Custom PC, Issue 192

Custom PC Issue 192This month’s Hobby Tech kicks off with a look at the Zepsch PocketStar – by far the smallest Arduino-compatible games console I’ve seen – and the Pimoroni Keybow, before reviewing Felipe Pepe’s The CRPG Book in digital form.

The pages of my Hobby Tech column are no stranger to Arduino-compatible handheld consoles: over the years I’ve reviewed the Gamebuino and its MAKERbuino spin-off, the Creoqode 2048, the Arduboy – then all four at once in a head-to-head group test – and most recently the Gamebuino Meta. Of these, the Arduboy was the smallest with a footprint matching a credit card and a thickness of around three cards stacked.

The PocketStar, a crowdfunded creation from Zepsch, has it beaten. Although thicker than the Arduboy, the Game Boy-inspired design has a tiny 50x30mm footprint, despite packing a colour screen and haptic feedback motor. What it doesn’t include, sadly, is a speaker – though it was originally planned, and the mounting point is still present – but it at least includes the ability to switch between games on the fly, something the Arduboy sadly lacks.

The Pimoroni Keybow, by contrast, is a very different beast. A no-solder DIY kit, the Keybow is a nine-button programmable keypad with a difference: rather than using a Teensy, Arduino, or other microcontroller, it uses a Raspberry Pi Zero WH. The reason why isn’t really adequately explained in the product briefing: it connects to the host machine via USB rather than Bluetooth, and makes no use of the Zero WH’s Wi-Fi connectivity either – though third-party firmware is available to vastly expand its functionality. Despite some bugs in the official firmware and the aforementioned surprising lack of wireless connectivity – switching to the Zero H, which does not include a radio, would shave a fiver off the retail price – it’s certainly an interesting desk accessory with plenty of flexibility.

The CRPG Book, published by Bitmap Books, doesn’t have author Felipe Pepe’s name on the cover. There’s a reason for that: it’s a collaborative effort, the physical incarnation of a four-year effort from 119 authors to document the computer role-playing game genre in as much detail as possible – going all the way back to the PLATO system and its infamous ‘friendly orange glow.’ The result is an exhaustive tome, brought to life with full-colour printing between its hardback covers – though the review is based on a digital copy, the physical version having been rejected by Bitmap Books’ quality control post-printing and sent back to the factory for a re-do with the first of the reprints due to land towards the end of the month.

While The CRPG Book is far from perfect – there are a few issues with typography and grammar, increasing in frequency as you work your way towards the back of the book – it’s pretty close to it, and made even more pleasing by the fact that the £29.99 print edition is joined by a free, Creative Commons-licensed download available from the official website. Sales of the print edition, meanwhile, have raised £12,475 in author royalties for Felipe Pepe – royalties which he has donated in full to Vocação, a not-for-profit Brazilian organisation aimed at getting children and teenagers in poor communities access to quality education.

Custom PC Magazine Issue 192 is available now at all good newsagents, supermarkets, and via the Raspberry Pi Press store. Digital outlets will update later today.

Custom PC, Issue 168

Custom PC Issue 168This month’s Hobby Tech column is taken up with a trio of reviews covering the pretty darn impressive Mooltipass Mini hardware password manager, Automattic’s Blog in a Box distribution for the Raspberry Pi, and Mark Hardisty’s A Gremlin in the Works.

Starting with the latter, A Gremlin in the Works is another fantastic coffee-table book from retro computing publisher Bitmap Books (the founder of which, Sam Dyer, I interviewed back in Custom PC Issue 136). Written by Mark Hardisty based on exhaustive interviews – and retaining the question-and-answer style of the transcripts, making for an accurate rendition of the subjects’ thoughts but a slightly tiresome read – the two-volume book chronicles the rise and fall of gaming pioneer Gremlin Graphics. As a massive fan of Gremlin’s output – to this day the intro music to Hero Quest brings joy to my heart, and I blame my sweet tooth on a Zool addiction – A Gremlin in the Works is a book I’d long been looking forward to reading, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.

Blog in a Box, meanwhile, is an interesting beast. At its heart, it’s a single-purpose GNU/Linux distribution for the Raspberry Pi created by Automattic as a means of making it easier for people to run the WordPress blogging platform from the device. It’s not provided as a downloadable drive image, as with most distributions, though; instead, Automattic has written a cross-platform program which customises various settings – title, passwords, email accounts, things like that – and configures them so the Pi is ready to rock on first boot. It’s a neat idea, but one which still needs polish: I found the Linux version failed to run properly on my Ubuntu 16.04 desktop, and several features promised by the tool were disabled when the Pi actually started up. It’s a tool with promise, though, and I look forward to revisiting it should Automattic release an update.

Finally, the Mooltipass Mini. The brainchild of Mathieu Stephan, the Mooltipass Mini builds on its non-Mini predecessor to create a pocket-sized hardware password safe for all your accounts – or, at least, as many as will fit in 8Mb (1MB) of internal memory. The Mooltipass Mini is a tool for the adequately paranoid: passwords, though not usernames, are stored in the device’s internal memory under AES-256 encryption with the private key located on a removable smart card itself locked with a four-hexadecimal-character PIN. When a password is required, its entry can be found on the screen and the Mooltipass does its best impression of a USB keyboard by typing the account details in on your behalf – or, when the optional software is installed, filling in forms in browser windows automatically upon manual confirmation on the device itself.

Having long advocated for the use of password managers to promote high-quality password use and discourage password reuse, the Mooltipass Mini is a near-perfect companion. It addresses the majority of the problems with traditional password managers, like how to keep the encrypted database accessible while preventing its theft. While there are undeniable issues, such as the £61 (inc. VAT) retail price and the need to buy two so you have a backup to use if the primary one fails, it has become a part of my security arsenal – and one I feel comfortable using thanks to the project’s open-source nature for both the software and underlying hardware.

All this, and a whole mess of other things written by people who aren’t me, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 167

Custom PC Issue 167This month’s Custom PC features a look at the effect of compiler optimisation on applications plus reviews of Google’s AIY Voice Kit for the Raspberry Pi family and Jimmy Wilhelmsson’s Generation 64.

The tutorial, to begin, stemmed from investigations I was carrying out into Google’s Guetzli perceptual JPEG encoder. Having cut my teeth in computing back when every byte – never mind kilobyte – really counted, I have a soft-spot for compression both lossy and lossless. Over the years I’ve toyed with a range of compression algorithms, from LZMA and Robert Jung’s ARJ through to the clever if short-lived Fractal Image Format (FIF). Like most, though, I eventually settled on two popular formats for my image compression needs: JPEG where lossy compression is acceptable and PNG where it isn’t.

Guetzli aims to cut the file size of JPEG files by around a third for no apparent loss in perceived image quality. That was enough to pique my interest, but it comes at a cost: a runtime of minutes per megapixel to recompress each image. As an open-source project, Guetzli is provided in source-code form – so I began to play with the optimisation options available in the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) to see if I couldn’t speed things up.

As readers of my column will discover, I could indeed speed things up – cutting the time taken to compress the small sample image provided with Guetzli from 14.3 seconds using Google’s precompiled binary version down to just 9.56 seconds. Although not an exhaustive guide to compiler optimisation in general nor even GCC-specific options – a topic which would take a book, rather than a couple of magazine pages, to cover adequately – hopefully the write-up of my experiments will help shine a light on the gains that can be made, the potential pitfalls of excessive optimisation, and the benefits of open-source distribution.

The Google AIY Voice Kit, meanwhile, is something quite special: an add-on for the Raspberry Pi family of microcomputers which, in essence, turns them into a somewhat cut-down version of the company’s Google Home voice-activated assistant platform. Initially distributed with The MagPi Magazine as a cover-mounted giveaway, the kit should soon be available for purchase by the general public – and it’s definitely worth seeking one out.

The kit itself centres around a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) add-on board, which includes servo and motor control, connectivity for an arcade-style button, and links to a break-out board with a pair of MEMS microphones. Combined with some simple software and a link to Google’s cloud computing platform, the AIY Kit can be made to respond to your natural-language queries or even control external hardware via voice recognition – with some major caveats regarding how often you can use it before you need to start handing over cash for the voice recognition platform.

Finally, Generation 64. Originally written in Swedish by Jimmy Wilhelmsson and with design by Kenneth Grönwall, Generation 64 investigates the influence the Commodore 64 had on the Swedish computing scene – complete with an introduction by the founder of Digital Illusions, also known as DICE, and MOS 6502 creator Chuck Peddle. Translated into English and re-released by Bitmap BooksGeneration 64 is an absolutely fantastic read which I would have otherwise missed had it remained untranslated.

Full details on all of these, plus a bunch more stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be found in Custom PC Issue 167 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and rival distribution platforms.