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.

The MagPi, Issue 91

The MagPi Issue 91Hitting shop shelves just two days before the Raspberry Pi Foundation celebrates its eighth birthday, this month’s MagPi brings a surprise: A permanent reduction in the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB’s price down to that of the original 1GB entry-level model.

In a three-page feature on the move I investigate exactly what doubling the RAM means for the user, demonstrate how to use the Terminal to see exactly how much RAM your particular Raspberry Pi has available – along with how much is being used by programs and cache, and how much is free or can be freed – and interview Raspberry Pi Trading chief executive Eben Upton on how the price has been brought down, the explosive growth in the Raspberry Pi’s specifications over the past eight years, and exactly how 2GB makes for a great desktop in a world where even entry-level smartphones frequently come with 4GB.

“If you look at Windows, or even a traditional Linux desktop distro, there’s been a sort of relaxation,” Upton told me during our interview for the piece.  “As there’s been more memory available, people have loosened their belts a little bit and sort of flumped down and started consuming more memory, when we really haven’t. We’re still using an LXDE-derived desktop environment; you know, we care about every 10MB of memory usage. That’s the reason why the 2GB model is a really, really useful desktop.”

The shift effectively sees the 1GB model retired, though it will still be made available at the original $35 price point for those who have designed precisely that amount of RAM into their projects – but with the 2GB model costing the same, it’s not likely to be selling in any real volume from this point forward.

MagPi Issue 91 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, and can be ordered for global delivery or downloaded as a free Creative Commons-licensed PDF from the official website. The price cut, meanwhile, is live globally today.

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 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.

The MagPi, Issue 83

The MagPi Issue 83This week saw the release of the Raspberry Pi 4, first in a new generation of single-board computers from the not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation. As is usual for the launches, I was approached by The MagPi Magazine – the Foundation’s official publication – to prepare coverage for the launch, including interviews, imagery, and a wealth of benchmarks.

My coverage for the magazine, spread across a whopping 12 pages, begins with a high-resolution hero shot of the board with macro-image call-outs for its key features and components – including the new USB Type-C power connector, BCM2711B0 system-on-chip, and shiny dual-micro-HDMI video outputs capable of driving high-resolution 4K displays.

Next, there’s an interview with Foundation co-founder Eben Upton covering everything from the reason the board is available now when a 2020 launch had previously been suggested, how it can potentially replace a desktop PC in a range of environments, backwards compatibility with the existing Raspberry Pi ecosystem, and a hidden Easter Egg on the PCB – only accessible to those brave or foolhardy enough to unsolder the USB connector.

The benchmarking section, spread across four pages, marks a departure from previous launches: this time around I pulled the focus away from synthetic benchmarks, though the classic Linpack still makes an appearance if only to demonstrate how the Arm processors’ NEON extensions can dramatically improve performance, in favour of a variety of real-world workloads: image editing with the GIMP, file compression with bzip2 and lbzip2, browser performance in Chromium, and gaming performance with OpenArena, alongside USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi throughputs. In all cases, the workloads are entirely reproducible: all packages used for the real-world workloads are available at launch in the Raspbian Buster software repositories. If four pages isn’t enough, additional benchmarks are available on my Medium post.

As usual, the benchmarking also includes a thermal analysis: images of the Raspberry Pi 4 and its immediate predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ were taken after a ten-minute CPU-heavy workload using a Flir thermal imaging camera, the data processed to a fixed temperature scale of 22-80°C to avoid noise from ambient surfaces, then overlaid on an edge-enhanced high-resolution visible-light image of their respective boards using a high-contrast rainbow colour palette. These images represent a fair amount of work, but there’s no better way to see both how hot the Pis get under continuous load and which components are responsible for that heat – not to mention how effective the design is at bleeding the heat off through the PCB, something with which the older Raspberry Pi models with plastic-encased chips have struggled.

Finally, the piece closes with a two-page interview with Simon Long on the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system – launching ahead of the upstream Debian 10 ‘Buster’ release, interestingly – and its revised, flatter user interface. While much of the under-the-hood work for Buster was to get it ready for the Raspberry Pi 4 – previous Raspbian releases won’t work on the new board – it’s also available for older Raspberry Pi models, and comes with some convincing reasons to upgrade along with a handful of software compatibility issues that offer a reason to hang fire.

As always, The MagPi Issue 83 is available to buy in print format from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and book sellers; a free digital copy, released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence, is also available from the official website.

PC Pro, Issue 297

PC Pro Issue 297The Labs Test in this month’s PC Pro is something of a bumper one: I ran a whopping 14 miniature PCs, from a cleverly cased Raspberry Pi up to a behemoth of a system squeezing in an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, through a gamut of tests including size and weight, power draw, productivity and gaming benchmarks to see which would come out on top.

The work of a solid few weeks, the Labs saw system after system bouncing onto and off the test bench. As well as requiring the actual testing, all photography was carried out in-house – with thanks to my wife, who served as a hand model for the article’s hero shot – with each system photographed from all angles and internally, plus a smart isometric view in which the scale is maintained so the reader can easily compare the relative sizes of each machine on test. Given that the feature is about miniature PCs, such easy at-a-glance comparison is key to knowing which machine meets the readers’ personal requirements.

A Labs Test like this wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of a range of companies, of course, and I’d like to thank the suppliers of machines for the test: ASRock, Asus, Intel, Mini-ITX.com, Lenovo, QuietPC, Raspberry Pi, and Shuttle. Additional thanks go to Intel, Nvidia, and Overclockers UK, who provided components required to build up the bare-bones systems on test.

As is traditional for a PC Pro Labs Test, the content is split between reviews – four 700-word focus reviews and ten 350-word supplementary reviews – and features, including an interview with Intel’s Ed Barkhuysen on the company’s modular vision for the future of computing, a buyer’s guide covering things to consider when making the move to an ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) system, a two-page features table covering everything you could want to know about each system on test, a look at external GPU (eGPU) products as a way of expanding the performance of mini-PCs, and a “View from the Labs” opinion editorial to round things out.

This feature also marks the first time the in-house PC Pro benchmark suite – which measures system performance for image editing, video playback, and multitasking workloads – has been run not only on Linux-based, rather than Windows, systems but also on a Raspberry Pi. To achieve that, I worked to port the PowerShell-based suite to the Bash shell while using the same cross-platform applications to ensure each platform can be compared as fairly as possible.

PC Pro Issue 297 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 189

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

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

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

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

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

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

Custom PC, Issue 186

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

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

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

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

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

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

The MagPi, Issue 76

The MagPi Issue 76There’s no missing my contribution to this month’s The MagPi: it’s plastered all over the cover. The launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ ends a four-year absence of the compact form factor from the Raspberry Pi line-up, and there’s no better way to celebrate its launch than with a massive cover feature.

The spread begins with a two-page introduction dominated by imagery of the board, before moving on to a plan view which calls out the individual components that make up the board – including the single USB port, BCM2387B0 system-on-chip (SoC), and the radio which, for the first time in a Model A variant, adds WiFi networking and Bluetooth connectivity. Each part includes macro photography, all taken in my in-house studio.

The next section of the feature runs through a series of benchmarks which, in-keeping with previous launches I’ve covered, compares the Pi 3A+ with other mainstream Pi models going all the way back to the original Raspberry Pi Model B. The feature also includes a look at the size and weight, the first time I’ve used that particular metric, along with comparative thermal imagery showing how the smaller surface area of the PCB copes with running the same high-performance processor as the larger Pi 3B+ – again, all captured in-house.

Finally, the cover feature closes with a two-way interview I conducted with project co-founder Eben Upton and principal hardware engineer Roger Thornton. In it, Eben confirms that the Pi 3A+ represents “tidying up ‘classic’ Raspberry Pi,” and that the Raspberry Pi 4 – still very much on the drawing board – will launch a whole new era for the low-cost single-board computer family.

The launch issue is available now from your nearest newsagent or supermarket in print, or can be downloaded free of charge under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 4

Hackspace Issue 4This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a four-page spread detailing two projects from the talented Daniel Bailey: the Manchester Baby inspired C88 and C3232 homebrew microcomputers.

When one normally talks about ‘building’ a computer, the ‘building’ process is akin to Lego: blocks specifically designed to be compatible are clicked together in a reasonably idiot-proof manner, then an off-the-shelf operating system is installed. Daniel’s C88 and C3232 systems, by contrast, are built from the ground up: systems built around using an 8×8 or 32×32 LED display as memory and running a unique processor, built from scratch on an FPGA, with its own instruction set architecture.

The smaller C88 came first, and the larger and more complex C3232 – designed with a mode which allows it to run software originally written for the early Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), or Manchester Baby, without modification – served as a magnum opus for the project. Daniel wasn’t done there, though: a final effort produced the Mini C88, a C88-compatible kit powered by the a low-cost Arduino instead of a more expensive FPGA but boasting near-complete compatibility with the original.

While Daniel has yet to release the kit, a simulator provides a hint of what it’s like to use the C88 or Mini C88: programs are entered into the system one bit at a time using physical toggle-switches, then executed for display on the LED matrix. Examples include simple animations, pseudorandom number generation, and mathematical calculations, while the real C88 can also be connected to external hardware via a general-purpose input-output (GPIO) port missing from the Mini C88.

I’ve long been a fan of Daniel’s creations, and am lucky enough to own a Mini C88 of my very own – but even for those who haven’t caught the systems being demonstrated at various Maker Faires and related events, I’d recommend reading the piece to see just how clever the project really is.

You can see the feature in full by downloading the Creative Commons licensed magazine from the official website, or pick up a copy in print from your nearest newsagent or supermarket.