Custom PC, Issue 175

Custom PC Issue 175This month’s Custom PC is a bit of a Halfacree takeover, boasting a whopping 15 pages of my content: a seven-page guide to building a Raspberry Pi-powered vintage gaming console, a three-page look at the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, and my usual five-page Hobby Tech column with reviews of the Coinkite Opendime, iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, and Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: The Amiga Years.

First, the vintage gaming feature. Building on a brief from editor Ben Hardwidge, I wanted to do something a little more in-depth than the usual how-to guide. The result is a seven-page feature which begins with a look at the wealth of accessories available to turn a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computing into a powerful emulation station, a two-page expert guide to the legalities of emulation in the UK, step-by-step instructions on downloading, installing, and configuring the RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi, and a look at entirely legitimate sources for read-only memory (ROM) game images.

While I’m fully equipped to handle the how-to and look-at-the-shiny-things sections of the guide myself, the legal aspect required an expert eye kindly provided by Eaton Smith LLP partner Chris Taylor. Legal counsel to a variety of game development and publishing companies, Chris kindly walked through the legalities of developing, downloading, and using emulation software and hardware under UK law – and even threw in a cheeky topical reference to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One ahead of the release of its film adaptation. I’m also grateful to The Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott for taking the time to discuss the Archive’s vast trove of software and in-browser emulation functionality.

Meltdown and Spectre, meanwhile, are a lot less fun. The names given to a quartet of security vulnerabilities hard-baked in to the vast majority of processors built since the 1990s, Meltdown and Spectre are unarguably the worst things to happen to the computer industry since the death of the Commodore Amiga. My three-page look discusses the vulnerabilities, how they can be exploited to gain access to supposedly-protected information, and what companies are doing to fix the problems – and, spoiler, the conclusion there is “not nearly enough.” Since the piece was written, though, there’s one thing to note: installation of the KB4056892 patch for Windows 10 includes faulty microcode protection from Intel which can cause systems to reboot spontaneously, which is resolved through the installation of KB4078130 at the cost of disabling protections against one of the two Spectre vulnerabilities.

Finally, Hobby Tech itself opens with a look at the clever but fragile Opendime from cryptocurrency start-up Coinkite. Designed to turn Bitcoin into a digital bearer bond, an Opendime creates a private key which is stored in a secure enclave accessible only by irrevocably modifying the device by popping off a small surface-mount resistor. So long as the resistor is intact, the theory goes, nobody has access to the private key – meaning you can accept the device as payment without risk. Sadly, since my fairly glowing review was written two things have changed: the Opendime I’ve been carrying around on my keyring has unsealed itself without any visible damage to the resistor or the heatshrink which protects it, an issue Coinkite’s founder and support team have singularly failed to address, and the high transaction fees on the Bitcoin network have dropped from around ¬£20 to around 20p meaning one of the major benefits of using a ¬£15 USB device for in-person transactions has been lost.

The iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, by contrast, is a significantly happier story. I’ve long been a fan of iFixit’s teardowns and the software they developed for presenting the information, so a toolkit with the iFixit seal of approval was high on my want list. Having now received one, I can confirm it’s no disappointment: from the high-quality tools, all bundled with the express intention of making it as easy as possible to dismantle modern electronics, to the smart multi-function storage case, the entire bundle is pleasingly robust.

Finally, Commodore: The Amiga Years. The follow-up to author Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge, The Amiga Years was officially cancelled years ago before being resurrected through a crowdfunding campaign. Since the closure of the campaign, however, the project was beset by delays and a last-minute editing decision that sees the final third of the story, taking Commodore to its sad demise, spun out into yet another book – a move backers criticising the decision have positioned as a blatant attempt at extracting more money. As with A Company on the Edge, though, the story told in The Amiga Years is one well worth the entry price – if suffering a little from Bagnall’s wandering editorial process, whereby topics raised as though you should already know them in Chapter 2 won’t be formally introduced until Chapter 5.

All this, and slightly less stuff by people who aren’t me, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 160

Custom PC Issue 160This month’s edition of Custom PC includes, as usual, my five-page Hobby Tech column covering the Dremel 3000 Four-Star Kit, the CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers, and the conclusion of the Arduino-versus-Arduino saga – in a happy ending, I’m thrilled¬†to say.

Rotary tools like the Dremel 3000 are one of those things you don’t think you need until you get one. It’s been a long time since I played with a proper Dremel-branded example, and this month’s review was a fantastic excuse to get myself up to speed with the changes the platform has enjoyed.

Ignoring the poor-quality ‘toolbox’ the kit comes in, I was particularly excited by the EZ-SpeedClic system. My original Dremel-like tool – a Black & Decker Wizard – had long been abandoned after frustrations with the tiny screw which attaches cut-off and grinding discs to the equally tiny mandrel. EZ-SpeedClic does away with that: the discs’ reinforced centres just twist and snap onto a clever sprung holder. Coupled with some shiny new accessories, I could see why people might want to upgrade from older or rival models.

The CHIP and PocketCHIP, meanwhile, came as more of a surprise. Like many, I was dismissive of NextThingCo’s inaugural crowdfunding campaign; the idea of a $9 fully-functional microcomputer when the Raspberry Pi had only just got the things down below $30 seemed laughable, and many in the industry suggested it was an outright fraud or at least a loss-leader to be offset by future sales at a higher price.

Proving the critics wrong, though, NextThingCo launched the $9 CHIP – albeit requiring add-on cables and adaptors to get a picture out of the thing – and followed it up with the PocketCHIP, an open hardware proof-of-concept which turns the CHIP into a surprisingly capable hand-held computer straight out of the early 90s.

Finally, regular readers will remember my coverage of the legal battle between Arduino.cc and Arduino.org which had given birth to the Genuino trademark, and the follow-up piece in Issue 159 covering Pimoroni’s decision to drop all Arduino and Genuino products as a result. The final page of this month’s column is, hopefully, the last I will have to write on that particular topic: the two companies have agreed to settle their disputes, join forces, and work together under a single Arduino brand – meaning, of course, that Genuino-branded products are likely to vanish from the market in due course.

All this, and stuff written by people other than myself, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on the electronic shelf substitutes of services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 159

Custom PC Issue 159Hobby Tech this month covers the launch of the Sugru Rebel Tech Kit, the performance improvements made possible in the latest Arduino IDE, and ends with bad news for Arduino.cc’s new Genuino brand which, I’m pleased to say, has since been replaced¬†by significantly better news.

Sugru, for those not familiar, is remarkable stuff. Straight from the packet it has the consistency of well-worked Blu-tack, if not slightly softer, but with nothing more than time hardens into a firm silicone rubber. It’s waterproof, heatproof, electrically insulative, and I’ve used it in the past for everything from mounting a tablet to the side of my monitor to customising the scales on a Leatherman multitool.

The Rebel Tech Kit, then, is Sugru’s attempt to grab some Christmas gift traffic. Featuring four¬†sachets of Sugru, a guitar pick for moulding and removal, a storage tin, and a full-colour project booklet, there’s not much in there for those already experienced in the ways of “mouldable glue.” For newcomers, though, it’s a fantastic introduction, and one I can see appearing under trees around the world.

The Arduino IDE tests, meanwhile, were fun to carry out. Updates to the AVR Core – the toolchain used for ATmega-based microcontroller boards like the Arduino Uno and Arduino Mega – have brought with them the promise of smaller binary sizes and improved performance, which was an excuse to pull out my microcontroller benchmark family: the floating-point Whetstone, integer Dhrystone, and my own pin-toggling IOBench. The result is an in-depth look at the improvements you can expect from upgrading, complete with pretty graphs and even prettier screenshots.

Finally, the Genuino’s death knell. At the time of writing, noted Sheffield-based hobbyist supply house Pimoroni had revealed the outcome of months of negotiations with Arduino.cc: they would no longer stock the company’s boards. The reason: the ongoing legal battle with Arduino.org over international trademark rights, which had seen Arduino.cc launch the Genuino brand. A refusal to sell Genuino-branded hardware to resellers that would make them available in the US was causing headaches that Pimoroni could do without, which were detailed in the company’s blog post and expanded upon in the final page of my column this month.

Publishing, though, has considerable lead times, and in the time it’s taken this issue to hit shop shelves there’s been a welcome development: Arduino.cc and Arduino.org have merged, ending all legal proceedings between the two and meaning that the problems experienced by Pimoroni over trademark rights and product geo-fencing should no longer be an issue. The impact of this merger, and what it means for the Arduino user, will be explored in a future column.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff from people other than myself, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally on Zinio and other distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 142

Custom PC Issue 142Continuing my regular column, the five-page Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, I spent this month’s page allowance on a look at the Arachnid Labs Tsunami, the Banana Pro, and analysed the legal battle underway between two companies claiming to be Arduino.

To begin, the Tsunami. I first looked at this interesting Arduino-compatible open-hardware device for another client, oomlout, publishing a hands-on preview of the device in early April. Created by Nick Johnson and crowd-funded via Kickstarter, the Tsunami is an interesting beast: while it shows itself to the Arduino IDE as an Arduino Leonardo compatible, the Tsunami is designed exclusively for signal generation and analysis work.

Priced at a fraction of the cost of a commercial signal analyser, the Tsunami is surprisingly capable. While code samples were limited at the time of writing, I was able to generate sine waves based on input from the serial console and even complex waveforms based on the Kansas City standard – the standard required to communicate with eight-bit microcomputers via their tape inputs. Nick’s own demonstrations include using the input and output simultaneously to graph the frequency response of audio equipment.

While the Tsunami is¬†only available as a pre-order at present, the Banana Pro is readily available from your favourite Chinese wholesalers. Based on Lemaker’s Banana Pi but with a different manufacturing partner, the device offers a number of upgrades while still boasting compatibility with the Raspberry Pi from which it takes its inspiration. While the presence of a 40-pin GPIO header and integrated Wi-Fi is good news, the use of a dual-core processor when the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B offers a quad-core at roughly the same price is an undeniable disappointment – but you’ll need to read the review to make your mind up as to whether it’s worth the sacrifice.

My final two pages are spent looking at the current spat between Arduino LLC and Arduino Srl., the latter being the company founded under a different name to manufacture boards under licence from the former. With a new owner and a confusing new name, Arduino Srl. has earned the ire of many in the Arduino community – especially as it has begun releasing boards of its own which are direct clones of the Arduino LLC designs. The full story, naturally, is more complex, and I do the best I can to present both sides in the limited word-count available.

All this, plus the usual collection of things that are written by people that aren’t me – including the return of Richard Swinburn’s Our Man in Taiwan column, long absent from the magazine – can be yours for a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.