Tag Archive for Column

Custom PC, Issue 187

Custom PC Issue 187This month’s Custom PC is a special one, and not because of anything in my column – though I’d like to think my column is always special – but because it’s the first issue to be published under Raspberry Pi Press rather than Dennis Publishing. It’s immediately obvious that a change has happened: putting Issue 187 next to Issue 186 reveals a considerably thicker tome for the same page count, thanks to vastly improved paper quality and a corresponding boost in print quality.

Between the covers, though, it’s pretty much business as usual – but regular readers should watch out for a survey, due to be published in the next issue or two, which will float some ideas for bringing back classic features or adding new content – with editor Ben Hardwidge unwilling to make any dramatic changes until the readership has had its say.

From background publication details to the column at hand: this month’s Hobby Tech includes a detailed review of a desk calculator – no, really – alongside a look at Netflix’s Bandersnatch interactive film and the 8bitkick Centre for Computing History Games Consoles Collectible Cards set.

First, the calculator. Created by Lofree, a Chinese company known for retrofuturistic designs, the Digit’s claim to fame is the use of mechanical keyswitches with a pleasing ‘click’ as they’re depressed. Beyond that, it’s a fairly sedate devices: surprisingly chunk yet light, and with an LCD display that’s difficult to see at the best of times, the Digit feels like a wasted opportunity. If it had launched with a USB port and doubled as a keypad for those using tenkeyless keyboard layouts, things could have been different.

Bandersnatch, meanwhile, was not a disappointment at all. A feature-length episode of speculative fiction series Black Mirror, Netflix’s highest-profile interactive film yet puts the player in at least partial control of a computer programmer working on the titular game – based, incredibly loosely, on the real-world never-released ‘Megagame’ Bandersnatch from Imagine Software. My look at Bandersnatch focuses on its links to real-world computer history and the experience as a game; elsewhere in the same issue you’ll find a lengthy interview with writer and series co-creator Charlie Brooker, to which I contributed some questions.

Finally, the collectible cards from 8bitkick will be familiar to regular readers: back in Issue 154 I reviewed their vintage computing predecessors. This time around, the topic for the Top Trump-style card game is consoles rather than computers – and they’re now an official product of the Centre for Computing History, with all profits going to support its preservation and education works.

Custom PC Issue 187 is available now from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, while the electronically-published version may take a while later to arrive thanks to the change of publisher.

Custom PC, Issue 182

Custom PC Issue 182In my Hobby Tech column this month, I take a look at the disappointing Planet Computers Gemini PDA, the significantly less disappointing Proto-Pic Program-o-Tron, and the recent updates designed to make the Raspbian operating system for the Raspberry Pi significantly more welcoming to newcomers.

First, the Gemini PDA. I’ve long been a fan of the clamshell personal digital assistant (PDA) form factor, and it was with a heavy heart that I finally hung up my Psion Series 5 after it became clear that smartphones had won that particular war. Now, the format is back courtesy of Planet Computers and the crowdfunded Gemini PDA – a design based on the Psion Series 5 and put together by one of the staff responsible for the original, but which misses its mark at almost every turn.

At its heart, the Gemini PDA is an Android smartphone – even the non-4G version, which is simply an Android smartphone with the cellular radio removed. While it’s possible to run a Debian-based Linux on top, the experience is poor – but, that said, no more poor than the buggy Android build supplied with the device, which insists on booting up in German despite being clearly marked as a UK model. The hardware, too, disappoints: performance under Linux is not where it should be, and while the keyboard is a near-perfect match to the original Psion design the clever sliding hinge mechanism is entirely missing in favour of a loose and flimsy metal kickstand that fails to provide nearly enough support.

Many thanks must go to the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), which kindly provided an original Psion Series 5MX PDA for direct head-to-head comparison during the review.

The Program-o-Tron, after a disappointing start to the month, proved considerably better. Again crowdfunded, the Proto-Pic device is designed to make life easier for those working with Atmel ATmega microcontrollers. Rather than having to program each chip individually from a PC, the Program-o-Tron allows you to hold six hex files on an SD card and flash them onto a chip inserted in the ZIF socket at the push of a button – and, even better, to take a dump of the contents of a chip, including its fuse settings, to clone it without ever needing to touch the original program code.

Finally, the recent update to Raspbian operating system for the Raspberry Pi brought a couple of changes for the better: a lightening of the load when it comes to pre-installed software, complete with a tool to add packages back in on-demand, and a first-run welcome wizard which walks newcomers through configuring the Wi-Fi networking, localisation settings, and choosing a new password. The latter is particularly welcome: since launch, the default for Raspbian has been to keep the ‘pi’ and ‘raspberry’ username and password combination, making it easy for attackers to gain access to systems accidentally or deliberately connected to public networks. By asking users to choose a new password on first boot, the hole is closed.

To read more, pick up Custom PC Issue 182 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 181

Custom PC Issue 181In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at two LED-adorned educational electronics kits, the Kitronik :GAME ZIP 64 and the Kano Pixel Kit, along with Mark Hardisty’s latest retrogaming project, The Classic Adventurer.

Kitronik’s :GAME ZIP 64, which will henceforth be known as the much easier to both read and type Game Zip 64, is a clever little add-on for the BBC micro:bit educational platform. Designed to mate with the BBC micro:bit’s edge connector, the Game Zip 64 adds 64 individually-addressable RGB LEDs, a major upgrade on the single-colour 25-LED matrix on the BBC micro:bit itself, buttons to form a four-way directional control pad, two fire buttons, a piezoelectric buzzer, and – interestingly – a vibration motor.

While the sample Python programs – Snake and Pong – are pretty poor, Kitronik has produced a series of lesson plans around the device which are absolutely fantastic, and put the £40 asking price well into ‘bargain’ territory for anyone looking to move on from the built-in features of the bare BBC micro:bit itself.

The Kano Pixel Kit is, on the face of it, a similar device: a matrix of 128 LEDs – twice the number of the Game Zip 64 – dominate the front, but control is limited to a function dial and a couple of buttons. It’s also Kano’s first truly standalone product, eschewing the normal Raspberry Pi for an on-board Espressif ESP-WROOM-32 microcontroller. As with the Kano Computer Kit, the Pixel Kit’s software – which, sadly, is not available for mainstream Linux, despite coming in a Raspberry Pi variant – is fantastic, but its development cost is likely behind the eyebrow-raising £75 asking price.

Finally, Mark Hardisty’s latest project – after putting his groundbreaking tome on the history of Gremlin Graphics to bed and recreating some classic artwork in Inlay – is The Classic Adventurer, a magazine dedicated to the glory days of interactive fiction. Available in print and also, all credit to him, as a free-as-in-beer DRM-unencumbered PDF download, each issue is packed with brilliant art and fascinating articles ranging from interviews to reviews with some behind-the-scenes stuff thrown in for good measure. It’s a fantastic project, and definitely one to follow.

All this, plus the usual raft of other people’s work, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

 

Custom PC, Issue 180

This month’s Custom PC Magazine sees my Hobby Tech column take a look at TheC64 Mini, a rather annoyingly-stylised recreation of the classic Commodore 64, experiment with Raspberry Pi-powered cluster computing via GNU Parallel, and drink a toast to the memory of the late and lamented Rick Dickinson.

First, Rick. Best known for having been Sinclair Radionics’ – later Research, still later Computers – in-house industrial designer, Rick is the man responsible for the iconic look of the ZX80, ZX81, Sinclair Spectrum, and Sinclair QL, among other devices. While blame for their keyboards lies further up the chain, Rick did the best with his instructions to the point where his designs are still immediately recognisable today. Sadly, Rick had been in ill health of late, and recently passed; my article in this month’s magazine serves as a ode to his memory.

TheC64 Mini, then, feels like a bit of an insult, being as it is the modern incarnation of a device from US Sinclair rival Commodore. Created by Retro Games Limited – not to be confused with Retro Computers Limited, creators of the two-years-late-and-counting ZX Vega+ handheld console, but rather a separate company formed by a split between RCL’s directors present and former – TheC64 Mini appears, at first glance, to be a breadbin-style Commodore 64 that’s been shrunk in the wash.

While deserving plaudits for actually existing, unlike the ZX Vega+, TheC64 Mini isn’t exactly a stellar success: inside its casing, which is dominated by a completely fake keyboard, is a tiny Arm-based single-board computer running Linux and a hacked-around version of the Vice emulator. Its emulation suffers from input lag, something RGL originally attempted to blame on people’s TVs before releasing an update which reduced the problem without completely fixing it, and the bundled Competition Pro-style joystick compounds the problem by being absolutely awful to use courtesy of a rubber membrane design that should have been left on the drawing board.

Finally, the cluster computing tutorial walks the reader through creating a multi-node cluster – of Raspberry Pis, in this instance, though the tutorial is equally applicable to anything that’ll run SSH and GNU Parallel – and pushing otherwise-serial workloads to it in order to vastly accelerate their performance. In the sample workload, which passes multiple images through Google’s Guetzli processor, run-time went from 1,755 seconds in single-threaded serial mode to 125 seconds running on the eight-node cluster – housed in a Ground Electronics Circumference C25 chassis, because if you’re going to do something you should do it in style.

All this, and the usual selection of other interesting articles, can be found in your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 178

Custom PC Issue 178This month’s Hobby Tech has a pair of two-page spreads on two very exciting, yet decidedly different, pieces of hardware – the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ and the Gamebuino Meta – along with a look at an update to the Arduino Create platform which brings early support for single-board computers.

First, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. As the name suggests, the new board isn’t quite a full generation above the existing Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. It is, however, a considerable upgrade – primarily thanks to a new packaging for the BCM2837 system-on-chip, now known as the BCM2837B0, which vastly improves its thermal performance and boosts its speed from 1.2GHz to 1.4GHz. Elsewhere, the board includes an upgraded and simplified power supply system, gigabit Ethernet – though limited to around 230Mb/s throughput in real-world terms – and dual-band 802.11ac wireless network capabilities. Naturally, the review also includes thermal imaging analysis – this time using a new overlay technique which, I’m pleased to say, offers a significant improvement in image clarity over my previous approaches.

The Gamebuino Meta, on the other hand, is a very different device to its predecessor. Upgraded from an ATmega microcontroller to an Arm chip, the Gamebuino Meta boasts a colour screen, programmable RGB LED lighting, a general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header with ‘developer backpack’ accessory for easy prototyping – in short, it’s a serious upgrade over the device I reviewed back in Issue 134. Despite the upgrades, though, it’s still extremely accessible, allowing users to write their own games using the Arduino IDE and the Gamebuino library with ease.

Finally, Arduino Create. I’ve been meaning to take a look at the cloud-based development environment for a while, but it wasn’t until it added support for single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi – on top of the Arduino boards it already supported – that I found an excuse to dive in. What I found is somewhat rough around the edges, but shows promise: a fully-functional IDE right in the browser, but with the ability to push sketches – with very little modification for the Raspberry Pi – to devices remotely.

All this, plus the usual raft of things I didn’t write, can be found between the crisp paper covers of Custom PC Issue 178 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 177

Custom PC Issue 177This 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.

Custom PC, Issue 175

Custom PC Issue 175This month’s Custom PC is a bit of a Halfacree takeover, boasting a whopping 15 pages of my content: a seven-page guide to building a Raspberry Pi-powered vintage gaming console, a three-page look at the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, and my usual five-page Hobby Tech column with reviews of the Coinkite Opendime, iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, and Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: The Amiga Years.

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.

Custom PC, Issue 174

Custom PC Issue 174This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at a very special eight-byte – not a typo – microcomputer, walks through turning a spare Raspberry Pi into a Nav Coin-mining cryptocurrency machine, and looks forward to the launch of the ZX Spectrum Next with a look at a deep-dive book detailing the original Spectrum’s neat Ferranti Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip.

First, the Mini C88. Designed by the multi-talented Daniel Bailey as a more affordable version of his C88, swapping the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) on which he implemented his own processor core design for an Arduino Zero and the extremely clever Dynamic Binary Translation (DBT) technique, the C88 is designed to be about as simple as a computer can get. Based on a custom instruction set, the C88 has just eight memory locations of eight bits apiece and is programmed by toggling each bit using a series of pleasingly tactile switches while monitoring the process on the 8×8 LED matrix that serves as its display.

For regular readers, this will all sound familiar: the original FPGA-based C88 and its 32-byte bigger brother the C3232 were the subject of an interview back in Issue 155. While Daniel has still not turned the C88 into a kit you can head out and buy, the Mini C88 is definite progress in that direction – and, as always, anyone interested in the project should hassle him about it on Twitter.

For those with a Raspberry Pi and a desire to play with cryptocurrency, meanwhile, this month’s tutorial will be of definite interest: a guide to turning a Pi into a ‘Stake Box’ for the Nav Coin cryptocurrency. Designed as an alternative to Bitcoin, Nav Coin offers those who run network nodes rewards in the form of a five percent return on their coin holdings when locked up in this manner. Taking less than an hour to set up and requiring nothing more than a low-powered computer, it’s a great way to get involved – and the Nav Coin project itself definitely one to follow.

Finally, while waiting impatiently for my ZX Spectrum Next microcomputer to land – which, I’m pleased to say, has since happened – I enjoyed a re-read of Chris Smith’s excellent The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to Design a Microcomputer. Based on interviews and deep-dive analysis, the book investigates the tricks and techniques which allowed Sinclair Computers to build the ZX Spectrum micro at such a bare-bones cost – which, in turn, was thanks to clever use of an Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip from Scottish electronics giant Ferranti. Effectively a write-once version of the modern FPGA, Ferranti’s ULA saw the number of components in the ZX81 drop to a quarter compared to the ZX80 and is key to how the ZX Spectrum does what it does.

For all this, and a bunch of other interesting things by people who aren’t me, pick up a copy of Custom PC Issue 174 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 173

Custom PC Issue 173This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the learn-by-post Tron-Club Electronics Kits, the excellent Core Memory, and revisits one of the biggest disappointments of the year: the Asus Tinker Board.

First, the re-review. I originally tested the Asus Tinker Board – or Tinkerboard, or TinkerBoard, depending on which piece of documentation you’re reading – back in Issue 164 when it first hit the market. At the time, the device was impossible to recommend: the top-end hardware, capable of outperforming even the latest Raspberry Pi 3 against which it is designed to compete, was let down by woeful and unfinished software. Nine months on, I decided to give Asus a second chance and load the latest software to see if anything had improved – and I’m pleased to say that many, though far from all, of the issues I had back in March have been addressed.

The Tron-Club Electronics Kits, meanwhile, are smart subscription packages supplied monthly with a claimed minimum of 21 circuits in every pack. Based around discrete components in the Basic Kits and a microcontroller in the Advanced Kits, I was lucky enough to receive a sample of both from Bit-Tech forumite Byron Collier who had finished with them himself.

Finally, Core Memory. Continuing my trend to buy coffee table books despite not actually having a coffee table, I picked up Mark Richard and John Alderman’s book – subtitled “A Visual History of Vintage Computers” – a few years ago, and while it’s now out of print it is still readily available from Amazon and other retailers and, frankly, well worth the cash, despite a few errors in Alderman’s supporting text.

All this, and the usual collection of things written by people who aren’t me, is available from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

 

Custom PC, Issue 169

Custom PC Issue 169My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC features three reviews: the CubieBoard 6 single-board computer, the Digilent OpenScope MZ open-hardware multi-function oscilloscope, and a book detailing the rise and fall of gaming legends the Bitmap Brothers.

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.