Custom PC, Issue 173

Custom PC Issue 173This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the learn-by-post Tron-Club Electronics Kits, the excellent Core Memory, and revisits one of the biggest disappointments of the year: the Asus Tinker Board.

First, the re-review. I originally tested the Asus Tinker Board – or Tinkerboard, or TinkerBoard, depending on which piece of documentation you’re reading – back in Issue 164 when it first hit the market. At the time, the device was impossible to recommend: the top-end hardware, capable of outperforming even the latest Raspberry Pi 3 against which it is designed to compete, was let down by woeful and unfinished software. Nine months on, I decided to give Asus a second chance and load the latest software to see if anything had improved – and I’m pleased to say that many, though far from all, of the issues I had back in March have been addressed.

The Tron-Club Electronics Kits, meanwhile, are smart subscription packages supplied monthly with a claimed minimum of 21 circuits in every pack. Based around discrete components in the Basic Kits and a microcontroller in the Advanced Kits, I was lucky enough to receive a sample of both from Bit-Tech forumite Byron Collier who had finished with them himself.

Finally, Core Memory. Continuing my trend to buy coffee table books despite not actually having a coffee table, I picked up Mark Richard and John Alderman’s book – subtitled “A Visual History of Vintage Computers” – a few years ago, and while it’s now out of print it is still readily available from Amazon and other retailers and, frankly, well worth the cash, despite a few errors in Alderman’s supporting text.

All this, and the usual collection of things written by people who aren’t me, is available from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

 

The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide

The Official BBC Micro:bit User GuideToday marks the launch of The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide, the culmination of a year-long project to create the most complete and accessible guide to using the BBC’s amazing low-cost embedded computing platform everywhere from the home and the hackspace to the classroom.

Written in partnership with the Micro:bit Educational Foundation, The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide is a collaborative effort. From project editor John Sleeva who worked so tirelessly on The Raspberry Pi User Guide and has brought that same energy to The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide and technical editor David Whale who made sure that not a semicolon was out of place to the small army of typesetters, proofreaders, copy editors, and others at publisher J. Wiley & Sons, The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide owes its existence to far more than the person whose name appears on the cover.

Special thanks, too, must go to Zach Shelby, chief executive of the Micro:bit Educational Foundation, for his early support of the project and chief technical officer Jonny Austin who worked to see the project through from start to finish and provided exhaustive feedback to ensure it launched in the best possible condition – not to mention offering his perspective of the BBC micro:bit’s meteoric rise around the globe in the book’s foreword.

Inside the 300-page publication you’ll find step-by-step instructions from unboxing the BBC micro:bit and learning about its components to programming it in JavaScript Blocks, JavaScript, and Python, as well as practical projects which make use of its sensors, buttons, display, and radio module. You’ll have the opportunity to build everything from a wearable rain-sensing hat to a hand-held game, and links to further resources from lesson plans and community-driven content hubs to add-on hardware to expand the BBC micro:bit’s already impressive capabilities are also included.

The Official BBC Micro:bit User Guide is available now in print and electronic formats from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Kobo, Waterstones, Target, O’Reilly, WH Smith, Booktopia Australia, and direct from Wiley, while it can be ordered in at other booksellers under ISBN 978-1119386735.

For those looking for non-English resources, translations are currently in the works with a French edition confirmed for early next year and more expected to follow in due course – and if you’d like to see the book in your own native language, get in touch to discuss how to make that happen!

PC Pro, Issue 277

PC Pro Issue 277This month’s issue of PC Pro includes a four-way Battle Royale of DIY handheld games consoles, starting with the MAKERbuino and Creoqode 2048 also reviewed in this month’s Custom PC and including the original Gamebuino and Arduboy to complete the round-up.

There’s never been a higher focus on teaching kids to program – not even during the height of the microcomputing boom in the 1980s, when every home had a Spectrum and every school a BBC Model B partially funded by the government’s Computers in Schools initiative – but there’s a risk of turning kids off if all they’re doing is moving sprites around on a screen. To address this, a number of inventors have come up with physical devices to target instead: from the BBC micro:bit, the spiritual successor to the original Acorn-designed BBC Micro, to the handheld consoles in this month’s group test.

Each of the consoles on test have two things in common. The first is obvious: the focus is more on writing your own games, rather than just playing things other people have created. The second lies under the hood: all four consoles on test are based on Atmel microcontrollers and are compatible with the popular Arduino IDE programming environment.

There are more differences than similarities, though. The Creoqode 2048 is the most physically impressive – and imposing – machine on test thanks to its large footprint and bright RGB LED display, but falls down with poor supporting documentation and rebranded off-the-shelf parts sold at a massive markup; the Arduboy is, by contrast, the tiniest on test with a wallet-friendly design but limited capabilities. The Gamebuino has long been one of my favourite Arduino-compatible projects, but the MAKERbuino takes the concept a stage further with small hardware improvements and a shift from a pre-assembled unit to a solder-it-yourself kit using entirely through-hole components.

If you want to know which device walks away as the king of the hill, though, you’ll have to pick up the latest issue of PC Pro either physically at all good newsagents and supermarkets or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Hello World, Issue 1

Hello World Issue 1The Raspberry Pi Foundation has launched a new magazine, Hello World, and I’m thrilled to have contributed photography to its launch issue – the first, hopefully, of many to come.

Designed to sit alongside The MagPi rather than replace it, the Foundation’s second magazine takes aim at a different audience: where The MagPi is for the Raspberry Pi community as a whole, Hello World focuses purely on computing education – and not exclusively Raspberry Pi-related topics, either, with hackspaces and 3D modelling software among the subjects covered in the launch issue.

While I’m primarily a technical writer and journalist, I’m also a photographer. Whether it’s events I’ve attended or product photography, whatever I take I release publicly under a permissive Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike licence which allows anybody – including commercial businesses – to take the images and use them as they see fit, so long as I am identified as the original creator and any derivative works are released under the same licence.

It’s always a pleasure to see my photos cropping up in new places, and I’m proud as punch that includes Hello World. The full issue is available to download now as a free PDF from the official website, while you can see more of my photography – and download full-resolution images to use yourself – on my Flickr page.

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.

The MagPi, Issue 53

The MagPi Issue 53Inside this month’s MagPi Magazine – the first issue to feature a cover-mounted DVD, boasting a bootable copy of the new Debian+Pixel Linux distribution for readers to try – you’ll find my review of a rather special little gadget: the Mirobot v2 programmable robot.

I’ve played with educational robots before, but the Mirobot caught my eye the minute I saw inventor Ben Pirt demonstrating it at the Maker Faire UK earlier this year. With a chassis made entirely from laser-cut MDF, the Mirobot is an impressive package: Ben has designed it so that every component nestles in holes cut out from the MDF sheets themselves, making for an extremely compact box which pops nicely through your letterbox and leaving almost zero waste once assembled.

The Mirobot is designed primarily for use as a turtle, and includes a mount for a pen so it can draw on suitable surfaces. Where it differs from most rival designs is that it can be programmed entirely through a browser: an on-board web server, running on the popular ESP8266 microcontroller, can work as a standalone hotspot with simple Scratch-inspired drag-and-drop programming interface or connect to your home Wi-Fi and allow access to additional languages, a point-and-click interface, and even a set of buttons for direct remote control.

With the exception of the Scratch language, which relies on Adobe Flash Player, everything works an absolute treat on the Raspberry Pi, but the Mirobot isn’t limited to this: it can be programmed from any modern web-connected device, from a laptop to a smartphone, or for more advanced users interfaced with via a well-documented application programming interface (API) from the language of your choice. Assembly is quick and easy, requiring absolutely no tools, and while aligning the pen and motors is a little trickier that’s a one-off job.

To read the full review, either pick up a paper copy of The MagPi Issue 53 and enjoy your bonus cover DVD or download the entire issue for free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 154

Custom PC Issue 154In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a good long look at the BBC micro:bit, CubieTech’s latest Cubietruck Plus (Cubieboard 5) single-board computer, and a pack of Top Trumps-inspired playing cards based on vintage computers.

Beginning with the micro:bit, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a press sample when the much-redesigned educational device was finally ready to ship to schools across the UK. Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller and boasting integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the micro:bit’s main selling point is its excellent support: the web IDE includes four languages suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to experts, there is documentation galore, and the BBC’s TV output includes shows which remind me of the glory days of the BBC Micro and its related programming.

At least, that would be a selling point if the board was actually up for sale. Despite having now mostly fulfilled its promise to ship free micro:bits to all Year Seven pupils in the UK, the BBC has still made no announcement about commercial availability for the educational gadget. Those whose appetites are whetted by the review, then, are best off looking at the CodeBug on which the micro:bit was based, or the new Genuino/Arduino 101 if Bluetooth LE support is a requirement.

The Cubietruck Plus, meanwhile, is an altogether different beast. Kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the board is – as the name suggests – a follow-up to CubieTech’s original Cubietruck. The old dual-core processor is long gone, replaced with an Allwinner H8 octa-core chip that blazed through benchmarks with aplomb – and without hitting the boiling-point temperature highs of the rival Raspberry Pi 3.

Sadly, there’s one piece of information that didn’t make it into the review: shortly after the issue went to press, security researchers discovered a debug vulnerability left in Allwinner’s customised Linux kernel which allows any application on the system to gain root permission. Although affecting only selected operating systems, it’s something to be aware of if you’re in the market for an Allwinner-powered SBC.

Finally, the playing cards. Created by start-up 8bitkick following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the deck is nostalgia in a box. The idea is to bring the Top Trumps concept of collectable, trivia-esque comparison gaming to vintage computing: the cards feature everything from the Acorn Atom to the TI-99/4A, plus a joker in the deck in the form of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.

The cards are printed with a very high quality finish, but it’s the source of the images that is of most interest: rather than take the pictures itself, 8bitkick has instead scoured the web for images in the public domain or licensed as Creative Commons. It’s no theft, though: while most Creative Commons licenses allow for even commercial reuse if properly attributed, 8bitkick has promised to upload the full deck design to its website for free download and printing.

All this, plus lots of interesting things by people who aren’t me, is only a short trip to the newsagent’s away – or you can stay exactly where you are and grab a digital copy from Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 165

Linux User & Developer Issue 165For my regular review in Linux User & Developer this month I had the great pleasure to spend time with the BBC’s first serious hardware project since it teamed up with Acorn in the 80s: the BBC micro:bit.

Originally known as the Micro Bit, the micro:bit is a teeny-tiny microcontroller-based educational programming platform based on the CodeBug. Like the CodeBug, the micro:bit uses a 5×5 LED matrix on its front side as its main method of communicating with the outside world; unlike the CodeBug, the micro:bit includes built-in Bluetooth Low Energy support as well as a gyroscope and magnetic compass, along with the two-button input layout the two share.

With the backing of the BBC, and a major funding drive from Barclay’s which has seen a micro:bit promised to ever Year Seven pupil the UK entirely free of charge, it’s no surprise to see that plenty of companies are involved in the project. At launch, the device boasted no fewer than four programming languages – three provided by Microsoft – in its web-based IDE, along with a neat smartphone app built by Samsung allowing for Bluetooth LE-based interaction and even wireless flashing of programs.

Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller (and, oddly, a significantly more powerful Cortex-M0+ which is used exclusively to handle the USB Mass Storage implementation, allowing for mbed-style drag-and-drop flashing without the need to install drivers or a toolchain locally) the micro:bit is impressive, as is the wealth of documentation and supporting materials the BBC has compiled. There’s a catch, mind you: so far, the BBC has not announced commercial availability – meaning we have no idea how much the gadget is going to cost people not included in the generous Barclay’s-funded giveaway programme.

For the full low-down, plus a lot more interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local magazine outlet or stay where you are and pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

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.