Tag Archive for Hobby Tech

Custom PC, Issue 192

Custom PC Issue 192This month’s Hobby Tech kicks off with a look at the Zepsch PocketStar – by far the smallest Arduino-compatible games console I’ve seen – and the Pimoroni Keybow, before reviewing Felipe Pepe’s The CRPG Book in digital form.

The pages of my Hobby Tech column are no stranger to Arduino-compatible handheld consoles: over the years I’ve reviewed the Gamebuino and its MAKERbuino spin-off, the Creoqode 2048, the Arduboy – then all four at once in a head-to-head group test – and most recently the Gamebuino Meta. Of these, the Arduboy was the smallest with a footprint matching a credit card and a thickness of around three cards stacked.

The PocketStar, a crowdfunded creation from Zepsch, has it beaten. Although thicker than the Arduboy, the Game Boy-inspired design has a tiny 50x30mm footprint, despite packing a colour screen and haptic feedback motor. What it doesn’t include, sadly, is a speaker – though it was originally planned, and the mounting point is still present – but it at least includes the ability to switch between games on the fly, something the Arduboy sadly lacks.

The Pimoroni Keybow, by contrast, is a very different beast. A no-solder DIY kit, the Keybow is a nine-button programmable keypad with a difference: rather than using a Teensy, Arduino, or other microcontroller, it uses a Raspberry Pi Zero WH. The reason why isn’t really adequately explained in the product briefing: it connects to the host machine via USB rather than Bluetooth, and makes no use of the Zero WH’s Wi-Fi connectivity either – though third-party firmware is available to vastly expand its functionality. Despite some bugs in the official firmware and the aforementioned surprising lack of wireless connectivity – switching to the Zero H, which does not include a radio, would shave a fiver off the retail price – it’s certainly an interesting desk accessory with plenty of flexibility.

The CRPG Book, published by Bitmap Books, doesn’t have author Felipe Pepe’s name on the cover. There’s a reason for that: it’s a collaborative effort, the physical incarnation of a four-year effort from 119 authors to document the computer role-playing game genre in as much detail as possible – going all the way back to the PLATO system and its infamous ‘friendly orange glow.’ The result is an exhaustive tome, brought to life with full-colour printing between its hardback covers – though the review is based on a digital copy, the physical version having been rejected by Bitmap Books’ quality control post-printing and sent back to the factory for a re-do with the first of the reprints due to land towards the end of the month.

While The CRPG Book is far from perfect – there are a few issues with typography and grammar, increasing in frequency as you work your way towards the back of the book – it’s pretty close to it, and made even more pleasing by the fact that the £29.99 print edition is joined by a free, Creative Commons-licensed download available from the official website. Sales of the print edition, meanwhile, have raised £12,475 in author royalties for Felipe Pepe – royalties which he has donated in full to Vocação, a not-for-profit Brazilian organisation aimed at getting children and teenagers in poor communities access to quality education.

Custom PC Magazine Issue 192 is available now at all good newsagents, supermarkets, and via the Raspberry Pi Press store. Digital outlets will update later today.

Custom PC, Issue 191

Custom PC Issue 191This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Nvdia’s first-ever entry into the maker market with the Jetson Nano, guides the reader through assisting the Internet Archive with its Sisyphean task, and takes a look at the Xiaomi Wowstick cordless screwdriver.

First, Nvidia’s offering. While the original Jetson TK1 single-board computer was sold through the since-departed high-street electronics outlet Maplin in the UK, its near-£200 price tag meant it wasn’t of much interest to the pocket-money shopper. Its successors in the Jetson family have been successively more expensive, culminating in the £1,199 Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier reviewed last month. The Jetson Nano, by contrast, is just £95 – £101.50 if you include shipping – and is specifically aimed at makers and tinkerers.

The board uses a system-on-module (SOM) on carrier design, dominated by a massive heatsink. Although it’s perfectly possible to view the device as a souped-up and considerably more expensive Raspberry Pi, general-purpose computing isn’t Nvidia’s primary market: instead, it’s aiming to bring a new generation of developers into the CUDA GPU-accelerated computing ecosystem by using the Jetson Nano as a jumping-off point for deep learning and machine intelligence projects, including its own Jetbot autonomous robot platform.

The guide, meanwhile, walks the reader through using almost any PC to assist the Internet Archive with its goal of storing all the world’s information for immediate retrieval. Written as I was firing up a Warrior – the name given by the Archive Team to its distributed data capture systems – to assist with the archiving of the last bits of Google+ before its closure, the step-by-step instructions will let anyone contribute to the not-for-profit effort.

Finally, the Wowstick comes from a company better known in the UK for its cut-price smartphones: Xiaomi. Designed, as with much of the company’s output, to give a premium feel, the USB-rechargeable electric screwdriver is aimed at fine electronics work rather than flat-pack assembly – and does a surprisingly good job of it. Only limited torque for locked-down or larger screws and a terrible case whose tiny magnets are improperly attached let the bundle down.

For the full run-down on all this and more you can pick up Custom PC Issue 191 from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or snag a digital copy from Zinio or similar services. Alternatively, a new subscription offer will get you the next three issues for just £5 – renewing at £25 every six issues if you don’t cancel beforehand.

Custom PC, Issue 189

Custom PC Issue 189This month, my regular Hobby Tech column opens with a look at a RISC-V based not-quite-off-the-shelf personal computer build by AB Open, walks readers through building a weather monitor powered by a Raspberry Pi and a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT, and marvels at the excesses of the computer retail scene in the 1970s and 1980s via David Pleasance’s Commodore: The Inside Story.

First, the PC. The majority of PCs on desks around the world today are based on processors which use the x86 architecture or its 64-bit equivalent; a small handful are based on similar Arm chips to the ones you might find in your smartphone; and an even smaller number are powered by things like Zilog Z80s, MOS 6502s, and Motorola 68000s belonging to people who just don’t like to throw away a perfectly good decades-old system. The system built by AB Open recently, though, is different: it’s based on RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture (ISA) for which anyone can – given time, money, and a fair smattering of expertise – build a chip.

“It might be some time before there’s an off-the-shelf chip that can compete with x86 on raw performance and traditional benchmarks,” AB Open’s Andrew Back, who for full disclosure is a client of mine, admits, “but the open nature of the ISA, and the ecosystem developing around it, is driving a renaissance in novel computer architectures.” By way of proof: a fully-functional Linux-based desktop PC, built in a custom-designed laser-cut chassis, created using the SiFive HiFive Unleashed development board and Microsemi expansion board.

From a PC you can browse the web on to one which flashes a few lights: the Raspberry Pi weather monitor is a remix of a project I published in Issue 153, to use a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT LED matrix to graph energy usage in my home. This time, the same hardware is repurposed to show animated weather icons based on data downloaded from OpenWeatherMap – and, despite the low resolution of the LED matrix, it works an absolute treat.

Finally, Commodore: The Inside Story sounds like it should be an exhaustive history of the company behind one of the world’s biggest-selling home computers. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a two-part affair: the first is a series of personally recollections, presented in a very similar fashion to the stories you might hear if you took author David Pleasance to the pub and asked him about his time working in Commodore’s sales and marketing division; the second is a collection of guest chapters, and as fun as it is reading about orgies in Consumer Electronics Show hotels and drink-driving incidents the second half is, for me, the better half.

All this, and a raft more, can be found at your nearest newsagent or supermarket; the electronic version, meanwhile, is enjoying a brief holiday while background administration relating to its recent switch of publishers takes place.

Custom PC, Issue 187

Custom PC Issue 187This month’s Custom PC is a special one, and not because of anything in my column – though I’d like to think my column is always special – but because it’s the first issue to be published under Raspberry Pi Press rather than Dennis Publishing. It’s immediately obvious that a change has happened: putting Issue 187 next to Issue 186 reveals a considerably thicker tome for the same page count, thanks to vastly improved paper quality and a corresponding boost in print quality.

Between the covers, though, it’s pretty much business as usual – but regular readers should watch out for a survey, due to be published in the next issue or two, which will float some ideas for bringing back classic features or adding new content – with editor Ben Hardwidge unwilling to make any dramatic changes until the readership has had its say.

From background publication details to the column at hand: this month’s Hobby Tech includes a detailed review of a desk calculator – no, really – alongside a look at Netflix’s Bandersnatch interactive film and the 8bitkick Centre for Computing History Games Consoles Collectible Cards set.

First, the calculator. Created by Lofree, a Chinese company known for retrofuturistic designs, the Digit’s claim to fame is the use of mechanical keyswitches with a pleasing ‘click’ as they’re depressed. Beyond that, it’s a fairly sedate devices: surprisingly chunk yet light, and with an LCD display that’s difficult to see at the best of times, the Digit feels like a wasted opportunity. If it had launched with a USB port and doubled as a keypad for those using tenkeyless keyboard layouts, things could have been different.

Bandersnatch, meanwhile, was not a disappointment at all. A feature-length episode of speculative fiction series Black Mirror, Netflix’s highest-profile interactive film yet puts the player in at least partial control of a computer programmer working on the titular game – based, incredibly loosely, on the real-world never-released ‘Megagame’ Bandersnatch from Imagine Software. My look at Bandersnatch focuses on its links to real-world computer history and the experience as a game; elsewhere in the same issue you’ll find a lengthy interview with writer and series co-creator Charlie Brooker, to which I contributed some questions.

Finally, the collectible cards from 8bitkick will be familiar to regular readers: back in Issue 154 I reviewed their vintage computing predecessors. This time around, the topic for the Top Trump-style card game is consoles rather than computers – and they’re now an official product of the Centre for Computing History, with all profits going to support its preservation and education works.

Custom PC Issue 187 is available now from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, while the electronically-published version may take a while later to arrive thanks to the change of publisher.

Custom PC, Issue 186

Custom PC Issue 186This month’s Hobby Tech column features an interview with Eric Yockey on his company’s PC Classic microconsole, a review of the it-really-blows IT Dusters CompuCleaner, and of Eric Amos’ coffee-table tome The Game Console.

To start with the interview, Eric surprised the gaming world late last year by announcing what at first glance appears to be a me-too product following in the footsteps of the Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini and Sony PlayStation Classic, not to mention the raft of Atari- and Sega-licensed devices that came before them: the PC Classic, which aims to bring older games back to the living room.

“Our principal engineer saw that people were joking about things like ‘the VCR Classic’ and ‘the PC Classic’ and he pitched it to me because he felt we could actually make a PC Classic, and moreover make it really cool,” Eric told me during our interview. “I discussed the project with a bunch of people from various backgrounds and varying amounts of technical ability, and most people took an immediate liking to it and would say something like ‘oh, yeah, if I could play Jill of the Jungle on my couch, I’d totally buy one!'”

The CompuCleaner, meanwhile, is an attempt on my part to reduce my environmental impact and fatten my wallet: an electric air-blower which aims to replace cans of compressed air for cleaning electronics. Anyone who has an actively-cooled PC will know that the vents and fans need to be kept clear, but the problem only gets worse when you need to take photos of things for a living – and the CompuCleaner, bar a few little niggles, is a fantastic way to do that without running through half a dozen air cans a week.

Finally, Eric Amos’ The Game Console is an impressive book covering many – but far from all – games consoles from the early days of the Atari VCS up to more modern systems. Light on text, the book’s focus is Eric’s high-quality photography – imagery he took, initially, to contribute to Wikipedia in place of the often low-quality photography that adorned classic console pages. While it’s not something you’re likely to sit and read cover-to-cover, it’s not only a pleasing thing to flick through but a great way to support Eric’s work in taking ever more photographs of increasingly-esoteric hardware.

For all these, head to your favourite newsagent, supermarket, or stay where you are and download the digital version via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 185

Custom PC Issue 185In my regular Hobby Tech column this month you’ll find a detailed review of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ single-board computer, another of the ever-so-slightly less-powerful Digirule2, and of Adam Fisher’s exhaustive Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley.

First, the Raspberry Pi. The first model to use the A+ form factor – smaller PCB, only one USB port, full-size display (DSI), camera (CSI), and HDMI ports, analogue audio-video (AV) – in the last four years, the Pi 3A+ is an impressive beast for cramming the full performance of the larger, more expensive Pi 3B+ into a smaller form factor. I was concerned, upon first unpacking, that the smaller PCB would undo the good work on the thermal-transfer front that made the Pi 3B+ such a good improvement on the original Pi 3B; a quick test under a thermal imaging camera, though, showed that I was worrying over nothing.

The Digirule2 is a markedly different beast. While it’s a single-board computer, it’s one which is designed more for fun than functionality: built into the form factor of a ruler, complete with inches and centimetres marked in binary along the upper and lower edges, the Digirule2 is inspired by classic machines like the Altair 8800. Press a series of buttons to program a particular memory location; press another button to switch to the next; and press a third to see your program run on the built-in LEDs. One particularly impressive feature is an eight-slot program storage, allowing you to save and load your programs directly on the device – and all without having to hook up your punch-tape reader/writer.

Finally, Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius is a book in the mould of Fire in the Valley: an attempt to document the rise and, frankly, continued rise of Silicon Valley and the companies it has birthed. Culled from over 200 individual interviews, the book uses direct quotation rather than any attempt to weave a narrative but dodges dryness by weaving multiple subjects’ remembrances into each themed chapter. The final effect is less an interview and more a conversation between some of the industry’s biggest names, from the birth of the mouse right through to the modern age.

To read the full column, pick up Custom PC Issue 185 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 184

Custom PC Issue 184Hobby Tech this month takes a look at a trio of very different products: the Clockwork GameShell modular hand-held console, the Dexter GiggleBot BBC micro:bit-powered robot, and the Coinkite Coldcard hardware cryptocurrency wallet.

First, the Coldcard. Designed by the company behind the Opendime (reviewed in Issue 175, and dead due to an apparent design flaw a week later), the Coldcard is roughly the size of a small stack of credit cards but provides a full hardware wallet for the Bitcoin and Litecoin cryptocurrencies. At least, that’s the theory: sadly, in practice, the device proved difficult to use owing to software glitches, hardware flaws, and a lack of third-party software support which reduces you to using only one wallet package to interface with the Coldcard.

The GiggleBot, by contrast, is a significantly more polished product. While the documentation still needs work, the robot itself – featured two individually-addressable motors, a line- or light-following sensor board, RGB LEDs, and expansion potential from Grove-compatible connectors and a pair of servo headers – is exceptionally impressive, and a great introduction to basic robotics for younger programmers. Those looking to make the leap from the block-based MakeCode environment to Python, though, will discover that the two libraries are far from equivalent in terms of feature availability – something that, again, will hopefully be addressed in the future.

Finally, the Clockwork GameShell. Produced following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the device is based around a Raspberry Pi-like single-board computer dubbed the Clockwork Pi and runs a customised Linux distribution with neat menu system. Its internals, interestingly, are modular, with each contained inside a snap-together transparent plastic housing – a decision which makes for a slightly bulky Game Boy-like outer shell and, sadly, is the direct cause of some overheating problems for the system-on-chip (SoC) during more intensive games like Quake. These issues, though, are largely outweighed by sheer novelty value: a few minutes of FreeDoom in the palm of your hand is sure to raise a smile.

The full reviews can be read in Custom PC Issue 184, available from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 183

Custom PC Issue 183In Hobby Tech this month, there’s a look at a project which has genuinely transformed my mornings, a tiny temperature-controlled soldering iron with a hackable firmware, and the latest brain-melting program-’em-up from Zachtronics.

Starting with the game first, Exapunks caught my eye as soon as I saw it announced by developer Zachtronics. Taking the assembler programming concept of earlier titles TIS-100 and Shenzhen-IO, Exapunks wraps them up in a 90s near-future cyberpunk aesthetic alongside a plot driven by a disease called “the phage” which turns victims into non-functional computers. Because of course it does.

Anyone familiar with Zachtronics’ work will know what to expect, but Exapunks really dials things up. From the puzzles themselves – including one inspired by an early scene in the classic film Hackers – to, in a first for the format, the introduction of real though asynchronous multiplayer on top of the standard leaderboard metrics, Exapunks excels from start to oh-so-tricky finish.

The MiniWare TS100 soldering iron, meanwhile, sounds like it could be straight from Exapunks – or, given its name, TS-100: a compact temperature-controlled soldering iron with built-in screen and an open-source firmware you can hack to control everything from default operating temperature to how long before it enters power-saving “sleep mode.” While far from a perfect design – and since supplanted by the TS80, not yet available from UK stockists – the TS100 is an interesting piece of kit, with its biggest flaw being the need to use a grounding strap to avoid a potentially component-destroying floating voltage at the iron’s tip.

Finally, the project: an effort, using only off-the-shelf software tied together in a Bash shell script, to print out a schedule of the days’ tasks on my Dymo LabelWriter thermal printer. Using the code detailed in the magazine, the project pulls together everything from weather forecasts to my ongoing tasks and Google Calendar weekly schedule – along with a word of the day and, just because, a fortune cookie read out by an ASCII-art cow.

All this, and a variety of other topics, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine on newsagent and supermarket shelves or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 182

Custom PC Issue 182In my Hobby Tech column this month, I take a look at the disappointing Planet Computers Gemini PDA, the significantly less disappointing Proto-Pic Program-o-Tron, and the recent updates designed to make the Raspbian operating system for the Raspberry Pi significantly more welcoming to newcomers.

First, the Gemini PDA. I’ve long been a fan of the clamshell personal digital assistant (PDA) form factor, and it was with a heavy heart that I finally hung up my Psion Series 5 after it became clear that smartphones had won that particular war. Now, the format is back courtesy of Planet Computers and the crowdfunded Gemini PDA – a design based on the Psion Series 5 and put together by one of the staff responsible for the original, but which misses its mark at almost every turn.

At its heart, the Gemini PDA is an Android smartphone – even the non-4G version, which is simply an Android smartphone with the cellular radio removed. While it’s possible to run a Debian-based Linux on top, the experience is poor – but, that said, no more poor than the buggy Android build supplied with the device, which insists on booting up in German despite being clearly marked as a UK model. The hardware, too, disappoints: performance under Linux is not where it should be, and while the keyboard is a near-perfect match to the original Psion design the clever sliding hinge mechanism is entirely missing in favour of a loose and flimsy metal kickstand that fails to provide nearly enough support.

Many thanks must go to the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), which kindly provided an original Psion Series 5MX PDA for direct head-to-head comparison during the review.

The Program-o-Tron, after a disappointing start to the month, proved considerably better. Again crowdfunded, the Proto-Pic device is designed to make life easier for those working with Atmel ATmega microcontrollers. Rather than having to program each chip individually from a PC, the Program-o-Tron allows you to hold six hex files on an SD card and flash them onto a chip inserted in the ZIF socket at the push of a button – and, even better, to take a dump of the contents of a chip, including its fuse settings, to clone it without ever needing to touch the original program code.

Finally, the recent update to Raspbian operating system for the Raspberry Pi brought a couple of changes for the better: a lightening of the load when it comes to pre-installed software, complete with a tool to add packages back in on-demand, and a first-run welcome wizard which walks newcomers through configuring the Wi-Fi networking, localisation settings, and choosing a new password. The latter is particularly welcome: since launch, the default for Raspbian has been to keep the ‘pi’ and ‘raspberry’ username and password combination, making it easy for attackers to gain access to systems accidentally or deliberately connected to public networks. By asking users to choose a new password on first boot, the hole is closed.

To read more, pick up Custom PC Issue 182 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 181

Custom PC Issue 181In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at two LED-adorned educational electronics kits, the Kitronik :GAME ZIP 64 and the Kano Pixel Kit, along with Mark Hardisty’s latest retrogaming project, The Classic Adventurer.

Kitronik’s :GAME ZIP 64, which will henceforth be known as the much easier to both read and type Game Zip 64, is a clever little add-on for the BBC micro:bit educational platform. Designed to mate with the BBC micro:bit’s edge connector, the Game Zip 64 adds 64 individually-addressable RGB LEDs, a major upgrade on the single-colour 25-LED matrix on the BBC micro:bit itself, buttons to form a four-way directional control pad, two fire buttons, a piezoelectric buzzer, and – interestingly – a vibration motor.

While the sample Python programs – Snake and Pong – are pretty poor, Kitronik has produced a series of lesson plans around the device which are absolutely fantastic, and put the £40 asking price well into ‘bargain’ territory for anyone looking to move on from the built-in features of the bare BBC micro:bit itself.

The Kano Pixel Kit is, on the face of it, a similar device: a matrix of 128 LEDs – twice the number of the Game Zip 64 – dominate the front, but control is limited to a function dial and a couple of buttons. It’s also Kano’s first truly standalone product, eschewing the normal Raspberry Pi for an on-board Espressif ESP-WROOM-32 microcontroller. As with the Kano Computer Kit, the Pixel Kit’s software – which, sadly, is not available for mainstream Linux, despite coming in a Raspberry Pi variant – is fantastic, but its development cost is likely behind the eyebrow-raising £75 asking price.

Finally, Mark Hardisty’s latest project – after putting his groundbreaking tome on the history of Gremlin Graphics to bed and recreating some classic artwork in Inlay – is The Classic Adventurer, a magazine dedicated to the glory days of interactive fiction. Available in print and also, all credit to him, as a free-as-in-beer DRM-unencumbered PDF download, each issue is packed with brilliant art and fascinating articles ranging from interviews to reviews with some behind-the-scenes stuff thrown in for good measure. It’s a fantastic project, and definitely one to follow.

All this, plus the usual raft of other people’s work, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.