Custom PC, Issue 213

Custom PC Issue 213In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at how GL shaders can make the video output from emulators – in particular DOSBox – look an awful lot closer to how you remember the same software running on real hardware, review the Argon One M.2 case for the Raspberry Pi 4 family of single-board computers, and take a look at an unusual children’s book: Big Data Girl by Fred Wordie with illustrations by Santiago Taberna.

First, the shaders. Few would argue that the move away from bulky and power-hungry cathode-ray tube displays to modern liquid-crystal displays was a bad thing, except for possibly vintage game enthusiasts. The “pixel art” of old, you see, was never meant to show big, blocky, individual pixels: the CRT would smooth and blend things as a by-product of its relative inaccuracy, meaning when you fire up a classic like Doom or Moraff’s World and feel disappointed in its appearance it’s not entirely down to rose-tinted spectacles.

Shaders, typically but not exclusively written in GL Shader Language, can help. In the opening piece for this month’s column, I look at how these handy add-ons can turn the block output of an emulator into a surprisingly convincing simulation of a CRT – complete with curvature and overscan, if that’s your wont. The difference in appearance is little short of astounding – though it may take some customisation before you’re fully satisfied with the results.

The Argon One M.2, meanwhile, looks externally a lot like the previous entries in the Argon One case family. There’s the same metal shell, which doubles as a heatsink and means the built-in temperature-controlled fan rarely activates, the same magnetic cover hiding a colour-coded and silkscreened general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header, and the same layout which puts all the Raspberry Pi’s various ports to the rear for neater cabling.

Where the new design differs is in a larger base, which hides the circuitry for converting an M.2 SATA SSD into a USB-attached storage device. Unlike the NESPi 4, reviewed back in Issue 210, this one works properly in USB Attached SCSI (UAS) mode, giving a throughput of 387/300MBps read/write on a test SSD rated at 500/320MBps.

Finally, Big Data Girl is a bit of a departure for the column, as it’s a children’s book – but one with a difference: Wordie’s crowdfunded title aims to introduce the concept of “big data,” anthropomorphised as a friendly little girl, highlighting both how useful it can be and how it can impact your privacy. It’s a smart idea, and Taberna’s illustrations are fantastic, but serves more as a conversation starter for parents already familiar with the concepts than a stand-alone guide to the subject.

Custom PC Issue 213 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, digital distribution platforms, and from the official website with international delivery.

Custom PC, Issue 140

Custom PC, Issue 140In this month’s Hobby Tech column I interview my friend and talented maker Bob Stone, review the ZoomFloppy accessory, and review the Gizmo 2 single-board computer, in roughly that order.

Looking at the interview first, I arranged to quiz Bob after bumping into him at an event a while back. Bob was present as a representative of York Hackspace, showing off a project they had been working on dubbed Spacehack. Inspired by a mobile game, Spacehack gives players the job of keeping a rusty old spaceship in one piece by performing various tasks on a physical control panel which remaps everything between rounds. If that weren’t confusing enough, the instructions that appear on your panel may be for a control on someone else’s – leading to plenty of frantic shouting.

Talking to Bob is always a pleasure, and interviewing him was likewise. He’s a man who knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of humour into proceedings, and that hopefully comes across in the piece. Having played Spacehack, I can attest to both its difficulty and its brilliance and if anyone local builds their own – the hardware and software are both permissively licensed, naturally – I’d be up for a tournament.

The ZoomFloppy is a natural extension to the KryoFlux I reviewed back in Issue 131. Where the KryoFlux offers a means to connect old-fashioned floppy drives to a modern computer for archival-grade access, the ZoomFloppy is a little different: it’s designed specifically for Commodore devices. Its most common use, as the name suggests, is to provide an interface between a Commodore 1541/1571 floppy drive and a modern PC but it also offers the ability to talk to any Commodore-compatible serial device: printers, plotters, even modems. Better still, you can talk to these devices from directly within an emulator – I couldn’t help but grin when I loaded an Infocom game into the Vice emulator from the original floppy on an 1571 drive.

Finally, the Gizmo 2. I reviewed the original Gizmo in Issue 125 of Linux User & Developer, and was suitably impressed by its performance. The Gizmo 2, I’m pleased to say, blows its predecessor out of the water but isn’t without its own foibles. During my review, I ran into an issue in the firmware which prevented it from booting any device connected into its USB 3.0 ports. Although USB 2.0 worked fine, this had a negative effect on speed – and while the issue was still outstanding at the time of publication, I’m pleased to say a new BIOS has been released as a result of my feedback which fixes the problem and makes the Gizmo a great choice for anyone who needs x86 compatibility and impressive compute performance from a single-board computer.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your own home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 133

Custom PC Issue 133This month’s Hobby Tech is an absolute giant: seven pages long, owing to a bonus two-page review of the Nvidia Jetson TK1 development board – and many thanks to the guys at Zotac for granting me exclusive access to the UK’s only press sample ahead of its retail launch! The usual five pages are filled with a tutorial on using relays with the Raspberry Pi, an in-depth look at the Phenoptix MeArm, and a tour of the excellent DOSBox software.

The Jetson TK1 is a good place to start. It’s no Raspberry Pi: launching at £199.99 via Maplin – despite a far lower $192 US RRP – the board is designed for developers with big pockets. Despite this, it may actually be worth the cash: it’s by far the fastest single-board computer I’ve ever had on my test bench, with four 2.3GHz Cortex-A15 CPU cores, a fifth ‘Shadow Core’ for background tasks, and 192 Kepler-class graphics processing cores on its sadly actively-cooled chip. There are, however, issues that will trouble hobbyists looking to use the system. Most surprising of these is a lack of OpenCL support, despite the Tegra K1 on which the Jetson TK1 is based supporting it just fine.

From the high-end to the pocket-friendly with the next review: the Phenoptix MeArm. Supplied by Ben Gray, its designer, the MeArm is a kit of laser-cut acrylic parts and a selection of hobby servos for building a desktop robotic arm. Compatible with anything that can drive servos – or even things, like the Raspberry Pi, that can’t, if you add an I2C controller board – the MeArm is a fascinating entry point to hobbyist robotics, and doubly so thanks to its open nature and extremely low cost.

The tutorial this month is an extension to the Twitter-connected doorbell which appeared in Issue 130. Although the original design worked fine, it lacked an audible alert. The solution: using a relay to trigger the original doorbell’s sounder unit, turning my design into a drop-in upgrade for any wired doorbell while also teaching the basics of how relays can extend the capabilities of a microcontroller or microcomputer platform.

Finally, DOSBox. While I’m a big believer in using real-metal hardware for my vintage computing, even I have to admit that sometimes emulators can be extremely handy – and DOSBox is one of the handiest around. More properly termed a simulator, DOSBox allows you to run old MS-DOS software on modern systems – complete with filters that improve the graphics and full network support. Designed primarily for gaming, its compatibility with images created using the KryoFlux – reviewed in Issue 131 – mean it’s perfect for retrieving data from ageing floppy disks, as well as playing Doom the way it should be played!

All this, plus a bunch of other interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your nearest newsagent or supermarket. If you’d prefer not to leave the house, try a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.