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 uploadĀ 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.

The MagPi, Issue 42

The MagPi Issue 42This month’s instalment of The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, includes a short project I created upon request from editor Russell Barnes: soldering a reset switch to a Raspberry Pi Zero.

While part of a feature on projects specifically for the Zero, the reset switch mod is actually applicable to any modern Raspberry Pi. It makes use of the RUN header, which when shorted out causes the processor on the Pi to act as though the power has been briefly cut. The result: an instant hard reboot, even if you’ve found a way to crash the system hard. The header also doubles as a remote power switch: if the Pi is powered off but plugged into a live power supply, shorting the RUN header will begin the boot process.

Attaching a switch to the reset header is as simple as soldering two pins, but the audience of the magazine spans the gamut from absolute beginner to highly-qualified engineer. As a result, a very specific angle was chosen for the tutorial: introducing someone to the art of soldering, using the simple two-pin reset switch as a less daunting entry point than the significantly larger GPIO header soldering project found back in Issue 40.

As always, the tutorial includes plenty of photography taken in my home studio. For much of the work I do, I’ve found my Nikon 40mm macro lens to be indispensable; the only time it typically leaves my camera is if I’m doing portraiture or low-light photography (in which case it’s replaced by an f1.8 50mm prime lens) or if I need wide-angle or telephoto shots (15-35mm and 70-300mm lenses respectively) during event coverage.

The tutorial, plus various exciting Pi-related things written by people other than myself, can be found gracing the shelves of supermarkets and newsagents throughout the country, or can be downloaded free of charge from the official website under a Creative Commons licence.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects BookI’ve been writing for The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, since its major relaunch under the editorial leadership of Russell Barnes. That’s long enough to have built up a reasonable amount of content – and it’s that content you’ll find the The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, published today under a Creative Commons licence.

Inside the 200 page book, which is available in print and as a DRM-free PDF download, you’ll find several pieces of my work. The first is entitled ‘Crowdfundings Greatest Hits,” an eight-page investigation of some of the biggest Pi-related crowd-funded projects around – and some of its biggest failures, too. This was a great piece to work on, involving plenty of research and interviews, and was the first to break the news thatĀ Azorean was relying on additional external investment to fulfil rewards in its Ziphius campaign – rewards which have still not been fulfilled, more than a year after its original launch date.

You’ll also find reprints of several of my reviews: there’s the Pimoroni Display-o-Tron 3000 add-on, the Weaved IoT remote access system, the 4Tronix Agobo low-cost robot chassis, Velleman’s 3D Printing Pen, and the excellent Swanky Paint from local coding outfit WetGenes. Naturally, each is accompanied by photography which is also published under a Creative Commons licence – and is, as always, available for reuse from my Flickr page.

This marks the first book to which I have contributed which is published under a Creative Commons licence, but it certainly won’t be the last. Allowing for free non-commercial reuse and encouraging sharing and copying, it’s an approach at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to that taken by most publishers – and one of which I heartily approve.

You can download The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book for free from the official website, while print copies are available from the swag store or the usual high-street outlets.

The MagPi, Issue 37

The MagPi Issue 37In this month’s MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, you’ll find the first in a series of more generally maker-themed reviews. This time around it’s a look at the Kitronik Electro Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Pack, kindly supplied by CPC.

For me, this review was a chance to try my hand at wearable electronics, a branch of the maker movement I had previously ignored. While there’s a lot to be said for more complex projects, such as the growing number of hobbyist-friendly PCB manufacturing houses who can produce flexible boards in small quantities, there’s nothing quite as accessible as conductive thread. Coupled with specially-designed components, or through-hole parts quickly modified for mounting onto fabric, it allows the maker to easily build simple wearable circuits at a very low cost and with no complex or expensive tools.

The Kitronik bundle, sold under the company’s Electro Fashion brand, is a cheap and fairly solid starter kit with one curious omission: there’s no needle. Having stolen one from the household sewing tin, I was able to get started with a simple project: fitting a small LED to the fingertip of an old glove. Sadly, that’s about as complex a project as you’re likely to achieve with the kit: unsurprisingly, given its low price, there’s nothing like a microcontroller among its components. Aside from a button and a couple of switches, the smartest any of the parts get are a set of through-hole LEDs with built-in flasher circuits.

That’s not to put the kit down, though. For a taster of what’s possible with conductive thread, it’s near-unbeatable for the price – and for more complex projects Kitronik’s Electro Fashion range has plenty of compatible components and accessories.

You can pick up a print copy of The MagPi Issue 37 now at WH Smiths, or – as always – download a digital version, licensed under Creative Commons, from the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 33

The MagPi Issue 33This month’s The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, includes two of my reviews: the GrovePi+ Starter Kit and the PiBorg UltraBorg.

The GrovePi+ Starter Kit was kindly provided by the US-based Dexter Industries, which developed the bundle with Chinese electronics experts Seeed Studios. As the name suggests, the GrovePi+ is a Raspberry Pi add-on designed to introduce compatibility with Seeed’s Grove platform of add-on modules. The main part of the system is an add-on board – not a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT)-standard board, but a ‘dumb’ piggyback board – which adds the quick-connect headers required for Grove compatibility.

Installation is easy – a script is provided by Dexter – and the bundle includes a number of Grove modules for experimentation, from LEDs and a rotary angle sensorĀ to an ultrasonic distance sensor and a liquid-crystal display with RGB backlight. Naturally, any other Grove-compatible modules can be added if you need to expand from the stock bundle.

Where the GrovePi+ is a kit aimed at beginners who have no real project in mind, the UltraBorg is very specific in its target market: people looking to build robots. Supplied by UK-based PiBorg, the UltraBorg is an IĀ²C device which offers high-precision 16-bit control of servos or stepper motors, alongside four interfaces for HC-SR04 ultrasonic distance sensors – the same popular sensor type found in the GrovePi+ kit.

For a basic robot project, the UltraBorg can be connected to a Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or any other device which speaks IĀ²C; for more complex projects UltraBorgs can be daisy-chained for a near-unlimited number of inputs and outputs, although I was sadly unable to test this particular function during my review.

If you’re wondering what my opinions were on both these add-ons, you can download The MagPi Issue 33 for free from the The MagPi: Issue 33.

The MagPi, Issue 32

The MagPi Issue 32The MagPi magazine, created by the Raspberry Pi community, has undergone a major relaunch. Now an official product of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it enjoys a significantly larger budget under the leadership of editor Russell Barnes – with whom I have previously worked on Linux User & Developer – and the result is impressive: both quantity and quality of content has improved, but is still licensed under Creative Commons for free download and non-commercial reuse. When Russell asked me if I wanted to be involved with the relaunch, I naturally agreed and the cover story of this issue is the result.

Russell wanted a feature which highlighted the Raspberry Pi-related crowd-funding campaigns of the past and present, showing the community what they had achieved as a group. After some brainstorming, we decided on a mixed feature format which would combine coverage of the most fiscally successful crowd-funding campaigns, interview extracts with their creators, as well as advice from those who have been there and done that on how others can achieve similar success for their own crowd-funding campaigns.

Naturally, there had to be some balance to the piece, and that took the form of a section detailing a high-profile failure. I was able to talk to the company behind Ziphius – an aquatic drone powered by the Raspberry Pi, long overdue and with backers clamouring for refunds – and find out the problems it had encountered, including the exclusive admission of financial problems it had been withholding from its backers.

While the cover story is the largest of my contributions this month, I have also penned two reviews for this latest issue: a review of the Displayotron-3000 add-on board from Sheffield-based Pimoroni, and the Weaved port-forwarding software designed to make it easier to build internet-accessible services on a Raspberry Pi located behind a locked-down router or firewall.

If you’re interested and would like to read any of the above, you can download the entire magazine as a DRM-free PDF from the official website.