I’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 that 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.
This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine features a review of a rather special device, Bunnie Huang’s Novena, on top of my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the open source world.
When noted hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang announced that he was to create an open-hardware and open-software laptop, driven by the increasingly closed nature of off-the-shelf alternatives, I was immediately interested. Sadly, when the Novena project’s crowd-funding campaign went live, the pricing – entirely justified by the small production run planned – meant I couldn’t justify a purchase. Thankfully, I have numerous friends in the open hardware community who could – and one, Aaron Nielsen of local Arduino specialist oomlout, was kind enough to lend me his once it had arrived.
The unit I reviewed was the desktop Novena variant, which lacks the battery and charging hardware of the laptop model. Otherwise, it’s the same: an ARM-based open hardware computer in a smart aluminium chassis, designed to be as hackable as possible. It’s also the only system I’ve ever reviewed that came with a selection of tools and a tube of thread-locking compound – required to assemble the device, which arrives in pieces. Even the screen, a Full HD LCD panel, is separate upon delivery – and the assembly instructions include stern warnings on exactly where not to hold it if you want a working Novena at the end of the process.
The Novena certainly isn’t for everyone. Its performance is good for an ARM-based system, but orders of magnitude slower than an x86 machine for computationally-intensive tasks. To concentrate on performance is missing the point, though: the Novena is billed as the hacker’s playground, with everything from the board design and firmware to the microcontroller that drives the optional battery charger available for a sufficiently knowledgeable user to investigate and modify. Add to that a grid-based hardware prototyping area and clever add-ons, including a software defined radio module based on the Myriad-RF 1 from client Lime Microsystems, and you’ve got a seriously tempting device.
The full review, plus my regular news spread, can be read now by visiting your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or by staying where you are and picking up a digital copy via Zinio or similar service.
Continuing my regular column, the five-page Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, I spent this month’s page allowance on a look at the Arachnid Labs Tsunami, the Banana Pro, and analysed the legal battle underway between two companies claiming to be Arduino.
To begin, the Tsunami. I first looked at this interesting Arduino-compatible open-hardware device for another client, oomlout, publishing a hands-on preview of the device in early April. Created by Nick Johnson and crowd-funded via Kickstarter, the Tsunami is an interesting beast: while it shows itself to the Arduino IDE as an Arduino Leonardo compatible, the Tsunami is designed exclusively for signal generation and analysis work.
Priced at a fraction of the cost of a commercial signal analyser, the Tsunami is surprisingly capable. While code samples were limited at the time of writing, I was able to generate sine waves based on input from the serial console and even complex waveforms based on the Kansas City standard – the standard required to communicate with eight-bit microcomputers via their tape inputs. Nick’s own demonstrations include using the input and output simultaneously to graph the frequency response of audio equipment.
While the Tsunami is only available as a pre-order at present, the Banana Pro is readily available from your favourite Chinese wholesalers. Based on Lemaker’s Banana Pi but with a different manufacturing partner, the device offers a number of upgrades while still boasting compatibility with the Raspberry Pi from which it takes its inspiration. While the presence of a 40-pin GPIO header and integrated Wi-Fi is good news, the use of a dual-core processor when the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B offers a quad-core at roughly the same price is an undeniable disappointment – but you’ll need to read the review to make your mind up as to whether it’s worth the sacrifice.
My final two pages are spent looking at the current spat between Arduino LLC and Arduino Srl., the latter being the company founded under a different name to manufacture boards under licence from the former. With a new owner and a confusing new name, Arduino Srl. has earned the ire of many in the Arduino community – especially as it has begun releasing boards of its own which are direct clones of the Arduino LLC designs. The full story, naturally, is more complex, and I do the best I can to present both sides in the limited word-count available.
All this, plus the usual collection of things that are written by people that aren’t me – including the return of Richard Swinburn’s Our Man in Taiwan column, long absent from the magazine – can be yours for a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.
The 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.
In my Hobby Tech column for Custom PC this month I explain how to convert a cheap floppy drive emulator for use with an Amiga, review the eight-core CubieBoard 4, and get an object lesson in the difference between professionally- and self-published books.
First, the tutorial. I’m indebted to my friend Harry ‘Hakk’ Morris for bringing my attention to a project by Hervé Messinger to create a user-friendly alternative to floppy disks for any Amiga system. Using the cheap – typically sub-£20 – Gotek Floppy Drive Emulator as its base, Hervé’s replacement firmware converts it for use with the Amiga’s esoteric disk format. Coupled with a user-friendly menu-based boot system, a Gotek running Hervé’s Cortex firmware can load up to 999 disk images from any USB storage device on a real-world Amiga.
With Amiga floppy drives becoming increasingly unreliable as time goes on, and replacements hard to come by, the project is a great way to breathe new life into an otherwise deceased system. Better still, it offers an extremely low-cost storage expansion for early Amigas like the Amiga 500 and 500-Plus, both of which lack the IDE port of the Amiga 600 and 1200. I’d thoroughly recommend the project to anyone with an Amiga, although be warned that internal fitting can require modification to the plastic shell of the system – an ethical dilemma for the conservationist in me, which I neatly bypassed by buying replacement plastics from an orphaned system.
I’d been looking forward to getting my hands on the CubieBoard 4 from the moment Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT told me it was on the way. I’ve reviewed CubieTech’s products before, but the CubieBoard 4 is something special. Its design is centred around an AllWinner A80 ARM-based processor, which packs four high-performance and four low-power cores on a system-on-chip (SoC) designed according to ARM’s big.LITTLE paradigm. In short: it’s an absolute beast.
While most big.LITTLE architectures switch between the low-power and high-performance cores automatically, exposing only four cores to the host operating system at any one time, the CubieBoard 4 works a little differently: all eight cores are exposed to the host operating system, allowing eight simultaneous threads to be run at any one time. Doing so, however, exposes a slight flaw in the design: serious thermal constraints, with the processor downclocking to protect itself as the heat rose.
My test scenario – running the BOINC distributed computing client at 100 per cent load continuously – is perhaps a little unfair, however. Under more real-world scenarios, the CubieBoard 4 will run its processor at full speed – and it’s worth mentioning that the board was rock-solid stable even after several days of continuous load across all eight cores. While the software is, as is typical for CubieTech, a little rough around the edges, it’s a fun board to have played with.
Finally, the book. I had originally planned to review the Arduino Project Handbook, a crowd-funded full-colour guide for newcomers to the popular open-source microcontroller platform. Author Mark Geddes was kind enough to send a copy across, but there was a problem: struck by inconsistencies in coding style, I did some digging and found that the entire contents of the book was plagiarised from other sources – ranging from websites to books published by some big-name authors.
I had a long discussion with Mark about the problem, in which he admitted to taking the projects – including directly cut-and-pasted source code – from a variety of sources but claimed that the fact he had built and photographed them himself meant he had done no wrong. I attempted to explain the vagaries of international copyright law and the trouble he could find himself in for publishing the book as it was, and eventually he agreed.
So, in place of the planned review, a page on the risks of self-publishing. The book as it was provided to me would never have reached shelves if it had gone through a traditional publisher, whose legal departments are very switched-on about this sort of thing – and I say that with confidence as a traditionally-published author. By taking on all the tasks associated with publishing himself, however, Mark has opened himself up for considerable legal trouble – and I can only hope that listened to my concluding advice to remove the book from sale and only re-publish when all plagiarised content is removed.
All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, can be yours in Custom PC Issue 138, either from your local newsagent or digitally through Zinio and similar services.
Since writing the CubieBoard 4 review, which was based on the v1.1 hardware revision, CubieTech has modified the board and released v1.2. New IT has kindly sent out an updated model, and there are numerous changes for the better: the Wi-Fi antenna no longer pushes up against a case bolt, the glue-on heatsink has been swapped out for a push-pin version with a tube of thermal interface material (TIM) and an air-gap between the fins and the top of the case, and the case itself has been revised to accommodate the push-pins. The GPIO header also now comes with a pin mapping table silk-screened directly onto the PCB for quick reference.
This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes my review of a device I’ve been wanting to play with ever since I first interviewed its creator, Andreas Olofsson: the Adapteva Parallella.
I was introduced to the Parallella project way back in November 2012, when I interviewed Olofsson ahead of the launch of a Kickstarter campaign to create a low-cost development board for his company’s many-core tile-based Epiphany chip architecture. The promise: a single-board computer boasting a dual-core ARM processor, user-accessible field-programmable gate array (FPGA) and a 16- or 64-core Epiphany co-processor for the bargain-basement sum of $99. The Kickstarter campaign ended its run successfully, and the boards were produced – but there was a long delay between the Kickstarter production run and general availability, and a further delay before the boards became available in the UK.
Thanks to RS Components’ UK arm, availability is a solved issue. While the price of the boards might have increased – the attention-grabbing $99 price having proved unsustainable – the specifications remains the same, with 16-core Epiphany-III boards available now and 64-core Epiphany-IV boards just around the corner. For the Linux user, the magazine’s target audience, they’re tempting indeed: low-power enough to run on battery, a Parallella has the grunt to handle even complex tasks like machine vision but lacks readily-available software written for the Epiphany architecture. With partial OpenCL compatibility, it’s relatively straightforward to get parallelisable code running on the co-processor – and while optimisation is a harder task, the board is nevertheless tempting for anyone familiar with OpenCL and other multi-threading interfaces.
As to whether the Parallella is worth the asking price, you’ll have to buy the magazine to find out – and if you do, you’ll also be treated to my usual four pages of news from the world of open source, open hardware, open governance and open-anything-else-that-catches-my-eye.
Linux User & Developer Issue 147 is available at all god newsagents and most bad ones, supermarkets, or electronically via Zinio and similar services now. As always, the content in this issue will be republished in a French translation as Inside Linux in the coming months.
This 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.