Tag Archive for Hobby Tech

Custom PC, Issue 161

Custom PC Issue 161In this latest issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine you’ll find – to no great surprise – my long-running five-page Hobby Tech column, covering the handy thermoplastic FORMcard, the Raspberry Pi powered Nextcloud Box, and Zachtronics’ Shenzhen I/O.

Looking at Shenzhen I/O first: it’s rare that I’ll write a game review as part of Hobby Tech, but Zachtronics’ output is a typical exception. The last I covered was the company’s excellent eight-bit minicomputer ‘simulator’ TIS-100, and Shenzhen I/O builds on that premise with a new near-future theme. The player is placed in the role of a newly-hired engineer at a Chinese electronics concern and given the task of building increasingly complex hardware from simple components using a drag-and-drop interface and a simple TIS-100-like instruction set.

As good as the game itself is – and it’s absolutely fantastic – it’s the manual that really caught my attention. Like the Infocom feelies of old, the document is written entirely in-universe and acts as a series of emails, manual extracts, data sheets, and reference material for the hardware and projects you’ll be tackling through the game. If TIS-100 whet your whistle, you won’t be disappointed with Shenzhen I/O.

The Nextcloud Box, meanwhile, is something a little more professional. Designed around the Western Digital Labs PiDrive product, it offers a simple means to build a single-drive low-power 1TB network attached storage (NAS) device running Nextcloud’s open-source software on top of the Ubuntu Snappy Core operating system.

My review of the Nextcloud Box goes into great detail about its features and capabilities, but there are two things that struck me during the review process and are worth highlighting here. The first is that the WD Labs’ box, emblazoned with Nextcloud branding, really needs a rethink: the cables go through very sharp bends, and those using cheaper cables may find they don’t last very long at all. The other is that getting set up for local access was an absolute breeze, without even the need to connect a monitor to the device – something other Pi-powered project creators could do with copying.

Finally, the FORMcard review. I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, a mouldable silicone putty which hardens into rubber overnight, and when I was contacted to see if I would be interested in giving rival FORMcard a try I jumped at the chance. Created by Peter Marigold and crowdfunded into production, FORMcard is a starch-based bioplastic which softens with the application of heat. Simply take one of the credit card footprint plastic sheets, dunk it in hot water for a minute, then mould it to your hearts desire. Unlike Sugru, it hardens in minutes and is fully reusable – assuming you can remove it from whatever surface you smeared it over – but it’s, for obvious reasons, not the material to use if you’re patching something that gets hot.

For my full opinions on all three items, plus the usual array of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of right where you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 160

Custom PC Issue 160This month’s edition of Custom PC includes, as usual, my five-page Hobby Tech column covering the Dremel 3000 Four-Star Kit, the CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers, and the conclusion of the Arduino-versus-Arduino saga – in a happy ending, I’m thrilled to say.

Rotary tools like the Dremel 3000 are one of those things you don’t think you need until you get one. It’s been a long time since I played with a proper Dremel-branded example, and this month’s review was a fantastic excuse to get myself up to speed with the changes the platform has enjoyed.

Ignoring the poor-quality ‘toolbox’ the kit comes in, I was particularly excited by the EZ-SpeedClic system. My original Dremel-like tool – a Black & Decker Wizard – had long been abandoned after frustrations with the tiny screw which attaches cut-off and grinding discs to the equally tiny mandrel. EZ-SpeedClic does away with that: the discs’ reinforced centres just twist and snap onto a clever sprung holder. Coupled with some shiny new accessories, I could see why people might want to upgrade from older or rival models.

The CHIP and PocketCHIP, meanwhile, came as more of a surprise. Like many, I was dismissive of NextThingCo’s inaugural crowdfunding campaign; the idea of a $9 fully-functional microcomputer when the Raspberry Pi had only just got the things down below $30 seemed laughable, and many in the industry suggested it was an outright fraud or at least a loss-leader to be offset by future sales at a higher price.

Proving the critics wrong, though, NextThingCo launched the $9 CHIP – albeit requiring add-on cables and adaptors to get a picture out of the thing – and followed it up with the PocketCHIP, an open hardware proof-of-concept which turns the CHIP into a surprisingly capable hand-held computer straight out of the early 90s.

Finally, regular readers will remember my coverage of the legal battle between Arduino.cc and Arduino.org which had given birth to the Genuino trademark, and the follow-up piece in Issue 159 covering Pimoroni’s decision to drop all Arduino and Genuino products as a result. The final page of this month’s column is, hopefully, the last I will have to write on that particular topic: the two companies have agreed to settle their disputes, join forces, and work together under a single Arduino brand – meaning, of course, that Genuino-branded products are likely to vanish from the market in due course.

All this, and stuff written by people other than myself, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on the electronic shelf substitutes of services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 159

Custom PC Issue 159Hobby Tech this month covers the launch of the Sugru Rebel Tech Kit, the performance improvements made possible in the latest Arduino IDE, and ends with bad news for Arduino.cc’s new Genuino brand which, I’m pleased to say, has since been replaced by significantly better news.

Sugru, for those not familiar, is remarkable stuff. Straight from the packet it has the consistency of well-worked Blu-tack, if not slightly softer, but with nothing more than time hardens into a firm silicone rubber. It’s waterproof, heatproof, electrically insulative, and I’ve used it in the past for everything from mounting a tablet to the side of my monitor to customising the scales on a Leatherman multitool.

The Rebel Tech Kit, then, is Sugru’s attempt to grab some Christmas gift traffic. Featuring four sachets of Sugru, a guitar pick for moulding and removal, a storage tin, and a full-colour project booklet, there’s not much in there for those already experienced in the ways of “mouldable glue.” For newcomers, though, it’s a fantastic introduction, and one I can see appearing under trees around the world.

The Arduino IDE tests, meanwhile, were fun to carry out. Updates to the AVR Core – the toolchain used for ATmega-based microcontroller boards like the Arduino Uno and Arduino Mega – have brought with them the promise of smaller binary sizes and improved performance, which was an excuse to pull out my microcontroller benchmark family: the floating-point Whetstone, integer Dhrystone, and my own pin-toggling IOBench. The result is an in-depth look at the improvements you can expect from upgrading, complete with pretty graphs and even prettier screenshots.

Finally, the Genuino’s death knell. At the time of writing, noted Sheffield-based hobbyist supply house Pimoroni had revealed the outcome of months of negotiations with Arduino.cc: they would no longer stock the company’s boards. The reason: the ongoing legal battle with Arduino.org over international trademark rights, which had seen Arduino.cc launch the Genuino brand. A refusal to sell Genuino-branded hardware to resellers that would make them available in the US was causing headaches that Pimoroni could do without, which were detailed in the company’s blog post and expanded upon in the final page of my column this month.

Publishing, though, has considerable lead times, and in the time it’s taken this issue to hit shop shelves there’s been a welcome development: Arduino.cc and Arduino.org have merged, ending all legal proceedings between the two and meaning that the problems experienced by Pimoroni over trademark rights and product geo-fencing should no longer be an issue. The impact of this merger, and what it means for the Arduino user, will be explored in a future column.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff from people other than myself, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally on Zinio and other distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 157

Custom PC Issue 157This month’s Hobby Tech column demonstrates how to use the Raspberry Pi Camera Module to create smooth timelapse footage and reviews the WeMos D1 R2 ESP8266-based Arduino-alike board and Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang’s Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen.

Looking to the tutorial, this is far from the first time I’ve covered the use of the Raspberry Pi Camera Module add-on. Since its initial launch, however, the software has come on in leaps and bounds including means of finally addressing a longstanding issue with the board: the difficulty in using the timelapse functionality. Where previously you needed a surprisingly complicated script to control the camera, now timelapse capture is handled entirely within the raspistill software. Coupled with avconv – ffmpeg, which I had previously recommended for the task, having been deleted from the Raspbian software repositories – the two packages are all you need to create high-quality timelapse footage directly on any Raspberry Pi.

The WeMos D1 R2 is one of a range of low-cost devices based on the ESP8266 microcontroller and Wi-Fi radio. While getting on in age, the ESP8266 is extremely popular due to its rock-bottom pricing; the only snag being that its form factor makes it difficult to integrate into hobbyist projects. The WeMos D1 R2 aims to fix that by providing a breakout board for the compact ESP8266 in the familiar Arduino Uno layout. While more feature-packed equivalents exist, the WeMos D1 R2 costs just £3.30 in single units – an absolute bargain for an easy-to-use microcontroller with integrated Wi-Fi connectivity.

Finally, The Essential Guide to Electronics in Shenzhen. Kindly loaned by my friend Aaron at hobbyist electronics specialist oomlout, this latest book from noted hacker Andrew ‘bunnie’ Huang is a major departure from the norm. Rather than a how-to guide or white paper analysis, the book is designed to be used as a functional sourcing tool while visiting the Shenzhen area of China complete with maps, point-to-translate pages covering everything from travelling back to your hotel to enquiring as to the tolerance of resistors and capacitors. A pair of prose sections also provide information on doing business in China, including how to spot fake or missold components and how each could affect your project. Niche, perhaps, but a fascinating read – and an invaluable tool for anyone planning a trip to Shenzhen any time soon.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or as a string of zeroes and ones on Zinio and other digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 156

Custom PC Issue 156The latest installment of my long-running Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is four-strong this month: as well as a two-page review of the Particle Electron GSM microcontroller, you’ll find reviews of the Pimoroni Black Hat Hack3r family of Raspberry Pi add-on boards, vintage computing simulator TIS-100, and a look at open-source laser-cut tool holder designs from Wim Van Gool.

First, the tool holders. I’ve never been known for keeping my workspace neat and tidy, but I’ve found that as long as there is something nearby to slot things in I can be trusted to put things back at least half of the time. Trouble is, pen holders are somewhat ill-suited to smaller tools and dedicated tool holders are expensive. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that Wim Van Gool had published design files for a pair of tool holders designed specifically for the sort of compact tools you need for detail electronics work to Thingiverse – and, better still, that they could be cut from cheap medium-density fibreboard (MDF).

The Particle Electron, meanwhile, came to me courtesy a Kickstarter campaign I backed following my delight with the Particle Photon – or, as it was known when I reviewed it back in Issue 132, the Spark Core – Wi-Fi microcontroller. Like its predecessor, the Particle Electron is Arduino-like and powered by Particle’s excellent web-based IDE and cloud infrastructure; where the Photon uses Wi-Fi to connect, though, the Electron uses international mobile infrastructure in either 2G (as reviewed) or 3G flavours. For remote projects where Wi-Fi connectivity can’t be guaranteed, that’s fantastic – but be aware that there are ongoing costs, and that the device is locked down to Particle’s own SIM card (supplied).

Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r boards, meanwhile, are significantly less ‘clever’: at their hearts, the Black Hat Hack3r and Mini Black Hat Hack3r are nothing more than break-out boards for the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin GPIO header. Designed in-house to speed Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) development and released as a product following considerable demand, the ‘dumb’ break-out boards are nevertheless a treat to use: it’s possible to connect a HAT to any model of Pi minus the Compute Module and still retain access to all 40 pins for additional hardware or debugging purposes, or even to daisy-chain the boards to connect multiple HATs to a single Pi – if you don’t mind hacking around the EEPROM issues that may cause.

Finally, TIS-100. I don’t normally review games, but TIS-100 isn’t a normal game: developed by Zachtronics, the creator of Spacechem and the Ruckingeneur series, TIS-100 gives the player control of a fictional 1980s computer system – the Tessellated Intelligence System – with a simplified instruction set. The task: to rewrite corrupted segments of the computer’s firmware, and in doing so uncover the mystery of what happened to the machine’s last owner ‘Uncle Rudy.’ In short: it’s half-game, half-programming-exercise – and pretty much all fantastic.

All this, plus a wealth of other stuff from people other than myself, is awaiting you at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on digital distribution services such as Zinio.

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.

Custom PC, Issue 154

Custom PC Issue 154In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a good long look at the BBC micro:bit, CubieTech’s latest Cubietruck Plus (Cubieboard 5) single-board computer, and a pack of Top Trumps-inspired playing cards based on vintage computers.

Beginning with the micro:bit, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a press sample when the much-redesigned educational device was finally ready to ship to schools across the UK. Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller and boasting integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the micro:bit’s main selling point is its excellent support: the web IDE includes four languages suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to experts, there is documentation galore, and the BBC’s TV output includes shows which remind me of the glory days of the BBC Micro and its related programming.

At least, that would be a selling point if the board was actually up for sale. Despite having now mostly fulfilled its promise to ship free micro:bits to all Year Seven pupils in the UK, the BBC has still made no announcement about commercial availability for the educational gadget. Those whose appetites are whetted by the review, then, are best off looking at the CodeBug on which the micro:bit was based, or the new Genuino/Arduino 101 if Bluetooth LE support is a requirement.

The Cubietruck Plus, meanwhile, is an altogether different beast. Kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the board is – as the name suggests – a follow-up to CubieTech’s original Cubietruck. The old dual-core processor is long gone, replaced with an Allwinner H8 octa-core chip that blazed through benchmarks with aplomb – and without hitting the boiling-point temperature highs of the rival Raspberry Pi 3.

Sadly, there’s one piece of information that didn’t make it into the review: shortly after the issue went to press, security researchers discovered a debug vulnerability left in Allwinner’s customised Linux kernel which allows any application on the system to gain root permission. Although affecting only selected operating systems, it’s something to be aware of if you’re in the market for an Allwinner-powered SBC.

Finally, the playing cards. Created by start-up 8bitkick following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the deck is nostalgia in a box. The idea is to bring the Top Trumps concept of collectable, trivia-esque comparison gaming to vintage computing: the cards feature everything from the Acorn Atom to the TI-99/4A, plus a joker in the deck in the form of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.

The cards are printed with a very high quality finish, but it’s the source of the images that is of most interest: rather than take the pictures itself, 8bitkick has instead scoured the web for images in the public domain or licensed as Creative Commons. It’s no theft, though: while most Creative Commons licenses allow for even commercial reuse if properly attributed, 8bitkick has promised to upload the full deck design to its website for free download and printing.

All this, plus lots of interesting things by people who aren’t me, is only a short trip to the newsagent’s away – or you can stay exactly where you are and grab a digital copy from Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 153

Custom PC Issue 153My regular Hobby Tech column celebrates its third year this month, and I’d like to think it does so in style. As well as a two-page review of the Raspberry Pi 3, the column details how to build a Raspberry Pi Zero-based energy usage graph into a cheap box frame and interviews Raspberry Pi Foundation director of hardware James Adams about his designs and inspiration.

First, the Pi 3. I’ve previously written about the board in a cover feature for The MagPi and in Linux User & Developer, so there should be no major surprises in this review – beyond a focus more on the hobbyist community’s desires and concerns, given the title of the column. The interview, though, is all-new: a small, separate extract of my interview was published in The MagPi’s Raspberry Pi 3 launch issue, but the material used in Hobby Tech is fresh – including detailed information on just how that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio module talks to the new BCM2837 SoC and the challenges of conformance testing something that has an intentional radio emitter inside.

The build was a project I worked on after picking up a cheap electricity and gas monitor for my house. While the website works well for viewing live usage and historical graphs, I wanted something that wouldn’t look out of place in the living room and hopefully remind everyone to turn things off when they leave! A cheap Raspberry Pi Zero was the perfect platform, and combine with a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT fits snugly in the back of a wooden box frame. Some paper on the front diffuses the LEDs to prevent glare and make it look less like a hack and more like a piece of furniture – though with the consequence that the photos look a little washed out compared to the bright, colourful display in the flesh – and everything else is a software concern.

All this, and interesting things written by people who aren’t me, is available from your local supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 152

Custom PC Issue 152In this month’s Hobby Tech column I review the Proster VC99 multimeter, the Intel/Arduino Genuino 101 microcontroller development board, and discuss the challenges in developing meaningful benchmarks for testing devices where memory is measured in kilobytes.

Unusually for a hardware review, the multimeter was actually a personal purchase: I’d been using a Maplin-branded multimeter for quite some time, but the low cost and seemingly broad features of the Proster VC99 – also known as the Vichy 99, and sold under a variety of badges – convinced me it was time for an upgrade. While doing so cost me a back-lit display, I gained a variety of functions from frequency counting up to a neat analogue bar-graph on the display for seeing spikes and dips that would otherwise be lost on a numerical output.

The frequency counter came in particularly handy for my Genuino 101 review: writing a simple Arduino Sketch which does nothing more than toggle a pin on and off as fast as possible, I was able to read how quickly that happened to give me an idea of the IO performance of the Genuino compared with other Arduino boards I have lying around. Coupled with a look at the Intel Curie module which powers the device, providing Bluetooth connectivity and an integrated accelerometer, that’s enough for a solid review.

I don’t want to do solid reviews, though, I want to do great reviews, so the last page of this month’s five-page spread looks at how I benchmarked the compute performance of the Genuino 101 against an Arduino Nano for a direct, head-to-head comparison. It’s not as easy as it sounds: with mere kilobytes of memory, it’s not like I could just install PC Mark and be done with it. Interested parties will find a detailed explanation of how I went about modifying the traditional Dhrystone and Whetstone benchmarks to run on both devices, including trimming things to fit into the Arduino Nano’s tiny memory allowance, and how to interpret the results.

All this, plus stuff by people who aren’t me, is available at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your home via digital distribution services including Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 151

Custom PC Issue 151In my latest Hobby Tech column for Custom PC, I take a look at the Pi Zero-specific pHAT family of add-on boards from local electronics wizards Pimoroni, review the Guitar computer-on-module from China’s LeMaker, and show readers how to enhance a Raspberry Pi with a simple reset-stroke-power switch.

Firstly, the pHATs. The launch of the Raspberry Pi Zero, reviewed in last month’s Hobby Tech, brought with it the opportunity for Pi experts like Pimoroni to come out with some add-on devices matching the same form factor – which is, unsurprisingly, exactly what the company has done. The result is a family of, at the time of the review, three tiny add-on boards: the Explorer pHAT, Scroll pHAT, and pHAT DAC. Each comes with unpopulated GPIO, giving the user the option of soldering on the bundled female header for the ability to easily remove the device or soldering it directly to a Pi Zero to make an ultra-compact electronic sandwich.

The Explorer pHAT is the most versatile of the bunch, adding 5V outputs, inputs, analogue inputs, and even a pair of motor control channels to the Pi’s otherwise feature-light 3.3V GPIO header. The Scroll pHAT, meanwhile, features some bright white LEDs in a 5×11 matrix and comes with software for scrolling messages. Finally, the pHAT DAC is an ultra-compact digital to analogue converter capable of playing back 192KHz 24-bit audio via a pre-fitted 3.5mm jack or optional pair of RCA jacks. In short: there’s a little something for everyone.

The Guitar is LeMaker’s follow-up device to what was previously known as the Banana Pi – and, like its predecessor, LeMaker is taking design cues from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. This time, it’s made a Compute Module-alike: a small SODIMM-layout computer-on-module which comes bundled with a break-out board to access its various features. Considering the high price of the official Compute Module, I had high hopes for the budget-friendly Guitar – and I’m pleased to say that it mostly didn’t disappoint.

Finally, the reset switch tutorial. A variant of the tutorial I prepared for The MagPi tailored specifically to the Custom PC audience, it walks the reader through adding a simple switch to any Raspberry Pi – but focusing on the new Zero – in order to quickly reset the device in the event of a crash. As an added bonus, it also allows you to power the Pi on from a shut-down state.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people other than me, can be yours in Custom PC Issue 151. Either pick up a physical copy from wherever magazines congregate, or snag it digitally via Zinio or similar distribution services.