Custom PC, Issue 229

Custom PC Issue 229For my Hobby Tech column in this month’s Custom PC Magazine I’ve taken a look at the Blink smart-home security camera ecosystem, and in particularly its new doorbell camera, the shiny Raspberry Pi Pico W, and built a custom Linux distribution for the Microchip PolarFire SoC Icicle Kit.

My interest in the Blink ecosystem is not purely academic. Having recently purchased a new house, I saw the opportunity to deploy a cost-effective camera system while documenting the process for Hobby Tech – and I’m pleased to report that Blink, which is entirely battery-driven bar a mains-powered “Sync Module, made things easy. The hardware was initially photographed in my studio then installed on-site with additional imagery captured, before being tested over a period of weeks to iron out teething problems.

The Raspberry Pi Pico W, meanwhile, is a near-identical clone of the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller board – but this time it’s brought a radio along for the ride. At the time of writing, only Wi-Fi was available – with Bluetooth present in hardware but not yet enabled in the firmware – but that’s enough to vastly expand the possibilities for projects driven by the Raspberry Pi Pico and its RP2040 microcontroller. Better still, the price has been kept low: at £6 including VAT, it’s near-impossible not to recommend the Raspberry Pi Pico W.

Finally, I reviewed the PolarFire SoC Icicle Kit back in Issue 224 – and one of my biggest complaints was with the pre-installed Linux distribution, which was extremely spartan and not a little buggy. It may have only been five months since that review was published, but things have change for the better – and to prove it I used Microchip’s documentation and Yocto Linux board support package (BSP) to build a much more polished Linux operating system for the board.

All this and more is available at your nearest newsagent or supermarket, online with global delivery, or as a free download on the official website.

Custom PC Issue 228

Custom PC Issue 228In my five-page Hobby Tech column for Custom PC this month I take a look at the unusual Panic Playdate handheld console, cover the latest happenings in the MNT Reform community, and read the latest book to have former Commodore executive David John Pleasance’s name on the cover: From Vultures to Vampires Volume One.

The Panic Playdate is something I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. Built around a low-power reflective black-and-white display and powered by a microcontroller, the compact yellow console is unusual for a range of reasons – the biggest of which is a physical crank extending from the side and used as an additional control alongside the more traditional D-pad and buttons on the face.

With an open development ecosystem, all the way through to the browser-based simplified development environment Pulp, the Playdate already hosts a wide range of third-party titles – some for pay, some free, many open-source. It also comes with a subscription to a “season” of bundled games, delivered wirelessly two-a-week every Monday. Despite some early software gremlins, the Playdate has definitely proven worth the wait – though its high price remains a concern.

I reviewed the MNT Reform open-hardware laptop back in Issue 220, but there’s been so much going on with the project it became necessary to write a two-page round-up. The biggest news: the ongoing development of the Pocket Reform, a netbook-like more compact alternative designed to be compatible with the same systems-on-module (SOMs) as the larger Reform. Elsewhere, there have been improvements to the case, the operating system, and a redesigned battery board built to finally put the power-drain problem to rest.

It’s not just MNT itself that’s been hard at work, though: the community has embraced the Reform platform with gusto. A number of replacement keyboard projects are in the works, while one enthusiastic community member has become the first to produce their own PCBs and build a tweaked Reform with USB Type-C charging and an ergonomic keyboard from scratch.

Finally, From Vultures to Vampires is the first half of Pleasance’s follow-up to Commodore: The Inside Story, reviewed back in Issue 189. At least, it’s supposed to be. Reading the tome, which charts the period between 1995 and 2004 and the attempts by various competing parties to keep the Amiga family alive, reveals a very different book to the anecdotal original – and it soon becomes clear that this isn’t Pleasance’s book at all, but written exclusively by supposed co-author Trevor Dickinson.

Despite this little bit of smoke-and-mirrors, which is of little surprise coming from self-confessed fast-and-loose salesman Pleasance, the stories told within the pages are fascinating whether the reader was there or not – though the book could have benefited from an additional editing pass.

All this, and more, is available on supermarket and newsagents’ shelves now, online with global delivery, or as a free digital download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 227

Custom PC Issue 227This month’s Hobby Tech column dives into the capabilities of the Nvidia Jetson AGX Orin Developer Kit, sees what Retro Games Limited’s TheA500 Mini can do, and finishes with a review of the Amazon Smart Air Quality Monitor for smart home enthusiasts tied into the company’s Alexa ecosystem.

The Nvidia Jetson AGX Orin is a direct successor to the AGX Xavier, which I reviewed back in Issue 190. Like its predecessor, the AGX Orin – or, at least, its Developer Kit incarnation as-reviewed – packs a powerful system-on-module into a compact and actively-cooled casing with reasonable room for expansion, including a full-length PCI Express slot to one side.

Designed for on-device machine learning workloads, the AGX Orin includes a 12-core Arm Cortex-A78AE CPU and an Ampere GPU with 2,048 CUDA cores, 64 Tensor cores, and a pair of NVDLA V2 coprocessors. Add 32GB of LPDDR5 memory and 64GB of eMMC storage expandable via M.2 slot to the base, and you’ve got an absolute beast of a box and one I very much enjoyed putting through its paces.

TheA500 Mini, meanwhile, is also Arm-based – but considerably less powerful. Designed as a follow-up to TheC64 Mini, reviewed in Issue 180, TheA500 Mini swaps Commodore’s popular eight-bit for its Amiga successor. With 25 games pre-loaded – 26 if you download a bonus game and pop it on a USB flash drive – it’s not exactly an exhaustive look at the best the Amiga scene had to offer, but a fun nostalgia trip nevertheless. Special mention must also be given to the bundled peripherals, an optical tank-style two-button mouse and a replica of the CD32 gamepad – both of which can be used on a standard PC as USB peripherals.

Finally, the Amazon Smart Air Quality Monitor is a compact sensor designed to tie in to the company’s Alexa smart home system – to the point where it lacks any form of display of its own, relying entirely on in-app reports and a simple LED on the front which lights up when the air quality drops. Reporting a total of five environmental conditions – particular matter 2.5 (PM2.5), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), temperature, humidity, and, oddly, carbon monoxide (CO) – the sensor is discrete but appears to suffer from a few teething troubles.

All this, and more, can be found in Custom PC Issue 227 at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download on the official website now.

Custom PC, Issue 226

Custom PC Issue 226My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the Argon40 Eon network attached storage case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the unusual SB Components RoundyPi and RoundyFi smart display boards, and The Colouring Book of Retro Computers by Neil Thomas and Stoo Cambridge.

Regular readers will be familiar with Argon40’s well-designed metal – and, in its more recent efforts to offer something to the budget crowd, plastic – Raspberry Pi cases. The Eon, which follows on from the One and Neo in a naming scheme which leaves the company no option but to name its next product something like Noe, Eno, or Oen, is different. It’s huge, for a start, because it can hold not only a Raspberry Pi but four SATA hard drives and a USB SSD.

It’s designed to turn a Raspberry Pi into a network-attached storage (NAS) system, and it delivers on its promises – with one major caveat: Testing showed that its weedy internal fan is entirely incapable of keeping the drives cool. Coupled with some software issues surrounding the smart on-board OLED display panel and the Eon is the first Argon40 product that hasn’t been a easy recommendation.

The RoundyPi and RoundyFi, meanwhile, are a lot smaller. Built around the Raspberry Pi RP2040 and the Espressif ESP-12E microcontrollers respectively, these unusual boards offer an integrated means of communicating with an unusual full-colour 240×240 LCD display. They’re eye-catching, but the code samples leave a lot to be desired – and there’s no way to recreate the sample images used in the company’s Kickstarter campaign without considerable effort.

The Colouring Book of Retro Computers is, oddly enough, the second colouring book I’ve reviewed in Hobby Tech after the similarly-named Retro Computer Colouring Book in Issue 214. This time around, though, considerably more effort has been put into its creation – including the hiring of noted video game artist Stoo Cambridge, of Sensible Software fame, to create the illustrations. The result isn’t perfect – product names and company logos are omitted out of an overabundance of caution, and several pages in the print version have been accidentally produced from low-resolution JPEG versions of Cambridge’s excellent illustrations – but it definitely raises a smile.

Custom PC Issue 226 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 225

Custom PC Issue 225My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC Magazine takes a look at the IceWhale Tech ZimaBoard, a self-styled “single-board server,” the relatively low-cost yet high-performance DytSpectrumOwl thermal inspection camera, and the Cyntech Raspberry Pi Heatsink Case – the latter an imposing block of hefty plastic and metal.

The ZimaBoard 216, the cheapest model in the ZimaBoard family, is an interestingly-designed single-board computer which arrives ensconced in its own heatsink case. Powered by an Intel Celeron N3450 – a quiet upgrade from the Celeron N3350 originally planned, likely as a result of component shortages – the base model includes 2GB of LPDDR4 memory and 16GB of eMMC storage pre-loaded with a Linux-based operating system dubbed “Casa OS.”

The hardware is well-designed and comes with room for expansion courtesy of USB 3 ports, two gigabit Ethernet ports, two SATA 6Gbps ports, and – unusually – a PCI Express slot to the side. Actually using the slot, sadly, isn’t easy – and there’s a lot of work still to be done in addressing usability and security issues in the custom OS.

The DytSpectrumOwl is another piece of well-designed hardware somewhat hampered by weaker software. Built by Dianyang Tech, the DytSpectrumOwl is built for thermal analysis of PCBs and materials via a surprisingly high-resolution camera module on a neat adjustable stand – functionally equivalent to, though slightly lower resolution than, the FLIR ETS320 I reviewed back in Issue 201.

At less than half the price, though, the DytSpectrumOwl is a tempting alternative to the FLIR model – and it includes a wonderfully useful focus adjustment knob, dramatically increasing its flexibility. Its software, however, is Windows-only and outputs annoyingly non-standard radiometric JPEG images lacking a visible scale.

Finally, Cyntech’s take on a protective and cooling case for the Raspberry Pi family is a surprisingly chunky design built from plastic with an upper metal heatsink. Built from just three parts – plus an optional fourth spacer layer to make room for a fan, for when passive cooling isn’t enough – the case is pleasingly robust and does a perfectly good job of keeping the Raspberry Pi’s processor from throttling during intensive workloads. Its price, though, makes it hard to recommend over third-party alternatives.

All this, and a whole lot more, is available now from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 223

Custom PC Issue 223In this months’ Hobby Tech column I take a look at the open-source, though not open-hardware, Bangle.js 2 smartwatch, dig deep into digital archaeology with some Dragon 32 floppy disk analysis, and read Microzeit’s Crackers II: The Data Storm.

First, the smartwatch. Back in Issue 218 I reviewed the SQFMI Watchy, a hacker-friendly but bulky smartwatch built around a low-power electrophoretic display. The Bangle.js 2 is a slicker, slimmer device which uses a colour Sharp Memory LCD panel – colour, yet still sunlight readable. Unlike the Watchy, though, it’s not a wholly new creation: it’s an off-the-shelf smartwatch imported in bulk from its Chinese manufacturer, then given new life with the real star of the show: The Bangle.js firmware.

Developed by Gordon Williams, Bangle.js – which is open source – allows users to write smartwatch applications and extensions in JavaScript, which are then transferred onto the smartwatch from a browser-based app store. The original, considerably bulkier, Bangle.js smartwatch proved popular enough that the store was well-populated at launch – though that’s not to say I didn’t encounter a few bugs and gotchas during my testing.

My work on digital archaeology, meanwhile, was surprisingly bug-free – given I was working to blend modern technology with floppy disks last accessed back in the 1980s. Having been imaging some 3.5″ floppy disks originally used with a Dragon 32 microcomputer, I found myself in need of accessing the raw files within – something loading the disk images into an emulator couldn’t provide.

It’s at this stage I must thank Adrien Destugues, Haiku OS developer, who came to my aid with a port of a tool originally written in 1997 for MS-DOS compatibles by engineer Graham E. Kinns: the Dragon DOS Utils. Using Kinns’ original source code, Destugues was able to port the tools to Linux – giving me what I needed to access the files within the floppy disk images and finish my investigations by loading and decoding a series of saved images into The GIMP.

Finally, Crackers II is – unsurprisingly – the follow-up to Microzeit’s Crackers I: The Gold Rush, coincidentally also reviewed in Issue 218. Picking up where the original left off, the book charts the growth of the software piracy scene on bulletin board systems – along with diversions into the worlds of ASCII art, copy markets, and copy protection systems. As with the earlier book, it’s heavy on the imagery – but there’s plenty of meat in the text too.

Custom PC Issue 223 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 222

Custom PC Issue 222This month’s five-page Hobby Tech column takes a look at the retro-style Clockwork Pi DevTerm portable computer, the HcX Floppy Disk Emulator tool, and Hex Loader – the first graphic novel I’ve seen in a few decades to arrive with its own tie-in game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

The DevTerm, a follow-up to Clockwork Pi’s excellent GameSHell hand-held console, has been a little delayed. Having originally been due to land in April 2021, it’s only now gone through the review process thanks to the ongoing component shortages afflicting the industry – but it’s definitely been worth the wait. Inspired by classic portable computers like the TRS-80 Model 100, it’s a real anachronism backed by open-source hardware and open-source software.

That’s not to say it’s perfect: the top-end A-0604 model, as reviewed, is incapable of sustaining full-speed operation for more than a few seconds of load before throttling and arrives with the two high-performance cores entirely disabled; the display suffers from a glitch whereby the top four lines are entirely missing; and it took the community to make the tiny trackball less frustrating to use. The sheer joy of the device, thankfully, overrides these concerns. The built-in thermal printer is particularly wonderful, and was used to submit this month’s column – by post.

The HcX Floppy Disk Emulator review, meanwhile, was born from a need I had to image and retrieve data from some floppy disks which had been formatted for use with the Dragon Data family of microcomputers. Despite its name, the software isn’t exclusively usable by those who’ve splashed out on HcX hardware: it can load disk images, including stream captures from a KryoFlux, and provides a range of useful tools including an incredible visual floppy disk explorer – capable of even demonstrating the exact location and shape of damaged areas of a disk.

Finally, Hex Loader. A crowdfunded collaboration between writer Dan Whitehead, illustrator Conor Boyle, and letterer Jim Campbell, Hex Loader is halfway a love-letter to game development in the 1980s and halfway some kind of scathing indictment of consumerism and modern art wrapped in a mystical layer of sorcery. It also comes complete with a tie-in ZX Spectrum game, Combat Wombat – and you can’t say that of many publications released in the 2020s.

Custom PC Issue 222 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download on the official website.

 

Custom PC, Issue 221

Custom PC Issue 221My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W single-board computer, the Sipeed Nezha D1 RISC-V also-single-board-computer, and an autobiography from Sierra On-Line co-founder Ken Williams.

The Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W is, as the name suggests, the successor to the Raspberry Pi Zero W – in turn a follow-up to the original Raspberry Pi Zero, adding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. All three are being sold alongside each other, at the pleasingly-spaced price points of $5, $10, and $15 – but that extra cash on the new model brings with it a big boost in performance thanks to a more powerful quad-core processor in a custom package alongside 512MB of RAM.

I put the board through a range of benchmarks, from raw performance in both synthetic and real-world workloads to thermal management – including high-resolution thermal imagery under a FLIR ETS320 thermal inspection camera. The results show a device that isn’t without its flaws – that 512MB of RAM, in particular, limits its capabilities – but for the cash may well be one of the most tempting single-board computers on the market today.

The Nezha D1, by contrast, is less tempting thanks to a roughly £100 price point for a device which just about meets the performance of the considerably cheaper Raspberry Pi Zero W and is considerably outclassed by the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W. Those picking the board up, though, won’t be doing so for speed but for the fact it’s one of the first devices on the market to feature Allwinner’s D1 system-on-chip, a part built on the open-source Alibaba T-Head XuanTie C906 core.

Run through as many benchmarks as possible – which, with software support still underway, is fewer than usual – the board proved capable, but poor documentation outside Chinese-language materials make getting anything done with the system a slog. Thankfully, things are improving on that front: RISC-V International has sent out a number of Nezha D1 boards to early adopters across the world who are working hard to bring up new software and write improved and translated documentation – meaning it’s going to be worth revisiting the board in the coming months to see where things stand then.

Finally, Not All Fair Tales Have Happy Endings is Ken Williams’ autobiography, covering the days leading up to the founding of Sierra On-Line – a name which will be familiar to gamers across at least two generations. It’s a refreshingly honest account of the company’s start, success, and ultimate failure, and one which doesn’t necessarily paint Williams in the greatest of lights: he comes across as obsessed with money, treating games as mere commodities to be sold, and pushed his wife into a career of programming despite a total lack of interest or, in the early days, aptitude on her part – though the latter did give rise to Roberta Williams’ creating some of the best-remembered adventure games in history, so it’s hard to be too critical on that front.

All this, and more, is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 220

Custom PC Issue 220This month’s Hobby Tech dedicates a whopping four pages to one of the most interesting devices I’ve ever had on test: the MNT Research Reform open-hardware laptop. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a look at a classic book of early personal computing history: Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines.

The meat of my latest five-page column is a relatively straightforward review of the MNT Reform, a laptop that’s anything but straightforward. The brainchild of MNT Research, and the second-generation of the core design, the MNT Reform is open – from the design of the chassis with its eye-catching transparent base to the electrical designs for the motherboard, system-on-module, and even the 3D-printed trackball which sits below a mechanical keyboard.

As a laptop, though, it’s easy to find the Reform wanting on a number of fronts – from lacklustre performance to the absence of niceties like having it suspend when you close the lid. I then dive deeper into the project itself – and reveal something both unique and absolutely worthy of celebration, with an enthusiastic and growing community boding well for its future.

Two of the biggest issues highlighted in the review have since been resolved for future production runs: the trackball has been greatly enhanced by the addition of steel bearings, and the troubling power drain while “off” which can empty the batteries has been addressed with a firmware update to put the system management controller into a low-power deep-sleep mode.

Computer Lib/Dream Machines is, despite having been published in 1974, a publication with a very similar ethos at its heart: the idea that computing not only should be accessible to all but must be accessible to all. Long out of print, despite Microsoft’s efforts to publish a professionally typeset and updated version of the eclectic original in 1987, the book manages to be both of-its-era and yet somehow entirely relevant – and that’s even before you flip Computer Lib over to reveal Dream Machines as a second book bound as one.

The original version of the book has been preserved at The Internet Archive, and is well worth a read – though its format means you may spend quite some time zooming in and out.

All this, and more, is available now at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download from the official website.

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.