This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at how the maker and hacker communities are rallying behind the COVID-19 crisis, puts the Rock Pi N10 Model A computer-on-module on the test bench, and takes a look at Imagine That!, the story of APF engineer Ed Smith and his work on the Imagination Machine home computer.
First, the opening spread. The world is still struggling to adjust to a “new normal” in the face of the continuing spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 disease it causes, and nowhere is that more obvious than here in the UK. While many countries have been able to flatten the curve sufficiently to avoid overwhelming healthcare resources, there is still concern over a second wave – and that’s why makers and tinkerers around the world have volunteered their expertise and enthusiasm.
The spread looks at a range of projects currently underway across the globe, from open-source ventilators designed as emergency alternatives to under-stocked invasive ventilators used as a last-ditch treatment for COVID-19 sufferers to homebrew face masks and face shields. Links to each project are included, for anyone looking to get involved.
The Rock Pi N10 Model A is a traditional hardware review: two pages on the computer-on-module. Based on the Rockchip RK3399Pro system-on-chip with integrated neural network co-processor, the entry-level Model A includes 4GB of LPDDR3 memory and 16GB of storage plus PCI Express connectivity for external hardware – a rarity on devices at its price point.
Finally, Ed Smith’s autobiography Imagine That! rounds out the piece. A self-published book, via Amazon’s print-on-demand service, Imagine That! impressed and disappointed in equal measure. For those looking for technical details on Smith’s involvement in APF’s Imagination Machine home computer, it’s a disappointment; for those looking for information on what it was like to be a black engineer growing up in the Browsnville projects in the 1970s there’s plenty of meat in its relatively scant 140 pages.
It’s a topic worthy of publication, but one which will hopefully see enough success to warrant a second edition through a professional publishing house: Smith’s honest storytelling approach is refreshing but scattershot, and riddled with typographical, grammatical, and factual errors begging for an editorial pass, as are the low-resolution and uncredited images sprinkled throughout.
All this, and more, can be found in Custom PC Issue 203, available to buy with worldwide delivery from the official website.
In this month’s The MagPi Magazine you’ll find my cover feature on working from home using a Raspberry Pi as a fully-functional desktop computer – and, as an added bonus, my photography of the TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next.
First, the cover feature. With a massive explosion in the number of people working remotely worldwide, and the corresponding shortages in hardware and accessories, now is a great time to look towards the Raspberry Pi as a functional alternative to traditional PCs. The six-page feature is split into three sections. The first of these sections looks at installing a Raspberry Pi Camera Module – or the newly-launched Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera Module – or USB webcam and using it for video conferencing via Google Hangouts.
The second section looks at online collaboration platforms, from Google Docs and Google Drive to Slack, Discord, and Firefox Send. The last section takes a look at LibreOffice, the open-source equivalent to Microsoft Office which is pre-installed in Raspbian Linux and fully compatible with the Raspberry Pi. Finally, a sprinkling of tips and tricks complete the feature.
The ZX Spectrum Next review, meanwhile, was written by The MagPi’s editor Lucy Hattersly, but illustrated by me: My hero shot of the ZX Spectrum Next, plus a close-up of the Rick Dickinson-designed keyboard which proved responsible for a two-year delay on the device as it was tweaked for maximum quality and performance, grace the two-page feature alongside a pair of images taken from the ZX Spectrum Next promotional materials.
All this, and more, is available in both the print edition and the free Creative Commons-licensed PDF download from the official magazine website.
The big news of the last few weeks has, of course, been the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – covered in considerable detail in my benchmark piece over on Medium. To support its in-house review coverage, PC Pro Magazine commissioned me to come up with project ideas that take full advantage of the Raspberry Pi 4’s new capabilities.
The first of a new family of Raspberry Pi products designed to do away with some of the biggest criticisms levelled at earlier models, the Raspberry Pi 4 includes a significantly more powerful processor, improved graphics capabilities, dual-4K video output and hardware H.265 4K video decoding, up to 4GB of RAM, true gigabit Ethernet networking, and two USB 3.0 ports sharing a high-speed PCI Express link back to the Broadcom BCM2711B0 system-on-chip (SoC) at the board’s heart.
My feature covers how these new capabilities can be used in a variety of real-world use-cases, from acting as a desktop replacement for lightweight browsing and productivity use to a low-power 4K-capable home cinema system. The new USB 3.0 ports are perfectly suited to turning a couple of external hard drives into a low-cost network-attached storage (NAS) system, while the improved graphics make gaming more tempting.
There’s even something for the enterprise crowd to sink its teeth into: the dual display capabilities mean that the Raspberry Pi 4 is perfect for digital signage, Citrix support on day one turns it into a dual-screen thin client, and the more powerful networking can be combined with a USB 3.0 Ethernet adapter to create an energy-efficient router, firewall, or other network appliance.
For the full low-down on what the Raspberry Pi 4’s new features could do for you, pick up the latest PC Pro from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Pocketmags or similar services.
This week saw the release of the Raspberry Pi 4, first in a new generation of single-board computers from the not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation. As is usual for the launches, I was approached by The MagPi Magazine – the Foundation’s official publication – to prepare coverage for the launch, including interviews, imagery, and a wealth of benchmarks.
My coverage for the magazine, spread across a whopping 12 pages, begins with a high-resolution hero shot of the board with macro-image call-outs for its key features and components – including the new USB Type-C power connector, BCM2711B0 system-on-chip, and shiny dual-micro-HDMI video outputs capable of driving high-resolution 4K displays.
Next, there’s an interview with Foundation co-founder Eben Upton covering everything from the reason the board is available now when a 2020 launch had previously been suggested, how it can potentially replace a desktop PC in a range of environments, backwards compatibility with the existing Raspberry Pi ecosystem, and a hidden Easter Egg on the PCB – only accessible to those brave or foolhardy enough to unsolder the USB connector.
The benchmarking section, spread across four pages, marks a departure from previous launches: this time around I pulled the focus away from synthetic benchmarks, though the classic Linpack still makes an appearance if only to demonstrate how the Arm processors’ NEON extensions can dramatically improve performance, in favour of a variety of real-world workloads: image editing with the GIMP, file compression with bzip2 and lbzip2, browser performance in Chromium, and gaming performance with OpenArena, alongside USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi throughputs. In all cases, the workloads are entirely reproducible: all packages used for the real-world workloads are available at launch in the Raspbian Buster software repositories. If four pages isn’t enough, additional benchmarks are available on my Medium post.
As usual, the benchmarking also includes a thermal analysis: images of the Raspberry Pi 4 and its immediate predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ were taken after a ten-minute CPU-heavy workload using a Flir thermal imaging camera, the data processed to a fixed temperature scale of 22-80°C to avoid noise from ambient surfaces, then overlaid on an edge-enhanced high-resolution visible-light image of their respective boards using a high-contrast rainbow colour palette. These images represent a fair amount of work, but there’s no better way to see both how hot the Pis get under continuous load and which components are responsible for that heat – not to mention how effective the design is at bleeding the heat off through the PCB, something with which the older Raspberry Pi models with plastic-encased chips have struggled.
Finally, the piece closes with a two-page interview with Simon Long on the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system – launching ahead of the upstream Debian 10 ‘Buster’ release, interestingly – and its revised, flatter user interface. While much of the under-the-hood work for Buster was to get it ready for the Raspberry Pi 4 – previous Raspbian releases won’t work on the new board – it’s also available for older Raspberry Pi models, and comes with some convincing reasons to upgrade along with a handful of software compatibility issues that offer a reason to hang fire.
As always, The MagPi Issue 83 is available to buy in print format from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and book sellers; a free digital copy, released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence, is also available from the official website.
The Labs Test in this month’s PC Pro is something of a bumper one: I ran a whopping 14 miniature PCs, from a cleverly cased Raspberry Pi up to a behemoth of a system squeezing in an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, through a gamut of tests including size and weight, power draw, productivity and gaming benchmarks to see which would come out on top.
The work of a solid few weeks, the Labs saw system after system bouncing onto and off the test bench. As well as requiring the actual testing, all photography was carried out in-house – with thanks to my wife, who served as a hand model for the article’s hero shot – with each system photographed from all angles and internally, plus a smart isometric view in which the scale is maintained so the reader can easily compare the relative sizes of each machine on test. Given that the feature is about miniature PCs, such easy at-a-glance comparison is key to knowing which machine meets the readers’ personal requirements.
A Labs Test like this wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of a range of companies, of course, and I’d like to thank the suppliers of machines for the test: ASRock, Asus, Intel, Mini-ITX.com, Lenovo, QuietPC, Raspberry Pi, and Shuttle. Additional thanks go to Intel, Nvidia, and Overclockers UK, who provided components required to build up the bare-bones systems on test.
As is traditional for a PC Pro Labs Test, the content is split between reviews – four 700-word focus reviews and ten 350-word supplementary reviews – and features, including an interview with Intel’s Ed Barkhuysen on the company’s modular vision for the future of computing, a buyer’s guide covering things to consider when making the move to an ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) system, a two-page features table covering everything you could want to know about each system on test, a look at external GPU (eGPU) products as a way of expanding the performance of mini-PCs, and a “View from the Labs” opinion editorial to round things out.
This feature also marks the first time the in-house PC Pro benchmark suite – which measures system performance for image editing, video playback, and multitasking workloads – has been run not only on Linux-based, rather than Windows, systems but also on a Raspberry Pi. To achieve that, I worked to port the PowerShell-based suite to the Bash shell while using the same cross-platform applications to ensure each platform can be compared as fairly as possible.
PC Pro Issue 297 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally via Zinio and similar services.
This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a four-page spread detailing two projects from the talented Daniel Bailey: the Manchester Baby inspired C88 and C3232 homebrew microcomputers.
When one normally talks about ‘building’ a computer, the ‘building’ process is akin to Lego: blocks specifically designed to be compatible are clicked together in a reasonably idiot-proof manner, then an off-the-shelf operating system is installed. Daniel’s C88 and C3232 systems, by contrast, are built from the ground up: systems built around using an 8×8 or 32×32 LED display as memory and running a unique processor, built from scratch on an FPGA, with its own instruction set architecture.
The smaller C88 came first, and the larger and more complex C3232 – designed with a mode which allows it to run software originally written for the early Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), or Manchester Baby, without modification – served as a magnum opus for the project. Daniel wasn’t done there, though: a final effort produced the Mini C88, a C88-compatible kit powered by the a low-cost Arduino instead of a more expensive FPGA but boasting near-complete compatibility with the original.
While Daniel has yet to release the kit, a simulator provides a hint of what it’s like to use the C88 or Mini C88: programs are entered into the system one bit at a time using physical toggle-switches, then executed for display on the LED matrix. Examples include simple animations, pseudorandom number generation, and mathematical calculations, while the real C88 can also be connected to external hardware via a general-purpose input-output (GPIO) port missing from the Mini C88.
I’ve long been a fan of Daniel’s creations, and am lucky enough to own a Mini C88 of my very own – but even for those who haven’t caught the systems being demonstrated at various Maker Faires and related events, I’d recommend reading the piece to see just how clever the project really is.
You can see the feature in full by downloading the Creative Commons licensed magazine from the official website, or pick up a copy in print from your nearest newsagent or supermarket.
First, the vintage gaming feature. Building on a brief from editor Ben Hardwidge, I wanted to do something a little more in-depth than the usual how-to guide. The result is a seven-page feature which begins with a look at the wealth of accessories available to turn a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computing into a powerful emulation station, a two-page expert guide to the legalities of emulation in the UK, step-by-step instructions on downloading, installing, and configuring the RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi, and a look at entirely legitimate sources for read-only memory (ROM) game images.
While I’m fully equipped to handle the how-to and look-at-the-shiny-things sections of the guide myself, the legal aspect required an expert eye kindly provided by Eaton Smith LLP partner Chris Taylor. Legal counsel to a variety of game development and publishing companies, Chris kindly walked through the legalities of developing, downloading, and using emulation software and hardware under UK law – and even threw in a cheeky topical reference to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One ahead of the release of its film adaptation. I’m also grateful to The Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott for taking the time to discuss the Archive’s vast trove of software and in-browser emulation functionality.
Meltdown and Spectre, meanwhile, are a lot less fun. The names given to a quartet of security vulnerabilities hard-baked in to the vast majority of processors built since the 1990s, Meltdown and Spectre are unarguably the worst things to happen to the computer industry since the death of the Commodore Amiga. My three-page look discusses the vulnerabilities, how they can be exploited to gain access to supposedly-protected information, and what companies are doing to fix the problems – and, spoiler, the conclusion there is “not nearly enough.” Since the piece was written, though, there’s one thing to note: installation of the KB4056892 patch for Windows 10 includes faulty microcode protection from Intel which can cause systems to reboot spontaneously, which is resolved through the installation of KB4078130 at the cost of disabling protections against one of the two Spectre vulnerabilities.
Finally, Hobby Tech itself opens with a look at the clever but fragile Opendime from cryptocurrency start-up Coinkite. Designed to turn Bitcoin into a digital bearer bond, an Opendime creates a private key which is stored in a secure enclave accessible only by irrevocably modifying the device by popping off a small surface-mount resistor. So long as the resistor is intact, the theory goes, nobody has access to the private key – meaning you can accept the device as payment without risk. Sadly, since my fairly glowing review was written two things have changed: the Opendime I’ve been carrying around on my keyring has unsealed itself without any visible damage to the resistor or the heatshrink which protects it, an issue Coinkite’s founder and support team have singularly failed to address, and the high transaction fees on the Bitcoin network have dropped from around £20 to around 20p meaning one of the major benefits of using a £15 USB device for in-person transactions has been lost.
The iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, by contrast, is a significantly happier story. I’ve long been a fan of iFixit’s teardowns and the software they developed for presenting the information, so a toolkit with the iFixit seal of approval was high on my want list. Having now received one, I can confirm it’s no disappointment: from the high-quality tools, all bundled with the express intention of making it as easy as possible to dismantle modern electronics, to the smart multi-function storage case, the entire bundle is pleasingly robust.
Finally, Commodore: The Amiga Years. The follow-up to author Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge, The Amiga Years was officially cancelled years ago before being resurrected through a crowdfunding campaign. Since the closure of the campaign, however, the project was beset by delays and a last-minute editing decision that sees the final third of the story, taking Commodore to its sad demise, spun out into yet another book – a move backers criticising the decision have positioned as a blatant attempt at extracting more money. As with A Company on the Edge, though, the story told in The Amiga Years is one well worth the entry price – if suffering a little from Bagnall’s wandering editorial process, whereby topics raised as though you should already know them in Chapter 2 won’t be formally introduced until Chapter 5.
All this, and slightly less stuff by people who aren’t me, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
Another month, another cover feature for the official Raspberry Pi magazine The MagPi. This time around, I take a look at Microsoft’s generous offer of a free copy of Windows 10 IoT Core for all Raspberry Pi 2 owners, and what it could mean for the Raspberry Pi community – and if that wasn’t enough, I take some time to review the 4tronixAgobo robot kit as well.
The cover feature is a two-part affair: the first section, which looks at exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core actually is – which is vastly different from the impression given by the mainstream press that Microsoft was giving away a full desktop-class operating system – as well as how it can be used is my work; a following section looking at a selection of projects which are already powered by the Raspberry Pi 2 and Windows 10 was written by editor Russell Barnes.
As well as helping to clarify exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core is and can do, my section of the feature includes a guide to getting started with the software – which is not as easy to obtain as, for example, Raspbian, requiring registration with Microsoft and to search on a surprisingly user-unfriendly section of the company’s website before agreeing to a pair of end-user licence agreements – and an analysis of B15, the HoloLens- and Raspberry Pi-powered robot Microsoft showed off at its Build event earlier this year.
The review, meanwhile, involved building an Agobo robot kit supplied by the lovely 4tronix. Simpler than the Pi2Go-Lite I reviewed for Custom PC Issue 135, the Agobo is designed exclusively for the Raspberry Pi Model A+ and as a result is compact and lightweight. It’s also great fun, and a kit I’d heartily recommend to anyone wanting a simple and straightforward Pi-powered robot kit.
All this, plus plenty of projects, reviews and features written by people other than myself, is available to download for free as a DRM-free and Creative Commons-licensed PDF from the official website.
This month marks a return to Dennis Publishing’s excellent PC Pro with a piece commissioned by editor Tim Danton: The Rise of the Makers.
Designed as both an introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the maker movement and a guide for those who want to get more involved, the piece starts with a history of Sheffield-based gadget maker Pimoroni. Paul Beech and Jon Williamson kindly gave up their time to chat to me about the founding of their company and how the maker movement helped them get started, and it hopefully makes for a fascinating insight into how big an impact the movement can make to individual lives.
Pimoroni’s origin story is followed by a guide to hackspaces, with many thanks to Nottinghack co-founder Dominic Morrow who provided both a history of the hackspace he helped to set up along with a list of tips for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps. John Cole and Taryn Sullivan, of US hobbyist robotics specialist Dexter Industries, also provided invaluable insight of the culture over the pond, while Winchester House School’s Chris Leach described his TinkerShed project to found a hackspace on school grounds.
The following pages look at the hardware you can use at your average hackspace, and how it helped people like Paul and Jon bootstrap their company in a way that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago, and a description of some of the big-name projects that have been born of the maker movement: Arduino, the BrickPi, and Pimoroni’s Pibow, as well as events including the Maker Faire franchise. My good friend Bob Stone also features, having worked with York Hackspace on the fascinating Spacehack project.
The piece finishes on a guide to getting involved, including these words of wisdom from Pimoroni’s Paul:
Start doing something. If you haven’t got a hackspace, set it up. Hackspaces are not about laser cutters and 3D printers. They’re a nice fringe benefit, they’re a useful tool. Hackspaces are about people and space. Start finding like-minded people, start talking to them, and that’s a community. You don’t create a community, you just start doing stuff and it grows.
PC Pro Issue 248 is available on shelves of all major supermarkets, most decent newsagents, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
Oh, and there’s a glitch in the colophon at the front of the magazine: my name has an arrow pointing to advice about a wine-related smartphone app, whereas my actual tip is the one above regarding using the excellent Fake Name Generator to avoid spam from captive-portal Wi-Fi hotspots.
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.