Tag Archive for Computer History

Custom PC, Issue 185

Custom PC Issue 185In my regular Hobby Tech column this month you’ll find a detailed review of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ single-board computer, another of the ever-so-slightly less-powerful Digirule2, and of Adam Fisher’s exhaustive Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley.

First, the Raspberry Pi. The first model to use the A+ form factor – smaller PCB, only one USB port, full-size display (DSI), camera (CSI), and HDMI ports, analogue audio-video (AV) – in the last four years, the Pi 3A+ is an impressive beast for cramming the full performance of the larger, more expensive Pi 3B+ into a smaller form factor. I was concerned, upon first unpacking, that the smaller PCB would undo the good work on the thermal-transfer front that made the Pi 3B+ such a good improvement on the original Pi 3B; a quick test under a thermal imaging camera, though, showed that I was worrying over nothing.

The Digirule2 is a markedly different beast. While it’s a single-board computer, it’s one which is designed more for fun than functionality: built into the form factor of a ruler, complete with inches and centimetres marked in binary along the upper and lower edges, the Digirule2 is inspired by classic machines like the Altair 8800. Press a series of buttons to program a particular memory location; press another button to switch to the next; and press a third to see your program run on the built-in LEDs. One particularly impressive feature is an eight-slot program storage, allowing you to save and load your programs directly on the device – and all without having to hook up your punch-tape reader/writer.

Finally, Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius is a book in the mould of Fire in the Valley: an attempt to document the rise and, frankly, continued rise of Silicon Valley and the companies it has birthed. Culled from over 200 individual interviews, the book uses direct quotation rather than any attempt to weave a narrative but dodges dryness by weaving multiple subjects’ remembrances into each themed chapter. The final effect is less an interview and more a conversation between some of the industry’s biggest names, from the birth of the mouse right through to the modern age.

To read the full column, pick up Custom PC Issue 185 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution platforms.

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.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 4

Hackspace Issue 4This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a four-page spread detailing two projects from the talented Daniel Bailey: the Manchester Baby inspired C88 and C3232 homebrew microcomputers.

When one normally talks about ‘building’ a computer, the ‘building’ process is akin to Lego: blocks specifically designed to be compatible are clicked together in a reasonably idiot-proof manner, then an off-the-shelf operating system is installed. Daniel’s C88 and C3232 systems, by contrast, are built from the ground up: systems built around using an 8×8 or 32×32 LED display as memory and running a unique processor, built from scratch on an FPGA, with its own instruction set architecture.

The smaller C88 came first, and the larger and more complex C3232 – designed with a mode which allows it to run software originally written for the early Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), or Manchester Baby, without modification – served as a magnum opus for the project. Daniel wasn’t done there, though: a final effort produced the Mini C88, a C88-compatible kit powered by the a low-cost Arduino instead of a more expensive FPGA but boasting near-complete compatibility with the original.

While Daniel has yet to release the kit, a simulator provides a hint of what it’s like to use the C88 or Mini C88: programs are entered into the system one bit at a time using physical toggle-switches, then executed for display on the LED matrix. Examples include simple animations, pseudorandom number generation, and mathematical calculations, while the real C88 can also be connected to external hardware via a general-purpose input-output (GPIO) port missing from the Mini C88.

I’ve long been a fan of Daniel’s creations, and am lucky enough to own a Mini C88 of my very own – but even for those who haven’t caught the systems being demonstrated at various Maker Faires and related events, I’d recommend reading the piece to see just how clever the project really is.

You can see the feature in full by downloading the Creative Commons licensed magazine from the official website, or pick up a copy in print from your nearest newsagent or supermarket.

Custom PC, Issue 154

Custom PC Issue 154In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a good long look at the BBC micro:bit, CubieTech’s latest Cubietruck Plus (Cubieboard 5) single-board computer, and a pack of Top Trumps-inspired playing cards based on vintage computers.

Beginning with the micro:bit, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a press sample when the much-redesigned educational device was finally ready to ship to schools across the UK. Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller and boasting integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the micro:bit’s main selling point is its excellent support: the web IDE includes four languages suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to experts, there is documentation galore, and the BBC’s TV output includes shows which remind me of the glory days of the BBC Micro and its related programming.

At least, that would be a selling point if the board was actually up for sale. Despite having now mostly fulfilled its promise to ship free micro:bits to all Year Seven pupils in the UK, the BBC has still made no announcement about commercial availability for the educational gadget. Those whose appetites are whetted by the review, then, are best off looking at the CodeBug on which the micro:bit was based, or the new Genuino/Arduino 101 if Bluetooth LE support is a requirement.

The Cubietruck Plus, meanwhile, is an altogether different beast. Kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the board is – as the name suggests – a follow-up to CubieTech’s original Cubietruck. The old dual-core processor is long gone, replaced with an Allwinner H8 octa-core chip that blazed through benchmarks with aplomb – and without hitting the boiling-point temperature highs of the rival Raspberry Pi 3.

Sadly, there’s one piece of information that didn’t make it into the review: shortly after the issue went to press, security researchers discovered a debug vulnerability left in Allwinner’s customised Linux kernel which allows any application on the system to gain root permission. Although affecting only selected operating systems, it’s something to be aware of if you’re in the market for an Allwinner-powered SBC.

Finally, the playing cards. Created by start-up 8bitkick following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the deck is nostalgia in a box. The idea is to bring the Top Trumps concept of collectable, trivia-esque comparison gaming to vintage computing: the cards feature everything from the Acorn Atom to the TI-99/4A, plus a joker in the deck in the form of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.

The cards are printed with a very high quality finish, but it’s the source of the images that is of most interest: rather than take the pictures itself, 8bitkick has instead scoured the web for images in the public domain or licensed as Creative Commons. It’s no theft, though: while most Creative Commons licenses allow for even commercial reuse if properly attributed, 8bitkick has promised to upload the full deck design to its website for free download and printing.

All this, plus lots of interesting things by people who aren’t me, is only a short trip to the newsagent’s away – or you can stay exactly where you are and grab a digital copy from Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 143

Custom PC Issue 143My Hobby Tech spread continues in Issue 143 of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with two reviews and a review-slash-walkthrough: the Orange Pi Plus, the GrovePi+ Starter Kit, and the Kim Uno kit.

For me, the most interesting toy of the month was undoubtedly the Kim Uno. Designed by Oscar Vermeulen, the Kim Uno is a kit-form microcomputer designed to emulate the classic MOS Technologies KIM-1, designed by Chuck Peddle to showcase the company’s at-the-time cutting-edge 6502 microprocessor. Naturally, there’s no 6502 to be found in the Kim Uno: instead, an Arduino Pro Mini – based on one of Atmel’s popular microcontrollers – sits at the rear of a calculator-sized circuit-board and provides the grunt required to run any KIM-1 application you care to name, including the famous Microchess.

A simple solder-it-together kit – or pay extra to have one built by Oscar’s own fair hand – the Kim Uno is a great way to practice your skills even before you tackle the joys of 6502 machine-code programming. Oscar’s online documentation is thorough and detailed, and for anyone who knows 6502 the Kim Uno is a must-have especially at just £10 plus shipping.

The Kim Uno was the most fun project of the month, but it was closely followed by a GrovePi+ Starter Kit kindly supplied by Dexter Industries. Designed to bring Seeed’s Grove ‘smart module’ design to the Raspberry Pi, the kit includes a piggyback board which connects to the Pi’s GPIO port and a wealth of additional inputs and outputs, all of which connect via simple keyed wires. For newcomers to electronics, the Grove platform takes the complexity out of wiring up even relatively complex projects – and the GrovePi+ board itself makes using Grove hardware a cinch.

Finally, the Orange Pi Plus is one of the growing number of would-be Raspberry Pi beaters coming out of the technology markets of China. Using the AllWinner H3 system-on-chip processor the Orange Pi Plus can’t match the performance of the latest Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, but it does offer significantly more built-in capability: SATA, gigabit Ethernet, infra-red, even 802.11b/g/n wireless with bundled ultra-compact dipole antenna. The Orange Pi Plus, and the other members in the Orange Pi family, are clearly inspired by Lemaker’s Banana Pi and offer much of the same software compatibility, including platforms like Android not supported by the Raspberry Pi itself.

If you want to know my final opinion on all this hardware, or if you’re for some reason interested in things written by people who aren’t me, Custom PC Issue 143 is available now in print or digital form.

CCS Resurrection, Issue 69

CCS Resurrection, Issue 69I recently joined the Computer Conservation Society (CCS) arm of the British Computer Society (BCS), a working group dedicated to preserving the heritage of computing that we have in this country. In addition to a lecture on classic British home computers, I was asked to contribute to the official CCS journal Resurrection with a piece on the Raspberry Pi.

While, as my feature for the magazine points out, the Raspberry Pi itself needs to age a few more decades before it will be of direct interest to computer conservationists, the story of its rise from nowhere to become the dominant force in hobbyist-targeted single-board computers is a fascinating one – and, interestingly, mirrors similar growth experienced by Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser’s Acorn Computers in the 1980s in more ways than one.

Taking in the history of the project from its origins as a microcontroller-based development system built on Veroboard through to the launch of the quad-core Raspberry Pi 2, my feature builds on my early experience with the project – having met co-founder Eben Upton during an event at Bletchley Park, where he showed off an early prototype – and interviews I have performed in the intervening years.

The latest issue of Resurrection is sent out to members automatically, or can be viewed online in any web browser.

The Battle of Britain’s Home Computers

The Battle of Britain's Home ComputersI was recently asked to give a lecture to members of the Computer Conservation Society on the topic of early British home computers, which is very dear to my heart. For those unfamiliar the CCS is a Specialist Group of the British Computing Society, founded in cooperation with the Science Museum of London and the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, with the aim of conserving and restoring classic computers while working to develop awareness of their historical significance. The group has been responsible for a number of notable successes since its formation in 1989, from the wartime Colossus and Bombe rebuilds to the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) replica, with a complete list available on the official website.

A benefit of membership is access to the group’s regular lectures, which bring together experts and industry luminaries to share their knowledge – and, for some inexplicable reason, me. Given an hour-long slot – which I cheekily overran by about fifteen minutes, having digressed somewhat along the way – I shared what I know on the ‘golden era’ of British home computing: 1980 to 1984, boom to bust.

The talk was very well received, thanks mostly to a terrifically warm and welcoming audience, and the elongated question-and-answer session at the end was a thrill – and revealed just which of the many computers released in the UK during that time truly had the biggest impact, including the discovery that one brave soul runs his business from a handful of disguised eight-bit micros to this day!

A video of the talk was recorded, but is not yet available. If you have an hour and three quarters to kill and don’t want to wait, you can download the slide deck and stream the audio – just move onto the next slide whenever you hear the thump of me hitting the space bar and you’ll be in-sync. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to listen offline, the slides and an MP3 recording can be downloaded together.

I will be giving the lecture again to the northern branch of the CCS next year, giving you plenty of warning if you’d like to attend.