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 238

PC Pro Issue 238I return to the pages of PC Pro this month, having been approached as the guy-in-the-know when it comes to single-board computers and embedded development platforms. The platform in question is Intel’s Galileo, my review of which enjoys the header splash on the front page. Oh, and before anyone assaults the comments section: yes, I know the Galileo isn’t designed as a direct rival to the Raspberry Pi; that wording is an editorial decision in which I had no part.

This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed the Galileo: I covered it back in March for Custom PC and again in April for Linux User & Developer, having received one of the first boards to hit the UK. I was more than happy to revisit the subject, however: as the first commercial implementation of the low-power Quark processor and Intel’s only device to boast Arduino compatibility and certification, the Galileo is a fascinating board.

Sadly, an update to the latest software and an afternoon of thorough testing revealed little has changed since my earlier reviews. The Quark is still desperately slow, easily outclassed by even the weedy BCM2835 on the far cheaper Raspberry Pi, while its cleverly-emulated Arduino compatibility offers easy access to its GPIO capabilities only if you don’t need accurate timings or any kind of speed.

That’s not to say the Galileo doesn’t have its advantages: the on-board Ethernet is undeniably useful, its partial compatibility with Arduino-format add-ons makes it easy to get started, and the Arduino IDE is always a welcome sight for beginners. Could it have been better? Well, I’d recommend buying PC Pro to find out.

PC Pro Issue 238 is available at all good newsagents, many supermarkets, or digitally on services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 139

Linux User & Developer Issue 139In addition to my usual four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes a pair of reviews: the PiFace Control & Display add-on for the Raspberry Pi, and the Cubieboard 2 single-board computer.

First, the Cubieboard 2. Despite its name, the Cubieboard 2 is near-identical to the original Cubieboard; where the original had an AllWinner A10 system-on-chip (SoC) processor, however, its successor boasts the more powerful AllWinner A20 – cleverly designed to be pin-compatible for easy upgrades.

Buying the Cubieboard in the UK was never easy, especially given the original model’s limited production run. Low-power computing specialist New IT has solved that problem, becoming a reseller for the boards. That’s good news, because the Cubieboard 2 – and its more powerful follow-up, the Cubietruck – is an impressive device: as well as the dual-core Cortex-A7 1GHz processor, it boasts 1GB of DDR3 memory, 4GB of on-board NAND flash storage – pre-loaded with a customised version of Google’s Android by default – and includes on-board SATA in addition to the usual Ethernet, USB and audio connectivity.

The Cubieboard’s true power is hidden on the underside of the board: a pair of 48-pin headers provide access to almost every single feature on the AllWinner A20 chip, from hacker-friendly I2C and SPI to LVDS and VGA video signals. In my opinion, this alone – even ignoring the significantly improved performance – is a reason to consider paying the premium the board demands over the popular Raspberry Pi.

Speaking of the Pi, the PiFace Control & Display add-on is an impressive piece of equipment. A piggyback board designed to mount onto the Pi’s GPIO header, the PiFace C&D offers a 16×2 character-based LCD panel, a series of buttons and an infra-red receiver – all of which can be addressed using a simple Python-based library, replete with example projects from a game of hangman to a system monitor script.

With the Pi being well-suited to embedded projects thanks to its GPIO capabilities, low power draw and impressive pricing, the PiFace C&D makes implementing such projects without local access to a display and keyboard a cinch. While the pricing is perhaps a little high – doubling the cost of a Model A-based project – it does make life a lot easier.

Finally, my news spread this month covers the launch of the WebScaleSQL MySQL fork, Nvidia’s Jetson K1 developer board, Facebook’s Hack language, the brief tenure of Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich, the Canonical-KDE display server spat, the rebirth of the Full Disclosure mailing list and more.

For all this, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t write, head to your local newsagent or supermarket, or pick up a digital copy from Zinio. French readers can expect to see the same content, translated and published under the Inside Linux title, on shop shelves next month.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 138

Linux User & Developer Issue 138Aside from my regular four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes two reviews: the Intel Galileo board, the company’s Quark-based answer to the Raspberry Pi; and the Pogoplug Safeplug, a Linux-based privacy-enhancing TOR gateway.

First, the Galileo. I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the first retail units to hit the UK, and was eager to see what Intel had come up with. Based on its low-power Quark processor, which is a die-shrunk version of the classic Pentium instruction set architecture, the Galileo boasts full x86 compatibility and plenty of on-board connectivity. Where it differs from its rivals – and anything Intel has ever produced before – is that it’s also Arduino certified, and fully compatible with shields developed for that microcontroller’s esoteric pin layout.

It promises much: on-board Ethernet, out-of-the-box support for existing Arduino sketches, the ability to run a Linux environment, and even a mini-PCI Express slot on the rear for adding in wireless connectivity or other additional hardware. Can it live up to expectations? Well, you’ll have to read the review to find out.

The Pogoplug Safeplug, despite what the contents page splash might suggest, is not a storage device; rather, it’s a modified version of the company’s existing embedded storage gateway product to find a new market in the post-Snowden world. Connected to your internal network, the Safeplug acts as a gateway to the TOR network; all traffic is encrypted and anonymised with little client configuration required. As an added bonus, there’s even an advertising removal feature.

My verdict on both devices, plus stories covering Ubuntu 14.04, the Intel Next Unit of Computing, the Penn Manor School’s move to Linux, a £15 Firefox OS smartphone, Cisco’s IoT security challenge, the Nokia X and more can be yours in newsagents now. Alternatively, you can get the magazine digitally via Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 127

Custom PC Issue 127Regular readers of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine may notice that there’s been a dramatic redesign by editor Ben Hardwidge this month. The size of the magazine has been increased, returning to its original A4 footprint, and the overall look has been brought bang up to date. It’s something of a rebirth for the publication, and one that comes with good news for fans of my eponymous Hobby Tech column: thanks to extremely positive reader feedback, from this issue forth the column will be five pages long instead of four – making it the longest column in the magazine by far.

This month, as the cover splash demonstrates, I cover work I’ve done restoring an original rubber-key ZX Spectrum using a replica faceplate developed by Rich Mellor of RWAP Software. A long-time Sinclair supporter, Rich also took the time to answer my questions in a brief interview segment; if you’ve ever wondered what would possess someone to spend time and money developing a range of products and accessories for a system that hasn’t been in production for approaching three decades, I’d say it’s well worth a read.

I also walk the reader through using a Raspberry Pi as a secondary display. While I’ve done something similar before, back in Custom PC Issue 123, this time it’s a little different: I’m using a Pi to revitalise a SoundMaster High Resolution Monochrome Monitor I recently acquired, using its single composite video input to add a wonderfully anachronistic amber display to my desktop. The same technique, which relies on the ability to forward X data over SSH, can be used to add any composite or HDMI compatible display to any networked system.

Finally, I offer my thoughts on the PiFace Control & Display accessory for the Raspberry Pi, kindly provided by CPC. Built for embedded designs, the PiFace C&D adds a 16×2 LCD, a bunch of buttons, a three-way joystick and an infra-red receiver to the Pi’s GPIO port. The result is a system which can be controlled away from a keyboard and mouse, and it comes with plenty of Python-powered example code to get the user started. I’ve already had an idea or two for projects…

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours if you venture to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, stay indoors where it’s warm and pick up copy digitally via services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 135

Linux User & Developer, Issue 135In Linux User & Developer this month, in addition to my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the open source, open hardware and open governance spheres, you’ll find a review of a new add-on board for the Raspberry Pi: the GertDuino.

Developed by Gert van Loo, the GertDuino is a slimmed-down and simplified design based on the microcontroller-powered portion of the Gertboard – originally reviewed way back in Linux User & Developer Issue 121 from December 2012. Unlike the Gertboard, the Gertduino is a zero-footprint design which sits entirely on top of the Pi to expand the capabilities of its general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header.

Powered by a pair of Atmel microcontrollers – a primary ATmega328 and a secondary ATmega48 – the GertDuino offers full compatibility with Arduino Shield add-on boards, the ability to run stand-alone in Arduino mode, and a variety of other snazzy features including an on-board real-time clock with optional battery backup and a bidirectional IrDA interface. Both these latter features are powered by the ATmega48, allowing the more technically minded user to put the Pi and the ATmega328 into a low-power sleep mode pending a wake-up interrupt from the ATmega48.

There’s no denying the Gertboard is a clever design, but it does fall into several of the traps of its predecessor. Switching between the board’s various modes is achieved using unlabelled jumpers, while one of the most handy modes – the ability to query Arduino Shields which use serial communications directly from the Pi – requires optional jumper straps which then get in the way of mounting the Shield itself. Documentation, too, is poor – and aimed primarily at those with embedded development or C coding experience already.

Is it worth the price of admission? Well, you’ll have to buy Linux User & Developer Issue 135 to find out – either from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution platforms.