Tag Archive for Debian

The MagPi, Issue 83

The MagPi Issue 83This week saw the release of the Raspberry Pi 4, first in a new generation of single-board computers from the not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation. As is usual for the launches, I was approached by The MagPi Magazine – the Foundation’s official publication – to prepare coverage for the launch, including interviews, imagery, and a wealth of benchmarks.

My coverage for the magazine, spread across a whopping 12 pages, begins with a high-resolution hero shot of the board with macro-image call-outs for its key features and components – including the new USB Type-C power connector, BCM2711B0 system-on-chip, and shiny dual-micro-HDMI video outputs capable of driving high-resolution 4K displays.

Next, there’s an interview with Foundation co-founder Eben Upton covering everything from the reason the board is available now when a 2020 launch had previously been suggested, how it can potentially replace a desktop PC in a range of environments, backwards compatibility with the existing Raspberry Pi ecosystem, and a hidden Easter Egg on the PCB – only accessible to those brave or foolhardy enough to unsolder the USB connector.

The benchmarking section, spread across four pages, marks a departure from previous launches: this time around I pulled the focus away from synthetic benchmarks, though the classic Linpack still makes an appearance if only to demonstrate how the Arm processors’ NEON extensions can dramatically improve performance, in favour of a variety of real-world workloads: image editing with the GIMP, file compression with bzip2 and lbzip2, browser performance in Chromium, and gaming performance with OpenArena, alongside USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi throughputs. In all cases, the workloads are entirely reproducible: all packages used for the real-world workloads are available at launch in the Raspbian Buster software repositories. If four pages isn’t enough, additional benchmarks are available on my Medium post.

As usual, the benchmarking also includes a thermal analysis: images of the Raspberry Pi 4 and its immediate predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ were taken after a ten-minute CPU-heavy workload using a Flir thermal imaging camera, the data processed to a fixed temperature scale of 22-80°C to avoid noise from ambient surfaces, then overlaid on an edge-enhanced high-resolution visible-light image of their respective boards using a high-contrast rainbow colour palette. These images represent a fair amount of work, but there’s no better way to see both how hot the Pis get under continuous load and which components are responsible for that heat – not to mention how effective the design is at bleeding the heat off through the PCB, something with which the older Raspberry Pi models with plastic-encased chips have struggled.

Finally, the piece closes with a two-page interview with Simon Long on the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system – launching ahead of the upstream Debian 10 ‘Buster’ release, interestingly – and its revised, flatter user interface. While much of the under-the-hood work for Buster was to get it ready for the Raspberry Pi 4 – previous Raspbian releases won’t work on the new board – it’s also available for older Raspberry Pi models, and comes with some convincing reasons to upgrade along with a handful of software compatibility issues that offer a reason to hang fire.

As always, The MagPi Issue 83 is available to buy in print format from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and book sellers; a free digital copy, released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence, is also available from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 163

Custom PC Issue 163My work for Hobby Tech this month involved rather more soldering than is usual, in order to assemble the parts required for reviews of the Boldport Club’s Ligemdio and Touchy kits and the Dark Control Raspberry Pi motor control boards – though, at least, the final review of the freshly-launched Debian+Pixel Linux distribution was free of fumes.

First, the Boldport Club. I’ve reviewed one of Saar Drimer’s impressively artistic circuit kits before, back in November 2015, but where you used to have to camp out on the Boldport website to pick up the latest small-production-run kit there’s a new option: monthly subscription. Members of the Boldport Club get a series of parcels, typically but not always including a kit featuring a Saar-designed printed circuit board but almost always being aimed more at the experienced engineer than the absolute beginner.

For a flavour of what Boldport Club members can expect, Saar sent over two kits: the Touchy, a touch-sensitive microcontroller dedicated to the memory of maker Oliver Coles, and the Ligemdio, a handy-dandy USB-powered LED tester. The latter proved far simpler to build than the former: anyone used to beginner through-hole kits would undeniably find the surface mount components on the Touchy a challenge, but therein lies its attraction.

The soldering on the Dark Control boards, by contrast, was considerably less tricky. Created by the Dark Water Foundation and funded via Kickstarter, the Dark Control boards – one for DC motors and the other for ESC motors – are impressive beasts. Designed to mimic the footprint of the diminutive Raspberry Pi Zero, the boards include the ability to run a minimum of six independent motors, include room for a nine-degree sensor add-on, and can be linked to remote control hardware for network-free control of everything from submarines to aerial drones.

Finally, Debian+Pixel is Raspbian for the masses. Like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel is built on top of Debian Linux; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel uses the Pixel desktop environment; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel includes a selection of educational software chosen by the Raspberry Pi community. Unlike Raspbian, though, Debian+Pixel runs on almost any x86 PC – meaning you don’t need a Raspberry Pi.

The software is, as you’d expect from a distribution based on one of the oldest Linux variants around, stable. The Pixel interface looks the same whether you’re running on a Pi or a traditional PC, and only the speed at which programs open and run gives it away. Sadly, there are one or two omissions largely as a result of licensing agreements: the handy Wolfram Alpha application is nowhere to be found, as is the extremely buggy Minecraft Pi Edition that saw one release back in 2013 before being abandoned by the now Microsoft-owned Mojang.

For the full run-down of all these shiny things, plus a whole bunch of other stuff written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC magazine in your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

PC Pro, Issue 269

PC Pro Issue 269In this month’s PC Pro I turn my eye to the Kano Computer Kit, the latest bundle of parts from the eponymous London-based education-centric company – and come away with distinctly mixed feelings.

The original Kano kit proved a smash hit when it landed on crowdfunding site Kickstarter back in 2013, raising more than $1.5 million to produce what it claimed was a computer you built yourself. Its launch was marred, however, by a modicum of controversy: what Kano had made was not a computer, but rather a selection of accessories – case, speaker, keyboard, and a customised GNU/Linux operating system – which it bundled with the already-existing Raspberry Pi, turning it from the “computer you build” to the “computer you put in a case and plug a USB dongle into.”

The crowdfunding success was followed by efforts to set up a sustainable business, and the Kano kits are now available globally direct from Kano and through resellers. For review I received the two latest revisions, the Kano Computer Kit and Kano Display Kit, bundled together as the Kano Complete Computer Kit.

The Computer Kit takes a Raspberry Pi 3 then bundles it with the Debian-based Kano OS software, a case, GPIO-powered speaker, combined wireless keyboard and trackpad in fetching orange, and the Kano ‘story book’ manual. The Display Kit adds a non-touch display panel, a custom stand the Kano case can hook into, and a smart split power cable that allows the display and Raspberry Pi to be driven from a single socket.

The hardware, sadly, proved disappointing for the cost. At an RRP of £299, the kit isn’t exactly value for money: a Raspberry Pi 3, speaker, wireless keyboard and trackpad, official touchscreen display, power supply, micro-SD card, and a decent book could be had for around half the cost and provide roughly equal educational value – if, that is, you ignore the software.

Kano OS is, to put it simply, fantastic. For full details you’ll have to read my review, but it’s fair to say I was in love with the platform from the moment I powered the Kano kit on. Interestingly, though, you don’t need a Kano kit to use Kano OS: the Debian-based Linux distribution is available to download completely free of charge from Kano’s developer site, and can be used on any existing Raspberry Pi.

For my final conclusion, pick up the latest issue of PC Pro from your favourite supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 145

Linux User & Developer Issue 145In addition to my usual four-page news spread this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes a review of the SolidRun HummingBoard-i2eX, a powerful dual-core microcomputer designed to be roughly Raspberry Pi compatible.

If my description of the HummingBoard sounds familiar, it should: I reviewed the same device in a head-to-head with the similarly Raspberry Pi-inspired Banana Pi in Custom PC Issue 134. Where that review focused on a hobbyist perspective – given that it appeared in my regular five-page spread, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech – this review is more tailored for the Linux crowd to better address the magazine’s target audience. The board itself, of course, remains unchanged: a dual-core Freescale i.MX6 processor with powerful graphics is installed alongside a chunk of RAM on a computer-on-module (COM) mezzanine board inserted into a feature-packed expansion board, both being supplied by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT.

Little time passed between the two reviews, so there wasn’t any chance for SolidRun to tweak the software. At the time of writing, Android 4.4 KitKat was available alongside a Debian variant which truly unlocked the power of the processor. Most impressive of all, however, is the cross-compatibility: the HummingBoard is based on the Carrier-One, an internal development board used by SolidRun while testing the Freescale chip; the same chip is available in single-, dual- and quad-core flavours in the company’s CuBox-i family of media-centric microcomputers – and the HummingBoard is entirely software-compatible, to the extent of being able to take a micro-SD card out of a CuBox-i and boot it on a HummingBoard without modification.

As to whether the board, which includes mSATA and mini-PCI Express connectivity in addition to the usual USB and GPIO features you’d expect of a Raspberry Pi-alike, is worth the cash, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to find out. If you do, you’ll also find four pages of the finest news I could cull from the worlds of open software, open hardware, open governance and more – along with the usual monthly event calendar.

You can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 145 at your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 116

Custom PC, Issue 116This month’s Custom PC Magazine is a bumper issue for me: a massive in-depth Raspberry Pi feature is splashed across the cover, for which I provided all but the build-your-own-case section. As usual, the magazine also includes my regular interview column, this time talking to open hardware guru Andrew Back.

First, the Pi material. With the Raspberry Pi having had a phenomenally successful first year, and Custom PC having missed the chance to latch onto that with a cover splash for the launch review, it’s no surprise to see the magazine going all-out to attract Pi fans. Those who pick up the magazine for its Pi-related content are in for a treat, too.

First up is a head-to-head review covering the newly-released Raspberry Pi Model A and the redesigned Raspberry Pi Model B Revision 2. While some differences are obvious – the lack of a second USB port and Ethernet on the Model A, for example – others are less so, and the review hopefully answers the question of whether it’s worth paying the extra £12 to get the Model B over the tempting £18 asking price of the Model A.

The benchmarking continues with a look at how to overclock a Raspberry Pi without voiding your warranty, along with a few tips as to how to push it to ever-faster levels. Using a retail-model Raspberry Pi Model B Revision 2 equipped with a couple of cheap aluminium heatsinks, I was able to push the CPU from 700MHz to 1.1GHz and the GPU to 500MHz – and it made a serious difference in performance, as the benchmark results show.

Next, I walk newcomers to the project through installing the Raspbmc media server software and configuring it to stream HD YouTube content – something you’d think a £30 PC would struggle to do, but that’s certainly not the case. There’s also a look at the Minecraft: Pi Edition release, which provides a hackable and completely free version of Mojang’s popular block-’em-up game with which tinkers can fiddle around.

Finally, there’s a round-up of the four most popular operating systems for the Pi: Raspbian, the Debian-derived Linux distribution chosen as the ‘official’ OS by the Raspberry Pi Foundation; Raspbmc, the media-centric Linux distribution with integrated Xbmc support; RISCOS, by far the fastest OS for the Pi; and FreeBSD, for those who eschew Linux but still want a POSIX-compliant environment.

With the Pi work done, the interview. Andrew Back is one of the brains behind the Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG), and recently moved into my (relative) back-yard in Hebden Bridge. He’s a great guy, and always up for a chat – and his knowledge regarding open hardware, a still relatively unknown offshoot of the open source and free software movements, is second to none.

All this, and more by people who are not called Gareth Halfacree, can be yours if you just mosey on down to your local newsagents and pick up Custom PC Issue 116. Alternatively, stay indoors and get a digital copy via Zinio.