Tag Archive for Acorn

Custom PC, Issue 154

Custom PC Issue 154In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a good long look at the BBC micro:bit, CubieTech’s latest Cubietruck Plus (Cubieboard 5) single-board computer, and a pack of Top Trumps-inspired playing cards based on vintage computers.

Beginning with the micro:bit, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a press sample when the much-redesigned educational device was finally ready to ship to schools across the UK. Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller and boasting integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the micro:bit’s main selling point is its excellent support: the web IDE includes four languages suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to experts, there is documentation galore, and the BBC’s TV output includes shows which remind me of the glory days of the BBC Micro and its related programming.

At least, that would be a selling point if the board was actually up for sale. Despite having now mostly fulfilled its promise to ship free micro:bits to all Year Seven pupils in the UK, the BBC has still made no announcement about commercial availability for the educational gadget. Those whose appetites are whetted by the review, then, are best off looking at the CodeBug on which the micro:bit was based, or the new Genuino/Arduino 101 if Bluetooth LE support is a requirement.

The Cubietruck Plus, meanwhile, is an altogether different beast. Kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the board is – as the name suggests – a follow-up to CubieTech’s original Cubietruck. The old dual-core processor is long gone, replaced with an Allwinner H8 octa-core chip that blazed through benchmarks with aplomb – and without hitting the boiling-point temperature highs of the rival Raspberry Pi 3.

Sadly, there’s one piece of information that didn’t make it into the review: shortly after the issue went to press, security researchers discovered a debug vulnerability left in Allwinner’s customised Linux kernel which allows any application on the system to gain root permission. Although affecting only selected operating systems, it’s something to be aware of if you’re in the market for an Allwinner-powered SBC.

Finally, the playing cards. Created by start-up 8bitkick following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the deck is nostalgia in a box. The idea is to bring the Top Trumps concept of collectable, trivia-esque comparison gaming to vintage computing: the cards feature everything from the Acorn Atom to the TI-99/4A, plus a joker in the deck in the form of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.

The cards are printed with a very high quality finish, but it’s the source of the images that is of most interest: rather than take the pictures itself, 8bitkick has instead scoured the web for images in the public domain or licensed as Creative Commons. It’s no theft, though: while most Creative Commons licenses allow for even commercial reuse if properly attributed, 8bitkick has promised to upload the full deck design to its website for free download and printing.

All this, plus lots of interesting things by people who aren’t me, is only a short trip to the newsagent’s away – or you can stay exactly where you are and grab a digital copy from Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 165

Linux User & Developer Issue 165For my regular review in Linux User & Developer this month I had the great pleasure to spend time with the BBC’s first serious hardware project since it teamed up with Acorn in the 80s: the BBC micro:bit.

Originally known as the Micro Bit, the micro:bit is a teeny-tiny microcontroller-based educational programming platform based on the CodeBug. Like the CodeBug, the micro:bit uses a 5×5 LED matrix on its front side as its main method of communicating with the outside world; unlike the CodeBug, the micro:bit includes built-in Bluetooth Low Energy support as well as a gyroscope and magnetic compass, along with the two-button input layout the two share.

With the backing of the BBC, and a major funding drive from Barclay’s which has seen a micro:bit promised to ever Year Seven pupil the UK entirely free of charge, it’s no surprise to see that plenty of companies are involved in the project. At launch, the device boasted no fewer than four programming languages – three provided by Microsoft – in its web-based IDE, along with a neat smartphone app built by Samsung allowing for Bluetooth LE-based interaction and even wireless flashing of programs.

Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller (and, oddly, a significantly more powerful Cortex-M0+ which is used exclusively to handle the USB Mass Storage implementation, allowing for mbed-style drag-and-drop flashing without the need to install drivers or a toolchain locally) the micro:bit is impressive, as is the wealth of documentation and supporting materials the BBC has compiled. There’s a catch, mind you: so far, the BBC has not announced commercial availability – meaning we have no idea how much the gadget is going to cost people not included in the generous Barclay’s-funded giveaway programme.

For the full low-down, plus a lot more interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local magazine outlet or stay where you are and pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 144

Custom PC Issue 144In this month’s Hobby Tech column, I report from the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, build a 4tronix Agobo robot, and take a look at the Acorn x86 Card – a device that let Acorn users try out the joys of Microsoft’s Windows 95.

First, the robot. Designed as a lower-cost and simpler alternative to the Pi2Go-Lite robot I reviewed back in Issue 135, the Agobo is one of the few kits out there designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi Model A+. While that means that you miss out on a few niceties, few of these – like the wired Ethernet port – are all that important to a portable robot build. The advantages outweigh the negatives, too: the Model A+ draws less power, is smaller, lighter, and costs less; the only real shame is that there is no quad-core Raspberry Pi Model A yet available, leaving users stuck with the outdated single-core BCM2835 system-on-chip processor.

As with the Pi2Go-Lite, I enjoyed building the Agobo – a process which was a lot simpler, involving zero soldering and only a little bit of swearing as I tried to get the bearings in the front caster to cooperate – and programming it was a cinch thanks to 4tronix’s great samples. While it’s undeniably more limited than the Pi2Go-Lite or its full-fat Pi2Go brother, the Agobo could well be a good choice for beginners or the budget-conscious – but for a full conclusion, you’ll have to read the review.

I spent two days this month covering the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, with travel expenses very kindly covered by my client oomlout – for whom I’ve been doing regular blog posts – and it was, as these events always are, an absolute pleasure. Housed at Eureka, the national children’s museum, the event – a community-driven spin-off from Make’s Maker Faires – was well-attended, including by numerous guests who had never been to maker-themed events before. There were soldering workshops, hackspaces, a chap who builds automata out of toys, all kinds of wondrous things – and you can read about them in detail this month.

Finally, the Acorn x86 Card. I wasn’t planning to write about it, but I happened to find it while clearing out the office and thought it would be of interest to readers. A relic of the days before x86 compatibility was the norm in personal computers, the add-in card allowed Acorn’s ARM-based Risc PC to run Windows – even Windows 95, at the time the cutting-edge in operating systems. My particular example is a second-generation card featuring a Texas Instruments 486 processor, and I still haven’t got around to fitting it into my Risc PC despite having received it a couple of years ago…

All this, plus a selection of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, is available in Custom PC Issue 144 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 124

Custom PC Issue 124My well-received four-page column, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, continues in this most recent issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with a review of the Fuze case for the Raspberry Pi, my progress with uncovering the secrets behind a piece of computing history, and a guide to designing and producing your own custom circuit boards.

First, the review. I’ve already covered the Fuze for Linux User & Developer, with the review scheduled to appear in Issue 133 in print following its early publication to the site, but here I concentrate less on an objective review and more on my subjective experience of the device.

If you haven’t seen it, the Fuze is an all-in-one machine which turns the Raspberry Pi from a bare circuit board into a fully-fledged microcomputer complete with built-in keyboard. Designed to evoke nostalgia for Acorn’s original BBC Micro, the metal chassis is well-made and includes a prototyping area at the top for constructing circuits which connect through a bundled buffered general-purpose input-output (GPIO) interface board.

Designed primarily for education, the Fuze is expensive – thanks largely to its creator’s focus on local manufacturing coupled with the inclusion of numerous electronic components and handy educational project guides – but undeniably impressive. Some issues I ran into while I was writing both features have since been addressed, following an extremely productive phone-call with the Fuze’s inventor, and it has become my go-to device when I need to do some work with a Pi.

For the regular vintage computing section, something a bit special. I recently helped out at the Wuthering Bytes festival in Hebden Bridge, which was organised by my friend Andrew Back – among others. I picked up something special from Andrew: an LJ Electronics Tina microcomputer, something computing museums around the world have scratched their heads over. Ex-RAF, the device appears to be a teaching system – but includes break-outs for everything from the keyboard to the TTL-level display, and built-in software including BASIC, assembler, telecommunications and even a machine-code monitor.

I’m currently working to restore the machine, and to find out some more about its history. The company which created it still exists – as LJ Create, rather than LJ Electronics – so they’re my next port of call. Unfortunately, one of the ROM chips – the one which holds the machine code monitor – is corrupt, but Andrew also gave a second machine to a friend of ours, so I’m hoping to get a clean dump and finish restoration in the near future.

Finally, a tutorial on designing your own printed circuit boards. Based on my experiences making the Sleepduino, an Arduino compatible night-light and white-noise generator, I walk the reader through using freely available software and cheap commercial PCB printing services in order to build custom devices. My software of choice is Fritzing; while it has its detractors, who quite rightly point out it’s relatively restricted and somewhat slow, it’s a lot easier to get started with than any other cross-platform PCB design tool.

All this, plus a bunch of other interesting stuff which I didn’t write, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on the digital nets via services like Zinio.

Micro Mart, Issue 1235

Micro Mart, Issue 1235It’s been a while since I’ve done a cover feature for Micro Mart – the last was back in Issue 1198, when I looked at the state of the printer ink refill market – and I had a little something that had been brewing in my noggin for a while, so I figured it was time for a pitch. The result: a cover feature dubbed The Secret Processor Revolution.

With an eye-catching title like that – editor Simon Brew’s suggestion, and much more likely to interest readers than my original title of The Fall and Rise of ARM – it should help shift a few copies, and those who do pick it up will find my take on the history, present and future of ARM.

For those who don’t know, Cambridge-based ARM was born from the ashes of Acorn Computers, and although it’s been a while since it was last seen on the desktop – you have to go back to the days of the RISC PC for that – the company holds a near-monopoly in the smartphone and tablet market. It’s also looking at taking on semiconductor giant Intel in the datacentre, and could well return to desks around the world – it’s already in Samsung’s latest Chromebook laptop, after all.

In this feature, I take a look at how ARM got its start, why its processors differ so much from the mainstream chips from AMD and Intel, and what the winds of change could bring for consumers. Wondering exactly what that might be? Better buy it, then, hadn’t you?

It was a fun piece to write, and a subject dear to my heart: I still own an Acorn Archimedes, and the RISC PC that followed, and have recently been playing around with a port of RISC OS designed for the Raspberry Pi – that £30 microcomputer based on an ARM processor from a company that once held the British microcomputing market in the palm of its hand.

Micro Mart is available in exchange for a shiny £2 coin – or equivalent in legal tender or acceptable credit – in most newsagents, or can be downloaded from Zinio and other retailers of digital magazines.