Custom PC, Issue 175

Custom PC Issue 175This month’s Custom PC is a bit of a Halfacree takeover, boasting a whopping 15 pages of my content: a seven-page guide to building a Raspberry Pi-powered vintage gaming console, a three-page look at the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, and my usual five-page Hobby Tech column with reviews of the Coinkite Opendime, iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, and Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: The Amiga Years.

First, the vintage gaming feature. Building on a brief from editor Ben Hardwidge, I wanted to do something a little more in-depth than the usual how-to guide. The result is a seven-page feature which begins with a look at the wealth of accessories available to turn a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computing into a powerful emulation station, a two-page expert guide to the legalities of emulation in the UK, step-by-step instructions on downloading, installing, and configuring the RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi, and a look at entirely legitimate sources for read-only memory (ROM) game images.

While I’m fully equipped to handle the how-to and look-at-the-shiny-things sections of the guide myself, the legal aspect required an expert eye kindly provided by Eaton Smith LLP partner Chris Taylor. Legal counsel to a variety of game development and publishing companies, Chris kindly walked through the legalities of developing, downloading, and using emulation software and hardware under UK law – and even threw in a cheeky topical reference to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One ahead of the release of its film adaptation. I’m also grateful to The Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott for taking the time to discuss the Archive’s vast trove of software and in-browser emulation functionality.

Meltdown and Spectre, meanwhile, are a lot less fun. The names given to a quartet of security vulnerabilities hard-baked in to the vast majority of processors built since the 1990s, Meltdown and Spectre are unarguably the worst things to happen to the computer industry since the death of the Commodore Amiga. My three-page look discusses the vulnerabilities, how they can be exploited to gain access to supposedly-protected information, and what companies are doing to fix the problems – and, spoiler, the conclusion there is “not nearly enough.” Since the piece was written, though, there’s one thing to note: installation of the KB4056892 patch for Windows 10 includes faulty microcode protection from Intel which can cause systems to reboot spontaneously, which is resolved through the installation of KB4078130 at the cost of disabling protections against one of the two Spectre vulnerabilities.

Finally, Hobby Tech itself opens with a look at the clever but fragile Opendime from cryptocurrency start-up Coinkite. Designed to turn Bitcoin into a digital bearer bond, an Opendime creates a private key which is stored in a secure enclave accessible only by irrevocably modifying the device by popping off a small surface-mount resistor. So long as the resistor is intact, the theory goes, nobody has access to the private key – meaning you can accept the device as payment without risk. Sadly, since my fairly glowing review was written two things have changed: the Opendime I’ve been carrying around on my keyring has unsealed itself without any visible damage to the resistor or the heatshrink which protects it, an issue Coinkite’s founder and support team have singularly failed to address, and the high transaction fees on the Bitcoin network have dropped from around £20 to around 20p meaning one of the major benefits of using a £15 USB device for in-person transactions has been lost.

The iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, by contrast, is a significantly happier story. I’ve long been a fan of iFixit’s teardowns and the software they developed for presenting the information, so a toolkit with the iFixit seal of approval was high on my want list. Having now received one, I can confirm it’s no disappointment: from the high-quality tools, all bundled with the express intention of making it as easy as possible to dismantle modern electronics, to the smart multi-function storage case, the entire bundle is pleasingly robust.

Finally, Commodore: The Amiga Years. The follow-up to author Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge, The Amiga Years was officially cancelled years ago before being resurrected through a crowdfunding campaign. Since the closure of the campaign, however, the project was beset by delays and a last-minute editing decision that sees the final third of the story, taking Commodore to its sad demise, spun out into yet another book – a move backers criticising the decision have positioned as a blatant attempt at extracting more money. As with A Company on the Edge, though, the story told in The Amiga Years is one well worth the entry price – if suffering a little from Bagnall’s wandering editorial process, whereby topics raised as though you should already know them in Chapter 2 won’t be formally introduced until Chapter 5.

All this, and slightly less stuff by people who aren’t me, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 3

HackSpace Magazine Issue 3This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a review of an entirely unique device designed to make it possible to trade the Bitcoin cryptocurrency in-person as a physical item without any of the security risks that would normally be involved: the Coinkite Opendime.

For those unfamiliar, a primer: cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, work on the basis of a distributed ledger system known as the blockchain – a highly-secure database, effectively, which is shared between nodes and which cannot be faked or edited once committed. When you “have Bitcoins” in a “wallet,” what you actually have is the private key required to make transactions on the blockchain to move the coins you own from place to place.

The drawback of this approach compared to cold hard cash is that it becomes impossible to make secure off-chain transactions: you can save your keys to a flash drive, write them in an email, or even print them out and hand them to someone in person, but if you kept a copy it’s perfectly possible for you to transfer the coins to a different “wallet” out from under the recipient’s nose.

The Opendime aims to resolve this. Looking like a denuded flash drive itself, the Opendime is a smart self-contained microcomputer which performs the generation of private keys internally and locks them away – meaning it can receive Bitcoins but not spend them, until such a time as the private key is unlocked by popping a small surface-mount resistor off the board with a physical pin. In other words: if you receive an Opendime which reports it is still sealed, you are guaranteed to be the only person with access to that private key.

Sadly, since penning the relatively-positive review, I’ve encountered a major problem with the Opendime: having carried one on a keyring for a month or so, it spontaneously unsealed itself without the resistor being touched. Support from Coinkite has proven non-existent, and at £15 landed a piece with a minimum order of three units the Opendime is now an expensive but useless trinket while I find myself unable to trust the remaining two in the pack.

The review can be read in full within the magazine itself, which is available in print at all good newsagents and supermarkets and as a free digital download under the Creative Commons licence at HackSpace’s official website.

Custom PC, Issue 174

Custom PC Issue 174This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at a very special eight-byte – not a typo – microcomputer, walks through turning a spare Raspberry Pi into a Nav Coin-mining cryptocurrency machine, and looks forward to the launch of the ZX Spectrum Next with a look at a deep-dive book detailing the original Spectrum’s neat Ferranti Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip.

First, the Mini C88. Designed by the multi-talented Daniel Bailey as a more affordable version of his C88, swapping the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) on which he implemented his own processor core design for an Arduino Zero and the extremely clever Dynamic Binary Translation (DBT) technique, the C88 is designed to be about as simple as a computer can get. Based on a custom instruction set, the C88 has just eight memory locations of eight bits apiece and is programmed by toggling each bit using a series of pleasingly tactile switches while monitoring the process on the 8×8 LED matrix that serves as its display.

For regular readers, this will all sound familiar: the original FPGA-based C88 and its 32-byte bigger brother the C3232 were the subject of an interview back in Issue 155. While Daniel has still not turned the C88 into a kit you can head out and buy, the Mini C88 is definite progress in that direction – and, as always, anyone interested in the project should hassle him about it on Twitter.

For those with a Raspberry Pi and a desire to play with cryptocurrency, meanwhile, this month’s tutorial will be of definite interest: a guide to turning a Pi into a ‘Stake Box’ for the Nav Coin cryptocurrency. Designed as an alternative to Bitcoin, Nav Coin offers those who run network nodes rewards in the form of a five percent return on their coin holdings when locked up in this manner. Taking less than an hour to set up and requiring nothing more than a low-powered computer, it’s a great way to get involved – and the Nav Coin project itself definitely one to follow.

Finally, while waiting impatiently for my ZX Spectrum Next microcomputer to land – which, I’m pleased to say, has since happened – I enjoyed a re-read of Chris Smith’s excellent The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to Design a Microcomputer. Based on interviews and deep-dive analysis, the book investigates the tricks and techniques which allowed Sinclair Computers to build the ZX Spectrum micro at such a bare-bones cost – which, in turn, was thanks to clever use of an Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip from Scottish electronics giant Ferranti. Effectively a write-once version of the modern FPGA, Ferranti’s ULA saw the number of components in the ZX81 drop to a quarter compared to the ZX80 and is key to how the ZX Spectrum does what it does.

For all this, and a bunch of other interesting things by people who aren’t me, pick up a copy of Custom PC Issue 174 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 173

Custom PC Issue 173This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the learn-by-post Tron-Club Electronics Kits, the excellent Core Memory, and revisits one of the biggest disappointments of the year: the Asus Tinker Board.

First, the re-review. I originally tested the Asus Tinker Board – or Tinkerboard, or TinkerBoard, depending on which piece of documentation you’re reading – back in Issue 164 when it first hit the market. At the time, the device was impossible to recommend: the top-end hardware, capable of outperforming even the latest Raspberry Pi 3 against which it is designed to compete, was let down by woeful and unfinished software. Nine months on, I decided to give Asus a second chance and load the latest software to see if anything had improved – and I’m pleased to say that many, though far from all, of the issues I had back in March have been addressed.

The Tron-Club Electronics Kits, meanwhile, are smart subscription packages supplied monthly with a claimed minimum of 21 circuits in every pack. Based around discrete components in the Basic Kits and a microcontroller in the Advanced Kits, I was lucky enough to receive a sample of both from Bit-Tech forumite Byron Collier who had finished with them himself.

Finally, Core Memory. Continuing my trend to buy coffee table books despite not actually having a coffee table, I picked up Mark Richard and John Alderman’s book – subtitled “A Visual History of Vintage Computers” – a few years ago, and while it’s now out of print it is still readily available from Amazon and other retailers and, frankly, well worth the cash, despite a few errors in Alderman’s supporting text.

All this, and the usual collection of things written by people who aren’t me, is available from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

 

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 1

HackSpace Issue 1I’m proud as punch to announce the launch issue of HackSpace Magazine, from the creators of The MagPi Magazine, a Creative Commons-licensed monthly publication aimed firmly at the hobbyist, tinkerer, maker, and crafter community – and you’ll find a four-page head-to-head of education-centric games consoles within.

Designed to sit alongside The MagPi, which focuses on the Raspberry Pi community, HackSpace’s remit is considerably broader: you’ll find everything from features on rival single-board computers through to non-electronic projects – including, in the launch issue, tips on smoking your own bacon and building a three-foot siege weapon from wood.

My contribution to today’s launch issue is a ground-up revisit to four handheld games consoles aimed at those looking to write their own games: the Gamebuino, MAKERbuino, Creoqode 2048, and Arduboy. I’ve written about these four devices in the past for a more general audience, but for HackSpace I was free to really dive into what makes them special – and, of course, include all the latest updates and features since the last time they were reviewed.

As with The MagPi, each HackSpace Magazine issue is available on the day of release for free download under the permissive Creative Commons licence. If you’d like to read the launch copy for yourself you can simply download a PDF from the official website, while print copies are available for purchase online and from all good magazine outlets.

 

The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide

The Official BBC Micro:bit User GuideToday marks the launch of The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide, the culmination of a year-long project to create the most complete and accessible guide to using the BBC’s amazing low-cost embedded computing platform everywhere from the home and the hackspace to the classroom.

Written in partnership with the Micro:bit Educational Foundation, The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide is a collaborative effort. From project editor John Sleeva who worked so tirelessly on The Raspberry Pi User Guide and has brought that same energy to The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide and technical editor David Whale who made sure that not a semicolon was out of place to the small army of typesetters, proofreaders, copy editors, and others at publisher J. Wiley & Sons, The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide owes its existence to far more than the person whose name appears on the cover.

Special thanks, too, must go to Zach Shelby, chief executive of the Micro:bit Educational Foundation, for his early support of the project and chief technical officer Jonny Austin who worked to see the project through from start to finish and provided exhaustive feedback to ensure it launched in the best possible condition – not to mention offering his perspective of the BBC micro:bit’s meteoric rise around the globe in the book’s foreword.

Inside the 300-page publication you’ll find step-by-step instructions from unboxing the BBC micro:bit and learning about its components to programming it in JavaScript Blocks, JavaScript, and Python, as well as practical projects which make use of its sensors, buttons, display, and radio module. You’ll have the opportunity to build everything from a wearable rain-sensing hat to a hand-held game, and links to further resources from lesson plans and community-driven content hubs to add-on hardware to expand the BBC micro:bit’s already impressive capabilities are also included.

The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide is available now in print and electronic formats from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Kobo, Waterstones, Target, O’Reilly, WH Smith, Booktopia Australia, and direct from Wiley, while it can be ordered in at other booksellers under ISBN 978-1119386735.

For those looking for non-English resources, translations are currently in the works with a French edition confirmed for early next year and more expected to follow in due course – and if you’d like to see the book in your own native language, get in touch to discuss how to make that happen!

PC Pro, Issue 279

PC Pro Issue 279This month’s PC Pro includes a review of something a little out of the ordinary: the open-source, microcontroller-powered OpenScope MZ oscilloscope from Digilent.

Based on the original OpenScope and manufactured following a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the OpenScope MZ is designed primarily for education and hobbyist use. While it lacks the bandwidth you’d need for professional use, it makes up for it in ease of use: it can be connected to your wireless network for tangle-free operation, includes cables which mate handily with the 2.54mm headers common to hobbyist electronics, and uses cross-platform software capable of running on everything from a powerful desktop to a low-end smartphone.

Better still, the OpenScope MZ is, as the name implies, open: the hardware design, firmware, and software are open source, allowing anyone with the knowledge to add features or customise the device as they see fit.

More information on the OpenScope MZ is available on the official website, while you can read my review in full by picking up a copy of PC Pro Issue 279 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 172

Custom PC Issue 172That this month’s Hobby Tech column includes the review of a single-board computer should come as no surprise; that it’s a Windows 10 machine, though, certainly shakes things up a bit – as do a guest appearance by my trusty Cambridge Computers Z88 and an interview with Indiegogo’s Joel Hughes on the topic of crowdfunding.

The DFRobot LattePanda isn’t a new device, but it’s new to me. While I’ve probably reviewed more single-board computers than any other device category – and written the book on more than one – the LattePanda stands out from the crowd for two reasons: it uses an Intel Atom processor with considerable grunt, and it runs Microsoft’s Windows 10 Home operating system. Add in to that an on-board Arduino-compatible microcontroller and you’ve got a very interesting system indeed – and one which only got more interesting when I popped it under the thermal camera.

My interview with Indegogo’s Joel Hughes, meanwhile, took place in the spacious hall of Copenhagen’s former meat-packing district as part of the TechBBQ event. “We want to democratise funding as much as possible and level the playing field for great ideas,” he told me, before I threw a few tricky questions about some high-profile campaigns that had perhaps fallen short of greatness – or even mediocrity. “I don’t feel, the majority of the time, that it’s malicious,” he claimed on the topic of campaign operators who fail to keep their backers in the loop on post-fundraising progress. “I think they’re busy doing their own thing and almost forget about the comment section a little.”

Finally, the Cambridge Computers Z88. Although it’s been in my possession for many years, has a bag-friendly A4 footprint, and runs for a full day’s work on a set of double-A batteries, I’ve shied away from using Uncle Clive’s portable for serious work owing to the difficulties in actually getting documents off its internal memory and onto something more modern. The purchase of a PC Link II kit and some clever open-source software, though, has solved the problem, and if you see me out and about at events don’t be surprised if I’m taking notes on a rubber-keyed classic.

All this, plus a bunch of other stuff, is available at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 171

Custom PC Issue 171This month’s Custom PC magazine has a bumper crop for fans of Hobby Tech: a four-page shoot-out of do-it-yourself handheld games consoles on top of my usual five-page column, which this time around looks at setting up Syncthing on a Raspberry Pi, building the Haynes Retro Arcade Kit, and my time running a soldering workshop at the Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG) UK OSHCamp gathering.

The workshop first: organiser Andrew Back got in touch with me shortly before the OSHCamp workshop day, held in Hebden Bridge as part of the annual Wuthering Bytes technology festival, was due to take place. The scheduled soldering workshop was at risk, he explained, as the person due to run it was no longer available. I was happy to help, and I’m pleased to report a great day was had by all assembling Cuttlefish microcontroller kits – despite the use of some particularly ancient soldering irons with tips which appeared to be made of freshly-hewn coal!

The Haynes Retro Arcade Kit feels like a device which could have been in the DIY console shootout, but it wouldn’t have fared well. Designed by Eight Innovation and slapped with the Haynes brand, the Retro Arcade Kit is a fiddly and distinctly unrewarding soldering kit which ends up as a particularly basic version of Pong. The coin activation system is its only redeeming feature: two pieces of thick solid-core wire sit side by side, and are shorted out by an inserted metal coin to start a fresh game. Not an original trick, but one well implemented – if you ignore the terrible instructions and poor build quality.

Syncthing, meanwhile, has been a mainstay of my toolbox for years. An open-source project designed to keep files on two or more computer systems synchronised, Syncthing is built with security and convenience in mind – and works a treat on the Raspberry Pi. Given that I was needing to find a new home for my off-site backups anyway, as my regular provider CrashPlan is ceasing its cheapest product line, it seemed natural to write up the process of turning a Pi and a USB hard drive into an off-site backup destination.

Finally, the four-page DIY console shoot-out is a reprint of the same feature as it appeared in PC Pro Issue 277 in mid-September. As before, four Arduino-compatible devices are covered: the Gamebuino, MAKERbuino, Creoqode 2048, and Arduboy.

All this, and the usual selection of things written by others, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.

PC Pro, Issue 277

PC Pro Issue 277This 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.