Custom PC, Issue 162

Custom PC Issue 162In Hobby Tech this month I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi-based Kano Complete Computer Kit, the eight-bit Arduboy handheld games console, and the undeniably impressive Mirobot educational robot.

To look at the Mirobot first, it’s no secret that I was eager to put it through its paces. Turtle-style robots, which roll around the floor drawing pictures, were immensely popular in the 80s, and the Mirobot looks to bring the technology bang up to date. Entirely open source, from the circuits to the software, the Mirobot is based around two microcontrollers: an Arduino, which handles the actual robotics, and an ESP8266, which provides Wi-Fi connectivity and handles the user interface and ever-so-smart over-the-air (OTA) flashing capabilities.

The Mirobot screams smart from the moment you open the package: its body is made from laser-cut MDF, and the panels form the packaging itself. Everything is put together without tools, and getting up and running requires no software installation – just a device with a modern browser. Multiple programming languages are available, and an API for those who want to roll their own software. In short, I’m a Mirobot fan – and I’d heartily recommend picking one up if you’ve an interest in open-source robotics or programming for education.

The Kano Complete Computer Kit, on the other hand, comes at education from a very different perspective. Billed somewhat disingenuously as a computer you ‘build,’ the kit is at its heart a speaker and case for a bundle Raspberry Pi alongside a customised operating system which is the project’s true selling point.

The Kano kits have been around for a while now, but the Complete Computer Kit as reviewed is new: the computer side has been refreshed to include the latest Raspberry Pi 3, while the bundle also includes a high-quality but non-touch display which accepts the Kano-cased Pi in its rear. It’s a lovely kit, and the software – which you can download for free and run on your own Raspberry Pi – is phenomenal, but its cost definitely lets it down: at £299 RRP it’s massively overpriced.

Finally, the Arduboy. Crowdfunded and hit by numerous delays on its way to market, the Arduboy is an extremely smart little handheld console based around an Arduino-compatible ATmega microprocessor. Games are written in the Arduino IDE then flashed onto the credit card sized device via USB, and play out on a teeny-tiny little single-colour OLED panel which is sadly prone to bad banding.

The Arduboy is a lovely device, but it’s not the first design I’ve seen – and nor is it my favourite. The Gamebuino, reviewed back in Issue 134, still sits at the top for a number of reasons: it’s cheaper, it has better battery life, and it has a clever system for loading games from a bundled micro-SD card. The Arduboy, by contrast, is slimmer, has a clearer display, but can only carry a single game at a time. When you want to switch games, you’ll need a computer with the Arduino IDE – and that’s a major drawback in a portable gaming device.

All this can be yours, alongside the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

The MagPi, Issue 53

The MagPi Issue 53Inside this month’s MagPi Magazine – the first issue to feature a cover-mounted DVD, boasting a bootable copy of the new Debian+Pixel Linux distribution for readers to try – you’ll find my review of a rather special little gadget: the Mirobot v2 programmable robot.

I’ve played with educational robots before, but the Mirobot caught my eye the minute I saw inventor Ben Pirt demonstrating it at the Maker Faire UK earlier this year. With a chassis made entirely from laser-cut MDF, the Mirobot is an impressive package: Ben has designed it so that every component nestles in holes cut out from the MDF sheets themselves, making for an extremely compact box which pops nicely through your letterbox and leaving almost zero waste once assembled.

The Mirobot is designed primarily for use as a turtle, and includes a mount for a pen so it can draw on suitable surfaces. Where it differs from most rival designs is that it can be programmed entirely through a browser: an on-board web server, running on the popular ESP8266 microcontroller, can work as a standalone hotspot with simple Scratch-inspired drag-and-drop programming interface or connect to your home Wi-Fi and allow access to additional languages, a point-and-click interface, and even a set of buttons for direct remote control.

With the exception of the Scratch language, which relies on Adobe Flash Player, everything works an absolute treat on the Raspberry Pi, but the Mirobot isn’t limited to this: it can be programmed from any modern web-connected device, from a laptop to a smartphone, or for more advanced users interfaced with via a well-documented application programming interface (API) from the language of your choice. Assembly is quick and easy, requiring absolutely no tools, and while aligning the pen and motors is a little trickier that’s a one-off job.

To read the full review, either pick up a paper copy of The MagPi Issue 53 and enjoy your bonus cover DVD or download the entire issue for free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 160

Custom PC Issue 160This month’s edition of Custom PC includes, as usual, my five-page Hobby Tech column covering the Dremel 3000 Four-Star Kit, the CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers, and the conclusion of the Arduino-versus-Arduino saga – in a happy ending, I’m thrilled to say.

Rotary tools like the Dremel 3000 are one of those things you don’t think you need until you get one. It’s been a long time since I played with a proper Dremel-branded example, and this month’s review was a fantastic excuse to get myself up to speed with the changes the platform has enjoyed.

Ignoring the poor-quality ‘toolbox’ the kit comes in, I was particularly excited by the EZ-SpeedClic system. My original Dremel-like tool – a Black & Decker Wizard – had long been abandoned after frustrations with the tiny screw which attaches cut-off and grinding discs to the equally tiny mandrel. EZ-SpeedClic does away with that: the discs’ reinforced centres just twist and snap onto a clever sprung holder. Coupled with some shiny new accessories, I could see why people might want to upgrade from older or rival models.

The CHIP and PocketCHIP, meanwhile, came as more of a surprise. Like many, I was dismissive of NextThingCo’s inaugural crowdfunding campaign; the idea of a $9 fully-functional microcomputer when the Raspberry Pi had only just got the things down below $30 seemed laughable, and many in the industry suggested it was an outright fraud or at least a loss-leader to be offset by future sales at a higher price.

Proving the critics wrong, though, NextThingCo launched the $9 CHIP – albeit requiring add-on cables and adaptors to get a picture out of the thing – and followed it up with the PocketCHIP, an open hardware proof-of-concept which turns the CHIP into a surprisingly capable hand-held computer straight out of the early 90s.

Finally, regular readers will remember my coverage of the legal battle between Arduino.cc and Arduino.org which had given birth to the Genuino trademark, and the follow-up piece in Issue 159 covering Pimoroni’s decision to drop all Arduino and Genuino products as a result. The final page of this month’s column is, hopefully, the last I will have to write on that particular topic: the two companies have agreed to settle their disputes, join forces, and work together under a single Arduino brand – meaning, of course, that Genuino-branded products are likely to vanish from the market in due course.

All this, and stuff written by people other than myself, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on the electronic shelf substitutes of services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 159

Custom PC Issue 159Hobby Tech this month covers the launch of the Sugru Rebel Tech Kit, the performance improvements made possible in the latest Arduino IDE, and ends with bad news for Arduino.cc’s new Genuino brand which, I’m pleased to say, has since been replaced by significantly better news.

Sugru, for those not familiar, is remarkable stuff. Straight from the packet it has the consistency of well-worked Blu-tack, if not slightly softer, but with nothing more than time hardens into a firm silicone rubber. It’s waterproof, heatproof, electrically insulative, and I’ve used it in the past for everything from mounting a tablet to the side of my monitor to customising the scales on a Leatherman multitool.

The Rebel Tech Kit, then, is Sugru’s attempt to grab some Christmas gift traffic. Featuring four sachets of Sugru, a guitar pick for moulding and removal, a storage tin, and a full-colour project booklet, there’s not much in there for those already experienced in the ways of “mouldable glue.” For newcomers, though, it’s a fantastic introduction, and one I can see appearing under trees around the world.

The Arduino IDE tests, meanwhile, were fun to carry out. Updates to the AVR Core – the toolchain used for ATmega-based microcontroller boards like the Arduino Uno and Arduino Mega – have brought with them the promise of smaller binary sizes and improved performance, which was an excuse to pull out my microcontroller benchmark family: the floating-point Whetstone, integer Dhrystone, and my own pin-toggling IOBench. The result is an in-depth look at the improvements you can expect from upgrading, complete with pretty graphs and even prettier screenshots.

Finally, the Genuino’s death knell. At the time of writing, noted Sheffield-based hobbyist supply house Pimoroni had revealed the outcome of months of negotiations with Arduino.cc: they would no longer stock the company’s boards. The reason: the ongoing legal battle with Arduino.org over international trademark rights, which had seen Arduino.cc launch the Genuino brand. A refusal to sell Genuino-branded hardware to resellers that would make them available in the US was causing headaches that Pimoroni could do without, which were detailed in the company’s blog post and expanded upon in the final page of my column this month.

Publishing, though, has considerable lead times, and in the time it’s taken this issue to hit shop shelves there’s been a welcome development: Arduino.cc and Arduino.org have merged, ending all legal proceedings between the two and meaning that the problems experienced by Pimoroni over trademark rights and product geo-fencing should no longer be an issue. The impact of this merger, and what it means for the Arduino user, will be explored in a future column.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff from people other than myself, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally on Zinio and other distribution platforms.

Custom PC Magazine, Issue 158

Custom PC Magazine Issue 158This month, my regular Hobby Tech column is interview-heavy. You’ll find two pages dedicated to Grant Macaulay of Theo Lasers, another two to Barry Getty of the Dark Water Foundation, and a final page reviewing the Genuino Zero microcontroller simply for a change of pace.

First, Grant. I met Grant at the recent Maker Faire UK, where he was showcasing prototypes of the Theo Laser laser cutters. These devices immediately caught my eye: rather than the usual red or beige metal, the cases were made from unfinished laser-cut wood. Each housed a low-power diode laser, and the top-end model was set to retail for around £1,000. A few months later Grant was getting ready to hit the go-live button on a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, and kindly took some time to walk me through his hopes for Theo Lasers – not to mention the thinking behind his decision to release everything from the hardware designs to the source code under a permissive, open-source licence.

Barry’s another contact from an event: Liverpool MakeFest 2015. There, I talked to Barry as his Dark Water Foundation ran a Lego-based workshop teaching the young and the not-so-young how to build open-source remote-operated submersible vehicles (ROSVs). Like Grant, Barry’s work didn’t stop when my original interview ended and I recently caught up with him to discuss some new designs: the Dark Control boards. Designed for use with the Raspberry Pi, these add-on boards allow for connecting up to six motors – important, he tells me, for full freedom of movement – quickly and easily, while also adding support for radio control systems and inertial measurement units.

Finally, the Genuino Zero. Kindly provided by oomlout as part of a collection of hardware I’m slowly working my way through testing, the Genuino Zero – known as the Arduino Zero in the US – drops Arduino’s traditional 8-bit ATmega microcontroller family in favour of a 32-bit ARM Cortex-M0+. The result is a board that looks for all the world like an Arduino Uno, but which offers considerably different capabilities and improved performance.

All this, and the usual selection of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be found in your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

The MagPi, Issue 49

The MagPi Issue 49The latest issue of The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, includes my two-page interview with Grant Macaulay of Theo Lasers, along with what is now rapidly becoming a go-to image I took of a Raspberry Pi 3 artfully rotated and pasted onto the cover.

I first met Grant at the Maker Faire UK event earlier this year, and got talking to him about the project he had quit his job to build: Theo Lasers. Designed to address the lack of affordable entry-level laser cutters and engravers for hobbyist and educational use, Theo Lasers came from a simple idea: “I’m going to make a laser cutter with a laser cutter,” he laughingly explained in front of a stand of prototypes proving he could do just that.

In the months since the event, Grant has been hard at work improving upon his design. In particular, with the aid of a developer friend, he’s moved from basing the hardware on an Arduino Mega microcontroller to using a Raspberry Pi Zero. In doing so his team developed Theo Controller, a browser-based control and monitoring system which runs entirely on the Pi and which can accept input from any web-compatible device. Coupled with an on-board display, SD card reader, and even the ability to run from battery or solar power, and Grant’s design definitely stands out from the competition even before you see its eye-catching wooden chassis.

Grant’s due to launch a Kickstarter campaign to begin mass production of the Theo Laser cutters in early September, with more details available from the official website. The interview, meanwhile, can be read for free in the Creative Commons licensed The MagPi Issue 49, out now.

Custom PC, Issue 155

Custom PC Issue 155This month’s Hobby Tech column features my field report from the Maker Faire UK 2016 event, an interview with my good friend Daniel Bailey about his brilliant homebrew computers, and a review of the Genuino MKR1000 microcontroller.

First, the event. Attending events like the Maker Faire is always a blast, especially as press when you have an excuse to stick your nose into absolutely everything that’s happening. My attendance this year was sponsored by oomlout, a local hobbyist electronics shop and a client for whom I do blog work, as highlighted in a “Sponsored By” call-out over the two-page spread. As for the event itself, you’ll find coverage of everything from DoES Liverpool’s excellent shooting gallery to affordable laser cutters and even the world’s only crowd-funded and wholly amateur manned space programme.

The event also gave me a chance to catch up with Daniel Bailey at the York Hackspace stand, after nearly a year of trying to find a good time to interview him about his impressive homebrew computers. Built on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and inspired by the classic Manchester Baby, the 8-bit C88 and 32-bit C3232 are incredibly impressive machines – and I can think of no project that better fits with the magazine’s title!

Finally, the MKR1000. Known under the Arduino brand in the US and Genuino brand elsewhere thanks to ongoing trademark disputes, the MKR1000 is Arduino.cc’s answer to the popular Particle Photon Wi-Fi microcontrollers. Featuring a breadboard-friendly layout and integrated 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio, it represents an interesting new direction for the company – albeit one somewhat hobbled by a high price compared against the competition.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people other than me, is awaiting your attention at your local newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 163

Linux User & Developer Issue 163This month’s Linux User & Developer includes my review of the Arduino-produced and Intel-chip-toting Genuino 101 microcontroller and the final five-page news spread, with publisher Imagine shuffling things around and taking the news coverage in-house after lo these many years.

Kindly supplied as a press sample by Intel, the Genuino 101 is special for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s one of the first commercially-available devices to be sold under the new Genuino brand outside the US – a necessity thanks to some hairy legal wrangling between two competing companies who have a claim to the Arduino trademark. Secondly, it’s the first outing for Intel’s new Curie module, a wearable-centric system-on-chip that combines microcomputer and microcontroller functionality.

Where Intel’s previous efforts at developing boards for the maker market have been somewhat hard to love, it’s definitely doing something right with the Genuino 101. The board is based on the popular Arduino Uno layout, includes 5V-safe pins despite running 3.3V logic, and can run most Arduino sketches unmodified. Better still, the Curie module includes integrated Bluetooth Low Energy support and an accelerometer sensor.

The design of the chip, though, is odd, and it’s something on which I focus during the review: the Curie uses two processors, an x86 Quark based on the old Pentium microarchitecture to run an underlying real-time operating system (RTOS) and an Argonaut RISC Core (ARC) which takes care of being a microcontroller and actually running the Arduino sketch. At the time of writing, the divide was stark: the Quark is entirely locked off from user access, taking over automatically for tasks like Bluetooth communication when requested by the ARC. While Intel has promised to release the source for the RTOS, allowing users to run their own code on the Quark as well as the ARC, this has yet to materialise.

Despite this, I was impressed with the Genuino 101 – but to read my full conclusion, you’ll have to hie thee hence to a supermarket, newsagent, or snag an electronic copy via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 152

Custom PC Issue 152In this month’s Hobby Tech column I review the Proster VC99 multimeter, the Intel/Arduino Genuino 101 microcontroller development board, and discuss the challenges in developing meaningful benchmarks for testing devices where memory is measured in kilobytes.

Unusually for a hardware review, the multimeter was actually a personal purchase: I’d been using a Maplin-branded multimeter for quite some time, but the low cost and seemingly broad features of the Proster VC99 – also known as the Vichy 99, and sold under a variety of badges – convinced me it was time for an upgrade. While doing so cost me a back-lit display, I gained a variety of functions from frequency counting up to a neat analogue bar-graph on the display for seeing spikes and dips that would otherwise be lost on a numerical output.

The frequency counter came in particularly handy for my Genuino 101 review: writing a simple Arduino Sketch which does nothing more than toggle a pin on and off as fast as possible, I was able to read how quickly that happened to give me an idea of the IO performance of the Genuino compared with other Arduino boards I have lying around. Coupled with a look at the Intel Curie module which powers the device, providing Bluetooth connectivity and an integrated accelerometer, that’s enough for a solid review.

I don’t want to do solid reviews, though, I want to do great reviews, so the last page of this month’s five-page spread looks at how I benchmarked the compute performance of the Genuino 101 against an Arduino Nano for a direct, head-to-head comparison. It’s not as easy as it sounds: with mere kilobytes of memory, it’s not like I could just install PC Mark and be done with it. Interested parties will find a detailed explanation of how I went about modifying the traditional Dhrystone and Whetstone benchmarks to run on both devices, including trimming things to fit into the Arduino Nano’s tiny memory allowance, and how to interpret the results.

All this, plus stuff by people who aren’t me, is available at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your home via digital distribution services including Zinio.

The MagPi, Issue 41

The MagPi Issue 41Following on from last month’s Pi Zero extravaganza, my workload for the latest issue of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s MagPi was pretty light: a single review, looking at the wonderful Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit.

I actually received and wrote this review some time ago, but various flat-plan changes led to it being bumped from its planned issue with the first suitable gap being in this New Year’s edition – published, as is so often the case with print publications, just before Christmas. Thankfully, the Touch Board isn’t really something that ages, and the model you would buy today is the same as the one I reviewed a few months back.

For those not familiar with the company’s output, Bare Conductive made a name for itself with a conductive paint suitable for making paper-based circuits. This was followed by the Touch Board, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller with built in capacitive touch and distance-tracking sensor capable of playing MP3 audio files from a micro-SD card depending on which of its inputs were triggered. The Starter Kit, then, unsurprisingly brings both inventions together: there’s a pot of the conductive paint plus a tube for more accurate dispensing, a brush, a Touch Board, crocodile clips, a rechargeable speaker, micro-SD, USB cable, and everything you need to build three example projects.

The bundled book is extremely good: printed on quality paper in full colour and with a modern layout, it goes some way to justifying the far-from-impulse near-£100 price point of the kit. So too does the out-of-box experience: MP3 files are pre-loaded on the micro-SD card, and if you connect the touch board to a USB port for power and poke each contact in turn you’ll be given voice guidance through its capabilities and use.

If you want to read more about the kit, the review is available in the free MagPi Issue 41 PDF or in print at newsagents and supermarkets throughout the UK.