Custom PC, Issue 129

Custom PC Issue 129In this month’s Hobby Tech spread, settling nicely into its expanded five-page format, I show readers how to build a near-field communication (NFC) power switch for their PCs, reuse some classic keyboard key caps from an Amstrad CPC 464, review the CubieBoard 2 and interview Ryanteck’s Ryan Walmsley; it’s a bumper column, in other words.

First the review. The CubieBoard 2 has been available internationally for some time, but has only recently reached our shores courtesy low-power PC specialist New IT. Designed as an alternative to the ever-popular Raspberry Pi, the CubieBoard 2 boasts a dual-core AllWinner A20 processor, 1GB of RAM, and – something that will likely interest many – an on-board SATA port with 5V power for 2.5″ storage devices.

The CubieBoard 2 is supplied with a terrible Android port on its internal flash storage, but software support is excellent – unusual for consumer-grade single-board computers like this, which usually abandon the user with a years-old copy of Ubuntu and a hearty handshake. The CubieBoard 2 is, in fact, the official platform used by Fedora for its ARM port. Does that make it a good buy? You’ll have to read the review to find out, I’m afraid.

The cover-flash tutorial was the result of a social visit from John McLear, a friend and fellow hacker who is the brain behind Kickstarter success story the NFC Ring. As its name implies, the NFC Ring packs a pair of near-field communication tags – fully rewritable – into a wearable form-factor. Having supplied me with an early prototype some time ago, John let me rummage through a pile of rejects to find a thinner and more modern version indicative of the final product quality – and thus the concept, a PC power supply that would trigger when the NFC Ring comes into range, was born. A quick shopping trip to the ever-dependable oomlout later, and I was finished in record time.

I’ve recently made the move from my dependable IBM Model F keyboard to a modern Cherry MX mechanical model from Filco. It’s nice, but lacks a little in the style department; which is where a deceased Amstrad CPC 464, already missing some keys, comes in. With a little modification, it turns out you can take the keys from the CPC and use them on a Cherry MX switch – and my keyboard now has a classic Escape key for my troubles.

Finally, Ryan Walmsley. Just 17 years old, Ryan has set up a business creating accessories for the Raspberry Pi. I caught up with him following a successful crowd-funding run on Tindie for his first product, the Ryanteck Motor Control Board or RTK-000-000-001. He’s a fascinating guy, and a real inspiration to anyone who thinks they could never break into the world of hobbyist electronics.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via services including Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 123

Custom PC, Issue 123Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech continues in the latest Custom PC Magazine, with a tutorial that’s sure to generate some interest: creating a companion display for your desktop or laptop using nothing more than an outdated and cheaply-available Android tablet – or smartphone, if you’ve got good enough eyesight for that to be useful. As usual, there’s also a review and some vintage computing goodness to mix things up a bit.

First, the tutorial. As with most of the projects that appear in Hobby Tech, I created this for personal use before deciding it might be of interest to others. Having no room for a true second monitor, but frequently running out of window room on my slightly cramped 1,920×1,200 main monitor, I worked to turn an old Android tablet into a secondary display. It’s an easy enough trick to do on Linux, although likely somewhat harder if you’re a Windows user, and extremely handy: I can open anything from a terminal session to a browser window on the display, stream it live and wirelessly to the tablet, and interact with it using my desktop’s keyboard and mouse.

It’s a purely software project – aside from the mounting of the display, which I carried out with Sugru – and one that has certainly seen more use than anything else I’ve documented in the column. It’s particularly useful for keeping an eye on my playlist while I’m working, and while it isn’t without its faults – the tablet has a tendency to drop its network connection every now and again, necessitating a reconnect – it’s been great value for money.

In addition to the tutorial, Hobby Tech this month includes a review of the Embedded Artists 2.7″ ePaper Display – which, as the name suggests, is a compact electrophoretic display designed for embedded hardware. It’s a clever bit of kit compatible with most microcontrollers, although my review concentrates on its use with the popular Raspberry Pi. As an added bonus, while my unit was very kindly supplied direct from Embedded Artists in Sweden, several UK suppliers for the device have appeared since my review including Cool Components – meaning you can save yourself the otherwise cripplingly-expensive postage charges.

Finally, the vintage computing section of the column this month is something very dear to my heart: a look at the IBM Model F keyboard. Built using the company’s patented buckling-spring mechanism, the Model F is generally considered to be the best keyboard in the world – and anyone who says the Model M holds that position simply hasn’t tried a Model F, as the M is merely a cost-reduced and significantly mushier variation of the design. As a writer, I do an awful lot of typing, and I used to get the worrying early symptoms of carpal tunnel and repetitive strain injury. Since switching to an IBM Model F from a Personal Computer AT, I’ve had no such problem – 30-year-old technology solving a problem modern-day gear simply couldn’t touch.

All this, plus the usual news snippets and a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, awaits you at your local newsagent or other magazine retailer, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.