Make: Magazine, Volume 83

Make: Magazine Volume 83It’s been a year since the last time I put together a Boards Guide for Make: Magazine, which can only mean one thing: I’ve put together another Boards Guide for Make: Magazine, along with two feature articles: a look at how Espressif’s ESP32 and Raspberry Pi’s RP2040 are having a barnstorming year in the face of rivals’ stock shortages and how RISC-V is seeing an explosion of interest in the maker sector.

First, the guide. An annual tradition, the Make: Boards Guide is a pull-out which aims to serve as an at-a-glance reference for the most popular, interesting, well-established, or increasingly simply “in-stock” development boards. It covers microcontroller boards, single-board computers, and field-programmable gate array (FPGA) boards – and, this year, sees a major refresh with some long-established entries being dropped either as a result of ongoing availability problems or their manufacturers’ choosing to discontinue the parts.

In addition to the pull-out, I contributed an article which takes a look at the ongoing supply chain issues in the electronics industry from a different perspective: how good it’s been for two companies able to fill in the gaps in their competitors’ product lines, Espressif and Raspberry Pi. I’d also like to offer my thanks to Eben Upton for taking the time to talk to me on the topic.

Espressif, in fact, forms a central pillar in my second feature for the issue: the rise of the free and open-source RISC-V architecture in the maker sector. Espressif was one of the first big-name companies to offer a mainstream RISC-V part, and has since announced it will be using RISC-V cores exclusively – and it’s no surprise to see others in the industry taking note. The feature walks through a brief history of the architecture, its rivals, and brings arguments both for and against its broad adoption in a market all-but dominated by Arm’s proprietary offerings. As always, thanks go to all those who spoke to me for the piece.

Make: Magazine Volume 83 is available now at all good newsagents or digitally as a DRM-free PDF download on the Maker Shed website.

Custom PC, Issue 231

Custom PC Issue 231This month’s Hobby Tech column – now in its new four-page more streamlined format – takes a look at the oddly-shaped and solidly-built hackable Keychron Q8 Alice Layout mechanical keyboard and an official Ubuntu 22.04 image for the StarFive VisionFive RISC-V single-board computer, while also covering the launch of pre-orders for the VisionFive 2 and Arduino’s plea for community assistance as it plans to add true multitasking to its embedded platform.

As someone who spends more time typing than anything else, keyboards are the most important part of a computer system. I’ve plenty, from aggressively ergonomic split models to an IBM Model F that’s 40 years old and still going strong – but the Keychron Q8 Alice Layout is perhaps the most interesting. Built in a hefty anodised aluminium shell, the keyboard boasts features you wouldn’t normally expect at the low-mid price point: a fully-floating plate and PCB on rubber gaskets, pre-taped chassis, pre-lubed switches, RGB backlighting, and full support for reprogramming its QMK firmware using the VIA cross-platform software tool.

It’s the layout that stands out the most, though. Inspired by Yuk Tsu’s original Alice layout, Keychron’s take increases the size from 60 to 65 per cent to add a few more keys and shuffles a few things around – but anyone used to the ergonomic split Alice layout will find themselves right at home. Sadly, the company is only selling the keyboard pre-assembled in US ANSI; those looking at an ISO version of the layout can buy a kit but will need to source the keycaps themselves, which isn’t as easy as it sounds given the unusual sizing of some keys and varying heights between rows.

I reviewed StarFive’s VisionFive in Issue 230 last month, and in doing so noted that the software was in a poor state – not just buggy, as you might expect from a first-launch early-adopters’ product, but built on an insecure end-of-life base. Shortly after the review went to press Canonical announced it was expanding its RISC-V support to include the release of an official Ubuntu 22.04 Long Term Support (LTS) image for the VisionFive – which is a major upgrade on the stock Fedora spin.

On the topic of upgrades, the VisionFive 2 has just closed a successful crowdfunding campaign. Designed to address all of the shortcomings of the original VisionFive, and boasting twice the processor cores, the VisionFive 2 could prove to be the best RISC-V single-board computer yet to hit the market – and we’ll find out once it hits my test bench in the coming months.

All this, and so much more, is available now at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free no-cost PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 230

Custom PC Issue 230This month’s Hobby Tech feature takes a look at three very different things: The StarFive VisionFive RISC-V single-board computer, the Flipper Zero “hacker’s multi-tool,” and Zachtronics’ Last Call BBS – a game which truly marks the end of an era as the company, and founder Zach Barth, exits the games industry.

The StarFive VisionFive, kindly provided by RISC-V International, is an exciting device: it’s the first RISC-V single-board computer on the market which offers anything close to the price-performance balance of the Raspberry Pi – albeit with caveats. The first is that at $179 for a bundle with power supply, microSD, and heatsink and fan assembly, it’s still a lot more expensive than a Raspberry Pi. The second is that the silicon is buggy, an early revision with a number of flaws ranging from by-design issues like the lack of GPU to accidents including a performance-sapping cache issue.

It’s a glimpse of the future, though, and that future is closer than you might thing: since the review was written, the StarFive VisionFive 2 has been announced. Based on a revised system-on-chip design, it fixes the flaws of its predecessor, adds in a GPU, doubles the number of cores, and yet somehow comes in considerably cheaper. A follow-up review will be published comparing the two once hardware is available.

The Flipper Zero, meanwhile, is an interesting beast. Designed with a cyberpunk aesthetic and featuring a simple Tamagotchi-style virtual pet themed after the “cyberdolphin” in William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic, the device offers a range of features of interest to penetration testers, hackers, tinkerers, makers, and the curious – from Near-Field Communication (NFC) capture and playback to pet-tag scanning, sub-gigahertz radio capabilities, and infrared. Its successor, the Flipper One, will add Wi-Fi capabilities and a full Linux distribution on top – but at the time of writing had no release date.

Finally, as a big fan of the “Zach-like” genre, the release of Last Call BBS is a bittersweet moment. Designed to evoke memories of a past that never was, the game puts the user in charge of Sawayama Z5 PowerLance personal computer and a link to a bulletin-board system from which pirated games – plus a rather lovely silicon chip designer – can be slowly downloaded over time. Most games include the usual Zachtronics leaderboard system, while there are hidden extras and notes to be found along the way.

It’s also Zachtronics’ last game, marking Zach Barth’s departure from the industry. As a result, the fun is tinged with sadness – but Barth is undeniably leaving on a high note.

All this and more can be found in Custom PC Issue 230, on shelves at supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a free digital download from the official website now.

Custom PC, Issue 229

Custom PC Issue 229For my Hobby Tech column in this month’s Custom PC Magazine I’ve taken a look at the Blink smart-home security camera ecosystem, and in particularly its new doorbell camera, the shiny Raspberry Pi Pico W, and built a custom Linux distribution for the Microchip PolarFire SoC Icicle Kit.

My interest in the Blink ecosystem is not purely academic. Having recently purchased a new house, I saw the opportunity to deploy a cost-effective camera system while documenting the process for Hobby Tech – and I’m pleased to report that Blink, which is entirely battery-driven bar a mains-powered “Sync Module, made things easy. The hardware was initially photographed in my studio then installed on-site with additional imagery captured, before being tested over a period of weeks to iron out teething problems.

The Raspberry Pi Pico W, meanwhile, is a near-identical clone of the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller board – but this time it’s brought a radio along for the ride. At the time of writing, only Wi-Fi was available – with Bluetooth present in hardware but not yet enabled in the firmware – but that’s enough to vastly expand the possibilities for projects driven by the Raspberry Pi Pico and its RP2040 microcontroller. Better still, the price has been kept low: at £6 including VAT, it’s near-impossible not to recommend the Raspberry Pi Pico W.

Finally, I reviewed the PolarFire SoC Icicle Kit back in Issue 224 – and one of my biggest complaints was with the pre-installed Linux distribution, which was extremely spartan and not a little buggy. It may have only been five months since that review was published, but things have change for the better – and to prove it I used Microchip’s documentation and Yocto Linux board support package (BSP) to build a much more polished Linux operating system for the board.

All this and more is available at your nearest newsagent or supermarket, online with global delivery, or as a free download on the official website.

Custom PC Issue 228

Custom PC Issue 228In my five-page Hobby Tech column for Custom PC this month I take a look at the unusual Panic Playdate handheld console, cover the latest happenings in the MNT Reform community, and read the latest book to have former Commodore executive David John Pleasance’s name on the cover: From Vultures to Vampires Volume One.

The Panic Playdate is something I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. Built around a low-power reflective black-and-white display and powered by a microcontroller, the compact yellow console is unusual for a range of reasons – the biggest of which is a physical crank extending from the side and used as an additional control alongside the more traditional D-pad and buttons on the face.

With an open development ecosystem, all the way through to the browser-based simplified development environment Pulp, the Playdate already hosts a wide range of third-party titles – some for pay, some free, many open-source. It also comes with a subscription to a “season” of bundled games, delivered wirelessly two-a-week every Monday. Despite some early software gremlins, the Playdate has definitely proven worth the wait – though its high price remains a concern.

I reviewed the MNT Reform open-hardware laptop back in Issue 220, but there’s been so much going on with the project it became necessary to write a two-page round-up. The biggest news: the ongoing development of the Pocket Reform, a netbook-like more compact alternative designed to be compatible with the same systems-on-module (SOMs) as the larger Reform. Elsewhere, there have been improvements to the case, the operating system, and a redesigned battery board built to finally put the power-drain problem to rest.

It’s not just MNT itself that’s been hard at work, though: the community has embraced the Reform platform with gusto. A number of replacement keyboard projects are in the works, while one enthusiastic community member has become the first to produce their own PCBs and build a tweaked Reform with USB Type-C charging and an ergonomic keyboard from scratch.

Finally, From Vultures to Vampires is the first half of Pleasance’s follow-up to Commodore: The Inside Story, reviewed back in Issue 189. At least, it’s supposed to be. Reading the tome, which charts the period between 1995 and 2004 and the attempts by various competing parties to keep the Amiga family alive, reveals a very different book to the anecdotal original – and it soon becomes clear that this isn’t Pleasance’s book at all, but written exclusively by supposed co-author Trevor Dickinson.

Despite this little bit of smoke-and-mirrors, which is of little surprise coming from self-confessed fast-and-loose salesman Pleasance, the stories told within the pages are fascinating whether the reader was there or not – though the book could have benefited from an additional editing pass.

All this, and more, is available on supermarket and newsagents’ shelves now, online with global delivery, or as a free digital download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 227

Custom PC Issue 227This month’s Hobby Tech column dives into the capabilities of the Nvidia Jetson AGX Orin Developer Kit, sees what Retro Games Limited’s TheA500 Mini can do, and finishes with a review of the Amazon Smart Air Quality Monitor for smart home enthusiasts tied into the company’s Alexa ecosystem.

The Nvidia Jetson AGX Orin is a direct successor to the AGX Xavier, which I reviewed back in Issue 190. Like its predecessor, the AGX Orin – or, at least, its Developer Kit incarnation as-reviewed – packs a powerful system-on-module into a compact and actively-cooled casing with reasonable room for expansion, including a full-length PCI Express slot to one side.

Designed for on-device machine learning workloads, the AGX Orin includes a 12-core Arm Cortex-A78AE CPU and an Ampere GPU with 2,048 CUDA cores, 64 Tensor cores, and a pair of NVDLA V2 coprocessors. Add 32GB of LPDDR5 memory and 64GB of eMMC storage expandable via M.2 slot to the base, and you’ve got an absolute beast of a box and one I very much enjoyed putting through its paces.

TheA500 Mini, meanwhile, is also Arm-based – but considerably less powerful. Designed as a follow-up to TheC64 Mini, reviewed in Issue 180, TheA500 Mini swaps Commodore’s popular eight-bit for its Amiga successor. With 25 games pre-loaded – 26 if you download a bonus game and pop it on a USB flash drive – it’s not exactly an exhaustive look at the best the Amiga scene had to offer, but a fun nostalgia trip nevertheless. Special mention must also be given to the bundled peripherals, an optical tank-style two-button mouse and a replica of the CD32 gamepad – both of which can be used on a standard PC as USB peripherals.

Finally, the Amazon Smart Air Quality Monitor is a compact sensor designed to tie in to the company’s Alexa smart home system – to the point where it lacks any form of display of its own, relying entirely on in-app reports and a simple LED on the front which lights up when the air quality drops. Reporting a total of five environmental conditions – particular matter 2.5 (PM2.5), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), temperature, humidity, and, oddly, carbon monoxide (CO) – the sensor is discrete but appears to suffer from a few teething troubles.

All this, and more, can be found in Custom PC Issue 227 at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download on the official website now.

Custom PC, Issue 226

Custom PC Issue 226My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the Argon40 Eon network attached storage case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the unusual SB Components RoundyPi and RoundyFi smart display boards, and The Colouring Book of Retro Computers by Neil Thomas and Stoo Cambridge.

Regular readers will be familiar with Argon40’s well-designed metal – and, in its more recent efforts to offer something to the budget crowd, plastic – Raspberry Pi cases. The Eon, which follows on from the One and Neo in a naming scheme which leaves the company no option but to name its next product something like Noe, Eno, or Oen, is different. It’s huge, for a start, because it can hold not only a Raspberry Pi but four SATA hard drives and a USB SSD.

It’s designed to turn a Raspberry Pi into a network-attached storage (NAS) system, and it delivers on its promises – with one major caveat: Testing showed that its weedy internal fan is entirely incapable of keeping the drives cool. Coupled with some software issues surrounding the smart on-board OLED display panel and the Eon is the first Argon40 product that hasn’t been a easy recommendation.

The RoundyPi and RoundyFi, meanwhile, are a lot smaller. Built around the Raspberry Pi RP2040 and the Espressif ESP-12E microcontrollers respectively, these unusual boards offer an integrated means of communicating with an unusual full-colour 240×240 LCD display. They’re eye-catching, but the code samples leave a lot to be desired – and there’s no way to recreate the sample images used in the company’s Kickstarter campaign without considerable effort.

The Colouring Book of Retro Computers is, oddly enough, the second colouring book I’ve reviewed in Hobby Tech after the similarly-named Retro Computer Colouring Book in Issue 214. This time around, though, considerably more effort has been put into its creation – including the hiring of noted video game artist Stoo Cambridge, of Sensible Software fame, to create the illustrations. The result isn’t perfect – product names and company logos are omitted out of an overabundance of caution, and several pages in the print version have been accidentally produced from low-resolution JPEG versions of Cambridge’s excellent illustrations – but it definitely raises a smile.

Custom PC Issue 226 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 225

Custom PC Issue 225My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC Magazine takes a look at the IceWhale Tech ZimaBoard, a self-styled “single-board server,” the relatively low-cost yet high-performance DytSpectrumOwl thermal inspection camera, and the Cyntech Raspberry Pi Heatsink Case – the latter an imposing block of hefty plastic and metal.

The ZimaBoard 216, the cheapest model in the ZimaBoard family, is an interestingly-designed single-board computer which arrives ensconced in its own heatsink case. Powered by an Intel Celeron N3450 – a quiet upgrade from the Celeron N3350 originally planned, likely as a result of component shortages – the base model includes 2GB of LPDDR4 memory and 16GB of eMMC storage pre-loaded with a Linux-based operating system dubbed “Casa OS.”

The hardware is well-designed and comes with room for expansion courtesy of USB 3 ports, two gigabit Ethernet ports, two SATA 6Gbps ports, and – unusually – a PCI Express slot to the side. Actually using the slot, sadly, isn’t easy – and there’s a lot of work still to be done in addressing usability and security issues in the custom OS.

The DytSpectrumOwl is another piece of well-designed hardware somewhat hampered by weaker software. Built by Dianyang Tech, the DytSpectrumOwl is built for thermal analysis of PCBs and materials via a surprisingly high-resolution camera module on a neat adjustable stand – functionally equivalent to, though slightly lower resolution than, the FLIR ETS320 I reviewed back in Issue 201.

At less than half the price, though, the DytSpectrumOwl is a tempting alternative to the FLIR model – and it includes a wonderfully useful focus adjustment knob, dramatically increasing its flexibility. Its software, however, is Windows-only and outputs annoyingly non-standard radiometric JPEG images lacking a visible scale.

Finally, Cyntech’s take on a protective and cooling case for the Raspberry Pi family is a surprisingly chunky design built from plastic with an upper metal heatsink. Built from just three parts – plus an optional fourth spacer layer to make room for a fan, for when passive cooling isn’t enough – the case is pleasingly robust and does a perfectly good job of keeping the Raspberry Pi’s processor from throttling during intensive workloads. Its price, though, makes it hard to recommend over third-party alternatives.

All this, and a whole lot more, is available now from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 224

Custom PC Issue 244In this month’s Hobby Tech I take a look at the PolarFire SoC Icicle Kit from Microchip, the 16 Megapixel Autofocus Camera Module from Arducam, and what Martin Paul Eve bills as the first-ever academic treatise on the topic of the infrastructure and aesthetics of piracy: Warez.

The PolarFire SoC Icicle Kit is a single-board computer, but not of the type usually seen in the magazine. First, its four processor cores are based on the free and open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture. Second, they’re very much secondary to the real star of the show: a powerful yet low-power field-programmable gate array (FPGA), designed to run any sort of workload you fancy. Add in a full-size PCI Express slot to one side and a pair of gigabit Ethernet ports and you’ve got a very interesting device.

I’d like to thank everyone at Microchip for working with me on this review: initial testing revealed some issues with the on-board Linux distribution, which the installation of an updated software image largely resolved: performance of the four SiFive-provided RISC-V cores was dramatically improved, though at the time of publication a few issues still remained with memory allocation and storage space causing one or two problems.

Speaking of problems, the Arducam 16 Megapixel Autofocus Camera Module proved a difficult device to test: on arrival, the high-resolution yet surprisingly small MIPI CSI camera, designed for use with the Raspberry Pi range of single-board computers, refused to play ball with a fully-updated Raspberry Pi OS “Bullseye” installation due to a lack of compatible kernel drivers – and the review ended up being completed only by rolling back to an earlier, deprecated and insecure, version of the operating system.

Since the issue went to press, however, Arducam has released updated drivers and committed to as rapid a turnaround as possible on drivers for each updated Linux kernel – aiming for around a five-day turnaround. The company is also working with the libcamera team to add support upstream, which would come as a great upgrade to what proved to be an excellent camera with fantastic colour reproduction and fine image quality.

Finally, Warez: The Infrastructure and Aesthetics of Piracy is an interesting one-person academic treatise on a topic which is all-too often overlooked: software and media piracy. Eschewing direct interviews, author Martin Paul Eve instead mines previous publications and a large database of communications and release files from the turn of the century. The result is a surprisingly entertaining, if somewhat scattershot book, which is available as a free download from the publisher’s website for the curious to investigate.

Custom PC Issue 224 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, or as a free-of-charge PDF download via the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 223

Custom PC Issue 223In this months’ Hobby Tech column I take a look at the open-source, though not open-hardware, Bangle.js 2 smartwatch, dig deep into digital archaeology with some Dragon 32 floppy disk analysis, and read Microzeit’s Crackers II: The Data Storm.

First, the smartwatch. Back in Issue 218 I reviewed the SQFMI Watchy, a hacker-friendly but bulky smartwatch built around a low-power electrophoretic display. The Bangle.js 2 is a slicker, slimmer device which uses a colour Sharp Memory LCD panel – colour, yet still sunlight readable. Unlike the Watchy, though, it’s not a wholly new creation: it’s an off-the-shelf smartwatch imported in bulk from its Chinese manufacturer, then given new life with the real star of the show: The Bangle.js firmware.

Developed by Gordon Williams, Bangle.js – which is open source – allows users to write smartwatch applications and extensions in JavaScript, which are then transferred onto the smartwatch from a browser-based app store. The original, considerably bulkier, Bangle.js smartwatch proved popular enough that the store was well-populated at launch – though that’s not to say I didn’t encounter a few bugs and gotchas during my testing.

My work on digital archaeology, meanwhile, was surprisingly bug-free – given I was working to blend modern technology with floppy disks last accessed back in the 1980s. Having been imaging some 3.5″ floppy disks originally used with a Dragon 32 microcomputer, I found myself in need of accessing the raw files within – something loading the disk images into an emulator couldn’t provide.

It’s at this stage I must thank Adrien Destugues, Haiku OS developer, who came to my aid with a port of a tool originally written in 1997 for MS-DOS compatibles by engineer Graham E. Kinns: the Dragon DOS Utils. Using Kinns’ original source code, Destugues was able to port the tools to Linux – giving me what I needed to access the files within the floppy disk images and finish my investigations by loading and decoding a series of saved images into The GIMP.

Finally, Crackers II is – unsurprisingly – the follow-up to Microzeit’s Crackers I: The Gold Rush, coincidentally also reviewed in Issue 218. Picking up where the original left off, the book charts the growth of the software piracy scene on bulletin board systems – along with diversions into the worlds of ASCII art, copy markets, and copy protection systems. As with the earlier book, it’s heavy on the imagery – but there’s plenty of meat in the text too.

Custom PC Issue 223 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download on the official website.