Custom PC, Issue 125

Custom PC Issue 125In this most recent issue of my eponymous column, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, I take an all-too-rare field trip to my local Hackspace, investigate a “sold as seen” Famiclone, and review the Dangerous Prototypes ATX Breakout Board.

First, the review. Kindly provided by the lovely people at Phentopix, the ATX Breakout Board was designed by Dangerous Prototypes to address the biggest issue surrounding bench power supplies in the hobbyist market: they’re all either crap, or frustratingly expensive. By tapping into a standard ATX PSU – the exact same type you’d fine inside any desktop computer from the last decade and more – the kit provides a range of voltages at a surprisingly capable amperage, and all for a fraction of the cost of a true bench power supply.

Each major rail of the PSU – 3.3V, 5V, 12V and a handy -12V for audio components – is broken out to screw terminal banana sockets, to which the user can connect bare wires or their own test leads. For those lucky enough to have a working ATX PSU from the 90s, there’s also a -5V connection – but, sadly, this rail was removed in most modern units. That said, it’s still a wide range of voltages, and the board includes over-current protection, a dedicated power switch and even room for a bundled resistive load to be soldered on for the rare PSUs that won’t start unloaded.

I have to admit, when the board arrived – complete with very attractive transparent housing designed by Phenoptix and cut on the in-house laser – I wasn’t sure it would be up to the job. It’s small, it’s simple, and it’s cheap – but it has also all-but replaced my real bench-top PSU for everything that doesn’t need precise current control or strange voltage steps.

Next, the Good Boy. A ‘Famiclone’ – the colloquial name given to unauthorised replicas of Nintendo’s Family Computer, or Famicom – purchased from eBay for a few quid ‘untested,’ I wasn’t expecting much and boy did I get it. The Good Boy proved a perfect example of why it’s important to do a physical check before powering up second-hand machines of unknown provenance: someone somewhere had given it far more power than it could handle, and several components had quite literally exploded. For now, it’s on the to-do pile awaiting replacement parts.

Finally, my visit to Leeds Hackspace. A community-led club for programmers, hackers, gamers, electronics enthusiasts, engineers, makers, and the plain curious, Leeds Hackspace is one of a growing number – known in the US as Hackerspaces – around the world. Every Tuesday, the club runs an open evening where non members are welcome to attend, use the equipment, chat and receive help – as do most other Hackspaces.

If you’re hacker-minded, going to a Hackspace is like being let loose in a sweet shop: there are oscilloscopes, laser cutters, 3D printers, drill presses, and a variety of other pieces of equipment most of us don’t have room for in our houses or wallets; there are projects on display like converted arcade machines, automated Nerf turrets, kids’ toys, railway station display boards, and Bitcoin mining rigs; and there are the people.

It’s the people, in fact, that really make a Hackspace. Welcoming and inclusive, the guys and gals at Leeds Hackspace are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met and always willing to show off their latest projects or give a newbie a hand. It’s convinced me, in fact, that in the new year I should really investigate a paid-for membership – even if it is annoyingly far away, there being no Hackspace yet founded in Bradford.

All this, plus the usual snippets of news from the world of the maker, can be found in Custom PC Issue 125 at your local newsagent, supermarket, delivered by subscription or digitally via Zinio and similar services. Oh, and if you’re quick you’ll be able to use the team’s annual Mince Pie Megatest to make your Christmas dinner go off with a sweet treat.

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