Custom PC, Issue 211

Custom PC Issue 211My regular Hobby Tech column this month spans the worlds of network attached storage, input devices, and retro gaming, courtesy of reviews covering the Kobol Helios64 open-spec NAS, the Keybordio Atreus ergonomic keyboard, and Neil Thomas’ Retro Tea Breaks.

The NAS, first, is a device I was excited to put on the test bench. A follow-up to Kobol’s earlier and considerably more Heath Robinson Helios4, the Helios64 is an open-spec network attached storage system built around the Rockchip RK3399 six-core Arm processor – not, sadly, the faster RK3399Pro, following an unplanned downgrade when SARS-CoV-2 hit the supply chain.

The board has five SATA ports, one shared with an on-board M.2 SATA slot for an SSD, a chunky heatsink, and both gigabit and 2.5-gig Ethernet – though the first batch of the devices suffers from an unfortunate design flaw in the latter. Other issues abound in the design of the very smart-looking bundled case and plastic drive sleds, though if Kobol’s promise to address these in future production runs is fulfilled the Helios64 could well take its place at the top of the hobby-friendly NAS league.

The Keyboardio Atreus, meanwhile, is an interesting beast: it’s an ultra-compact ergonomic mechanical keyboard based on switching between multiple layers to make up for the reduced number of physical keys. It’s also not Keyboardio’s own design: the company has made a name for itself in mechanical keyboard circles by adopting open-source keyboard designs, with the full consent of their original creators, and bringing them to the mass market via crowdfunding.

Finally, Retro Tea Breaks is a compact hardback tome which also owes its existence to a crowdfunding campaign, this time courtesy of Neil Thomas’ RMC – formerly Retro Man Cave – YouTube channel. The book gathers together transcripts, lightly edited and in some cases updated, of interviews carried out with some big names from the classic gaming scene – ranging from the Oliver twins to George “The Fat Man” Sanger and, surprisingly, Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem himself.

You can find the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine on all good supermarket shelves, at your local newsagent, or online with global delivery now.

Custom PC, Issue 203

Custom PC Issue 203This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at how the maker and hacker communities are rallying behind the COVID-19 crisis, puts the Rock Pi N10 Model A computer-on-module on the test bench, and takes a look at Imagine That!, the story of APF engineer Ed Smith and his work on the Imagination Machine home computer.

First, the opening spread. The world is still struggling to adjust to a “new normal” in the face of the continuing spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 disease it causes, and nowhere is that more obvious than here in the UK. While many countries have been able to flatten the curve sufficiently to avoid overwhelming healthcare resources, there is still concern over a second wave – and that’s why makers and tinkerers around the world have volunteered their expertise and enthusiasm.

The spread looks at a range of projects currently underway across the globe, from open-source ventilators designed as emergency alternatives to under-stocked invasive ventilators used as a last-ditch treatment for COVID-19 sufferers to homebrew face masks and face shields. Links to each project are included, for anyone looking to get involved.

The Rock Pi N10 Model A is a traditional hardware review: two pages on the computer-on-module. Based on the Rockchip RK3399Pro system-on-chip with integrated neural network co-processor, the entry-level Model A includes 4GB of LPDDR3 memory and 16GB of storage plus PCI Express connectivity for external hardware – a rarity on devices at its price point.

Finally, Ed Smith’s autobiography Imagine That! rounds out the piece. A self-published book, via Amazon’s print-on-demand service, Imagine That! impressed and disappointed in equal measure. For those looking for technical details on Smith’s involvement in APF’s Imagination Machine home computer, it’s a disappointment; for those looking for information on what it was like to be a black engineer growing up in the Browsnville projects in the 1970s there’s plenty of meat in its relatively scant 140 pages.

It’s a topic worthy of publication, but one which will hopefully see enough success to warrant a second edition through a professional publishing house: Smith’s honest storytelling approach is refreshing but scattershot, and riddled with typographical, grammatical, and factual errors begging for an editorial pass, as are the low-resolution and uncredited images sprinkled throughout.

All this, and more, can be found in Custom PC Issue 203, available to buy with worldwide delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 200

Custom PC Issue 200In this milestone issue of Custom PC Magazine you’ll find a look at the impressively retro service and the wider tildeverse, the edge-AI-focused Orange Pi 4B single-board computer, and the Pi Hut ZeroDock accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero.

First, – which requires a little history lesson for context. In the early days of networked computing, particularly on systems based on UNIX or the later POSIX standard, users hosted shared files in their home folders – which were given the shortcut ~. Today, shared systems have given way to virtual private servers (VPSes), but offers a reproducible platform for those who miss the early days: your own directory, with public and private areas, on a truly shared POSIX-compliant server.

As well as hosting simple websites – there’s no server-side scripting here – you can join in internal email discussions, an on-server BBS, a text-based interface for the popular Reddit social network, and even play multiplayer games, all in the comfort of your terminal. A major delay in approving accounts for the original – five years before a volunteer took over the service and began clearing the queue – also gave rise to the tildeverse, a network of servers many of which focus on particular topics of interest.

The Orange Pi 4B, by contrast, is very much not a throwback but a piece of hardware designed to sit at the cutting edge. Mimicking, with a few modifications, the layout of a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, the Orange Pi 4B offers a Rockchip RK3399 six-core processor – two high-performance cores, four low-power cores – alongside a neural processing unit (NPU) coprocessor for edge-AI acceleration. As usual, my review looks at software support, hardware performance, and thermal imaging – along with an investigation of what the NPU brings to the table.

Finally, the Pi Hut ZeroDock is a handy but sadly pricey accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero family of single-board computers. Constructed from laser-cut acrylic, the ZeroDock houses a Pi Zero, a bundled compact solderless breadboard, and a small number of accessories like USB dongles and SD Card adapters. For those using a Pi Zero for prototyping, it’s a great tool – but at £10, twice the price of the Pi Zero board itself, it’s a little too expensive to be a must-have.

The full feature can be found on newsagent and supermarket shelves now, or purchased for global delivery from the official Custom PC website.


Custom PC, Issue 194

Custom PC Issue 194My regular Hobby Tech feature provided two opportunities to break out the thermal camera, thanks to a detailed analysis of a range of cooling products for the Raspberry Pi 4 and a review of the Libre Computer Project’s La Frite single-board computer – and there was even time to take a look at Brian Dear’s exhaustive title The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture.

First, La Frite. Funded, as with all Libre Computer Project boards, via crowdfunding, the compact single-board computer is designed to compete with the like of the Raspberry Pi. It certainly has its selling points: there’s a mounting point on the underside for an eMMC storage module, though it uses proprietary mounting holes; there’s a clever midship-mounted Ethernet port to reduce the overall height; and it even comes with the option of a clever two-piece aluminium case that doubles as a heatsink. Sadly, the board’s performance isn’t there, its software support struggles, and despite the name of the organisation its openness is limited to targeting mainstream Linux kernels; the board itself is a proprietary design.

Moving on to the topic of the Raspberry Pi 4, there’s no secret now that the new high-performance processor at its heart runs a little warm. For my analysis of the issue and a look at some potential solutions, a benchmarking workload was executed while temperature and clockspeed were measured and charted – demonstrating handily the loss of performance you get when the system-on-chip begins to heat up.

These data are joined by the same workload while the Raspberry Pi 4 is enjoying the benefits of a range of third-party cooling products: the Pimoroni Heatsink and Fan Shim options, the former running in passive-only and fan-assisted modes and the latter in always-on and software-controlled modes, along with the 52Pi Ice Tower heatsink and fan assembly as supplied by Seeed Studio and running in 5V, 3V3, and wholly passive modes. The temperatures across the run are then charted, while thermal imagery provides a visual insight into how the whole board heats under passive and active cooling.

Finally, The Friendly Orange Glow is a book I’d heartily recommend to anyone interested in the history of a surprising range of modern technologies – from flat-panel plasma displays and multiplayer gaming to Microsoft’s FreeCell. Charting the rise and fall of PLATO, a computer-assisted learning platform now largely forgotten by history, the book is about more than just technology: as its subtitle, The Untold History of the Rise of Cyberculture, suggests, PLATO and those who built and used it were responsible for cultural movements that wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere in the world for decades.

You can pick up the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or online at the Raspberry Pi Press Store, or grab it in digital form via the usual distribution services.

The MagPi, Issue 83

The MagPi Issue 83This week saw the release of the Raspberry Pi 4, first in a new generation of single-board computers from the not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation. As is usual for the launches, I was approached by The MagPi Magazine – the Foundation’s official publication – to prepare coverage for the launch, including interviews, imagery, and a wealth of benchmarks.

My coverage for the magazine, spread across a whopping 12 pages, begins with a high-resolution hero shot of the board with macro-image call-outs for its key features and components – including the new USB Type-C power connector, BCM2711B0 system-on-chip, and shiny dual-micro-HDMI video outputs capable of driving high-resolution 4K displays.

Next, there’s an interview with Foundation co-founder Eben Upton covering everything from the reason the board is available now when a 2020 launch had previously been suggested, how it can potentially replace a desktop PC in a range of environments, backwards compatibility with the existing Raspberry Pi ecosystem, and a hidden Easter Egg on the PCB – only accessible to those brave or foolhardy enough to unsolder the USB connector.

The benchmarking section, spread across four pages, marks a departure from previous launches: this time around I pulled the focus away from synthetic benchmarks, though the classic Linpack still makes an appearance if only to demonstrate how the Arm processors’ NEON extensions can dramatically improve performance, in favour of a variety of real-world workloads: image editing with the GIMP, file compression with bzip2 and lbzip2, browser performance in Chromium, and gaming performance with OpenArena, alongside USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi throughputs. In all cases, the workloads are entirely reproducible: all packages used for the real-world workloads are available at launch in the Raspbian Buster software repositories. If four pages isn’t enough, additional benchmarks are available on my Medium post.

As usual, the benchmarking also includes a thermal analysis: images of the Raspberry Pi 4 and its immediate predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ were taken after a ten-minute CPU-heavy workload using a Flir thermal imaging camera, the data processed to a fixed temperature scale of 22-80°C to avoid noise from ambient surfaces, then overlaid on an edge-enhanced high-resolution visible-light image of their respective boards using a high-contrast rainbow colour palette. These images represent a fair amount of work, but there’s no better way to see both how hot the Pis get under continuous load and which components are responsible for that heat – not to mention how effective the design is at bleeding the heat off through the PCB, something with which the older Raspberry Pi models with plastic-encased chips have struggled.

Finally, the piece closes with a two-page interview with Simon Long on the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system – launching ahead of the upstream Debian 10 ‘Buster’ release, interestingly – and its revised, flatter user interface. While much of the under-the-hood work for Buster was to get it ready for the Raspberry Pi 4 – previous Raspbian releases won’t work on the new board – it’s also available for older Raspberry Pi models, and comes with some convincing reasons to upgrade along with a handful of software compatibility issues that offer a reason to hang fire.

As always, The MagPi Issue 83 is available to buy in print format from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and book sellers; a free digital copy, released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence, is also available from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 191

Custom PC Issue 191This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Nvdia’s first-ever entry into the maker market with the Jetson Nano, guides the reader through assisting the Internet Archive with its Sisyphean task, and takes a look at the Xiaomi Wowstick cordless screwdriver.

First, Nvidia’s offering. While the original Jetson TK1 single-board computer was sold through the since-departed high-street electronics outlet Maplin in the UK, its near-£200 price tag meant it wasn’t of much interest to the pocket-money shopper. Its successors in the Jetson family have been successively more expensive, culminating in the £1,199 Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier reviewed last month. The Jetson Nano, by contrast, is just £95 – £101.50 if you include shipping – and is specifically aimed at makers and tinkerers.

The board uses a system-on-module (SOM) on carrier design, dominated by a massive heatsink. Although it’s perfectly possible to view the device as a souped-up and considerably more expensive Raspberry Pi, general-purpose computing isn’t Nvidia’s primary market: instead, it’s aiming to bring a new generation of developers into the CUDA GPU-accelerated computing ecosystem by using the Jetson Nano as a jumping-off point for deep learning and machine intelligence projects, including its own Jetbot autonomous robot platform.

The guide, meanwhile, walks the reader through using almost any PC to assist the Internet Archive with its goal of storing all the world’s information for immediate retrieval. Written as I was firing up a Warrior – the name given by the Archive Team to its distributed data capture systems – to assist with the archiving of the last bits of Google+ before its closure, the step-by-step instructions will let anyone contribute to the not-for-profit effort.

Finally, the Wowstick comes from a company better known in the UK for its cut-price smartphones: Xiaomi. Designed, as with much of the company’s output, to give a premium feel, the USB-rechargeable electric screwdriver is aimed at fine electronics work rather than flat-pack assembly – and does a surprisingly good job of it. Only limited torque for locked-down or larger screws and a terrible case whose tiny magnets are improperly attached let the bundle down.

For the full run-down on all this and more you can pick up Custom PC Issue 191 from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or snag a digital copy from Zinio or similar services. Alternatively, a new subscription offer will get you the next three issues for just £5 – renewing at £25 every six issues if you don’t cancel beforehand.

Linux Format, Issue 250

Linux Format Issue 250In my first piece for Linux Format I look at the Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier system-on-module, an incredibly powerful device the company hopes will transform the field of autonomous machines and other machine learning initiatives – and the precursor to the recently-launched and significantly more affordable hobbyist device the Jetson Nano.

In contrast to the Jetson AGX Xavier review in Custom PC Issue 190, which takes an exclusively hands-on approach, my piece for Linux Format opens with a look at the history of Nvidia’s Jetson family and the company’s various efforts to make the name synonymous with autonomous machines.

The piece then moves on to the device itself, which is impressively powerful for its sub-30W power draw – but many features of which are inaccessible pending software updates which are still not available. This issue, which extends in part at least to the documentation supporting the platform, is something Nvidia really needs to address if it’s serious about having the device – and the hobbyist Jetson Nano – appeal to the educational market as well as experienced developers looking to build high-end machine learning implementations.

Linux Format Issue 250 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, and can be downloaded in electronic form from Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 190

Custom PC Issue 190My Hobby Tech column this month, wrapped in Custom PC’s newly-redesigned layout, takes a look at a powerful yet low-power machine likely out of the reach of most hobbyists along with the mind-bending 90s web simulator Hypnospace Outlaw and the book Robotics with Raspberry Pi by Matt Timmons-Brown.

First, the headline act: Nvidia’s Jetson AGX Xavier is its flagship entry in the Jetson range of Arm-based embedded computers, which launched with the Jetson TK1 I reviewed way back in Issue 133, and comes with a price tag to match: £1,199, dropping to £819 with educational discount. At that price, it’s a device aimed at professional developers more than hobbyists – but it provides a hint as to what to expect from the far more affordable and hobbyist-focused Jetson Nano, a full review of which will appear in next month’s column.

Hypnospace Outlaw, meanwhile, is Jay Tholen’s attempt at marrying what is effectively a 90s web simulator with a sci-fi plot involving headsets which let you browse while you sleep. Crowdfunded via Kickstarter, the game isn’t quite what was originally promised – but, frankly, that’s no bad thing: what has been delivered is impressively immersive and likely to thrill anyone who was around during the heyday of Geocities and Angelfire.

Finally, Robotics with Raspberry Pi is the first full book from self-styled “Raspberry Pi Guy” Matt Timmons-Brown. Designed with a very friendly hands-on approach in mind, the book walks the reader through the proces sof building a robot with each chapter adding new functionality: line following, Bluetooth remote control, user-addressable LEDs, a speaker, and even machine vision via the Raspberry Pi Camera Module. While a little muddled in places, it’s one of the better tomes on the subject – and one that avoids the usual pitfall of being little more than an elongated instruction manual for a single off-the-shelf robot kit.

Custom PC Issue 190 is available in all good newsagents and supermarkets now, and will shortly land on digital distribution platforms.

The MagPi, Issue 76

The MagPi Issue 76There’s no missing my contribution to this month’s The MagPi: it’s plastered all over the cover. The launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ ends a four-year absence of the compact form factor from the Raspberry Pi line-up, and there’s no better way to celebrate its launch than with a massive cover feature.

The spread begins with a two-page introduction dominated by imagery of the board, before moving on to a plan view which calls out the individual components that make up the board – including the single USB port, BCM2387B0 system-on-chip (SoC), and the radio which, for the first time in a Model A variant, adds WiFi networking and Bluetooth connectivity. Each part includes macro photography, all taken in my in-house studio.

The next section of the feature runs through a series of benchmarks which, in-keeping with previous launches I’ve covered, compares the Pi 3A+ with other mainstream Pi models going all the way back to the original Raspberry Pi Model B. The feature also includes a look at the size and weight, the first time I’ve used that particular metric, along with comparative thermal imagery showing how the smaller surface area of the PCB copes with running the same high-performance processor as the larger Pi 3B+ – again, all captured in-house.

Finally, the cover feature closes with a two-way interview I conducted with project co-founder Eben Upton and principal hardware engineer Roger Thornton. In it, Eben confirms that the Pi 3A+ represents “tidying up ‘classic’ Raspberry Pi,” and that the Raspberry Pi 4 – still very much on the drawing board – will launch a whole new era for the low-cost single-board computer family.

The launch issue is available now from your nearest newsagent or supermarket in print, or can be downloaded free of charge under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Benchmarking the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+

Back in March, the release of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+—the Pi 3 B+ to its friends—brought a chance to take stock and review just how far the project had come since its launch via a series of benchmarks. Now the launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ brings a bold claim: a dramatic drop in size, weight, and price over the Pi 3 B+, but without any loss in performance.

In other words: it’s benchmark time once again.

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