Tag Archive for Dennis Publishing

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.

Custom PC, Issue 162

Custom PC Issue 162In Hobby Tech this month I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi-based Kano Complete Computer Kit, the eight-bit Arduboy handheld games console, and the undeniably impressive Mirobot educational robot.

To look at the Mirobot first, it’s no secret that I was eager to put it through its paces. Turtle-style robots, which roll around the floor drawing pictures, were immensely popular in the 80s, and the Mirobot looks to bring the technology bang up to date. Entirely open source, from the circuits to the software, the Mirobot is based around two microcontrollers: an Arduino, which handles the actual robotics, and an ESP8266, which provides Wi-Fi connectivity and handles the user interface and ever-so-smart over-the-air (OTA) flashing capabilities.

The Mirobot screams smart from the moment you open the package: its body is made from laser-cut MDF, and the panels form the packaging itself. Everything is put together without tools, and getting up and running requires no software installation – just a device with a modern browser. Multiple programming languages are available, and an API for those who want to roll their own software. In short, I’m a Mirobot fan – and I’d heartily recommend picking one up if you’ve an interest in open-source robotics or programming for education.

The Kano Complete Computer Kit, on the other hand, comes at education from a very different perspective. Billed somewhat disingenuously as a computer you ‘build,’ the kit is at its heart a speaker and case for a bundle Raspberry Pi alongside a customised operating system which is the project’s true selling point.

The Kano kits have been around for a while now, but the Complete Computer Kit as reviewed is new: the computer side has been refreshed to include the latest Raspberry Pi 3, while the bundle also includes a high-quality but non-touch display which accepts the Kano-cased Pi in its rear. It’s a lovely kit, and the software – which you can download for free and run on your own Raspberry Pi – is phenomenal, but its cost definitely lets it down: at £299 RRP it’s massively overpriced.

Finally, the Arduboy. Crowdfunded and hit by numerous delays on its way to market, the Arduboy is an extremely smart little handheld console based around an Arduino-compatible ATmega microprocessor. Games are written in the Arduino IDE then flashed onto the credit card sized device via USB, and play out on a teeny-tiny little single-colour OLED panel which is sadly prone to bad banding.

The Arduboy is a lovely device, but it’s not the first design I’ve seen – and nor is it my favourite. The Gamebuino, reviewed back in Issue 134, still sits at the top for a number of reasons: it’s cheaper, it has better battery life, and it has a clever system for loading games from a bundled micro-SD card. The Arduboy, by contrast, is slimmer, has a clearer display, but can only carry a single game at a time. When you want to switch games, you’ll need a computer with the Arduino IDE – and that’s a major drawback in a portable gaming device.

All this can be yours, alongside the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

PC Pro, Issue 268

PC Pro Issue 268My review for this month’s PC Pro is on a topic dear to my heart: hardware which not only fully supports the open GNU/Linux operating system, but even comes with it pre-installed. Specifically, it’s the Aurora laptop from Newcastle-based Nimbusoft.

Based on a Topstar Ultrabook chassis, the Aurora is designed to appeal to those who like Apple’s MacBook Pro and MacBook Air range. Though not as powerful as the former or slim as the latter, it’s a comfortable little laptop with a slick aluminium chassis – albeit one I would discover during dismantling is rather thinner than you might expect.

The hardware isn’t the main feature of the Aurora, anyway. Nimbusoft’s claim to fame is in being one of the few companies offering a range of hardware with a Linux distribution pre-installed. the company even goes further than its competitors in offering a choice of desktop environments, and I’m pleased to say that the review unit – specced with Ubuntu 16.04.1 running the stock Unity DE – proved to be entirely without bloat or branding, in stark contrast to Windows laptops I’ve looked at in the past.

Reviewing the laptop for PC Pro involved running it through a standardised battery life test: the looping of a film with the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios disabled and the display set to a brightness of 170cd/m². This makes my result of five hours exactly – give or take a couple of seconds – directly comparable with the magazine’s other reviews, even of tablet-style machines. Getting the display to exactly the right brightness, though, is always a challenge.

While the battery life proved slightly disappointing and the chassis rather thin, I came away from the Aurora rather pleased – but to get my final verdict on the machine you’ll have to pick up a copy of PC Pro Issue 268 from your nearest emporium of glossy print or digitally via Zinio or one of the many competing digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 161

Custom PC Issue 161In this latest issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine you’ll find – to no great surprise – my long-running five-page Hobby Tech column, covering the handy thermoplastic FORMcard, the Raspberry Pi powered Nextcloud Box, and Zachtronics’ Shenzhen I/O.

Looking at Shenzhen I/O first: it’s rare that I’ll write a game review as part of Hobby Tech, but Zachtronics’ output is a typical exception. The last I covered was the company’s excellent eight-bit minicomputer ‘simulator’ TIS-100, and Shenzhen I/O builds on that premise with a new near-future theme. The player is placed in the role of a newly-hired engineer at a Chinese electronics concern and given the task of building increasingly complex hardware from simple components using a drag-and-drop interface and a simple TIS-100-like instruction set.

As good as the game itself is – and it’s absolutely fantastic – it’s the manual that really caught my attention. Like the Infocom feelies of old, the document is written entirely in-universe and acts as a series of emails, manual extracts, data sheets, and reference material for the hardware and projects you’ll be tackling through the game. If TIS-100 whet your whistle, you won’t be disappointed with Shenzhen I/O.

The Nextcloud Box, meanwhile, is something a little more professional. Designed around the Western Digital Labs PiDrive product, it offers a simple means to build a single-drive low-power 1TB network attached storage (NAS) device running Nextcloud’s open-source software on top of the Ubuntu Snappy Core operating system.

My review of the Nextcloud Box goes into great detail about its features and capabilities, but there are two things that struck me during the review process and are worth highlighting here. The first is that the WD Labs’ box, emblazoned with Nextcloud branding, really needs a rethink: the cables go through very sharp bends, and those using cheaper cables may find they don’t last very long at all. The other is that getting set up for local access was an absolute breeze, without even the need to connect a monitor to the device – something other Pi-powered project creators could do with copying.

Finally, the FORMcard review. I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, a mouldable silicone putty which hardens into rubber overnight, and when I was contacted to see if I would be interested in giving rival FORMcard a try I jumped at the chance. Created by Peter Marigold and crowdfunded into production, FORMcard is a starch-based bioplastic which softens with the application of heat. Simply take one of the credit card footprint plastic sheets, dunk it in hot water for a minute, then mould it to your hearts desire. Unlike Sugru, it hardens in minutes and is fully reusable – assuming you can remove it from whatever surface you smeared it over – but it’s, for obvious reasons, not the material to use if you’re patching something that gets hot.

For my full opinions on all three items, plus the usual array of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of right where you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

PC Pro, Issue 267

PC Pro Issue 267This month’s PC Pro magazine features an in-depth review of the NextThingCo CHIP and its PocketCHIP companion, crowd-funded open-hardware alternatives to the overwhelmingly popular Raspberry Pi.

NextThingCo’s crowdfunding launch was met with considerable scepticism, and with good reason: at a time when the Raspberry Pi had only just proven you could sustainable sell a fully-functional single-board microcomputer with desktop-ish performance for under $30, NextThingCo was claiming to offer the same thing for $9 – and with integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radio connectivity to boot.

The campaign succeeded, and to critics’ considerable surprise nobody was ripped off: NextThingCo’s CHIP did indeed ship and, as of earlier this year, is now available to purchase direct. While certain corners have been undoubtedly cut – just like the Raspberry Pi, it comes devoid of cables and accessories – and its performance can’t hold a candle to newer Pi models, it’s functional, available, and if you’re willing to supply the extras needed to get it up and running yourself does indeed cost $9.

The PocketCHIP, meawhile, is a fantastic example of what you can do with a CHIP: an open-hardware hand-held computer, complete with clever though painful-to-use bubble-based keyboard, with a very 1990s transparent casing. The screen may be low resolution and resistive rather than capacitive touch, but if I said I didn’t have a blast using the PocketCHIP I’d be lying.

For my full verdict on the device, of course, you’ll have to head to your nearest PC Pro stockist, whether that’s a newsagent, a supermarket, or one of the digital distributors like Zinio you can browse from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this.

Custom PC, Issue 160

Custom PC Issue 160This month’s edition of Custom PC includes, as usual, my five-page Hobby Tech column covering the Dremel 3000 Four-Star Kit, the CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers, and the conclusion of the Arduino-versus-Arduino saga – in a happy ending, I’m thrilled to say.

Rotary tools like the Dremel 3000 are one of those things you don’t think you need until you get one. It’s been a long time since I played with a proper Dremel-branded example, and this month’s review was a fantastic excuse to get myself up to speed with the changes the platform has enjoyed.

Ignoring the poor-quality ‘toolbox’ the kit comes in, I was particularly excited by the EZ-SpeedClic system. My original Dremel-like tool – a Black & Decker Wizard – had long been abandoned after frustrations with the tiny screw which attaches cut-off and grinding discs to the equally tiny mandrel. EZ-SpeedClic does away with that: the discs’ reinforced centres just twist and snap onto a clever sprung holder. Coupled with some shiny new accessories, I could see why people might want to upgrade from older or rival models.

The CHIP and PocketCHIP, meanwhile, came as more of a surprise. Like many, I was dismissive of NextThingCo’s inaugural crowdfunding campaign; the idea of a $9 fully-functional microcomputer when the Raspberry Pi had only just got the things down below $30 seemed laughable, and many in the industry suggested it was an outright fraud or at least a loss-leader to be offset by future sales at a higher price.

Proving the critics wrong, though, NextThingCo launched the $9 CHIP – albeit requiring add-on cables and adaptors to get a picture out of the thing – and followed it up with the PocketCHIP, an open hardware proof-of-concept which turns the CHIP into a surprisingly capable hand-held computer straight out of the early 90s.

Finally, regular readers will remember my coverage of the legal battle between Arduino.cc and Arduino.org which had given birth to the Genuino trademark, and the follow-up piece in Issue 159 covering Pimoroni’s decision to drop all Arduino and Genuino products as a result. The final page of this month’s column is, hopefully, the last I will have to write on that particular topic: the two companies have agreed to settle their disputes, join forces, and work together under a single Arduino brand – meaning, of course, that Genuino-branded products are likely to vanish from the market in due course.

All this, and stuff written by people other than myself, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on the electronic shelf substitutes of services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 159

Custom PC Issue 159Hobby Tech this month covers the launch of the Sugru Rebel Tech Kit, the performance improvements made possible in the latest Arduino IDE, and ends with bad news for Arduino.cc’s new Genuino brand which, I’m pleased to say, has since been replaced by significantly better news.

Sugru, for those not familiar, is remarkable stuff. Straight from the packet it has the consistency of well-worked Blu-tack, if not slightly softer, but with nothing more than time hardens into a firm silicone rubber. It’s waterproof, heatproof, electrically insulative, and I’ve used it in the past for everything from mounting a tablet to the side of my monitor to customising the scales on a Leatherman multitool.

The Rebel Tech Kit, then, is Sugru’s attempt to grab some Christmas gift traffic. Featuring four sachets of Sugru, a guitar pick for moulding and removal, a storage tin, and a full-colour project booklet, there’s not much in there for those already experienced in the ways of “mouldable glue.” For newcomers, though, it’s a fantastic introduction, and one I can see appearing under trees around the world.

The Arduino IDE tests, meanwhile, were fun to carry out. Updates to the AVR Core – the toolchain used for ATmega-based microcontroller boards like the Arduino Uno and Arduino Mega – have brought with them the promise of smaller binary sizes and improved performance, which was an excuse to pull out my microcontroller benchmark family: the floating-point Whetstone, integer Dhrystone, and my own pin-toggling IOBench. The result is an in-depth look at the improvements you can expect from upgrading, complete with pretty graphs and even prettier screenshots.

Finally, the Genuino’s death knell. At the time of writing, noted Sheffield-based hobbyist supply house Pimoroni had revealed the outcome of months of negotiations with Arduino.cc: they would no longer stock the company’s boards. The reason: the ongoing legal battle with Arduino.org over international trademark rights, which had seen Arduino.cc launch the Genuino brand. A refusal to sell Genuino-branded hardware to resellers that would make them available in the US was causing headaches that Pimoroni could do without, which were detailed in the company’s blog post and expanded upon in the final page of my column this month.

Publishing, though, has considerable lead times, and in the time it’s taken this issue to hit shop shelves there’s been a welcome development: Arduino.cc and Arduino.org have merged, ending all legal proceedings between the two and meaning that the problems experienced by Pimoroni over trademark rights and product geo-fencing should no longer be an issue. The impact of this merger, and what it means for the Arduino user, will be explored in a future column.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff from people other than myself, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally on Zinio and other distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 157

Custom PC Issue 157This month’s Hobby Tech column demonstrates how to use the Raspberry Pi Camera Module to create smooth timelapse footage and reviews the WeMos D1 R2 ESP8266-based Arduino-alike board and Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang’s Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen.

Looking to the tutorial, this is far from the first time I’ve covered the use of the Raspberry Pi Camera Module add-on. Since its initial launch, however, the software has come on in leaps and bounds including means of finally addressing a longstanding issue with the board: the difficulty in using the timelapse functionality. Where previously you needed a surprisingly complicated script to control the camera, now timelapse capture is handled entirely within the raspistill software. Coupled with avconv – ffmpeg, which I had previously recommended for the task, having been deleted from the Raspbian software repositories – the two packages are all you need to create high-quality timelapse footage directly on any Raspberry Pi.

The WeMos D1 R2 is one of a range of low-cost devices based on the ESP8266 microcontroller and Wi-Fi radio. While getting on in age, the ESP8266 is extremely popular due to its rock-bottom pricing; the only snag being that its form factor makes it difficult to integrate into hobbyist projects. The WeMos D1 R2 aims to fix that by providing a breakout board for the compact ESP8266 in the familiar Arduino Uno layout. While more feature-packed equivalents exist, the WeMos D1 R2 costs just £3.30 in single units – an absolute bargain for an easy-to-use microcontroller with integrated Wi-Fi connectivity.

Finally, The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen. Kindly loaned by my friend Aaron at hobbyist electronics specialist oomlout, this latest book from noted hacker Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang is a major departure from the norm. Rather than a how-to guide or white paper analysis, the book is designed to be used as a functional sourcing tool while visiting the Shenzhen area of China complete with maps, point-to-translate pages covering everything from travelling back to your hotel to enquiring as to the tolerance of resistors and capacitors. A pair of prose sections also provide information on doing business in China, including how to spot fake or missold components and how each could affect your project. Niche, perhaps, but a fascinating read – and an invaluable tool for anyone planning a trip to Shenzhen any time soon.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or as a string of zeroes and ones on Zinio and other digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 156

Custom PC Issue 156The latest installment of my long-running Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is four-strong this month: as well as a two-page review of the Particle Electron GSM microcontroller, you’ll find reviews of the Pimoroni Black Hat Hack3r family of Raspberry Pi add-on boards, vintage computing simulator TIS-100, and a look at open-source laser-cut tool holder designs from Wim Van Gool.

First, the tool holders. I’ve never been known for keeping my workspace neat and tidy, but I’ve found that as long as there is something nearby to slot things in I can be trusted to put things back at least half of the time. Trouble is, pen holders are somewhat ill-suited to smaller tools and dedicated tool holders are expensive. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that Wim Van Gool had published design files for a pair of tool holders designed specifically for the sort of compact tools you need for detail electronics work to Thingiverse – and, better still, that they could be cut from cheap medium-density fibreboard (MDF).

The Particle Electron, meanwhile, came to me courtesy a Kickstarter campaign I backed following my delight with the Particle Photon – or, as it was known when I reviewed it back in Issue 132, the Spark Core – Wi-Fi microcontroller. Like its predecessor, the Particle Electron is Arduino-like and powered by Particle’s excellent web-based IDE and cloud infrastructure; where the Photon uses Wi-Fi to connect, though, the Electron uses international mobile infrastructure in either 2G (as reviewed) or 3G flavours. For remote projects where Wi-Fi connectivity can’t be guaranteed, that’s fantastic – but be aware that there are ongoing costs, and that the device is locked down to Particle’s own SIM card (supplied).

Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r boards, meanwhile, are significantly less ‘clever’: at their hearts, the Black Hat Hack3r and Mini Black Hat Hack3r are nothing more than break-out boards for the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin GPIO header. Designed in-house to speed Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) development and released as a product following considerable demand, the ‘dumb’ break-out boards are nevertheless a treat to use: it’s possible to connect a HAT to any model of Pi minus the Compute Module and still retain access to all 40 pins for additional hardware or debugging purposes, or even to daisy-chain the boards to connect multiple HATs to a single Pi – if you don’t mind hacking around the EEPROM issues that may cause.

Finally, TIS-100. I don’t normally review games, but TIS-100 isn’t a normal game: developed by Zachtronics, the creator of Spacechem and the Ruckingeneur series, TIS-100 gives the player control of a fictional 1980s computer system – the Tessellated Intelligence System – with a simplified instruction set. The task: to rewrite corrupted segments of the computer’s firmware, and in doing so uncover the mystery of what happened to the machine’s last owner ‘Uncle Rudy.’ In short: it’s half-game, half-programming-exercise – and pretty much all fantastic.

All this, plus a wealth of other stuff from people other than myself, is awaiting you at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on digital distribution services such as Zinio.