 and 2 projects.
For the review, I ran the device through the usual raft of benchmarks and gave it a direct comparison to the Raspberry Pi 3 with which it competes. One interesting shift from the norm, though, was in thermal imagery analysis which revealed that the CubieBoard’s SATA-to-USB bridge chip draws considerable power even when no SATA device is connected – something that would have been difficult to ascertain any other way.
The OpenScope MZ, meanwhile, is a very different beast – though, technically speaking, also a single-board computer of sorts. The successor to Digilent’s original OpenScope, the OpenScope MZ is a hobbyist- and education-centric open-hardware dual-channel oscilloscope with additional functionality as a function generator, power supply, and logic analyser. Where it differs from its competition, though, is in the presence of a Wi-Fi chip which allows you to connect to the device remotely – which, coupled with the browser-based software used to drive the thing makes it compatible with everything from Windows desktops to a Raspberry Pi or smartphone running the Linux variant of your choice.
Finally, The Bitmap Brothers Universe is a fantastic coffee table tome charting the history of the titular giants of gaming familiar to any Amiga owner present or former. Written based on painstaking interview work by Duncan Harris and published by Read Only Memories, the bulk of the book is in single-colour print with reproduced concept art and illustrations breaking up the prose; the exception comes in the form of colour plates on glossy black paper, which use a series of neat post-process effects in an attempt to simulate their appearance on an old cathode-ray tube (CRT) display – the way they were originally meant to be seen.
All this, and the usual interesting things written by others, can be found on the shelves of your local supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.
This month’s Hobby Tech column is taken up with a trio of reviews covering the pretty darn impressive Mooltipass Mini hardware password manager, Automattic’s Blog in a Box distribution for the Raspberry Pi, and Mark Hardisty’s A Gremlin in the Works.
Starting with the latter, A Gremlin in the Works is another fantastic coffee-table book from retro computing publisher Bitmap Books (the founder of which, Sam Dyer, I interviewed back in Custom PC Issue 136). Written by Mark Hardisty based on exhaustive interviews – and retaining the question-and-answer style of the transcripts, making for an accurate rendition of the subjects’ thoughts but a slightly tiresome read – the two-volume book chronicles the rise and fall of gaming pioneer Gremlin Graphics. As a massive fan of Gremlin’s output – to this day the intro music to Hero Quest brings joy to my heart, and I blame my sweet tooth on a Zool addiction – A Gremlin in the Works is a book I’d long been looking forward to reading, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.
Blog in a Box, meanwhile, is an interesting beast. At its heart, it’s a single-purpose GNU/Linux distribution for the Raspberry Pi created by Automattic as a means of making it easier for people to run the WordPress blogging platform from the device. It’s not provided as a downloadable drive image, as with most distributions, though; instead, Automattic has written a cross-platform program which customises various settings – title, passwords, email accounts, things like that – and configures them so the Pi is ready to rock on first boot. It’s a neat idea, but one which still needs polish: I found the Linux version failed to run properly on my Ubuntu 16.04 desktop, and several features promised by the tool were disabled when the Pi actually started up. It’s a tool with promise, though, and I look forward to revisiting it should Automattic release an update.
Finally, the Mooltipass Mini. The brainchild of Mathieu Stephan, the Mooltipass Mini builds on its non-Mini predecessor to create a pocket-sized hardware password safe for all your accounts – or, at least, as many as will fit in 8Mb (1MB) of internal memory. The Mooltipass Mini is a tool for the adequately paranoid: passwords, though not usernames, are stored in the device’s internal memory under AES-256 encryption with the private key located on a removable smart card itself locked with a four-hexadecimal-character PIN. When a password is required, its entry can be found on the screen and the Mooltipass does its best impression of a USB keyboard by typing the account details in on your behalf – or, when the optional software is installed, filling in forms in browser windows automatically upon manual confirmation on the device itself.
Having long advocated for the use of password managers to promote high-quality password use and discourage password reuse, the Mooltipass Mini is a near-perfect companion. It addresses the majority of the problems with traditional password managers, like how to keep the encrypted database accessible while preventing its theft. While there are undeniable issues, such as the £61 (inc. VAT) retail price and the need to buy two so you have a backup to use if the primary one fails, it has become a part of my security arsenal – and one I feel comfortable using thanks to the project’s open-source nature for both the software and underlying hardware.
All this, and a whole mess of other things written by people who aren’t me, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.
This month’s Custom PC features a look at the effect of compiler optimisation on applications plus reviews of Google’s AIY Voice Kit for the Raspberry Pi family and Jimmy Wilhelmsson’s Generation 64.
The tutorial, to begin, stemmed from investigations I was carrying out into Google’s Guetzli perceptual JPEG encoder. Having cut my teeth in computing back when every byte – never mind kilobyte – really counted, I have a soft-spot for compression both lossy and lossless. Over the years I’ve toyed with a range of compression algorithms, from LZMA and Robert Jung’s ARJ through to the clever if short-lived Fractal Image Format (FIF). Like most, though, I eventually settled on two popular formats for my image compression needs: JPEG where lossy compression is acceptable and PNG where it isn’t.
Guetzli aims to cut the file size of JPEG files by around a third for no apparent loss in perceived image quality. That was enough to pique my interest, but it comes at a cost: a runtime of minutes per megapixel to recompress each image. As an open-source project, Guetzli is provided in source-code form – so I began to play with the optimisation options available in the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) to see if I couldn’t speed things up.
As readers of my column will discover, I could indeed speed things up – cutting the time taken to compress the small sample image provided with Guetzli from 14.3 seconds using Google’s precompiled binary version down to just 9.56 seconds. Although not an exhaustive guide to compiler optimisation in general nor even GCC-specific options – a topic which would take a book, rather than a couple of magazine pages, to cover adequately – hopefully the write-up of my experiments will help shine a light on the gains that can be made, the potential pitfalls of excessive optimisation, and the benefits of open-source distribution.
The Google AIY Voice Kit, meanwhile, is something quite special: an add-on for the Raspberry Pi family of microcomputers which, in essence, turns them into a somewhat cut-down version of the company’s Google Home voice-activated assistant platform. Initially distributed with The MagPi Magazine as a cover-mounted giveaway, the kit should soon be available for purchase by the general public – and it’s definitely worth seeking one out.
The kit itself centres around a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) add-on board, which includes servo and motor control, connectivity for an arcade-style button, and links to a break-out board with a pair of MEMS microphones. Combined with some simple software and a link to Google’s cloud computing platform, the AIY Kit can be made to respond to your natural-language queries or even control external hardware via voice recognition – with some major caveats regarding how often you can use it before you need to start handing over cash for the voice recognition platform.
Finally, Generation 64. Originally written in Swedish by Jimmy Wilhelmsson and with design by Kenneth Grönwall, Generation 64 investigates the influence the Commodore 64 had on the Swedish computing scene – complete with an introduction by the founder of Digital Illusions, also known as DICE, and MOS 6502 creator Chuck Peddle. Translated into English and re-released by Bitmap Books, Generation 64 is an absolutely fantastic read which I would have otherwise missed had it remained untranslated.
Full details on all of these, plus a bunch more stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be found in Custom PC Issue 167 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and rival distribution platforms.
Readers of my regular Hobby Tech column this month will find a BBC micro:bit-driven tutorial alongside two reviews covering the remarkable Raspberry Pi Zero W microcomputer and the fascinating Delete by Paul Atkinson.
The idea for the tutorial came about while working on a chapter of my upcoming Micro:bit User Guide, and seemed like a perfect fit for the readers of Custom PC Magazine: turning the low-cost yet extremely flexible micro:bit into an addressable USB-connected 5×5 LED matrix and having it display current CPU load in a constantly-updating bar graph. Naturally, the same technique could be used to graph almost anything.
The secret lies in MicroPython’s REPL, an interactive interpreter which can run on the micro:bit and accept commands via the USB serial port. By switching the micro:bit into REPL mode, it can be slaved to another system over USB. The result: the entire program code, written in Python using the serial, time, and psutil libraries, exists purely on the host machine. A quick bit of Blu-tack later, and my monitor was wearing a CPU monitor which worked even when the display was off.
The Pi Zero W, meanwhile, was a device to which I had been looking forward for quite some time. An upgraded version of the original £5 Raspberry Pi Zero microcomputer, the Pi Zero W differs in only one respect: it has a built-in radio module, the same BCM43438 as found on the far larger and more expensive Raspberry Pi 3.
While the addition of the radio module, which offers Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, and 2.4GHz Wi-FI connectivity, almost doubles the price of the Pi Zero W to £9.60, it’s money well spent. In almost every Pi Zero project I have built, I’ve ended up using a USB OTG adaptor and low-cost USB Wi-Fi dongle to add network connectivity, and having it on-board – even at a slightly higher cost compared to a USB-connected solution – makes life considerably easier.
Finally, Delete. Billed as “a design history of computer vapourware,” Paul Atkinson’s coffee table book is packed with high-quality photographs – and, for the rarer machines, the occasional rescaled JPEG exhibiting unfortunate compression artefacts – covering machines from an upgraded Sinclair QL to a bright yellow IBM that never left the drawing board. Each comes with pages on its history, with interview subjects detailing features and failures alike, and while not all machines were strictly vapourware few are likely to have a place in the average vintage computing collection. In short: if you like old computers you’ll like Delete, which is available now from Amazon and other bookstores under ISBN 978-0857853479.
As always, you can read the whole column and a whole lot more by picking up Custom PC Issue 166 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar services.
This month’s issue of Custom PC Magazine marks a milestone: four years since I started writing my Hobby Tech column. To celebrate, three reviews spanning its five pages: the Ryanteck RTk.GPIO, the Kitronik Micro:bit Inventor’s Kit, and the Pimoroni GPIO Hammer Header – the only piece of electronic equipment I’ve ever reviewed installed with a hammer.
First, the RTk.GPIO. The brainchild of Ryan Walmsley, interviewed back in Issue 129, the RTk.GPIO is designed to bring all the joy of the Raspberry Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header to any PC with a free USB port. A surprisingly sizeable red-hued circuit board, the RTk.GPIO includes a Pi-compatible 40-pin GPIO header with pin-out on the silkscreen. A quick pip install of the Python library later, and you can pretty much take any RPi.GPIO program and have it run natively on your Windows, Linux, or macOS machine.
Perhaps the biggest power of the RTk.GPIO is in assisting with the development of software for Pi add-ons, using the extra computing power of a desktop or laptop to make your life easier then allowing you to transfer your program to a real Raspberry Pi with minimal changes once complete. Its only real downside, in fact, is price: it’s more expensive than picking up a Raspberry Pi Zero and turning it into a USB device, though undeniably smoother to use.
The Kitronik kit, meanwhile, is one of a range of add-ons I’ve been playing with for my upcoming Micro:bit User’s Guide. Based around a GPIO expansion board for the micro:bit’s edge connector, the kit comes with mounting plate, solderless breadboard, jumper wires, and all the components you need to work through the included full-colour tutorial book – plus, in the version I picked up, the micro:bit itself, though the kit is also available without for those who already have the BBC’s miniature marvel.
In the years I’ve been playing with hobbyist electronics, I’ve seen these kits go from the most hastily thrown together things to extremely polished collections of hardware – and Kitronik’s kit definitely sits at the right end of that spectrum. There are nits to be picked, such as the lack of a handy plastic parts box for storage and no use of the lovely breadboard overlay sheets that make the Arduino-centric ARDX kit so easy to use, but it’s hard to imagine someone buying the Kitronik kit and being disappointed.
Finally, the GPIO Hammer Header. I’ve long been a fan of Pimoroni’s products, but the Hammer Header is by far both the simplest and the smartest I’ve seen. Designed for anyone who has purchased a Raspberry Pi Zero and wants to make use of the unpopulated GPIO header but who doesn’t fancy firing up a soldering iron, the kit makes use of cleverly-shaped pins which can make a suitable electrical connection purely mechanically.
The kit gets its name from the acrylic jig used for installation: assemble the jig with the Pi Zero in the middle, then give it a few sharp raps with a hammer to push the pins home. Male and female variants are available, allowing you to quickly install headers on both the Pi Zero and compact pHAT add-on boards, and to my surprise both installed quickly, easily, and without a single poor joint – and in a fraction of the time of soldering all 40 pins by hand.
For all this, and more, pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.
In this month’s PC Pro Magazine I take a look at possibly the least original product to have ever come out of Asus’ labs: the Raspberry Pi clone known as the Tinker Board.
Designed to help Asus capture a slice of the lucrative maker market, the Tinker Board is a one-for-one feature-and-footprint clone of the Raspberry Pi 3: it’s a roughly credit-card-sized single-board computer with an ARM processor, wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, four USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, analogue audio, Camera Serial Interface (CSI) and Display Serial Interface (DSI) ports, and a 40-pin general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header. So far, so cloned.
Where Asus has tried to improve upon its inspiration is in the raw specifications: the processor, while 32-bit to the Raspberry Pi 3’s 64-bit, is considerably faster; there’s double the memory, a supposedly gigabit network connection which isn’t bottlenecked by a single-channel USB bus, support for 4K video playback, and high-resolution 24-bit 192KHz audio. If all of that were true, it’d be easy to overlook the higher selling price of the Tinker Board compared to the Pi on which it is based.
Sadly, my review didn’t go smoothly. The Tinker Board has hit the market in a parlous state. The 4K video playback is choppy, the GPIO port barely works and none of its features beyond simply toggling a pin on and off are available, hardware accelerated video playback is barely functional, and the ‘gigabit’ Ethernet port no faster than the 10/100Mb port on any standard Raspberry Pi.
To be fair to Asus, the majority of the problems I encountered – bar, possibly, the Ethernet performance – were likely related to the software provided, which appears to be in a very early alpha stage. It’s a device I’ll be keeping to one side in the hope of revisiting it in the future, should Asus ship improved software.
For a full run-down of my experience with the board, pick up the latest PC Pro at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically on Zinio and other digital distribution platforms.
My Hobby Tech column this month is dominated by two reviews of devices which have taken their inspiration from better-known alternatives, but the two couldn’t be more different: the Asus Tinker Board and the SiFive HiFive1. As an added bonus, there’s a look into the wonderful world of hobbyist pinball machine repair, and by that I mean a friend and I repaired some pinball machines and lived to tell the tale.
First, the Tinker Board. There have been rumours flying around since last year that Taiwanese technology giant Asus was looking to carve itself off a slice of the Raspberry Pi pie, and that’s exactly what the Tinker Board is: an attempt to clone the Raspberry Pi. Its footprint and layout are so close to the original that it’s entirely possible to use official Raspberry Pi cases without difficulty, and the features available are a one-for-one match: four USB ports, an Ethernet port, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a 3.5mm jack, CSI and DSI connectors, and even the Pi’s trademark 40-pin GPIO header.
To its credit, Asus has tried to improve upon the original design. The processor is more powerful – quite impressively so, I discovered in my testing – and purportedly supports 4K video playback, the Ethernet supposedly gigabit, there’s support for 24-bit 192KHz high-definition audio, the RAM has been boosted from 1GB to 2GB, and the GPIO port has received colour coding to its pins. Sadly, many of these claims fell short during testing: the Ethernet port’s throughput is sub-100Mb/s even when connected to a gigabit switch, the 4K video playback simply doesn’t work, and the GPIO port is useless for anything save basic on-off pin switching – there’s no I²C, no SPI, no 1Wire, no UART, nothing, with all advanced features simply listed as in-the-works.
The SiFive HiFive1, by contrast, delivers on its promises and more. Designed to mimic the footprint and layout of an Arduino Uno microcontroller, the HiFive1 is notable for the chip at its heart: one of the first off-the-shelf implementations of the open-source RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) architecture. Still in its relative infancy compared to Atmel’s AVR or Intel’s x86 architectures, RISC-V is designed to scale from microcontrollers like SiFive’s through to high-efficiency server systems.
Like the Tinker Board, I ran into a few hiccoughs during testing. Unlike the Tinker Board, they were all quickly addressed. Considering the HiFive1 is only the second major product from SiFive and is the first commercial implementation of the RISC-V architecture to include support in the Arduino IDE for easy programming, I was thrilled with the board – and sad when my time with it came to an end.
Finally, pinball machines. The last page of this month’s column details my visit to the Brew Haus in Bradford with my friend Stuart Childs, but rather than being there for the beer we were there to administer some love to a series of pinball machines the owner had recently installed – one of which, a Data East Star Wars table, was entirely non-functional and missing its keys to boot. Between picking the lock to gain entry, replacing the somehow-shattered bumpers, testing the electronics, and discovering the PSU was hanging by a thread – its screws, interestingly, being attached to the magnet of a nearby speaker – a fun time was had and a working table set up by the end of the evening.
To get the full low-down on all these topics, plus a whole lot of interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local newsagent, supermarket, or other magazine outlet, or pick up a virtual copy via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.