It’s a Christmas themed issue for The MagPi this month but you wouldn’t know it to look at my review of the Dremel 3000 Four-Star Kit, a new bundle packing the eponymous company’s most popular rotary tool with a range of accessories in a disappointingly cheap plastic toolbox.
That the toolbox – and bundled ‘chess set,’ which is actually just a chequerboard on the reverse of the packaging and some cardboard counters – is so poorly designed was an undeniable letdown as I unboxed the Dremel 3000 kit. Thankfully, things soon looked up: it’s been a few decades since I bought a rotary tool, and it seems things have improved immensely in that time.
My favourite of the bundled accessories – which includes a flexi-shaft add-on, cutting accessories, milling bits, polishing bits, and basically everything you might need to do a wide range of tool-suitable jobs – was the EZ-SpeedClic system. A replacement for the old screw-and-mandrel method of securing grinding and cutting discs into the tool, EZ-SpeedClic requires nothing more than a push and a twist to secure the specially-reinforced discs into place. A shame, then, that so few SpeedClic discs were included, with the majority in the kit being of the old-fashioned screw-in variety.
Still, the review was a fun opportunity to get myself back up to speed on the latest developments in Dremel’s design, and if you want to know my final opinion on the kit you can read the whole review – the whole magazine, in fact – for free by downloading the Creative Commons licensed issue from the official website.
To deal with the latter first, the Widdop is a bit of an odd thing to review at first glance as it was available exclusively to those who attended this year’s Wuthering Bytes festival. There’s method in my madness, though: it’s a variant of the Cordwood puzzle designed by Saar Drimer at Boldport, and a review of the Widdop is equally applicable to its predecessor. In short, it’s a soldering kit sans instructions: two artistically designed and matching circuit boards are supplied along with a fistful of components, and it’s up to the user to not only work out how it should be assembled but then how to interface it to a microcontroller or other controlling system – great fun!
The Bare Conductive Touch Board, by contrast, is readily available. I had previously experienced the delights of the Touch Board, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller with built-in capacitive touch sensing and audio playback capabilities, at the Manchester MakeFest where the Manchester Arduino group were demonstrating Touch Board-powered musical food bowls. The Starter Kit, though, is something else entirely. Packed in an oversized box it contains everything you need to get started, from the conductive paint which made Bare Conductive famous to the Touch Board itself pre-loaded with a voice-led 12-step tutorial.
The booklet is the real prize, though. Walking the user through three projects, it’s one of the best I’ve seen: well produced with exciting photographs and a great attention to detail. The primary project, too, is innovative: a stencil and overlay in the shape of a house demonstrates how the conductive paint can be used to create interactive art, with the remaining two projects offering an intruder alarm – for bare-footed intruders, at least – and a look at adding interactivity to household objects.
Finally, the Fitlet. I’ve been a fan of CompuLab’s tiny Linux-compatible PCs for a while, but the Fitlet is the first I’ve had a chance to review. Supplied in its top-end form with an AMD A10-Micro6700T quad-core processor, it has the grunt of a low-mid-range office desktop but in a passively cooled form factor little larger than a cased Raspberry Pi. Compared to the already diminutive Intel NUC, it’s absolutely tiny: the smallest NUC has a volume of 0.417 litres, while the Fitlet is just 0.215 litres in volume.
Despite its size, there’s a bit of everything: as reviewed, the Fitlet offers on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, dual gigabit Ethernet ports, three USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, powered eSATA, and even a GPIO connector – which, sadly, lacked driver support at the time of my review, an issue CompuLab has now resolved with the release of an official Software Development Kit (SDK). Running Linux Mint 17.2 but compatible with most any operating system that would run on an x86-64 desktop, the CompuLab is definitely one of the most exciting devices I’ve had the privilege to test recently – although that excitement is tempered by a £300 selling price in the UK, putting it on-par with the more computationally powerful Intel NUC.
All this, plus interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be found between the covers of Custom PC Issue 148 at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services such as Zinio.
In this month’s MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, you’ll find the first in a series of more generally maker-themed reviews. This time around it’s a look at the Kitronik Electro Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Pack, kindly supplied by CPC.
For me, this review was a chance to try my hand at wearable electronics, a branch of the maker movement I had previously ignored. While there’s a lot to be said for more complex projects, such as the growing number of hobbyist-friendly PCB manufacturing houses who can produce flexible boards in small quantities, there’s nothing quite as accessible as conductive thread. Coupled with specially-designed components, or through-hole parts quickly modified for mounting onto fabric, it allows the maker to easily build simple wearable circuits at a very low cost and with no complex or expensive tools.
The Kitronik bundle, sold under the company’s Electro Fashion brand, is a cheap and fairly solid starter kit with one curious omission: there’s no needle. Having stolen one from the household sewing tin, I was able to get started with a simple project: fitting a small LED to the fingertip of an old glove. Sadly, that’s about as complex a project as you’re likely to achieve with the kit: unsurprisingly, given its low price, there’s nothing like a microcontroller among its components. Aside from a button and a couple of switches, the smartest any of the parts get are a set of through-hole LEDs with built-in flasher circuits.
That’s not to put the kit down, though. For a taster of what’s possible with conductive thread, it’s near-unbeatable for the price – and for more complex projects Kitronik’s Electro Fashion range has plenty of compatible components and accessories.
You can pick up a print copy of The MagPi Issue 37 now at WH Smiths, or – as always – download a digital version, licensed under Creative Commons, from the official website.
My Hobby Tech spread continues in Issue 143 of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with two reviews and a review-slash-walkthrough: the Orange Pi Plus, the GrovePi+ Starter Kit, and the Kim Uno kit.
For me, the most interesting toy of the month was undoubtedly the Kim Uno. Designed by Oscar Vermeulen, the Kim Uno is a kit-form microcomputer designed to emulate the classic MOS Technologies KIM-1, designed by Chuck Peddle to showcase the company’s at-the-time cutting-edge 6502 microprocessor. Naturally, there’s no 6502 to be found in the Kim Uno: instead, an Arduino Pro Mini – based on one of Atmel’s popular microcontrollers – sits at the rear of a calculator-sized circuit-board and provides the grunt required to run any KIM-1 application you care to name, including the famous Microchess.
A simple solder-it-together kit – or pay extra to have one built by Oscar’s own fair hand – the Kim Uno is a great way to practice your skills even before you tackle the joys of 6502 machine-code programming. Oscar’s online documentation is thorough and detailed, and for anyone who knows 6502 the Kim Uno is a must-have especially at just £10 plus shipping.
The Kim Uno was the most fun project of the month, but it was closely followed by a GrovePi+ Starter Kit kindly supplied by Dexter Industries. Designed to bring Seeed’s Grove ‘smart module’ design to the Raspberry Pi, the kit includes a piggyback board which connects to the Pi’s GPIO port and a wealth of additional inputs and outputs, all of which connect via simple keyed wires. For newcomers to electronics, the Grove platform takes the complexity out of wiring up even relatively complex projects – and the GrovePi+ board itself makes using Grove hardware a cinch.
Finally, the Orange Pi Plus is one of the growing number of would-be Raspberry Pi beaters coming out of the technology markets of China. Using the AllWinner H3 system-on-chip processor the Orange Pi Plus can’t match the performance of the latest Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, but it does offer significantly more built-in capability: SATA, gigabit Ethernet, infra-red, even 802.11b/g/n wireless with bundled ultra-compact dipole antenna. The Orange Pi Plus, and the other members in the Orange Pi family, are clearly inspired by Lemaker’s Banana Pi and offer much of the same software compatibility, including platforms like Android not supported by the Raspberry Pi itself.
If you want to know my final opinion on all this hardware, or if you’re for some reason interested in things written by people who aren’t me, Custom PC Issue 143 is available now in print or digital form.
There’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.
This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes two of my hardware reviews, both from the world of low-cost, embedded computing: VIA’s APC microcomputer and Gert van Loo’s Gerboard accessory for the Raspberry Pi.
First, VIA’s product. Designed as a response to the overwhelming popularity of the Raspberry Pi, the VIA APC 8750 – to give the device its full name – takes a WonderMedia 8750 system-on-chip processor based around the same ARMv6 instruction set as the Raspberry Pi, adds in a generous 512MB of memory and wraps it all up in a surprising new form factor the company calls ‘neo-ITX.’
Unlike the ultra-compact Pi, the result is a behemoth of a system by embedded computing standards – but one that can be mounted in any standard ITX case, complete with bundled I/O shield for the quite generous connections on the rear. It’s even possible to power the device from a standard PC power supply, using one of the 12V lines normally used to provide the extra power required by modern multi-core processors.
It’s an impressive beast, but at twice the price of the Raspberry Pi can it really be a tempting proposition? Hopefully by the time you’ve read the review, you’ll have an idea.
The second review is of a device designed to increase the somewhat limited input-output capabilities of the popular Raspberry Pi ARM-based microcomputer. Designed by Gert van Loo – a Broadcom engineer responsible for the design of the BCM2835 multimedia processor used at the heart of the Pi – the board includes analogue to digital converts, motor drivers, LEDs and buttons galore.
It’s also a complete pain to assemble. I’m no stranger to soldering, but surface mount soldering is always awkward – and when the first component, a tiny capacitor around half the size of a grain of rice, went skittering across the floor and there were no spares, I knew I was in for trouble.
Still, three hours or so later I had a working Gertboard to review for the magazine – mostly. If you’re picking the magazine up especially for this review, there’s some good news: the kit version reviewed is being discontinued in favour of a pre-built kit assembled by machine by van Loo’s partner company Farnell – and it’ll be cheaper than the kit, too.
Linux User & Developer Magazine Issue 121 is available in all good newsagents now, while additional details are available on the official website.