PC Pro, Issue 238

PC Pro Issue 238I return to the pages of PC Pro this month, having been approached as the guy-in-the-know when it comes to single-board computers and embedded development platforms. The platform in question is Intel’s Galileo, my review of which enjoys the header splash on the front page. Oh, and before anyone assaults the comments section: yes, I know the Galileo isn’t designed as a direct rival to the Raspberry Pi; that wording is an editorial decision in which I had no part.

This isn’t the first time I’ve reviewed the Galileo: I covered it back in March for Custom PC and again in April for Linux User & Developer, having received one of the first boards to hit the UK. I was more than happy to revisit the subject, however: as the first commercial implementation of the low-power Quark processor and Intel’s only device to boast Arduino compatibility and certification, the Galileo is a fascinating board.

Sadly, an update to the latest software and an afternoon of thorough testing revealed little has changed since my earlier reviews. The Quark is still desperately slow, easily outclassed by even the weedy BCM2835 on the far cheaper Raspberry Pi, while its cleverly-emulated Arduino compatibility offers easy access to its GPIO capabilities only if you don’t need accurate timings or any kind of speed.

That’s not to say the Galileo doesn’t have its advantages: the on-board Ethernet is undeniably useful, its partial compatibility with Arduino-format add-ons makes it easy to get started, and the Arduino IDE is always a welcome sight for beginners. Could it have been better? Well, I’d recommend buying PC Pro to find out.

PC Pro Issue 238 is available at all good newsagents, many supermarkets, or digitally on services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 138

Linux User & Developer Issue 138Aside from my regular four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes two reviews: the Intel Galileo board, the company’s Quark-based answer to the Raspberry Pi; and the Pogoplug Safeplug, a Linux-based privacy-enhancing TOR gateway.

First, the Galileo. I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the first retail units to hit the UK, and was eager to see what Intel had come up with. Based on its low-power Quark processor, which is a die-shrunk version of the classic Pentium instruction set architecture, the Galileo boasts full x86 compatibility and plenty of on-board connectivity. Where it differs from its rivals – and anything Intel has ever produced before – is that it’s also Arduino certified, and fully compatible with shields developed for that microcontroller’s esoteric pin layout.

It promises much: on-board Ethernet, out-of-the-box support for existing Arduino sketches, the ability to run a Linux environment, and even a mini-PCI Express slot on the rear for adding in wireless connectivity or other additional hardware. Can it live up to expectations? Well, you’ll have to read the review to find out.

The Pogoplug Safeplug, despite what the contents page splash might suggest, is not a storage device; rather, it’s a modified version of the company’s existing embedded storage gateway product to find a new market in the post-Snowden world. Connected to your internal network, the Safeplug acts as a gateway to the TOR network; all traffic is encrypted and anonymised with little client configuration required. As an added bonus, there’s even an advertising removal feature.

My verdict on both devices, plus stories covering Ubuntu 14.04, the Intel Next Unit of Computing, the Penn Manor School’s move to Linux, a £15 Firefox OS smartphone, Cisco’s IoT security challenge, the Nokia X and more can be yours in newsagents now. Alternatively, you can get the magazine digitally via Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 128

Custom PC Issue 128In this specially-numbered issue of Custom PC – the issue in which a signed eight-bit integer would overflow, in case it wasn’t obvious – my regular five-page Hobby Tech column covers turning a Raspberry Pi into a TOR proxy, using the Keyrah v2 on an old Amiga A1200 chassis, a review of the Intel Galileo, and a look at the daftest Pi accessory yet. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a two-page interview with the UEFI Forum’s Mark Doran to enjoy.

First, Hobby Tech. In this month’s tutorial, I show the reader how to turn a Raspberry Pi Model B – or Model A with optional USB network adapter – into a proxy that provides access to TOR, The Onion Router Project, a privacy-enhancing network that encrypts your internet traffic and shuffles it around before popping it out of a random exit node. Although it’s possible to run TOR software directly on a PC, having a hardware proxy can help get otherwise unsupported devices – like the Apple iPad – onto the TOR network.

The piece on the Keyrah v2 came about when I was looking for ways to use the chassis and keyboard I had replaced on my Amiga 1200. Although badly yellowed, the keyboard was fully working and throwing it away seemed a shame; thankfully, the Keyrah makes that necessary by interfacing with the Amiga keyboard and turning it into a USB keyboard for modern machines, while also providing two connectors for traditional joysticks. Coupled with yet another Raspberry Pi, it was possible to turn the empty A1200 chassis into a fully-functional computer – and surprisingly quickly, too.

Intel’s Galileo is the company’s first Arduino-certified device, and a showcase for its Quark processor. Based on the original Pentium architecture – complete with the F00F Bug erratum – the Quark is Intel’s attempt to take on ARM in the embedded space, and if the Galileo is any indicator it still has a way to go. Slower at general-purpose computing than a Pi and at IO than a true Arduino, the Galileo is hard to love – but the presence of a mini-PCIe socket on the back suggests it could find a home in more complex projects.

Finally for Hobby Tech, there’s a look at cooling a Raspberry Pi with the smallest active heatsink I’ve ever seen. Barely covering the tip of my finger, the heatsink was an impulse purchase from eBay and cost nearly as much as the Pi on which it is attached; it’s certainly eye-catching, however, and my core temperature readings may be of interest to anyone using a Pi in high ambient temperatures or in cases with otherwise stagnant airflow.

My last contribution to this issue is the interview with Mark Doran. While the extract published in Linux User & Developer concentrated mainly on Secure Boot and its increasing adoption after initial fear in open source projects, this extract looks more at UEFI itself and how it came to be. For historical interest, there’s also what I believe to be the first comprehensive time-line of the BIOS, beginning in 1975 with Gary Kildall coining the term to describe part of his CP/M operating system.

All this, plus the usual selection of stuff written by people who aren’t me, is available at newsagents, corner shops and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 136

Linux User & Developer Issue 136This month’s Linux User & Developer is a little light on my content, with a planned interview with Mark Doran of the UEFI Forum being bumped to the next issue. It does, however, still include my regular four-page news spread.

The news section this month includes a look at the Intel Edison, the second product from the company to feature its embedded Quark processor. Based on an SD card form factor, the Edison is designed as the drop-in replacement for the Galileo. At the time, I hadn’t had the pleasure of playing with a Quark – which packs up to four Pentium architecture processing cores, offering full x86 compatibility – although I’ve since acquired a Galileo, and let’s just say Intel has a bit of work ahead of it if it wants to supplant ARM and dedicated microcontrollers in the market.

Additional topics covered include the merging of CentOS into Red Hat, with no changes expected as a result of the move; Firefox OS being drafted into future Panasonic Smart TVs following a muted reception of the open-source HTML-powered operating system on smartphones; a look at the US government’s programme to use open source software and open hardware for future generations of unmanned aerial vehicles; Google’s foundation of the Open Automotive Alliance, a transparent attempt to find new markets for Android; a new Steam OS release with support Intel and AMD graphics, in place of the original Nvidia-exclusive launch; Belkin’s release of a new open-source router, an update for the popular but long-outdated Linksys WRT54G; and a defacement attack on the openSUSE forums, blamed on the proprietary vBulletin software.

As always, a calendar for the month’s biggest events is also included for reference.

Linux User & Developer Issue 136 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via services including Zinio. More information is also available on the official website.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 131

Linux User & Developer Issue 131The cover of this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine highlights two of my latest features: a review of the Intel MinnowBoard and an interview with its evangelist Scott Garman. The direct comparison to the far cheaper Raspberry Pi, just to clarify, was an editorial decision in which I had no part.

The MinnowBoard is an interesting piece of equipment: based on a single-core 32-bit Intel Atom processor, it packs surprising power into a sub-10W package: gigabit Ethernet, USB, SATA and audio ports are all present and correct, while a ‘Lure’ connector gives access to additional capabilities including several PCI Express lanes.

The hardware itself isn’t the most interesting feature of the MinnowBoard, however. Intel has opted to make the board fully open, releasing schematics, Gerbers, firmware source code, and a Board Support Package (BSP) for the Yocto Project – certification for which the board carries proudly.

In this, the MinnowBoard is head and shoulders above the Raspberry Pi, which is a closed design, while offering significantly more power. Sadly, that power comes at a considerable price – you can expect to pay at least £160 for the MinnowBoard compared to £30 for the Pi. The MinnowBoard also struggles to compete with AMD’s equivalent, the Gizmo from Sage Electronics, which features a faster 64-bit dual-core processor with greater performance and wider OS compatibility and comes bundled with useful tools for embedded hardware and software development at a very similar cost.

Still, it’s an exciting project – and one Scott Garman, Yocto Project contributor, Intel employee, and the evangelist for the MinnowBoard project, is justifiably excited about. In my interview, Scott provided hints at the reasoning behind certain design decisions for the MinnowBoard, promises of increased compatibility with operating systems other than the bundled Angstrom Linux build, and admitted his undying respect for the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

All this, plus my usual four pages of Linux, open source, open hardware and open governance news, can be found betwix the pages of Linux User & Developer at your local newsagent, supermarket, or online via the Zinio digital distribution platform and others.

Custom PC, Issue 122

Custom PC Issue 122In the latest of my eponymous columns – Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, if you haven’t been following – I take a UK-exclusive look at the Intel MinnowBoard, show readers how to create a 21st century fax machine with an inexpensive thermal printer and an Arduino microcontroller, and investigate the 1980s’ answer to solid-state storage.

First, the MinnowBoard. Intel’s first foray into open hardware, the MinnowBoard is a clear response to the success of the low-cost Raspberry Pi. Although the low-cost part may have been lost along the way – the MinnowBoard retails at around £170, far more than the £30 the top-end Raspberry Pi will cost you – it offers considerable extra power including a 32-bit x86 Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, on-board SATA and even PCI Express expansion.

Another advantage to the MinnowBoard, and a surprise from Intel, is that it’s open hardware: the company has released Board Specification Packages (BSPs) for Yocto Project certification along with Gerbers, schematics and bills of material – everything you could need to build one of your very own. In this, it’s similar to AMD’s Gizmo board – although that features a BIOS which offers greater out-of-the-box compatibility with various operating systems, a more powerful dual-core processor and a slightly smaller footprint.

This month’s tutorial focuses on turning an inexpensive thermal printer – kindly provided by local hobbyist supply house oomlout – into an Arduino-powered teleprinter. Using the Hello, Printer design from GoFreeRange, it creates a simple internet-connected device that will accept text or image data from any web-capable client – and I’ve found it’s absolutely top-hole for shopping lists and reminders.

Sadly, there is a printing error – oh, the irony – in the tutorial: the last entry in the bill of materials, the 400-point breadboard, is missing the link to purchase. If you’re after one, you can find it on oomlout’s website.

Finally, the vintage computing section this month focuses on an all-but abandoned technology: EPROMs. The precursor to modern flash memory, as found in solid-state drives, EPROMs were an incredibly common sight: unlike traditional PROMs, they could be erased using an ultra-violet light ready for reuse and were typically used to hold program information or BIOS data. As something of a computer historian, I find myself using the chips a lot – I was burning a Donkey Kong board for the Nintendo PlayChoice-10 when I got the idea for the feature – but they’re something those who are new to computing are unlikely to see in the wild.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, in Custom PC Issue 122. As usual, you can find it in all good newsagents and supermarkets, or stay indoors and pick up a digital copy from services like Zinio if you’d prefer.

Custom PC, Issue 117

Custom PC Issue 117This month’s Custom PC sees my interview slot taken up with a chat to Nick Thibieroz, senior manager of AMD’s Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Gaming Engineering division, regarding his company’s latest attempt at increasing the immersion of games: TressFX.

If you’re not familiar with the technology, and if that’s the case shame on you for not following my work on bit-tech, TressFX – or to give it its full name, TressFX Hair – is a GPU-accelerated physics engine designed to simulate the interaction between a character’s hair and the surrounding environment. Wind, rain, branches, even the character’s body all interact with thousands of simulated hair strands to create a surprisingly realistic effect.

It’s something the industry has been working towards for years – hardly a SIGGRAPH event goes by without Nvidia showcasing another hair simulation system – but the computational complexity of the task has made it difficult to implement in a working game engine. That’s something AMD has solved, and it waited until it had the system in a shipping game – the new Tomb Raider reboot – before announcing the technology.

The biggest feature of the issue, however, is a special one: an in-depth look at how the development of mobile hardware differs from that of desktop hardware. With input from industry veterans including Nvidia, AMD, Intel and Imagination Technologies, it’s a – hopefully – interesting look at how developing for portable platforms has resulted in some significantly different technologies emerging.

Nvidia is a perfect example: it talks up its Tegra mobile processor as having GeForce-like graphics processing elements, but in truth there’s a distinct difference in how the two technologies work. Interestingly, it’s also the case that development of mobile processing hardware – which has to work in very tight power envelopes – has dramatically changed how the company approaches its power-hungry desktop graphics hardware, too.

It’s a big feature, and one I’m proud to have worked on: hopefully, by the end, readers will be able to better understand how smartphone and tablet hardware – which, thanks to projects like the Kickstarter-funded Ouya console, are increasingly finding their way onto people’s desks – compares to traditional desktop devices.

If you want to learn more about TressFX Hair and its development, or about the development of mobile-centric hardware and the challenges therein, you could do worse than picking up a copy of Custom PC Issue 117 – available in dead-tree format and digitally via Zinio or most other services.

This also marks the last time my column in Custom PC will take the form of a two-page interview spread: big changes are afoot, and I’m proud to say that the column will be taking on a very different – and hopefully more engaging – format from the next issue onwards.

PC Pro, Issue 222

PC Pro, Issue 222Continuing my features work for Dennis Publishing’s PC Pro magazine, the April 2013 issue sees the publication of The World’s Fastest Computers. A research-heavy look at supercomputers and the high-performance computing (HPC) industry in general, it’s a piece of which I’m particularly proud.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the piece, however, I’d like that thank a few people without whom the feature could never have happened: Professor Simon Cox, of the University of Southampton, was a particularly excellent source, speaking to me candidly and at length regarding the realities of running a supercomputing facility and his hopes for the future, and even posing for some photographs to liven up the piece; Nvidia’s Ian Buck, GPU computing general manager and creator of the Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) language, brought years of highly-parallel thinking to the mix, as did Nvidia’s Tesla boss Sumit Gupta; Intel’s Stephan Gillich, director of high-performance computing for the EMEA region, provided a CPU- rather than GPU-led perspective; and finally the Science and Technology Facilities Council was kind enough to provide copyright clearance on several of its historical supercomputing images – including a great shot of a denuded Cray being dismantled at the end of its service, which sadly had to be cut from the piece for space reasons.

The piece is split into three clear sections: a brief history of supercomputing, from the days of the Control Data Corporation 6600 – Seymour Cray’s first HPC design, and the very first system to be described as a supercomputer – to the modern day, followed by a look at what HPC means for education and the industry. The final part, meanwhile, is a look at the future – which, you’ll be amazed to hear, looks very different depending on whether you’re talking to Intel or Nvidia.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the piece, for me, is the performance comparison: using data provided by Professor Simon Cox and a great deal of research, I was able to piece together a rough approximation of a performance timeline. Starting with the Ferranti Pegasus in 1956 and working through thirteen other machines – all of which have, at one time or another, been installed at the University of Southampton – I compiled operations-per-second statistics for each. This, more than anything else, demonstrates the runaway nature of high-performance computing: using a linear graph, all but the last two machines – both versions of the University’s current Iridis supercomputer – drew a flat line.

While there’s plenty of information that didn’t make it into the final piece – I compiled nearly 30,000 words of interview material in all – it’s by far one of the most comprehensive I’ve written, and one of which I think I can be justifiably proud.

If any of that tickles your fancy, PC Pro Issue 222 is available in newsagents, supermarkets and doctors’ waiting rooms throughout the country, or digitally via Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

Custom PC, Issue 114

Custom PC Issue 114Continuing my newly-reborn column, re-imagined as an interview slot rather than the old Mobile Tech Watch format, this month’s issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC magazine covers the impending launch of Intel’s Next Unit of Computing, or NUC, compact PC form-factor.

Designed to do for desktops what the Ultrabook project is doing for laptops, Intel’s NUC is an impressive creation: measuring a mere 10cm on a side, the ultra-compact design packs a Intel Core i3 3217U dual-core processor running at 1.8GHz into a box the size of which would traditionally have required a low-power Atom, AMD APU or ARM processor. Coupled with support for up to 16GB of RAM, two mini PCI Express slots and both HDMI and Thunderbolt display connectivity, it’s an exciting entry into a market Intel has traditionally eschewed.

To find out what Intel’s plans were for the project, how it came about and what the NUC can really offer over other ultra-compact embedded computing systems, I spoke to Intel’s John Deatherage, director of the company’s Client Boards Division.

While Deatherage didn’t call out ARM by name during the interview, his comments on the compatibility of the x86-64 architecture processor at the heart of the NUC said plenty about Intel’s feelings regarding the Cambridge-based low-power processor specialist.

The main advantage of the NUC is the fact it is a fully scalable computing system, with our first version running a third-generation Core i3 with full HD Graphics capabilities running x86 code. There are no limitations in terms of software, driver compatibility, or performance that some would expect given the size of the system.

Interestingly, Intel is choosing to launch the NUC into the market as an own-brand product, as well as allowing its processor customers to licence the design and build their own NUC devices. It’s a move Intel has avoided in the past, but one Deatherage explained away as “just one way to enter the market quickly.”

The NUC is a niche product, for sure: while it draws less power and takes up less space than a traditional desktop, it’s also significantly more expensive. While it could make headway in the digital signage market, these customers rarely care much about x86 compatibility or raw performance – if you’ve ever travelled by train in the UK, you’ll be familiar with digital noticeboards and timetables which can be clearly seen to be running a web browser somebody forgot to put into full-screen mode.

To find out what issues Intel had shrinking its desktop technology into such a small form factor, its hopes for the system and whether it could form the basis of a new Steam Box-like games console, pick up the latest Custom PC from your favourite newsagent or supermarket, or grab it in the form of a vast collection of zeros and ones through Zinio.

Micro Mart, Issue 1235

Micro Mart, Issue 1235It’s been a while since I’ve done a cover feature for Micro Mart – the last was back in Issue 1198, when I looked at the state of the printer ink refill market – and I had a little something that had been brewing in my noggin for a while, so I figured it was time for a pitch. The result: a cover feature dubbed The Secret Processor Revolution.

With an eye-catching title like that – editor Simon Brew’s suggestion, and much more likely to interest readers than my original title of The Fall and Rise of ARM – it should help shift a few copies, and those who do pick it up will find my take on the history, present and future of ARM.

For those who don’t know, Cambridge-based ARM was born from the ashes of Acorn Computers, and although it’s been a while since it was last seen on the desktop – you have to go back to the days of the RISC PC for that – the company holds a near-monopoly in the smartphone and tablet market. It’s also looking at taking on semiconductor giant Intel in the datacentre, and could well return to desks around the world – it’s already in Samsung’s latest Chromebook laptop, after all.

In this feature, I take a look at how ARM got its start, why its processors differ so much from the mainstream chips from AMD and Intel, and what the winds of change could bring for consumers. Wondering exactly what that might be? Better buy it, then, hadn’t you?

It was a fun piece to write, and a subject dear to my heart: I still own an Acorn Archimedes, and the RISC PC that followed, and have recently been playing around with a port of RISC OS designed for the Raspberry Pi – that £30 microcomputer based on an ARM processor from a company that once held the British microcomputing market in the palm of its hand.

Micro Mart is available in exchange for a shiny £2 coin – or equivalent in legal tender or acceptable credit – in most newsagents, or can be downloaded from Zinio and other retailers of digital magazines.