Custom PC, Issue 219

Custom PC Issue 219In this month’s Custom PC I take a look at the Airxed IRX Smart Home Hub, revisit the Kobol Helios64 open-spec network attached storage (NAS) appliance, and read through Wired’s pocket-size guide to quantum computing by Amit Katwala.

First, the hub. Looking for all the world like a fat gloss-finish hockey puck, the IRX is effectively a cross between a programmable remote and an environmental monitor. Inside the housing is an array of through-hole infrared LEDs, arranged in a hedgehog-like pattern. Trigger an IR signal using the companion app, and they all fire at once offering room-filling coverage – not like the bad old days of taping an IR blaster to a sensor to get the positioning just right.

Combine that functionality with a temperature and humidity sensor, all drive by an Espressif ESP-12S ESP8266-based microcontroller, and you’ve an interesting device. Sadly, despite an attractive price there are a fair few downsides to the design – and I was entirely unable to find my Yahama AV receiver in the list of infrared gadgets it could control.

I originally reviewed the Helios64, meanwhile, back in Issue 211. At the time my conclusion was that, despite some glaring design flaws and software issues, it was a tempting buy – a conclusion I now revisit on the news that Kobol is closing up shop and the bug-fixed second revision will no longer be released. Couple that with the discovery of yet more hardware failures and serious concerns about the Armbian project on which the device runs, and it’s no longer recommended – even if you could pick one up cheaply on the second-hand market.

Finally, Quantum Computing is the first in a series of compact primers covering a range of topics selected by Wired Magazine. Written by Amit Katwala, it’s a broad though shallow romp through the latest in the field of quantum computing technology – looking at everything from its impact on cryptography to commercial quantum systems. For the curious, it’s a great introduction to the topic – but most will be left wanting something more when they reach the end.

Custom PC Issue 219 is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, and as a free PDF download as part of a time-limited offer.

Custom PC, Issue 218

Custom PC Issue 218My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the final-release Mooltipass Mini BLE open-source password management gadget, the SQFMI Watchy hacker-friendly smartwatch kit, and Crackers I: The Gold Rush from Microzeit.

I first previewed the Mooltipass Mini BLE back in Issue 201, after gaining access to the pre-release beta. At the time, a lot of the planned features were either only partially functional or entirely absent – though the hardware, at least, was undeniably solid. In the months since, the team has been hard at work and the final Mooltipass Mini BLE is now in backers’ hands.

To say the project has delivered is no understatement. While there are still holes to fill – the lack of any way to save a password onto the device from an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet is a big one – it handles most tasks with ease, and the integration of Bluetooth Low Energy for wire-free connectivity to target gadgets is a game-changer for the user on the go.

The SQFMI Watchy, by contrast, doesn’t quite manage to deliver on its promises. Designed as an open-hardware project centred on an Espressif ESP32 microcontroller and a compact e-paper sunlight-readable display, the electronics are solid enough – but the plastic case is a low point, and the firmware simply isn’t ready.

Despite having Wi-Fi on board, there’s no way to set the time on the Watchy automatically. The default clock face pulls down weather data, which is nice – but it’s pre-set to New York City, and there’s no obvious way to change that. The relevant variable is hidden, it turns out, in files which do not appear in the Arduino IDE when you edit the open-source sketch – and nowhere in the documentation is this mentioned. For anyone willing to spend a lot of time writing their own code based on poor or entirely absent documentation, there’s promise here – but it’s near-unusable out-of-the-box.

Finally, Crackers I. The first in a pair of books covering the rise of computer software piracy – primarily, but not exclusively, games – and the groups on both sides of the fence, Microzeit’s latest is a hefty tome well worth putting on your coffee table. Presented in full colour, the book is thick enough that its image-heavy nature doesn’t annoy – and the stories it tells are fascinating to boot.

Custom PC Issue 218 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download as part of a time-limited offer.

Custom PC, Issue 217

Custom PC Issue 217In this month’s instalment of my five-page Hobby Tech column for Custom PC Magazine, I take a look at the Oratek Tofu carrier board for the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 the Zymbit HSM6 hardware security module, and Tim Danton’s The Computers That Made Britain.

The Oratek Tofu is one of a growing number of carrier boards which take a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 system-on-module and turn it into a fully-functional compact computer. Designed to break out all the features of the module, there’s only one thing missing: it has no USB 3.0 ports, with Oratek having made the decision to instead break out the PCI Express lanes which would normally connect to a USB 3.0 controller to an M.2 B-key slot for PCIe devices – and an optional adapter board adds support for NVMe storage, too.

Add in a 3D-printed and smartly-designed case, and the Tofu is a tempting proposition – let down only by high pricing. It’s understandable given the small production batch, but if Oratek could find a way to bring the costs down it’d go a long way to making a Tofu plus CM4 a competitor to a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.

The Zymbit HSM6, meanwhile, is a successor to the HSM4. They’re both ultra-compact hardware security modules, designed primarily for integration into custom designs but available with a carrier board for connection to a Raspberry Pi or Nvidia Jetson for development and experimentation.

The HSM6 offers all the features of the HSM4, plus dedicated support for acting as a hardware cryptocurrency wallet. As with the Tofu, though, the pricing is likely to be an issue – and there’s nothing in the way of user-friendly software available for the device, with users instead being given a smattering of C/C++ and Python sample code and left to experiment.

Finally, The Computers That Made Britain – and a disclosure: I’ve worked with the author Tim Danton, editor of PC Pro Magazine, several times. That has no bearing on my opinion of his book, though: a meticulously researched walk through computers which, while not all were made or even designed in Britain, had an undeniable impact on the country’s coteries of computing enthusiasts and developers.

Building on both original interviews, third-party reportage, and contemporary reports, the book isn’t exhaustive but is definitely enjoyable – and bonus points should be given to a high-quality index, all too often missing from these books, which makes it easily usable for reference once you’ve read it cover-to-cover.

Custom PC Issue 217 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a free digital download on the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 108

The MagPi Issue 108This month’s issue of The MagPi Magazine includes another of my tutorials for those looking to get started with the MicroPython platform on the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller: a data logger, which makes use of the microcontroller’s ability to run saved code away from a computer and its flash file system.

Originally written as part of Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide, my guide to physical computing on Raspberry Pi’s first-ever microcontroller development board, this latest tutorial – one of the last in the book – covers file handling in MicroPython, which can often trip up new users: opening a file for writing erases any previous contents, giving you an empty file if you’re not careful.

The tutorial then moves on to reading and formatting temperature data from the on-board sensor, storing it in a file for later loading, and even running the Raspberry Pi Pico without being connected to a Raspberry Pi or other computer – making use of a special file name to load code on boot without user interaction.

The MagPi Issue 108 is available at now at all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, or as a Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free zero-cost PDF download on the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 107

The MagPi Issue 107This month’s issue of The MagPi Magazine includes another of my tutorials for those looking to get started with the MicroPython platform on the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller:a temperature sensor, using the analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) built into the RP2040.

Originally written as part of Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide, my guide to physical computing on Raspberry Pi’s first-ever microcontroller development board, the tutorial builds in the same way as the other projects in the book – introducing core concepts then building step-by-step from a minimum-viable project up to a fully-functional completed device.

As with other tutorials written for the book, full source code – in MicroPython – is provided, along with a wiring diagram which shows how to wire up a potentiometer using two or three pins and why that makes a difference to how it works. The project can be attacked with no additional hardware, however: the temperature sensor is built into the RP2040 microcontroller on board the Raspberry Pi Pico, and readers are free to skip building the potentiometer circuit if they don’t have the component lying around.

The MagPi Issue 107 is available at now at all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, or as a Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free zero-cost PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 215

Custom PC Issue 215My regular Hobby Tech column takes a look at three very different, yet related, items in this month’s Custom PC: the PiStorm accelerator for the Commodore Amiga; the Remodo X Bluetooth remote from Remotec; and Joshua M. Pearce’s Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects.

First, the PiStorm. I’ve long been a fan of Commodore’s ill-fated Amiga family of computers, and while my collection isn’t what it used to be I still have a couple keeping me company around the office. It was in one of these I installed the PiStorm, an open-source accelerator and expansion board designed to be powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ – and, in the future, by still-more-powerful models in the Raspberry Pi range.

Donated by my good fried Jaimie Vandenbergh, who had picked up a handful of the low-cost boards for his own use, the PiStorm is nothing short of incredible. Effectively turning the Raspberry Pi into an emulated Motorola processor, it increases an Amiga’s compute performance, memory, graphics capabilities, storage, and even – though not at the time of writing – gives it the ability to connect via a Wi-Fi network. In short: it’s a must-have.

The Remodo X remote, meanwhile, is another accessory aimed at the Raspberry Pi – and a smaller niche. Targeting home automation and home theatre uses, the Remodo X is a surprisingly stylish device with just four buttons on its front and the ability to distinguish between short- and long-press for eight custom-mapped functions.

The device works via both Bluetooth and infrared, though for a gadget Remotec claims is specifically designed for a Raspberry Pi there’s a distinct lack of software: customising its buttons requires a smartphone app, and can’t be done on the Raspberry Pi itself.

Finally, Using Open-Source Projects is a book I wanted to love – after all, I’m a big proponent of free and open-source software and hardware. Sadly, it entirely fails to deliver on its promise – spreading an already-slim book far too thin across far too many topics. Some of the blame lies on the author, but some on the publisher – in particular the poor print quality and bizarre failure to flag the use of a figure which compares an original black-and-white image to its colourised equivalent yet shows both before and after shots in black and white.

The full column, and much more besides, is available in your nearest supermarket or newsagent now, online with global delivery, or – as part of a limited-time offer – as a DRM-free PDF download at zero cost.

Custom PC, Issue 213

Custom PC Issue 213In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at how GL shaders can make the video output from emulators – in particular DOSBox – look an awful lot closer to how you remember the same software running on real hardware, review the Argon One M.2 case for the Raspberry Pi 4 family of single-board computers, and take a look at an unusual children’s book: Big Data Girl by Fred Wordie with illustrations by Santiago Taberna.

First, the shaders. Few would argue that the move away from bulky and power-hungry cathode-ray tube displays to modern liquid-crystal displays was a bad thing, except for possibly vintage game enthusiasts. The “pixel art” of old, you see, was never meant to show big, blocky, individual pixels: the CRT would smooth and blend things as a by-product of its relative inaccuracy, meaning when you fire up a classic like Doom or Moraff’s World and feel disappointed in its appearance it’s not entirely down to rose-tinted spectacles.

Shaders, typically but not exclusively written in GL Shader Language, can help. In the opening piece for this month’s column, I look at how these handy add-ons can turn the block output of an emulator into a surprisingly convincing simulation of a CRT – complete with curvature and overscan, if that’s your wont. The difference in appearance is little short of astounding – though it may take some customisation before you’re fully satisfied with the results.

The Argon One M.2, meanwhile, looks externally a lot like the previous entries in the Argon One case family. There’s the same metal shell, which doubles as a heatsink and means the built-in temperature-controlled fan rarely activates, the same magnetic cover hiding a colour-coded and silkscreened general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header, and the same layout which puts all the Raspberry Pi’s various ports to the rear for neater cabling.

Where the new design differs is in a larger base, which hides the circuitry for converting an M.2 SATA SSD into a USB-attached storage device. Unlike the NESPi 4, reviewed back in Issue 210, this one works properly in USB Attached SCSI (UAS) mode, giving a throughput of 387/300MBps read/write on a test SSD rated at 500/320MBps.

Finally, Big Data Girl is a bit of a departure for the column, as it’s a children’s book – but one with a difference: Wordie’s crowdfunded title aims to introduce the concept of “big data,” anthropomorphised as a friendly little girl, highlighting both how useful it can be and how it can impact your privacy. It’s a smart idea, and Taberna’s illustrations are fantastic, but serves more as a conversation starter for parents already familiar with the concepts than a stand-alone guide to the subject.

Custom PC Issue 213 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, digital distribution platforms, and from the official website with international delivery.

Custom PC, Issue 211

Custom PC Issue 211My regular Hobby Tech column this month spans the worlds of network attached storage, input devices, and retro gaming, courtesy of reviews covering the Kobol Helios64 open-spec NAS, the Keybordio Atreus ergonomic keyboard, and Neil Thomas’ Retro Tea Breaks.

The NAS, first, is a device I was excited to put on the test bench. A follow-up to Kobol’s earlier and considerably more Heath Robinson Helios4, the Helios64 is an open-spec network attached storage system built around the Rockchip RK3399 six-core Arm processor – not, sadly, the faster RK3399Pro, following an unplanned downgrade when SARS-CoV-2 hit the supply chain.

The board has five SATA ports, one shared with an on-board M.2 SATA slot for an SSD, a chunky heatsink, and both gigabit and 2.5-gig Ethernet – though the first batch of the devices suffers from an unfortunate design flaw in the latter. Other issues abound in the design of the very smart-looking bundled case and plastic drive sleds, though if Kobol’s promise to address these in future production runs is fulfilled the Helios64 could well take its place at the top of the hobby-friendly NAS league.

The Keyboardio Atreus, meanwhile, is an interesting beast: it’s an ultra-compact ergonomic mechanical keyboard based on switching between multiple layers to make up for the reduced number of physical keys. It’s also not Keyboardio’s own design: the company has made a name for itself in mechanical keyboard circles by adopting open-source keyboard designs, with the full consent of their original creators, and bringing them to the mass market via crowdfunding.

Finally, Retro Tea Breaks is a compact hardback tome which also owes its existence to a crowdfunding campaign, this time courtesy of Neil Thomas’ RMC – formerly Retro Man Cave – YouTube channel. The book gathers together transcripts, lightly edited and in some cases updated, of interviews carried out with some big names from the classic gaming scene – ranging from the Oliver twins to George “The Fat Man” Sanger and, surprisingly, Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem himself.

You can find the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine on all good supermarket shelves, at your local newsagent, or online with global delivery now.

Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide

Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico

Today’s launch of the Raspberry Pi Pico, an affordable breadboard-friendly development board accessible enough for education and powerful enough for industrial use, comes alongside the launch of my latest book: Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Raspberry Pi Pico Guide.

Building on my earlier title The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico offers newcomers to both the Raspberry Pi Pico and the MicroPython programming language an easy way to get started. Building up from an introduction to the board, electronic circuit concepts, MicroPython in general, and MicroPython on the Raspberry Pi Pico specifically, the book walks through a series of physical computing projects – some requiring only the Raspberry Pi Pico, others using low-cost and readily-available additional hardware components.

Each successive project introduces a new concept, from simply lighting an LED and reading a button input to using hardware interrupts, running code on the second CPU core, and making use of the on-board non-volatile flash memory to store logged data. By the end of the book, the reader should know how to use all the most important features of the Raspberry Pi Pico in MicroPython – even if they started knowing nothing about electronics or programming at all.

As always, thanks must be given to those who helped during the production of the book. Particular thanks must go to Ben Everard, who acted as co-editor and also contributed a chapter on using I2C and an appendix on using the programmable input/output (PIO) functionality; Sam Adler, too, returned to provide eye-catching illustrations without which the book would be a considerably duller read.

Also to be thanked are those who provided technical assistance: Alasdair Allan, Aivar Annamaa, Damien George, Gordon Hollingworth, Graham Sanderson, and Andrew Scheller, along with all those who proofed the book ahead of publication. Not forgetting, of course, others at Raspberry Pi Press who work to bring these books to life and to shelves across the world.

Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico is available to purchase in print from Raspberry Pi Press with global delivery; it is also available to download as a DRM-free PDF, under a Creative Commons free-as-in-speech licence which allows for unlimited distribution under share-alike terms – making it perfect for schools and clubs.

Custom PC, Issue 209

Custom PC Issue 209In this month’s instalment of my regular Hobby Tech feature, I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 family, Nvidia’s lower-cost Jetson Nano 2GB, and Sid Meier’s Sid Meier’s Memoir! – a book with what must be the most well-fitting title in history.

The Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 is, as the name suggests, a successor to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3+ and Compute Module 3 ranges – themselves designed as a follow-up to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, which took the core technology from the Raspberry Pi single-board computer and placed it into a system-on-module (SOM) form factor.

In my two-page review I take the new Compute Module through its paces, take a look at the redesigned and considerably cheaper carrier board, and warn of one major caveat: the redesigned module ditches the SODIMM form factor of its predecessors, meaning it’s not backwards-compatible with earlier carrier boards without a third-party interposer board between the two.

The Nvidia Jetson Nano 2GB, meanwhile, isn’t as identical to the original Nvidia Jetson Nano reviewed back in Issue 191. While, yes, the headline change is the drop from 4GB to 2GB of RAM, there are other modifications – including the loss of a hidden slot for an optional Wi-Fi card, fewer and slower USB ports, and the dropping of the second MIPI Camera Serial Interface (CSI) port added to its bigger sibling in a mid-stream refresh.

Finally, Sid Meier’s Memoir! – named in the style of the man’s games like Sid Meier’s Civilization and Sid Meier’s Pirates! – is a potted history of one of the pioneers of strategy gaming’s career, as told to author Jennifer Lee Noonan. It’s a text-heavy tome split into roughly chronological chapters, and absolutely fascinating – even if it does finally put to bed the myth of Gandhi’s overflow bug in Civilization.

Custom PC Issue 209 is available now from your local supermarket, newsagent, or online with global delivery from the official website.