My 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.
First, the PC. The majority of PCs on desks around the world today are based on processors which use the x86 architecture or its 64-bit equivalent; a small handful are based on similar Arm chips to the ones you might find in your smartphone; and an even smaller number are powered by things like Zilog Z80s, MOS 6502s, and Motorola 68000s belonging to people who just don’t like to throw away a perfectly good decades-old system. The system built by AB Open recently, though, is different: it’s based on RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture (ISA) for which anyone can – given time, money, and a fair smattering of expertise – build a chip.
“It might be some time before there’s an off-the-shelf chip that can compete with x86 on raw performance and traditional benchmarks,” AB Open’s Andrew Back, who for full disclosure is a client of mine, admits, “but the open nature of the ISA, and the ecosystem developing around it, is driving a renaissance in novel computer architectures.” By way of proof: a fully-functional Linux-based desktop PC, built in a custom-designed laser-cut chassis, created using the SiFive HiFive Unleashed development board and Microsemi expansion board.
From a PC you can browse the web on to one which flashes a few lights: the Raspberry Pi weather monitor is a remix of a project I published in Issue 153, to use a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT LED matrix to graph energy usage in my home. This time, the same hardware is repurposed to show animated weather icons based on data downloaded from OpenWeatherMap – and, despite the low resolution of the LED matrix, it works an absolute treat.
Finally, Commodore: The Inside Story sounds like it should be an exhaustive history of the company behind one of the world’s biggest-selling home computers. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a two-part affair: the first is a series of personally recollections, presented in a very similar fashion to the stories you might hear if you took author David Pleasance to the pub and asked him about his time working in Commodore’s sales and marketing division; the second is a collection of guest chapters, and as fun as it is reading about orgies in Consumer Electronics Show hotels and drink-driving incidents the second half is, for me, the better half.
All this, and a raft more, can be found at your nearest newsagent or supermarket; the electronic version, meanwhile, is enjoying a brief holiday while background administration relating to its recent switch of publishers takes place.
First, the case. Created as a single piece of aluminium with a plastic base-plate, the Argon One is more than just a means of protecting a Raspberry Pi: it includes a daughterboard that pulls the HDMI and analogue AV ports to the rear for neater cabling, another that adds a fan for active cooling and a smart power button while also bringing the GPIO header out with colour coding and silk-screened pin references on the case itself, and a magnetic cover to hide said GPIO port when it’s not in use.
More importantly, though, it’s one of only a few cases that actually improves the thermal performance of the Raspberry Pi when installed. Even ignoring the fan, which makes little practical difference to operating temperatures, the difference between uncased and cased is an impressive 24°C thanks to the use of the upper half of the case as a giant heatsink. The only real problem, and it’s one creator Argon Forty claims to be working to resolve, is the hefty voltage drop from the fan-and-power daughterboard: unless you’re using the Argon One 5.25V Power Supply or a similar compatible, expect to see frequent undervoltage throttling.
Scratch 3, meanwhile, has proven itself a worthy upgrade for the popular block-based visual programming environment first created at MIT. While switching the stage and script area around and shuffling a few of the block colours is unnecessary and potentially confusing, new features including integration with translation and text-to-speech APIs and an easy extension manager are definitely welcome – as is the departure from relying on Adobe’s Flash technology. Sadly, though, at the time of writing Scratch 3 still did not support the Raspberry Pi, though work is in progress on that front.
Finally, Mission Python: as the author of a few books myself I know only too well how tricky it is to walk the line between introducing concepts in a friendly and approachable manner and being patronising, as well as trying to aim a publication at a broad age range. Sean McManus, who is no stranger to bookstore shelves, proves it can be done with Mission Python as he walks the reader through creating a game in Python using the Pygame Zero wrapper around the Pygame library. The result is colourful and fun without being in any way condescending, and a definite recommendation for anyone interested in flexing their Python skills.
All this, and the usual selection of articles not written by me, can be found on the shelves of your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
Today sees the release of The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, my latest educational book on the remarkable single-board computer and its software and the first to be made available for free download and redistribution courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribition-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence.
Written in partnership with Raspberry Pi Press, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide walks newcomers through a tour of the Raspberry Pi and what it can do, setting up both the hardware and the software, learning how to navigate the Raspbian desktop, how to write programs in Scratch 2 and Python 3, and even building custom circuits that use the Raspberry Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header. If that weren’t enough, there are chapters on using the Sense HAT add-on board, the Raspberry Pi Camera Module, and a handy list of additional resources for when you’ve finally exhausted the book itself.
While it’s my name on the cover, this book is very much a team effort. I’d like to thank everyone at Raspberry Pi Press who was involved in its creation, from the authors of the original projects pulled in and updated in this new publication to eternally-patient project editor Phil King, fantastic technical editor Simon Long, amazing illustrator Sam Alder, and a whole host of others without whom the book would be nowhere near as good as it has turned out.
The book is available to buy now in all good newsagents, supermarkets, and bookstores, or direct from Raspberry Pi Press. The digital edition, as a Creative Commons-licensed PDF without any digital rights management (DRM) restrictions, is available from The MagPi website now.
This month’s Hobby Tech features two different Raspberry Pi add-ons, one designed to get the best possible audio quality out of the popular single-board computer and the other designed to get the best possible audio quality into it, along with a review of Mark Hardisty’s Inlay in tradebook paperback format.
First, the let’s-play-high-quality-audio add-on: the Allo DigiOne. Reviewed in its Player format, which bundles the DigiOne S/PDIF hardware attached on-top (HAT) board with a Raspberry Pi 3, micro-SD card, power supply, and admittedly neat acrylic case – which, unfortunately, makes it really difficult to remove said micro-SD card – the DigiOne is designed to output digital audio over an RCA or BNC connector. Its primary selling point: as-low-as-possible jitter, claimed to be measured at 0.6 picoseconds – though its creators seemingly accusing optical outputs, which the DigiOne lacks, of having 4 nanoseconds of ‘jitter’ when they appear to actually mean ‘delay’ is disappointing.
The Andrea PureAudio Microphone Development Kit, by contrast, is less about the sound that comes out of a Pi and more about what goes into it. A bundling of a cheap off-the-shelf USB soundcard in custom plastic packaging with a PureAudio array microphone – the self-same design Asus used to give away with selected motherboards – the Andrea Electronics bundle originally came to me as the Speech Development Kit, full of promise about how Andrea’s clever audio library would bring crystal clarity to your applications and allow you to quickly and easily build applications you could control with your voice.
Considerable back-and-forth with the company followed, and by the morning on which the column was due with my editor a decision had been made: the Speech Development Kit, which was nothing of the sort and completely failed to deliver on its promises, became the Microphone Development Kit. While still below par – the biggest failing that, unlike the Windows driver that used to be bundled with the Asus version, the clever noise-reducing beam-forming and other-sound-enhancing Linux audio library which is the primary selling point of the kit can only be used in applications you write yourself, and will do nothing for applications like Skype or Audacity – it, at least, now sets a more realistic tone for would-be buyers.
Finally, something for the eyes. The creation of Mark Hardisty, whose A Gremlin in the Works was reviewed back in Issue 168, Inlay is a book about classic game cover art primarily concentrated on the eight-bit era. Where most coffee table books of this type simply reproduce the art as it originally appeared, Hardisty took a more challenging route: the book contains painstaking vector recreations of the original art, minus distracting titles and flashes, producing a derivative work which is clearer and crisper than anything you’ve seen before. My only regret: picking up the cheaper tradebook paperback edition, which lacks the wide format of the hardback edition and thus has less of each cover available for viewing.
All this, and the usual selection of interesting tidbits written by others, is available at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar services.
First, the ZX Spectrum Next. The product of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign that drew in around three quarters of a million pounds from backers across the world, the ZX Spectrum Next is exactly what it sounds like: the next entry in the long-running Sinclair Spectrum family, long after even its most ardent fans had given up hope. Although based around ‘soft’ cores running on a central FPGA, the Next isn’t an emulator: the open design is entirely compatible with every piece of software or hardware you can throw at it, complete with accessories designed for the original Spectrum. It’ll even fit in a 16K/48K chassis, if you don’t mind drilling a few extra holes.
Those holes, you see, are needed for just some of the Next’s shiny new features: a pair of joystick ports, HDMI and VGA video outputs, and even the ability to insert a Raspberry Pi Zero into a special header for use – once the software has been written – as a co-processor, or as it was known at the time a “copper.” There’s room for up to 2MB of RAM, triple-chip FM synthesis, even Wi-Fi network support – though a design flaw discovered shortly after the review went to print means that anyone with the early-release Model 2A will need to solder a small capacitor onto the voltage regulator for full reliability, an issue fixed with Model 2B onward.
The NesPi, by contrast, is a lot simpler. At its heart, it’s a plastic case into which you can install a Raspberry Pi B+, 2, or 3. Its designers, though, have decided to create something a little different, and the Nintendo Entertainment System ‘inspired’ housing also includes daughterboards which offer four front-facing USB ports – two where the controllers would connect and another two under the ‘cartridge’ flap – along with working power and reset buttons. The Ethernet port is also brought to the front, for no readily apparent reason, while the dedicated power board includes a header for an optional cooling fan.
Finally, Britsoft is a book that has been on my shelves awaiting review for a little while now. A Read Only Memories publication, this impressive hardback tome gathers interview content originally created for the 2014 documentary From Bedrooms to Billions charting the rise of the British computer games industry. You’d be hard pushed, off the top of your head, to think of a luminary of the era not included in the title’s impressive 420 pages, and I had but one real complaint: the layout of the book is easier on the eye than the brain, often making it difficult to follow which speaker is talking and which topic you’re reading.
All this, and the usual collection of stuff by other people, is available now at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
First, the vintage gaming feature. Building on a brief from editor Ben Hardwidge, I wanted to do something a little more in-depth than the usual how-to guide. The result is a seven-page feature which begins with a look at the wealth of accessories available to turn a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computing into a powerful emulation station, a two-page expert guide to the legalities of emulation in the UK, step-by-step instructions on downloading, installing, and configuring the RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi, and a look at entirely legitimate sources for read-only memory (ROM) game images.
While I’m fully equipped to handle the how-to and look-at-the-shiny-things sections of the guide myself, the legal aspect required an expert eye kindly provided by Eaton Smith LLP partner Chris Taylor. Legal counsel to a variety of game development and publishing companies, Chris kindly walked through the legalities of developing, downloading, and using emulation software and hardware under UK law – and even threw in a cheeky topical reference to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One ahead of the release of its film adaptation. I’m also grateful to The Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott for taking the time to discuss the Archive’s vast trove of software and in-browser emulation functionality.
Meltdown and Spectre, meanwhile, are a lot less fun. The names given to a quartet of security vulnerabilities hard-baked in to the vast majority of processors built since the 1990s, Meltdown and Spectre are unarguably the worst things to happen to the computer industry since the death of the Commodore Amiga. My three-page look discusses the vulnerabilities, how they can be exploited to gain access to supposedly-protected information, and what companies are doing to fix the problems – and, spoiler, the conclusion there is “not nearly enough.” Since the piece was written, though, there’s one thing to note: installation of the KB4056892 patch for Windows 10 includes faulty microcode protection from Intel which can cause systems to reboot spontaneously, which is resolved through the installation of KB4078130 at the cost of disabling protections against one of the two Spectre vulnerabilities.
Finally, Hobby Tech itself opens with a look at the clever but fragile Opendime from cryptocurrency start-up Coinkite. Designed to turn Bitcoin into a digital bearer bond, an Opendime creates a private key which is stored in a secure enclave accessible only by irrevocably modifying the device by popping off a small surface-mount resistor. So long as the resistor is intact, the theory goes, nobody has access to the private key – meaning you can accept the device as payment without risk. Sadly, since my fairly glowing review was written two things have changed: the Opendime I’ve been carrying around on my keyring has unsealed itself without any visible damage to the resistor or the heatshrink which protects it, an issue Coinkite’s founder and support team have singularly failed to address, and the high transaction fees on the Bitcoin network have dropped from around £20 to around 20p meaning one of the major benefits of using a £15 USB device for in-person transactions has been lost.
The iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, by contrast, is a significantly happier story. I’ve long been a fan of iFixit’s teardowns and the software they developed for presenting the information, so a toolkit with the iFixit seal of approval was high on my want list. Having now received one, I can confirm it’s no disappointment: from the high-quality tools, all bundled with the express intention of making it as easy as possible to dismantle modern electronics, to the smart multi-function storage case, the entire bundle is pleasingly robust.
Finally, Commodore: The Amiga Years. The follow-up to author Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge, The Amiga Years was officially cancelled years ago before being resurrected through a crowdfunding campaign. Since the closure of the campaign, however, the project was beset by delays and a last-minute editing decision that sees the final third of the story, taking Commodore to its sad demise, spun out into yet another book – a move backers criticising the decision have positioned as a blatant attempt at extracting more money. As with A Company on the Edge, though, the story told in The Amiga Years is one well worth the entry price – if suffering a little from Bagnall’s wandering editorial process, whereby topics raised as though you should already know them in Chapter 2 won’t be formally introduced until Chapter 5.
All this, and slightly less stuff by people who aren’t me, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
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.
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.
This 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 Books, Generation 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.
"This guide is amazing, very on point with relevant and updated information for all ages." "Excellent! A+!" "Well done. This is what I like most in Raspberry Pi. The documentation." "The book and the hardware would be a great Christmas present for the clever kid (of any age) in your family." "10/10" - OpenLibra
"Not only should it be an essential purchase with the micro:bit, I would recommend getting the book before getting the micro:bit. Definitely recommended." "This is an amazing educational tool." "For a newcomer I would recommend this book and the BBC micro:bit. Together, they will make an excellent coder/DIY enthusiast out of you or your child." "This is definitely the book to get you started." "The best book on micro:bit I've found so far." "A wealth of information on micro:bit and it's easy to read." "Just started reading your book, and it's exactly what I was looking for."
"I'm constantly reading tech manuals. This book is above and beyond ANY tech manual I have ever read! It is readable, understandable and a fine companion for the Pi." "I have been using computer manuals for 40 years and this is one of the best I have ever read." "All I was looking for is combined in this fantastic book." "I bought this book on my Kindle and it has transformed my understanding." "A brilliant book to help you out." "This book is a must have and works very well on my Kindle - thank you so much for writing it."
If you want a glimpse into the way freelance writers are treated, two of the people I've commissioned work from for Film Stories thought the fee I quoted was what they had to pay me to get published. No slight at all on them, rather the state of the industry.
Looks like the chocolate mining bees in the wall at the edge of our garden have some competition: Gooden's nomad bees. Which, if they're not careful, will take over the nest cells and kill off the chocolate mining bee larvae. Boo-hiss.