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.

Custom PC, Issue 201

Custom PC Issue 201This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the upcoming Mooltipass BLE hardware password dongle, FLIR’s ETS320 thermal camera for electronics testing, and has a word from Eben Upton about the cost-reduced Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB single-board computer.

First, the Mooltipass BLE. I reviewed the Mooltipass Mini – itself a successor to the original, bulkier Mooltipass – back in Issue 168: a compact, metal-encased device, the Mooltipass Mini holds your passwords in encrypted storage accessible only using a smartcard and four-digit hexadecimal PIN. I’ve been using the Mooltipass Mini with great success since its launch, but it’s always a bit of a pain to use with a mobile device – requiring a USB cable and OTG adapter.

The Mooltipass BLE aims to fix that, by integrated a Bluetooth Low Energy radio. While it can still operate in tethered USB mode, the Bluetooth radio plus internal battery give it a newfound freedom – though my experience is as a beta tester, with finalised and fully-functional firmware still under active development before the device goes on open sale.

The FLIR ETS320, by contrast, is a fully-finished piece of hardware. Regular readers will know that I’ve long been an advocate of thermal imaging analysis for revealing the secrets of electronic devices, and the ETS320 is a considerable upgrade from my usual FLIR C2: the 80×60 resolution thermal sensor of the C2 is replaced by an impressive 320×240 version in the ETS320, at the cost of a dramatically reduced maximum focus distance. I’d also like to thank FLIR for its partnership: the ETS320 has become a permanent fixture in my toolkit, and will be used alongside the C2 for thermal analysis in future hardware reviews.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB. While the board itself isn’t new, its pricing is: Raspberry Pi Trading recently decided, prompted by falling RAM prices, to retire the 1GB model and make the 2GB model the new entry point into the family. “2GB is a much more viable desktop platform than 1GB,” RPT chief executive Eben Upton told me in an interview for the column. “1GB is great for embedded, but for a desktop platform it’s just a little bit too tight. What it means is that we’re now back to having a really viable desktop machine at our signature price point.”

The full column is available now in Custom PC Issue 201 at your local newsagent, supermarket, or for global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 200

Custom PC Issue 200In this milestone issue of Custom PC Magazine you’ll find a look at the impressively retro tilde.club service and the wider tildeverse, the edge-AI-focused Orange Pi 4B single-board computer, and the Pi Hut ZeroDock accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero.

First, tilde.club – which requires a little history lesson for context. In the early days of networked computing, particularly on systems based on UNIX or the later POSIX standard, users hosted shared files in their home folders – which were given the shortcut ~. Today, shared systems have given way to virtual private servers (VPSes), but tilde.club offers a reproducible platform for those who miss the early days: your own directory, with public and private areas, on a truly shared POSIX-compliant server.

As well as hosting simple websites – there’s no server-side scripting here – you can join in internal email discussions, an on-server BBS, a text-based interface for the popular Reddit social network, and even play multiplayer games, all in the comfort of your terminal. A major delay in approving accounts for the original tilde.club – five years before a volunteer took over the service and began clearing the queue – also gave rise to the tildeverse, a network of tilde.club-based servers many of which focus on particular topics of interest.

The Orange Pi 4B, by contrast, is very much not a throwback but a piece of hardware designed to sit at the cutting edge. Mimicking, with a few modifications, the layout of a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, the Orange Pi 4B offers a Rockchip RK3399 six-core processor – two high-performance cores, four low-power cores – alongside a neural processing unit (NPU) coprocessor for edge-AI acceleration. As usual, my review looks at software support, hardware performance, and thermal imaging – along with an investigation of what the NPU brings to the table.

Finally, the Pi Hut ZeroDock is a handy but sadly pricey accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero family of single-board computers. Constructed from laser-cut acrylic, the ZeroDock houses a Pi Zero, a bundled compact solderless breadboard, and a small number of accessories like USB dongles and SD Card adapters. For those using a Pi Zero for prototyping, it’s a great tool – but at £10, twice the price of the Pi Zero board itself, it’s a little too expensive to be a must-have.

The full feature can be found on newsagent and supermarket shelves now, or purchased for global delivery from the official Custom PC website.

 

Custom PC, Issue 199

Custom PC Issue 199This month’s Hobby Tech column breaks out the thermal camera once again for a look at Pimoroni’s Heatsink Case for the Raspberry Pi 4, discusses the new Code the Classics educational programming book with Eben Upton, and reviews Bitmap Books’ The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games.

Pimoroni’s surprisingly robust case for the Raspberry Pi 4 – and not, thanks to changes made in the ports on the board, for any other model of Raspberry Pi – is something of an anomaly in the company’s stock: it’s not an in-house design, but rather a third party creation placed in Pimoroni packaging. There’s also not that much to it: the case is nothing more than two pieces of aluminium, some screws, and three thermal interface material (TIM) pads – of which, Pimoroni’s instructions inform the buyer, you should only use one.

Aside from mechanical fit and feel, the majority of the testing took place using my in-house thermal throttling benchmark – ten minutes of heavy CPU and GPU workload plus a five-minute cooldown period, tracked over one-second intervals – and via thermal imaging. The latter is an increasingly important tool for this type of review: placing the heatsink under the thermal camera revealed that there was little thermal headroom in the design, meaning it may not be wholly appropriate for extreme environments or overclocking scenarios – despite handling the benchmark well.

Upton’s Code the Classics, meanwhile, is a programming book with a difference: It takes an in-depth look at a series of classic game types and teaches the reader not only how to program their own but what went into the creation of the originals, including interviewing some big names from the industry. It’s half coffee-table, half-educational and wholly clever – and while Eben Upton provided the code, it’s a definite team effort with Sean Tracey, Dan Malone, Alastair Brimble, David Crookes, Andrew Gillet, and Liz Upton all contributing according to their own skills. Impressively, the entire book is also available to download free of charge under a Creative Commons licence.

Finally, The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games is yet another colourful coffee-table tome from Bitmap Books’ Sam Dyer, and one well worth picking up. Reviewed in the since sold-out Collector’s Edition form – packaged in an oversized cardboard housing designed to mimic big-box PC games of yore, complete with a USB stick disguised as a somewhat shrunken 3.5″ floppy disk – it makes an excellent companion piece to The CRPG Book from the same publisher, and is up to Bitmap’s usual excellent quality.

Custom PC Issue 199 is available now from all good supermarkets and newsagents, via several digital distribution platforms, or for online purchase with global delivery from the Raspberry Pi Press store.

Custom PC, Issue 198

Custom PC Issue 198This month’s Hobby Tech opens on an interview with Bitmap Books founder Sam Dyer, covering what his nostalgia-driven coffee-table book specialist publisher has been up to in the half-decade since last we spoke, moves on to a preview of the soft-launched Sensoreq CooliPi Raspberry Pi 4 case and heatsink, and ends with a look at UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan.

I last interviewed Dyer on the back of the launch of Bitmap Books’ inaugural publication, the crowdfunded Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium – the spelling of the latter, he was at pains to tell me at the time, a deliberate pun. In the five years since, Dyer’s press has moved from collecting screenshots of Commodore 64 and Amiga games to producing some big-budget hardback titles, most recently including officially licensed titles – a rarity in the all-too-often copyright-ignorant retro gaming sphere. There’s more to come, too, Dyer told me in this latest interview – including some non-gaming works, including a Micro Machines-focused book dubbed Micro But Many due later this year.

The CooliPi case, meanwhile, is an interesting beast – not least because not only is the plastic base 3D printed rather than laser-cut or injection-moulded, but the design files to print your own are provided for free download. That’s because the secret sauce sits on top: a custom-milled and surprisingly hefty aluminium heatsink, available in a variety of colours. The case is cleverly designed and its cooling performance, even operating without the optional mount for a 5V fan, is the best I’ve seen – though the Hobby Tech piece is a preview, rather than review, as creator Sensoreq finishes a few last tweaks before the design can be considered fully final.

Finally, Kernighan’s memoir – written by a man who, in his own words, was “present at the creation [of the UNIX operating system] but not responsible” – is a thoroughly enjoyable first-person perspective on some of the most important works in computing history, and the precursor to the Linux-based operating system on which I’m typing right now. A vanity press publication, created through Amazon’s print-on-demand service, the book’s print quality isn’t great – most obvious on the cover, where an extremely low-resolution image has been stretched blurringly around the book giving the impression of a knock-off – but the content more than makes up for its production values.

All this, and more, can be found on the shelves of your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or for worldwide delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 197

Custom PC Issue 197This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Argon 40’s revised Argon One – or Argon 1, depending on which bit of the packaging you’re looking at – case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the RISC-V-based Sipeed Longan Nano development board, and Toshi Omagari’s Arcade Game Typography.

First, the Argon 1 Pi 4 case. Externally, this looks a lot like the Argon One reviewed back in Issue 188; internally, though, things have been shifted around to provide support for the latest Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – and the brown-outs caused by the smart power and cooling board drawing too much power are now a thing of the past.

As with its predecessor, the Argon 1 Pi 4 is impressively solid and does a great job at cooling the Raspberry Pi 4 by using the aluminium housing as a heatsink – even running a heavy synthetic workload, the temperature didn’t reach the minimum required to activate the built-in PWM-controlled cooling fan. It also adds some neat features, such as a labelled and colour-coded GPIO header, neater cabling through the shifting of audio and video ports to the rear, and a smart power button.

Shortly after the review was completed, but thankfully before the magazine went to press, the power board on the Argon 1 Pi 4 died – thankfully without taking the Raspberry Pi 4 with it. The review was updated accordingly, and since then Argon 40 has been stellar in attempting to resolve the problem – paying to have the faulty board returned for analysis and replacing both the faulty board and the entire unit in order to get things back up and running. While it will be a short while before it’s clear whether the failure was a one-off or not, it’s certainly impossible to fault the company’s customer service ethos.

The Sipeed Longan Nano, supplied by Seeed Studio, is an interesting beast: costing less than $5, the board is based on a low-power RISC-V microcontroller with a breadboard-friendly board design and a built-in low-resolution colour LCD display. For the money, the hardware is absolutely incredible – especially as Seeed has even designed a rough but serviceable acrylic case for the board, bundled at no additional cost.

The software and documentation, however, is definitely an issue. The libraries provided failed in a variety of ways – including an inability to use printf() or open a serial port – and the English documentation is extremely sparse. Particularly lacking is anything to demonstrate the use of the LCD – bar a single example program documented using Chinese in-line comments.

Finally, Arcade Game Typography. I’ve reviewed a lot of retro-computing coffee-table books over the years, but Omagari’s book is the first to concentrate solely on fonts and typography as used in classic arcade games – and given Omagari’s work as a designer for Monotype UK, it’s fair to say he knows his stuff. The result is a fascinating book, and one which is currently available in a limited 1,000-copy hardback print run from Read-Only Memory if the standard paperback isn’t shiny enough for you.

Custom PC Issue 197 is available on supermarket and newsagent shelves now, or can be ordered for global delivery from the official website.

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.