HackSpace Magazine, Issue 5

HackSpace Magazine Issue 5My contribution to the latest issue of HackSpace Magazine is a detailed look at the ZX Spectrum Next, an open-hardware reimplementation of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum microcomputer with a wealth of improvements and enhancements.

Officially licensed from the current owner of the Spectrum rights – Sky In-Home Services, oddly enough, which requires only that a portion of any proceeds are donated to charity – the ZX Spectrum Next builds on the original with a Z80 implementation on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) which can be run in accelerated mode at up to 14MHz, up to 2MB of memory, SD card storage, built-in joystick ports, crystal-clear HDMI video output, four-channel AY sound, support for original Spectrum keyboards or modern PS/2 keyboards, and even optional real-time clock, ESP8266 Wi-Fi, and Raspberry Pi Zero-based co-processor add-ons.

Despite these upgrades – and more I haven’t mentioned, including a brand-new operating system dubbed NextOS, 256-colour display modes, and hardware sprite support – the ZX Spectrum Next also boasts full backwards compatibility with software and hardware designed for the original Spectrum family, which is something of an impressive achievement given the relatively modest resources available to its creators following a successful crowdfunding campaign for its production.

The ZX Spectrum Next reviewed here, though, isn’t quite the finished article. Provided to backers eager to get their hands on the device as early as possible, the board-only ZX Spectrum Next Issue 2A is aimed primarily at developers. It also comes with an annoying design flaw, which was discovered post-review: a missing capacitor which can cause stability issues when coupled with low-quality power supplies. The finalised Issue 2B, its creators promise, will include the missing capacitor along with a keyboard and chassis housing designed by Sinclair’s long-term industrial designer Rick Dickinson.

For a full look at the ZX Spectrum Next, you can pick up Hackspace Magazine Issue 5 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or as a free download under the Creative Commons licence at the official website.

Benchmarking the Raspberry Pi 3 B+

Raspberry Pi 3 B+

The launch of the shiny new Raspberry Pi 3 B+ offers a chance to revisit the entire history of the Pi family, benchmarking each device in turn from the original Raspberry Pi Model B launch board with its somewhat limited 256MB of RAM right through to the shiniest and newest board. This post collates the results from a range of different benchmarks, demonstrating how the power of the Pi has changed over the years.

If attempting to replicate the results yourself, there is one key fact to note: the Raspberry Pi has enjoyed somewhere in the range of a 30 percent performance uplift in the last couple of years through software and firmware optimisation alone; comparing the same benchmark run on a Pi using the latest Raspbian operating system today with results gathered a year or more ago will give a false reading, which is why all these results have been gathered using the same firmware and software revision.

 

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Custom PC, Issue 176

Custom PC Issue 176This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the fascinating ZX Spectrum Next, the impressive RetroFlag NesPi case for the Raspberry Pi, and the book Britsoft.

First, the ZX Spectrum Next. The product of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign that drew in around three quarters of a million pounds from backers across the world, the ZX Spectrum Next is exactly what it sounds like: the next entry in the long-running Sinclair Spectrum family, long after even its most ardent fans had given up hope. Although based around ‘soft’ cores running on a central FPGA, the Next isn’t an emulator: the open design is entirely compatible with every piece of software or hardware you can throw at it, complete with accessories designed for the original Spectrum. It’ll even fit in a 16K/48K chassis, if you don’t mind drilling a few extra holes.

Those holes, you see, are needed for just some of the Next’s shiny new features: a pair of joystick ports, HDMI and VGA video outputs, and even the ability to insert a Raspberry Pi Zero into a special header for use – once the software has been written – as a co-processor, or as it was known at the time a “copper.” There’s room for up to 2MB of RAM, triple-chip FM synthesis, even Wi-Fi network support – though a design flaw discovered shortly after the review went to print means that anyone with the early-release Model 2A will need to solder a small capacitor onto the voltage regulator for full reliability, an issue fixed with Model 2B onward.

The NesPi, by contrast, is a lot simpler. At its heart, it’s a plastic case into which you can install a Raspberry Pi B+, 2, or 3. Its designers, though, have decided to create something a little different, and the Nintendo Entertainment System ‘inspired’ housing also includes daughterboards which offer four front-facing USB ports – two where the controllers would connect and another two under the ‘cartridge’ flap – along with working power and reset buttons. The Ethernet port is also brought to the front, for no readily apparent reason, while the dedicated power board includes a header for an optional cooling fan.

Finally, Britsoft is a book that has been on my shelves awaiting review for a little while now. A Read Only Memories publication, this impressive hardback tome gathers interview content originally created for the 2014 documentary From Bedrooms to Billions charting the rise of the British computer games industry. You’d be hard pushed, off the top of your head, to think of a luminary of the era not included in the title’s impressive 420 pages, and I had but one real complaint: the layout of the book is easier on the eye than the brain, often making it difficult to follow which speaker is talking and which topic you’re reading.

All this, and the usual collection of stuff by other people, is available now at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

The MagPi, Issue 67

MagPi Issue 67This month’s MagPi magazine includes a review of the Allo DigiOne Player, a clever though high-priced add-on for the Raspberry Pi which its creator claims gives it pitch-perfect digital audio capabilities.

Designed as a ‘digital transport’ – a device which provides a digital, rather than analogue, signal for decoding by an external digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) – the DigiOne Player is a plug-and-play design based on Allo’s DigiOne S/PDIF HAT. As the name suggests, the primary part of the Player is a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) add-on for the Raspberry Pi which provides a Sony/Philips Digital Interface (S/PDIF) audio output on an RCA or BNC jack; the Player is simply a bundle which includes a Pi, case, and cabling.

There’s no denying that the DigiOne is a clever design, with a surprising amount of hardware crammed into a small space. At nearly £150, though, it’s priced head and shoulders above the competition and lacks some of their features – such as the optical output of the £30 JustBoom Digi HAT, ditched due to what Allo calls unacceptable built-in jitter levels avoided through the use of electrical connectivity.

For my conclusion on the device’s value, you can pick up The MagPi Issue 67 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or for free download under a Creative Commons licence via the official website.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 4

Hackspace Issue 4This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a four-page spread detailing two projects from the talented Daniel Bailey: the Manchester Baby inspired C88 and C3232 homebrew microcomputers.

When one normally talks about ‘building’ a computer, the ‘building’ process is akin to Lego: blocks specifically designed to be compatible are clicked together in a reasonably idiot-proof manner, then an off-the-shelf operating system is installed. Daniel’s C88 and C3232 systems, by contrast, are built from the ground up: systems built around using an 8×8 or 32×32 LED display as memory and running a unique processor, built from scratch on an FPGA, with its own instruction set architecture.

The smaller C88 came first, and the larger and more complex C3232 – designed with a mode which allows it to run software originally written for the early Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), or Manchester Baby, without modification – served as a magnum opus for the project. Daniel wasn’t done there, though: a final effort produced the Mini C88, a C88-compatible kit powered by the a low-cost Arduino instead of a more expensive FPGA but boasting near-complete compatibility with the original.

While Daniel has yet to release the kit, a simulator provides a hint of what it’s like to use the C88 or Mini C88: programs are entered into the system one bit at a time using physical toggle-switches, then executed for display on the LED matrix. Examples include simple animations, pseudorandom number generation, and mathematical calculations, while the real C88 can also be connected to external hardware via a general-purpose input-output (GPIO) port missing from the Mini C88.

I’ve long been a fan of Daniel’s creations, and am lucky enough to own a Mini C88 of my very own – but even for those who haven’t caught the systems being demonstrated at various Maker Faires and related events, I’d recommend reading the piece to see just how clever the project really is.

You can see the feature in full by downloading the Creative Commons licensed magazine from the official website, or pick up a copy in print from your nearest newsagent or supermarket.

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.