PC Pro, Issue 224

PC Pro Issue 224This month’s PC Pro magazine includes another one of my freelance features, this time looking at the open-source Arduino microcontroller platform. While the front-cover splash billing it as a “Raspberry Pi rival” is inaccurate – not my call – the feature itself is packed with detail on the Atmel-based marvel.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done an Arduino-related feature for a magazine: I’m a big fan of the platform, owning multiple Arduinos and Arduino-compatibles. As well as a beginner’s guide for bit-tech, I’ve done features for Computeractive, Linux User & Developer (reprised in the Linux & Open Source Genius Guide, Volume 3) and Custom PC. This latest, however, is the most comprehensive.

Starting with a look at the history of Arduino, the feature walks the reader through why it was created, what its intentions are, how it compares to something like the Raspberry Pi – essentially explaining the difference between a microcontroller and a microcomputer – and how it can be used to create physical computing projects with ease.

Because of PC Pro’s laudable desire to ensure that readers can walk away from an In Depth feature with something concrete, it also includes a tutorial on using the latest ATmega-based Arduino Leonardo to build a macro keypad that can type email signatures, passwords, locate the user in a multi-player role-playing game or even lock the desktop with the press of a single button. Well, a separate single button for each feature, obviously, otherwise things would get confusing.

As usual, I am indebted to the wonderful chaps at Oomlout for providing the hardware for the feature, and to the creators of Arduino itself for making a development platform so simple even I can use the dang thing.

If you’re curious as to how the keypad works, source code for the project is available on my GitHub repository – but I’d still recommend picking up a copy of the magazine for wiring instructions and a jolly good lesson on the history of the Arduino project.

PC Pro Issue 224 is in newsagents, supermarkets and similar establishments now, or can be accessed digitally via Zinio or other platforms.

PC Pro, Issue 222

PC Pro, Issue 222Continuing my features work for Dennis Publishing’s PC Pro magazine, the April 2013 issue sees the publication of The World’s Fastest Computers. A research-heavy look at supercomputers and the high-performance computing (HPC) industry in general, it’s a piece of which I’m particularly proud.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the piece, however, I’d like that thank a few people without whom the feature could never have happened: Professor Simon Cox, of the University of Southampton, was a particularly excellent source, speaking to me candidly and at length regarding the realities of running a supercomputing facility and his hopes for the future, and even posing for some photographs to liven up the piece; Nvidia’s Ian Buck, GPU computing general manager and creator of the Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) language, brought years of highly-parallel thinking to the mix, as did Nvidia’s Tesla boss Sumit Gupta; Intel’s Stephan Gillich, director of high-performance computing for the EMEA region, provided a CPU- rather than GPU-led perspective; and finally the Science and Technology Facilities Council was kind enough to provide copyright clearance on several of its historical supercomputing images – including a great shot of a denuded Cray being dismantled at the end of its service, which sadly had to be cut from the piece for space reasons.

The piece is split into three clear sections: a brief history of supercomputing, from the days of the Control Data Corporation 6600 – Seymour Cray’s first HPC design, and the very first system to be described as a supercomputer – to the modern day, followed by a look at what HPC means for education and the industry. The final part, meanwhile, is a look at the future – which, you’ll be amazed to hear, looks very different depending on whether you’re talking to Intel or Nvidia.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the piece, for me, is the performance comparison: using data provided by Professor Simon Cox and a great deal of research, I was able to piece together a rough approximation of a performance timeline. Starting with the Ferranti Pegasus in 1956 and working through thirteen other machines – all of which have, at one time or another, been installed at the University of Southampton – I compiled operations-per-second statistics for each. This, more than anything else, demonstrates the runaway nature of high-performance computing: using a linear graph, all but the last two machines – both versions of the University’s current Iridis supercomputer – drew a flat line.

While there’s plenty of information that didn’t make it into the final piece – I compiled nearly 30,000 words of interview material in all – it’s by far one of the most comprehensive I’ve written, and one of which I think I can be justifiably proud.

If any of that tickles your fancy, PC Pro Issue 222 is available in newsagents, supermarkets and doctors’ waiting rooms throughout the country, or digitally via Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

Micro Mart, Issue 1235

Micro Mart, Issue 1235It’s been a while since I’ve done a cover feature for Micro Mart – the last was back in Issue 1198, when I looked at the state of the printer ink refill market – and I had a little something that had been brewing in my noggin for a while, so I figured it was time for a pitch. The result: a cover feature dubbed The Secret Processor Revolution.

With an eye-catching title like that – editor Simon Brew’s suggestion, and much more likely to interest readers than my original title of The Fall and Rise of ARM – it should help shift a few copies, and those who do pick it up will find my take on the history, present and future of ARM.

For those who don’t know, Cambridge-based ARM was born from the ashes of Acorn Computers, and although it’s been a while since it was last seen on the desktop – you have to go back to the days of the RISC PC for that – the company holds a near-monopoly in the smartphone and tablet market. It’s also looking at taking on semiconductor giant Intel in the datacentre, and could well return to desks around the world – it’s already in Samsung’s latest Chromebook laptop, after all.

In this feature, I take a look at how ARM got its start, why its processors differ so much from the mainstream chips from AMD and Intel, and what the winds of change could bring for consumers. Wondering exactly what that might be? Better buy it, then, hadn’t you?

It was a fun piece to write, and a subject dear to my heart: I still own an Acorn Archimedes, and the RISC PC that followed, and have recently been playing around with a port of RISC OS designed for the Raspberry Pi – that £30 microcomputer based on an ARM processor from a company that once held the British microcomputing market in the palm of its hand.

Micro Mart is available in exchange for a shiny £2 coin – or equivalent in legal tender or acceptable credit – in most newsagents, or can be downloaded from Zinio and other retailers of digital magazines.

PC Pro, Issue 219

PC Pro, Issue 219This month’s PC Pro features my first proper piece for the magazine, following my contribution of technical assistance for the Raspberry Pi review back in PC Pro Issue 213, and it’s fitting that it should be about the remarkable Raspberry Pi once again.

As the cover flash shows, the feature is a look at ten of the most interesting projects surrounding the Raspberry Pi. Designed to fire up readers’ imaginations – especially those who have purchased a Pi, received it and now have absolutely no idea what to do with it – the feature looks at projects ranging from commercial pay-to-print services to solar-powered distributed computing nodes, and plenty in-between.

My personal highlights from the feature include a university project which joins Pi nodes together to teach students about clustered supercomputing concepts without the expense or power draw of a traditional cluster, an autonomous seagoing vehicle which uses a Pi as its artificial intelligence hub, and a project to place the Pi into the casing of its spiritual ancestor the Sinclair ZX Spectrum by my friend Steve Wilson.

While far from exhaustive – with hundreds of new projects being thought up every day, no list of ten could ever hope to encompass the full spectrum – it hopefully provides an interesting glimpse of exactly what is possible from a credit card-sized computer with a tiny 700MHz processor, 256MB or 512MB of RAM and an in-built network port.

PC Pro Issue 219 is available to buy from wherever you normally buy magazines, available to steal from dentists’ waiting rooms, and available to download from Zinio – although, at the time of writing, the site is still showing Issue 218.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 119

Linux User & Developer, Issue 119This month’s Linux User & Developer features my biggest work for the magazine yet: a massive ten-page test of Canonical’s Ubuntu 12.10 operating system. It also marks the first time I’ve written news articles for the magazine, taking care of the initial two-page spread to cover for a staff writer’s absence.

First, the Ubuntu 12.10 feature. Officially the biggest single feature ever run in Linux User & Developer magazine, and the major focus of the magazine’s cover, the article takes a look at Canonical’s latest Linux release in a novel manner: rather than judging the software in a vacuum, as with most reviews, it is instead compared to close rivals in a range of categories including openness, appearance, support and community engagement. The result is somewhere between a review and a group test, but on a much larger scale: a typical group test takes up five pages, where this feature takes up a massive ten.

It’s a departure from my usual features for the magazine, and something I enjoyed. It’s not strictly speaking a review, as there were no scores and no real conclusion about the quality of Ubuntu 12.10 in and of itself – but if you’re a long-time Ubuntu user or simply a distro-hopper looking for a change, I’d recommend giving it a read.

The news feature, a two-page spread at the front of the magazine, looked at three stories from the open-source world – including one which, shock horror, paints Microsoft in a reasonably positive light. I’m not going to tell you what the stories are, naturally: go and buy the magazine if you’re that curious.

Linux User & Developer Issue 119 is available now wherever you would normally buy magazines, unless it isn’t – in which case either ask the staff to order it in, or grab a digital copy via Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 111

Linux User & Developer, Issue 111 coverThis month’s issue of Linux User & Developer features the full publication of my interview with Raspberry Pi co-founder Eben Upton, an extract of which has been quite happily sat at the top of the ‘Most Read’ category on the Linux User website for the past month. Additionally, my regular group test takes a look at project management apps and there’s also a review of internet kiosk distribution WebConverger in there too.

The interview with Eben was, as always, great fun. He’s a busy man, but he’s also a great guy to talk to; never afraid to make his true opinions known, he’s a brilliant interview subject and a scarily clever engineer to boot. He’s also good at giving credit where credit is due, including in his shout-outs to people like fellow Broadcom engineer and creator of the Raspberry Pi Gertboard add-on Gert van Loo.

The group test picks four of the most popular Linux-based project management tools and pits them Gantt-to-Gantt in an attempt to find the one most useful for the majority of people. It was a fairly close-run competition this time round, but sure enough one did raise its head above the others and win the coveted group test winner medal for its efforts.

Finally, the WebConverger review looks at an interesting distribution which aims to make it easy to turn old hardware into a single-use internet kiosk, complete with protections from users and a neat customisation feature. It’s also suitable for digital signage, although as I found during testing it’s not without its issues.

More information is available on the Linux User & Developer website.

Micro Mart, Issue 1198

Micro Mart Issue 1198 CoverThis week’s issue of Micro Mart features another cover piece of mine: The Printer Ink Wars. Yes, that’s what I called it. Oh, wait, it gets better.

In offices and homes around the world, a war is being fought. There are no explosions, and you won’t hear gunfire, but it’s a pitched battle for control of one of the most precious liquids known to man. The fight isn’t over oil or water but something even more valuable. It’s a conflict for control of the printer ink market.

I know, right? The piece takes an in-depth look at the ink and toner industry, both from the perspective of a printer manufacturer and from that of a compatible cartridge maker. To make sure the piece is as detailed and fair as possible, I sought comment from both sides of the fence. Interestingly, while numerous compatible cartridge makers were interested in talking to me – including the European Toner and Ink Remanufacturers’ Association (ETIRA,) the UK Cartridge Recyclers Association (UKCRA,) Amor Office Supplies, Green Cartridges and Cartridge World – the only printer maker that would talk to me on the subject was HP.

Thankfully, HP’s ink man, Mark Hurren, proved more than capable of fighting his corner. “I wish it had never been called ink,” he told me. “That makes it compared to everyday writing implements, which is unfair because it’s a much more technological product than that.”

The piece covers the growth of refills, the flood of dirt-cheap and intellectual property-infringing clone cartridges from Asia, and the patent issues surrounding recycled cartridges. It also contains some fairly inflammatory comment from Vincent van Dijk, general secretary of ETIRA – including the accusation that not all is as it seems with printer makers’ so-called ‘recycling’ programmes.

Micro Mart Issue 1198 will be on sale until the end of Wednesday next week, so if you want to find out more I suggest you take a trip to the newsagents sharpish.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 110

Linux User & Developer, Issue 110This month’s Linux User magazine features my usual group test article – this time on CD ripping packages – along with the last part of my series on becoming a contributor to an open-source project and a review of penetration testing toolkit BackBox Linux 2.01.

The group test required a methodical approach, addressing the most common needs from an audio CD ripping package: the codecs supported; the ability to deal with scratched discs; downloading of CDDB information and cover art; and handling of discs encumbered with digital restrictions management (DRM) technology.

It also provided me with an excuse to listen to some of my favourite music, of course.

Interestingly, the group test result convinced me to switch from my usual CD ripping tool to an alternative thanks to its surprising performance. It’s not often that I’ll make a move from a tool I’m used to as the result of testing like this, but it’s always welcome when it does happen.

The final part of my three-part series looking at contributing to the LibreOffice project finishes off with an investigation of how a contributor can make the leap from mentoree to mentor – a key part of any open source community. It’s something which is all too often overlooked, but as soon as you start to take your first steps on the path you begin to know more than those who start after you. As a result, you have valuable knowledge to share with the community – even though you might consider yourself a mere neophyte.

Finally, there’s the review of BackBox Linux, a distribution aimed at security and penetration testing. As with BackTrack, it’s an Ubuntu derivative but it includes a surprisingly robust suite of utilities – including documentation tools and general-purpose packages like audio utilities and even a scanner driver – which makes it a serious contender despite the immaturity of the project.

Further details on this issue are available over on the Linux User & Developer website.

Micro Mart, Issue 1195

Micro Mart, Issue 1195My first piece for Dennis Publishing’s weekly IT mag Micro Mart, and it’s a cover feature. Not that I’m boasting or anything. Okay, perhaps I’m boasting a bit.

As you can probably see from the cover it’s a look at AMD’s disappointing launch of its consumer-grade Bulldozer-core processors, the AMD FX Series. Completed to the tightest possible schedule – I received an email requesting a 3,500-word feature on Thursday, with a deadline of the following Monday – it forms an overview of the history of Bulldozer, its launch in the server market, its consumer launch and the complaints that have been raised over its performance.

It also includes comment from an AMD engineer in the company’s Austin facility on what is being done to address the architecture’s problems – not an easy thing to get on such short notice, and massive thanks to AMD’s André Heidekrueger and Bite PR’s Sami Makinen for organising that so quickly.

It’s a nice piece, if I do say so myself, and hopefully won’t be the last to grace Micro Mart’s cover. Fingers crossed for longer deadlines next time, though…

Bit-Tech, Raspberry Pi Feature

Raspberry Pi LogoFollowing an interview with Raspberry Pi co-founder Eben Upton last week, the first of two confirmed features: a look at the project, which has created a 700MHz ARM-based credit-card size computer costing just $35, from a modder’s perspective.

Will it take off? Where are the mounting holes? Is it possible to overclock the Broadcom system-on-chip at the heart of the system? What software does it run? Can it play games? Does it support 1080p video playback? Will I ever stop asking these stupid questions?

All this and more answered over on Dennis Publishing’s computing enthusiast site, Bit-Tech.

The second feature to come out of the interview, a more Linux-focused Q&A-style transcription, is scheduled to appear in Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer Magazine, Issue 111.