This month’s Linux User & Developer includes a review of the Cubietruck Plus – also known as the Cubieboard 5 – I previously reviewed in Custom PC Issue 154.
CubieTech’s latest design, the Cubietruck Plus borrows the overall design from its predecessor but swaps out the weedy dual-core Allwinner A20 processor for an altogether beefier H8 octa-core chip. Kindly supplied for review by low-power computing specialist New IT, I was eager to put the board through its paces – especially as previous octa-core single-board computer (SBC) designs have suffered from some reliability issues when fully loaded for extended periods.
Sadly, as with my earlier review, there’s one piece of information which didn’t come to light prior to the deadline: devices, including single-board computers, based on Allwinner chips and using the company’s modified Linux kernel source have been found to suffer from a back-door which allows any process running on the system to silently and immediately gain root-level (superuser) privileges. While it doesn’t allow for remote execution, it can make existing bugs more readily exploitable – and if you’re using the Cubietruck Plus or any other Allwinner-based device, it’s worth checking to see if you’re affected.
This aside, the Cubietruck Plus certainly impressed during both reviews – though if you want to find out if I think it justifies its considerable price premium over the four-core Raspberry Pi 3, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.
In 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.
This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine, in addition to my usual four-page news spread at the front, includes just one review from my keyboard: the LeMaker Banana Pro single-board computer.
The story of China’s Banana-themed SBCs is one of intrigue, and bears a brief recap. The family started with the Banana Pi, a functional clone of the popular Raspberry Pi with enhanced specifications. Retaining the overall layout of the original Model B, the Banana Pi included a more powerful dual-core AllWinner A20 processor and an on-board SATA port, along with a few less explicable extras like a built-in microphone.
Sales in China were fair, but it’s the ecosystem which is of interest: various models of Banana Pi-based SBCs have been released, thanks to its open-hardware nature, including units that double as wireless routers or even network switches.
The Banana Pro is a direct replacement for the Banana Pi, designed by LeMaker. While keeping most of the specifications – the AllWinner A20 chip, 1GB of RAM, a gigabit Ethernet port – the board has received an overhaul, boasting a more streamlined design which borrows from both the Raspberry Pi Model B and Model B Plus. As a result, you’ll find an extended GPIO header – finished in fetching yellow – and the removal of the dedicated composite video output jack, but only two USB ports – plus the USB OTG port.
When the Banana Pi launched, it offered more power and wider compatibility than the Raspberry Pi it aimed to emulate; with the launch of the quad-core Raspberry Pi 2, however, the two leapfrogged once more. Keeping the dual-core A20 may have been a mistake, as for roughly the same price the official Raspberry Pi 2 offers far more performance – but, that said, real USB ports and SATA connectivity, along with gigabit Ethernet, are features not to be sniffed at.
If you want to read my full conclusion, along with my four-page spread of the latest news from the world of Linux, open hardware and open source, pick up your copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 155 from your nearest newsagent or supermarket now, or get it from the comfort of your own home electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.
My Hobby Tech spread continues in Issue 143 of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with two reviews and a review-slash-walkthrough: the Orange Pi Plus, the GrovePi+ Starter Kit, and the Kim Uno kit.
For me, the most interesting toy of the month was undoubtedly the Kim Uno. Designed by Oscar Vermeulen, the Kim Uno is a kit-form microcomputer designed to emulate the classic MOS Technologies KIM-1, designed by Chuck Peddle to showcase the company’s at-the-time cutting-edge 6502 microprocessor. Naturally, there’s no 6502 to be found in the Kim Uno: instead, an Arduino Pro Mini – based on one of Atmel’s popular microcontrollers – sits at the rear of a calculator-sized circuit-board and provides the grunt required to run any KIM-1 application you care to name, including the famous Microchess.
A simple solder-it-together kit – or pay extra to have one built by Oscar’s own fair hand – the Kim Uno is a great way to practice your skills even before you tackle the joys of 6502 machine-code programming. Oscar’s online documentation is thorough and detailed, and for anyone who knows 6502 the Kim Uno is a must-have especially at just £10 plus shipping.
The Kim Uno was the most fun project of the month, but it was closely followed by a GrovePi+ Starter Kit kindly supplied by Dexter Industries. Designed to bring Seeed’s Grove ‘smart module’ design to the Raspberry Pi, the kit includes a piggyback board which connects to the Pi’s GPIO port and a wealth of additional inputs and outputs, all of which connect via simple keyed wires. For newcomers to electronics, the Grove platform takes the complexity out of wiring up even relatively complex projects – and the GrovePi+ board itself makes using Grove hardware a cinch.
Finally, the Orange Pi Plus is one of the growing number of would-be Raspberry Pi beaters coming out of the technology markets of China. Using the AllWinner H3 system-on-chip processor the Orange Pi Plus can’t match the performance of the latest Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, but it does offer significantly more built-in capability: SATA, gigabit Ethernet, infra-red, even 802.11b/g/n wireless with bundled ultra-compact dipole antenna. The Orange Pi Plus, and the other members in the Orange Pi family, are clearly inspired by Lemaker’s Banana Pi and offer much of the same software compatibility, including platforms like Android not supported by the Raspberry Pi itself.
If you want to know my final opinion on all this hardware, or if you’re for some reason interested in things written by people who aren’t me, Custom PC Issue 143 is available now in print or digital form.
In my Hobby Tech column for Custom PC this month I explain how to convert a cheap floppy drive emulator for use with an Amiga, review the eight-core CubieBoard 4, and get an object lesson in the difference between professionally- and self-published books.
First, the tutorial. I’m indebted to my friend Harry ‘Hakk’ Morris for bringing my attention to a project by Hervé Messinger to create a user-friendly alternative to floppy disks for any Amiga system. Using the cheap – typically sub-£20 – Gotek Floppy Drive Emulator as its base, Hervé’s replacement firmware converts it for use with the Amiga’s esoteric disk format. Coupled with a user-friendly menu-based boot system, a Gotek running Hervé’s Cortex firmware can load up to 999 disk images from any USB storage device on a real-world Amiga.
With Amiga floppy drives becoming increasingly unreliable as time goes on, and replacements hard to come by, the project is a great way to breathe new life into an otherwise deceased system. Better still, it offers an extremely low-cost storage expansion for early Amigas like the Amiga 500 and 500-Plus, both of which lack the IDE port of the Amiga 600 and 1200. I’d thoroughly recommend the project to anyone with an Amiga, although be warned that internal fitting can require modification to the plastic shell of the system – an ethical dilemma for the conservationist in me, which I neatly bypassed by buying replacement plastics from an orphaned system.
I’d been looking forward to getting my hands on the CubieBoard 4 from the moment Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT told me it was on the way. I’ve reviewed CubieTech’s products before, but the CubieBoard 4 is something special. Its design is centred around an AllWinner A80 ARM-based processor, which packs four high-performance and four low-power cores on a system-on-chip (SoC) designed according to ARM’s big.LITTLE paradigm. In short: it’s an absolute beast.
While most big.LITTLE architectures switch between the low-power and high-performance cores automatically, exposing only four cores to the host operating system at any one time, the CubieBoard 4 works a little differently: all eight cores are exposed to the host operating system, allowing eight simultaneous threads to be run at any one time. Doing so, however, exposes a slight flaw in the design: serious thermal constraints, with the processor downclocking to protect itself as the heat rose.
My test scenario – running the BOINC distributed computing client at 100 per cent load continuously – is perhaps a little unfair, however. Under more real-world scenarios, the CubieBoard 4 will run its processor at full speed – and it’s worth mentioning that the board was rock-solid stable even after several days of continuous load across all eight cores. While the software is, as is typical for CubieTech, a little rough around the edges, it’s a fun board to have played with.
Finally, the book. I had originally planned to review the Arduino Project Handbook, a crowd-funded full-colour guide for newcomers to the popular open-source microcontroller platform. Author Mark Geddes was kind enough to send a copy across, but there was a problem: struck by inconsistencies in coding style, I did some digging and found that the entire contents of the book was plagiarised from other sources – ranging from websites to books published by some big-name authors.
I had a long discussion with Mark about the problem, in which he admitted to taking the projects – including directly cut-and-pasted source code – from a variety of sources but claimed that the fact he had built and photographed them himself meant he had done no wrong. I attempted to explain the vagaries of international copyright law and the trouble he could find himself in for publishing the book as it was, and eventually he agreed.
So, in place of the planned review, a page on the risks of self-publishing. The book as it was provided to me would never have reached shelves if it had gone through a traditional publisher, whose legal departments are very switched-on about this sort of thing – and I say that with confidence as a traditionally-published author. By taking on all the tasks associated with publishing himself, however, Mark has opened himself up for considerable legal trouble – and I can only hope that listened to my concluding advice to remove the book from sale and only re-publish when all plagiarised content is removed.
All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, can be yours in Custom PC Issue 138, either from your local newsagent or digitally through Zinio and similar services.
Since writing the CubieBoard 4 review, which was based on the v1.1 hardware revision, CubieTech has modified the board and released v1.2. New IT has kindly sent out an updated model, and there are numerous changes for the better: the Wi-Fi antenna no longer pushes up against a case bolt, the glue-on heatsink has been swapped out for a push-pin version with a tube of thermal interface material (TIM) and an air-gap between the fins and the top of the case, and the case itself has been revised to accommodate the push-pins. The GPIO header also now comes with a pin mapping table silk-screened directly onto the PCB for quick reference.
In this month’s Hobby Tech column I spend a fair amount of my time looking at the excellent Gamebuino, an Arduino-compatible hand-held games console I had the pleasure of backing on Indiegogo. As well as an interview with its creator, Aurélien Rodot, there’s a tutorial on building a cut-down variant on a breadboard, alongside a pair of reviews covering the Banana Pi and HummingBoard i2eX.
First, the reviews. I’ve had a prototype HummingBoard and a retail-model Banana Pi for a while, but have held off on giving either a proper review – although Issue 131 did include a preview of both. In the case of the HummingBoard, I needed to wait for final-release hardware; the Banana Pi, meanwhile, suffered from low-quality early-release software. Thankfully, both issues have now been addressed – the former thanks to the ever-lovely New IT, the latter due to the diligent work of the software developers working on the Banana Pi project – and I’ve been able to dedicate two pages this issue to a full head-to-head review of both devices.
My interview with Rodot comes off the back of his hugely successful Indiegogo campaign to build an Arduinio-compatible hand-held games console. Ending more than a thousand per cent above his original goal, the project caught the public’s attention in a major way – and with one of the finished products in my hand, it’s easy to see why. Although its 32KB of program storage, 2KB of RAM and tiny Nokia LCD are minimalist, the device is easily accessible for those wanting to learn game programming and can even act as an I²C controller thanks to two broken-out buses on the top-side.
Sadly, there’s no way to get your hands on a Gamebuino post-Indiegogo until Rodot launches his web store – planned for October, he tells me – so to tide readers over this month’s column includes a two-page tutorial on building your own. Although significantly cut down compared to the real thing – there’s no light sensor, speaker, battery, or micro-SD card reader – it’s a quick and easy project that allows users to start playing with the Gamebuino ecosystem ahead of the device’s general availability.
All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.
This month’s Linux User & Developer includes, in addition to my usual four-page news spread, a review of the Cubietruck single-board computer from the creators of the Cubieboard family.
I reviewed the Cubietruck’s predecessor, the lower-cost Cubieboard 2, back in Issue 139. Glancing at the specifications, it’s easy to see they’re related: the same AllWinner A20 dual-core system-on-chip ARMv7 processor is present and correct, although the DDR3 memory has been doubled to 2GB. The general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header is also shifted, moved from the underside location of the Cubieboard 2 to the top side in a more traditional layout, but in doing so its creators have chopped the number of pins from 96 to 54.
The loss of GPIO pins is matched by the addition of extra features not present in the Cubieboard 2: integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity using an on-board chip antenna and a gigabit Ethernet connection. That makes the Cubietruck an interesting device for low-power storage: the system comes bundled with a case that allows a 2.5″ hard drive to be slung under the unit with both 5V power and SATA data passing up to the Cubieboard’s on-board ports via a small cut-out in the PCB. It’s clever, although a slightly bottlenecked network means you won’t get the full gigabit throughput you’d see on a more powerful x86-based server.
The real question with the Cubietruck, however, is whether it’s worth the price. Supplier New IT sells the Cubietruck for £89.95, a £40 premium over its predecessor. While that price does come with the features listed above plus the aforementioned acrylic case and a small, optional, heatsink for the SoC, whether it’s worth the extra will depend on your target application.
To find out my final opinion on the device, plus to read about all the latest news in the world of free, libre and open-source software, open governance and more, pick up a copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 142 at your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or a similar service. French readers will, as always, see a translation of my news and review appear in Inside Linux Magazine in the coming months.
In this month’s Hobby Tech column I show the reader how to make an Internet of Things ticker-tape system using a cheap thermal printer, talk about the wonderful Internet Archive, review the Cubietruck single-board computer and the Spark Core wireless microcontroller.
First, the Internet Archive. A not-for-profit organisation based in the US, the Internet Archive has no lesser goal than to preserve and provide public access to all media. It’s home to video and audio recordings, text files, books, and the famous WayBack Machine that provides a user-friendly interface to its archived websites. For Hobby Tech, the key feature is found in one particular area of the site: the Computer Magazine Archives, which includes full-colour scans of every issue of BYTE, Commodore Format, Dragon User and more. It’s a treasure-trove of information, and one that relies on public funding to operate.
This month’s tutorial is a riff on the tutorial in Issue 122. Where that used an Arduino to turn a thermal printer into a 21st century fax machine, this tutorial uses the same printer connected to a Raspberry Pi to print a daily summary of your digital life, including local weather reports and a Sudoku puzzle. It also monitors Twitter for mentions of any keyword you like and prints messages as they arrive. Based on the Adafruit IoT Printer project, it’s a neat way to integrate a little physicality into today’s increasingly electronic lifestyle.
Finally, the reviews. First up is the Cubietruck, also known as the Cubieboard 3. Supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the Cubieboard takes the same AllWinner A20 processor as its predecessor but packs it into a new, larger chassis that includes some major improvements. Perhaps the best of these is a bundled acrylic chassis which houses both the board itself and a 2.5in hard drive in an over-under fashion, creating what I’m pretty certain is the smallest network-attached storage (NAS) device I’ve ever seen.
The Spark Core, meanwhile, is another ARM-based single-board computer, but one that aims at a vastly different market. Supplied by CPC following its massively successful début on crowd-funding site Kickstarter, the Spark Core is a microcontroller featuring a teeny-tiny breadboard-compatible layout and a Texas Instruments Wi-Fi chip. Configuration takes place from a smartphone, while the chip itself can be programmed and flashed wirelessly using a browser-based IDE. It’s a neat creation, and one for which I already have several projects in mind.
All this, plus various features written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.
In addition to my usual four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes a pair of reviews: the PiFace Control & Display add-on for the Raspberry Pi, and the Cubieboard 2 single-board computer.
First, the Cubieboard 2. Despite its name, the Cubieboard 2 is near-identical to the original Cubieboard; where the original had an AllWinner A10 system-on-chip (SoC) processor, however, its successor boasts the more powerful AllWinner A20 – cleverly designed to be pin-compatible for easy upgrades.
Buying the Cubieboard in the UK was never easy, especially given the original model’s limited production run. Low-power computing specialist New IT has solved that problem, becoming a reseller for the boards. That’s good news, because the Cubieboard 2 – and its more powerful follow-up, the Cubietruck – is an impressive device: as well as the dual-core Cortex-A7 1GHz processor, it boasts 1GB of DDR3 memory, 4GB of on-board NAND flash storage – pre-loaded with a customised version of Google’s Android by default – and includes on-board SATA in addition to the usual Ethernet, USB and audio connectivity.
The Cubieboard’s true power is hidden on the underside of the board: a pair of 48-pin headers provide access to almost every single feature on the AllWinner A20 chip, from hacker-friendly I2C and SPI to LVDS and VGA video signals. In my opinion, this alone – even ignoring the significantly improved performance – is a reason to consider paying the premium the board demands over the popular Raspberry Pi.
Speaking of the Pi, the PiFace Control & Display add-on is an impressive piece of equipment. A piggyback board designed to mount onto the Pi’s GPIO header, the PiFace C&D offers a 16×2 character-based LCD panel, a series of buttons and an infra-red receiver – all of which can be addressed using a simple Python-based library, replete with example projects from a game of hangman to a system monitor script.
With the Pi being well-suited to embedded projects thanks to its GPIO capabilities, low power draw and impressive pricing, the PiFace C&D makes implementing such projects without local access to a display and keyboard a cinch. While the pricing is perhaps a little high – doubling the cost of a Model A-based project – it does make life a lot easier.
Finally, my news spread this month covers the launch of the WebScaleSQL MySQL fork, Nvidia’s Jetson K1 developer board, Facebook’s Hack language, the brief tenure of Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich, the Canonical-KDE display server spat, the rebirth of the Full Disclosure mailing list and more.
For all this, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t write, head to your local newsagent or supermarket, or pick up a digital copy from Zinio. French readers can expect to see the same content, translated and published under the Inside Linux title, on shop shelves next month.