Linux User & Developer, Issue 161

Linux User & Developer Issue 161To say this month’s Linux User & Developer is a bumper issue is something of an understatement: in addition to my usual four-page news spread, you’ll find a three-strong group test of Steam Machines and a detailed step-by-step guide to building your own Linux box from a pile of parts.

First, the group test. Editor Gavin Thomas contacted me with the news that they had an Alienware Steam Machine in, and asked whether I would be able to source and review a rival device for a head-to-head. I went one better, the overachiever that I am, and thanks to the very lovely people at CyberPower and Zotac I was able to pick up a Syber and NEN to be run through their paces alongside the Alienware.

For Linux User & Developer, the Steam Machines were very new territory. The magazine has previously focused largely on professional uses for Linux, but the launch of mainstream-targeted console-beating gaming PCs running Steam OS – Valve’s gaming-centric customisation of Debian Linux – couldn’t be ignored. I started by designing a series of benchmarks which could be run across all three machines in order to provide a performance comparison, which then needed to take into account the price difference between the two entry-level machines from Alienware and CyberPower and the top-end Zotac NEN. The winner? Well, you’ll have to read the review.

A major group test like this would normally be enough, but Gavin also asked me to come up with a cover feature for the issue: building your own Linux machine. As with the group test, this issue marks the first time Linux User & Developer has strayed into the PC-building arena, and Gavin was looking for someone who could lend an expert eye to the hardware side of the feature.

After an initial hiccough with a parts supplier that let me down, the wonderful people at Overclockers UK were kind enough to loan me a shopping cart full of hardware, including an Intel Skylake processor. The specifications of the machine were kept low enough to appeal to buyers on a budget looking for a future-proof bargain, while having enough poke to ensure a pleasant experience. Naturally, the hardware was chosen specifically with Linux compatibility in mind – though the Skylake family of processors does require the Linux 4.4 kernel or newer to run at its full potential, which is covered in the software-centric second half of the feature.

Issue 161 is definitely a personal highlight, containing as it does such a large percentage of contents from my trusty keyboard. You can see the result for yourself with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent, or through digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 134

Custom PC Issue 134In this month’s Hobby Tech column I spend a fair amount of my time looking at the excellent Gamebuino, an Arduino-compatible hand-held games console I had the pleasure of backing on Indiegogo. As well as an interview with its creator, Aurélien Rodot, there’s a tutorial on building a cut-down variant on a breadboard, alongside a pair of reviews covering the Banana Pi and HummingBoard i2eX.

First, the reviews. I’ve had a prototype HummingBoard and a retail-model Banana Pi for a while, but have held off on giving either a proper review – although Issue 131 did include a preview of both. In the case of the HummingBoard, I needed to wait for final-release hardware; the Banana Pi, meanwhile, suffered from low-quality early-release software. Thankfully, both issues have now been addressed – the former thanks to the ever-lovely New IT, the latter due to the diligent work of the software developers working on the Banana Pi project – and I’ve been able to dedicate two pages this issue to a full head-to-head review of both devices.

My interview with Rodot comes off the back of his hugely successful Indiegogo campaign to build an Arduinio-compatible hand-held games console. Ending more than a thousand per cent above his original goal, the project caught the public’s attention in a major way – and with one of the finished products in my hand, it’s easy to see why. Although its 32KB of program storage, 2KB of RAM and tiny Nokia LCD are minimalist, the device is easily accessible for those wanting to learn game programming and can even act as an I²C controller thanks to two broken-out buses on the top-side.

Sadly, there’s no way to get your hands on a Gamebuino post-Indiegogo until Rodot launches his web store – planned for October, he tells me – so to tide readers over this month’s column includes a two-page tutorial on building your own. Although significantly cut down compared to the real thing – there’s no light sensor, speaker, battery, or micro-SD card reader – it’s a quick and easy project that allows users to start playing with the Gamebuino ecosystem ahead of the device’s general availability.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 131

Custom PC Issue 131Continuing my terrifically successful Hobby Tech column this month, I cover the building of an arcade controller for the Raspberry Pi using genuine parts and the board’s handy-dandy general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, the Software Preservation Society’s KryoFlux floppy imaging device, review the Matrix TBS2910 mini-PC and offer a preview of the first real competitors to the Pi’s reign: the Banana Pi and the Hummingboard.

First, the Matrix: yes, it’s the same board I reviewed for Linux User & Developer this month, so don’t expect any surprises. It’s still a quad-core Freescale i.MX6 design with pre-loaded XBMC-based Linux distribution, designed for use as an open-source platform to encourage sales of TBS’ digital tuner devices. I was a little more generous this time around, mind, as the majority of Custom PC’s readership use Windows as their primary operating system; as a result, the use of a Windows-only utility to switch operating systems on the Matrix isn’t the no-no that it was for Linux User’s readers.

The KryoFlux is probably my personal highlight from this month’s column. Designed and produced by the Software Preservation Society, a not-for-profit group with no lesser aim than the storage and preservation of every game ever released on almost any computing platform, the KryoFlux is a universal floppy drive controller with a USB interface. Combined with the SPS’ software, it allows very low-level sampling of any floppy disk regardless of format, storing details on the magnetic flux transition timings for later decoding. Oh, and you can write disk images back to fresh media. For a collector with a large quantity of decaying magnetic media surrounding him, it’s an absolute lifesaver – if somewhat expensive for its small component count.

This month’s tutorial focuses on turning some old arcade components into a joystick for a Raspberry Pi-powered games console. It’s actually a lot simpler than you might think: digital joysticks are little more than a set of switches, and fire buttons are single switches; the process is no more complicated than the introductory switch-reading project I wrote for the Raspberry Pi User Guide. Combined with some handy-dandy open-source software, it works a treat – as long as your chosen game doesn’t tax the Pi’s poor 700MHz processor too much, of course.

Finally, the Banana Pi and Hummingboard. Both announced at roughly the same time, the two boards are the first in what I’m sure is to be a long line of Raspberry Pi clones. They’re not slavish copies, however: both bring new features to the table, starting with the promise of more power. The Banana Pi, from Chinese embedded computing specialist Lemaker, boasts an AllWinner A20 dual-core module that offers a rough quadrupling of the Pi’s CPU power; the Hummingboard, previously known as SolidRun’s Carrier One, will be available in models up to and included a Freescale i.MX6 quad-core unit. Add in SATA connectivity and even PCI Express, and you’ve got an interesting pair of designs.

I very deliberately didn’t include a review of either device, however: the Banana Pi’s board design is finalised, but the software is in pre-alpha status and is not comparable to the Raspberry Pi’s years-polished offerings. The Hummingboard, meanwhile, has yet to be fully released with my version being a limited-run single-core developer-only prototype kindly provided by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT. The finished version is due soon, and there’s a dual-core mid-range model with my name on it.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your nearest newsagent, supermarket or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services like Zinio.

Micro Mart, Issue 1251

Micro Mart, Issue 1251This week’s Micro Mart includes a feature I wrote a short while ago regarding Valve’s plans to release a compact console-cum-computer dubbed the Steam Box. While written before certain facts came to light – the confirmation that the PlayStation 4 would basically be a locked-down x86 PC, for example, and once and former Valve partner Xi3 announcing its own Piston product to Gabe Newell’s dismay – it still covers plenty of interesting ground for anyone into the gaming scene.

Topping 3,500 words, the feature starts with a look at the history of Valve itself, from its founding by former Microsoft staffers Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington in 1996 to the launch of Steam, the company’s incredibly successful digital distribution platform. Next, a discussion of the difference twix console gaming and computer gaming – and Valve’s concept to unite the two in a way that hasn’t been attempted since the days of the Commodore 64GS or the Amiga CD32.

A large chunk of the article deals with gaming on Linux, for one simple reason: Valve co-founder Newell has been vocal in his dislike for Microsoft’s Windows 8, and has confirmed that the Steam Box – expected to launch at retail early next year – will be based on Linux, likely a customised version of the Ubuntu distribution for which Valve has been porting its Steam client.

Following the background, the feature includes industry comment from Valve’s Anna Sweet, as well as Nvidia’s Jason Paul on his company’s Project Shield hand-held console – another Linux-based gaming device that it is hoped will help computer gaming capture more of the market share enjoyed by the console jockeys.

If any of that sounds interesting, pick up a copy of Micro Mart Issue 1251 from your local newsagent or supermarket – but be quick: it’s Dennis Publishing’s weekly, so it won’t be on shelves for long. Alternatively, pick up the digital version via Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 115

Custom PC Issue 115This month’s interview column for Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC talks to Nvidia’s Jason Paul about his company’s latest surprise hardware launch: the Project Shield hand-held gaming console.

Based around Nvidia’s Tegra 4 system-on-chip processor, which combines four ARM Cortex-A15 general-purpose processing cores with GeForce graphics processing technology and a power-saving Cortex-A9 core for background tasks, Project Shield is a departure for the company. Rather than a reference design or OEM offering, Project Shield is to be launched – first in the US, with the UK to follow later in the year – as a full retail offering.

It’s certainly a novel device: looking like a small TFT glued to an Xbox controller, it provides access to Android games and apps while also connecting to desktop PCs running Nvidia GeForce graphics cards and streaming full-fat PC games – cloud gaming minus the cloud, in other words. Fog gaming? Mist gaming? Whatever.

Paul was full of interesting anecdotes about the project, including the fact that the original prototype of the device – which has been dreamed up, designed, developed and produced in under a year – was little more than a smartphone and a game controller screwed together with a plank of wood.

“I don’t think I would be quite as able to express the pain and agony of cramming all this into a device as well as our engineering team! It was pretty challenging. To give you one anecdote, we got a lot of the device designed and laid out and then realised that we had these amazing speakers that were larger than we had allocated in the device. So, we had to go back and redesign a bit of the area around the speakers to be able to cram in the bass reflex quad speaker audio.”

This interview was actually something of a last-minute change to the planned schedule. A previous interview with open-source engineer Andrew Back, originally due to appear in this issue, will now appear in Custom PC Issue 116.

The rest of the interview appears in Custom PC Issue 115, available in stores now and digitally through the Zinio service.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 122

Linux User & Developer Issue 122This month’s issue of Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer is bursting at the seams with my words, including a special feature of which I’m particularly proud: a piece looking at the Linux gaming market dubbed The State of Play.

First, though, there’s the cover feature: my annual look at the best Linux distributions around. For those who usually read the Windows or Mac magazines, this feature always surprises: one of the biggest strengths of the open-source world of Linux is the sheer breadth of choice available to the user. As well as general-purpose distributions, like Linux Mint, Fedora or OpenSUSE, there are distributions aimed at specific tasks like the penetration-testing BackTrack distribution, or the media-centric GeeXbox. When you’re used to having a choice of one operating system – perhaps in a handful of ‘editions’ if you’re lucky – that’s a real shock to the system.

That strength is also a weakness: with so much choice, it can be difficult to figure out which distribution is right for you. As a helping hand, each year I do a run down of the top ten Linux distributions, along with a quick look at a handful of other distributions which didn’t quite make it into the list. The rankings are based on a variety of factors – DistroWatch popularity, review scores, and whether or not it died on its backside when I installed it into a virtual machine for screenshot purposes. It’s always a popular feature, and one I enjoy even if it does take forever to document.

Aside from those seven pages, there’s also a review of the Olimex A13-OLinuXino-WiFi. Built to compete with the Raspberry Pi, designed in a matter of months and released under an open hardware licence, the OLinuXino is remarkable: for the cost of roughly two Pis, you get a Cortex-class processor with over twice the compute throughput of the ARMv6 SoC on the Pi, 512MB of RAM, integrated Wi-Fi (although a Wi-Fi-less version is available) and real USB connectivity, along with more GPIO than you can shake a script at. As to whether it’s worth the asking price, you’ll have to check out the review.

Finally, the gaming feature. Originally pitched as a look at Valve’s Steam for Linux beta, for which I was lucky enough to receive an invitation, the piece evolved into a full-length feature investigating the recent explosion of interest in Linux gaming. Featuring comment from industry giants including Valve, Croteam’s chief technical officer Alen Ladavac, and the talented Ryan C. ‘Icculus’ Gordon – the man responsible for the overwhelming majority of Linux ports including the excellent Frozen Synapse and the original Serious Sam.

Sadly, there were a few people who were unable to comment in time for the piece: a sudden unexpected Chinese trip for the chief executive and his staff meant that I was unable to get comment from Unity on its recently-launched Linux-compatible game engine, while Nvidia was struggling to get ready for the Consumer Electronics Show – where it launched the Tegra 4 chip and Project Shield games console – and was equally unable to comment in time. With luck, I’ll be able to include them in a follow-up piece when the Steam Box finally launches…

In short, it’s a beast of an issue – so grab yourself a copy from your nearest newsagent, or if you can’t be bothered to leave the house try a digital version courtesy of Zinio. Alternative purchasing methods are available through the official site.

Bit-Gamer, Games of the Year 2011

As part of the Custom PC/Bit-Tech/Bit-Gamer annual round-up, I was asked to be on the judging panel for the Games of the Year 2011 awards. Written by Joe Martin, the annual article is a look at the top five games released throughout the year; while readers might not always agree (read: usually disagree) the piece always generates lots of interest.

Given five votes each, the judging panel put forward their contenders for the title. As usual, the voting covered a pleasing mix of independent games – with two of my votes going to Frozen Synapse and Bastion, two very fine titles to come out of independent game studios this year – and triple-A titles, with no real surprises as to the overall winner.

The full piece can be found over on the Bit-Tech website.