Linux User & Developer, Issue 150

Linux User & Developer, Issue 150This month’s Linux User & Developer includes both my regular four-page news spread and a review of the MinnowBoard Max single-board computer from Intel.

The MinnowBoard Max is the latest in Intel’s increasingly scattershot efforts to make an impact in the hobbyist-grade single-board computer market. Like its predecessor, the MinnowBoard Max is open hardware and produced in partnership with CircuitCo – the company behind the BeagleBoard and BeagleBone Black – and features the x86 instruction set architecture. Where it differs is in how easy it is to use and how much power it can offer.

I reviewed the original MinnowBoard design back in Issue 131, and found it lacking on a couple of levels: the single-core Atom chip was woefully underpowered compared to rival boards like the Gizmo, and its 32-bit UEFI firmware made it near-impossible to boot any operating system bar the bundled and extremely cut-down Yocto Linux installation.

The MinnowBoard Max clearly demonstrates that Intel is listening to feedback, though. The 32-bit single-core Atom is now a 64-bit dual-core model, and comes complete with a 64-bit UEFI implementation. The result: significantly improved compatibility and performance. A single-core version, slightly cheaper and drawing less power, is also available but not something I have yet tested.

As to whether the MinnowBoard Max is a worthy investment in a market near-monopolised by chips based on the ARM instruction set architecture, you’ll have to read the full review to find out.

The review, my four-page spread of all the latest happenings in the world of open-everything, and a whole bunch of stuff written by other people is available now from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 120

Custom PC Issue 120My eponymous Hobby Tech column – which, I’m pleased to report, has enjoyed excellent feedback from readers, including some who have now been tempted back into a subscription having previously let it lapse – continues in this month’s Custom PC with the usual mix of maker and vintage topics.

The tutorial this month surrounds the Nook Simple Touch, a low-end Android tablet masquerading as an eReader. Offering month-long battery life, a sunlight-readable E-Ink display and micro-SD card storage expansion, the device proved tempting enough at its discounted £29 price – a time-limited offer, Nook claimed – that stocks soon sold out.

There’s a good reason for that: as the column shows, it’s possible to bypass restrictions built into the device and turn it into a fully-functional Android tablet, complete with games, web browser, note-taking applications and – key to its popularity – the Kindle and Kobo apps, giving the device access to third-party eBook stores. Okay, so it’s Android 2.1 and some software doesn’t work – but it’s still a great device for the cash.

The review takes a look at the BeagleBone Black, a low-cost and extremely powerful competitor to the Raspberry Pi. Although not as in-depth as my review for Linux User & Developer, I take a look from the perspective of a less-Linux-oriented user – and find the out-of-box experience something to recommend.

Finally, vintage technology – in which I suck it up and admit to a failure. In the month this column was written, I’d attempted to solder a SCART cable into my old Master System console – it’s a reversible modification, don’t worry – in order to get high-quality RGB output rather than the usual fuzzy RF-modulated signal it offers as standard. Although I think I did everything right, for some reason the signal is unstable – something I’m going to have to investigate at a future date.

Custom PC Issue 120 is available from all good newsagents, or digitally via Zinio and other services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 128

Linux User & Developer Issue 128This month’s Linux User & Developer includes two reviews of mine, plus my new regular news spread: four pages of Linux and open source news covering the spread from hardware and software to business and politics.

First, the news spread. Following the departure of the magazine’s regular news contributor, I was asked to take over the four-page spread on an ongoing basis. I’d previous written for the news section to cover absence, but from now on it’s going to be all me. The exception will be when larger features eat up the page count: because there’s a limit to how many pages an individual freelancer can have in the magazine – blame the beancounters – there will be times when I only do two of the four pages.

Both reviews this month are centred around ARM-based devices, but with very different target audiences: the BeagleBone Black and the Synology DS213J, a single-board computer aimed at developers and a dual-bay network attached storage (NAS) device designed to be as easy to use as possible.

I’ve been excited to play with the BeagleBone Black since it was announced, as it offers significantly more capability than the Raspberry Pi for not a lot more money – contrasted with the original BeagleBone, which wouldn’t leave you much change from £150 if you wanted accessories and HDMI output. While the software still needs work – a constant refrain in the maker-oriented single-board computer market, I find – it’s certainly an impressive device.

The DS213J, meanwhile, is a minor upgrade to one of Synology’s varied dual-bay NAS devices. Using a new Marvell Armada system-on-chip, it offers improved performance, new hardware floating point extensions, wake-on-LAN support and double the RAM at 512MB. Considering its price puts it well below the equivalent Atom-based system, it was certainly worth giving a test-drive.

How did the two devices do? Well, I’m afraid you’ll have to pick up the magazine to find out. It’s in most good newsagents, or is available digitally via Zinio and other services.