Tag Archive for AMD

Linux User & Developer, Issue 159

Linux User & Developer Issue 159My review for this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine is the frankly impressive CompuLab Fitlet miniature PC, which joins my usual four-page news spread between the publication’s ever-colourful covers.

I first reviewed the Fitlet in Custom PC Issue 148, published last month, but where that review focused on the device’s suitability for the hobbyist and for general-purpose computing my version for Linux User naturally takes the perspective of a die-hard Linux… well, user. As a result, the fact that CompuLab supplied it with a pre-installed version of Linux Mint 17.2 was a bonus – although there’s nothing to stop you wiping the system and installing any other flavour you fancy, thanks to its entirely standard architecture.

Traditionally, driver support in Linux has always been a pain when it comes to shiny new hardware. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a device on the test-bench and found that it requires a bleeding-edge kernel or an array of patches to even boot – but not so the Fitlet. Everything, from the wireless to accelerated graphics, was working just fine out-the-box with the sole exception of the General Purpose Input-Output (GPIO) header – an oversight the company has since corrected with the release of an official SDK.

The sheer array of options on offer is enough to turn anyone’s head, too. Those who like an uncluttered desk will find the VESA bracket accessory a must-have; others might find the DIN rail mount a better choice; still more could opt for the larger passive heatsink to overclock the CPU – a one-setting feature directly in the BIOS, requiring no modification and with no effect on warranty – to wring some more performance out. It’s even possible to spec the Fitlet with different ports thanks to its modular Function And Connectivity Extension T-card (FACET) system: the dual-Ethernet single-eSATA default can be quickly modified to quadruple-Ethernet, if that’s your sort of thing.

It’s fair to say I’m a big fan of the Fitlet, and to read the review in full – plus all the latest happenings in the world of open source – all you need do is head to your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or download the issue digitally via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 148

Custom PC Issue 148My regular Hobby Tech column is undeniably review-heavy this month, with three separate items spread across its five pages: the CompuLab Fitlet, the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit, and the Widdop.

To deal with the latter first, the Widdop is a bit of an odd thing to review at first glance as it was available exclusively to those who attended this year’s Wuthering Bytes festival. There’s method in my madness, though: it’s a variant of the Cordwood puzzle designed by Saar Drimer at Boldport, and a review of the Widdop is equally applicable to its predecessor. In short, it’s a soldering kit sans instructions: two artistically designed and matching circuit boards are supplied along with a fistful of components, and it’s up to the user to not only work out how it should be assembled but then how to interface it to a microcontroller or other controlling system – great fun!

The Bare Conductive Touch Board, by contrast, is readily available. I had previously experienced the delights of the Touch Board, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller with built-in capacitive touch sensing and audio playback capabilities, at the Manchester MakeFest where the Manchester Arduino group were demonstrating Touch Board-powered musical food bowls. The Starter Kit, though, is something else entirely. Packed in an oversized box it contains everything you need to get started, from the conductive paint which made Bare Conductive famous to the Touch Board itself pre-loaded with a voice-led 12-step tutorial.

The booklet is the real prize, though. Walking the user through three projects, it’s one of the best I’ve seen: well produced with exciting photographs and a great attention to detail. The primary project, too, is innovative: a stencil and overlay in the shape of a house demonstrates how the conductive paint can be used to create interactive art, with the remaining two projects offering an intruder alarm – for bare-footed intruders, at least – and a look at adding interactivity to household objects.

Finally, the Fitlet. I’ve been a fan of CompuLab’s tiny Linux-compatible PCs for a while, but the Fitlet is the first I’ve had a chance to review. Supplied in its top-end form with an AMD A10-Micro6700T quad-core processor, it has the grunt of a low-mid-range office desktop but in a passively cooled form factor little larger than a cased Raspberry Pi. Compared to the already diminutive Intel NUC, it’s absolutely tiny: the smallest NUC has a volume of 0.417 litres, while the Fitlet is just 0.215 litres in volume.

Despite its size, there’s a bit of everything: as reviewed, the Fitlet offers on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, dual gigabit Ethernet ports, three USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, powered eSATA, and even a GPIO connector – which, sadly, lacked driver support at the time of my review, an issue CompuLab has now resolved with the release of an official Software Development Kit (SDK). Running Linux Mint 17.2 but compatible with most any operating system that would run on an x86-64 desktop, the CompuLab is definitely one of the most exciting devices I’ve had the privilege to test recently – although that excitement is tempered by a £300 selling price in the UK, putting it on-par with the more computationally powerful Intel NUC.

All this, plus interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be found between the covers of Custom PC Issue 148 at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 153

Linux User & Developer Issue 153In addition to my regular four-page news spread at the front of the magazine, this month’s issue of Linux User & Developer includes a review of the Gizmo 2 single-board computer – a powerful follow-up to the original, which I reviewed back in Issue 125.

Like its predecessor, the Gizmo 2 is based around an AMD Accelerated Processing Unit – specifically, the G-Series GX210HA dual-core chip running at 1GHz – in an open-hardware 4″-square board. Offering improved performance over the original model, the new Gizmo 2 is also available for the first time as a stand-alone system – although this does mean the death of the Explorer Kit, a bundle which included a handy-dandy break-out board for the PCIe-style low-speed expansion connector at the front of the board.

During my review, which took place a few months ago, I did encounter one issue: the BIOS refused to boot from the USB 3.0 ports, limiting OS installation to the Micro-SD Card slot or USB 2.0 ports. As the device offers so much performance – around 85 gigaFLOPS including the integrated Radeon HD 8210E graphics chip – that was a disappointing limitation, but one an updated BIOS has since resolved.

I was a big fan of the original Gizmo, which was significantly better than Intel’s rival MinnowBoard. Although the MinnowBoard Max has since levelled the playing field, I have to say that the Gizmo 2 would still be my board of choice for SBC tasks requiring high graphics performance or x86 compatibility – despite the addition of an annoying active cooling fan – but for my thoughts beyond that you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine.

If you do, you’ll find the review, my news spread, and a bunch of stuff written by other people. Linux User & Developer Issue 153 is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and similar services. My work will also appear in the translated Inside Linux magazine in France in the coming months.

Custom PC, Issue 140

Custom PC, Issue 140In this month’s Hobby Tech column I interview my friend and talented maker Bob Stone, review the ZoomFloppy accessory, and review the Gizmo 2 single-board computer, in roughly that order.

Looking at the interview first, I arranged to quiz Bob after bumping into him at an event a while back. Bob was present as a representative of York Hackspace, showing off a project they had been working on dubbed Spacehack. Inspired by a mobile game, Spacehack gives players the job of keeping a rusty old spaceship in one piece by performing various tasks on a physical control panel which remaps everything between rounds. If that weren’t confusing enough, the instructions that appear on your panel may be for a control on someone else’s – leading to plenty of frantic shouting.

Talking to Bob is always a pleasure, and interviewing him was likewise. He’s a man who knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of humour into proceedings, and that hopefully comes across in the piece. Having played Spacehack, I can attest to both its difficulty and its brilliance and if anyone local builds their own – the hardware and software are both permissively licensed, naturally – I’d be up for a tournament.

The ZoomFloppy is a natural extension to the KryoFlux I reviewed back in Issue 131. Where the KryoFlux offers a means to connect old-fashioned floppy drives to a modern computer for archival-grade access, the ZoomFloppy is a little different: it’s designed specifically for Commodore devices. Its most common use, as the name suggests, is to provide an interface between a Commodore 1541/1571 floppy drive and a modern PC but it also offers the ability to talk to any Commodore-compatible serial device: printers, plotters, even modems. Better still, you can talk to these devices from directly within an emulator – I couldn’t help but grin when I loaded an Infocom game into the Vice emulator from the original floppy on an 1571 drive.

Finally, the Gizmo 2. I reviewed the original Gizmo in Issue 125 of Linux User & Developer, and was suitably impressed by its performance. The Gizmo 2, I’m pleased to say, blows its predecessor out of the water but isn’t without its own foibles. During my review, I ran into an issue in the firmware which prevented it from booting any device connected into its USB 3.0 ports. Although USB 2.0 worked fine, this had a negative effect on speed – and while the issue was still outstanding at the time of publication, I’m pleased to say a new BIOS has been released as a result of my feedback which fixes the problem and makes the Gizmo a great choice for anyone who needs x86 compatibility and impressive compute performance from a single-board computer.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your own home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 131

Linux User & Developer Issue 131The cover of this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine highlights two of my latest features: a review of the Intel MinnowBoard and an interview with its evangelist Scott Garman. The direct comparison to the far cheaper Raspberry Pi, just to clarify, was an editorial decision in which I had no part.

The MinnowBoard is an interesting piece of equipment: based on a single-core 32-bit Intel Atom processor, it packs surprising power into a sub-10W package: gigabit Ethernet, USB, SATA and audio ports are all present and correct, while a ‘Lure’ connector gives access to additional capabilities including several PCI Express lanes.

The hardware itself isn’t the most interesting feature of the MinnowBoard, however. Intel has opted to make the board fully open, releasing schematics, Gerbers, firmware source code, and a Board Support Package (BSP) for the Yocto Project – certification for which the board carries proudly.

In this, the MinnowBoard is head and shoulders above the Raspberry Pi, which is a closed design, while offering significantly more power. Sadly, that power comes at a considerable price – you can expect to pay at least £160 for the MinnowBoard compared to £30 for the Pi. The MinnowBoard also struggles to compete with AMD’s equivalent, the Gizmo from Sage Electronics, which features a faster 64-bit dual-core processor with greater performance and wider OS compatibility and comes bundled with useful tools for embedded hardware and software development at a very similar cost.

Still, it’s an exciting project – and one Scott Garman, Yocto Project contributor, Intel employee, and the evangelist for the MinnowBoard project, is justifiably excited about. In my interview, Scott provided hints at the reasoning behind certain design decisions for the MinnowBoard, promises of increased compatibility with operating systems other than the bundled Angstrom Linux build, and admitted his undying respect for the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

All this, plus my usual four pages of Linux, open source, open hardware and open governance news, can be found betwix the pages of Linux User & Developer at your local newsagent, supermarket, or online via the Zinio digital distribution platform and others.

Custom PC, Issue 122

Custom PC Issue 122In the latest of my eponymous columns – Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, if you haven’t been following – I take a UK-exclusive look at the Intel MinnowBoard, show readers how to create a 21st century fax machine with an inexpensive thermal printer and an Arduino microcontroller, and investigate the 1980s’ answer to solid-state storage.

First, the MinnowBoard. Intel’s first foray into open hardware, the MinnowBoard is a clear response to the success of the low-cost Raspberry Pi. Although the low-cost part may have been lost along the way – the MinnowBoard retails at around £170, far more than the £30 the top-end Raspberry Pi will cost you – it offers considerable extra power including a 32-bit x86 Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, on-board SATA and even PCI Express expansion.

Another advantage to the MinnowBoard, and a surprise from Intel, is that it’s open hardware: the company has released Board Specification Packages (BSPs) for Yocto Project certification along with Gerbers, schematics and bills of material – everything you could need to build one of your very own. In this, it’s similar to AMD’s Gizmo board – although that features a BIOS which offers greater out-of-the-box compatibility with various operating systems, a more powerful dual-core processor and a slightly smaller footprint.

This month’s tutorial focuses on turning an inexpensive thermal printer – kindly provided by local hobbyist supply house oomlout – into an Arduino-powered teleprinter. Using the Hello, Printer design from GoFreeRange, it creates a simple internet-connected device that will accept text or image data from any web-capable client – and I’ve found it’s absolutely top-hole for shopping lists and reminders.

Sadly, there is a printing error – oh, the irony – in the tutorial: the last entry in the bill of materials, the 400-point breadboard, is missing the link to purchase. If you’re after one, you can find it on oomlout’s website.

Finally, the vintage computing section this month focuses on an all-but abandoned technology: EPROMs. The precursor to modern flash memory, as found in solid-state drives, EPROMs were an incredibly common sight: unlike traditional PROMs, they could be erased using an ultra-violet light ready for reuse and were typically used to hold program information or BIOS data. As something of a computer historian, I find myself using the chips a lot – I was burning a Donkey Kong board for the Nintendo PlayChoice-10 when I got the idea for the feature – but they’re something those who are new to computing are unlikely to see in the wild.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, in Custom PC Issue 122. As usual, you can find it in all good newsagents and supermarkets, or stay indoors and pick up a digital copy from services like Zinio if you’d prefer.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 125

Linux User & Developer Issue 125This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine is the place to go if you want to read a UK-exclusive review of the Gizmo Explorer kit, an open-source project of Sage Engineering that looks to bring a bit of x86 power to bear on the Raspberry Pi et al.

Based on an AMD embedded-series accelerated processing unit, the Gizmo is a microcomputer par excellence: its powerful 64-bit processor is, in real terms, around five times faster than that found on ARM-based rivals, while the 1GB of RAM is fairly generous as single-board computers go. Better still is the presence of a SATA port for high-speed storage, something criminally overlooked by many rival devices.

For developers, the board includes high-speed and low-speed expansion ports based on PCI Express connectors – and the kit includes an example board with detachable matrix keypad and soldered-down LCD panel to demonstrate how the low-speed port can be used, as well as providing a prototyping area for your own circuits.

Engineers are Sage’s target audience: the bundle, which costs $199, comes complete with a powerful JTAG debugging unit and advanced integrated development environment (IDE) – the same environment, in fact, that Sage has sold separately for thousands of dollars. Sadly, both are time-limited: you get 25 hours of use with the JTAG debugger and 30 days with the IDE before you’ll be asked to splash out for a licence, although non-commercial users do so at a significant discount.

I certainly had fun with the Gizmo, and it blows any other passively-cooled SBC I’ve seen out of the water when it comes to performance – but if you want to know if it’s worth the $199 asking price, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine.

Linux User & Developer Issue 125 is available now, in both dead-tree and digital formats, with more information available on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 117

Custom PC Issue 117This month’s Custom PC sees my interview slot taken up with a chat to Nick Thibieroz, senior manager of AMD’s Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Gaming Engineering division, regarding his company’s latest attempt at increasing the immersion of games: TressFX.

If you’re not familiar with the technology, and if that’s the case shame on you for not following my work on bit-tech, TressFX – or to give it its full name, TressFX Hair – is a GPU-accelerated physics engine designed to simulate the interaction between a character’s hair and the surrounding environment. Wind, rain, branches, even the character’s body all interact with thousands of simulated hair strands to create a surprisingly realistic effect.

It’s something the industry has been working towards for years – hardly a SIGGRAPH event goes by without Nvidia showcasing another hair simulation system – but the computational complexity of the task has made it difficult to implement in a working game engine. That’s something AMD has solved, and it waited until it had the system in a shipping game – the new Tomb Raider reboot – before announcing the technology.

The biggest feature of the issue, however, is a special one: an in-depth look at how the development of mobile hardware differs from that of desktop hardware. With input from industry veterans including Nvidia, AMD, Intel and Imagination Technologies, it’s a – hopefully – interesting look at how developing for portable platforms has resulted in some significantly different technologies emerging.

Nvidia is a perfect example: it talks up its Tegra mobile processor as having GeForce-like graphics processing elements, but in truth there’s a distinct difference in how the two technologies work. Interestingly, it’s also the case that development of mobile processing hardware – which has to work in very tight power envelopes – has dramatically changed how the company approaches its power-hungry desktop graphics hardware, too.

It’s a big feature, and one I’m proud to have worked on: hopefully, by the end, readers will be able to better understand how smartphone and tablet hardware – which, thanks to projects like the Kickstarter-funded Ouya console, are increasingly finding their way onto people’s desks – compares to traditional desktop devices.

If you want to learn more about TressFX Hair and its development, or about the development of mobile-centric hardware and the challenges therein, you could do worse than picking up a copy of Custom PC Issue 117 – available in dead-tree format and digitally via Zinio or most other services.

This also marks the last time my column in Custom PC will take the form of a two-page interview spread: big changes are afoot, and I’m proud to say that the column will be taking on a very different – and hopefully more engaging – format from the next issue onwards.

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.

Micro Mart, Issue 1195

Micro Mart, Issue 1195My first piece for Dennis Publishing’s weekly IT mag Micro Mart, and it’s a cover feature. Not that I’m boasting or anything. Okay, perhaps I’m boasting a bit.

As you can probably see from the cover it’s a look at AMD’s disappointing launch of its consumer-grade Bulldozer-core processors, the AMD FX Series. Completed to the tightest possible schedule – I received an email requesting a 3,500-word feature on Thursday, with a deadline of the following Monday – it forms an overview of the history of Bulldozer, its launch in the server market, its consumer launch and the complaints that have been raised over its performance.

It also includes comment from an AMD engineer in the company’s Austin facility on what is being done to address the architecture’s problems – not an easy thing to get on such short notice, and massive thanks to AMD’s André Heidekrueger and Bite PR’s Sami Makinen for organising that so quickly.

It’s a nice piece, if I do say so myself, and hopefully won’t be the last to grace Micro Mart’s cover. Fingers crossed for longer deadlines next time, though…