Custom PC, Issue 215

Custom PC Issue 215My regular Hobby Tech column takes a look at three very different, yet related, items in this month’s Custom PC: the PiStorm accelerator for the Commodore Amiga; the Remodo X Bluetooth remote from Remotec; and Joshua M. Pearce’s Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects.

First, the PiStorm. I’ve long been a fan of Commodore’s ill-fated Amiga family of computers, and while my collection isn’t what it used to be I still have a couple keeping me company around the office. It was in one of these I installed the PiStorm, an open-source accelerator and expansion board designed to be powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ – and, in the future, by still-more-powerful models in the Raspberry Pi range.

Donated by my good fried Jaimie Vandenbergh, who had picked up a handful of the low-cost boards for his own use, the PiStorm is nothing short of incredible. Effectively turning the Raspberry Pi into an emulated Motorola processor, it increases an Amiga’s compute performance, memory, graphics capabilities, storage, and even – though not at the time of writing – gives it the ability to connect via a Wi-Fi network. In short: it’s a must-have.

The Remodo X remote, meanwhile, is another accessory aimed at the Raspberry Pi – and a smaller niche. Targeting home automation and home theatre uses, the Remodo X is a surprisingly stylish device with just four buttons on its front and the ability to distinguish between short- and long-press for eight custom-mapped functions.

The device works via both Bluetooth and infrared, though for a gadget Remotec claims is specifically designed for a Raspberry Pi there’s a distinct lack of software: customising its buttons requires a smartphone app, and can’t be done on the Raspberry Pi itself.

Finally, Using Open-Source Projects is a book I wanted to love – after all, I’m a big proponent of free and open-source software and hardware. Sadly, it entirely fails to deliver on its promise – spreading an already-slim book far too thin across far too many topics. Some of the blame lies on the author, but some on the publisher – in particular the poor print quality and bizarre failure to flag the use of a figure which compares an original black-and-white image to its colourised equivalent yet shows both before and after shots in black and white.

The full column, and much more besides, is available in your nearest supermarket or newsagent now, online with global delivery, or – as part of a limited-time offer – as a DRM-free PDF download at zero cost.

The MagPi, Issue 36

The MagPi Issue 36This month’s The MagPi, the official Raspberry Pi magazine, is rather special: it’s the first print issue since the community-created publication was taken under the wing of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. While previous issues were available in limited-edition print runs created through crowd-funding efforts, from now on the magazine will be found in major high-street shops as standard – starting with WH Smith. This doesn’t mean the free digital download is going away, though: all content is still Creative Commons licensed, and the PDF download will be available free of charge at the same time as the print issue hits shelves.

Publication changes aside, there are two pieces of note in this month’s issue: a review of Wetgene’s Swanky Paint, and another of the Velleman 3D Printing Pen.

Going for the hardware first, local electronics giant CPC was kind enough to send over a box of goodies including the printing pen and some wearable kits – about which you’ll read more in future issues – when they found out I was running low on review hardware. Created by Velleman, a company better known for its test equipment, the 3D Printing Pen is a near-direct copy of the 3Doodler: the extrusion system of a PLA-based 3D printer stripped out of its three-directional housing and placed inside a pen-like grip.

The idea, the instructions explain, is that you can ‘draw’ three-dimensional objects freehand – taking away the complexity and expense of a traditional 3D printer. The remaining technology is simple, and nothing particularly new: you can think of the pen as a glue-gun using plastic in place of glue. The box shows someone drawing a scale model of the Eiffel Tower freehand, but I found it a major struggle to even get my simple cubes and pyramids looking recognisable.

I had a lot more luck with Swanky Paint, created by local coding house Wetgenes. I had previously interviewed the two programmers behind the software back in Custom PC Issue 141, but this time I took their most famous creation in-hand and gave it a thorough testing: Swanky Paint. Available in cross-platform browser-based flavours as well as native versions for traditional PCs, smartphones, tablets, and the Raspberry Pi, Swanky Paint is inspired by EA’s classic Deluxe Paint – the go-to art package for an entire generation of game artists – and shares UI and UX similarities, down to the keyboard shortcuts on offer.

Where Deluxe Paint had its pixels on show due to the low resolution of computing equipment at the time, though, Swanky Paint revels in it. Designed for retro ‘pixel-art’ projects, the software makes everything as easy as possible and includes a surprising level of polish for an early alpha release – including various effects designed to emulate the smoothing glow of a traditional CRT display.

If you want to find out my conclusions on both products, as well as read a bunch of great stuff by people who aren’t me, you can pick up a print copy of The MagPi Issue 36 in your local WH Smith, or download the free PDF from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 141

Custom PC Issue 141If you’re a fan of my work, this month’s Custom PC magazine is going to be something of a treat: as well as the usual five-page Hobby Tech column, I’ve penned an eight-page special cover feature on the Raspberry Pi 2 single-board computer.

The special blends nicely into Hobby Tech itself: a two-page review of the Raspberry Pi 2 straddles the two features, leading in to a two-page round-up of the best operating systems available for the Pi – along with a preview of Windows 10, coming to the platform in the summer. Four pages of tutorials then follow: turning the Raspberry Pi 2 into a media streamer, a Windows- and Mac-compatible file server, and getting started with Canonical’s new Snappy Ubuntu Core and its innovative packaging system.

The next page walks the reader through a series of tips-and-tricks to help squeeze the most from the £30 marvel: overclocking the new quad-core Broadcom BCM2836 processor, built specifically for the Raspberry Pi 2 and offering a significant improvement over the single-core original BCM2835; expanding the capabilities of the Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header; setting up a multi-boot platform to try out different operating systems; and updating the firmware and kernel modules to the very latest revisions using rpi-update.

Finally, the feature finishes with a single-page round-up of the best and brightest rivals to the Raspberry Pi’s crown: Lemaker’s Banana Pro, a dual-core Pi-compatible device with impressive operating system options; the SolidRun HummingBoard, a computer-on-module (CoM) design which promises future upgrade potential; the CubieTech Cubieboard 4, which packs an octa-core processor; the low-cost Hardkernel Odroid C1, the only entry in the list I haven’t personally tested; and the Imagination Technology Creator CI20, which bucks the trend by packing a MIPS-architecture processor in place of the more common ARM chips.

The remaining three pages of my regular Hobby Tech column – which celebrates its second birthday with this issue – feature an interview with local game devs Kriss and shi of Wetgenes regarding their clever Deluxe Paint-inspired pixel-art editor Swanky Paint and a review of Intel’s diminutive Atom- and Quark-powered Edison development platform.

All this, plus a smaller-than-usual amount of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours from a newsagent, supermarket, via subscription or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 138

Custom PC Issue 138In 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.

UPDATE 20150130:

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.

Custom PC, Issue 131

Custom PC Issue 131Continuing my terrifically successful Hobby Tech column this month, I cover the building of an arcade controller for the Raspberry Pi using genuine parts and the board’s handy-dandy general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, the Software Preservation Society’s KryoFlux floppy imaging device, review the Matrix TBS2910 mini-PC and offer a preview of the first real competitors to the Pi’s reign: the Banana Pi and the Hummingboard.

First, the Matrix: yes, it’s the same board I reviewed for Linux User & Developer this month, so don’t expect any surprises. It’s still a quad-core Freescale i.MX6 design with pre-loaded XBMC-based Linux distribution, designed for use as an open-source platform to encourage sales of TBS’ digital tuner devices. I was a little more generous this time around, mind, as the majority of Custom PC’s readership use Windows as their primary operating system; as a result, the use of a Windows-only utility to switch operating systems on the Matrix isn’t the no-no that it was for Linux User’s readers.

The KryoFlux is probably my personal highlight from this month’s column. Designed and produced by the Software Preservation Society, a not-for-profit group with no lesser aim than the storage and preservation of every game ever released on almost any computing platform, the KryoFlux is a universal floppy drive controller with a USB interface. Combined with the SPS’ software, it allows very low-level sampling of any floppy disk regardless of format, storing details on the magnetic flux transition timings for later decoding. Oh, and you can write disk images back to fresh media. For a collector with a large quantity of decaying magnetic media surrounding him, it’s an absolute lifesaver – if somewhat expensive for its small component count.

This month’s tutorial focuses on turning some old arcade components into a joystick for a Raspberry Pi-powered games console. It’s actually a lot simpler than you might think: digital joysticks are little more than a set of switches, and fire buttons are single switches; the process is no more complicated than the introductory switch-reading project I wrote for the Raspberry Pi User Guide. Combined with some handy-dandy open-source software, it works a treat – as long as your chosen game doesn’t tax the Pi’s poor 700MHz processor too much, of course.

Finally, the Banana Pi and Hummingboard. Both announced at roughly the same time, the two boards are the first in what I’m sure is to be a long line of Raspberry Pi clones. They’re not slavish copies, however: both bring new features to the table, starting with the promise of more power. The Banana Pi, from Chinese embedded computing specialist Lemaker, boasts an AllWinner A20 dual-core module that offers a rough quadrupling of the Pi’s CPU power; the Hummingboard, previously known as SolidRun’s Carrier One, will be available in models up to and included a Freescale i.MX6 quad-core unit. Add in SATA connectivity and even PCI Express, and you’ve got an interesting pair of designs.

I very deliberately didn’t include a review of either device, however: the Banana Pi’s board design is finalised, but the software is in pre-alpha status and is not comparable to the Raspberry Pi’s years-polished offerings. The Hummingboard, meanwhile, has yet to be fully released with my version being a limited-run single-core developer-only prototype kindly provided by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT. The finished version is due soon, and there’s a dual-core mid-range model with my name on it.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your nearest newsagent, supermarket or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services like Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 128

Custom PC Issue 128In this specially-numbered issue of Custom PC – the issue in which a signed eight-bit integer would overflow, in case it wasn’t obvious – my regular five-page Hobby Tech column covers turning a Raspberry Pi into a TOR proxy, using the Keyrah v2 on an old Amiga A1200 chassis, a review of the Intel Galileo, and a look at the daftest Pi accessory yet. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a two-page interview with the UEFI Forum’s Mark Doran to enjoy.

First, Hobby Tech. In this month’s tutorial, I show the reader how to turn a Raspberry Pi Model B – or Model A with optional USB network adapter – into a proxy that provides access to TOR, The Onion Router Project, a privacy-enhancing network that encrypts your internet traffic and shuffles it around before popping it out of a random exit node. Although it’s possible to run TOR software directly on a PC, having a hardware proxy can help get otherwise unsupported devices – like the Apple iPad – onto the TOR network.

The piece on the Keyrah v2 came about when I was looking for ways to use the chassis and keyboard I had replaced on my Amiga 1200. Although badly yellowed, the keyboard was fully working and throwing it away seemed a shame; thankfully, the Keyrah makes that necessary by interfacing with the Amiga keyboard and turning it into a USB keyboard for modern machines, while also providing two connectors for traditional joysticks. Coupled with yet another Raspberry Pi, it was possible to turn the empty A1200 chassis into a fully-functional computer – and surprisingly quickly, too.

Intel’s Galileo is the company’s first Arduino-certified device, and a showcase for its Quark processor. Based on the original Pentium architecture – complete with the F00F Bug erratum – the Quark is Intel’s attempt to take on ARM in the embedded space, and if the Galileo is any indicator it still has a way to go. Slower at general-purpose computing than a Pi and at IO than a true Arduino, the Galileo is hard to love – but the presence of a mini-PCIe socket on the back suggests it could find a home in more complex projects.

Finally for Hobby Tech, there’s a look at cooling a Raspberry Pi with the smallest active heatsink I’ve ever seen. Barely covering the tip of my finger, the heatsink was an impulse purchase from eBay and cost nearly as much as the Pi on which it is attached; it’s certainly eye-catching, however, and my core temperature readings may be of interest to anyone using a Pi in high ambient temperatures or in cases with otherwise stagnant airflow.

My last contribution to this issue is the interview with Mark Doran. While the extract published in Linux User & Developer concentrated mainly on Secure Boot and its increasing adoption after initial fear in open source projects, this extract looks more at UEFI itself and how it came to be. For historical interest, there’s also what I believe to be the first comprehensive time-line of the BIOS, beginning in 1975 with Gary Kildall coining the term to describe part of his CP/M operating system.

All this, plus the usual selection of stuff written by people who aren’t me, is available at newsagents, corner shops and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 118

Custom PC Issue 118I hinted last month that there were changes afoot at Custom PC, and this latest issue is the result: my regular two-page interview column has been replaced with Hobby Tech, a new four-page extravaganza celebrating the best of the hacker, maker and retrocomputing communities.

In other words: it’s a column where I get to waffle on about the sort of things I do for fun these days. While getting paid. What’s not to like?

It’s likely to be a couple of issues before the column gets into its full swing – the idea is that it will evolve into a 21st century update of Jerry Pournelle’s old column from BYTE magazine, which has long been one of my favourite pieces of content. I’m no Pournelle, but hopefully I can rustle up something that will keep the readers entertained each month.

So, onto the column itself. This month, the focus – as evidenced by the issue’s cover splash – is on the work I’ve done turning a Raspberry Pi into a low-cost NAS. Taking the form of a tutorial, this part looks at how I used Btrfs, SSH and a pair of external hard drives to create a low-cost, low-power destination for my backups and miscellaneous files. If you’re struggling with “page allocation failure” messages in your Pi’s kernel log, it also includes advice about that.

That’s only two pages, however, and Hobby Tech is bigger than that. So, there was room for a quick review of the excellent ExpEYES Junior developed by the Inter-University Accelerator Centre in New Delhi as an educational aid. Connecting to a USB port and driven by an open-source Python toolkit, the device acts as a programmable power supply, four-channel storage oscilloscope, microphone, analogue-to-digital converter, signal generator and more – and comes with the components required to perform 50 experiments.

Finally, for the retrocomputing enthusiasts, an explanation of how I turned a second-hand Amiga A1200 – purchased, incidentally, from Custom PC’s sister website – into more than the sum of its parts. Those who follow me on Twitter will be aware of my work in that regard: fitting heatsinks to prolong the life, replacing the plastics and keyboard, upgrading the Kickstart ROMs, installing a CompactFlash hard drive and connecting the system to my home network.

If that sounds like something of a hodgepodge of topics, then that’s probably because it is; the link between them all is that they’re all subjects about which I am extremely passionate, and I hope that comes across in the column.

I’m very keen to get feedback on Hobby Tech, as is editor Ben Hardwidge: it’s a new direction for the magazine, and something of an experiment. Please, if you’ve read this month’s Custom PC, leave a comment with your thoughts either here or on the magazine discussion forum. Likewise, if you’ve got any ideas for topics or devices you’d like to see covered in future Hobby Tech columns, let me know!

Custom PC Issue 118 is available pretty much everywhere, but if it isn’t then grab a digital copy from Zinio or an equivalent service instead.