Custom PC, Issue 169

Custom PC Issue 169My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC features three reviews: the CubieBoard 6 single-board computer, the Digilent OpenScope MZ open-hardware multi-function oscilloscope, and a book detailing the rise and fall of gaming legends the Bitmap Brothers.

The CubieBoard 6, to start, was kindly provided by low-power computing specialist New IT. Despite its high version number, the device felt like a blast from the past as soon as I opened the box: it’s based on almost exactly the same form factor as the original CubieBoard and its successor the CubieBoard 2, after which creator CubieTech moved towards bulkier designs with up-to-eight-core processors. A return to form is no bad thing: CubieTech boasts that the CubieBoard 6 can be used as a drop-in replacement for most CubieBoard 1 and 2 projects.

For the review, I ran the device through the usual raft of benchmarks and gave it a direct comparison to the Raspberry Pi 3 with which it competes. One interesting shift from the norm, though, was in thermal imagery analysis which revealed that the CubieBoard’s SATA-to-USB bridge chip draws considerable power even when no SATA device is connected – something that would have been difficult to ascertain any other way.

The OpenScope MZ, meanwhile, is a very different beast – though, technically speaking, also a single-board computer of sorts. The successor to Digilent’s original OpenScope, the OpenScope MZ is a hobbyist- and education-centric open-hardware dual-channel oscilloscope with additional functionality as a function generator, power supply, and logic analyser. Where it differs from its competition, though, is in the presence of a Wi-Fi chip which allows you to connect to the device remotely – which, coupled with the browser-based software used to drive the thing makes it compatible with everything from Windows desktops to a Raspberry Pi or smartphone running the Linux variant of your choice.

Finally, The Bitmap Brothers Universe is a fantastic coffee table tome charting the history of the titular giants of gaming familiar to any Amiga owner present or former. Written based on painstaking interview work by Duncan Harris and published by Read Only Memories, the bulk of the book is in single-colour print with reproduced concept art and illustrations breaking up the prose; the exception comes in the form of colour plates on glossy black paper, which use a series of neat post-process effects in an attempt to simulate their appearance on an old cathode-ray tube (CRT) display Рthe way they were originally meant to be seen.

All this, and the usual interesting things written by others, can be found on the shelves of your local supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 166

Linux User & Developer Issue 166This month’s Linux User & Developer includes a¬†review of the Cubietruck Plus – also known as the Cubieboard 5 – I previously reviewed in Custom PC Issue 154.

CubieTech’s latest design, the Cubietruck Plus borrows the overall design from its predecessor but swaps out the weedy dual-core Allwinner A20 processor for an altogether beefier H8 octa-core chip. Kindly supplied for review by low-power computing specialist New IT, I was eager to put the board through its paces – especially as previous octa-core single-board computer (SBC) designs have suffered from some reliability issues when fully loaded for extended periods.

Sadly, as with my earlier review, there’s one piece of information which didn’t come to light prior to the deadline: devices, including single-board computers, based on Allwinner chips and using the company’s modified Linux kernel source have been found to suffer from a back-door which allows any process running on the system to silently and immediately gain root-level (superuser) privileges. While it doesn’t allow for remote execution, it can make existing bugs more readily exploitable – and if you’re using the Cubietruck Plus or any other Allwinner-based device, it’s worth checking to see if you’re affected.

This aside, the Cubietruck Plus certainly impressed during both reviews – though if you want to find out if I think it justifies its considerable price premium over the four-core Raspberry Pi 3, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.

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 141

Custom PC Issue 141If you’re a fan of my work, this month’s Custom PC magazine is going to be something of a treat: as well as the usual five-page Hobby Tech column, I’ve penned an eight-page special cover feature on the Raspberry Pi 2 single-board computer.

The special blends nicely into Hobby Tech itself: a two-page review of the Raspberry Pi 2 straddles the two features, leading in to a two-page round-up of the best operating systems available for the Pi – along with a preview of Windows 10, coming to the platform in the summer. Four pages of tutorials then follow: turning the Raspberry Pi 2 into a media streamer, a Windows- and Mac-compatible file server, and getting started with Canonical’s new Snappy Ubuntu Core and its innovative packaging system.

The next page walks the reader through a series of tips-and-tricks to help squeeze the most from the ¬£30 marvel: overclocking the new quad-core Broadcom BCM2836 processor, built specifically for the Raspberry Pi 2 and offering a significant improvement over the single-core original BCM2835; expanding the capabilities of the Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header; setting up a multi-boot platform to try out different operating systems; and updating the firmware and kernel modules to the very latest revisions using rpi-update.

Finally, the feature finishes with a single-page round-up of the best and brightest rivals to the Raspberry Pi’s crown: Lemaker’s Banana Pro, a dual-core Pi-compatible device with impressive operating system options; the SolidRun HummingBoard, a computer-on-module (CoM) design which promises future upgrade potential; the CubieTech Cubieboard 4, which packs an octa-core processor; the low-cost Hardkernel Odroid C1, the only entry in the list I haven’t personally tested; and the Imagination Technology Creator CI20, which bucks the trend by packing a MIPS-architecture processor in place of the more common ARM chips.

The remaining three pages of my regular Hobby Tech column – which celebrates its second birthday with this issue – feature an interview with local game devs Kriss and shi of Wetgenes regarding their clever Deluxe Paint-inspired pixel-art editor Swanky Paint and a review of Intel’s diminutive Atom- and Quark-powered Edison development platform.

All this, plus a smaller-than-usual amount of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours from a newsagent, supermarket, via subscription or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 148

Linux User & Developer Issue 147As well as my usual four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes a two-page review of the CubieBoard 4 single-board computer and a chunk of work I did for the Ultimate Distro & FOSS Guide 2015.

Looking at the guide first, it’s a natural follow-on to the work I’ve done in years past for the magazine. Each year, a multi-page round-up of the ‘best’ Linux distributions is published; this year, deputy editor Gavin Thomas asked for something a little different. The result: a write-up of picks for ‘best’ distribution in a variety of categories, but also covering free and open-source software (FOSS) packages which can be installed in any distribution to extend its capabilities in a given category.

Some of the feature was written in-house by the magazine’s staff writers, but I was given four categories relevant to my expertise: Linux for developers, for enterprises, for security professionals, and for those looking for a distribution with rolling-release development methodology. In each case, a top pick was selected along with three alternatives. Five FOSS packages relating to the category were also highlighted, except in the rolling-release section where instead I highlighted five general-purpose FOSS packages which have received my personal seal of approval.

My review of the CubieBoard 4 from low-power computing specialist New IT takes the perspective of a Linux-confident user, as is usual for the magazine. As a result, some of the software-related disadvantages I highlighted in my review of the same hardware for Custom PC don’t apply – although it’s still fair to say that CubieTech should spend a little more time on polishing the sharp edges of its software releases before it brings out yet another new product.

For those unfamiliar, the big selling point of the CubieBoard 4 is that it packs eight ARM-based processing cores into a low-power fanless design. Using ARM’s big.LITTLE design paradigm, four are high-performance cores while four are low-power cores. Unlike its rivals, however, the CubieBoard 4’s AllWinner A80 chip provides the host OS with access to all eight cores simultaneously – making for a seriously powerful machine for multi-threaded use. While heat builds up quickly if you’re thrashing all eight cores, it’s one of the most powerful SBCs I’ve tested besting even the ¬£199.99 Nvidia Jetson TK1 on CPU-bound multi-threaded tasks.

All this, plus my regular four-page look at upcoming events and everything interesting in the open source, open hardware, open governance and anything-else-open-I-think-of world, is available now at your local newsagent or digitally via Zinio and similar services. As always, my content will be republished translated into French in the coming months as part of Inside Linux Magazine.

UPDATE 20150130:

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. While none of these improvements are dramatic enough to alter the overall score, they’re certainly welcomed.

Custom PC, Issue 138

Custom PC Issue 138In 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 Herv√© 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, Herv√©’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 Herv√©’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.

UPDATE 20150130:

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.