Tag Archive for Android

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 10

HackSpace Magazine Issue 10Readers over a certain age will remember the glorious, though brief, age of the personal digital assistant: pocket-size gadgets, typically though not always in clamshell format, exemplified by Psion’s classic Series 5MX. The rise of the smartphone was the death of the PDA, but there’s a company still clinging to the dream: Planet Computers, with its Gemini PDA.

Reviewed in the latest HackSpace Magazine in Gemini 4G form, which adds an LTE radio for data and voice traffic allowing the device to double as a cumbersome smartphone, the Gemini traces its lineage all the way back to the Psion Series 5. Sadly, as a loaner Series 5MX kindly provided by The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) proved, the resemblance is only skin-deep: the clever sliding keyboard mechanism of Psion’s design is replaced in the Gemini by a straightforward fold supported by a too-weak metal hinge at the back which only loosens over time.

Given HackSpace’s target audience, my review focused less on the device as supplied – running Android 7 – and more on how it acts when given a customised version of Debian Linux supplied for the more technical user by Planet Computers. Installation wasn’t straightforward, sadly, and use even less so – and a battery life test revealed the unoptimised nature of the Debian port, cutting nearly four hours off the device’s lifespan during a video playback test.

I’m still a believer that there’s a demand out there, albeit small, for what would be a true Psion Series 5MX successor: robust, chunky yet pocket-size, with an outdoor-readable display based perhaps based on colour E-Ink technology. Sadly, the Gemini isn’t it.

The full review is available now, both in print and as a free-as-in-speech-and-beer digital download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 169

Custom PC Issue 169My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC features three reviews: the CubieBoard 6 single-board computer, the Digilent OpenScope MZ open-hardware multi-function oscilloscope, and a book detailing the rise and fall of gaming legends the Bitmap Brothers.

The CubieBoard 6, to start, was kindly provided by low-power computing specialist New IT. Despite its high version number, the device felt like a blast from the past as soon as I opened the box: it’s based on almost exactly the same form factor as the original CubieBoard and its successor the CubieBoard 2, after which creator CubieTech moved towards bulkier designs with up-to-eight-core processors. A return to form is no bad thing: CubieTech boasts that the CubieBoard 6 can be used as a drop-in replacement for most CubieBoard 1 and 2 projects.

For the review, I ran the device through the usual raft of benchmarks and gave it a direct comparison to the Raspberry Pi 3 with which it competes. One interesting shift from the norm, though, was in thermal imagery analysis which revealed that the CubieBoard’s SATA-to-USB bridge chip draws considerable power even when no SATA device is connected – something that would have been difficult to ascertain any other way.

The OpenScope MZ, meanwhile, is a very different beast – though, technically speaking, also a single-board computer of sorts. The successor to Digilent’s original OpenScope, the OpenScope MZ is a hobbyist- and education-centric open-hardware dual-channel oscilloscope with additional functionality as a function generator, power supply, and logic analyser. Where it differs from its competition, though, is in the presence of a Wi-Fi chip which allows you to connect to the device remotely – which, coupled with the browser-based software used to drive the thing makes it compatible with everything from Windows desktops to a Raspberry Pi or smartphone running the Linux variant of your choice.

Finally, The Bitmap Brothers Universe is a fantastic coffee table tome charting the history of the titular giants of gaming familiar to any Amiga owner present or former. Written based on painstaking interview work by Duncan Harris and published by Read Only Memories, the bulk of the book is in single-colour print with reproduced concept art and illustrations breaking up the prose; the exception comes in the form of colour plates on glossy black paper, which use a series of neat post-process effects in an attempt to simulate their appearance on an old cathode-ray tube (CRT) display – the way they were originally meant to be seen.

All this, and the usual interesting things written by others, can be found on the shelves of your local supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 152

Linux User & Developer Issue 152The pages of this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine include, in addition to my regular four-page news spread near the front, a review of the interesting Bq Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition smartphone.

While it’s a shift from my usual review fodder – although I have reviewed Android tablets for a LU&D group-test a few years ago – the Bq Aquaris is an interesting beast. Based on hardware designed for an entry-level Android smartphone, the operating system has been replaced with a very-early-release build of Ubuntu Touch, otherwise known as Ubuntu for Phones and born from the abortive Ubuntu for Android project.

As the name suggests, Ubuntu for Phones is designed specifically for smartphones and includes UI modifications as required. Its biggest innovation is in Scopes, app-like ‘views’ which gather information from multiple – though, at present, very limited – sources for at-a-glance viewing. The Today scope, for example, shows weather and upcoming appointments, while a Nearby scope shows weather and nearby Yelp listings.

The whole thing feels like a mash-up between Android 1.5, webOS, and Sailfish, complete with a card-like multitasking environment and gesture-based access to various system functions. Ubuntu for Phones’ biggest selling-point, though, is the ability to act as a converged device by connecting to a display, keyboard and mouse and switching to a desktop-style user interface – a feature entirely missing from the entry-level Aquaris, which will be a disappointment for anyone who remembers the failed crowd-funding campaign for the top-end Ubuntu Edge device.

If you want to know my conclusions, Linux User & Developer Issue 152 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio: Linux User & Developer and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 145

Linux User & Developer Issue 145In addition to my usual four-page news spread this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes a review of the SolidRun HummingBoard-i2eX, a powerful dual-core microcomputer designed to be roughly Raspberry Pi compatible.

If my description of the HummingBoard sounds familiar, it should: I reviewed the same device in a head-to-head with the similarly Raspberry Pi-inspired Banana Pi in Custom PC Issue 134. Where that review focused on a hobbyist perspective – given that it appeared in my regular five-page spread, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech – this review is more tailored for the Linux crowd to better address the magazine’s target audience. The board itself, of course, remains unchanged: a dual-core Freescale i.MX6 processor with powerful graphics is installed alongside a chunk of RAM on a computer-on-module (COM) mezzanine board inserted into a feature-packed expansion board, both being supplied by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT.

Little time passed between the two reviews, so there wasn’t any chance for SolidRun to tweak the software. At the time of writing, Android 4.4 KitKat was available alongside a Debian variant which truly unlocked the power of the processor. Most impressive of all, however, is the cross-compatibility: the HummingBoard is based on the Carrier-One, an internal development board used by SolidRun while testing the Freescale chip; the same chip is available in single-, dual- and quad-core flavours in the company’s CuBox-i family of media-centric microcomputers – and the HummingBoard is entirely software-compatible, to the extent of being able to take a micro-SD card out of a CuBox-i and boot it on a HummingBoard without modification.

As to whether the board, which includes mSATA and mini-PCI Express connectivity in addition to the usual USB and GPIO features you’d expect of a Raspberry Pi-alike, is worth the cash, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to find out. If you do, you’ll also find four pages of the finest news I could cull from the worlds of open software, open hardware, open governance and more – along with the usual monthly event calendar.

You can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 145 at your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 140

Linux User & Developer Issue 140In this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine, I take a look at two devices from the world of single-board computers – just for a change. The first is the Wolfson Audio Card, an add-on for the Raspberry Pi that promises to boost its sound capabilities considerably; the second, a quad-core Freescale i.MX6-based machine that tries its hardest to be an open-source set-top box. Plus, as usual, there’s my usual four-page news spread to enjoy.

The Wolfson Audio Card – or Wolfson Audio Board, depending on who you’re talking to – was supplied, as is usual for this kind of gear, by the lovely people at CPC. It’s the same device I reviewed for Custom PC Issue 130, so if you’ve read that review you’ll know what to expect: a piggyback board which takes up the GPIO port at the top-left of the Pi and adds digital audio inputs and outputs, significantly higher quality analogue audio support, a quality high-definition codec and even on-board microphones.

The quad-core SBC, however, is new. Supplied by UK distributor PCI Express – and yes, that’s a very awkward name for which to search – the Matrix TBS2910 is a powerful system based around the Freescale i.MX6 processor. I was especially excited to give this system a try, as the i.MX6 is considerably more powerful than the dual-core systems I’m used to – and, as an added incentive for giving it a thorough examination, will be the basis for SolidRun’s upcoming Hummingboard SBC design.

The Matrix is pretty unique in the market, in the respect that it comes from a company – TBS – more usually associated with digital television equipment. The reason is simple: the device is supplied pre-loaded with an XBMC-based Linux distribution and drivers for the company’s digital tuners, which can be connected via USB or through the on-board mini-PCI Express slot. I can see the latter interesting those who fancy adding new features to embedded projects, but there is a catch: switching to a different operating system requires the use of a Windows-only software utility, which sadly cost the Matrix some points in a review for a Linux magazine.

You can read these, plus coverage of the Hummingboard and its rival the Banana Pi, Google’s adoption of IBM’s Power architecture, more news from the Linux Foundation on its Core Infrastructure initiative and the death of Canonical’s Ubuntu for Android project, in the latest issue of Linux User & Developer in shops now or digitally via Zinio and similar services. Readers in France will be able to read the same in a couple of months as the localised title Inside Linux.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 139

Linux User & Developer Issue 139In 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.

Custom PC, Issue 129

Custom PC Issue 129In this month’s Hobby Tech spread, settling nicely into its expanded five-page format, I show readers how to build a near-field communication (NFC) power switch for their PCs, reuse some classic keyboard key caps from an Amstrad CPC 464, review the CubieBoard 2 and interview Ryanteck’s Ryan Walmsley; it’s a bumper column, in other words.

First the review. The CubieBoard 2 has been available internationally for some time, but has only recently reached our shores courtesy low-power PC specialist New IT. Designed as an alternative to the ever-popular Raspberry Pi, the CubieBoard 2 boasts a dual-core AllWinner A20 processor, 1GB of RAM, and – something that will likely interest many – an on-board SATA port with 5V power for 2.5″ storage devices.

The CubieBoard 2 is supplied with a terrible Android port on its internal flash storage, but software support is excellent – unusual for consumer-grade single-board computers like this, which usually abandon the user with a years-old copy of Ubuntu and a hearty handshake. The CubieBoard 2 is, in fact, the official platform used by Fedora for its ARM port. Does that make it a good buy? You’ll have to read the review to find out, I’m afraid.

The cover-flash tutorial was the result of a social visit from John McLear, a friend and fellow hacker who is the brain behind Kickstarter success story the NFC Ring. As its name implies, the NFC Ring packs a pair of near-field communication tags – fully rewritable – into a wearable form-factor. Having supplied me with an early prototype some time ago, John let me rummage through a pile of rejects to find a thinner and more modern version indicative of the final product quality – and thus the concept, a PC power supply that would trigger when the NFC Ring comes into range, was born. A quick shopping trip to the ever-dependable oomlout later, and I was finished in record time.

I’ve recently made the move from my dependable IBM Model F keyboard to a modern Cherry MX mechanical model from Filco. It’s nice, but lacks a little in the style department; which is where a deceased Amstrad CPC 464, already missing some keys, comes in. With a little modification, it turns out you can take the keys from the CPC and use them on a Cherry MX switch – and my keyboard now has a classic Escape key for my troubles.

Finally, Ryan Walmsley. Just 17 years old, Ryan has set up a business creating accessories for the Raspberry Pi. I caught up with him following a successful crowd-funding run on Tindie for his first product, the Ryanteck Motor Control Board or RTK-000-000-001. He’s a fascinating guy, and a real inspiration to anyone who thinks they could never break into the world of hobbyist electronics.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via services including Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 136

Linux User & Developer Issue 136This month’s Linux User & Developer is a little light on my content, with a planned interview with Mark Doran of the UEFI Forum being bumped to the next issue. It does, however, still include my regular four-page news spread.

The news section this month includes a look at the Intel Edison, the second product from the company to feature its embedded Quark processor. Based on an SD card form factor, the Edison is designed as the drop-in replacement for the Galileo. At the time, I hadn’t had the pleasure of playing with a Quark – which packs up to four Pentium architecture processing cores, offering full x86 compatibility – although I’ve since acquired a Galileo, and let’s just say Intel has a bit of work ahead of it if it wants to supplant ARM and dedicated microcontrollers in the market.

Additional topics covered include the merging of CentOS into Red Hat, with no changes expected as a result of the move; Firefox OS being drafted into future Panasonic Smart TVs following a muted reception of the open-source HTML-powered operating system on smartphones; a look at the US government’s programme to use open source software and open hardware for future generations of unmanned aerial vehicles; Google’s foundation of the Open Automotive Alliance, a transparent attempt to find new markets for Android; a new Steam OS release with support Intel and AMD graphics, in place of the original Nvidia-exclusive launch; Belkin’s release of a new open-source router, an update for the popular but long-outdated Linksys WRT54G; and a defacement attack on the openSUSE forums, blamed on the proprietary vBulletin software.

As always, a calendar for the month’s biggest events is also included for reference.

Linux User & Developer Issue 136 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via services including Zinio. More information is also available on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 123

Custom PC, Issue 123Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech continues in the latest Custom PC Magazine, with a tutorial that’s sure to generate some interest: creating a companion display for your desktop or laptop using nothing more than an outdated and cheaply-available Android tablet – or smartphone, if you’ve got good enough eyesight for that to be useful. As usual, there’s also a review and some vintage computing goodness to mix things up a bit.

First, the tutorial. As with most of the projects that appear in Hobby Tech, I created this for personal use before deciding it might be of interest to others. Having no room for a true second monitor, but frequently running out of window room on my slightly cramped 1,920×1,200 main monitor, I worked to turn an old Android tablet into a secondary display. It’s an easy enough trick to do on Linux, although likely somewhat harder if you’re a Windows user, and extremely handy: I can open anything from a terminal session to a browser window on the display, stream it live and wirelessly to the tablet, and interact with it using my desktop’s keyboard and mouse.

It’s a purely software project – aside from the mounting of the display, which I carried out with Sugru – and one that has certainly seen more use than anything else I’ve documented in the column. It’s particularly useful for keeping an eye on my playlist while I’m working, and while it isn’t without its faults – the tablet has a tendency to drop its network connection every now and again, necessitating a reconnect – it’s been great value for money.

In addition to the tutorial, Hobby Tech this month includes a review of the Embedded Artists 2.7″ ePaper Display – which, as the name suggests, is a compact electrophoretic display designed for embedded hardware. It’s a clever bit of kit compatible with most microcontrollers, although my review concentrates on its use with the popular Raspberry Pi. As an added bonus, while my unit was very kindly supplied direct from Embedded Artists in Sweden, several UK suppliers for the device have appeared since my review including Cool Components – meaning you can save yourself the otherwise cripplingly-expensive postage charges.

Finally, the vintage computing section of the column this month is something very dear to my heart: a look at the IBM Model F keyboard. Built using the company’s patented buckling-spring mechanism, the Model F is generally considered to be the best keyboard in the world – and anyone who says the Model M holds that position simply hasn’t tried a Model F, as the M is merely a cost-reduced and significantly mushier variation of the design. As a writer, I do an awful lot of typing, and I used to get the worrying early symptoms of carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injury. Since switching to an IBM Model F from a Personal Computer AT, I’ve had no such problem – 30-year-old technology solving a problem modern-day gear simply couldn’t touch.

All this, plus the usual news snippets and a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, awaits you at your local newsagent or other magazine retailer, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.