Custom PC, Issue 136

Custom PC Issue 136This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC magazine reviews a next-generation version of the Fuze Powered by Raspberry Pi kit, previews the upcoming MinnowBoard Max from Intel, and publishes an interview with Sam ‘MrSidC64’ Dyer, author of Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium – the spelling a deliberate pun on ‘Commodore,’ if you were wondering.

First, the Fuze T2 review. I’d already looked at the original Fuze, courtesy its inventor Jon Silvera, back in Issue 124, and little has changed from the aerial view: it’s still a robust steel case inspired by the BBC Micros of the 80s, designed to house a keyboard, Raspberry Pi and a break-out board for the general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, sold either on its own or as a bundle with child-friendly electronics tutorials and a handful of simple components for experimentation. Looking in more detail, however, shows that plenty has changed: following feedback, Jon has redesigned to case to include the ability to mount the Pi sideways to prevent little fingers pulling out the SD card, added Lego-compatible holes to the side, and best of all included a four-port USB hub with integrated power supply that provides proper 5V/500mA ports while simultaneously powering the Pi itself. A much-improved GPIO break-out board is another welcome addition, featuring compatibility with existing add-on boards as well as integrated analogue-to-digital and hardware pulse-width modulation (PWM) pins – something the Pi alone sorely lacks.

The MinnowBoard Max, meanwhile, is easily recognisable as a new design entirely. Designed to replace Intel’s old MinnowBoard, reviewed back in Issue 122, the Max features a proper 64-bit dual-core Atom processor with 64-bit UEFI implementation – meaning that the limited compatibility of its predecessor is a thing of the past. The design is more compact, the entire platform more accessible to beginners, and as usual it’s entirely open in both software and hardware – even the UEFI BIOS is based on Intel’s open-source code. For those who find ARM development boards too much of a stretch after years of x86 programming, it’s certainly worth investigating and I was impressed with the pre-release prototype I was provided. Sadly, the release of the final production model has hit a few last-minute delays – although I’m expecting stock of both the dual-core and single-core variants to appear in the channel before the end of the year.

Lastly, my interview with Sam Dyer. A graphic designer by trade, Sam launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund a new coffee table book all about the software available for the Commodore 64, his first real computer. As a massive Commodore fan myself, I was a backer and when the book arrived earlier this year I knew I would have to write about it. Sam was kind enough to give me some of his time to answer questions about his early days of computing, the technology behind capturing the images that make up the book, and its at-the-time impending successor Commodore Amiga: A Visual Commpendium – which yesterday closed funding with a massive £130,000 raised from fellow Commodore fans. Yes, including me.

All this, plus a variety of words written by people who aren’t me, can be yours now with a trip to the newsagent or supermarket, or from the comfort of your home or office via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 137

Linux User & Developer Issue 137In Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer this month, you’ll find an interview with Mark Doron of the UEFI Forum nestled alongside my usual four-page spread of news.

For those unfamiliar with his work, the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is the modern replacement for the aged and creaking Basic Input-Output System (BIOS) which can trace its roots all the way back to the original IBM PC. As Doran tells it:

When I first started working on this back in the late 90s, I had the interesting experience of going to IBM and talking to them about the need to change how firmware is constructed for Intel Architecture machines, based on limitations we were running into with conventional BIOS technology. A couple of the guys in the audience, no big surprise perhaps, were part of the original team from Boca Raton that was building the PC AT and the conventional BIOS with it. They said ‘you know, the mission we were handed originally was to build code that would support a product that was meant to be 250,000 machines to end-of-life; we had no idea when we sat down to do that that this code would still be kicking around 20, 25 years later.’

That impressive reign is coming to an end with the introduction of the far more flexible and easy-to-understand UEFI. Its adoption in open source projects has been slow, however: concerns over Microsoft’s role in signing binaries for the Secure Boot portion of the system, including fears that the technology could be used to lock third-party operating systems like Linux out of the market altogether, left a sour taste in the mouths of many.

That’s changing, with the Linux Foundation itself now a member of the UEFI Forum group. Much of my discussion with Doran, and in particular in this interview extract, centred around the improving adoption of UEFI and Secure Boot support in open-source projects – a shift he highlights as the result of a lot of bridge-building and better explanation of his group’s goals.

In addition to the interview, my regular four-page spread of news this month covers comments made in favour of open standards and open-source software by Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, Nvidia’s contribution of open-source patch sets to the Nouveau project, the launch of the DARPA Open Catalogue, the impending launch of the revised Fuze Powered by Raspberry Pi design – complete with a small price reduction, and more.

Linux User & Developer Issue 137 is available at all good newsagents and a few not-so-good ones now, digitally via Zinio and similar services, or direct from Imagine Publishing via the official site.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 133

Linux User & Developer Issue 133In addition to my regular four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes my in-depth two-page review of the Fuze Powered by Raspberry Pi – possibly the most interesting Raspberry Pi accessory-stroke-bundle I’ve yet seen.

Aimed primarily at education, the Fuze couples a locally-manufactured metal chassis with a built-in keyboard and a diode-protected general-purpose input-output (GPIO) breakout board to create something more suited to school use than the bare board of the Pi itself. Provided with a version of Gordon Henderson’s modified BASIC, white-on-black for the true BBC Micro experience, and educational materials in PDF format, it’s undeniably an interesting package.

If that all sounds familiar, it should: I reviewed the same kit, but from a hobbyist’s perspective, in Custom PC Issue 124 earlier this month. During this more detailed review, however, I had the benefit of having spoken to the device’s inventor Jon Silvera. Having spotted some criticisms I had made on Twitter – using the social networking service, as is my usual habit, as a combination notepad and teaser vehicle during the review – he got in touch to discuss how my feedback would affect the product’s future development.

The result is that, even before the review was finished, many of the more niggling criticisms I had were fully addressed. This is reflected in the final review score, which was posted prior to the magazine’s publication on the Linux User website.

The review is, as usual, joined by four pages of news from the worlds of free, libre and open source software, open hardware, open governance and the surrounding communities – but to see those, you’re going to have to pick up a copy from your local newsagent, supermarket or online via digital distribution services including Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 124

Custom PC Issue 124My well-received four-page column, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, continues in this most recent issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with a review of the Fuze case for the Raspberry Pi, my progress with uncovering the secrets behind a piece of computing history, and a guide to designing and producing your own custom circuit boards.

First, the review. I’ve already covered the Fuze for Linux User & Developer, with the review scheduled to appear in Issue 133 in print following its early publication to the site, but here I concentrate less on an objective review and more on my subjective experience of the device.

If you haven’t seen it, the Fuze is an all-in-one machine which turns the Raspberry Pi from a bare circuit board into a fully-fledged microcomputer complete with built-in keyboard. Designed to evoke nostalgia for Acorn’s original BBC Micro, the metal chassis is well-made and includes a prototyping area at the top for constructing circuits which connect through a bundled buffered general-purpose input-output (GPIO) interface board.

Designed primarily for education, the Fuze is expensive – thanks largely to its creator’s focus on local manufacturing coupled with the inclusion of numerous electronic components and handy educational project guides – but undeniably impressive. Some issues I ran into while I was writing both features have since been addressed, following an extremely productive phone-call with the Fuze’s inventor, and it has become my go-to device when I need to do some work with a Pi.

For the regular vintage computing section, something a bit special. I recently helped out at the Wuthering Bytes festival in Hebden Bridge, which was organised by my friend Andrew Back – among others. I picked up something special from Andrew: an LJ Electronics Tina microcomputer, something computing museums around the world have scratched their heads over. Ex-RAF, the device appears to be a teaching system – but includes break-outs for everything from the keyboard to the TTL-level display, and built-in software including BASIC, assembler, telecommunications and even a machine-code monitor.

I’m currently working to restore the machine, and to find out some more about its history. The company which created it still exists – as LJ Create, rather than LJ Electronics – so they’re my next port of call. Unfortunately, one of the ROM chips – the one which holds the machine code monitor – is corrupt, but Andrew also gave a second machine to a friend of ours, so I’m hoping to get a clean dump and finish restoration in the near future.

Finally, a tutorial on designing your own printed circuit boards. Based on my experiences making the Sleepduino, an Arduino compatible night-light and white-noise generator, I walk the reader through using freely available software and cheap commercial PCB printing services in order to build custom devices. My software of choice is Fritzing; while it has its detractors, who quite rightly point out it’s relatively restricted and somewhat slow, it’s a lot easier to get started with than any other cross-platform PCB design tool.

All this, plus a bunch of other interesting stuff which I didn’t write, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on the digital nets via services like Zinio.