Custom PC, Issue 123

Custom PC, Issue 123Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech continues in the latest Custom PC Magazine, with a tutorial that’s sure to generate some interest: creating a companion display for your desktop or laptop using nothing more than an outdated and cheaply-available Android tablet – or smartphone, if you’ve got good enough eyesight for that to be useful. As usual, there’s also a review and some vintage computing goodness to mix things up a bit.

First, the tutorial. As with most of the projects that appear in Hobby Tech, I created this for personal use before deciding it might be of interest to others. Having no room for a true second monitor, but frequently running out of window room on my slightly cramped 1,920×1,200 main monitor, I worked to turn an old Android tablet into a secondary display. It’s an easy enough trick to do on Linux, although likely somewhat harder if you’re a Windows user, and extremely handy: I can open anything from a terminal session to a browser window on the display, stream it live and wirelessly to the tablet, and interact with it using my desktop’s keyboard and mouse.

It’s a purely software project – aside from the mounting of the display, which I carried out with Sugru – and one that has certainly seen more use than anything else I’ve documented in the column. It’s particularly useful for keeping an eye on my playlist while I’m working, and while it isn’t without its faults – the tablet has a tendency to drop its network connection every now and again, necessitating a reconnect – it’s been great value for money.

In addition to the tutorial, Hobby Tech this month includes a review of the Embedded Artists 2.7″ ePaper Display – which, as the name suggests, is a compact electrophoretic display designed for embedded hardware. It’s a clever bit of kit compatible with most microcontrollers, although my review concentrates on its use with the popular Raspberry Pi. As an added bonus, while my unit was very kindly supplied direct from Embedded Artists in Sweden, several UK suppliers for the device have appeared since my review including Cool Components – meaning you can save yourself the otherwise cripplingly-expensive postage charges.

Finally, the vintage computing section of the column this month is something very dear to my heart: a look at the IBM Model F keyboard. Built using the company’s patented buckling-spring mechanism, the Model F is generally considered to be the best keyboard in the world – and anyone who says the Model M holds that position simply hasn’t tried a Model F, as the M is merely a cost-reduced and significantly mushier variation of the design. As a writer, I do an awful lot of typing, and I used to get the worrying early symptoms of carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injury. Since switching to an IBM Model F from a Personal Computer AT, I’ve had no such problem – 30-year-old technology solving a problem modern-day gear simply couldn’t touch.

All this, plus the usual news snippets and a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, awaits you at your local newsagent or other magazine retailer, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 125

Linux User & Developer Issue 125This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine is the place to go if you want to read a UK-exclusive review of the Gizmo Explorer kit, an open-source project of Sage Engineering that looks to bring a bit of x86 power to bear on the Raspberry Pi et al.

Based on an AMD embedded-series accelerated processing unit, the Gizmo is a microcomputer par excellence: its powerful 64-bit processor is, in real terms, around five times faster than that found on ARM-based rivals, while the 1GB of RAM is fairly generous as single-board computers go. Better still is the presence of a SATA port for high-speed storage, something criminally overlooked by many rival devices.

For developers, the board includes high-speed and low-speed expansion ports based on PCI Express connectors – and the kit includes an example board with detachable matrix keypad and soldered-down LCD panel to demonstrate how the low-speed port can be used, as well as providing a prototyping area for your own circuits.

Engineers are Sage’s target audience: the bundle, which costs $199, comes complete with a powerful JTAG debugging unit and advanced integrated development environment (IDE) – the same environment, in fact, that Sage has sold separately for thousands of dollars. Sadly, both are time-limited: you get 25 hours of use with the JTAG debugger and 30 days with the IDE before you’ll be asked to splash out for a licence, although non-commercial users do so at a significant discount.

I certainly had fun with the Gizmo, and it blows any other passively-cooled SBC I’ve seen out of the water when it comes to performance – but if you want to know if it’s worth the $199 asking price, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine.

Linux User & Developer Issue 125 is available now, in both dead-tree and digital formats, with more information available on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 114

Custom PC Issue 114Continuing my newly-reborn column, re-imagined as an interview slot rather than the old Mobile Tech Watch format, this month’s issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC magazine covers the impending launch of Intel’s Next Unit of Computing, or NUC, compact PC form-factor.

Designed to do for desktops what the Ultrabook project is doing for laptops, Intel’s NUC is an impressive creation: measuring a mere 10cm on a side, the ultra-compact design packs a Intel Core i3 3217U dual-core processor running at 1.8GHz into a box the size of which would traditionally have required a low-power Atom, AMD APU or ARM processor. Coupled with support for up to 16GB of RAM, two mini PCI Express slots and both HDMI and Thunderbolt display connectivity, it’s an exciting entry into a market Intel has traditionally eschewed.

To find out what Intel’s plans were for the project, how it came about and what the NUC can really offer over other ultra-compact embedded computing systems, I spoke to Intel’s John Deatherage, director of the company’s Client Boards Division.

While Deatherage didn’t call out ARM by name during the interview, his comments on the compatibility of the x86-64 architecture processor at the heart of the NUC said plenty about Intel’s feelings regarding the Cambridge-based low-power processor specialist.

The main advantage of the NUC is the fact it is a fully scalable computing system, with our first version running a third-generation Core i3 with full HD Graphics capabilities running x86 code. There are no limitations in terms of software, driver compatibility, or performance that some would expect given the size of the system.

Interestingly, Intel is choosing to launch the NUC into the market as an own-brand product, as well as allowing its processor customers to licence the design and build their own NUC devices. It’s a move Intel has avoided in the past, but one Deatherage explained away as “just one way to enter the market quickly.”

The NUC is a niche product, for sure: while it draws less power and takes up less space than a traditional desktop, it’s also significantly more expensive. While it could make headway in the digital signage market, these customers rarely care much about x86 compatibility or raw performance – if you’ve ever travelled by train in the UK, you’ll be familiar with digital noticeboards and timetables which can be clearly seen to be running a web browser somebody forgot to put into full-screen mode.

To find out what issues Intel had shrinking its desktop technology into such a small form factor, its hopes for the system and whether it could form the basis of a new Steam Box-like games console, pick up the latest Custom PC from your favourite newsagent or supermarket, or grab it in the form of a vast collection of zeros and ones through Zinio.

PC Pro, Issue 221

PC Pro Magazine, Issue 221This month’s PC Pro magazine includes something special for fans of the Raspberry Pi microcomputer: full instructions on how to turn the compact ARM-based system into a fully-functional webserver running Apache and the popular WordPress blogging platform.

Based on a chapter of my book, the Raspberry Pi User Guide, the step-by-step tutorial assumes no prior knowledge of Linux or running a server and requires only that you use the Raspbian operating system – which is recommended by the Raspberry Pi Foundation – or another Debian-based distribution, up to and including Debian itself.

When working on the feature for the book, I was actually surprised with how well Apache – software normally found running on multi-core servers with scads of RAM – ran on the 700MHz, single-core ARM-based system with just 256MB of RAM. While WordPress does slow things down a bit, it’s surprisingly usable – and if you’re lucky enough to have one of the Revision 2 boards, which feature 512MB of memory to the original’s 256MB, the whole thing works pretty well.

For more advanced users, one piece of advice not mentioned in the book or magazine feature is to try out an alternative web server package. While Apache is fully-featured and well-supported, it can be resource intensive – something to avoid on an embedded system. Nginx, by contrast, requires significantly less memory and processing power and can give a Pi web server a much-needed boost. Another trick is to enable Turbo Mode, which overclocks the Pi’s CPU, to increase performance still further – although be careful running at speeds above 900MHz, as SD card corruption is a common occurrence.

PC Pro Issue 221 is available from all good newsagents, digitally via Zinio, Google Play or Apple Newsstand, or via subscription with full details available on the official website.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 121

Linux User & Developer Issue 121This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes two of my hardware reviews, both from the world of low-cost, embedded computing: VIA’s APC microcomputer and Gert van Loo’s Gerboard accessory for the Raspberry Pi.

First, VIA’s product. Designed as a response to the overwhelming popularity of the Raspberry Pi, the VIA APC 8750 – to give the device its full name – takes a WonderMedia 8750 system-on-chip processor based around the same ARMv6 instruction set as the Raspberry Pi, adds in a generous 512MB of memory and wraps it all up in a surprising new form factor the company calls ‘neo-ITX.’

Unlike the ultra-compact Pi, the result is a behemoth of a system by embedded computing standards – but one that can be mounted in any standard ITX case, complete with bundled I/O shield for the quite generous connections on the rear. It’s even possible to power the device from a standard PC power supply, using one of the 12V lines normally used to provide the extra power required by modern multi-core processors.

It’s an impressive beast, but at twice the price of the Raspberry Pi can it really be a tempting proposition? Hopefully by the time you’ve read the review, you’ll have an idea.

The second review is of a device designed to increase the somewhat limited input-output capabilities of the popular Raspberry Pi ARM-based microcomputer. Designed by Gert van Loo – a Broadcom engineer responsible for the design of the BCM2835 multimedia processor used at the heart of the Pi – the board includes analogue to digital converts, motor drivers, LEDs and buttons galore.

It’s also a complete pain to assemble. I’m no stranger to soldering, but surface mount soldering is always awkward – and when the first component, a tiny capacitor around half the size of a grain of rice, went skittering across the floor and there were no spares, I knew I was in for trouble.

Still, three hours or so later I had a working Gertboard to review for the magazine – mostly. If you’re picking the magazine up especially for this review, there’s some good news: the kit version reviewed is being discontinued in favour of a pre-built kit assembled by machine by van Loo’s partner company Farnell – and it’ll be cheaper than the kit, too.

Linux User & Developer Magazine Issue 121 is available in all good newsagents now, while additional details are available on the official website.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 120

Linux User & Developer, Issue 120This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes the second feature to come out of my interview with Andreas Olofsson, founder of parallel processing startup Adapteva, on the subject of his Parallella Kickstarter project.

The focus of my previous article, published in Issue 111 of Custom PC Magazine, was on Parallella’s implications for the smartphone and tablet world – appropriately enough, given that it appeared in the Mobile Tech Watch column. This time, however, I’m looking at the platform itself and what it could spell for the future of computing education.

One thing Andreas was keen to point out was the openness of his platform: should the Parallella project reach its funding goal – something that, since writing, has been achieved – he promised to make everything relating to the Epiphany architecture that powers the 16- or 64-core co-processor open, from the documentation to the compiler toolchain. That’s something that could really shake up the industry: most embedded computing platforms are encumbered with proprietary drivers, obscure or missing documentation, and the requirement to sign onerous non-disclosure agreements – and usually hand over a wodge of cash – to get enough information to make use of the platform on anything but a very high level.

Parallella could change all that – and speaking to Andreas, one thing you can’t fault him on is his enthusiasm for the subject. Whether that enthusiasm will translate into a shipping and sustainable product, of course, is another matter.

This issue of the magazine also includes a review of Synology’s DS213air dual-drive network attached storage device. Based on a custom Linux distribution dubbed DSM – DiskStation Manager – Synology’s NAS boxes offer far more than the average, with the ability to install everything from an SSH server to Drupal. Does that justify the high retail price, though? Better read the review to find out, hadn’t you?

Finally, the front of the magazine includes a two-page spread of open-source news from the past month. Usually covered by an in-house staff writer, I’ve been handling it for the past two issues due to absence – and it’s been a nice change from my usual work for the magazine. As for what I covered, you’ll have to find a copy of the magazine and take a look if you’re really that curious.

Linux User & Developer Issue 120 is in shops now, with more details available on the official website.