Custom PC, Issue 178

Custom PC Issue 178This month’s Hobby Tech has a pair of two-page spreads on two very exciting, yet decidedly different, pieces of hardware – the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ and the Gamebuino Meta – along with a look at an update to the Arduino Create platform which brings early support for single-board computers.

First, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. As the name suggests, the new board isn’t quite a full generation above the existing Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. It is, however, a considerable upgrade – primarily thanks to a new packaging for the BCM2837 system-on-chip, now known as the BCM2837B0, which vastly improves its thermal performance and boosts its speed from 1.2GHz to 1.4GHz. Elsewhere, the board includes an upgraded and simplified power supply system, gigabit Ethernet – though limited to around 230Mb/s throughput in real-world terms – and dual-band 802.11ac wireless network capabilities. Naturally, the review also includes thermal imaging analysis – this time using a new overlay technique which, I’m pleased to say, offers a significant improvement in image clarity over my previous approaches.

The Gamebuino Meta, on the other hand, is a very different device to its predecessor. Upgraded from an ATmega microcontroller to an Arm chip, the Gamebuino Meta boasts a colour screen, programmable RGB LED lighting, a general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header with ‘developer backpack’ accessory for easy prototyping – in short, it’s a serious upgrade over the device I reviewed back in Issue 134. Despite the upgrades, though, it’s still extremely accessible, allowing users to write their own games using the Arduino IDE and the Gamebuino library with ease.

Finally, Arduino Create. I’ve been meaning to take a look at the cloud-based development environment for a while, but it wasn’t until it added support for single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi – on top of the Arduino boards it already supported – that I found an excuse to dive in. What I found is somewhat rough around the edges, but shows promise: a fully-functional IDE right in the browser, but with the ability to push sketches – with very little modification for the Raspberry Pi – to devices remotely.

All this, plus the usual raft of things I didn’t write, can be found between the crisp paper covers of Custom PC Issue 178 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

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.

PC Pro, Issue 271

PC Pro Issue 271In this month’s PC Pro Magazine I take a look at possibly the least original product to have ever come out of Asus’ labs: the Raspberry Pi clone known as the Tinker Board.

Designed to help Asus capture a slice of the lucrative maker market, the Tinker Board is a one-for-one feature-and-footprint clone of the Raspberry Pi 3: it’s a roughly credit-card-sized single-board computer with an ARM processor, wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, four USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, analogue audio, Camera Serial Interface (CSI) and Display Serial Interface (DSI) ports, and a 40-pin general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header. So far, so cloned.

Where Asus has tried to improve upon its inspiration is in the raw specifications: the processor, while 32-bit to the Raspberry Pi 3’s 64-bit, is considerably faster; there’s double the memory, a supposedly gigabit network connection which isn’t bottlenecked by a single-channel USB bus, support for 4K video playback, and high-resolution 24-bit 192KHz audio. If all of that were true, it’d be easy to overlook the higher selling price of the Tinker Board compared to the Pi on which it is based.

Sadly, my review didn’t go smoothly. The Tinker Board has hit the market in a parlous state. The 4K video playback is choppy, the GPIO port barely works and none of its features beyond simply toggling a pin on and off are available, hardware accelerated video playback is barely functional, and the ‘gigabit’ Ethernet port no faster than the 10/100Mb port on any standard Raspberry Pi.

To be fair to Asus, the majority of the problems I encountered – bar, possibly, the Ethernet performance – were likely related to the software provided, which appears to be in a very early alpha stage. It’s a device I’ll be keeping to one side in the hope of revisiting it in the future, should Asus ship improved software.

For a full run-down of my experience with the board, pick up the latest PC Pro at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically on Zinio and other digital distribution platforms.

 

Custom PC, Issue 164

Custom PC Issue 164My Hobby Tech column this month is dominated by two reviews of devices which have taken their inspiration from better-known alternatives, but the two couldn’t be more different: the Asus Tinker Board and the SiFive HiFive1. As an added bonus, there’s a look into the wonderful world of hobbyist pinball machine repair, and by that I mean a friend and I repaired some pinball machines and lived to tell the tale.

First, the Tinker Board. There have been rumours flying around since last year that Taiwanese technology giant Asus was looking to carve itself off a slice of the Raspberry Pi pie, and that’s exactly what the Tinker Board is: an attempt to clone the Raspberry Pi. Its footprint and layout are so close to the original that it’s entirely possible to use official Raspberry Pi cases without difficulty, and the features available are a one-for-one match: four USB ports, an Ethernet port, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a 3.5mm jack, CSI and DSI connectors, and even the Pi’s trademark 40-pin GPIO header.

To its credit, Asus has tried to improve upon the original design. The processor is more powerful – quite impressively so, I discovered in my testing – and purportedly supports 4K video playback, the Ethernet supposedly gigabit, there’s support for 24-bit 192KHz high-definition audio, the RAM has been boosted from 1GB to 2GB, and the GPIO port has received colour coding to its pins. Sadly, many of these claims fell short during testing: the Ethernet port’s throughput is sub-100Mb/s even when connected to a gigabit switch, the 4K video playback simply doesn’t work, and the GPIO port is useless for anything save basic on-off pin switching – there’s no I²C, no SPI, no 1Wire, no UART, nothing, with all advanced features simply listed as in-the-works.

The SiFive HiFive1, by contrast, delivers on its promises and more. Designed to mimic the footprint and layout of an Arduino Uno microcontroller, the HiFive1 is notable for the chip at its heart: one of the first off-the-shelf implementations of the open-source RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) architecture. Still in its relative infancy compared to Atmel’s AVR or Intel’s x86 architectures, RISC-V is designed to scale from microcontrollers like SiFive’s through to high-efficiency server systems.

Like the Tinker Board, I ran into a few hiccoughs during testing. Unlike the Tinker Board, they were all quickly addressed. Considering the HiFive1 is only the second major product from SiFive and is the first commercial implementation of the RISC-V architecture to include support in the Arduino IDE for easy programming, I was thrilled with the board – and sad when my time with it came to an end.

Finally, pinball machines. The last page of this month’s column details my visit to the Brew Haus in Bradford with my friend Stuart Childs, but rather than being there for the beer we were there to administer some love to a series of pinball machines the owner had recently installed – one of which, a Data East Star Wars table, was entirely non-functional and missing its keys to boot. Between picking the lock to gain entry, replacing the somehow-shattered bumpers, testing the electronics, and discovering the PSU was hanging by a thread – its screws, interestingly, being attached to the magnet of a nearby speaker – a fun time was had and a working table set up by the end of the evening.

To get the full low-down on all these topics, plus a whole lot of interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local newsagent, supermarket, or other magazine outlet, or pick up a virtual copy via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.

PC & Tech Authority, Issue 230

PC & Tech Authority Issue 230PC & Tech Authority, Australia’s top technology magazine, has published a reprise of a review I originally wrote for PC Pro in the UK: the NextThingCo CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers. Here’s what I had to say on the topic when the review was originally published.

NextThingCo’s crowdfunding launch was met with considerable scepticism, and with good reason: at a time when the Raspberry Pi had only just proven you could sustainable sell a fully-functional single-board microcomputer with desktop-ish performance for under $30, NextThingCo was claiming to offer the same thing for $9 – and with integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radio connectivity to boot.

The campaign succeeded, and to critics’ considerable surprise nobody was ripped off: NextThingCo’s CHIP did indeed ship and, as of earlier this year, is now available to purchase direct. While certain corners have been undoubtedly cut – just like the Raspberry Pi, it comes devoid of cables and accessories – and its performance can’t hold a candle to newer Pi models, it’s functional, available, and if you’re willing to supply the extras needed to get it up and running yourself does indeed cost $9.

The PocketCHIP, meawhile, is a fantastic example of what you can do with a CHIP: an open-hardware hand-held computer, complete with clever though painful-to-use bubble-based keyboard, with a very 1990s transparent casing. The screen may be low resolution and resistive rather than capacitive touch, but if I said I didn’t have a blast using the PocketCHIP I’d be lying.

For my full verdict on the device, of course, you’ll have to head to your nearest PC & Tech Authority stockist, whether that’s a newsagent, a supermarket, or one of the digital distributors like Zinio you can browse from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this.

PC Pro, Issue 267

PC Pro Issue 267This month’s PC Pro magazine features an in-depth review of the NextThingCo CHIP and its PocketCHIP companion, crowd-funded open-hardware alternatives to the overwhelmingly popular Raspberry Pi.

NextThingCo’s crowdfunding launch was met with considerable scepticism, and with good reason: at a time when the Raspberry Pi had only just proven you could sustainable sell a fully-functional single-board microcomputer with desktop-ish performance for under $30, NextThingCo was claiming to offer the same thing for $9 – and with integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radio connectivity to boot.

The campaign succeeded, and to critics’ considerable surprise nobody was ripped off: NextThingCo’s CHIP did indeed ship and, as of earlier this year, is now available to purchase direct. While certain corners have been undoubtedly cut – just like the Raspberry Pi, it comes devoid of cables and accessories – and its performance can’t hold a candle to newer Pi models, it’s functional, available, and if you’re willing to supply the extras needed to get it up and running yourself does indeed cost $9.

The PocketCHIP, meawhile, is a fantastic example of what you can do with a CHIP: an open-hardware hand-held computer, complete with clever though painful-to-use bubble-based keyboard, with a very 1990s transparent casing. The screen may be low resolution and resistive rather than capacitive touch, but if I said I didn’t have a blast using the PocketCHIP I’d be lying.

For my full verdict on the device, of course, you’ll have to head to your nearest PC Pro stockist, whether that’s a newsagent, a supermarket, or one of the digital distributors like Zinio you can browse from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this.

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.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 166

Linux User & Developer Issue 166This month’s Linux User & Developer includes a review of the Cubietruck Plus – also known as the Cubieboard 5 – I previously reviewed in Custom PC Issue 154.

CubieTech’s latest design, the Cubietruck Plus borrows the overall design from its predecessor but swaps out the weedy dual-core Allwinner A20 processor for an altogether beefier H8 octa-core chip. Kindly supplied for review by low-power computing specialist New IT, I was eager to put the board through its paces – especially as previous octa-core single-board computer (SBC) designs have suffered from some reliability issues when fully loaded for extended periods.

Sadly, as with my earlier review, there’s one piece of information which didn’t come to light prior to the deadline: devices, including single-board computers, based on Allwinner chips and using the company’s modified Linux kernel source have been found to suffer from a back-door which allows any process running on the system to silently and immediately gain root-level (superuser) privileges. While it doesn’t allow for remote execution, it can make existing bugs more readily exploitable – and if you’re using the Cubietruck Plus or any other Allwinner-based device, it’s worth checking to see if you’re affected.

This aside, the Cubietruck Plus certainly impressed during both reviews – though if you want to find out if I think it justifies its considerable price premium over the four-core Raspberry Pi 3, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 154

Custom PC Issue 154In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a good long look at the BBC micro:bit, CubieTech’s latest Cubietruck Plus (Cubieboard 5) single-board computer, and a pack of Top Trumps-inspired playing cards based on vintage computers.

Beginning with the micro:bit, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a press sample when the much-redesigned educational device was finally ready to ship to schools across the UK. Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller and boasting integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the micro:bit’s main selling point is its excellent support: the web IDE includes four languages suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to experts, there is documentation galore, and the BBC’s TV output includes shows which remind me of the glory days of the BBC Micro and its related programming.

At least, that would be a selling point if the board was actually up for sale. Despite having now mostly fulfilled its promise to ship free micro:bits to all Year Seven pupils in the UK, the BBC has still made no announcement about commercial availability for the educational gadget. Those whose appetites are whetted by the review, then, are best off looking at the CodeBug on which the micro:bit was based, or the new Genuino/Arduino 101 if Bluetooth LE support is a requirement.

The Cubietruck Plus, meanwhile, is an altogether different beast. Kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the board is – as the name suggests – a follow-up to CubieTech’s original Cubietruck. The old dual-core processor is long gone, replaced with an Allwinner H8 octa-core chip that blazed through benchmarks with aplomb – and without hitting the boiling-point temperature highs of the rival Raspberry Pi 3.

Sadly, there’s one piece of information that didn’t make it into the review: shortly after the issue went to press, security researchers discovered a debug vulnerability left in Allwinner’s customised Linux kernel which allows any application on the system to gain root permission. Although affecting only selected operating systems, it’s something to be aware of if you’re in the market for an Allwinner-powered SBC.

Finally, the playing cards. Created by start-up 8bitkick following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the deck is nostalgia in a box. The idea is to bring the Top Trumps concept of collectable, trivia-esque comparison gaming to vintage computing: the cards feature everything from the Acorn Atom to the TI-99/4A, plus a joker in the deck in the form of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.

The cards are printed with a very high quality finish, but it’s the source of the images that is of most interest: rather than take the pictures itself, 8bitkick has instead scoured the web for images in the public domain or licensed as Creative Commons. It’s no theft, though: while most Creative Commons licenses allow for even commercial reuse if properly attributed, 8bitkick has promised to upload the full deck design to its website for free download and printing.

All this, plus lots of interesting things by people who aren’t me, is only a short trip to the newsagent’s away – or you can stay exactly where you are and grab a digital copy from Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 165

Linux User & Developer Issue 165For my regular review in Linux User & Developer this month I had the great pleasure to spend time with the BBC’s first serious hardware project since it teamed up with Acorn in the 80s: the BBC micro:bit.

Originally known as the Micro Bit, the micro:bit is a teeny-tiny microcontroller-based educational programming platform based on the CodeBug. Like the CodeBug, the micro:bit uses a 5×5 LED matrix on its front side as its main method of communicating with the outside world; unlike the CodeBug, the micro:bit includes built-in Bluetooth Low Energy support as well as a gyroscope and magnetic compass, along with the two-button input layout the two share.

With the backing of the BBC, and a major funding drive from Barclay’s which has seen a micro:bit promised to ever Year Seven pupil the UK entirely free of charge, it’s no surprise to see that plenty of companies are involved in the project. At launch, the device boasted no fewer than four programming languages – three provided by Microsoft – in its web-based IDE, along with a neat smartphone app built by Samsung allowing for Bluetooth LE-based interaction and even wireless flashing of programs.

Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller (and, oddly, a significantly more powerful Cortex-M0+ which is used exclusively to handle the USB Mass Storage implementation, allowing for mbed-style drag-and-drop flashing without the need to install drivers or a toolchain locally) the micro:bit is impressive, as is the wealth of documentation and supporting materials the BBC has compiled. There’s a catch, mind you: so far, the BBC has not announced commercial availability – meaning we have no idea how much the gadget is going to cost people not included in the generous Barclay’s-funded giveaway programme.

For the full low-down, plus a lot more interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local magazine outlet or stay where you are and pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.