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 Рnot 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.

Custom PC, Issue 134

Custom PC Issue 134In this month’s Hobby Tech column I spend a fair amount of my time looking at the excellent Gamebuino, an Arduino-compatible hand-held games console I had the pleasure of backing on Indiegogo. As well as an interview with its creator, Aur√©lien Rodot, there’s a tutorial on building a cut-down variant on a breadboard, alongside a pair of reviews covering the Banana Pi and HummingBoard i2eX.

First, the reviews. I’ve had a prototype HummingBoard and a retail-model Banana Pi for a while, but have held off on giving either a proper review – although Issue 131 did include a preview of both. In the case of the HummingBoard, I needed to wait for final-release hardware; the Banana Pi, meanwhile, suffered from low-quality early-release software. Thankfully, both issues have now been addressed – the former thanks to the ever-lovely New IT, the latter due to the diligent work of the software developers working on the Banana Pi project – and I’ve been able to dedicate two pages this issue to a full head-to-head review of both devices.

My interview with Rodot comes off the back of his hugely successful Indiegogo campaign to build an Arduinio-compatible hand-held games console. Ending more than a thousand per cent above his original goal, the project caught the public’s attention in a major way – and with one of the finished products in my hand, it’s easy to see why. Although its 32KB of program storage, 2KB of RAM and tiny Nokia LCD are minimalist, the device is easily accessible for those wanting to learn game programming and can even act as an I¬≤C controller thanks to two broken-out buses on the top-side.

Sadly, there’s no way to get your hands on a Gamebuino post-Indiegogo until Rodot launches his web store – planned for October, he tells me – so to tide readers over this month’s column includes a two-page tutorial on building your own. Although significantly cut down compared to the real thing – there’s no light sensor, speaker, battery, or micro-SD card reader – it’s a quick and easy project that allows users to start playing with the Gamebuino ecosystem ahead of the device’s general availability.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 126

Custom PC Issue 126My monthly Custom PC column, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, continues with a look at the toys and projects that have been entertaining me over the past four weeks including the acquisition of a core memory module, the Raspberry Pi GertDuino add-on board, and a guide – teased on the cover splash – to mining the Bitcoin cryptocurrency on said Pi.

First, the GertDuino. I won’t repeat myself with a summary of the device’s features – which are readily available in my review summary for Linux User & Developer Issue 135 – except to say that, as is usual for reviews in Hobby Tech, the review is written from a very personal perspective. As a result, the reader can enjoy a summarised version of my first few days with the device – including the heartache I had getting the blessed thing to work with the Arduino integrated development environment (IDE).

For the usual vintage computing portion of the column, I took a look at a new – to me – acquisition: a core memory module, pulled from a Soviet-era industrial computer of some description. The predecessor to modern transistor-based memory, magnetic core – literally a mesh of magnetic toroids which can be flipped to hold either a 0 or a 1 – has had an inestimable impact on modern computing, to the point where even today the process of saving memory contents to permanent storage for review is known as a ‘core dump.’

Also, the thing looks amazing under a microscope.

Finally, this month’s semi-regular tutorial section looks at using a USB-connected application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) to rapidly mine the Bitcoin cryptocurrency on a low-power Raspberry Pi. Prompted by my good friend Martyn Ranyard – the joint owner of a considerably more powerful mining rig than the one I created – the tutorial walks the reader through the exact steps I took to add Bitcoin mining facilities to my multipurpose Pi-based home server.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent or a digital purchase on distribution services like Zinio. If you’d rather not risk missing an issue, Dennis Publishing is currently offering subscriptions at 50 per cent off the normal rate until the 31st of January.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 135

Linux User & Developer, Issue 135In Linux User & Developer this month, in addition to my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the open source, open hardware and open governance spheres, you’ll find a review of a new add-on board for the Raspberry Pi: the GertDuino.

Developed by Gert van Loo, the GertDuino is a slimmed-down and simplified design based on the microcontroller-powered portion of the Gertboard – originally reviewed way back in Linux User & Developer Issue 121 from December 2012. Unlike the Gertboard, the Gertduino is a zero-footprint design which sits entirely on top of the Pi to expand the capabilities of its general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header.

Powered by a pair of Atmel microcontrollers – a primary ATmega328 and a secondary ATmega48 – the GertDuino offers full compatibility with Arduino Shield add-on boards, the ability to run stand-alone in Arduino mode, and a variety of other snazzy features including an on-board real-time clock with optional battery backup and a bidirectional IrDA interface. Both these latter features are powered by the ATmega48, allowing the more technically minded user to put the Pi and the ATmega328 into a low-power sleep mode pending a wake-up interrupt from the ATmega48.

There’s no denying the Gertboard is a clever design, but it does fall into several of the traps of its predecessor. Switching between the board’s various modes is achieved using unlabelled jumpers, while one of the most handy modes – the ability to query Arduino Shields which use serial communications directly from the Pi – requires optional jumper straps which then get in the way of mounting the Shield itself. Documentation, too, is poor – and aimed primarily at those with embedded development or C coding experience already.

Is it worth the price of admission? Well, you’ll have to buy Linux User & Developer Issue 135 to find out – either from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 119

Custom PC, Issue 119My four-page bumper column for Custom PC, wonderfully titled Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech – and don’t I feel like the important one – continues this month, and once again is granted a cover splash thanks to the key magazine-shifting phrase ‘Raspberry Pi.’ That’s not all it contains, of course: once again the page count is split between a tutorial, retro computing, a pseudo-review and for the first time a box-out containing news from the world of the maker, hacker and tinkerer.

First, the tutorial. Thanks to my friends Eben and Liz Upton, I’m one of the lucky few to have received a Raspberry Pi Camera Module. The first official first-party hardware add-on for the Raspberry Pi, the Camera Module makes use of the Camera Serial Interface (CSI) port to provide a five-megapixel fixed-focus camera on a teeny-tiny circuit board smaller than most coins.

The software for the board is still very much in the early stages, but working well enough for the purpose of the tutorial: to use a Raspberry Pi as a timelapse photography system. Using a bit of Bash shell scripting – the Pi’s own camera software has a timelapse mode, but it doesn’t actually work just yet – the reader is walked through getting the camera connected, the software activated and the software running to capture Full HD stills every thirty seconds until cancelled or the SD card fills up.

This month’s review is of the excellent SpikenzieLabs Calculator Kit. Built around an Atmel ATmega microcontroller – the same one that powers the Arduino Duemilanove, in fact – the device is a cleverly designed kit that functions somewhat better as an exercise in neat soldering than a calculator. Nevertheless, I had fun making it – and I have a few ideas for how I can make use of the microcontroller’s other functions in later projects.

The retrocomputing fix is provided by the Amstrad Notepad Computer NC100, having picked up a mint-condition example from eBay just recently. Rather than sitting on a shelf, the NC100 is to form a part of my field kit – its moulded keyboard and 30-hour battery life make it great for taking notes at events – which provides a great example of how classic computing hardware can be used to augment more modern and powerful equipment.

Finally, there’s the news. Now to be a regular fixture – space permitting – I’ll be picking a couple of stories from the world of the maker to highlight major product launches, announcements or trends.

As always, I’d love to hear feedback about the column; response to the first has been uniformly positive, but if anyone has any ideas for improvements I’d be more than happy to hear them.

Custom PC Issue 119 is, as always, available from wherever you would normally find magazines, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

PC Pro, Issue 224

PC Pro Issue 224This month’s PC Pro magazine includes another one of my freelance features, this time looking at the open-source Arduino microcontroller platform. While the front-cover splash billing it as a “Raspberry Pi rival” is inaccurate – not my call – the feature itself is packed with detail on the Atmel-based marvel.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done an Arduino-related feature for a magazine: I’m a big fan of the platform, owning multiple Arduinos and Arduino-compatibles. As well as a beginner’s guide for bit-tech, I’ve done features for Computeractive, Linux User & Developer (reprised in the Linux & Open Source Genius Guide, Volume 3) and Custom PC. This latest, however, is the most comprehensive.

Starting with a look at the history of Arduino, the feature walks the reader through why it was created, what its intentions are, how it compares to something like the Raspberry Pi – essentially explaining the difference between a microcontroller and a microcomputer – and how it can be used to create physical computing projects with ease.

Because of PC Pro’s laudable desire to ensure that readers can walk away from an In Depth feature with something concrete, it also includes a tutorial on using the latest ATmega-based Arduino Leonardo to build a macro keypad that can type email signatures, passwords, locate the user in a multi-player role-playing game or even lock the desktop with the press of a single button. Well, a separate single button for each feature, obviously, otherwise things would get confusing.

As usual, I am indebted to the wonderful chaps at Oomlout for providing the hardware for the feature, and to the creators of Arduino itself for making a development platform so simple even I can use the dang thing.

If you’re curious as to how the keypad works, source code for the project is available on my GitHub repository – but I’d still recommend picking up a copy of the magazine for wiring instructions and a jolly good lesson on the history of the Arduino project.

PC Pro Issue 224 is in newsagents, supermarkets and similar establishments now, or can be accessed digitally via Zinio or other platforms.