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 145

Custom PC Issue 145In the pages of this month’s Custom PC magazine you’ll find my regular Hobby Tech column split into three segments: a two-page review of the Velleman 3D Printing Pen, a further two pages of coverage from the Liverpool MakeFest, and a final page reviewing the excellent Petduino from Circuitbeard.

First, the Velleman pen, kindly provided by CPC. Considering that I write a column about – among other topics – maker culture, it’s a real surprise I’ve never really delved into 3D printing before. It’s a topic that interest me, but one which is difficult to address easily: printers are bulky, expensive, and even when review samples are available they typically need hours of assembly and fine-tuning which can be difficult to fit into a freelancer’s budget.

The Velleman 3D Printing Pen, on the other hand, requires close to zero set-up. Connect the mains adapter, insert some of the bundled PLA filament, and hold down the motorised feed button, and it starts chucking soft filament out of the nozzle like a good ‘un. It’s a simple design, based on glue guns and ‘inspired’ by the pre-existing 3Doodler, but it lacks the fine control of a true 3D printer: the box shows someone ‘drawing’ the Eiffel Tower, but I call shenanigans on that one.

The event coverage comes courtesy of client oomlout, on whose behalf I attended the first Liverpool MakeFest. It was, as these events often are, a stunning success and great fun, despite a hiccough where my cheap Jessops speed-flash died a few minutes into the day – an issue I was thankfully quickly able to resolve by running to a nearby photography shop and picking up a second-hand Nikon replacement, thusly also blowing any hope of seeing a profit.

Regardless, there were several personal highlights from the day including a great chat with the event founders and seeing friends including Ben Grey of MeArm fame and Adrian McEwan of DoES Liverpool with his ever-popular Nerf shooting range. I was also pleased to learn that the response of the public was good enough that the Liverpool Central Library is keen to work with organisers to run the MakeFest as an annual event.

Finally, the review. I met up with Circuitbeard – more properly known as Matt Brailsford, and yes his beard is impressive in the hairy flesh – at the recent Halifax Mini Maker Faire, where he was kind enough to provide me with a prototype of his Petduino design. Based on the Arduino platform, the Petduino is part development board and part virtual pet. Designed to get kids – and the young-at-heart – interested in software and hardware development, the Petduino comes with a range of open-source ‘personality’ Arduino sketches which can be installed and hacked about to change its behaviour. It’s a great tool for teaching, and with sales of the initial batch off to a flying start one I predict will be very successful – and I can’t wait to see the promised add-on kits Matt has planned.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services now.

CCS Resurrection, Issue 69

CCS Resurrection, Issue 69I recently joined the Computer Conservation Society (CCS) arm of the British Computer Society (BCS), a working group dedicated to preserving the heritage of computing that we have in this country. In addition to a lecture on classic British home computers, I was asked to contribute to the official CCS journal Resurrection with a piece on the Raspberry Pi.

While, as my feature for the magazine points out, the Raspberry Pi itself needs to age a few more decades before it will be of direct interest to computer conservationists, the story of its rise from nowhere to become the dominant force in hobbyist-targeted single-board computers is a fascinating one – and, interestingly, mirrors similar growth experienced by Chris Curry and Hermann Hauser’s Acorn Computers in the 1980s in more ways than one.

Taking in the history of the project from its origins as a microcontroller-based development system built on Veroboard through to the launch of the quad-core Raspberry Pi 2, my feature builds on my early experience with the project – having met co-founder Eben Upton during an event at Bletchley Park, where he showed off an early prototype – and interviews I have performed in the intervening years.

The latest issue of Resurrection is sent out to members automatically, or can be viewed online in any web browser.

Custom PC, Issue 139

Custom PC Issue 139My desk has been getting a little overloaded with new toys of late, so this month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is review-heavy to help clear that backlog. While the column opens with a two-page tutorial on building a PirateBox, this is followed by a spread looking at four of Pimoroni’s Raspberry Pi add-ons with a concluding page of my thoughts on Imagination Technologies’ Creator CI20 development board.

Looking at the tutorial first, I have to admit to a little trepidation in asking my editor, Ben Hardwidge, to support something called a PirateBox. Thankfully, while its name is designed to raise eyebrows, the concept is free of anything that could reasonably enrage the copyright cartel. A PirateBox is simply a Wi-Fi router running a modified version of the OpenWRT Linux distribution, tailored for localised chat and file sharing. It has no connection to the internet, and if paired with the right low-power hardware can run for days from a cheap USB battery pack. While you could certainly use it to distribute copyright content illegitimately, the fact that you have to be in close physical proximity limits its usefulness – but it’s absolutely top-tier for sharing files at events, which is the use I had in mind when I set out to build the thing.

Pimoroni, a local company just across the way in sunny Sheffield, made a name for themselves by being one of the first to build attractive and affordable add-on boards for the Raspberry Pi. Despite being good friends with the team, I’ve never actually reviewed any of their products – until Gee Bartlett took me on a tour of the factory and pressed four of their most popular creations into my hands. So, rather than spin it out over the next four months, a two-page spread was in order to review the boards: the education-centric PiBrella, the interestingly-shaped PiGlow, the impressive Displayotron-3000, and the retina-searing Unicorn HAT. Spoiler: they’re all pretty great, and the guys are working on some more advanced projects that I can’t wait to get on the test-bench for future issues.

Finally, the Creator CI20. While it sometimes feels that all I do is test single-board computers – not that I’m complaining, they’re absolutely fascinating – the CI20 breaks from the crowd by using the MIPS instruction set architecture. The creation of Imagination Technologies – the company behind the graphics hardware that powered Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast console, fact-fans – the board has clearly been taken from an existing oddly-shaped design but offers plenty of power for the maker community to hack around, including boasting significantly improved general-purpose performance compared to the majority of the ARM-based boards I’ve tested.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a visit to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 144

Linux User & Developer Issue 144In addition to my regular four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes a detailed review of the Nvidia Jetson TK1 single-board computer (SBC) as so very kindly provided by Zotac.

Impressive popularity in the US coupled with regulatory red-tape delayed the Jetson TK1’s release in the UK and prevented press from getting their hands on the gadget. Thankfully, Zotac – the company chosen to take on the logistical details of international availability by Nvidia – was kind enough to provide me with the only press sample in Europe ahead of its formal launch at high-street retailer Maplin.

A review of the board was published in Custom PC Issue 133 from a hobbyists perspective as part of an extended seven-page Hobby Tech column, but this coverage concentrates much more closely on the device’s suitability for the Linux developer. As a result, you’ll find more in-depth analysis of the bundled operating system – Linux 4 Tegra, a customised variant of Canonical’s Ubuntu Linux – and a critical look at the lack of OpenCL support, despite its presence in the Tegra K1 process on which the Jetson TK1 is based.

I won’t give too much away here, but I’d urge you to pick up a copy of the magazine and read the review before shelling out the £200 – far higher than the $192 of its US launch, even taking VAT and import tax into account – Maplin is charging for the device, especially if you have plans to use it in hobbyist electronics projects or for GPGPU offload tasks.

A visit to your local supermarket, newsagent, or pointing your browser at digital distribution services like Zinio will also reward you with four pages of the latest happenings in the worlds of open source, open hardware and open governance, along with a selection of interesting features written by people who aren’t me. The contents of this magazine will also be later republished in France, translated as Inside Linux Magazine.