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 214

Custom PC Issue 214My Hobby Tech feature for Custom PC takes a look at two compact but very different pieces of keyring-compatible open-source hardware, the Solo V2 security key and the FunKey S, and also a colouring book. No, really, a colouring book: the Retro Computer Colouring Book.

The Solo V2 is, as the name suggests, a second-generation follow-up to the original Solo. The core of the project hasn’t changed: it’s an open-source project which aims to create a FIDO/FIDO2-compatible security dongle. Like its proprietary equivalents, the Solo V2 includes both USB and NFC communication capabilities, supports standard protocols, and even has a tamper-proof design with the bulk of the circuit held on a module encased in transparent resin.

Where the Solo V2 splits from its competition is in the firmware. Written in Rust, the biggest change from the original variant, the firmware is entirely open – allowing anyone to not only inspect the code for any reason, from finding security vulnerabilities to ensuring there are no deliberate back doors, but to modify the code in order to add new features.

The FunKey S is, like the Solo V2, designed to hang on your keyring. It’s not a security dongle, though: it’s an entirely functional self-contained games console, running a customised Linux distribution packed with emulators for everything from the Nintendo Game Boy to the Sony PlayStation. Designed to mimic, roughly, the look of the Game Boy Advance SP, the folding console is ridiculously compact – and absolutely everything, from the circuit design to the plastic case, is open source.

Finally, Retro Computer Colouring Book from Quick Web Books sounds like a joke, and it at least partially is: as the bumph on the back of the book makes clear, vintage computers from the 1970s and 1980s were primarily beige or black – and one of the machines included, the Sinclair ZX80, was the same white as the underlying paper. A joke, then, but one which is also usable: machines are represented with custom-drawn line art, and it’s entirely serviceable as a colouring book – and there’s nothing to stop you reimagining machines like the Altair 8800 in a hot pink or lurid purple.

Custom PC Issue 214 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery on the official website, or as a free PDF download without DRM restrictions.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 1

HackSpace Issue 1I’m proud as punch to announce the launch issue of HackSpace Magazine, from the creators of The MagPi Magazine, a Creative Commons-licensed monthly publication aimed firmly at the hobbyist, tinkerer, maker, and crafter community – and you’ll find a four-page head-to-head of education-centric games consoles within.

Designed to sit alongside The MagPi, which focuses on the Raspberry Pi community, HackSpace’s remit is considerably broader: you’ll find everything from features on rival single-board computers through to non-electronic projects – including, in the launch issue, tips on smoking your own bacon and building a three-foot siege weapon from wood.

My contribution to today’s launch issue is a ground-up revisit to four handheld games consoles aimed at those looking to write their own games: the Gamebuino, MAKERbuino, Creoqode 2048, and Arduboy. I’ve written about these four devices in the past for a more general audience, but for HackSpace I was free to really dive into what makes them special – and, of course, include all the latest updates and features since the last time they were reviewed.

As with The MagPi, each HackSpace Magazine issue is available on the day of release for free download under the permissive Creative Commons licence. If you’d like to read the launch copy for yourself you can simply download a PDF from the official website, while print copies are available for purchase online and from all good magazine outlets.


Custom PC, Issue 125

Custom PC Issue 125In this most recent issue of my eponymous column, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, I take an all-too-rare field trip to my local Hackspace, investigate a “sold as seen” Famiclone, and review the Dangerous Prototypes ATX Breakout Board.

First, the review. Kindly provided by the lovely people at Phentopix, the ATX Breakout Board was designed by Dangerous Prototypes to address the biggest issue surrounding bench power supplies in the hobbyist market: they’re all either crap, or frustratingly expensive. By tapping into a standard ATX PSU – the exact same type you’d fine inside any desktop computer from the last decade and more – the kit provides a range of voltages at a surprisingly capable amperage, and all for a fraction of the cost of a true bench power supply.

Each major rail of the PSU – 3.3V, 5V, 12V and a handy -12V for audio components – is broken out to screw terminal banana sockets, to which the user can connect bare wires or their own test leads. For those lucky enough to have a working ATX PSU from the 90s, there’s also a -5V connection – but, sadly, this rail was removed in most modern units. That said, it’s still a wide range of voltages, and the board includes over-current protection, a dedicated power switch and even room for a bundled resistive load to be soldered on for the rare PSUs that won’t start unloaded.

I have to admit, when the board arrived – complete with very attractive transparent housing designed by Phenoptix and cut on the in-house laser – I wasn’t sure it would be up to the job. It’s small, it’s simple, and it’s cheap – but it has also all-but replaced my real bench-top PSU for everything that doesn’t need precise current control or strange voltage steps.

Next, the Good Boy. A ‘Famiclone’ – the colloquial name given to unauthorised replicas of Nintendo’s Family Computer, or Famicom – purchased from eBay for a few quid ‘untested,’ I wasn’t expecting much and boy did I get it. The Good Boy proved a perfect example of why it’s important to do a physical check before powering up second-hand machines of unknown provenance: someone somewhere had given it far more power than it could handle, and several components had quite literally exploded. For now, it’s on the to-do pile awaiting replacement parts.

Finally, my visit to Leeds Hackspace. A community-led club for programmers, hackers, gamers, electronics enthusiasts, engineers, makers, and the plain curious, Leeds Hackspace is one of a growing number – known in the US as Hackerspaces – around the world. Every Tuesday, the club runs an open evening where non members are welcome to attend, use the equipment, chat and receive help – as do most other Hackspaces.

If you’re hacker-minded, going to a Hackspace is like being let loose in a sweet shop: there are oscilloscopes, laser cutters, 3D printers, drill presses, and a variety of other pieces of equipment most of us don’t have room for in our houses or wallets; there are projects on display like converted arcade machines, automated Nerf turrets, kids’ toys, railway station display boards, and Bitcoin mining rigs; and there are the people.

It’s the people, in fact, that really make a Hackspace. Welcoming and inclusive, the guys and gals at Leeds Hackspace are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met and always willing to show off their latest projects or give a newbie a hand. It’s convinced me, in fact, that in the new year I should really investigate a paid-for membership – even if it is annoyingly far away, there being no Hackspace yet founded in Bradford.

All this, plus the usual snippets of news from the world of the maker, can be found in Custom PC Issue 125 at your local newsagent, supermarket, delivered by subscription or digitally via Zinio and similar services. Oh, and if you’re quick you’ll be able to use the team’s annual Mince Pie Megatest to make your Christmas dinner go off with a sweet treat.