Custom PC, Issue 198

Custom PC Issue 198This 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.

Custom PC, Issue 197

Custom PC Issue 197This 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 MagPi, Issue 88

The MagPi Issue 88The 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.

PC Pro, Issue 302

PC Pro Issue 302Following on from my group test of small form factor machines in Issue 297, this month’s PC Pro magazine sees me take the helm of the regular Labs Test once again to put nine more traditional desktop PCs through their paces – with some available for as little as £300 including a Windows 10 Home licence.

The feature follows the usual Labs format: an introduction is followed by a features table listing all the key specifications, including pricing and warranty data, on each of the nine machines on-test; four large focus reviews follow, along with six shorter reviews; there’s a two-page buyer’s guide with hints and tips on getting the most bang for your buck; the View from the Labs opinion editorial; and a full-page feature-in-feature which, this month, takes a tour of the desktop PC’s storied history from the minicomputer era forwards – with special mention, of course, to IBM’s Personal Computer and the horde of ‘IBM Compatibles’ which followed.

Each machine on test was photographed inside and out in my in-house studio, disassembled to check the fit and finish as well as confirm how upgradeable each design is post-purchase, and tested through a gamut of benchmarks including power draw, productivity performance, gaming performance – less of a focus for this Labs than most, owing to the fact many machines are at the very bottom of the budget and designed more for general-purpose computing than blasting aliens – as well as browser performance and disk speed. This Labs also comes with an added bonus: boot timings for each machine, measuring how long it takes each to load Windows ready for use from a cold start.

As always, these group tests wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of the hardware vendors themselves. My thanks go out to CCL, Palicomp, PC Specialist, QuietPC, Chillblast, Cyberpower, and Currys PC World for their assistance with hardware loans, and also to Box.co.uk for the loan of a system which was unfortunately not able to be included in the group this time around. A special thanks, too, goes to UL Benchmarks and Unigine for the provision of benchmarking software used in the test.

The full feature is available in PC Pro Issue 302, on-shelves now at supermarkets, newsagents, and on the hard drives of the usual digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 195

Custom PC Issue 195This month’s Hobby Tech column opens on an interview with Ryan Brown on the impressive Quarter Arcades miniature fully-licensed reproduction arcade cabinets, moves on to a review of the RISC-V-based Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT for the Raspberry Pi, and closes with a look at Pimoroni’s clever Inky wHAT electrophoretic display.

First, the interview. Answering the important question first, Brown admitted that “the pun certainly helps” when it came to deciding to what scale the Quarter Arcades cabinets should be produced: each carefully-designed reproduction, modelled on real period-appropriate cabinets, is built to a quarter scale both as a means of having it sit nicely on a desk and of providing a name which echoes the most commonly-required coin of US arcade cabinets.

While the Quarter Arcade range is currently limited to licensed properties including Pac-Man and Galaga, Brown has indicated there’s potential there to expand: “Starting with the most beloved classics really helps us open doors to other, more niche arcade games, and even potentially games that never reached the arcade.”

The Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT, by contrast, was an undeniable disappointment. Based on the Kendryte K210 system-on-chip, which uses the RISC-V instruction set architecture and includes a co-processor designed to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads, the AI HAT can be used as a stand-alone development board or attached on top of a Raspberry Pi – but in the latter mode is almost entirely divorced from the Pi itself, to the point where it’s not even possible to program the AI HAT without detaching it again and connecting it to a more traditional PC.

Finally, the Inky wHAT. Another Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) board, the Inky wHAT offers a 4.2″ electrophoretic display in three colours: red, black, and white in the model reviewed, with a yellow variant available alongside a slightly cheaper black-and-white two-colour version. Forming the heart of a project which will appear in next month’s magazine, the Inky wHAT impressed – though it would be nice to see the price drop a little, given how cheap full-colour though considerably more power-hungry LCD panels are these days.

Custom PC Issue 195 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally through the usual outlets.

Custom PC, Issue 194

Custom PC Issue 194My regular Hobby Tech feature provided two opportunities to break out the thermal camera, thanks to a detailed analysis of a range of cooling products for the Raspberry Pi 4 and a review of the Libre Computer Project’s La Frite single-board computer – and there was even time to take a look at Brian Dear’s exhaustive title The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture.

First, La Frite. Funded, as with all Libre Computer Project boards, via crowdfunding, the compact single-board computer is designed to compete with the like of the Raspberry Pi. It certainly has its selling points: there’s a mounting point on the underside for an eMMC storage module, though it uses proprietary mounting holes; there’s a clever midship-mounted Ethernet port to reduce the overall height; and it even comes with the option of a clever two-piece aluminium case that doubles as a heatsink. Sadly, the board’s performance isn’t there, its software support struggles, and despite the name of the organisation its openness is limited to targeting mainstream Linux kernels; the board itself is a proprietary design.

Moving on to the topic of the Raspberry Pi 4, there’s no secret now that the new high-performance processor at its heart runs a little warm. For my analysis of the issue and a look at some potential solutions, a benchmarking workload was executed while temperature and clockspeed were measured and charted – demonstrating handily the loss of performance you get when the system-on-chip begins to heat up.

These data are joined by the same workload while the Raspberry Pi 4 is enjoying the benefits of a range of third-party cooling products: the Pimoroni Heatsink and Fan Shim options, the former running in passive-only and fan-assisted modes and the latter in always-on and software-controlled modes, along with the 52Pi Ice Tower heatsink and fan assembly as supplied by Seeed Studio and running in 5V, 3V3, and wholly passive modes. The temperatures across the run are then charted, while thermal imagery provides a visual insight into how the whole board heats under passive and active cooling.

Finally, The Friendly Orange Glow is a book I’d heartily recommend to anyone interested in the history of a surprising range of modern technologies – from flat-panel plasma displays and multiplayer gaming to Microsoft’s FreeCell. Charting the rise and fall of PLATO, a computer-assisted learning platform now largely forgotten by history, the book is about more than just technology: as its subtitle, The Untold History of the Rise of Cyberculture, suggests, PLATO and those who built and used it were responsible for cultural movements that wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere in the world for decades.

You can pick up the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or online at the Raspberry Pi Press Store, or grab it in digital form via the usual distribution services.

Raspberry Pi Geek, Issue 09-10/2019

Raspberry Pi Geek Issue 09-10/2019The launch of the new Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer brought with it, as usual, my detailed analysis over on Medium. The post has drawn considerable interest, in particular the benchmarking and thermal imagery aspects. German publisher Computec got in touch shortly after publication to ask if they could licence the post for translation and republication in the local enthusiast magazine Raspberry Pi Geek – and that issue is on shelves now.

Effectively a blow-by-blow recreation of the Medium post, translated and reformatted for the confines of a paper magazine, the seven-page feature walks through what’s new in the design, carries out numerous benchmark tests from synthetic and real-world performance workloads to power draw and – as has become a signature of mine – high-quality thermal imagery showing just where the extra power demanded by the Raspberry Pi 4 is going on the board.

Each benchmark includes a graph for easy at-a-glance performance comparisons between the new model and every version back to the original launch Model B. High-quality photography of the board and its various components are also featured, and have translated particularly well to the page.

Raspberry Pi Geek Issue 09-10/2019 is on shelves now in Germany, and is also available from Computec’s online outlet.

Custom PC, Issue 193

Custom PC Issue 193My Hobby Tech column focuses this month on the Raspberry Pi 4, the amazingly inexpensive M5Stick-C microcontroller platform, and Zach Barth’s game design retrospective Zach-Like.

The column opens with the Raspberry Pi 4 review, a two-page look at the layout, features, functionality, and performance of the latest single-board computer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. As always, there’s plenty of photography – including thermal imagery, using an in-house process I developed to get the most detail possible by combining visible light and infrared photography into a single print-resolution image.

My look at the M5Stick-C, part of the M5Stack family of products, needs no such clever photography – though there is a shot of the device on my wrist, thanks to a bundled watch strap mount. Designed around the low-cost ESP32 microcontroller the M5Stick-C includes buttons, a full-colour screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, LEDs, a range of sensors, a built-in battery chargeable over USB Type-C, and the aforementioned watch strap plus a wall-mount bracket, LEGO-compatible mounting bracket, and even a built-in magnet – and all for under £10 excluding VAT. It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly cheap enough.

Cheaper, though, is Zach-Like, a collection of game design documents charting the early days of Zach Barth and his company Zachtronics. Initially available as a limited-run print edition on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, Zach-Like is now available as a free electronic download on Steam in PDF format – and comes with a huge selection of bonus content, including playable versions of several unreleased games and prototypes. At £10, Zach-Like would be a bargain; for free, it’s astonishing.

You’ll find the full column, and a lot more, in Custom PC Issue 193 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or on any one of a selection of digital distribution platforms.

PC Pro, Issue 298

PC Pro Issue 298The big news of the last few weeks has, of course, been the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – covered in considerable detail in my benchmark piece over on Medium. To support its in-house review coverage, PC Pro Magazine commissioned me to come up with project ideas that take full advantage of the Raspberry Pi 4’s new capabilities.

The first of a new family of Raspberry Pi products designed to do away with some of the biggest criticisms levelled at earlier models, the Raspberry Pi 4 includes a significantly more powerful processor, improved graphics capabilities, dual-4K video output and hardware H.265 4K video decoding, up to 4GB of RAM, true gigabit Ethernet networking, and two USB 3.0 ports sharing a high-speed PCI Express link back to the Broadcom BCM2711B0 system-on-chip (SoC) at the board’s heart.

My feature covers how these new capabilities can be used in a variety of real-world use-cases, from acting as a desktop replacement for lightweight browsing and productivity use to a low-power 4K-capable home cinema system. The new USB 3.0 ports are perfectly suited to turning a couple of external hard drives into a low-cost network-attached storage (NAS) system, while the improved graphics make gaming more tempting.

There’s even something for the enterprise crowd to sink its teeth into: the dual display capabilities mean that the Raspberry Pi 4 is perfect for digital signage, Citrix support on day one turns it into a dual-screen thin client, and the more powerful networking can be combined with a USB 3.0 Ethernet adapter to create an energy-efficient router, firewall, or other network appliance.

For the full low-down on what the Raspberry Pi 4’s new features could do for you, pick up the latest PC Pro from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Pocketmags or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 192

Custom PC Issue 192This month’s Hobby Tech kicks off with a look at the Zepsch PocketStar – by far the smallest Arduino-compatible games console I’ve seen – and the Pimoroni Keybow, before reviewing Felipe Pepe’s The CRPG Book in digital form.

The pages of my Hobby Tech column are no stranger to Arduino-compatible handheld consoles: over the years I’ve reviewed the Gamebuino and its MAKERbuino spin-off, the Creoqode 2048, the Arduboy – then all four at once in a head-to-head group test – and most recently the Gamebuino Meta. Of these, the Arduboy was the smallest with a footprint matching a credit card and a thickness of around three cards stacked.

The PocketStar, a crowdfunded creation from Zepsch, has it beaten. Although thicker than the Arduboy, the Game Boy-inspired design has a tiny 50x30mm footprint, despite packing a colour screen and haptic feedback motor. What it doesn’t include, sadly, is a speaker – though it was originally planned, and the mounting point is still present – but it at least includes the ability to switch between games on the fly, something the Arduboy sadly lacks.

The Pimoroni Keybow, by contrast, is a very different beast. A no-solder DIY kit, the Keybow is a nine-button programmable keypad with a difference: rather than using a Teensy, Arduino, or other microcontroller, it uses a Raspberry Pi Zero WH. The reason why isn’t really adequately explained in the product briefing: it connects to the host machine via USB rather than Bluetooth, and makes no use of the Zero WH’s Wi-Fi connectivity either – though third-party firmware is available to vastly expand its functionality. Despite some bugs in the official firmware and the aforementioned surprising lack of wireless connectivity – switching to the Zero H, which does not include a radio, would shave a fiver off the retail price – it’s certainly an interesting desk accessory with plenty of flexibility.

The CRPG Book, published by Bitmap Books, doesn’t have author Felipe Pepe’s name on the cover. There’s a reason for that: it’s a collaborative effort, the physical incarnation of a four-year effort from 119 authors to document the computer role-playing game genre in as much detail as possible – going all the way back to the PLATO system and its infamous ‘friendly orange glow.’ The result is an exhaustive tome, brought to life with full-colour printing between its hardback covers – though the review is based on a digital copy, the physical version having been rejected by Bitmap Books’ quality control post-printing and sent back to the factory for a re-do with the first of the reprints due to land towards the end of the month.

While The CRPG Book is far from perfect – there are a few issues with typography and grammar, increasing in frequency as you work your way towards the back of the book – it’s pretty close to it, and made even more pleasing by the fact that the £29.99 print edition is joined by a free, Creative Commons-licensed download available from the official website. Sales of the print edition, meanwhile, have raised £12,475 in author royalties for Felipe Pepe – royalties which he has donated in full to Vocação, a not-for-profit Brazilian organisation aimed at getting children and teenagers in poor communities access to quality education.

Custom PC Magazine Issue 192 is available now at all good newsagents, supermarkets, and via the Raspberry Pi Press store. Digital outlets will update later today.