Custom PC, Issue 196

Custom PC Issue 196My Hobby Tech column this month opens with a look at a surprisingly swish programming environment for the Nintendo Switch, of all things, walks through the creation of a power-saving networked display using the Pimoroni Inky wHAT and a Raspberry Pi, and looks at a book which purports to chart the history of Apple Macintosh gaming.

First, the programming environment. Fuze4 Nintendo Switch, available now on the Nintendo eShop, builds on the Fuze BASIC programming language originally developed for the Raspberry Pi and reviewed – alongside its BBC Micro-inspired housings – in Issue 124 and Issue 136. This time around, though, the language is considerably less BASIC and more like a hybrid between BASIC, Python, and a bit of C thrown in for good measure. It’s also less focused on things like sensor reading and GPIO control – for obvious reason – and instead designed specifically for a single task: making games.

There are aspects that need polish – in particular the sharing of created projects, which at present can only be done via Nintendo’s clunky friends-list system – but overall Fuze4 Nintendo Switch is impressive. You’ll want a keyboard, but once you get started it’s easy to build some impressive projects – one demo supplied with the game showcases a fluid 3D engine with dynamic lighting, created in a remarkably short number of lines.

The Inky wHAT project, meanwhile, was largely a means of documenting something I created for my own use: an electrophoretic display that would display the output of the schedule printer I detailed in Issue 183 without needing to print on physical paper. There’s a twist, too: after finding that the only box-frame available that would fit the project depth-wise was too large, I created a mock-up of an Amiga Workbench desktop to frame the smaller Inky wHAT display – and the effect is surprisingly convincing.

Finally, Richard Moss’ The Secret History of Mac Gaming was a pleasure to read, though a few aspects of Apple’s history are presented from the eyes of a fanboy rather than a historian. Switching between recollection, research, interview content, and contributed material, the book does a great job of documenting the largely-forgotten history of gaming on Apple Macs – though it could have benefited from another editing and layout pass, in particular to avoid the recurring issue where screenshots either appear out-of-order or without any reference in the text.

As always, the latest Custom PC Magazine is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets, or can be ordered for worldwide delivery from Raspberry Pi Press.

Custom PC, Issue 195

Custom PC Issue 195This month’s Hobby Tech column opens on an interview with Ryan Brown on the impressive Quarter Arcades miniature fully-licensed reproduction arcade cabinets, moves on to a review of the RISC-V-based Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT for the Raspberry Pi, and closes with a look at Pimoroni’s clever Inky wHAT electrophoretic display.

First, the interview. Answering the important question first, Brown admitted that “the pun certainly helps” when it came to deciding to what scale the Quarter Arcades cabinets should be produced: each carefully-designed reproduction, modelled on real period-appropriate cabinets, is built to a quarter scale both as a means of having it sit nicely on a desk and of providing a name which echoes the most commonly-required coin of US arcade cabinets.

While the Quarter Arcade range is currently limited to licensed properties including Pac-Man and Galaga, Brown has indicated there’s potential there to expand: “Starting with the most beloved classics really helps us open doors to other, more niche arcade games, and even potentially games that never reached the arcade.”

The Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT, by contrast, was an undeniable disappointment. Based on the Kendryte K210 system-on-chip, which uses the RISC-V instruction set architecture and includes a co-processor designed to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads, the AI HAT can be used as a stand-alone development board or attached on top of a Raspberry Pi – but in the latter mode is almost entirely divorced from the Pi itself, to the point where it’s not even possible to program the AI HAT without detaching it again and connecting it to a more traditional PC.

Finally, the Inky wHAT. Another Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) board, the Inky wHAT offers a 4.2″ electrophoretic display in three colours: red, black, and white in the model reviewed, with a yellow variant available alongside a slightly cheaper black-and-white two-colour version. Forming the heart of a project which will appear in next month’s magazine, the Inky wHAT impressed – though it would be nice to see the price drop a little, given how cheap full-colour though considerably more power-hungry LCD panels are these days.

Custom PC Issue 195 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally through the usual outlets.

Custom PC, Issue 194

Custom PC Issue 194My regular Hobby Tech feature provided two opportunities to break out the thermal camera, thanks to a detailed analysis of a range of cooling products for the Raspberry Pi 4 and a review of the Libre Computer Project’s La Frite single-board computer – and there was even time to take a look at Brian Dear’s exhaustive title The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture.

First, La Frite. Funded, as with all Libre Computer Project boards, via crowdfunding, the compact single-board computer is designed to compete with the like of the Raspberry Pi. It certainly has its selling points: there’s a mounting point on the underside for an eMMC storage module, though it uses proprietary mounting holes; there’s a clever midship-mounted Ethernet port to reduce the overall height; and it even comes with the option of a clever two-piece aluminium case that doubles as a heatsink. Sadly, the board’s performance isn’t there, its software support struggles, and despite the name of the organisation its openness is limited to targeting mainstream Linux kernels; the board itself is a proprietary design.

Moving on to the topic of the Raspberry Pi 4, there’s no secret now that the new high-performance processor at its heart runs a little warm. For my analysis of the issue and a look at some potential solutions, a benchmarking workload was executed while temperature and clockspeed were measured and charted – demonstrating handily the loss of performance you get when the system-on-chip begins to heat up.

These data are joined by the same workload while the Raspberry Pi 4 is enjoying the benefits of a range of third-party cooling products: the Pimoroni Heatsink and Fan Shim options, the former running in passive-only and fan-assisted modes and the latter in always-on and software-controlled modes, along with the 52Pi Ice Tower heatsink and fan assembly as supplied by Seeed Studio and running in 5V, 3V3, and wholly passive modes. The temperatures across the run are then charted, while thermal imagery provides a visual insight into how the whole board heats under passive and active cooling.

Finally, The Friendly Orange Glow is a book I’d heartily recommend to anyone interested in the history of a surprising range of modern technologies – from flat-panel plasma displays and multiplayer gaming to Microsoft’s FreeCell. Charting the rise and fall of PLATO, a computer-assisted learning platform now largely forgotten by history, the book is about more than just technology: as its subtitle, The Untold History of the Rise of Cyberculture, suggests, PLATO and those who built and used it were responsible for cultural movements that wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere in the world for decades.

You can pick up the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or online at the Raspberry Pi Press Store, or grab it in digital form via the usual distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 193

Custom PC Issue 193My Hobby Tech column focuses this month on the Raspberry Pi 4, the amazingly inexpensive M5Stick-C microcontroller platform, and Zach Barth’s game design retrospective Zach-Like.

The column opens with the Raspberry Pi 4 review, a two-page look at the layout, features, functionality, and performance of the latest single-board computer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. As always, there’s plenty of photography – including thermal imagery, using an in-house process I developed to get the most detail possible by combining visible light and infrared photography into a single print-resolution image.

My look at the M5Stick-C, part of the M5Stack family of products, needs no such clever photography – though there is a shot of the device on my wrist, thanks to a bundled watch strap mount. Designed around the low-cost ESP32 microcontroller the M5Stick-C includes buttons, a full-colour screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, LEDs, a range of sensors, a built-in battery chargeable over USB Type-C, and the aforementioned watch strap plus a wall-mount bracket, LEGO-compatible mounting bracket, and even a built-in magnet – and all for under £10 excluding VAT. It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly cheap enough.

Cheaper, though, is Zach-Like, a collection of game design documents charting the early days of Zach Barth and his company Zachtronics. Initially available as a limited-run print edition on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, Zach-Like is now available as a free electronic download on Steam in PDF format – and comes with a huge selection of bonus content, including playable versions of several unreleased games and prototypes. At £10, Zach-Like would be a bargain; for free, it’s astonishing.

You’ll find the full column, and a lot more, in Custom PC Issue 193 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or on any one of a selection of digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 192

Custom PC Issue 192This month’s Hobby Tech kicks off with a look at the Zepsch PocketStar – by far the smallest Arduino-compatible games console I’ve seen – and the Pimoroni Keybow, before reviewing Felipe Pepe’s The CRPG Book in digital form.

The pages of my Hobby Tech column are no stranger to Arduino-compatible handheld consoles: over the years I’ve reviewed the Gamebuino and its MAKERbuino spin-off, the Creoqode 2048, the Arduboy – then all four at once in a head-to-head group test – and most recently the Gamebuino Meta. Of these, the Arduboy was the smallest with a footprint matching a credit card and a thickness of around three cards stacked.

The PocketStar, a crowdfunded creation from Zepsch, has it beaten. Although thicker than the Arduboy, the Game Boy-inspired design has a tiny 50x30mm footprint, despite packing a colour screen and haptic feedback motor. What it doesn’t include, sadly, is a speaker – though it was originally planned, and the mounting point is still present – but it at least includes the ability to switch between games on the fly, something the Arduboy sadly lacks.

The Pimoroni Keybow, by contrast, is a very different beast. A no-solder DIY kit, the Keybow is a nine-button programmable keypad with a difference: rather than using a Teensy, Arduino, or other microcontroller, it uses a Raspberry Pi Zero WH. The reason why isn’t really adequately explained in the product briefing: it connects to the host machine via USB rather than Bluetooth, and makes no use of the Zero WH’s Wi-Fi connectivity either – though third-party firmware is available to vastly expand its functionality. Despite some bugs in the official firmware and the aforementioned surprising lack of wireless connectivity – switching to the Zero H, which does not include a radio, would shave a fiver off the retail price – it’s certainly an interesting desk accessory with plenty of flexibility.

The CRPG Book, published by Bitmap Books, doesn’t have author Felipe Pepe’s name on the cover. There’s a reason for that: it’s a collaborative effort, the physical incarnation of a four-year effort from 119 authors to document the computer role-playing game genre in as much detail as possible – going all the way back to the PLATO system and its infamous ‘friendly orange glow.’ The result is an exhaustive tome, brought to life with full-colour printing between its hardback covers – though the review is based on a digital copy, the physical version having been rejected by Bitmap Books’ quality control post-printing and sent back to the factory for a re-do with the first of the reprints due to land towards the end of the month.

While The CRPG Book is far from perfect – there are a few issues with typography and grammar, increasing in frequency as you work your way towards the back of the book – it’s pretty close to it, and made even more pleasing by the fact that the £29.99 print edition is joined by a free, Creative Commons-licensed download available from the official website. Sales of the print edition, meanwhile, have raised £12,475 in author royalties for Felipe Pepe – royalties which he has donated in full to Vocação, a not-for-profit Brazilian organisation aimed at getting children and teenagers in poor communities access to quality education.

Custom PC Magazine Issue 192 is available now at all good newsagents, supermarkets, and via the Raspberry Pi Press store. Digital outlets will update later today.

Custom PC, Issue 191

Custom PC Issue 191This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Nvdia’s first-ever entry into the maker market with the Jetson Nano, guides the reader through assisting the Internet Archive with its Sisyphean task, and takes a look at the Xiaomi Wowstick cordless screwdriver.

First, Nvidia’s offering. While the original Jetson TK1 single-board computer was sold through the since-departed high-street electronics outlet Maplin in the UK, its near-£200 price tag meant it wasn’t of much interest to the pocket-money shopper. Its successors in the Jetson family have been successively more expensive, culminating in the £1,199 Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier reviewed last month. The Jetson Nano, by contrast, is just £95 – £101.50 if you include shipping – and is specifically aimed at makers and tinkerers.

The board uses a system-on-module (SOM) on carrier design, dominated by a massive heatsink. Although it’s perfectly possible to view the device as a souped-up and considerably more expensive Raspberry Pi, general-purpose computing isn’t Nvidia’s primary market: instead, it’s aiming to bring a new generation of developers into the CUDA GPU-accelerated computing ecosystem by using the Jetson Nano as a jumping-off point for deep learning and machine intelligence projects, including its own Jetbot autonomous robot platform.

The guide, meanwhile, walks the reader through using almost any PC to assist the Internet Archive with its goal of storing all the world’s information for immediate retrieval. Written as I was firing up a Warrior – the name given by the Archive Team to its distributed data capture systems – to assist with the archiving of the last bits of Google+ before its closure, the step-by-step instructions will let anyone contribute to the not-for-profit effort.

Finally, the Wowstick comes from a company better known in the UK for its cut-price smartphones: Xiaomi. Designed, as with much of the company’s output, to give a premium feel, the USB-rechargeable electric screwdriver is aimed at fine electronics work rather than flat-pack assembly – and does a surprisingly good job of it. Only limited torque for locked-down or larger screws and a terrible case whose tiny magnets are improperly attached let the bundle down.

For the full run-down on all this and more you can pick up Custom PC Issue 191 from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or snag a digital copy from Zinio or similar services. Alternatively, a new subscription offer will get you the next three issues for just £5 – renewing at £25 every six issues if you don’t cancel beforehand.

Custom PC, Issue 190

Custom PC Issue 190My Hobby Tech column this month, wrapped in Custom PC’s newly-redesigned layout, takes a look at a powerful yet low-power machine likely out of the reach of most hobbyists along with the mind-bending 90s web simulator Hypnospace Outlaw and the book Robotics with Raspberry Pi by Matt Timmons-Brown.

First, the headline act: Nvidia’s Jetson AGX Xavier is its flagship entry in the Jetson range of Arm-based embedded computers, which launched with the Jetson TK1 I reviewed way back in Issue 133, and comes with a price tag to match: £1,199, dropping to £819 with educational discount. At that price, it’s a device aimed at professional developers more than hobbyists – but it provides a hint as to what to expect from the far more affordable and hobbyist-focused Jetson Nano, a full review of which will appear in next month’s column.

Hypnospace Outlaw, meanwhile, is Jay Tholen’s attempt at marrying what is effectively a 90s web simulator with a sci-fi plot involving headsets which let you browse while you sleep. Crowdfunded via Kickstarter, the game isn’t quite what was originally promised – but, frankly, that’s no bad thing: what has been delivered is impressively immersive and likely to thrill anyone who was around during the heyday of Geocities and Angelfire.

Finally, Robotics with Raspberry Pi is the first full book from self-styled “Raspberry Pi Guy” Matt Timmons-Brown. Designed with a very friendly hands-on approach in mind, the book walks the reader through the proces sof building a robot with each chapter adding new functionality: line following, Bluetooth remote control, user-addressable LEDs, a speaker, and even machine vision via the Raspberry Pi Camera Module. While a little muddled in places, it’s one of the better tomes on the subject – and one that avoids the usual pitfall of being little more than an elongated instruction manual for a single off-the-shelf robot kit.

Custom PC Issue 190 is available in all good newsagents and supermarkets now, and will shortly land on digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 189

Custom PC Issue 189This month, my regular Hobby Tech column opens with a look at a RISC-V based not-quite-off-the-shelf personal computer build by AB Open, walks readers through building a weather monitor powered by a Raspberry Pi and a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT, and marvels at the excesses of the computer retail scene in the 1970s and 1980s via David Pleasance’s Commodore: The Inside Story.

First, the PC. The majority of PCs on desks around the world today are based on processors which use the x86 architecture or its 64-bit equivalent; a small handful are based on similar Arm chips to the ones you might find in your smartphone; and an even smaller number are powered by things like Zilog Z80s, MOS 6502s, and Motorola 68000s belonging to people who just don’t like to throw away a perfectly good decades-old system. The system built by AB Open recently, though, is different: it’s based on RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture (ISA) for which anyone can – given time, money, and a fair smattering of expertise – build a chip.

“It might be some time before there’s an off-the-shelf chip that can compete with x86 on raw performance and traditional benchmarks,” AB Open’s Andrew Back, who for full disclosure is a client of mine, admits, “but the open nature of the ISA, and the ecosystem developing around it, is driving a renaissance in novel computer architectures.” By way of proof: a fully-functional Linux-based desktop PC, built in a custom-designed laser-cut chassis, created using the SiFive HiFive Unleashed development board and Microsemi expansion board.

From a PC you can browse the web on to one which flashes a few lights: the Raspberry Pi weather monitor is a remix of a project I published in Issue 153, to use a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT LED matrix to graph energy usage in my home. This time, the same hardware is repurposed to show animated weather icons based on data downloaded from OpenWeatherMap – and, despite the low resolution of the LED matrix, it works an absolute treat.

Finally, Commodore: The Inside Story sounds like it should be an exhaustive history of the company behind one of the world’s biggest-selling home computers. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a two-part affair: the first is a series of personally recollections, presented in a very similar fashion to the stories you might hear if you took author David Pleasance to the pub and asked him about his time working in Commodore’s sales and marketing division; the second is a collection of guest chapters, and as fun as it is reading about orgies in Consumer Electronics Show hotels and drink-driving incidents the second half is, for me, the better half.

All this, and a raft more, can be found at your nearest newsagent or supermarket; the electronic version, meanwhile, is enjoying a brief holiday while background administration relating to its recent switch of publishers takes place.

Custom PC, Issue 187

Custom PC Issue 187This month’s Custom PC is a special one, and not because of anything in my column – though I’d like to think my column is always special – but because it’s the first issue to be published under Raspberry Pi Press rather than Dennis Publishing. It’s immediately obvious that a change has happened: putting Issue 187 next to Issue 186 reveals a considerably thicker tome for the same page count, thanks to vastly improved paper quality and a corresponding boost in print quality.

Between the covers, though, it’s pretty much business as usual – but regular readers should watch out for a survey, due to be published in the next issue or two, which will float some ideas for bringing back classic features or adding new content – with editor Ben Hardwidge unwilling to make any dramatic changes until the readership has had its say.

From background publication details to the column at hand: this month’s Hobby Tech includes a detailed review of a desk calculator – no, really – alongside a look at Netflix’s Bandersnatch interactive film and the 8bitkick Centre for Computing History Games Consoles Collectible Cards set.

First, the calculator. Created by Lofree, a Chinese company known for retrofuturistic designs, the Digit’s claim to fame is the use of mechanical keyswitches with a pleasing ‘click’ as they’re depressed. Beyond that, it’s a fairly sedate devices: surprisingly chunk yet light, and with an LCD display that’s difficult to see at the best of times, the Digit feels like a wasted opportunity. If it had launched with a USB port and doubled as a keypad for those using tenkeyless keyboard layouts, things could have been different.

Bandersnatch, meanwhile, was not a disappointment at all. A feature-length episode of speculative fiction series Black Mirror, Netflix’s highest-profile interactive film yet puts the player in at least partial control of a computer programmer working on the titular game – based, incredibly loosely, on the real-world never-released ‘Megagame’ Bandersnatch from Imagine Software. My look at Bandersnatch focuses on its links to real-world computer history and the experience as a game; elsewhere in the same issue you’ll find a lengthy interview with writer and series co-creator Charlie Brooker, to which I contributed some questions.

Finally, the collectible cards from 8bitkick will be familiar to regular readers: back in Issue 154 I reviewed their vintage computing predecessors. This time around, the topic for the Top Trump-style card game is consoles rather than computers – and they’re now an official product of the Centre for Computing History, with all profits going to support its preservation and education works.

Custom PC Issue 187 is available now from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, while the electronically-published version may take a while later to arrive thanks to the change of publisher.

Custom PC, Issue 186

Custom PC Issue 186This month’s Hobby Tech column features an interview with Eric Yockey on his company’s PC Classic microconsole, a review of the it-really-blows IT Dusters CompuCleaner, and of Eric Amos’ coffee-table tome The Game Console.

To start with the interview, Eric surprised the gaming world late last year by announcing what at first glance appears to be a me-too product following in the footsteps of the Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini and Sony PlayStation Classic, not to mention the raft of Atari- and Sega-licensed devices that came before them: the PC Classic, which aims to bring older games back to the living room.

“Our principal engineer saw that people were joking about things like ‘the VCR Classic’ and ‘the PC Classic’ and he pitched it to me because he felt we could actually make a PC Classic, and moreover make it really cool,” Eric told me during our interview. “I discussed the project with a bunch of people from various backgrounds and varying amounts of technical ability, and most people took an immediate liking to it and would say something like ‘oh, yeah, if I could play Jill of the Jungle on my couch, I’d totally buy one!'”

The CompuCleaner, meanwhile, is an attempt on my part to reduce my environmental impact and fatten my wallet: an electric air-blower which aims to replace cans of compressed air for cleaning electronics. Anyone who has an actively-cooled PC will know that the vents and fans need to be kept clear, but the problem only gets worse when you need to take photos of things for a living – and the CompuCleaner, bar a few little niggles, is a fantastic way to do that without running through half a dozen air cans a week.

Finally, Eric Amos’ The Game Console is an impressive book covering many – but far from all – games consoles from the early days of the Atari VCS up to more modern systems. Light on text, the book’s focus is Eric’s high-quality photography – imagery he took, initially, to contribute to Wikipedia in place of the often low-quality photography that adorned classic console pages. While it’s not something you’re likely to sit and read cover-to-cover, it’s not only a pleasing thing to flick through but a great way to support Eric’s work in taking ever more photographs of increasingly-esoteric hardware.

For all these, head to your favourite newsagent, supermarket, or stay where you are and download the digital version via Zinio or similar distribution services.