Custom PC, Issue 206

Custom PC, Issue 206This month’s Hobby Tech feature takes a look at the recently-unearthed Nine Tiles prototype ROM for the ZX Spectrum by installing it on a ZX Spectrum Next, dramatically improves the flexibility of the FLIR ETS320 thermal inspection camera, and pores classic computer commercials courtesy of coffee-table tome Do You Compute?.

First, the prototype ROM. In my review of the ZX Spectrum Next in Custom PC Issue 202, I mentioned that it’s possible to create new “machine personalities” – both by replacing the read-only memory (ROM) files used in Spectrum mode and by loading new cores onto the FPGA at the machine’s heart. Shortly prior to the ZX Spectrum Next’s launch, the Centre for Computing History received a trove of artefacts from Nine Tiles – including a prototype ZX Spectrum which was used to develop a ROM which never actually made it onto the publicly-launched machines.

The Centre had negotiated to make the ROM image available for free download for educational and academic purposes, which gave me an opportunity to load the ROM onto the ZX Spectrum Next and create the Nine Tiles Prototype as a usable machine personality. What followed was a process of debugging and reverse-engineering in order to make the ROM functional on the Next – a process which, I’m pleased to say, was wholly successful.

The FLIR ETS320, meanwhile, was reviewed back in Issue 201 – and one of my biggest complaints was its incredibly short focal length, meaning that it is only possible to analyse a very small part of a given circuit board under the thermal sensor. While the camera platform is capable of rising up, anything above 70mm away from the device on test is too blurry to be of use – unless, that is, you take advantage of a 3D-printed tool to manually adjust focus. The improvement is stark, as thermal images published in the piece demonstrate.

Finally, Do You Compute? is a book which looks not at the history of computing but at the history of selling computing – specifically, as the subtitle makes clear, “from the Atomic Age to the Y2K bug.” Put together by Ryan Mungia and Steven Heller, the book is a fantastic chronological walk through the shift in computers being for governments and big businesses to any businesses and eventually the home user.

It also has a major flaw, and it’s not one caused by the authors: Apple, for reasons unspecified, declined to provide permission for its adverts to be reproduced in the book. With Apple having been at the very forefront of the personal computing revolution, and well-known for iconic adverts from its 1984 Superbowl commercial to “Think Different” and “Rip Mix Burn,” it leaves a real hole in the book.

Custom PC Issue 206 is available now in supermarkets, newsagents, and online with global delivery via the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 204

Custom PC Issue 204In my Hobby Tech column this month I go hands-on with the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB single-board computer, the considerably more powerful Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit, and take a look at Alex Wiltshire and John Short’s Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation.

First, the Raspberry Pi 4. Launched with a view to providing power users with something a with a little more headroom than the 4GB model – itself a fourfold increase on the memory available on its direct predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 – the new 8GB model doubles the maximum memory while retaining full backwards compatibility. With that said, though, getting the most out of the device does require a 64-bit operating system – and I take a look at third-party options as well as the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s own Raspberry Pi OS in 64-bit builds.

The Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit is another device that takes advantage of a 64-bit operating system, but with a very different focus: where the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB is aimed at hobbyists, the Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit looks towards the professional end of the market – and offers some serious GPU horsepower for machine learning work, plus a new “cloud native” software model that containerises workloads to separate them from the underlying OS and to make it easy to run multiple workloads on a single device.

Finally, Home Computers is another in a series of coffee-table tomes investigating early personal computers – but one with a twist: The 100 machines contained within are taken exclusively from The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. Each is captured in a series of high-quality photographs, including some close-ups and detail shots you won’t find elsewhere, and accompanied with a short write-up of its origins and capabilities. While it would have been nice to see the machines switched on – each is captured in its powered-off state, a shame given the Centre’s reputation as a hands-on “living museum” – it’s still a great book for vintage computing enthusiasts.

Custom PC Issue 204 is available now at the usual stockists, or online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 203

Custom PC Issue 203This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at how the maker and hacker communities are rallying behind the COVID-19 crisis, puts the Rock Pi N10 Model A computer-on-module on the test bench, and takes a look at Imagine That!, the story of APF engineer Ed Smith and his work on the Imagination Machine home computer.

First, the opening spread. The world is still struggling to adjust to a “new normal” in the face of the continuing spread of SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 disease it causes, and nowhere is that more obvious than here in the UK. While many countries have been able to flatten the curve sufficiently to avoid overwhelming healthcare resources, there is still concern over a second wave – and that’s why makers and tinkerers around the world have volunteered their expertise and enthusiasm.

The spread looks at a range of projects currently underway across the globe, from open-source ventilators designed as emergency alternatives to under-stocked invasive ventilators used as a last-ditch treatment for COVID-19 sufferers to homebrew face masks and face shields. Links to each project are included, for anyone looking to get involved.

The Rock Pi N10 Model A is a traditional hardware review: two pages on the computer-on-module. Based on the Rockchip RK3399Pro system-on-chip with integrated neural network co-processor, the entry-level Model A includes 4GB of LPDDR3 memory and 16GB of storage plus PCI Express connectivity for external hardware – a rarity on devices at its price point.

Finally, Ed Smith’s autobiography Imagine That! rounds out the piece. A self-published book, via Amazon’s print-on-demand service, Imagine That! impressed and disappointed in equal measure. For those looking for technical details on Smith’s involvement in APF’s Imagination Machine home computer, it’s a disappointment; for those looking for information on what it was like to be a black engineer growing up in the Browsnville projects in the 1970s there’s plenty of meat in its relatively scant 140 pages.

It’s a topic worthy of publication, but one which will hopefully see enough success to warrant a second edition through a professional publishing house: Smith’s honest storytelling approach is refreshing but scattershot, and riddled with typographical, grammatical, and factual errors begging for an editorial pass, as are the low-resolution and uncredited images sprinkled throughout.

All this, and more, can be found in Custom PC Issue 203, available to buy with worldwide delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 202

Custom PC Issue 202This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at the long-delayed but worth-the-wait TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, moves on to the unique Sega Arcade Pop-Up History from Read Only Memory, and closes on a look at the Raspberry Pi Imager utility.

Issue 202 is not the first time the ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded effort to not only recreate the classic Sinclair machine using modern hardware but to answer the question of what could have been if it weren’t for the microcomputer crash and subsequent sale to Amstrad: the internal hardware was reviewed way back in Issue 176 in the form of the board-only backer reward.

The ZX Spectrum Next is more than just a motherboard, however: its design includes a “toastrack”-inspired chassis and keyboard straight from the drafting board of sadly since-departed former Sinclair industrial designer Rick Dickinson – his last project, it would turn out. The fully-finished hardware, chassis and all, was due to arrive in backers’ hands in January 2018 – but only now, more than two years late, is the hardware finally being delivered.

Thankfully, it’s been worth the wait. Issues with the keyboard’s reliability have been ironed out, errors in the original hardware design resolved, and the firmware which drives the on-board field-programmable gate array (FPGA) updated and tweaked. The 28MHz accelerated mode, missing from the original review, is back, and the custom operating system works smoothly and without issue.

Sega Arcade Pop-Up History is another nostalgia-driven walk down memory lane, but rather than looking at home computers of the 1980s it covers Sega’s “taiken,” or “body sensation,” arcade cabinets – machines which moved to match the on-screen action. The written material is, however, limited: the bulk of the book is given over to card pop-up models of six cabinets, which is a definite first for Hobby Tech.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi Imager. Borrowing shamelessly from Balena’s Etcher, Imager is a tool from the Raspberry Pi Foundation which offers a cross-platform simplified graphical user interface for not only writing disk images to microSD cards but for downloading them too. The flow is just seven or eight clicks long: open Imager, bring up the list of supported operating systems, choose one and confirm, bring up the list of target storage devices and confirm, and flash. There’s even a verification stage, to confirm the image is correctly written – and you can point it at manually-downloaded disk images if your favoured operating system isn’t in the default selection.

All this, and a lot more beside, can be found in Custom PC Issue 202 at all the usual stockists and online from the official website with global delivery.

Custom PC, Issue 201

Custom PC Issue 201This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the upcoming Mooltipass BLE hardware password dongle, FLIR’s ETS320 thermal camera for electronics testing, and has a word from Eben Upton about the cost-reduced Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB single-board computer.

First, the Mooltipass BLE. I reviewed the Mooltipass Mini – itself a successor to the original, bulkier Mooltipass – back in Issue 168: a compact, metal-encased device, the Mooltipass Mini holds your passwords in encrypted storage accessible only using a smartcard and four-digit hexadecimal PIN. I’ve been using the Mooltipass Mini with great success since its launch, but it’s always a bit of a pain to use with a mobile device – requiring a USB cable and OTG adapter.

The Mooltipass BLE aims to fix that, by integrated a Bluetooth Low Energy radio. While it can still operate in tethered USB mode, the Bluetooth radio plus internal battery give it a newfound freedom – though my experience is as a beta tester, with finalised and fully-functional firmware still under active development before the device goes on open sale.

The FLIR ETS320, by contrast, is a fully-finished piece of hardware. Regular readers will know that I’ve long been an advocate of thermal imaging analysis for revealing the secrets of electronic devices, and the ETS320 is a considerable upgrade from my usual FLIR C2: the 80×60 resolution thermal sensor of the C2 is replaced by an impressive 320×240 version in the ETS320, at the cost of a dramatically reduced maximum focus distance. I’d also like to thank FLIR for its partnership: the ETS320 has become a permanent fixture in my toolkit, and will be used alongside the C2 for thermal analysis in future hardware reviews.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB. While the board itself isn’t new, its pricing is: Raspberry Pi Trading recently decided, prompted by falling RAM prices, to retire the 1GB model and make the 2GB model the new entry point into the family. “2GB is a much more viable desktop platform than 1GB,” RPT chief executive Eben Upton told me in an interview for the column. “1GB is great for embedded, but for a desktop platform it’s just a little bit too tight. What it means is that we’re now back to having a really viable desktop machine at our signature price point.”

The full column is available now in Custom PC Issue 201 at your local newsagent, supermarket, or for global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 200

Custom PC Issue 200In this milestone issue of Custom PC Magazine you’ll find a look at the impressively retro tilde.club service and the wider tildeverse, the edge-AI-focused Orange Pi 4B single-board computer, and the Pi Hut ZeroDock accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero.

First, tilde.club – which requires a little history lesson for context. In the early days of networked computing, particularly on systems based on UNIX or the later POSIX standard, users hosted shared files in their home folders – which were given the shortcut ~. Today, shared systems have given way to virtual private servers (VPSes), but tilde.club offers a reproducible platform for those who miss the early days: your own directory, with public and private areas, on a truly shared POSIX-compliant server.

As well as hosting simple websites – there’s no server-side scripting here – you can join in internal email discussions, an on-server BBS, a text-based interface for the popular Reddit social network, and even play multiplayer games, all in the comfort of your terminal. A major delay in approving accounts for the original tilde.club – five years before a volunteer took over the service and began clearing the queue – also gave rise to the tildeverse, a network of tilde.club-based servers many of which focus on particular topics of interest.

The Orange Pi 4B, by contrast, is very much not a throwback but a piece of hardware designed to sit at the cutting edge. Mimicking, with a few modifications, the layout of a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, the Orange Pi 4B offers a Rockchip RK3399 six-core processor – two high-performance cores, four low-power cores – alongside a neural processing unit (NPU) coprocessor for edge-AI acceleration. As usual, my review looks at software support, hardware performance, and thermal imaging – along with an investigation of what the NPU brings to the table.

Finally, the Pi Hut ZeroDock is a handy but sadly pricey accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero family of single-board computers. Constructed from laser-cut acrylic, the ZeroDock houses a Pi Zero, a bundled compact solderless breadboard, and a small number of accessories like USB dongles and SD Card adapters. For those using a Pi Zero for prototyping, it’s a great tool – but at £10, twice the price of the Pi Zero board itself, it’s a little too expensive to be a must-have.

The full feature can be found on newsagent and supermarket shelves now, or purchased for global delivery from the official Custom PC website.

 

Custom PC, Issue 198

Custom PC Issue 198This month’s Hobby Tech opens on an interview with Bitmap Books founder Sam Dyer, covering what his nostalgia-driven coffee-table book specialist publisher has been up to in the half-decade since last we spoke, moves on to a preview of the soft-launched Sensoreq CooliPi Raspberry Pi 4 case and heatsink, and ends with a look at UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan.

I last interviewed Dyer on the back of the launch of Bitmap Books’ inaugural publication, the crowdfunded Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium – the spelling of the latter, he was at pains to tell me at the time, a deliberate pun. In the five years since, Dyer’s press has moved from collecting screenshots of Commodore 64 and Amiga games to producing some big-budget hardback titles, most recently including officially licensed titles – a rarity in the all-too-often copyright-ignorant retro gaming sphere. There’s more to come, too, Dyer told me in this latest interview – including some non-gaming works, including a Micro Machines-focused book dubbed Micro But Many due later this year.

The CooliPi case, meanwhile, is an interesting beast – not least because not only is the plastic base 3D printed rather than laser-cut or injection-moulded, but the design files to print your own are provided for free download. That’s because the secret sauce sits on top: a custom-milled and surprisingly hefty aluminium heatsink, available in a variety of colours. The case is cleverly designed and its cooling performance, even operating without the optional mount for a 5V fan, is the best I’ve seen – though the Hobby Tech piece is a preview, rather than review, as creator Sensoreq finishes a few last tweaks before the design can be considered fully final.

Finally, Kernighan’s memoir – written by a man who, in his own words, was “present at the creation [of the UNIX operating system] but not responsible” – is a thoroughly enjoyable first-person perspective on some of the most important works in computing history, and the precursor to the Linux-based operating system on which I’m typing right now. A vanity press publication, created through Amazon’s print-on-demand service, the book’s print quality isn’t great – most obvious on the cover, where an extremely low-resolution image has been stretched blurringly around the book giving the impression of a knock-off – but the content more than makes up for its production values.

All this, and more, can be found on the shelves of your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or for worldwide delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 196

Custom PC Issue 196My Hobby Tech column this month opens with a look at a surprisingly swish programming environment for the Nintendo Switch, of all things, walks through the creation of a power-saving networked display using the Pimoroni Inky wHAT and a Raspberry Pi, and looks at a book which purports to chart the history of Apple Macintosh gaming.

First, the programming environment. Fuze4 Nintendo Switch, available now on the Nintendo eShop, builds on the Fuze BASIC programming language originally developed for the Raspberry Pi and reviewed – alongside its BBC Micro-inspired housings – in Issue 124 and Issue 136. This time around, though, the language is considerably less BASIC and more like a hybrid between BASIC, Python, and a bit of C thrown in for good measure. It’s also less focused on things like sensor reading and GPIO control – for obvious reason – and instead designed specifically for a single task: making games.

There are aspects that need polish – in particular the sharing of created projects, which at present can only be done via Nintendo’s clunky friends-list system – but overall Fuze4 Nintendo Switch is impressive. You’ll want a keyboard, but once you get started it’s easy to build some impressive projects – one demo supplied with the game showcases a fluid 3D engine with dynamic lighting, created in a remarkably short number of lines.

The Inky wHAT project, meanwhile, was largely a means of documenting something I created for my own use: an electrophoretic display that would display the output of the schedule printer I detailed in Issue 183 without needing to print on physical paper. There’s a twist, too: after finding that the only box-frame available that would fit the project depth-wise was too large, I created a mock-up of an Amiga Workbench desktop to frame the smaller Inky wHAT display – and the effect is surprisingly convincing.

Finally, Richard Moss’ The Secret History of Mac Gaming was a pleasure to read, though a few aspects of Apple’s history are presented from the eyes of a fanboy rather than a historian. Switching between recollection, research, interview content, and contributed material, the book does a great job of documenting the largely-forgotten history of gaming on Apple Macs – though it could have benefited from another editing and layout pass, in particular to avoid the recurring issue where screenshots either appear out-of-order or without any reference in the text.

As always, the latest Custom PC Magazine is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets, or can be ordered for worldwide delivery from Raspberry Pi Press.

Custom PC, Issue 195

Custom PC Issue 195This month’s Hobby Tech column opens on an interview with Ryan Brown on the impressive Quarter Arcades miniature fully-licensed reproduction arcade cabinets, moves on to a review of the RISC-V-based Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT for the Raspberry Pi, and closes with a look at Pimoroni’s clever Inky wHAT electrophoretic display.

First, the interview. Answering the important question first, Brown admitted that “the pun certainly helps” when it came to deciding to what scale the Quarter Arcades cabinets should be produced: each carefully-designed reproduction, modelled on real period-appropriate cabinets, is built to a quarter scale both as a means of having it sit nicely on a desk and of providing a name which echoes the most commonly-required coin of US arcade cabinets.

While the Quarter Arcade range is currently limited to licensed properties including Pac-Man and Galaga, Brown has indicated there’s potential there to expand: “Starting with the most beloved classics really helps us open doors to other, more niche arcade games, and even potentially games that never reached the arcade.”

The Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT, by contrast, was an undeniable disappointment. Based on the Kendryte K210 system-on-chip, which uses the RISC-V instruction set architecture and includes a co-processor designed to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads, the AI HAT can be used as a stand-alone development board or attached on top of a Raspberry Pi – but in the latter mode is almost entirely divorced from the Pi itself, to the point where it’s not even possible to program the AI HAT without detaching it again and connecting it to a more traditional PC.

Finally, the Inky wHAT. Another Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) board, the Inky wHAT offers a 4.2″ electrophoretic display in three colours: red, black, and white in the model reviewed, with a yellow variant available alongside a slightly cheaper black-and-white two-colour version. Forming the heart of a project which will appear in next month’s magazine, the Inky wHAT impressed – though it would be nice to see the price drop a little, given how cheap full-colour though considerably more power-hungry LCD panels are these days.

Custom PC Issue 195 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally through the usual outlets.

Custom PC, Issue 194

Custom PC Issue 194My regular Hobby Tech feature provided two opportunities to break out the thermal camera, thanks to a detailed analysis of a range of cooling products for the Raspberry Pi 4 and a review of the Libre Computer Project’s La Frite single-board computer – and there was even time to take a look at Brian Dear’s exhaustive title The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture.

First, La Frite. Funded, as with all Libre Computer Project boards, via crowdfunding, the compact single-board computer is designed to compete with the like of the Raspberry Pi. It certainly has its selling points: there’s a mounting point on the underside for an eMMC storage module, though it uses proprietary mounting holes; there’s a clever midship-mounted Ethernet port to reduce the overall height; and it even comes with the option of a clever two-piece aluminium case that doubles as a heatsink. Sadly, the board’s performance isn’t there, its software support struggles, and despite the name of the organisation its openness is limited to targeting mainstream Linux kernels; the board itself is a proprietary design.

Moving on to the topic of the Raspberry Pi 4, there’s no secret now that the new high-performance processor at its heart runs a little warm. For my analysis of the issue and a look at some potential solutions, a benchmarking workload was executed while temperature and clockspeed were measured and charted – demonstrating handily the loss of performance you get when the system-on-chip begins to heat up.

These data are joined by the same workload while the Raspberry Pi 4 is enjoying the benefits of a range of third-party cooling products: the Pimoroni Heatsink and Fan Shim options, the former running in passive-only and fan-assisted modes and the latter in always-on and software-controlled modes, along with the 52Pi Ice Tower heatsink and fan assembly as supplied by Seeed Studio and running in 5V, 3V3, and wholly passive modes. The temperatures across the run are then charted, while thermal imagery provides a visual insight into how the whole board heats under passive and active cooling.

Finally, The Friendly Orange Glow is a book I’d heartily recommend to anyone interested in the history of a surprising range of modern technologies – from flat-panel plasma displays and multiplayer gaming to Microsoft’s FreeCell. Charting the rise and fall of PLATO, a computer-assisted learning platform now largely forgotten by history, the book is about more than just technology: as its subtitle, The Untold History of the Rise of Cyberculture, suggests, PLATO and those who built and used it were responsible for cultural movements that wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere in the world for decades.

You can pick up the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or online at the Raspberry Pi Press Store, or grab it in digital form via the usual distribution services.