Custom PC, Issue 206

Custom PC, Issue 206This month’s Hobby Tech feature takes a look at the recently-unearthed Nine Tiles prototype ROM for the ZX Spectrum by installing it on a ZX Spectrum Next, dramatically improves the flexibility of the FLIR ETS320 thermal inspection camera, and pores over classic computer commercials courtesy of coffee-table tome Do You Compute?.

First, the prototype ROM. In my review of the ZX Spectrum Next in Custom PC Issue 202, I mentioned that it’s possible to create new “machine personalities” – both by replacing the read-only memory (ROM) files used in Spectrum mode and by loading new cores onto the FPGA at the machine’s heart. Shortly prior to the ZX Spectrum Next’s launch, the Centre for Computing History received a trove of artefacts from Nine Tiles – including a prototype ZX Spectrum which was used to develop a ROM which never actually made it onto the publicly-launched machines.

The Centre had negotiated to make the ROM image available for free download for educational and academic purposes, which gave me an opportunity to load the ROM onto the ZX Spectrum Next and create the Nine Tiles Prototype as a usable machine personality. What followed was a process of debugging and reverse-engineering in order to make the ROM functional on the Next – a process which, I’m pleased to say, was wholly successful.

The FLIR ETS320, meanwhile, was reviewed back in Issue 201 – and one of my biggest complaints was its incredibly short focal length, meaning that it is only possible to analyse a very small part of a given circuit board under the thermal sensor. While the camera platform is capable of rising up, anything above 70mm away from the device on test is too blurry to be of use – unless, that is, you take advantage of a 3D-printed tool to manually adjust focus. The improvement is stark, as thermal images published in the piece demonstrate.

Finally, Do You Compute? is a book which looks not at the history of computing but at the history of selling computing – specifically, as the subtitle makes clear, “from the Atomic Age to the Y2K bug.” Put together by Ryan Mungia and Steven Heller, the book is a fantastic chronological walk through the shift in computers being for governments and big businesses to any businesses and eventually the home user.

It also has a major flaw, and it’s not one caused by the authors: Apple, for reasons unspecified, declined to provide permission for its adverts to be reproduced in the book. With Apple having been at the very forefront of the personal computing revolution, and well-known for iconic adverts from its 1984 Superbowl commercial to “Think Different” and “Rip Mix Burn,” it leaves a real hole in the book.

Custom PC Issue 206 is available now in supermarkets, newsagents, and online with global delivery via the official website.

PC Pro, Issue 309

PC Pro Issue 309This month’s PC Pro includes my hands-on review of the TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded reimagining of what home computers could have become if the market hadn’t crashed in the mid-80s.

Powered by a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), giving it the ability to transform into anything from a BBC Micro to a Galaxians arcade cabinet, the ZX Spectrum Next is around two years past its original launch schedule. The delay has been attributed to getting everything right, in particular the Rick Dickinson-designed chassis and keyboard – and, in TBBlue’s defence, the entire package is undeniably impressive.

For PC Pro’s testing I went hands-on with a production model of the top-end variant, the ZX Spectrum Next Accelerated. This features 1MB of memory upgradeable to 2MB, which is a lot if you’re thinking in 1980s terms, with a pre-fitted real-time clock and Wi-Fi module to match the mid-range Plus model. The stand-out feature of the Accelerated version, though, is a Raspberry Pi Zero fitted internally to act as a coprocessor – a concept gently borrowed from the BBC Micro and its Tube socket, to which the world’s first Arm processors were connected.

It wasn’t my first experience with the ZX Spectrum Next: I reviewed an early revision of the motherboard, minus case and keyboard, two years ago. In that time, though, the company and the community behind the project have worked to really polish things up: there’s a wire-bound printed manual, though sadly lacking an index; the operating system is swish and the bundled games impressive; the lost 28MHz ultra-fast accelerated operation mode is back, after being dropped in favour of a 14MHz mode following timing issues with the RAM; and while some features aren’t quite ready, in particular the ability to load multiple FPGA cores into a menu and choose from them at boot-up, it’s already a device that will appeal to vintage computing enthusiasts.

The full review is available now in PC Pro Issue 309, available at your nearest stockists or online in print or digital formats.

Custom PC, Issue 202

Custom PC Issue 202This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at the long-delayed but worth-the-wait TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, moves on to the unique Sega Arcade Pop-Up History from Read Only Memory, and closes on a look at the Raspberry Pi Imager utility.

Issue 202 is not the first time the ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded effort to not only recreate the classic Sinclair machine using modern hardware but to answer the question of what could have been if it weren’t for the microcomputer crash and subsequent sale to Amstrad: the internal hardware was reviewed way back in Issue 176 in the form of the board-only backer reward.

The ZX Spectrum Next is more than just a motherboard, however: its design includes a “toastrack”-inspired chassis and keyboard straight from the drafting board of sadly since-departed former Sinclair industrial designer Rick Dickinson – his last project, it would turn out. The fully-finished hardware, chassis and all, was due to arrive in backers’ hands in January 2018 – but only now, more than two years late, is the hardware finally being delivered.

Thankfully, it’s been worth the wait. Issues with the keyboard’s reliability have been ironed out, errors in the original hardware design resolved, and the firmware which drives the on-board field-programmable gate array (FPGA) updated and tweaked. The 28MHz accelerated mode, missing from the original review, is back, and the custom operating system works smoothly and without issue.

Sega Arcade Pop-Up History is another nostalgia-driven walk down memory lane, but rather than looking at home computers of the 1980s it covers Sega’s “taiken,” or “body sensation,” arcade cabinets – machines which moved to match the on-screen action. The written material is, however, limited: the bulk of the book is given over to card pop-up models of six cabinets, which is a definite first for Hobby Tech.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi Imager. Borrowing shamelessly from Balena’s Etcher, Imager is a tool from the Raspberry Pi Foundation which offers a cross-platform simplified graphical user interface for not only writing disk images to microSD cards but for downloading them too. The flow is just seven or eight clicks long: open Imager, bring up the list of supported operating systems, choose one and confirm, bring up the list of target storage devices and confirm, and flash. There’s even a verification stage, to confirm the image is correctly written – and you can point it at manually-downloaded disk images if your favoured operating system isn’t in the default selection.

All this, and a lot more beside, can be found in Custom PC Issue 202 at all the usual stockists and online from the official website with global delivery.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 5

HackSpace Magazine Issue 5My contribution to the latest issue of HackSpace Magazine is a detailed look at the ZX Spectrum Next, an open-hardware reimplementation of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum microcomputer with a wealth of improvements and enhancements.

Officially licensed from the current owner of the Spectrum rights – Sky In-Home Services, oddly enough, which requires only that a portion of any proceeds are donated to charity – the ZX Spectrum Next builds on the original with a Z80 implementation on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) which can be run in accelerated mode at up to 14MHz, up to 2MB of memory, SD card storage, built-in joystick ports, crystal-clear HDMI video output, four-channel AY sound, support for original Spectrum keyboards or modern PS/2 keyboards, and even optional real-time clock, ESP8266 Wi-Fi, and Raspberry Pi Zero-based co-processor add-ons.

Despite these upgrades – and more I haven’t mentioned, including a brand-new operating system dubbed NextOS, 256-colour display modes, and hardware sprite support – the ZX Spectrum Next also boasts full backwards compatibility with software and hardware designed for the original Spectrum family, which is something of an impressive achievement given the relatively modest resources available to its creators following a successful crowdfunding campaign for its production.

The ZX Spectrum Next reviewed here, though, isn’t quite the finished article. Provided to backers eager to get their hands on the device as early as possible, the board-only ZX Spectrum Next Issue 2A is aimed primarily at developers. It also comes with an annoying design flaw, which was discovered post-review: a missing capacitor which can cause stability issues when coupled with low-quality power supplies. The finalised Issue 2B, its creators promise, will include the missing capacitor along with a keyboard and chassis housing designed by Sinclair’s long-term industrial designer Rick Dickinson.

For a full look at the ZX Spectrum Next, you can pick up Hackspace Magazine Issue 5 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or as a free download under the Creative Commons licence at the official website.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 4

Hackspace Issue 4This 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.

Custom PC, Issue 174

Custom PC Issue 174This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at a very special eight-byte – not a typo – microcomputer, walks through turning a spare Raspberry Pi into a Nav Coin-mining cryptocurrency machine, and looks forward to the launch of the ZX Spectrum Next with a look at a deep-dive book detailing the original Spectrum’s neat Ferranti Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip.

First, the Mini C88. Designed by the multi-talented Daniel Bailey as a more affordable version of his C88, swapping the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) on which he implemented his own processor core design for an Arduino Zero and the extremely clever Dynamic Binary Translation (DBT) technique, the C88 is designed to be about as simple as a computer can get. Based on a custom instruction set, the C88 has just eight memory locations of eight bits apiece and is programmed by toggling each bit using a series of pleasingly tactile switches while monitoring the process on the 8×8 LED matrix that serves as its display.

For regular readers, this will all sound familiar: the original FPGA-based C88 and its 32-byte bigger brother the C3232 were the subject of an interview back in Issue 155. While Daniel has still not turned the C88 into a kit you can head out and buy, the Mini C88 is definite progress in that direction – and, as always, anyone interested in the project should hassle him about it on Twitter.

For those with a Raspberry Pi and a desire to play with cryptocurrency, meanwhile, this month’s tutorial will be of definite interest: a guide to turning a Pi into a ‘Stake Box’ for the Nav Coin cryptocurrency. Designed as an alternative to Bitcoin, Nav Coin offers those who run network nodes rewards in the form of a five percent return on their coin holdings when locked up in this manner. Taking less than an hour to set up and requiring nothing more than a low-powered computer, it’s a great way to get involved – and the Nav Coin project itself definitely one to follow.

Finally, while waiting impatiently for my ZX Spectrum Next microcomputer to land – which, I’m pleased to say, has since happened – I enjoyed a re-read of Chris Smith’s excellent The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to Design a Microcomputer. Based on interviews and deep-dive analysis, the book investigates the tricks and techniques which allowed Sinclair Computers to build the ZX Spectrum micro at such a bare-bones cost – which, in turn, was thanks to clever use of an Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip from Scottish electronics giant Ferranti. Effectively a write-once version of the modern FPGA, Ferranti’s ULA saw the number of components in the ZX81 drop to a quarter compared to the ZX80 and is key to how the ZX Spectrum does what it does.

For all this, and a bunch of other interesting things by people who aren’t me, pick up a copy of Custom PC Issue 174 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 155

Custom PC Issue 155This month’s Hobby Tech column features my field report from the Maker Faire UK 2016 event, an interview with my good friend Daniel Bailey about his brilliant homebrew computers, and a review of the Genuino MKR1000 microcontroller.

First, the event. Attending events like the Maker Faire is always a blast, especially as press when you have an excuse to stick your nose into absolutely everything that’s happening. My attendance this year was sponsored by oomlout, a local hobbyist electronics shop and a client for whom I do blog work, as highlighted in a “Sponsored By” call-out over the two-page spread. As for the event itself, you’ll find coverage of everything from DoES Liverpool’s excellent shooting gallery to affordable laser cutters and even the world’s only crowd-funded and wholly amateur manned space programme.

The event also gave me a chance to catch up with Daniel Bailey at the York Hackspace stand, after nearly a year of trying to find a good time to interview him about his impressive homebrew computers. Built on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and inspired by the classic Manchester Baby, the 8-bit C88 and 32-bit C3232 are incredibly impressive machines – and I can think of no project that better fits with the magazine’s title!

Finally, the MKR1000. Known under the Arduino brand in the US and Genuino brand elsewhere thanks to ongoing trademark disputes, the MKR1000 is Arduino.cc’s answer to the popular Particle Photon Wi-Fi microcontrollers. Featuring a breadboard-friendly layout and integrated 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio, it represents an interesting new direction for the company – albeit one somewhat hobbled by a high price compared against the competition.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people other than me, is awaiting your attention at your local newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 147

Linux User & Developer Issue 147This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes my review of a device I’ve been wanting to play with ever since I first interviewed its creator, Andreas Olofsson: the Adapteva Parallella.

I was introduced to the Parallella project way back in November 2012, when I interviewed Olofsson ahead of the launch of a Kickstarter campaign to create a low-cost development board for his company’s many-core tile-based Epiphany chip architecture. The promise: a single-board computer boasting a dual-core ARM processor, user-accessible field-programmable gate array (FPGA) and a 16- or 64-core Epiphany co-processor for the bargain-basement sum of $99. The Kickstarter campaign ended its run successfully, and the boards were produced – but there was a long delay between the Kickstarter production run and general availability, and a further delay before the boards became available in the UK.

Thanks to RS Components’ UK arm, availability is a solved issue. While the price of the boards might have increased – the attention-grabbing $99 price having proved unsustainable – the specifications remains the same, with 16-core Epiphany-III boards available now and 64-core Epiphany-IV boards just around the corner. For the Linux user, the magazine’s target audience, they’re tempting indeed: low-power enough to run on battery, a Parallella has the grunt to handle even complex tasks like machine vision but lacks readily-available software written for the Epiphany architecture. With partial OpenCL compatibility, it’s relatively straightforward to get parallelisable code running on the co-processor – and while optimisation is a harder task, the board is nevertheless tempting for anyone familiar with OpenCL and other multi-threading interfaces.

As to whether the Parallella is worth the asking price, you’ll have to buy the magazine to find out – and if you do, you’ll also be treated to my usual four pages of news from the world of open source, open hardware, open governance and open-anything-else-that-catches-my-eye.

Linux User & Developer Issue 147 is available at all god newsagents and most bad ones, supermarkets, or electronically via Zinio and similar services now. As always, the content in this issue will be republished in a French translation as Inside Linux in the coming months.

Custom PC, Issue 137

Custom PC Issue 137My Hobby Tech column continues in this month’s Custom PC magazine with a tutorial for building a gesture-recognition media controller, a review of the clever Adapteva Parallella single-board computer, and an interview with a personal hero of mine: designer Rick Dickinson.

Looking at the tutorial first, I was recently sent a Hover Board from Hover Labs. Rather than my planned review, I decided the hands-on nature of the gadget – which tracks the user’s finger movements in mid-air – was better suited to a tutorial-style write-up. The result: a simple build using an Arduino Leonardo and the Hover Board to control the playback of media in VLC using gestures. Wave your hand upwards to increase the volume, downwards to decrease it; left skips forwards, right skips backwards; tapping in the centre of the board pauses and resumes.

I was extremely impressed with how easy the Hover Board was to work with, although somewhat disappointed that it would only track gestures rather than absolute positioning. The latter, I have been told by its creators, is coming in a future software upgrade – at which point I’ll be revisiting the board with a more complex project.

This month’s review is a device I’ve been covering from the sidelines for some time: Adapteva’s Parallella. Created as a Kickstarter project to encourage adoption of the company’s many-core Epiphany co-processor architecture, this dinky little single-board computer packs everything a tinkerer could want: a dual-core ARM processor, 16-core Epiphany-III chip and even a user-accessible field-programmable gate array (FPGA) for custom chip design work. If your target application can be made to run on the Epiphany, you can expect impressive compute performance – but before buying one, there are a few points in the review you should read carefully, in particular the GPIO accessibility and ARM core performance.

Finally, my interview. I said Rick Dickinson was a personal hero of mine, and I wasn’t lying: a designer by trade, Rick was hired by Sinclair Research and designed the ZX80 and ZX81 systems, worked on the team that designed the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and designed the ill-fated business-oriented Sinclair QL. He’s done plenty since, of course – having won awards for work on devices as different as a field microscope and the Gizmondo hand-held console – but the interview focused on a new design project he’s taken on to imagine what a modern computer might look like if Sinclair hadn’t gone bust – starting with a 21st century update to the Sinclair QL.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff I didn’t write, can be yours with a quick visit to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.