Custom PC, Issue 214

Custom PC Issue 214My Hobby Tech feature for Custom PC takes a look at two compact but very different pieces of keyring-compatible open-source hardware, the Solo V2 security key and the FunKey S, and also a colouring book. No, really, a colouring book: the Retro Computer Colouring Book.

The Solo V2 is, as the name suggests, a second-generation follow-up to the original Solo. The core of the project hasn’t changed: it’s an open-source project which aims to create a FIDO/FIDO2-compatible security dongle. Like its proprietary equivalents, the Solo V2 includes both USB and NFC communication capabilities, supports standard protocols, and even has a tamper-proof design with the bulk of the circuit held on a module encased in transparent resin.

Where the Solo V2 splits from its competition is in the firmware. Written in Rust, the biggest change from the original variant, the firmware is entirely open – allowing anyone to not only inspect the code for any reason, from finding security vulnerabilities to ensuring there are no deliberate back doors, but to modify the code in order to add new features.

The FunKey S is, like the Solo V2, designed to hang on your keyring. It’s not a security dongle, though: it’s an entirely functional self-contained games console, running a customised Linux distribution packed with emulators for everything from the Nintendo Game Boy to the Sony PlayStation. Designed to mimic, roughly, the look of the Game Boy Advance SP, the folding console is ridiculously compact – and absolutely everything, from the circuit design to the plastic case, is open source.

Finally, Retro Computer Colouring Book from Quick Web Books sounds like a joke, and it at least partially is: as the bumph on the back of the book makes clear, vintage computers from the 1970s and 1980s were primarily beige or black – and one of the machines included, the Sinclair ZX80, was the same white as the underlying paper. A joke, then, but one which is also usable: machines are represented with custom-drawn line art, and it’s entirely serviceable as a colouring book – and there’s nothing to stop you reimagining machines like the Altair 8800 in a hot pink or lurid purple.

Custom PC Issue 214 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery on the official website, or as a free PDF download without DRM restrictions.

Custom PC, Issue 213

Custom PC Issue 213In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at how GL shaders can make the video output from emulators – in particular DOSBox – look an awful lot closer to how you remember the same software running on real hardware, review the Argon One M.2 case for the Raspberry Pi 4 family of single-board computers, and take a look at an unusual children’s book: Big Data Girl by Fred Wordie with illustrations by Santiago Taberna.

First, the shaders. Few would argue that the move away from bulky and power-hungry cathode-ray tube displays to modern liquid-crystal displays was a bad thing, except for possibly vintage game enthusiasts. The “pixel art” of old, you see, was never meant to show big, blocky, individual pixels: the CRT would smooth and blend things as a by-product of its relative inaccuracy, meaning when you fire up a classic like Doom or Moraff’s World and feel disappointed in its appearance it’s not entirely down to rose-tinted spectacles.

Shaders, typically but not exclusively written in GL Shader Language, can help. In the opening piece for this month’s column, I look at how these handy add-ons can turn the block output of an emulator into a surprisingly convincing simulation of a CRT – complete with curvature and overscan, if that’s your wont. The difference in appearance is little short of astounding – though it may take some customisation before you’re fully satisfied with the results.

The Argon One M.2, meanwhile, looks externally a lot like the previous entries in the Argon One case family. There’s the same metal shell, which doubles as a heatsink and means the built-in temperature-controlled fan rarely activates, the same magnetic cover hiding a colour-coded and silkscreened general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header, and the same layout which puts all the Raspberry Pi’s various ports to the rear for neater cabling.

Where the new design differs is in a larger base, which hides the circuitry for converting an M.2 SATA SSD into a USB-attached storage device. Unlike the NESPi 4, reviewed back in Issue 210, this one works properly in USB Attached SCSI (UAS) mode, giving a throughput of 387/300MBps read/write on a test SSD rated at 500/320MBps.

Finally, Big Data Girl is a bit of a departure for the column, as it’s a children’s book – but one with a difference: Wordie’s crowdfunded title aims to introduce the concept of “big data,” anthropomorphised as a friendly little girl, highlighting both how useful it can be and how it can impact your privacy. It’s a smart idea, and Taberna’s illustrations are fantastic, but serves more as a conversation starter for parents already familiar with the concepts than a stand-alone guide to the subject.

Custom PC Issue 213 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, digital distribution platforms, and from the official website with international delivery.

Custom PC, Issue 212

Custom PC Issue 212In my Hobby Tech column for Custom PC this month I take a look at the intriguing and somewhat awkwardly-named BBC Doctor Who HiFive Inventor Coding Kit, the low-cost Raspberry Pi Pico, and a comic billed as “for hackers, by hackers”: Robert Willis’ Initiating Paraneon.

The BBC Doctor Who HiFive Inventor Coding Kit is an interesting mash-up of ideas. From the BBC’s side is the Doctor Who IP, with current Doctor Jodie Whittaker loaning her voice to the step-by-step programming lessons which are unlocked with a single-use code included in the box; SiFive, meanwhile, provides the hardware platform, a hand-shaped microcontroller development board based on its RISC-V microcontroller cores.

It doesn’t stop there, though: the HiFive Inventor was originally launched solo as a device “inspired” by the BBC micro:bit – an inspiration which runs so deeply it’s entirely possible to use BBC micro:bit accessories with the HiFive Inventor’s edge connector. Now, the board is available exclusively as part of the BBC bundle – though apart from a new colour, it’s entirely unchanged in design.

The Raspberry Pi Pico, on the other hand, is a lot simpler to trace: it’s a wholly in-house creation from Raspberry Pi, representing both its first microcontroller board and the first outing for its RP2040 microcontroller chip – the first product of its application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) team. Designed to offer a wealth of functionality, including clever programmable input/output (PIO) state machines, at a very low cost, the Raspberry Pi Pico is proving a device to watch.

Finally, Initiating Paraneon is a short graphic novella designed to act as a precursor to Robert Willis’ upcoming Paraneon comic book series. Billed as being written by hackers for the next generation of hackers, it’s a book that wears its inspiration – from 2000 AD to The Matrix – on its sleeve, but sadly never truly comes out of the shadow of its forebears.

Custom PC Issue 212 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and online via the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 211

Custom PC Issue 211My regular Hobby Tech column this month spans the worlds of network attached storage, input devices, and retro gaming, courtesy of reviews covering the Kobol Helios64 open-spec NAS, the Keybordio Atreus ergonomic keyboard, and Neil Thomas’ Retro Tea Breaks.

The NAS, first, is a device I was excited to put on the test bench. A follow-up to Kobol’s earlier and considerably more Heath Robinson Helios4, the Helios64 is an open-spec network attached storage system built around the Rockchip RK3399 six-core Arm processor – not, sadly, the faster RK3399Pro, following an unplanned downgrade when SARS-CoV-2 hit the supply chain.

The board has five SATA ports, one shared with an on-board M.2 SATA slot for an SSD, a chunky heatsink, and both gigabit and 2.5-gig Ethernet – though the first batch of the devices suffers from an unfortunate design flaw in the latter. Other issues abound in the design of the very smart-looking bundled case and plastic drive sleds, though if Kobol’s promise to address these in future production runs is fulfilled the Helios64 could well take its place at the top of the hobby-friendly NAS league.

The Keyboardio Atreus, meanwhile, is an interesting beast: it’s an ultra-compact ergonomic mechanical keyboard based on switching between multiple layers to make up for the reduced number of physical keys. It’s also not Keyboardio’s own design: the company has made a name for itself in mechanical keyboard circles by adopting open-source keyboard designs, with the full consent of their original creators, and bringing them to the mass market via crowdfunding.

Finally, Retro Tea Breaks is a compact hardback tome which also owes its existence to a crowdfunding campaign, this time courtesy of Neil Thomas’ RMC – formerly Retro Man Cave – YouTube channel. The book gathers together transcripts, lightly edited and in some cases updated, of interviews carried out with some big names from the classic gaming scene – ranging from the Oliver twins to George “The Fat Man” Sanger and, surprisingly, Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem himself.

You can find the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine on all good supermarket shelves, at your local newsagent, or online with global delivery now.

Custom PC, Issue 210

Custom PC Issue 210For Custom PC Magazine, the new year starts with another installation of my Hobby Tech five-page column, this month starting with an in-depth investigation of the Raspberry Pi 400, the RetroFlag NESPi 4 Nintendo-themed case, and Ubuntu 20.10 for the Raspberry Pi.

First, the Raspberry Pi 400. The first device to come from Raspberry Pi with an explicit design focus on producing a consumer device, rather than a bare-bones educational circuit board, the Raspberry Pi 400 packs the core technology from the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B into a keyboard housing to produce an almost-all-in-one PC reminiscent of a classic Atari 400, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, or Commodore VIC-20.

For the Custom PC review, I investigated the device’s internals – a custom-designed single-board computer which is the largest Raspberry Pi ever made, along with the first to include a heatsink in the form of a large slab of metal attached to the system-on-chip – and ran the system through a series of benchmarks to check its performance and thermal characteristics.

Similarly, the RetroFlag NESPi 4 saw a few benchmarks – focusing primarily on whether its small and always-running internal fan could keep a Raspberry Pi 4 cool and how the clever SATA-to-USB adapter, which accepts a 7mm SSD disguised in a plastic housing shaped after a NES cartridge, handled throughput. Sadly, testing also revealed a few issues with the otherwise-clever casing – in particular the fact that the SATA adapter is unusable in the Raspberry Pi’s default USB Attached SCSI (UAS) operation mode and takes a performance penalty if you manually override it.

Finally, Ubuntu 20.10 is the first release of Canonical’s Linux distribution to prove the company’s promise that it will treat the Raspberry Pi family as a first-class citizen going forward. In addition to 32- and 64-bit variants of the Ubuntu Server operating system, available in earlier releases, Ubuntu 20.10 is available in a new Ubuntu Desktop release – which includes a full graphical user interface and a handy range of pre-installed software, along with support for installing more via the apt package manager or Canonical’s Snap Store platform.

Custom PC Issue 210 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, or online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 209

Custom PC Issue 209In this month’s instalment of my regular Hobby Tech feature, I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 family, Nvidia’s lower-cost Jetson Nano 2GB, and Sid Meier’s Sid Meier’s Memoir! – a book with what must be the most well-fitting title in history.

The Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 is, as the name suggests, a successor to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3+ and Compute Module 3 ranges – themselves designed as a follow-up to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, which took the core technology from the Raspberry Pi single-board computer and placed it into a system-on-module (SOM) form factor.

In my two-page review I take the new Compute Module through its paces, take a look at the redesigned and considerably cheaper carrier board, and warn of one major caveat: the redesigned module ditches the SODIMM form factor of its predecessors, meaning it’s not backwards-compatible with earlier carrier boards without a third-party interposer board between the two.

The Nvidia Jetson Nano 2GB, meanwhile, isn’t as identical to the original Nvidia Jetson Nano reviewed back in Issue 191. While, yes, the headline change is the drop from 4GB to 2GB of RAM, there are other modifications – including the loss of a hidden slot for an optional Wi-Fi card, fewer and slower USB ports, and the dropping of the second MIPI Camera Serial Interface (CSI) port added to its bigger sibling in a mid-stream refresh.

Finally, Sid Meier’s Memoir! – named in the style of the man’s games like Sid Meier’s Civilization and Sid Meier’s Pirates! – is a potted history of one of the pioneers of strategy gaming’s career, as told to author Jennifer Lee Noonan. It’s a text-heavy tome split into roughly chronological chapters, and absolutely fascinating – even if it does finally put to bed the myth of Gandhi’s overflow bug in Civilization.

Custom PC Issue 209 is available now from your local supermarket, newsagent, or online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 208

Custom PC Issue 208This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the MicroPython programming environment, SunFounder’s RasPad 3 Raspberry Pi tablet conversion kit, and Frank Gasking’s book The Games That Weren’t.

I’ve been doing a lot of work with MicroPython of late, so it made sense to cover the software for Hobby Tech. Developed by Damien George as part of a crowdfunding campaign launched in 2013, MicroPython takes the popular Python programming language and ports it to microcontrollers – both dedicated PyBoard ranges and third-party hardware. It’s also the inspiration for CircuitPython, a port developed by Adafruit and designed with educational use in mind.

The RasPad 3, meanwhile, is a device I wanted to love. Built in an intriguing wedge shape, the kit takes a Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer and turns it into a touch-screen tablet. The third in the series, and the first supporting the Raspberry Pi 4, the RasPad 3 is a great idea let down by poor execution – everything from a low-quality display and buggy software to dismal battery life and an incredibly noisy fan.

Finally, The Games That Weren’t is the latest coffee table book from Bitmap Books, based on the website of the same name by Frank Gasking. Built around the same core concept as Phil Atkinson’s Delete, The Games That Weren’t looks at video games – and a small number of related hardware projects, like the Commodore 65 – that never made it to market. At 643 pages it’s a hefty tome, but sadly let down by some high-profile absences – the ‘Van Buren’ build of Fallout 3 is present, but Fallout Online is nowhere to be found as just one example – and a woolly approach to research and citation which leans heavily on weasel-words like “it’s thought,” “some sources say,” and “it’s believed.”

You can pick up the latest Custom PC at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or online with global delivery now.

Custom PC, Issue 207

Custom PC Issue 207This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC Magazine takes a look at the hidden costs of stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printing, the RISC OS Direct operating system for the Raspberry Pi, and Steven K. Roberts’ classic memoir Computing Across America.

The 3D printing feature was born of a personal cost – literally, money I spent after diving head-first into the world of SLA 3D printing having been tempted by a low-cost entry-level printer. While the printer itself cost around £150, I spent as much again on the accessories required to get good results – from resin and cleaning tools to an ultraviolet curing station and the FEP sheets which form the bottom of the resin vat.

While the feature focuses on SLA printing, which uses a resin cured by exposure to ultraviolet light, there are costs associated with the more common FFF 3D printers too – including finding ways to protect the plastic filament they use from moisture.

Any readers of a certain vintage will likely remember the original RISC OS, an operating system developed initially for Acorn’s Archimedes family then for the later Risc PC. While Acorn itself went away, RISC OS didn’t – and the launch of the original Raspberry Pi, powered by Arm technology which started life at Acorn, gave it a shot in the arm.

RISC OS Direct is an effort to take the modern RISC OS and make it approachable for newcomers, rather than experienced RISC-takers. As a result, it includes a selection of applications pre-installed – from word processors to web browsers – and a handy-dandy wallpaper which doubles as a quick-reference guide. More detailed documentation is also provided, including electronic copies of programming manuals, for those who want to dive deeper.

Computing Across America, finally, isn’t a new book: It was published in the 1980s by Steven Roberts, the self-styled “high-tech nomad” who sold his house and possessions to cycle across America on a custom-built “Winnebiko” with little more than a TRS-80 Model 100 microcomputer for company. While now out of print, the title is available to borrow from The Internet Archive – and makes for fascinating, if often salacious, reading.

Custom PC Issue 207 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and online with global delivery from the official website.

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 over 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.