Linux User & Developer, Issue 162

Linux User & Developer Issue 162In addition to my regular four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer features a review of a maker-oriented computer-on-module (COM): the LeMaker Guitar.

The Guitar comes from the same company that brought us the Banana Pro, but while LeMaker has ditched its fruit-themed product nomenclature it’s still drawing inspiration from the same source: the Guitar the Chinese company’s equivalent to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, based on the same SODIMM-layout module design and featuring a bundled break-out board to make the device’s features more accessible to hobbyists.

Where it improves on the Compute Module’s design is in its specifications: an Action system-on-chip (SoC) processor proves considerably more capable than the ageing BCM2835 of the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, there’s more RAM, and it even has Wi-Fi connectivity – though this, sadly, is based on a module attached to the break-out board, meaning that it’s not something you’ll have available should you decide to build your own circuit with the Guitar module at its heart.

When I reviewed the device, I was particularly impressed with the performance for the price – especially given that the Compute Module is considerably more expensive than the Guitar. In the time since the review, though, retailers have significantly discounted the Compute Module ahead of the planned launch of a 64-bit, 1.2GHz Compute Module 3 later this year based on the same BCM2837 SoC as the newly-launched Raspberry Pi 3. If you’re not in a rush, in other words, it may be worth seeing how much the Compute Module 3 costs before designing anything around the Guitar.

The full review, along with my four-page news spread, can be found gracing the shelves of your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or as a series of zeroes and ones on digital distribution services including Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 151

Custom PC Issue 151In my latest Hobby Tech column for Custom PC, I take a look at the Pi Zero-specific pHAT family of add-on boards from local electronics wizards Pimoroni, review the Guitar computer-on-module from China’s LeMaker, and show readers how to enhance a Raspberry Pi with a simple reset-stroke-power switch.

Firstly, the pHATs. The launch of the Raspberry Pi Zero, reviewed in last month’s Hobby Tech, brought with it the opportunity for Pi experts like Pimoroni to come out with some add-on devices matching the same form factor – which is, unsurprisingly, exactly what the company has done. The result is a family of, at the time of the review, three tiny add-on boards: the Explorer pHAT, Scroll pHAT, and pHAT DAC. Each comes with unpopulated GPIO, giving the user the option of soldering on the bundled female header for the ability to easily remove the device or soldering it directly to a Pi Zero to make an ultra-compact electronic sandwich.

The Explorer pHAT is the most versatile of the bunch, adding 5V outputs, inputs, analogue inputs, and even a pair of motor control channels to the Pi’s otherwise feature-light 3.3V GPIO header. The Scroll pHAT, meanwhile, features some bright white LEDs in a 5×11 matrix and comes with software for scrolling messages. Finally, the pHAT DAC is an ultra-compact digital to analogue converter capable of playing back 192KHz 24-bit audio via a pre-fitted 3.5mm jack or optional pair of RCA jacks. In short: there’s a little something for everyone.

The Guitar is LeMaker’s follow-up device to what was previously known as the Banana Pi – and, like its predecessor, LeMaker is taking design cues from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. This time, it’s made a Compute Module-alike: a small SODIMM-layout computer-on-module which comes bundled with a break-out board to access its various features. Considering the high price of the official Compute Module, I had high hopes for the budget-friendly Guitar – and I’m pleased to say that it mostly didn’t disappoint.

Finally, the reset switch tutorial. A variant of the tutorial I prepared for The MagPi tailored specifically to the Custom PC audience, it walks the reader through adding a simple switch to any Raspberry Pi – but focusing on the new Zero – in order to quickly reset the device in the event of a crash. As an added bonus, it also allows you to power the Pi on from a shut-down state.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people other than me, can be yours in Custom PC Issue 151. Either pick up a physical copy from wherever magazines congregate, or snag it digitally via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 145

Linux User & Developer Issue 145In addition to my usual four-page news spread this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes a review of the SolidRun HummingBoard-i2eX, a powerful dual-core microcomputer designed to be roughly Raspberry Pi compatible.

If my description of the HummingBoard sounds familiar, it should: I reviewed the same device in a head-to-head with the similarly Raspberry Pi-inspired Banana Pi in Custom PC Issue 134. Where that review focused on a hobbyist perspective – given that it appeared in my regular five-page spread, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech – this review is more tailored for the Linux crowd to better address the magazine’s target audience. The board itself, of course, remains unchanged: a dual-core Freescale i.MX6 processor with powerful graphics is installed alongside a chunk of RAM on a computer-on-module (COM) mezzanine board inserted into a feature-packed expansion board, both being supplied by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT.

Little time passed between the two reviews, so there wasn’t any chance for SolidRun to tweak the software. At the time of writing, Android 4.4 KitKat was available alongside a Debian variant which truly unlocked the power of the processor. Most impressive of all, however, is the cross-compatibility: the HummingBoard is based on the Carrier-One, an internal development board used by SolidRun while testing the Freescale chip; the same chip is available in single-, dual- and quad-core flavours in the company’s CuBox-i family of media-centric microcomputers – and the HummingBoard is entirely software-compatible, to the extent of being able to take a micro-SD card out of a CuBox-i and boot it on a HummingBoard without modification.

As to whether the board, which includes mSATA and mini-PCI Express connectivity in addition to the usual USB and GPIO features you’d expect of a Raspberry Pi-alike, is worth the cash, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to find out. If you do, you’ll also find four pages of the finest news I could cull from the worlds of open software, open hardware, open governance and more – along with the usual monthly event calendar.

You can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 145 at your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 134

Custom PC Issue 134In this month’s Hobby Tech column I spend a fair amount of my time looking at the excellent Gamebuino, an Arduino-compatible hand-held games console I had the pleasure of backing on Indiegogo. As well as an interview with its creator, Aurélien Rodot, there’s a tutorial on building a cut-down variant on a breadboard, alongside a pair of reviews covering the Banana Pi and HummingBoard i2eX.

First, the reviews. I’ve had a prototype HummingBoard and a retail-model Banana Pi for a while, but have held off on giving either a proper review – although Issue 131 did include a preview of both. In the case of the HummingBoard, I needed to wait for final-release hardware; the Banana Pi, meanwhile, suffered from low-quality early-release software. Thankfully, both issues have now been addressed – the former thanks to the ever-lovely New IT, the latter due to the diligent work of the software developers working on the Banana Pi project – and I’ve been able to dedicate two pages this issue to a full head-to-head review of both devices.

My interview with Rodot comes off the back of his hugely successful Indiegogo campaign to build an Arduinio-compatible hand-held games console. Ending more than a thousand per cent above his original goal, the project caught the public’s attention in a major way – and with one of the finished products in my hand, it’s easy to see why. Although its 32KB of program storage, 2KB of RAM and tiny Nokia LCD are minimalist, the device is easily accessible for those wanting to learn game programming and can even act as an I²C controller thanks to two broken-out buses on the top-side.

Sadly, there’s no way to get your hands on a Gamebuino post-Indiegogo until Rodot launches his web store – planned for October, he tells me – so to tide readers over this month’s column includes a two-page tutorial on building your own. Although significantly cut down compared to the real thing – there’s no light sensor, speaker, battery, or micro-SD card reader – it’s a quick and easy project that allows users to start playing with the Gamebuino ecosystem ahead of the device’s general availability.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.