Tag Archive for Hardware

Custom PC, Issue 168

Custom PC Issue 168This month’s Hobby Tech column is taken up with a trio of reviews covering the pretty darn impressive Mooltipass Mini hardware password manager, Automattic’s Blog in a Box distribution for the Raspberry Pi, and Mark Hardisty’s A Gremlin in the Works.

Starting with the latter, A Gremlin in the Works is another fantastic coffee-table book from retro computing publisher Bitmap Books (the founder of which, Sam Dyer, I interviewed back in Custom PC Issue 136). Written by Mark Hardisty based on exhaustive interviews – and retaining the question-and-answer style of the transcripts, making for an accurate rendition of the subjects’ thoughts but a slightly tiresome read – the two-volume book chronicles the rise and fall of gaming pioneer Gremlin Graphics. As a massive fan of Gremlin’s output – to this day the intro music to Hero Quest brings joy to my heart, and I blame my sweet tooth on a Zool addiction – A Gremlin in the Works is a book I’d long been looking forward to reading, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.

Blog in a Box, meanwhile, is an interesting beast. At its heart, it’s a single-purpose GNU/Linux distribution for the Raspberry Pi created by Automattic as a means of making it easier for people to run the WordPress blogging platform from the device. It’s not provided as a downloadable drive image, as with most distributions, though; instead, Automattic has written a cross-platform program which customises various settings – title, passwords, email accounts, things like that – and configures them so the Pi is ready to rock on first boot. It’s a neat idea, but one which still needs polish: I found the Linux version failed to run properly on my Ubuntu 16.04 desktop, and several features promised by the tool were disabled when the Pi actually started up. It’s a tool with promise, though, and I look forward to revisiting it should Automattic release an update.

Finally, the Mooltipass Mini. The brainchild of Mathieu Stephan, the Mooltipass Mini builds on its non-Mini predecessor to create a pocket-sized hardware password safe for all your accounts – or, at least, as many as will fit in 8Mb (1MB) of internal memory. The Mooltipass Mini is a tool for the adequately paranoid: passwords, though not usernames, are stored in the device’s internal memory under AES-256 encryption with the private key located on a removable smart card itself locked with a four-hexadecimal-character PIN. When a password is required, its entry can be found on the screen and the Mooltipass does its best impression of a USB keyboard by typing the account details in on your behalf – or, when the optional software is installed, filling in forms in browser windows automatically upon manual confirmation on the device itself.

Having long advocated for the use of password managers to promote high-quality password use and discourage password reuse, the Mooltipass Mini is a near-perfect companion. It addresses the majority of the problems with traditional password managers, like how to keep the encrypted database accessible while preventing its theft. While there are undeniable issues, such as the £61 (inc. VAT) retail price and the need to buy two so you have a backup to use if the primary one fails, it has become a part of my security arsenal – and one I feel comfortable using thanks to the project’s open-source nature for both the software and underlying hardware.

All this, and a whole mess of other things written by people who aren’t me, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 166

Custom PC Issue 166Readers of my regular Hobby Tech column this month will find a BBC micro:bit-driven tutorial alongside two reviews covering the remarkable Raspberry Pi Zero W microcomputer and the fascinating Delete by Paul Atkinson.

The idea for the tutorial came about while working on a chapter of my upcoming Micro:bit User Guide, and seemed like a perfect fit for the readers of Custom PC Magazine: turning the low-cost yet extremely flexible micro:bit into an addressable USB-connected 5×5 LED matrix and having it display current CPU load in a constantly-updating bar graph. Naturally, the same technique could be used to graph almost anything.

The secret lies in MicroPython’s REPL, an interactive interpreter which can run on the micro:bit and accept commands via the USB serial port. By switching the micro:bit into REPL mode, it can be slaved to another system over USB. The result: the entire program code, written in Python using the serial, time, and psutil libraries, exists purely on the host machine. A quick bit of Blu-tack later, and my monitor was wearing a CPU monitor which worked even when the display was off.

The Pi Zero W, meanwhile, was a device to which I had been looking forward for quite some time. An upgraded version of the original £5 Raspberry Pi Zero microcomputer, the Pi Zero W differs in only one respect: it has a built-in radio module, the same BCM43438 as found on the far larger and more expensive Raspberry Pi 3.

While the addition of the radio module, which offers Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, and 2.4GHz Wi-FI connectivity, almost doubles the price of the Pi Zero W to £9.60, it’s money well spent. In almost every Pi Zero project I have built, I’ve ended up using a USB OTG adaptor and low-cost USB Wi-Fi dongle to add network connectivity, and having it on-board – even at a slightly higher cost compared to a USB-connected solution – makes life considerably easier.

Finally, Delete. Billed as “a design history of computer vapourware,” Paul Atkinson’s coffee table book is packed with high-quality photographs – and, for the rarer machines, the occasional rescaled JPEG exhibiting unfortunate compression artefacts – covering machines from an upgraded Sinclair QL to a bright yellow IBM that never left the drawing board. Each comes with pages on its history, with interview subjects detailing features and failures alike, and while not all machines were strictly vapourware few are likely to have a place in the average vintage computing collection. In short: if you like old computers you’ll like Delete, which is available now from Amazon and other bookstores under ISBN 978-0857853479.

As always, you can read the whole column and a whole lot more by picking up Custom PC Issue 166 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 165

Custom PC Issue 165This month’s issue of Custom PC Magazine marks a milestone: four years since I started writing my Hobby Tech column. To celebrate, three reviews spanning its five pages: the Ryanteck RTk.GPIO, the Kitronik Micro:bit Inventor’s Kit, and the Pimoroni GPIO Hammer Header – the only piece of electronic equipment I’ve ever reviewed installed with a hammer.

First, the RTk.GPIO. The brainchild of Ryan Walmsley, interviewed back in Issue 129, the RTk.GPIO is designed to bring all the joy of the Raspberry Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header to any PC with a free USB port. A surprisingly sizeable red-hued circuit board, the RTk.GPIO includes a Pi-compatible 40-pin GPIO header with pin-out on the silkscreen. A quick pip install of the Python library later, and you can pretty much take any RPi.GPIO program and have it run natively on your Windows, Linux, or macOS machine.

Perhaps the biggest power of the RTk.GPIO is in assisting with the development of software for Pi add-ons, using the extra computing power of a desktop or laptop to make your life easier then allowing you to transfer your program to a real Raspberry Pi with minimal changes once complete. Its only real downside, in fact, is price: it’s more expensive than picking up a Raspberry Pi Zero and turning it into a USB device, though undeniably smoother to use.

The Kitronik kit, meanwhile, is one of a range of add-ons I’ve been playing with for my upcoming Micro:bit User’s Guide. Based around a GPIO expansion board for the micro:bit’s edge connector, the kit comes with mounting plate, solderless breadboard, jumper wires, and all the components you need to work through the included full-colour tutorial book – plus, in the version I picked up, the micro:bit itself, though the kit is also available without for those who already have the BBC’s miniature marvel.

In the years I’ve been playing with hobbyist electronics, I’ve seen these kits go from the most hastily thrown together things to extremely polished collections of hardware – and Kitronik’s kit definitely sits at the right end of that spectrum. There are nits to be picked, such as the lack of a handy plastic parts box for storage and no use of the lovely breadboard overlay sheets that make the Arduino-centric ARDX kit so easy to use, but it’s hard to imagine someone buying the Kitronik kit and being disappointed.

Finally, the GPIO Hammer Header. I’ve long been a fan of Pimoroni’s products, but the Hammer Header is by far both the simplest and the smartest I’ve seen. Designed for anyone who has purchased a Raspberry Pi Zero and wants to make use of the unpopulated GPIO header but who doesn’t fancy firing up a soldering iron, the kit makes use of cleverly-shaped pins which can make a suitable electrical connection purely mechanically.

The kit gets its name from the acrylic jig used for installation: assemble the jig with the Pi Zero in the middle, then give it a few sharp raps with a hammer to push the pins home. Male and female variants are available, allowing you to quickly install headers on both the Pi Zero and compact pHAT add-on boards, and to my surprise both installed quickly, easily, and without a single poor joint – and in a fraction of the time of soldering all 40 pins by hand.

For all this, and more, pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.

PC Pro, Issue 271

PC Pro Issue 271In this month’s PC Pro Magazine I take a look at possibly the least original product to have ever come out of Asus’ labs: the Raspberry Pi clone known as the Tinker Board.

Designed to help Asus capture a slice of the lucrative maker market, the Tinker Board is a one-for-one feature-and-footprint clone of the Raspberry Pi 3: it’s a roughly credit-card-sized single-board computer with an ARM processor, wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, four USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, analogue audio, Camera Serial Interface (CSI) and Display Serial Interface (DSI) ports, and a 40-pin general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header. So far, so cloned.

Where Asus has tried to improve upon its inspiration is in the raw specifications: the processor, while 32-bit to the Raspberry Pi 3’s 64-bit, is considerably faster; there’s double the memory, a supposedly gigabit network connection which isn’t bottlenecked by a single-channel USB bus, support for 4K video playback, and high-resolution 24-bit 192KHz audio. If all of that were true, it’d be easy to overlook the higher selling price of the Tinker Board compared to the Pi on which it is based.

Sadly, my review didn’t go smoothly. The Tinker Board has hit the market in a parlous state. The 4K video playback is choppy, the GPIO port barely works and none of its features beyond simply toggling a pin on and off are available, hardware accelerated video playback is barely functional, and the ‘gigabit’ Ethernet port no faster than the 10/100Mb port on any standard Raspberry Pi.

To be fair to Asus, the majority of the problems I encountered – bar, possibly, the Ethernet performance – were likely related to the software provided, which appears to be in a very early alpha stage. It’s a device I’ll be keeping to one side in the hope of revisiting it in the future, should Asus ship improved software.

For a full run-down of my experience with the board, pick up the latest PC Pro at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically on Zinio and other digital distribution platforms.

 

Custom PC, Issue 164

Custom PC Issue 164My Hobby Tech column this month is dominated by two reviews of devices which have taken their inspiration from better-known alternatives, but the two couldn’t be more different: the Asus Tinker Board and the SiFive HiFive1. As an added bonus, there’s a look into the wonderful world of hobbyist pinball machine repair, and by that I mean a friend and I repaired some pinball machines and lived to tell the tale.

First, the Tinker Board. There have been rumours flying around since last year that Taiwanese technology giant Asus was looking to carve itself off a slice of the Raspberry Pi pie, and that’s exactly what the Tinker Board is: an attempt to clone the Raspberry Pi. Its footprint and layout are so close to the original that it’s entirely possible to use official Raspberry Pi cases without difficulty, and the features available are a one-for-one match: four USB ports, an Ethernet port, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a 3.5mm jack, CSI and DSI connectors, and even the Pi’s trademark 40-pin GPIO header.

To its credit, Asus has tried to improve upon the original design. The processor is more powerful – quite impressively so, I discovered in my testing – and purportedly supports 4K video playback, the Ethernet supposedly gigabit, there’s support for 24-bit 192KHz high-definition audio, the RAM has been boosted from 1GB to 2GB, and the GPIO port has received colour coding to its pins. Sadly, many of these claims fell short during testing: the Ethernet port’s throughput is sub-100Mb/s even when connected to a gigabit switch, the 4K video playback simply doesn’t work, and the GPIO port is useless for anything save basic on-off pin switching – there’s no I²C, no SPI, no 1Wire, no UART, nothing, with all advanced features simply listed as in-the-works.

The SiFive HiFive1, by contrast, delivers on its promises and more. Designed to mimic the footprint and layout of an Arduino Uno microcontroller, the HiFive1 is notable for the chip at its heart: one of the first off-the-shelf implementations of the open-source RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) architecture. Still in its relative infancy compared to Atmel’s AVR or Intel’s x86 architectures, RISC-V is designed to scale from microcontrollers like SiFive’s through to high-efficiency server systems.

Like the Tinker Board, I ran into a few hiccoughs during testing. Unlike the Tinker Board, they were all quickly addressed. Considering the HiFive1 is only the second major product from SiFive and is the first commercial implementation of the RISC-V architecture to include support in the Arduino IDE for easy programming, I was thrilled with the board – and sad when my time with it came to an end.

Finally, pinball machines. The last page of this month’s column details my visit to the Brew Haus in Bradford with my friend Stuart Childs, but rather than being there for the beer we were there to administer some love to a series of pinball machines the owner had recently installed – one of which, a Data East Star Wars table, was entirely non-functional and missing its keys to boot. Between picking the lock to gain entry, replacing the somehow-shattered bumpers, testing the electronics, and discovering the PSU was hanging by a thread – its screws, interestingly, being attached to the magnet of a nearby speaker – a fun time was had and a working table set up by the end of the evening.

To get the full low-down on all these topics, plus a whole lot of interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local newsagent, supermarket, or other magazine outlet, or pick up a virtual copy via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.

PC & Tech Authority, Issue 232

PC & Tech Authority Issue 232This month’s PC & Tech Authority includes a reprint of a review I originally wrote for PC Pro Magazine, in which I turn my eye to the Kano Computer Kit, the latest bundle of parts from the eponymous London-based education-centric company – and here’s what I had to say at the time of the original review.

The original Kano kit proved a smash hit when it landed on crowdfunding site Kickstarter back in 2013, raising more than $1.5 million to produce what it claimed was a computer you built yourself. Its launch was marred, however, by a modicum of controversy: what Kano had made was not a computer, but rather a selection of accessories – case, speaker, keyboard, and a customised GNU/Linux operating system – which it bundled with the already-existing Raspberry Pi, turning it from the “computer you build” to the “computer you put in a case and plug a USB dongle into.”

The crowdfunding success was followed by efforts to set up a sustainable business, and the Kano kits are now available globally direct from Kano and through resellers. For review I received the two latest revisions, the Kano Computer Kit and Kano Display Kit, bundled together as the Kano Complete Computer Kit.

The Computer Kit takes a Raspberry Pi 3 then bundles it with the Debian-based Kano OS software, a case, GPIO-powered speaker, combined wireless keyboard and trackpad in fetching orange, and the Kano ‘story book’ manual. The Display Kit adds a non-touch display panel, a custom stand the Kano case can hook into, and a smart split power cable that allows the display and Raspberry Pi to be driven from a single socket.

The hardware, sadly, proved disappointing for the cost. At an RRP of £299, the kit isn’t exactly value for money: a Raspberry Pi 3, speaker, wireless keyboard and trackpad, official touchscreen display, power supply, micro-SD card, and a decent book could be had for around half the cost and provide roughly equal educational value – if, that is, you ignore the software.

Kano OS is, to put it simply, fantastic. For full details you’ll have to read my review, but it’s fair to say I was in love with the platform from the moment I powered the Kano kit on. Interestingly, though, you don’t need a Kano kit to use Kano OS: the Debian-based Linux distribution is available to download completely free of charge from Kano’s developer site, and can be used on any existing Raspberry Pi.

For my final conclusion, pick up the latest issue of PC & Tech Authority from your favourite supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 163

Custom PC Issue 163My work for Hobby Tech this month involved rather more soldering than is usual, in order to assemble the parts required for reviews of the Boldport Club’s Ligemdio and Touchy kits and the Dark Control Raspberry Pi motor control boards – though, at least, the final review of the freshly-launched Debian+Pixel Linux distribution was free of fumes.

First, the Boldport Club. I’ve reviewed one of Saar Drimer’s impressively artistic circuit kits before, back in November 2015, but where you used to have to camp out on the Boldport website to pick up the latest small-production-run kit there’s a new option: monthly subscription. Members of the Boldport Club get a series of parcels, typically but not always including a kit featuring a Saar-designed printed circuit board but almost always being aimed more at the experienced engineer than the absolute beginner.

For a flavour of what Boldport Club members can expect, Saar sent over two kits: the Touchy, a touch-sensitive microcontroller dedicated to the memory of maker Oliver Coles, and the Ligemdio, a handy-dandy USB-powered LED tester. The latter proved far simpler to build than the former: anyone used to beginner through-hole kits would undeniably find the surface mount components on the Touchy a challenge, but therein lies its attraction.

The soldering on the Dark Control boards, by contrast, was considerably less tricky. Created by the Dark Water Foundation and funded via Kickstarter, the Dark Control boards – one for DC motors and the other for ESC motors – are impressive beasts. Designed to mimic the footprint of the diminutive Raspberry Pi Zero, the boards include the ability to run a minimum of six independent motors, include room for a nine-degree sensor add-on, and can be linked to remote control hardware for network-free control of everything from submarines to aerial drones.

Finally, Debian+Pixel is Raspbian for the masses. Like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel is built on top of Debian Linux; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel uses the Pixel desktop environment; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel includes a selection of educational software chosen by the Raspberry Pi community. Unlike Raspbian, though, Debian+Pixel runs on almost any x86 PC – meaning you don’t need a Raspberry Pi.

The software is, as you’d expect from a distribution based on one of the oldest Linux variants around, stable. The Pixel interface looks the same whether you’re running on a Pi or a traditional PC, and only the speed at which programs open and run gives it away. Sadly, there are one or two omissions largely as a result of licensing agreements: the handy Wolfram Alpha application is nowhere to be found, as is the extremely buggy Minecraft Pi Edition that saw one release back in 2013 before being abandoned by the now Microsoft-owned Mojang.

For the full run-down of all these shiny things, plus a whole bunch of other stuff written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC magazine in your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

The MagPi, Issue 54

The MagPi Issue 54This month’s The MagPi Magazine, the official publication of the Raspberry Pi community, features my review of an impressive compact network-attached storage (NAS) device: the Nextcloud Box.

Built around the PiDrive storage system from Western Digital Labs and featuring software from the open-source Nextcloud project – itself born from a fork of the Owncloud project – the Nextcloud Box does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a box which runs Nextcloud.

More accurately, it’s a box that can run Nextcloud. Out of the box, there’s a key piece missing: the packaging reveals a two-part plastic chassis with clever magnetic clasp, a smart split power and data cable, a power supply, a 1TB Western Digital 2.5″ hard drive, and a micro-SD card with the Nextcloud software already loaded onto an Ubuntu Core installation. What you don’t get is a Raspberry Pi: the brains need to be supplied separately, with only the Raspberry Pi 2 supported at the time of writing.

Once you’ve affixed your Pi in place with the bundled Torx screwdriver and screws, you can begin the installation process – which is as simple as putting the micro-SD card in and connecting power. Over the course of a few minutes the operating system is copied to the 1TB hard drive, and then the system reboots ready for configuration.

Nextcloud is, I have to say, incredibly impressive software. While there’s some way to go in certain aspects of usability – in particular setting the NAS up for access from outside your home network requires a bit of fiddling at the command line, registration of a domain name, and manual port forwarding on your router or gateway – the UI and general functionality are both polished to a high standard.

For my full opinion on the device, though, you’ll have to read the review – and you can do so for free by downloading the Creative Commons licensed DRM-free PDF at the official MagPi website, or by picking up a print copy from your nearest supermarket or newsagent.

PC & Tech Authority, Issue 230

PC & Tech Authority Issue 230PC & Tech Authority, Australia’s top technology magazine, has published a reprise of a review I originally wrote for PC Pro in the UK: the NextThingCo CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers. Here’s what I had to say on the topic when the review was originally published.

NextThingCo’s crowdfunding launch was met with considerable scepticism, and with good reason: at a time when the Raspberry Pi had only just proven you could sustainable sell a fully-functional single-board microcomputer with desktop-ish performance for under $30, NextThingCo was claiming to offer the same thing for $9 – and with integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radio connectivity to boot.

The campaign succeeded, and to critics’ considerable surprise nobody was ripped off: NextThingCo’s CHIP did indeed ship and, as of earlier this year, is now available to purchase direct. While certain corners have been undoubtedly cut – just like the Raspberry Pi, it comes devoid of cables and accessories – and its performance can’t hold a candle to newer Pi models, it’s functional, available, and if you’re willing to supply the extras needed to get it up and running yourself does indeed cost $9.

The PocketCHIP, meawhile, is a fantastic example of what you can do with a CHIP: an open-hardware hand-held computer, complete with clever though painful-to-use bubble-based keyboard, with a very 1990s transparent casing. The screen may be low resolution and resistive rather than capacitive touch, but if I said I didn’t have a blast using the PocketCHIP I’d be lying.

For my full verdict on the device, of course, you’ll have to head to your nearest PC & Tech Authority stockist, whether that’s a newsagent, a supermarket, or one of the digital distributors like Zinio you can browse from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this.

The MagPi, Issue 53

The MagPi Issue 53Inside this month’s MagPi Magazine – the first issue to feature a cover-mounted DVD, boasting a bootable copy of the new Debian+Pixel Linux distribution for readers to try – you’ll find my review of a rather special little gadget: the Mirobot v2 programmable robot.

I’ve played with educational robots before, but the Mirobot caught my eye the minute I saw inventor Ben Pirt demonstrating it at the Maker Faire UK earlier this year. With a chassis made entirely from laser-cut MDF, the Mirobot is an impressive package: Ben has designed it so that every component nestles in holes cut out from the MDF sheets themselves, making for an extremely compact box which pops nicely through your letterbox and leaving almost zero waste once assembled.

The Mirobot is designed primarily for use as a turtle, and includes a mount for a pen so it can draw on suitable surfaces. Where it differs from most rival designs is that it can be programmed entirely through a browser: an on-board web server, running on the popular ESP8266 microcontroller, can work as a standalone hotspot with simple Scratch-inspired drag-and-drop programming interface or connect to your home Wi-Fi and allow access to additional languages, a point-and-click interface, and even a set of buttons for direct remote control.

With the exception of the Scratch language, which relies on Adobe Flash Player, everything works an absolute treat on the Raspberry Pi, but the Mirobot isn’t limited to this: it can be programmed from any modern web-connected device, from a laptop to a smartphone, or for more advanced users interfaced with via a well-documented application programming interface (API) from the language of your choice. Assembly is quick and easy, requiring absolutely no tools, and while aligning the pen and motors is a little trickier that’s a one-off job.

To read the full review, either pick up a paper copy of The MagPi Issue 53 and enjoy your bonus cover DVD or download the entire issue for free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.