Tag Archive for Custom PC

Custom PC, Issue 184

Custom PC Issue 184Hobby Tech this month takes a look at a trio of very different products: the Clockwork GameShell modular hand-held console, the Dexter GiggleBot BBC micro:bit-powered robot, and the Coinkite Coldcard hardware cryptocurrency wallet.

First, the Coldcard. Designed by the company behind the Opendime (reviewed in Issue 175, and dead due to an apparent design flaw a week later), the Coldcard is roughly the size of a small stack of credit cards but provides a full hardware wallet for the Bitcoin and Litecoin cryptocurrencies. At least, that’s the theory: sadly, in practice, the device proved difficult to use owing to software glitches, hardware flaws, and a lack of third-party software support which reduces you to using only one wallet package to interface with the Coldcard.

The GiggleBot, by contrast, is a significantly more polished product. While the documentation still needs work, the robot itself – featured two individually-addressable motors, a line- or light-following sensor board, RGB LEDs, and expansion potential from Grove-compatible connectors and a pair of servo headers – is exceptionally impressive, and a great introduction to basic robotics for younger programmers. Those looking to make the leap from the block-based MakeCode environment to Python, though, will discover that the two libraries are far from equivalent in terms of feature availability – something that, again, will hopefully be addressed in the future.

Finally, the Clockwork GameShell. Produced following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the device is based around a Raspberry Pi-like single-board computer dubbed the Clockwork Pi and runs a customised Linux distribution with neat menu system. Its internals, interestingly, are modular, with each contained inside a snap-together transparent plastic housing – a decision which makes for a slightly bulky Game Boy-like outer shell and, sadly, is the direct cause of some overheating problems for the system-on-chip (SoC) during more intensive games like Quake. These issues, though, are largely outweighed by sheer novelty value: a few minutes of FreeDoom in the palm of your hand is sure to raise a smile.

The full reviews can be read in Custom PC Issue 184, available from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 183

Custom PC Issue 183In Hobby Tech this month, there’s a look at a project which has genuinely transformed my mornings, a tiny temperature-controlled soldering iron with a hackable firmware, and the latest brain-melting program-’em-up from Zachtronics.

Starting with the game first, Exapunks caught my eye as soon as I saw it announced by developer Zachtronics. Taking the assembler programming concept of earlier titles TIS-100 and Shenzhen-IO, Exapunks wraps them up in a 90s near-future cyberpunk aesthetic alongside a plot driven by a disease called “the phage” which turns victims into non-functional computers. Because of course it does.

Anyone familiar with Zachtronics’ work will know what to expect, but Exapunks really dials things up. From the puzzles themselves – including one inspired by an early scene in the classic film Hackers – to, in a first for the format, the introduction of real though asynchronous multiplayer on top of the standard leaderboard metrics, Exapunks excels from start to oh-so-tricky finish.

The MiniWare TS100 soldering iron, meanwhile, sounds like it could be straight from Exapunks – or, given its name, TS-100: a compact temperature-controlled soldering iron with built-in screen and an open-source firmware you can hack to control everything from default operating temperature to how long before it enters power-saving “sleep mode.” While far from a perfect design – and since supplanted by the TS80, not yet available from UK stockists – the TS100 is an interesting piece of kit, with its biggest flaw being the need to use a grounding strap to avoid a potentially component-destroying floating voltage at the iron’s tip.

Finally, the project: an effort, using only off-the-shelf software tied together in a Bash shell script, to print out a schedule of the days’ tasks on my Dymo LabelWriter thermal printer. Using the code detailed in the magazine, the project pulls together everything from weather forecasts to my ongoing tasks and Google Calendar weekly schedule – along with a word of the day and, just because, a fortune cookie read out by an ASCII-art cow.

All this, and a variety of other topics, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine on newsagent and supermarket shelves or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 182

Custom PC Issue 182In my Hobby Tech column this month, I take a look at the disappointing Planet Computers Gemini PDA, the significantly less disappointing Proto-Pic Program-o-Tron, and the recent updates designed to make the Raspbian operating system for the Raspberry Pi significantly more welcoming to newcomers.

First, the Gemini PDA. I’ve long been a fan of the clamshell personal digital assistant (PDA) form factor, and it was with a heavy heart that I finally hung up my Psion Series 5 after it became clear that smartphones had won that particular war. Now, the format is back courtesy of Planet Computers and the crowdfunded Gemini PDA – a design based on the Psion Series 5 and put together by one of the staff responsible for the original, but which misses its mark at almost every turn.

At its heart, the Gemini PDA is an Android smartphone – even the non-4G version, which is simply an Android smartphone with the cellular radio removed. While it’s possible to run a Debian-based Linux on top, the experience is poor – but, that said, no more poor than the buggy Android build supplied with the device, which insists on booting up in German despite being clearly marked as a UK model. The hardware, too, disappoints: performance under Linux is not where it should be, and while the keyboard is a near-perfect match to the original Psion design the clever sliding hinge mechanism is entirely missing in favour of a loose and flimsy metal kickstand that fails to provide nearly enough support.

Many thanks must go to the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), which kindly provided an original Psion Series 5MX PDA for direct head-to-head comparison during the review.

The Program-o-Tron, after a disappointing start to the month, proved considerably better. Again crowdfunded, the Proto-Pic device is designed to make life easier for those working with Atmel ATmega microcontrollers. Rather than having to program each chip individually from a PC, the Program-o-Tron allows you to hold six hex files on an SD card and flash them onto a chip inserted in the ZIF socket at the push of a button – and, even better, to take a dump of the contents of a chip, including its fuse settings, to clone it without ever needing to touch the original program code.

Finally, the recent update to Raspbian operating system for the Raspberry Pi brought a couple of changes for the better: a lightening of the load when it comes to pre-installed software, complete with a tool to add packages back in on-demand, and a first-run welcome wizard which walks newcomers through configuring the Wi-Fi networking, localisation settings, and choosing a new password. The latter is particularly welcome: since launch, the default for Raspbian has been to keep the ‘pi’ and ‘raspberry’ username and password combination, making it easy for attackers to gain access to systems accidentally or deliberately connected to public networks. By asking users to choose a new password on first boot, the hole is closed.

To read more, pick up Custom PC Issue 182 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 181

Custom PC Issue 181In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at two LED-adorned educational electronics kits, the Kitronik :GAME ZIP 64 and the Kano Pixel Kit, along with Mark Hardisty’s latest retrogaming project, The Classic Adventurer.

Kitronik’s :GAME ZIP 64, which will henceforth be known as the much easier to both read and type Game Zip 64, is a clever little add-on for the BBC micro:bit educational platform. Designed to mate with the BBC micro:bit’s edge connector, the Game Zip 64 adds 64 individually-addressable RGB LEDs, a major upgrade on the single-colour 25-LED matrix on the BBC micro:bit itself, buttons to form a four-way directional control pad, two fire buttons, a piezoelectric buzzer, and – interestingly – a vibration motor.

While the sample Python programs – Snake and Pong – are pretty poor, Kitronik has produced a series of lesson plans around the device which are absolutely fantastic, and put the £40 asking price well into ‘bargain’ territory for anyone looking to move on from the built-in features of the bare BBC micro:bit itself.

The Kano Pixel Kit is, on the face of it, a similar device: a matrix of 128 LEDs – twice the number of the Game Zip 64 – dominate the front, but control is limited to a function dial and a couple of buttons. It’s also Kano’s first truly standalone product, eschewing the normal Raspberry Pi for an on-board Espressif ESP-WROOM-32 microcontroller. As with the Kano Computer Kit, the Pixel Kit’s software – which, sadly, is not available for mainstream Linux, despite coming in a Raspberry Pi variant – is fantastic, but its development cost is likely behind the eyebrow-raising £75 asking price.

Finally, Mark Hardisty’s latest project – after putting his groundbreaking tome on the history of Gremlin Graphics to bed and recreating some classic artwork in Inlay – is The Classic Adventurer, a magazine dedicated to the glory days of interactive fiction. Available in print and also, all credit to him, as a free-as-in-beer DRM-unencumbered PDF download, each issue is packed with brilliant art and fascinating articles ranging from interviews to reviews with some behind-the-scenes stuff thrown in for good measure. It’s a fantastic project, and definitely one to follow.

All this, plus the usual raft of other people’s work, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.


Custom PC, Issue 180

This month’s Custom PC Magazine sees my Hobby Tech column take a look at TheC64 Mini, a rather annoyingly-stylised recreation of the classic Commodore 64, experiment with Raspberry Pi-powered cluster computing via GNU Parallel, and drink a toast to the memory of the late and lamented Rick Dickinson.

First, Rick. Best known for having been Sinclair Radionics’ – later Research, still later Computers – in-house industrial designer, Rick is the man responsible for the iconic look of the ZX80, ZX81, Sinclair Spectrum, and Sinclair QL, among other devices. While blame for their keyboards lies further up the chain, Rick did the best with his instructions to the point where his designs are still immediately recognisable today. Sadly, Rick had been in ill health of late, and recently passed; my article in this month’s magazine serves as a ode to his memory.

TheC64 Mini, then, feels like a bit of an insult, being as it is the modern incarnation of a device from US Sinclair rival Commodore. Created by Retro Games Limited – not to be confused with Retro Computers Limited, creators of the two-years-late-and-counting ZX Vega+ handheld console, but rather a separate company formed by a split between RCL’s directors present and former – TheC64 Mini appears, at first glance, to be a breadbin-style Commodore 64 that’s been shrunk in the wash.

While deserving plaudits for actually existing, unlike the ZX Vega+, TheC64 Mini isn’t exactly a stellar success: inside its casing, which is dominated by a completely fake keyboard, is a tiny Arm-based single-board computer running Linux and a hacked-around version of the Vice emulator. Its emulation suffers from input lag, something RGL originally attempted to blame on people’s TVs before releasing an update which reduced the problem without completely fixing it, and the bundled Competition Pro-style joystick compounds the problem by being absolutely awful to use courtesy of a rubber membrane design that should have been left on the drawing board.

Finally, the cluster computing tutorial walks the reader through creating a multi-node cluster – of Raspberry Pis, in this instance, though the tutorial is equally applicable to anything that’ll run SSH and GNU Parallel – and pushing otherwise-serial workloads to it in order to vastly accelerate their performance. In the sample workload, which passes multiple images through Google’s Guetzli processor, run-time went from 1,755 seconds in single-threaded serial mode to 125 seconds running on the eight-node cluster – housed in a Ground Electronics Circumference C25 chassis, because if you’re going to do something you should do it in style.

All this, and the usual selection of other interesting articles, can be found in your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 179

Custom PC Issue 179This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at an open-source microcontroller-driven hobbyist oscilloscope and a book which aims to document art in video games, while also walking readers through the rather handy trick of setting up a reverse SSH tunnel.

First, the tutorial. Since Code42 announced that CrashPlan Home, my chosen off-site backup solution, was being discontinued, I’ve been looking into alternatives. A Raspberry Pi with a USB hard drive and a copy of Syncthing installed does the job nicely, except for the issue of management: once it’s off-site, I’d have to configure someone else’s router to forward a port so I can SSH into it. An easier alternative: a reverse SSH tunnel.

Where a traditional SSH connection goes from local device to remote host, a reverse tunnel goes from remote device to an intermediary device – in my case, a home server on my own network. Your local device then also connects to said intermediary device, and you have full access to the remote device regardless of whether or not it’s behind one or more firewalls or even whether you know its public-facing IP address.

The first of the reviews, meanwhile, is a little cheeky: while the device on test is based on the JYE Tech DSO138 open-source oscilloscope design and firmware, I’ve been using a clone rather than an original – having spotted it on offer during an Amazon sale and been unable to resist a bargain. While the conclusions I draw on the scope’s functionality and usability apply equally to both, a first-party JYE Tech version is likely to feature better build quality and certainly includes better support.

Finally, my review of the coffee table tome – yes, another one – Push Start: The Art of Video Games is one of those rare occasions where I’ve been disappointed by what should have been a product aiming for a very low bar. While the full-colour hardback publication includes plenty of high-quality pictures, it also includes some extremely low-quality screenshots as well – particularly noticeable at the beginning where vector games are captured as bitmaps using MAME’s default ultra-low resolution, and at the end where tell-tale artefacts show the use of third-party JPEG images rather than first-party captures. Worse still is the limited accompanying text, which is riddled with errors.

The latest Hobby Tech is available now from newsagents, supermarkets, and electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 178

Custom PC Issue 178This month’s Hobby Tech has a pair of two-page spreads on two very exciting, yet decidedly different, pieces of hardware – the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ and the Gamebuino Meta – along with a look at an update to the Arduino Create platform which brings early support for single-board computers.

First, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. As the name suggests, the new board isn’t quite a full generation above the existing Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. It is, however, a considerable upgrade – primarily thanks to a new packaging for the BCM2837 system-on-chip, now known as the BCM2837B0, which vastly improves its thermal performance and boosts its speed from 1.2GHz to 1.4GHz. Elsewhere, the board includes an upgraded and simplified power supply system, gigabit Ethernet – though limited to around 230Mb/s throughput in real-world terms – and dual-band 802.11ac wireless network capabilities. Naturally, the review also includes thermal imaging analysis – this time using a new overlay technique which, I’m pleased to say, offers a significant improvement in image clarity over my previous approaches.

The Gamebuino Meta, on the other hand, is a very different device to its predecessor. Upgraded from an ATmega microcontroller to an Arm chip, the Gamebuino Meta boasts a colour screen, programmable RGB LED lighting, a general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header with ‘developer backpack’ accessory for easy prototyping – in short, it’s a serious upgrade over the device I reviewed back in Issue 134. Despite the upgrades, though, it’s still extremely accessible, allowing users to write their own games using the Arduino IDE and the Gamebuino library with ease.

Finally, Arduino Create. I’ve been meaning to take a look at the cloud-based development environment for a while, but it wasn’t until it added support for single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi – on top of the Arduino boards it already supported – that I found an excuse to dive in. What I found is somewhat rough around the edges, but shows promise: a fully-functional IDE right in the browser, but with the ability to push sketches – with very little modification for the Raspberry Pi – to devices remotely.

All this, plus the usual raft of things I didn’t write, can be found between the crisp paper covers of Custom PC Issue 178 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 177

Custom PC Issue 177This month’s Hobby Tech features two different Raspberry Pi add-ons, one designed to get the best possible audio quality out of the popular single-board computer and the other designed to get the best possible audio quality into it, along with a review of Mark Hardisty’s Inlay in tradebook paperback format.

First, the let’s-play-high-quality-audio add-on: the Allo DigiOne. Reviewed in its Player format, which bundles the DigiOne S/PDIF hardware attached on-top (HAT) board with a Raspberry Pi 3, micro-SD card, power supply, and admittedly neat acrylic case – which, unfortunately, makes it really difficult to remove said micro-SD card – the DigiOne is designed to output digital audio over an RCA or BNC connector. Its primary selling point: as-low-as-possible jitter, claimed to be measured at 0.6 picoseconds – though its creators seemingly accusing optical outputs, which the DigiOne lacks, of having 4 nanoseconds of ‘jitter’ when they appear to actually mean ‘delay’ is disappointing.

The Andrea PureAudio Microphone Development Kit, by contrast, is less about the sound that comes out of a Pi and more about what goes into it. A bundling of a cheap off-the-shelf USB soundcard in custom plastic packaging with a PureAudio array microphone – the self-same design Asus used to give away with selected motherboards – the Andrea Electronics bundle originally came to me as the Speech Development Kit, full of promise about how Andrea’s clever audio library would bring crystal clarity to your applications and allow you to quickly and easily build applications you could control with your voice.

Considerable back-and-forth with the company followed, and by the morning on which the column was due with my editor a decision had been made: the Speech Development Kit, which was nothing of the sort and completely failed to deliver on its promises, became the Microphone Development Kit. While still below par – the biggest failing that, unlike the Windows driver that used to be bundled with the Asus version, the clever noise-reducing beam-forming and other-sound-enhancing Linux audio library which is the primary selling point of the kit can only be used in applications you write yourself, and will do nothing for applications like Skype or Audacity – it, at least, now sets a more realistic tone for would-be buyers.

Finally, something for the eyes. The creation of Mark Hardisty, whose A Gremlin in the Works was reviewed back in Issue 168, Inlay is a book about classic game cover art primarily concentrated on the eight-bit era. Where most coffee table books of this type simply reproduce the art as it originally appeared, Hardisty took a more challenging route: the book contains painstaking vector recreations of the original art, minus distracting titles and flashes, producing a derivative work which is clearer and crisper than anything you’ve seen before. My only regret: picking up the cheaper tradebook paperback edition, which lacks the wide format of the hardback edition and thus has less of each cover available for viewing.

All this, and the usual selection of interesting tidbits written by others, is available at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 176

Custom PC Issue 176This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the fascinating ZX Spectrum Next, the impressive RetroFlag NesPi case for the Raspberry Pi, and the book Britsoft.

First, the ZX Spectrum Next. The product of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign that drew in around three quarters of a million pounds from backers across the world, the ZX Spectrum Next is exactly what it sounds like: the next entry in the long-running Sinclair Spectrum family, long after even its most ardent fans had given up hope. Although based around ‘soft’ cores running on a central FPGA, the Next isn’t an emulator: the open design is entirely compatible with every piece of software or hardware you can throw at it, complete with accessories designed for the original Spectrum. It’ll even fit in a 16K/48K chassis, if you don’t mind drilling a few extra holes.

Those holes, you see, are needed for just some of the Next’s shiny new features: a pair of joystick ports, HDMI and VGA video outputs, and even the ability to insert a Raspberry Pi Zero into a special header for use – once the software has been written – as a co-processor, or as it was known at the time a “copper.” There’s room for up to 2MB of RAM, triple-chip FM synthesis, even Wi-Fi network support – though a design flaw discovered shortly after the review went to print means that anyone with the early-release Model 2A will need to solder a small capacitor onto the voltage regulator for full reliability, an issue fixed with Model 2B onward.

The NesPi, by contrast, is a lot simpler. At its heart, it’s a plastic case into which you can install a Raspberry Pi B+, 2, or 3. Its designers, though, have decided to create something a little different, and the Nintendo Entertainment System ‘inspired’ housing also includes daughterboards which offer four front-facing USB ports – two where the controllers would connect and another two under the ‘cartridge’ flap – along with working power and reset buttons. The Ethernet port is also brought to the front, for no readily apparent reason, while the dedicated power board includes a header for an optional cooling fan.

Finally, Britsoft is a book that has been on my shelves awaiting review for a little while now. A Read Only Memories publication, this impressive hardback tome gathers interview content originally created for the 2014 documentary From Bedrooms to Billions charting the rise of the British computer games industry. You’d be hard pushed, off the top of your head, to think of a luminary of the era not included in the title’s impressive 420 pages, and I had but one real complaint: the layout of the book is easier on the eye than the brain, often making it difficult to follow which speaker is talking and which topic you’re reading.

All this, and the usual collection of stuff by other people, is available now at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 175

Custom PC Issue 175This month’s Custom PC is a bit of a Halfacree takeover, boasting a whopping 15 pages of my content: a seven-page guide to building a Raspberry Pi-powered vintage gaming console, a three-page look at the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, and my usual five-page Hobby Tech column with reviews of the Coinkite Opendime, iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, and Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: The Amiga Years.

First, the vintage gaming feature. Building on a brief from editor Ben Hardwidge, I wanted to do something a little more in-depth than the usual how-to guide. The result is a seven-page feature which begins with a look at the wealth of accessories available to turn a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computing into a powerful emulation station, a two-page expert guide to the legalities of emulation in the UK, step-by-step instructions on downloading, installing, and configuring the RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi, and a look at entirely legitimate sources for read-only memory (ROM) game images.

While I’m fully equipped to handle the how-to and look-at-the-shiny-things sections of the guide myself, the legal aspect required an expert eye kindly provided by Eaton Smith LLP partner Chris Taylor. Legal counsel to a variety of game development and publishing companies, Chris kindly walked through the legalities of developing, downloading, and using emulation software and hardware under UK law – and even threw in a cheeky topical reference to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One ahead of the release of its film adaptation. I’m also grateful to The Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott for taking the time to discuss the Archive’s vast trove of software and in-browser emulation functionality.

Meltdown and Spectre, meanwhile, are a lot less fun. The names given to a quartet of security vulnerabilities hard-baked in to the vast majority of processors built since the 1990s, Meltdown and Spectre are unarguably the worst things to happen to the computer industry since the death of the Commodore Amiga. My three-page look discusses the vulnerabilities, how they can be exploited to gain access to supposedly-protected information, and what companies are doing to fix the problems – and, spoiler, the conclusion there is “not nearly enough.” Since the piece was written, though, there’s one thing to note: installation of the KB4056892 patch for Windows 10 includes faulty microcode protection from Intel which can cause systems to reboot spontaneously, which is resolved through the installation of KB4078130 at the cost of disabling protections against one of the two Spectre vulnerabilities.

Finally, Hobby Tech itself opens with a look at the clever but fragile Opendime from cryptocurrency start-up Coinkite. Designed to turn Bitcoin into a digital bearer bond, an Opendime creates a private key which is stored in a secure enclave accessible only by irrevocably modifying the device by popping off a small surface-mount resistor. So long as the resistor is intact, the theory goes, nobody has access to the private key – meaning you can accept the device as payment without risk. Sadly, since my fairly glowing review was written two things have changed: the Opendime I’ve been carrying around on my keyring has unsealed itself without any visible damage to the resistor or the heatshrink which protects it, an issue Coinkite’s founder and support team have singularly failed to address, and the high transaction fees on the Bitcoin network have dropped from around £20 to around 20p meaning one of the major benefits of using a £15 USB device for in-person transactions has been lost.

The iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, by contrast, is a significantly happier story. I’ve long been a fan of iFixit’s teardowns and the software they developed for presenting the information, so a toolkit with the iFixit seal of approval was high on my want list. Having now received one, I can confirm it’s no disappointment: from the high-quality tools, all bundled with the express intention of making it as easy as possible to dismantle modern electronics, to the smart multi-function storage case, the entire bundle is pleasingly robust.

Finally, Commodore: The Amiga Years. The follow-up to author Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge, The Amiga Years was officially cancelled years ago before being resurrected through a crowdfunding campaign. Since the closure of the campaign, however, the project was beset by delays and a last-minute editing decision that sees the final third of the story, taking Commodore to its sad demise, spun out into yet another book – a move backers criticising the decision have positioned as a blatant attempt at extracting more money. As with A Company on the Edge, though, the story told in The Amiga Years is one well worth the entry price – if suffering a little from Bagnall’s wandering editorial process, whereby topics raised as though you should already know them in Chapter 2 won’t be formally introduced until Chapter 5.

All this, and slightly less stuff by people who aren’t me, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.