Tag Archive for Andrew Back

Custom PC, Issue 189

Custom PC Issue 189This month, my regular Hobby Tech column opens with a look at a RISC-V based not-quite-off-the-shelf personal computer build by AB Open, walks readers through building a weather monitor powered by a Raspberry Pi and a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT, and marvels at the excesses of the computer retail scene in the 1970s and 1980s via David Pleasance’s Commodore: The Inside Story.

First, the PC. The majority of PCs on desks around the world today are based on processors which use the x86 architecture or its 64-bit equivalent; a small handful are based on similar Arm chips to the ones you might find in your smartphone; and an even smaller number are powered by things like Zilog Z80s, MOS 6502s, and Motorola 68000s belonging to people who just don’t like to throw away a perfectly good decades-old system. The system built by AB Open recently, though, is different: it’s based on RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture (ISA) for which anyone can – given time, money, and a fair smattering of expertise – build a chip.

“It might be some time before there’s an off-the-shelf chip that can compete with x86 on raw performance and traditional benchmarks,” AB Open’s Andrew Back, who for full disclosure is a client of mine, admits, “but the open nature of the ISA, and the ecosystem developing around it, is driving a renaissance in novel computer architectures.” By way of proof: a fully-functional Linux-based desktop PC, built in a custom-designed laser-cut chassis, created using the SiFive HiFive Unleashed development board and Microsemi expansion board.

From a PC you can browse the web on to one which flashes a few lights: the Raspberry Pi weather monitor is a remix of a project I published in Issue 153, to use a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT LED matrix to graph energy usage in my home. This time, the same hardware is repurposed to show animated weather icons based on data downloaded from OpenWeatherMap – and, despite the low resolution of the LED matrix, it works an absolute treat.

Finally, Commodore: The Inside Story sounds like it should be an exhaustive history of the company behind one of the world’s biggest-selling home computers. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a two-part affair: the first is a series of personally recollections, presented in a very similar fashion to the stories you might hear if you took author David Pleasance to the pub and asked him about his time working in Commodore’s sales and marketing division; the second is a collection of guest chapters, and as fun as it is reading about orgies in Consumer Electronics Show hotels and drink-driving incidents the second half is, for me, the better half.

All this, and a raft more, can be found at your nearest newsagent or supermarket; the electronic version, meanwhile, is enjoying a brief holiday while background administration relating to its recent switch of publishers takes place.

Custom PC, Issue 171

Custom PC Issue 171This month’s Custom PC magazine has a bumper crop for fans of Hobby Tech: a four-page shoot-out of do-it-yourself handheld games consoles on top of my usual five-page column, which this time around looks at setting up Syncthing on a Raspberry Pi, building the Haynes Retro Arcade Kit, and my time running a soldering workshop at the Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG) UK OSHCamp gathering.

The workshop first: organiser Andrew Back got in touch with me shortly before the OSHCamp workshop day, held in Hebden Bridge as part of the annual Wuthering Bytes technology festival, was due to take place. The scheduled soldering workshop was at risk, he explained, as the person due to run it was no longer available. I was happy to help, and I’m pleased to report a great day was had by all assembling Cuttlefish microcontroller kits – despite the use of some particularly ancient soldering irons with tips which appeared to be made of freshly-hewn coal!

The Haynes Retro Arcade Kit feels like a device which could have been in the DIY console shootout, but it wouldn’t have fared well. Designed by Eight Innovation and slapped with the Haynes brand, the Retro Arcade Kit is a fiddly and distinctly unrewarding soldering kit which ends up as a particularly basic version of Pong. The coin activation system is its only redeeming feature: two pieces of thick solid-core wire sit side by side, and are shorted out by an inserted metal coin to start a fresh game. Not an original trick, but one well implemented – if you ignore the terrible instructions and poor build quality.

Syncthing, meanwhile, has been a mainstay of my toolbox for years. An open-source project designed to keep files on two or more computer systems synchronised, Syncthing is built with security and convenience in mind – and works a treat on the Raspberry Pi. Given that I was needing to find a new home for my off-site backups anyway, as my regular provider CrashPlan is ceasing its cheapest product line, it seemed natural to write up the process of turning a Pi and a USB hard drive into an off-site backup destination.

Finally, the four-page DIY console shoot-out is a reprint of the same feature as it appeared in PC Pro Issue 277 in mid-September. As before, four Arduino-compatible devices are covered: the Gamebuino, MAKERbuino, Creoqode 2048, and Arduboy.

All this, and the usual selection of things written by others, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 135

Custom PC Issue 135There’s no tutorial in this month’s Hobby Tech, for one simple reason: the only interesting thing I built this month is actually from a kit, and more suited to a review-format write-up. As a result, you’ll find in the pages of Custom PC Issue 135 a two-page review of the Pi2Go-Lite robot kit, a spread on my visit to the Wuthering Bytes festival in Hebden Bridge, and a review of the surprisingly powerful CuBox-i4Pro.

Starting with the robot, Gareth Davies of UK-based educational electronics concern 4tronix was kind enough to send me an early sample of a Raspberry Pi-powered robotics kit he has put together. Dubbed the Pi2Go-Lite, it’s a cost-reduced solder-it-yourself version of a more feature-filled and pre-assembled Pi2Go design. Despite this, it’s hardly lacking in features: as well as a pair of motors driving wheels with rubber tyres and a metal 360-degree bearing caster at the front, the robot includes numerous sensors including infra-red for line-following and impact warnings and ultrasonic for distance measuring.

The kit was a delight to build, being mostly through-hole components with a small introduction to surface-mount soldering in order to – rather cleverly, in my opinion – mount standard through-hole infra-red sensors on the front edge of the main circuit board. The robot itself is driven from the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header – Pi not supplied – which is in turn driven by a set of AA batteries. I had great fun with the build, and I’d recommend checking out the review if you fancy a bit of Python-powered robotics yourself.

Wuthering Bytes, as those who follow me on Twitter – or, indeed, in real life – will know, is a maker-themed technology event in Hebden Bridge each year. As with last year’s event, I was invited by co-founder Andrew Back to compère the Friday’s formal talk sessions and then used that to guilt the team into letting me attend the Saturday talks and Sunday workshops for free. Personal highlights of the event included a talk by Sophie Wilson, co-inventor of the ARM processor architecture, on the future of semiconductors and some excellent hands-on workshops on the Sunday – and I’m already looking forward to Wuthering Bytes 2015.

Finally, the CuBox-i4Pro. Kindly supplied by the lovely Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT, SolidRun’s latest revision of the ultra-compact CuBox concept features an amazingly powerful quad-core Freescale i.MX6 processor. It’s the quad-core variant, in fact, of the chip you’ll find in the HummingBoard I reviewed last month, with SolidRun having worked to ensure software written for one can be used on the other.

For all this, plus various things written by people who aren’t me, you’ll want to either venture to your local newsagent or supermarket or stay in and download a digital copy of Custom PC Issue 135 via Zinio or 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.

Custom PC, Issue 116

Custom PC, Issue 116This month’s Custom PC Magazine is a bumper issue for me: a massive in-depth Raspberry Pi feature is splashed across the cover, for which I provided all but the build-your-own-case section. As usual, the magazine also includes my regular interview column, this time talking to open hardware guru Andrew Back.

First, the Pi material. With the Raspberry Pi having had a phenomenally successful first year, and Custom PC having missed the chance to latch onto that with a cover splash for the launch review, it’s no surprise to see the magazine going all-out to attract Pi fans. Those who pick up the magazine for its Pi-related content are in for a treat, too.

First up is a head-to-head review covering the newly-released Raspberry Pi Model A and the redesigned Raspberry Pi Model B Revision 2. While some differences are obvious – the lack of a second USB port and Ethernet on the Model A, for example – others are less so, and the review hopefully answers the question of whether it’s worth paying the extra £12 to get the Model B over the tempting £18 asking price of the Model A.

The benchmarking continues with a look at how to overclock a Raspberry Pi without voiding your warranty, along with a few tips as to how to push it to ever-faster levels. Using a retail-model Raspberry Pi Model B Revision 2 equipped with a couple of cheap aluminium heatsinks, I was able to push the CPU from 700MHz to 1.1GHz and the GPU to 500MHz – and it made a serious difference in performance, as the benchmark results show.

Next, I walk newcomers to the project through installing the Raspbmc media server software and configuring it to stream HD YouTube content – something you’d think a £30 PC would struggle to do, but that’s certainly not the case. There’s also a look at the Minecraft: Pi Edition release, which provides a hackable and completely free version of Mojang’s popular block-’em-up game with which tinkers can fiddle around.

Finally, there’s a round-up of the four most popular operating systems for the Pi: Raspbian, the Debian-derived Linux distribution chosen as the ‘official’ OS by the Raspberry Pi Foundation; Raspbmc, the media-centric Linux distribution with integrated Xbmc support; RISCOS, by far the fastest OS for the Pi; and FreeBSD, for those who eschew Linux but still want a POSIX-compliant environment.

With the Pi work done, the interview. Andrew Back is one of the brains behind the Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG), and recently moved into my (relative) back-yard in Hebden Bridge. He’s a great guy, and always up for a chat – and his knowledge regarding open hardware, a still relatively unknown offshoot of the open source and free software movements, is second to none.

All this, and more by people who are not called Gareth Halfacree, can be yours if you just mosey on down to your local newsagents and pick up Custom PC Issue 116. Alternatively, stay indoors and get a digital copy via Zinio.