PC Pro, Issue 302

PC Pro Issue 302Following on from my group test of small form factor machines in Issue 297, this month’s PC Pro magazine sees me take the helm of the regular Labs Test once again to put nine more traditional desktop PCs through their paces – with some available for as little as £300 including a Windows 10 Home licence.

The feature follows the usual Labs format: an introduction is followed by a features table listing all the key specifications, including pricing and warranty data, on each of the nine machines on-test; four large focus reviews follow, along with six shorter reviews; there’s a two-page buyer’s guide with hints and tips on getting the most bang for your buck; the View from the Labs opinion editorial; and a full-page feature-in-feature which, this month, takes a tour of the desktop PC’s storied history from the minicomputer era forwards – with special mention, of course, to IBM’s Personal Computer and the horde of ‘IBM Compatibles’ which followed.

Each machine on test was photographed inside and out in my in-house studio, disassembled to check the fit and finish as well as confirm how upgradeable each design is post-purchase, and tested through a gamut of benchmarks including power draw, productivity performance, gaming performance – less of a focus for this Labs than most, owing to the fact many machines are at the very bottom of the budget and designed more for general-purpose computing than blasting aliens – as well as browser performance and disk speed. This Labs also comes with an added bonus: boot timings for each machine, measuring how long it takes each to load Windows ready for use from a cold start.

As always, these group tests wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of the hardware vendors themselves. My thanks go out to CCL, Palicomp, PC Specialist, QuietPC, Chillblast, Cyberpower, and Currys PC World for their assistance with hardware loans, and also to Box.co.uk for the loan of a system which was unfortunately not able to be included in the group this time around. A special thanks, too, goes to UL Benchmarks and Unigine for the provision of benchmarking software used in the test.

The full feature is available in PC Pro Issue 302, on-shelves now at supermarkets, newsagents, and on the hard drives of the usual digital distribution services.

PC Pro, Issue 298

PC Pro Issue 298The big news of the last few weeks has, of course, been the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – covered in considerable detail in my benchmark piece over on Medium. To support its in-house review coverage, PC Pro Magazine commissioned me to come up with project ideas that take full advantage of the Raspberry Pi 4’s new capabilities.

The first of a new family of Raspberry Pi products designed to do away with some of the biggest criticisms levelled at earlier models, the Raspberry Pi 4 includes a significantly more powerful processor, improved graphics capabilities, dual-4K video output and hardware H.265 4K video decoding, up to 4GB of RAM, true gigabit Ethernet networking, and two USB 3.0 ports sharing a high-speed PCI Express link back to the Broadcom BCM2711B0 system-on-chip (SoC) at the board’s heart.

My feature covers how these new capabilities can be used in a variety of real-world use-cases, from acting as a desktop replacement for lightweight browsing and productivity use to a low-power 4K-capable home cinema system. The new USB 3.0 ports are perfectly suited to turning a couple of external hard drives into a low-cost network-attached storage (NAS) system, while the improved graphics make gaming more tempting.

There’s even something for the enterprise crowd to sink its teeth into: the dual display capabilities mean that the Raspberry Pi 4 is perfect for digital signage, Citrix support on day one turns it into a dual-screen thin client, and the more powerful networking can be combined with a USB 3.0 Ethernet adapter to create an energy-efficient router, firewall, or other network appliance.

For the full low-down on what the Raspberry Pi 4’s new features could do for you, pick up the latest PC Pro from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Pocketmags or similar services.

PC Pro, Issue 297

PC Pro Issue 297The Labs Test in this month’s PC Pro is something of a bumper one: I ran a whopping 14 miniature PCs, from a cleverly cased Raspberry Pi up to a behemoth of a system squeezing in an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, through a gamut of tests including size and weight, power draw, productivity and gaming benchmarks to see which would come out on top.

The work of a solid few weeks, the Labs saw system after system bouncing onto and off the test bench. As well as requiring the actual testing, all photography was carried out in-house – with thanks to my wife, who served as a hand model for the article’s hero shot – with each system photographed from all angles and internally, plus a smart isometric view in which the scale is maintained so the reader can easily compare the relative sizes of each machine on test. Given that the feature is about miniature PCs, such easy at-a-glance comparison is key to knowing which machine meets the readers’ personal requirements.

A Labs Test like this wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of a range of companies, of course, and I’d like to thank the suppliers of machines for the test: ASRock, Asus, Intel, Mini-ITX.com, Lenovo, QuietPC, Raspberry Pi, and Shuttle. Additional thanks go to Intel, Nvidia, and Overclockers UK, who provided components required to build up the bare-bones systems on test.

As is traditional for a PC Pro Labs Test, the content is split between reviews – four 700-word focus reviews and ten 350-word supplementary reviews – and features, including an interview with Intel’s Ed Barkhuysen on the company’s modular vision for the future of computing, a buyer’s guide covering things to consider when making the move to an ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) system, a two-page features table covering everything you could want to know about each system on test, a look at external GPU (eGPU) products as a way of expanding the performance of mini-PCs, and a “View from the Labs” opinion editorial to round things out.

This feature also marks the first time the in-house PC Pro benchmark suite – which measures system performance for image editing, video playback, and multitasking workloads – has been run not only on Linux-based, rather than Windows, systems but also on a Raspberry Pi. To achieve that, I worked to port the PowerShell-based suite to the Bash shell while using the same cross-platform applications to ensure each platform can be compared as fairly as possible.

PC Pro Issue 297 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 186

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom PC, Issue 185

Custom PC Issue 185In my regular Hobby Tech column this month you’ll find a detailed review of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ single-board computer, another of the ever-so-slightly less-powerful Digirule2, and of Adam Fisher’s exhaustive Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley.

First, the Raspberry Pi. The first model to use the A+ form factor – smaller PCB, only one USB port, full-size display (DSI), camera (CSI), and HDMI ports, analogue audio-video (AV) – in the last four years, the Pi 3A+ is an impressive beast for cramming the full performance of the larger, more expensive Pi 3B+ into a smaller form factor. I was concerned, upon first unpacking, that the smaller PCB would undo the good work on the thermal-transfer front that made the Pi 3B+ such a good improvement on the original Pi 3B; a quick test under a thermal imaging camera, though, showed that I was worrying over nothing.

The Digirule2 is a markedly different beast. While it’s a single-board computer, it’s one which is designed more for fun than functionality: built into the form factor of a ruler, complete with inches and centimetres marked in binary along the upper and lower edges, the Digirule2 is inspired by classic machines like the Altair 8800. Press a series of buttons to program a particular memory location; press another button to switch to the next; and press a third to see your program run on the built-in LEDs. One particularly impressive feature is an eight-slot program storage, allowing you to save and load your programs directly on the device – and all without having to hook up your punch-tape reader/writer.

Finally, Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius is a book in the mould of Fire in the Valley: an attempt to document the rise and, frankly, continued rise of Silicon Valley and the companies it has birthed. Culled from over 200 individual interviews, the book uses direct quotation rather than any attempt to weave a narrative but dodges dryness by weaving multiple subjects’ remembrances into each themed chapter. The final effect is less an interview and more a conversation between some of the industry’s biggest names, from the birth of the mouse right through to the modern age.

To read the full column, pick up Custom PC Issue 185 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution platforms.

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.