Custom PC, Issue 163

Custom PC Issue 163My work for Hobby Tech this month involved rather more soldering than is usual, in order to assemble the parts required for reviews of the Boldport Club’s Ligemdio and Touchy kits and the Dark Control Raspberry Pi motor control boards – though, at least, the final review of the freshly-launched Debian+Pixel Linux distribution was free of fumes.

First, the Boldport Club. I’ve reviewed one of Saar Drimer’s impressively artistic circuit kits before, back in November 2015, but where you used to have to camp out on the Boldport website to pick up the latest small-production-run kit there’s a new option: monthly subscription. Members of the Boldport Club get a series of parcels, typically but not always including a kit featuring a Saar-designed printed circuit board but almost always being aimed more at the experienced engineer than the absolute beginner.

For a flavour of what Boldport Club members can expect, Saar sent over two kits: the Touchy, a touch-sensitive microcontroller dedicated to the memory of maker Oliver Coles, and the Ligemdio, a handy-dandy USB-powered LED tester. The latter proved far simpler to build than the former: anyone used to beginner through-hole kits would undeniably find the surface mount components on the Touchy a challenge, but therein lies its attraction.

The soldering on the Dark Control boards, by contrast, was considerably less tricky. Created by the Dark Water Foundation and funded via Kickstarter, the Dark Control boards – one for DC motors and the other for ESC motors – are impressive beasts. Designed to mimic the footprint of the diminutive Raspberry Pi Zero, the boards include the ability to run a minimum of six independent motors, include room for a nine-degree sensor add-on, and can be linked to remote control hardware for network-free control of everything from submarines to aerial drones.

Finally, Debian+Pixel is Raspbian for the masses. Like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel is built on top of Debian Linux; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel uses the Pixel desktop environment; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel includes a selection of educational software chosen by the Raspberry Pi community. Unlike Raspbian, though, Debian+Pixel runs on almost any x86 PC – meaning you don’t need a Raspberry Pi.

The software is, as you’d expect from a distribution based on one of the oldest Linux variants around, stable. The Pixel interface looks the same whether you’re running on a Pi or a traditional PC, and only the speed at which programs open and run gives it away. Sadly, there are one or two omissions largely as a result of licensing agreements: the handy Wolfram Alpha application is nowhere to be found, as is the extremely buggy Minecraft Pi Edition that saw one release back in 2013 before being abandoned by the now Microsoft-owned Mojang.

For the full run-down of all these shiny things, plus a whole bunch of other stuff written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC magazine in your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

The MagPi, Issue 54

The MagPi Issue 54This month’s The MagPi Magazine, the official publication of the Raspberry Pi community, features my review of an impressive compact network-attached storage (NAS) device: the Nextcloud Box.

Built around the PiDrive storage system from Western Digital Labs and featuring software from the open-source Nextcloud project – itself born from a fork of the Owncloud project – the Nextcloud Box does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a box which runs Nextcloud.

More accurately, it’s a box that can run Nextcloud. Out of the box, there’s a key piece missing: the packaging reveals a two-part plastic chassis with clever magnetic clasp, a smart split power and data cable, a power supply, a 1TB Western Digital 2.5″ hard drive, and a micro-SD card with the Nextcloud software already loaded onto an Ubuntu Core installation. What you don’t get is a Raspberry Pi: the brains need to be supplied separately, with only the Raspberry Pi 2 supported at the time of writing.

Once you’ve affixed your Pi in place with the bundled Torx screwdriver and screws, you can begin the installation process – which is as simple as putting the micro-SD card in and connecting power. Over the course of a few minutes the operating system is copied to the 1TB hard drive, and then the system reboots ready for configuration.

Nextcloud is, I have to say, incredibly impressive software. While there’s some way to go in certain aspects of usability – in particular setting the NAS up for access from outside your home network requires a bit of fiddling at the command line, registration of a domain name, and manual port forwarding on your router or gateway – the UI and general functionality are both polished to a high standard.

For my full opinion on the device, though, you’ll have to read the review – and you can do so for free by downloading the Creative Commons licensed DRM-free PDF at the official MagPi website, or by picking up a print copy from your nearest supermarket or newsagent.

Hello World, Issue 1

Hello World Issue 1The Raspberry Pi Foundation has launched a new magazine, Hello World, and I’m thrilled to have contributed photography to its launch issue – the first, hopefully, of many to come.

Designed to sit alongside The MagPi rather than replace it, the Foundation’s second magazine takes aim at a different audience: where The MagPi is for the Raspberry Pi community as a whole, Hello World focuses purely on computing education – and not exclusively Raspberry Pi-related topics, either, with hackspaces and 3D modelling software among the subjects covered in the launch issue.

While I’m primarily a technical writer and journalist, I’m also a photographer. Whether it’s events I’ve attended or product photography, whatever I take I release publicly under a permissive Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence which allows anybody – including commercial businesses – to take the images and use them as they see fit, so long as I am identified as the original creator and any derivative works are released under the same licence.

It’s always a pleasure to see my photos cropping up in new places, and I’m proud as punch that includes Hello World. The full issue is available to download now as a free PDF from the official website, while you can see more of my photography – and download full-resolution images to use yourself – on my Flickr page.

PC Pro, Issue 269

PC Pro Issue 269In this month’s PC Pro I turn my eye to the Kano Computer Kit, the latest bundle of parts from the eponymous London-based education-centric company – and come away with distinctly mixed feelings.

The original Kano kit proved a smash hit when it landed on crowdfunding site Kickstarter back in 2013, raising more than $1.5 million to produce what it claimed was a computer you built yourself. Its launch was marred, however, by a modicum of controversy: what Kano had made was not a computer, but rather a selection of accessories – case, speaker, keyboard, and a customised GNU/Linux operating system – which it bundled with the already-existing Raspberry Pi, turning it from the “computer you build” to the “computer you put in a case and plug a USB dongle into.”

The crowdfunding success was followed by efforts to set up a sustainable business, and the Kano kits are now available globally direct from Kano and through resellers. For review I received the two latest revisions, the Kano Computer Kit and Kano Display Kit, bundled together as the Kano Complete Computer Kit.

The Computer Kit takes a Raspberry Pi 3 then bundles it with the Debian-based Kano OS software, a case, GPIO-powered speaker, combined wireless keyboard and trackpad in fetching orange, and the Kano ‘story book’ manual. The Display Kit adds a non-touch display panel, a custom stand the Kano case can hook into, and a smart split power cable that allows the display and Raspberry Pi to be driven from a single socket.

The hardware, sadly, proved disappointing for the cost. At an RRP of £299, the kit isn’t exactly value for money: a Raspberry Pi 3, speaker, wireless keyboard and trackpad, official touchscreen display, power supply, micro-SD card, and a decent book could be had for around half the cost and provide roughly equal educational value – if, that is, you ignore the software.

Kano OS is, to put it simply, fantastic. For full details you’ll have to read my review, but it’s fair to say I was in love with the platform from the moment I powered the Kano kit on. Interestingly, though, you don’t need a Kano kit to use Kano OS: the Debian-based Linux distribution is available to download completely free of charge from Kano’s developer site, and can be used on any existing Raspberry Pi.

For my final conclusion, pick up the latest issue of PC Pro from your favourite supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 162

Custom PC Issue 162In Hobby Tech this month I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi-based Kano Complete Computer Kit, the eight-bit Arduboy handheld games console, and the undeniably impressive Mirobot educational robot.

To look at the Mirobot first, it’s no secret that I was eager to put it through its paces. Turtle-style robots, which roll around the floor drawing pictures, were immensely popular in the 80s, and the Mirobot looks to bring the technology bang up to date. Entirely open source, from the circuits to the software, the Mirobot is based around two microcontrollers: an Arduino, which handles the actual robotics, and an ESP8266, which provides Wi-Fi connectivity and handles the user interface and ever-so-smart over-the-air (OTA) flashing capabilities.

The Mirobot screams smart from the moment you open the package: its body is made from laser-cut MDF, and the panels form the packaging itself. Everything is put together without tools, and getting up and running requires no software installation – just a device with a modern browser. Multiple programming languages are available, and an API for those who want to roll their own software. In short, I’m a Mirobot fan – and I’d heartily recommend picking one up if you’ve an interest in open-source robotics or programming for education.

The Kano Complete Computer Kit, on the other hand, comes at education from a very different perspective. Billed somewhat disingenuously as a computer you ‘build,’ the kit is at its heart a speaker and case for a bundle Raspberry Pi alongside a customised operating system which is the project’s true selling point.

The Kano kits have been around for a while now, but the Complete Computer Kit as reviewed is new: the computer side has been refreshed to include the latest Raspberry Pi 3, while the bundle also includes a high-quality but non-touch display which accepts the Kano-cased Pi in its rear. It’s a lovely kit, and the software – which you can download for free and run on your own Raspberry Pi – is phenomenal, but its cost definitely lets it down: at £299 RRP it’s massively overpriced.

Finally, the Arduboy. Crowdfunded and hit by numerous delays on its way to market, the Arduboy is an extremely smart little handheld console based around an Arduino-compatible ATmega microprocessor. Games are written in the Arduino IDE then flashed onto the credit card sized device via USB, and play out on a teeny-tiny little single-colour OLED panel which is sadly prone to bad banding.

The Arduboy is a lovely device, but it’s not the first design I’ve seen – and nor is it my favourite. The Gamebuino, reviewed back in Issue 134, still sits at the top for a number of reasons: it’s cheaper, it has better battery life, and it has a clever system for loading games from a bundled micro-SD card. The Arduboy, by contrast, is slimmer, has a clearer display, but can only carry a single game at a time. When you want to switch games, you’ll need a computer with the Arduino IDE – and that’s a major drawback in a portable gaming device.

All this can be yours, alongside the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

PC & Tech Authority, Issue 230

PC & Tech Authority Issue 230PC & Tech Authority, Australia’s top technology magazine, has published a reprise of a review I originally wrote for PC Pro in the UK: the NextThingCo CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers. Here’s what I had to say on the topic when the review was originally published.

NextThingCo’s crowdfunding launch was met with considerable scepticism, and with good reason: at a time when the Raspberry Pi had only just proven you could sustainable sell a fully-functional single-board microcomputer with desktop-ish performance for under $30, NextThingCo was claiming to offer the same thing for $9 – and with integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radio connectivity to boot.

The campaign succeeded, and to critics’ considerable surprise nobody was ripped off: NextThingCo’s CHIP did indeed ship and, as of earlier this year, is now available to purchase direct. While certain corners have been undoubtedly cut – just like the Raspberry Pi, it comes devoid of cables and accessories – and its performance can’t hold a candle to newer Pi models, it’s functional, available, and if you’re willing to supply the extras needed to get it up and running yourself does indeed cost $9.

The PocketCHIP, meawhile, is a fantastic example of what you can do with a CHIP: an open-hardware hand-held computer, complete with clever though painful-to-use bubble-based keyboard, with a very 1990s transparent casing. The screen may be low resolution and resistive rather than capacitive touch, but if I said I didn’t have a blast using the PocketCHIP I’d be lying.

For my full verdict on the device, of course, you’ll have to head to your nearest PC & Tech Authority stockist, whether that’s a newsagent, a supermarket, or one of the digital distributors like Zinio you can browse from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this.

The MagPi, Issue 53

The MagPi Issue 53Inside this month’s MagPi Magazine – the first issue to feature a cover-mounted DVD, boasting a bootable copy of the new Debian+Pixel Linux distribution for readers to try – you’ll find my review of a rather special little gadget: the Mirobot v2 programmable robot.

I’ve played with educational robots before, but the Mirobot caught my eye the minute I saw inventor Ben Pirt demonstrating it at the Maker Faire UK earlier this year. With a chassis made entirely from laser-cut MDF, the Mirobot is an impressive package: Ben has designed it so that every component nestles in holes cut out from the MDF sheets themselves, making for an extremely compact box which pops nicely through your letterbox and leaving almost zero waste once assembled.

The Mirobot is designed primarily for use as a turtle, and includes a mount for a pen so it can draw on suitable surfaces. Where it differs from most rival designs is that it can be programmed entirely through a browser: an on-board web server, running on the popular ESP8266 microcontroller, can work as a standalone hotspot with simple Scratch-inspired drag-and-drop programming interface or connect to your home Wi-Fi and allow access to additional languages, a point-and-click interface, and even a set of buttons for direct remote control.

With the exception of the Scratch language, which relies on Adobe Flash Player, everything works an absolute treat on the Raspberry Pi, but the Mirobot isn’t limited to this: it can be programmed from any modern web-connected device, from a laptop to a smartphone, or for more advanced users interfaced with via a well-documented application programming interface (API) from the language of your choice. Assembly is quick and easy, requiring absolutely no tools, and while aligning the pen and motors is a little trickier that’s a one-off job.

To read the full review, either pick up a paper copy of The MagPi Issue 53 and enjoy your bonus cover DVD or download the entire issue for free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 173

Linux User & Developer Issue 173This month’s Linux User & Developer includes a rare laptop review, my first for the magazine since the Hewlett Packard 455 G3 in Issue 158, courtesy Newcastle-based Nimbusoft: the Aurora.

The Nimbusoft Aurora is the Ultrabook entry in a range of products the startup company is offering for sale, designed to offer portability at a reasonable price. Based on a chassis from original design manufacturer (ODM) Topstar, the Aurora can be tweaked at the time of ordering: the review sample sent across came with an SSD instead of a hard drive and an upgraded wireless card, both of which were reflected in the slightly raised price in the review.

The hardware’s not the star here, though: Nimbusoft is one of the only companies in the UK not only offering Linux as a pre-installed option on its devices but offering Linux exclusively. You’ll find no option to buy Windows on the Nimbusoft website, nor a PC Specialist-style option to buy the devices without an operating system installed; instead, all laptops come equipped with Ubuntu 16.04.1 LTS and you choice of officially-supported desktop environments.

As a Linux user myself, it’s a great feeling knowing that the laptop you’re firing up is fully supported and won’t run into any strange errors as a result of not-quite-ready wireless drivers or a badly-supported LCD backlight circuit. Accordingly, I was thrilled when the Aurora booted up in to an absolutely stock Ubuntu install with no bloat or branding, ready for me to give the device a name and create my user account.

While Nimbusoft may not offer Windows machines, the same can’t be said for other Topstar customers; as a result, there’s the usual workaround for the Super key being emblazoned with Microsoft’s Windows logo: a sticker, with a range of replacement logos available at the time of purchase or the key being left stock if you’d prefer. The same can’t be said of the Internet Explorer logo on one of the shortcut keys, though, and I was disappointed that this didn’t trigger Firefox when pressed – but that, the relatively poor keyboard, and a slightly sub-par battery life of five hours, were pretty much the only negative points I encountered during the review.

If you’d like to read my full analysis from a Linux user’s perspective, Issue 173 is on shelves now and also available electronically from Zinio and similar distribution services.

PC Pro, Issue 268

PC Pro Issue 268My review for this month’s PC Pro is on a topic dear to my heart: hardware which not only fully supports the open GNU/Linux operating system, but even comes with it pre-installed. Specifically, it’s the Aurora laptop from Newcastle-based Nimbusoft.

Based on a Topstar Ultrabook chassis, the Aurora is designed to appeal to those who like Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air range. Though not as powerful as the former or slim as the latter, it’s a comfortable little laptop with a slick aluminium chassis – albeit one I would discover during dismantling is rather thinner than you might expect.

The hardware isn’t the main feature of the Aurora, anyway. Nimbusoft’s claim to fame is in being one of the few companies offering a range of hardware with a Linux distribution pre-installed. the company even goes further than its competitors in offering a choice of desktop environments, and I’m pleased to say that the review unit – specced with Ubuntu 16.04.1 running the stock Unity DE – proved to be entirely without bloat or branding, in stark contrast to Windows laptops I’ve looked at in the past.

Reviewing the laptop for PC Pro involved running it through a standardised battery life test: the looping of a film with the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios disabled and the display set to a brightness of 170cd/m². This makes my result of five hours exactly – give or take a couple of seconds – directly comparable with the magazine’s other reviews, even of tablet-style machines. Getting the display to exactly the right brightness, though, is always a challenge.

While the battery life proved slightly disappointing and the chassis rather thin, I came away from the Aurora rather pleased – but to get my final verdict on the machine you’ll have to pick up a copy of PC Pro Issue 268 from your nearest emporium of glossy print or digitally via Zinio or one of the many competing digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 161

Custom PC Issue 161In this latest issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine you’ll find – to no great surprise – my long-running five-page Hobby Tech column, covering the handy thermoplastic FORMcard, the Raspberry Pi powered Nextcloud Box, and Zachtronics’ Shenzhen I/O.

Looking at Shenzhen I/O first: it’s rare that I’ll write a game review as part of Hobby Tech, but Zachtronics’ output is a typical exception. The last I covered was the company’s excellent eight-bit minicomputer ‘simulator’ TIS-100, and Shenzhen I/O builds on that premise with a new near-future theme. The player is placed in the role of a newly-hired engineer at a Chinese electronics concern and given the task of building increasingly complex hardware from simple components using a drag-and-drop interface and a simple TIS-100-like instruction set.

As good as the game itself is – and it’s absolutely fantastic – it’s the manual that really caught my attention. Like the Infocom feelies of old, the document is written entirely in-universe and acts as a series of emails, manual extracts, data sheets, and reference material for the hardware and projects you’ll be tackling through the game. If TIS-100 whet your whistle, you won’t be disappointed with Shenzhen I/O.

The Nextcloud Box, meanwhile, is something a little more professional. Designed around the Western Digital Labs PiDrive product, it offers a simple means to build a single-drive low-power 1TB network attached storage (NAS) device running Nextcloud’s open-source software on top of the Ubuntu Snappy Core operating system.

My review of the Nextcloud Box goes into great detail about its features and capabilities, but there are two things that struck me during the review process and are worth highlighting here. The first is that the WD Labs’ box, emblazoned with Nextcloud branding, really needs a rethink: the cables go through very sharp bends, and those using cheaper cables may find they don’t last very long at all. The other is that getting set up for local access was an absolute breeze, without even the need to connect a monitor to the device – something other Pi-powered project creators could do with copying.

Finally, the FORMcard review. I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, a mouldable silicone putty which hardens into rubber overnight, and when I was contacted to see if I would be interested in giving rival FORMcard a try I jumped at the chance. Created by Peter Marigold and crowdfunded into production, FORMcard is a starch-based bioplastic which softens with the application of heat. Simply take one of the credit card footprint plastic sheets, dunk it in hot water for a minute, then mould it to your hearts desire. Unlike Sugru, it hardens in minutes and is fully reusable – assuming you can remove it from whatever surface you smeared it over – but it’s, for obvious reasons, not the material to use if you’re patching something that gets hot.

For my full opinions on all three items, plus the usual array of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of right where you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.