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 136

Custom PC Issue 136This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC magazine reviews a next-generation version of the Fuze Powered by Raspberry Pi kit, previews the upcoming MinnowBoard Max from Intel, and publishes an interview with Sam ‘MrSidC64’ Dyer, author of Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium – the spelling a deliberate pun on ‘Commodore,’ if you were wondering.

First, the Fuze T2 review. I’d already looked at the original Fuze, courtesy its inventor Jon Silvera, back in Issue 124, and little has changed from the aerial view: it’s still a robust steel case inspired by the BBC Micros of the 80s, designed to house a keyboard, Raspberry Pi and a break-out board for the general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, sold either on its own or as a bundle with child-friendly electronics tutorials and a handful of simple components for experimentation. Looking in more detail, however, shows that plenty has changed: following feedback, Jon has redesigned to case to include the ability to mount the Pi sideways to prevent little fingers pulling out the SD card, added Lego-compatible holes to the side, and best of all included a four-port USB hub with integrated power supply that provides proper 5V/500mA ports while simultaneously powering the Pi itself. A much-improved GPIO break-out board is another welcome addition, featuring compatibility with existing add-on boards as well as integrated analogue-to-digital and hardware pulse-width modulation (PWM) pins – something the Pi alone sorely lacks.

The MinnowBoard Max, meanwhile, is easily recognisable as a new design entirely. Designed to replace Intel’s old MinnowBoard, reviewed back in Issue 122, the Max features a proper 64-bit dual-core Atom processor with 64-bit UEFI implementation – meaning that the limited compatibility of its predecessor is a thing of the past. The design is more compact, the entire platform more accessible to beginners, and as usual it’s entirely open in both software and hardware – even the UEFI BIOS is based on Intel’s open-source code. For those who find ARM development boards too much of a stretch after years of x86 programming, it’s certainly worth investigating and I was impressed with the pre-release prototype I was provided. Sadly, the release of the final production model has hit a few last-minute delays – although I’m expecting stock of both the dual-core and single-core variants to appear in the channel before the end of the year.

Lastly, my interview with Sam Dyer. A graphic designer by trade, Sam launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund a new coffee table book all about the software available for the Commodore 64, his first real computer. As a massive Commodore fan myself, I was a backer and when the book arrived earlier this year I knew I would have to write about it. Sam was kind enough to give me some of his time to answer questions about his early days of computing, the technology behind capturing the images that make up the book, and its at-the-time impending successor Commodore Amiga: A Visual Commpendium – which yesterday closed funding with a massive £130,000 raised from fellow Commodore fans. Yes, including me.

All this, plus a variety of words written by people who aren’t me, can be yours now with a trip to the newsagent or supermarket, or from the comfort of your home or office via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 121

Custom PC Issue 121Another month, another Hobby Tech column for Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC magazine. This month, I’ve been mostly playing with some toys that the rather lovely people at Ciseco have sent me: the Pi-Lite and the Raspberry Pi Wireless Inventors Kit.

But first, the traditional vintage computing section – and it’s a corker this month. Spanning a bumper two pages, this month I spoke to my rather talented friend Charlotte Gore about a project she’s been working on: the SIDI, a MIDI-to-SID-chip adapter designed with musicians firmly in mind.

The SID chip, for those who don’t know, was developed by Bob Yannes and found fame as the component of the Commodore 64 that really made the system stand out from the crowd. Famously described by Yannes’ colleague Charles Winterble as “10 times better than anything out there, and 20 times better than it needs to be,” the SID chip is still in use today to provide crunchy sounds for everyone from chiptune artists to mainstream musicians.

Trouble is, it’s a pain in the proverbial to use if you’re not a techie. That’s where the SIDI project comes in: a brave attempt to create a control surface that allows a musician, with absolutely no knowledge of programming, the Commodore 64, or the SID chip itself, to twiddle a few knobs, press keys on a MIDI keyboard and coax forth those iconic sounds. Even at this early stage of development – and when Gore started the project, her electronics experience was around the level of changing batteries in remote controls – it’s a stunning creation, and if you have any interest in electronic music, the C64, SID chips or how vintage electronics can be reborn I’d heartily recommend giving the feature a read.

Next, on to Ciseco. The company was kind enough to send over a couple of their latest toys: the white edition of the Pi-Lite, and the Raspberry Pi Wireless Inventors Kit. The first is an add-on board for the Pi that provides an LED matrix, programmable via the UART connection on the GPIO pins. To make full use of the gift, I create a small tutorial – highlighted on the cover splash – for displaying a scrolling graph of CPU activity. As usual, the code is up on GitHub if you’re curious.

The RasWIK, to use its contracted name, is a bit more involved: not due to launch until next month, the kit provides a radio-equipped Arduino clone, a matching radio board for the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header, and a selection of components for experimentation. I had an absolute blast playing with this, even though at the time of writing the software was still at a very early stage. It provides possibly the simplest platform for experimenting with wireless sensor networks I’ve ever seen – and there’ll be a second review of the kit, written when the software was a bit more polished, appearing in a future Linux User & Developer magazine.

All this, plus the usual maker-themed news snippets, can be yours if you just pop over to your local newsagent, supermarket, or even just stay in and download a copy of the magazine from Zinio or another digital distribution platform.