Custom PC, Issue 212

Custom PC Issue 212In my Hobby Tech column for Custom PC this month I take a look at the intriguing and somewhat awkwardly-named BBC Doctor Who HiFive Inventor Coding Kit, the low-cost Raspberry Pi Pico, and a comic billed as “for hackers, by hackers”: Robert Willis’ Initiating Paraneon.

The BBC Doctor Who HiFive Inventor Coding Kit is an interesting mash-up of ideas. From the BBC’s side is the Doctor Who IP, with current Doctor Jodie Whittaker loaning her voice to the step-by-step programming lessons which are unlocked with a single-use code included in the box; SiFive, meanwhile, provides the hardware platform, a hand-shaped microcontroller development board based on its RISC-V microcontroller cores.

It doesn’t stop there, though: the HiFive Inventor was originally launched solo as a device “inspired” by the BBC micro:bit – an inspiration which runs so deeply it’s entirely possible to use BBC micro:bit accessories with the HiFive Inventor’s edge connector. Now, the board is available exclusively as part of the BBC bundle – though apart from a new colour, it’s entirely unchanged in design.

The Raspberry Pi Pico, on the other hand, is a lot simpler to trace: it’s a wholly in-house creation from Raspberry Pi, representing both its first microcontroller board and the first outing for its RP2040 microcontroller chip – the first product of its application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) team. Designed to offer a wealth of functionality, including clever programmable input/output (PIO) state machines, at a very low cost, the Raspberry Pi Pico is proving a device to watch.

Finally, Initiating Paraneon is a short graphic novella designed to act as a precursor to Robert Willis’ upcoming Paraneon comic book series. Billed as being written by hackers for the next generation of hackers, it’s a book that wears its inspiration – from 2000 AD to The Matrix – on its sleeve, but sadly never truly comes out of the shadow of its forebears.

Custom PC Issue 212 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and online via the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 211

Custom PC Issue 211My regular Hobby Tech column this month spans the worlds of network attached storage, input devices, and retro gaming, courtesy of reviews covering the Kobol Helios64 open-spec NAS, the Keybordio Atreus ergonomic keyboard, and Neil Thomas’ Retro Tea Breaks.

The NAS, first, is a device I was excited to put on the test bench. A follow-up to Kobol’s earlier and considerably more Heath Robinson Helios4, the Helios64 is an open-spec network attached storage system built around the Rockchip RK3399 six-core Arm processor – not, sadly, the faster RK3399Pro, following an unplanned downgrade when SARS-CoV-2 hit the supply chain.

The board has five SATA ports, one shared with an on-board M.2 SATA slot for an SSD, a chunky heatsink, and both gigabit and 2.5-gig Ethernet – though the first batch of the devices suffers from an unfortunate design flaw in the latter. Other issues abound in the design of the very smart-looking bundled case and plastic drive sleds, though if Kobol’s promise to address these in future production runs is fulfilled the Helios64 could well take its place at the top of the hobby-friendly NAS league.

The Keyboardio Atreus, meanwhile, is an interesting beast: it’s an ultra-compact ergonomic mechanical keyboard based on switching between multiple layers to make up for the reduced number of physical keys. It’s also not Keyboardio’s own design: the company has made a name for itself in mechanical keyboard circles by adopting open-source keyboard designs, with the full consent of their original creators, and bringing them to the mass market via crowdfunding.

Finally, Retro Tea Breaks is a compact hardback tome which also owes its existence to a crowdfunding campaign, this time courtesy of Neil Thomas’ RMC – formerly Retro Man Cave – YouTube channel. The book gathers together transcripts, lightly edited and in some cases updated, of interviews carried out with some big names from the classic gaming scene – ranging from the Oliver twins to George “The Fat Man” Sanger and, surprisingly, Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem himself.

You can find the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine on all good supermarket shelves, at your local newsagent, or online with global delivery now.

Custom PC, Issue 210

Custom PC Issue 210For Custom PC Magazine, the new year starts with another installation of my Hobby Tech five-page column, this month starting with an in-depth investigation of the Raspberry Pi 400, the RetroFlag NESPi 4 Nintendo-themed case, and Ubuntu 20.10 for the Raspberry Pi.

First, the Raspberry Pi 400. The first device to come from Raspberry Pi with an explicit design focus on producing a consumer device, rather than a bare-bones educational circuit board, the Raspberry Pi 400 packs the core technology from the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B into a keyboard housing to produce an almost-all-in-one PC reminiscent of a classic Atari 400, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, or Commodore VIC-20.

For the Custom PC review, I investigated the device’s internals – a custom-designed single-board computer which is the largest Raspberry Pi ever made, along with the first to include a heatsink in the form of a large slab of metal attached to the system-on-chip – and ran the system through a series of benchmarks to check its performance and thermal characteristics.

Similarly, the RetroFlag NESPi 4 saw a few benchmarks – focusing primarily on whether its small and always-running internal fan could keep a Raspberry Pi 4 cool and how the clever SATA-to-USB adapter, which accepts a 7mm SSD disguised in a plastic housing shaped after a NES cartridge, handled throughput. Sadly, testing also revealed a few issues with the otherwise-clever casing – in particular the fact that the SATA adapter is unusable in the Raspberry Pi’s default USB Attached SCSI (UAS) operation mode and takes a performance penalty if you manually override it.

Finally, Ubuntu 20.10 is the first release of Canonical’s Linux distribution to prove the company’s promise that it will treat the Raspberry Pi family as a first-class citizen going forward. In addition to 32- and 64-bit variants of the Ubuntu Server operating system, available in earlier releases, Ubuntu 20.10 is available in a new Ubuntu Desktop release – which includes a full graphical user interface and a handy range of pre-installed software, along with support for installing more via the apt package manager or Canonical’s Snap Store platform.

Custom PC Issue 210 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, or online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 209

Custom PC Issue 209In this month’s instalment of my regular Hobby Tech feature, I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 family, Nvidia’s lower-cost Jetson Nano 2GB, and Sid Meier’s Sid Meier’s Memoir! – a book with what must be the most well-fitting title in history.

The Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 is, as the name suggests, a successor to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3+ and Compute Module 3 ranges – themselves designed as a follow-up to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, which took the core technology from the Raspberry Pi single-board computer and placed it into a system-on-module (SOM) form factor.

In my two-page review I take the new Compute Module through its paces, take a look at the redesigned and considerably cheaper carrier board, and warn of one major caveat: the redesigned module ditches the SODIMM form factor of its predecessors, meaning it’s not backwards-compatible with earlier carrier boards without a third-party interposer board between the two.

The Nvidia Jetson Nano 2GB, meanwhile, isn’t as identical to the original Nvidia Jetson Nano reviewed back in Issue 191. While, yes, the headline change is the drop from 4GB to 2GB of RAM, there are other modifications – including the loss of a hidden slot for an optional Wi-Fi card, fewer and slower USB ports, and the dropping of the second MIPI Camera Serial Interface (CSI) port added to its bigger sibling in a mid-stream refresh.

Finally, Sid Meier’s Memoir! – named in the style of the man’s games like Sid Meier’s Civilization and Sid Meier’s Pirates! – is a potted history of one of the pioneers of strategy gaming’s career, as told to author Jennifer Lee Noonan. It’s a text-heavy tome split into roughly chronological chapters, and absolutely fascinating – even if it does finally put to bed the myth of Gandhi’s overflow bug in Civilization.

Custom PC Issue 209 is available now from your local supermarket, newsagent, or online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 208

Custom PC Issue 208This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the MicroPython programming environment, SunFounder’s RasPad 3 Raspberry Pi tablet conversion kit, and Frank Gasking’s book The Games That Weren’t.

I’ve been doing a lot of work with MicroPython of late, so it made sense to cover the software for Hobby Tech. Developed by Damien George as part of a crowdfunding campaign launched in 2013, MicroPython takes the popular Python programming language and ports it to microcontrollers – both dedicated PyBoard ranges and third-party hardware. It’s also the inspiration for CircuitPython, a port developed by Adafruit and designed with educational use in mind.

The RasPad 3, meanwhile, is a device I wanted to love. Built in an intriguing wedge shape, the kit takes a Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer and turns it into a touch-screen tablet. The third in the series, and the first supporting the Raspberry Pi 4, the RasPad 3 is a great idea let down by poor execution – everything from a low-quality display and buggy software to dismal battery life and an incredibly noisy fan.

Finally, The Games That Weren’t is the latest coffee table book from Bitmap Books, based on the website of the same name by Frank Gasking. Built around the same core concept as Phil Atkinson’s Delete, The Games That Weren’t looks at video games – and a small number of related hardware projects, like the Commodore 65 – that never made it to market. At 643 pages it’s a hefty tome, but sadly let down by some high-profile absences – the ‘Van Buren’ build of Fallout 3 is present, but Fallout Online is nowhere to be found as just one example – and a woolly approach to research and citation which leans heavily on weasel-words like “it’s thought,” “some sources say,” and “it’s believed.”

You can pick up the latest Custom PC at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or online with global delivery now.

Custom PC, Issue 207

Custom PC Issue 207This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC Magazine takes a look at the hidden costs of stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printing, the RISC OS Direct operating system for the Raspberry Pi, and Steven K. Roberts’ classic memoir Computing Across America.

The 3D printing feature was born of a personal cost – literally, money I spent after diving head-first into the world of SLA 3D printing having been tempted by a low-cost entry-level printer. While the printer itself cost around £150, I spent as much again on the accessories required to get good results – from resin and cleaning tools to an ultraviolet curing station and the FEP sheets which form the bottom of the resin vat.

While the feature focuses on SLA printing, which uses a resin cured by exposure to ultraviolet light, there are costs associated with the more common FFF 3D printers too – including finding ways to protect the plastic filament they use from moisture.

Any readers of a certain vintage will likely remember the original RISC OS, an operating system developed initially for Acorn’s Archimedes family then for the later Risc PC. While Acorn itself went away, RISC OS didn’t – and the launch of the original Raspberry Pi, powered by Arm technology which started life at Acorn, gave it a shot in the arm.

RISC OS Direct is an effort to take the modern RISC OS and make it approachable for newcomers, rather than experienced RISC-takers. As a result, it includes a selection of applications pre-installed – from word processors to web browsers – and a handy-dandy wallpaper which doubles as a quick-reference guide. More detailed documentation is also provided, including electronic copies of programming manuals, for those who want to dive deeper.

Computing Across America, finally, isn’t a new book: It was published in the 1980s by Steven Roberts, the self-styled “high-tech nomad” who sold his house and possessions to cycle across America on a custom-built “Winnebiko” with little more than a TRS-80 Model 100 microcomputer for company. While now out of print, the title is available to borrow from The Internet Archive – and makes for fascinating, if often salacious, reading.

Custom PC Issue 207 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 206

Custom PC, Issue 206This month’s Hobby Tech feature takes a look at the recently-unearthed Nine Tiles prototype ROM for the ZX Spectrum by installing it on a ZX Spectrum Next, dramatically improves the flexibility of the FLIR ETS320 thermal inspection camera, and pores over classic computer commercials courtesy of coffee-table tome Do You Compute?.

First, the prototype ROM. In my review of the ZX Spectrum Next in Custom PC Issue 202, I mentioned that it’s possible to create new “machine personalities” – both by replacing the read-only memory (ROM) files used in Spectrum mode and by loading new cores onto the FPGA at the machine’s heart. Shortly prior to the ZX Spectrum Next’s launch, the Centre for Computing History received a trove of artefacts from Nine Tiles – including a prototype ZX Spectrum which was used to develop a ROM which never actually made it onto the publicly-launched machines.

The Centre had negotiated to make the ROM image available for free download for educational and academic purposes, which gave me an opportunity to load the ROM onto the ZX Spectrum Next and create the Nine Tiles Prototype as a usable machine personality. What followed was a process of debugging and reverse-engineering in order to make the ROM functional on the Next – a process which, I’m pleased to say, was wholly successful.

The FLIR ETS320, meanwhile, was reviewed back in Issue 201 – and one of my biggest complaints was its incredibly short focal length, meaning that it is only possible to analyse a very small part of a given circuit board under the thermal sensor. While the camera platform is capable of rising up, anything above 70mm away from the device on test is too blurry to be of use – unless, that is, you take advantage of a 3D-printed tool to manually adjust focus. The improvement is stark, as thermal images published in the piece demonstrate.

Finally, Do You Compute? is a book which looks not at the history of computing but at the history of selling computing – specifically, as the subtitle makes clear, “from the Atomic Age to the Y2K bug.” Put together by Ryan Mungia and Steven Heller, the book is a fantastic chronological walk through the shift in computers being for governments and big businesses to any businesses and eventually the home user.

It also has a major flaw, and it’s not one caused by the authors: Apple, for reasons unspecified, declined to provide permission for its adverts to be reproduced in the book. With Apple having been at the very forefront of the personal computing revolution, and well-known for iconic adverts from its 1984 Superbowl commercial to “Think Different” and “Rip Mix Burn,” it leaves a real hole in the book.

Custom PC Issue 206 is available now in supermarkets, newsagents, and online with global delivery via the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 205

Custom PC Issue 205This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at the Raspberry Pi High Quality (HQ) Camera Module, Seeed Studio’s impressively feature-packed Wio Terminal development board, and Read Only Memory’s follow-up to game developer interview collection Britsoft, Japansoft.

First the Raspberry Pi HQ Camera Module. The third full revision of the Camera Serial Interface (CSI)-connected low-cost camera add-on for Raspberry Pi and compatible single-board computers – after the original Raspberry Pi Camera Module was replaced with a higher-quality Sony sensor upgrade – the HQ Camera Module is built around a 12.3-megapixel Sony IMX477 sensor, offering increased resolution and improved low-light performance.

The biggest change, though, is that the lens has gone: Instead of a small plastic lens pre-fitted to the sensor, the HQ Camera Module accepts C- and CS-mount lenses – the same type of lens you’d find for security camera sensors. Two lenses make up the official offerings – a 6mm wide-angle and a 16mm telephoto – with third parties selling various alternatives including microscope-style macro lenses.

The Wio Terminal has a sensor of its own, but it’s not a camera: it’s an almost-all-in-one development board built around Microchip’s ATSAMD51 system-on-chip. Packed into a plastic housing with 2.4″ 320×240 colour LCD, the development board includes buttons, joystick, buzzer, LED, light sensor, and an infrared emitter – but, oddly, no battery, which needs to be added using an external accessory which considerably increases the device’s bulk.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Wio Terminal, though, is its general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header: a 40-pin female header, it shares the Raspberry Pi pinout and allows the Wio Terminal to act as a standalone device or to be connected to a Raspberry Pi as a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT)-style accessory – though doing so without some kind of extension cable covers the sensors on the underside.

Finally, Japansoft is a follow-up to the impressive Britsoft which follows exactly the same format: selected bite-sized extracts from interviews with notable game developers, only this time – as the name implies – looking at the Japanese games industry rather than the British. Where Britsoft culled its material from interviews carried out for the 2014 documentary From Bedrooms to Billions, Japansoft isn’t an original publication either: everything within comes from John Szczepaniak’s The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers and is simply reformatted to match the style of Britsoft.

That’s not to say Japansoft isn’t worth reading, but it does mean that anyone who has already seen Szczepaniak’s work will find nothing new. It also makes no effort to fact-check any of the claims within, instead placing a warning that its contents do not represent “a verified factual account” of the history presented.

Custom PC Issue 205 is available now from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 203

Custom PC Issue 203This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at how the maker and hacker communities are rallying behind the COVID-19 crisis, puts the Rock Pi N10 Model A computer-on-module on the test bench, and takes a look at Imagine That!, the story of APF engineer Ed Smith and his work on the Imagination Machine home computer.

First, the opening spread. The world is still struggling to adjust to a “new normal” in the face of the continuing spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 disease it causes, and nowhere is that more obvious than here in the UK. While many countries have been able to flatten the curve sufficiently to avoid overwhelming healthcare resources, there is still concern over a second wave – and that’s why makers and tinkerers around the world have volunteered their expertise and enthusiasm.

The spread looks at a range of projects currently underway across the globe, from open-source ventilators designed as emergency alternatives to under-stocked invasive ventilators used as a last-ditch treatment for COVID-19 sufferers to homebrew face masks and face shields. Links to each project are included, for anyone looking to get involved.

The Rock Pi N10 Model A is a traditional hardware review: two pages on the computer-on-module. Based on the Rockchip RK3399Pro system-on-chip with integrated neural network co-processor, the entry-level Model A includes 4GB of LPDDR3 memory and 16GB of storage plus PCI Express connectivity for external hardware – a rarity on devices at its price point.

Finally, Ed Smith’s autobiography Imagine That! rounds out the piece. A self-published book, via Amazon’s print-on-demand service, Imagine That! impressed and disappointed in equal measure. For those looking for technical details on Smith’s involvement in APF’s Imagination Machine home computer, it’s a disappointment; for those looking for information on what it was like to be a black engineer growing up in the Browsnville projects in the 1970s there’s plenty of meat in its relatively scant 140 pages.

It’s a topic worthy of publication, but one which will hopefully see enough success to warrant a second edition through a professional publishing house: Smith’s honest storytelling approach is refreshing but scattershot, and riddled with typographical, grammatical, and factual errors begging for an editorial pass, as are the low-resolution and uncredited images sprinkled throughout.

All this, and more, can be found in Custom PC Issue 203, available to buy with worldwide delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 202

Custom PC Issue 202This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at the long-delayed but worth-the-wait TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, moves on to the unique Sega Arcade Pop-Up History from Read Only Memory, and closes on a look at the Raspberry Pi Imager utility.

Issue 202 is not the first time the ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded effort to not only recreate the classic Sinclair machine using modern hardware but to answer the question of what could have been if it weren’t for the microcomputer crash and subsequent sale to Amstrad: the internal hardware was reviewed way back in Issue 176 in the form of the board-only backer reward.

The ZX Spectrum Next is more than just a motherboard, however: its design includes a “toastrack”-inspired chassis and keyboard straight from the drafting board of sadly since-departed former Sinclair industrial designer Rick Dickinson – his last project, it would turn out. The fully-finished hardware, chassis and all, was due to arrive in backers’ hands in January 2018 – but only now, more than two years late, is the hardware finally being delivered.

Thankfully, it’s been worth the wait. Issues with the keyboard’s reliability have been ironed out, errors in the original hardware design resolved, and the firmware which drives the on-board field-programmable gate array (FPGA) updated and tweaked. The 28MHz accelerated mode, missing from the original review, is back, and the custom operating system works smoothly and without issue.

Sega Arcade Pop-Up History is another nostalgia-driven walk down memory lane, but rather than looking at home computers of the 1980s it covers Sega’s “taiken,” or “body sensation,” arcade cabinets – machines which moved to match the on-screen action. The written material is, however, limited: the bulk of the book is given over to card pop-up models of six cabinets, which is a definite first for Hobby Tech.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi Imager. Borrowing shamelessly from Balena’s Etcher, Imager is a tool from the Raspberry Pi Foundation which offers a cross-platform simplified graphical user interface for not only writing disk images to microSD cards but for downloading them too. The flow is just seven or eight clicks long: open Imager, bring up the list of supported operating systems, choose one and confirm, bring up the list of target storage devices and confirm, and flash. There’s even a verification stage, to confirm the image is correctly written – and you can point it at manually-downloaded disk images if your favoured operating system isn’t in the default selection.

All this, and a lot more beside, can be found in Custom PC Issue 202 at all the usual stockists and online from the official website with global delivery.