Linux User & Developer, Issue 146

Linux User & Developer Issue 146In this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine, my usual four-page news spread is joined by a review of the remarkably compact SolidRun CuBox-i4Pro ARM-based microcomputer – but don’t let its diminutive size fool you into thinking that it lacks grunt.

Kindly supplied by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT, the CuBox-i4Pro can be considered a companion product to SolidRun’s Raspberry Pi-like HummingBoard. Where the HummingBoard is clearly aimed at electronics enthusiasts, with its bare circuit board and easily-accessible – and undeniably Raspberry Pi-inspired – general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header, the CuBox-i family is more polished. Like its predecessor, the CuBox, it’s supplied in a roughly cubic plastic case which achieves its tiny footprint with clever use of a dual-board mezzanine design and includes features – like eSATA and optical audio connectivity – that highlight its targeting of the home theatre market.

I was undeniably impressed by the performance of the CuBox-i4Pro, the top-end model in the CuBox-i range. As well as 2GB of memory, the system packs a quad-core Freescale i.MX6 processor. Its biggest feature, however, is compatibility: software created for the enthusiast-centric HummingBoard can be run on the CuBox-i family without modification, and vice-versa. Ever the sceptic, I proved this to myself by taking a micro-SD card I’d prepared for the HummingBoard and sticking it into the CuBox-i4Pro; it booted up perfectly and without complaint.

That cross-compatibility makes SolidRun one of the only companies to offer product ranges aimed at both enthusiasts and those who want a finished plug-and-play product. Whether it will tempt anyone into making the leap from rival platforms, of course, remains to be seen – but it’s worth mentioning that the HummingBoard has already seen adoption as the go-to ARM testbed platform for several Linux distributions.

If you want to know my final verdict, as well as giving yourself a chance to catch up on the month’s happenings in the open source, open hardware, open governance and open-anything-else-interesting world, you’d best head over to your local newsagent or supermarket and pick up a copy. Alternatively, you can read it from the comfort of wherever you happen to be right now via digital distribution services including Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 145

Linux User & Developer Issue 145In addition to my usual four-page news spread this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes a review of the SolidRun HummingBoard-i2eX, a powerful dual-core microcomputer designed to be roughly Raspberry Pi compatible.

If my description of the HummingBoard sounds familiar, it should: I reviewed the same device in a head-to-head with the similarly Raspberry Pi-inspired Banana Pi in Custom PC Issue 134. Where that review focused on a hobbyist perspective – given that it appeared in my regular five-page spread, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech – this review is more tailored for the Linux crowd to better address the magazine’s target audience. The board itself, of course, remains unchanged: a dual-core Freescale i.MX6 processor with powerful graphics is installed alongside a chunk of RAM on a computer-on-module (COM) mezzanine board inserted into a feature-packed expansion board, both being supplied by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT.

Little time passed between the two reviews, so there wasn’t any chance for SolidRun to tweak the software. At the time of writing, Android 4.4 KitKat was available alongside a Debian variant which truly unlocked the power of the processor. Most impressive of all, however, is the cross-compatibility: the HummingBoard is based on the Carrier-One, an internal development board used by SolidRun while testing the Freescale chip; the same chip is available in single-, dual- and quad-core flavours in the company’s CuBox-i family of media-centric microcomputers – and the HummingBoard is entirely software-compatible, to the extent of being able to take a micro-SD card out of a CuBox-i and boot it on a HummingBoard without modification.

As to whether the board, which includes mSATA and mini-PCI Express connectivity in addition to the usual USB and GPIO features you’d expect of a Raspberry Pi-alike, is worth the cash, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to find out. If you do, you’ll also find four pages of the finest news I could cull from the worlds of open software, open hardware, open governance and more – along with the usual monthly event calendar.

You can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 145 at your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 135

Custom PC Issue 135There’s no tutorial in this month’s Hobby Tech, for one simple reason: the only interesting thing I built this month is actually from a kit, and more suited to a review-format write-up. As a result, you’ll find in the pages of Custom PC Issue 135 a two-page review of the Pi2Go-Lite robot kit, a spread on my visit to the Wuthering Bytes festival in Hebden Bridge, and a review of the surprisingly powerful CuBox-i4Pro.

Starting with the robot, Gareth Davies of UK-based educational electronics concern 4tronix was kind enough to send me an early sample of a Raspberry Pi-powered robotics kit he has put together. Dubbed the Pi2Go-Lite, it’s a cost-reduced solder-it-yourself version of a more feature-filled and pre-assembled Pi2Go design. Despite this, it’s hardly lacking in features: as well as a pair of motors driving wheels with rubber tyres and a metal 360-degree bearing caster at the front, the robot includes numerous sensors including infra-red for line-following and impact warnings and ultrasonic for distance measuring.

The kit was a delight to build, being mostly through-hole components with a small introduction to surface-mount soldering in order to – rather cleverly, in my opinion – mount standard through-hole infra-red sensors on the front edge of the main circuit board. The robot itself is driven from the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header – Pi not supplied – which is in turn driven by a set of AA batteries. I had great fun with the build, and I’d recommend checking out the review if you fancy a bit of Python-powered robotics yourself.

Wuthering Bytes, as those who follow me on Twitter – or, indeed, in real life – will know, is a maker-themed technology event in Hebden Bridge each year. As with last year’s event, I was invited by co-founder Andrew Back to compère the Friday’s formal talk sessions and then used that to guilt the team into letting me attend the Saturday talks and Sunday workshops for free. Personal highlights of the event included a talk by Sophie Wilson, co-inventor of the ARM processor architecture, on the future of semiconductors and some excellent hands-on workshops on the Sunday – and I’m already looking forward to Wuthering Bytes 2015.

Finally, the CuBox-i4Pro. Kindly supplied by the lovely Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT, SolidRun’s latest revision of the ultra-compact CuBox concept features an amazingly powerful quad-core Freescale i.MX6 processor. It’s the quad-core variant, in fact, of the chip you’ll find in the HummingBoard I reviewed last month, with SolidRun having worked to ensure software written for one can be used on the other.

For all this, plus various things written by people who aren’t me, you’ll want to either venture to your local newsagent or supermarket or stay in and download a digital copy of Custom PC Issue 135 via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 134

Custom PC Issue 134In this month’s Hobby Tech column I spend a fair amount of my time looking at the excellent Gamebuino, an Arduino-compatible hand-held games console I had the pleasure of backing on Indiegogo. As well as an interview with its creator, Aurélien Rodot, there’s a tutorial on building a cut-down variant on a breadboard, alongside a pair of reviews covering the Banana Pi and HummingBoard i2eX.

First, the reviews. I’ve had a prototype HummingBoard and a retail-model Banana Pi for a while, but have held off on giving either a proper review – although Issue 131 did include a preview of both. In the case of the HummingBoard, I needed to wait for final-release hardware; the Banana Pi, meanwhile, suffered from low-quality early-release software. Thankfully, both issues have now been addressed – the former thanks to the ever-lovely New IT, the latter due to the diligent work of the software developers working on the Banana Pi project – and I’ve been able to dedicate two pages this issue to a full head-to-head review of both devices.

My interview with Rodot comes off the back of his hugely successful Indiegogo campaign to build an Arduinio-compatible hand-held games console. Ending more than a thousand per cent above his original goal, the project caught the public’s attention in a major way – and with one of the finished products in my hand, it’s easy to see why. Although its 32KB of program storage, 2KB of RAM and tiny Nokia LCD are minimalist, the device is easily accessible for those wanting to learn game programming and can even act as an I²C controller thanks to two broken-out buses on the top-side.

Sadly, there’s no way to get your hands on a Gamebuino post-Indiegogo until Rodot launches his web store – planned for October, he tells me – so to tide readers over this month’s column includes a two-page tutorial on building your own. Although significantly cut down compared to the real thing – there’s no light sensor, speaker, battery, or micro-SD card reader – it’s a quick and easy project that allows users to start playing with the Gamebuino ecosystem ahead of the device’s general availability.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 131

Custom PC Issue 131Continuing my terrifically successful Hobby Tech column this month, I cover the building of an arcade controller for the Raspberry Pi using genuine parts and the board’s handy-dandy general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, the Software Preservation Society’s KryoFlux floppy imaging device, review the Matrix TBS2910 mini-PC and offer a preview of the first real competitors to the Pi’s reign: the Banana Pi and the Hummingboard.

First, the Matrix: yes, it’s the same board I reviewed for Linux User & Developer this month, so don’t expect any surprises. It’s still a quad-core Freescale i.MX6 design with pre-loaded XBMC-based Linux distribution, designed for use as an open-source platform to encourage sales of TBS’ digital tuner devices. I was a little more generous this time around, mind, as the majority of Custom PC’s readership use Windows as their primary operating system; as a result, the use of a Windows-only utility to switch operating systems on the Matrix isn’t the no-no that it was for Linux User’s readers.

The KryoFlux is probably my personal highlight from this month’s column. Designed and produced by the Software Preservation Society, a not-for-profit group with no lesser aim than the storage and preservation of every game ever released on almost any computing platform, the KryoFlux is a universal floppy drive controller with a USB interface. Combined with the SPS’ software, it allows very low-level sampling of any floppy disk regardless of format, storing details on the magnetic flux transition timings for later decoding. Oh, and you can write disk images back to fresh media. For a collector with a large quantity of decaying magnetic media surrounding him, it’s an absolute lifesaver – if somewhat expensive for its small component count.

This month’s tutorial focuses on turning some old arcade components into a joystick for a Raspberry Pi-powered games console. It’s actually a lot simpler than you might think: digital joysticks are little more than a set of switches, and fire buttons are single switches; the process is no more complicated than the introductory switch-reading project I wrote for the Raspberry Pi User Guide. Combined with some handy-dandy open-source software, it works a treat – as long as your chosen game doesn’t tax the Pi’s poor 700MHz processor too much, of course.

Finally, the Banana Pi and Hummingboard. Both announced at roughly the same time, the two boards are the first in what I’m sure is to be a long line of Raspberry Pi clones. They’re not slavish copies, however: both bring new features to the table, starting with the promise of more power. The Banana Pi, from Chinese embedded computing specialist Lemaker, boasts an AllWinner A20 dual-core module that offers a rough quadrupling of the Pi’s CPU power; the Hummingboard, previously known as SolidRun’s Carrier One, will be available in models up to and included a Freescale i.MX6 quad-core unit. Add in SATA connectivity and even PCI Express, and you’ve got an interesting pair of designs.

I very deliberately didn’t include a review of either device, however: the Banana Pi’s board design is finalised, but the software is in pre-alpha status and is not comparable to the Raspberry Pi’s years-polished offerings. The Hummingboard, meanwhile, has yet to be fully released with my version being a limited-run single-core developer-only prototype kindly provided by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT. The finished version is due soon, and there’s a dual-core mid-range model with my name on it.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your nearest newsagent, supermarket or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services like Zinio.