Custom PC, Issue 222

Custom PC Issue 222This month’s five-page Hobby Tech column takes a look at the retro-style Clockwork Pi DevTerm portable computer, the HcX Floppy Disk Emulator tool, and Hex Loader – the first graphic novel I’ve seen in a few decades to arrive with its own tie-in game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

The DevTerm, a follow-up to Clockwork Pi’s excellent GameSHell hand-held console, has been a little delayed. Having originally been due to land in April 2021, it’s only now gone through the review process thanks to the ongoing component shortages afflicting the industry – but it’s definitely been worth the wait. Inspired by classic portable computers like the TRS-80 Model 100, it’s a real anachronism backed by open-source hardware and open-source software.

That’s not to say it’s perfect: the top-end A-0604 model, as reviewed, is incapable of sustaining full-speed operation for more than a few seconds of load before throttling and arrives with the two high-performance cores entirely disabled; the display suffers from a glitch whereby the top four lines are entirely missing; and it took the community to make the tiny trackball less frustrating to use. The sheer joy of the device, thankfully, overrides these concerns. The built-in thermal printer is particularly wonderful, and was used to submit this month’s column – by post.

The HcX Floppy Disk Emulator review, meanwhile, was born from a need I had to image and retrieve data from some floppy disks which had been formatted for use with the Dragon Data family of microcomputers. Despite its name, the software isn’t exclusively usable by those who’ve splashed out on HcX hardware: it can load disk images, including stream captures from a KryoFlux, and provides a range of useful tools including an incredible visual floppy disk explorer – capable of even demonstrating the exact location and shape of damaged areas of a disk.

Finally, Hex Loader. A crowdfunded collaboration between writer Dan Whitehead, illustrator Conor Boyle, and letterer Jim Campbell, Hex Loader is halfway a love-letter to game development in the 1980s and halfway some kind of scathing indictment of consumerism and modern art wrapped in a mystical layer of sorcery. It also comes complete with a tie-in ZX Spectrum game, Combat Wombat – and you can’t say that of many publications released in the 2020s.

Custom PC Issue 222 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download on the official website.

 

Custom PC, Issue 219

Custom PC Issue 219In this month’s Custom PC I take a look at the Airxed IRX Smart Home Hub, revisit the Kobol Helios64 open-spec network attached storage (NAS) appliance, and read through Wired’s pocket-size guide to quantum computing by Amit Katwala.

First, the hub. Looking for all the world like a fat gloss-finish hockey puck, the IRX is effectively a cross between a programmable remote and an environmental monitor. Inside the housing is an array of through-hole infrared LEDs, arranged in a hedgehog-like pattern. Trigger an IR signal using the companion app, and they all fire at once offering room-filling coverage – not like the bad old days of taping an IR blaster to a sensor to get the positioning just right.

Combine that functionality with a temperature and humidity sensor, all drive by an Espressif ESP-12S ESP8266-based microcontroller, and you’ve an interesting device. Sadly, despite an attractive price there are a fair few downsides to the design – and I was entirely unable to find my Yahama AV receiver in the list of infrared gadgets it could control.

I originally reviewed the Helios64, meanwhile, back in Issue 211. At the time my conclusion was that, despite some glaring design flaws and software issues, it was a tempting buy – a conclusion I now revisit on the news that Kobol is closing up shop and the bug-fixed second revision will no longer be released. Couple that with the discovery of yet more hardware failures and serious concerns about the Armbian project on which the device runs, and it’s no longer recommended – even if you could pick one up cheaply on the second-hand market.

Finally, Quantum Computing is the first in a series of compact primers covering a range of topics selected by Wired Magazine. Written by Amit Katwala, it’s a broad though shallow romp through the latest in the field of quantum computing technology – looking at everything from its impact on cryptography to commercial quantum systems. For the curious, it’s a great introduction to the topic – but most will be left wanting something more when they reach the end.

Custom PC Issue 219 is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, and as a free PDF download as part of a time-limited offer.

Custom PC, Issue 215

Custom PC Issue 215My regular Hobby Tech column takes a look at three very different, yet related, items in this month’s Custom PC: the PiStorm accelerator for the Commodore Amiga; the Remodo X Bluetooth remote from Remotec; and Joshua M. Pearce’s Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects.

First, the PiStorm. I’ve long been a fan of Commodore’s ill-fated Amiga family of computers, and while my collection isn’t what it used to be I still have a couple keeping me company around the office. It was in one of these I installed the PiStorm, an open-source accelerator and expansion board designed to be powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ – and, in the future, by still-more-powerful models in the Raspberry Pi range.

Donated by my good fried Jaimie Vandenbergh, who had picked up a handful of the low-cost boards for his own use, the PiStorm is nothing short of incredible. Effectively turning the Raspberry Pi into an emulated Motorola processor, it increases an Amiga’s compute performance, memory, graphics capabilities, storage, and even – though not at the time of writing – gives it the ability to connect via a Wi-Fi network. In short: it’s a must-have.

The Remodo X remote, meanwhile, is another accessory aimed at the Raspberry Pi – and a smaller niche. Targeting home automation and home theatre uses, the Remodo X is a surprisingly stylish device with just four buttons on its front and the ability to distinguish between short- and long-press for eight custom-mapped functions.

The device works via both Bluetooth and infrared, though for a gadget Remotec claims is specifically designed for a Raspberry Pi there’s a distinct lack of software: customising its buttons requires a smartphone app, and can’t be done on the Raspberry Pi itself.

Finally, Using Open-Source Projects is a book I wanted to love – after all, I’m a big proponent of free and open-source software and hardware. Sadly, it entirely fails to deliver on its promise – spreading an already-slim book far too thin across far too many topics. Some of the blame lies on the author, but some on the publisher – in particular the poor print quality and bizarre failure to flag the use of a figure which compares an original black-and-white image to its colourised equivalent yet shows both before and after shots in black and white.

The full column, and much more besides, is available in your nearest supermarket or newsagent now, online with global delivery, or – as part of a limited-time offer – as a DRM-free PDF download at zero cost.

Custom PC, Issue 214

Custom PC Issue 214My Hobby Tech feature for Custom PC takes a look at two compact but very different pieces of keyring-compatible open-source hardware, the Solo V2 security key and the FunKey S, and also a colouring book. No, really, a colouring book: the Retro Computer Colouring Book.

The Solo V2 is, as the name suggests, a second-generation follow-up to the original Solo. The core of the project hasn’t changed: it’s an open-source project which aims to create a FIDO/FIDO2-compatible security dongle. Like its proprietary equivalents, the Solo V2 includes both USB and NFC communication capabilities, supports standard protocols, and even has a tamper-proof design with the bulk of the circuit held on a module encased in transparent resin.

Where the Solo V2 splits from its competition is in the firmware. Written in Rust, the biggest change from the original variant, the firmware is entirely open – allowing anyone to not only inspect the code for any reason, from finding security vulnerabilities to ensuring there are no deliberate back doors, but to modify the code in order to add new features.

The FunKey S is, like the Solo V2, designed to hang on your keyring. It’s not a security dongle, though: it’s an entirely functional self-contained games console, running a customised Linux distribution packed with emulators for everything from the Nintendo Game Boy to the Sony PlayStation. Designed to mimic, roughly, the look of the Game Boy Advance SP, the folding console is ridiculously compact – and absolutely everything, from the circuit design to the plastic case, is open source.

Finally, Retro Computer Colouring Book from Quick Web Books sounds like a joke, and it at least partially is: as the bumph on the back of the book makes clear, vintage computers from the 1970s and 1980s were primarily beige or black – and one of the machines included, the Sinclair ZX80, was the same white as the underlying paper. A joke, then, but one which is also usable: machines are represented with custom-drawn line art, and it’s entirely serviceable as a colouring book – and there’s nothing to stop you reimagining machines like the Altair 8800 in a hot pink or lurid purple.

Custom PC Issue 214 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery on the official website, or as a free PDF download without DRM restrictions.

Custom PC, Issue 210

Custom PC Issue 210For Custom PC Magazine, the new year starts with another installation of my Hobby Tech five-page column, this month starting with an in-depth investigation of the Raspberry Pi 400, the RetroFlag NESPi 4 Nintendo-themed case, and Ubuntu 20.10 for the Raspberry Pi.

First, the Raspberry Pi 400. The first device to come from Raspberry Pi with an explicit design focus on producing a consumer device, rather than a bare-bones educational circuit board, the Raspberry Pi 400 packs the core technology from the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B into a keyboard housing to produce an almost-all-in-one PC reminiscent of a classic Atari 400, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, or Commodore VIC-20.

For the Custom PC review, I investigated the device’s internals – a custom-designed single-board computer which is the largest Raspberry Pi ever made, along with the first to include a heatsink in the form of a large slab of metal attached to the system-on-chip – and ran the system through a series of benchmarks to check its performance and thermal characteristics.

Similarly, the RetroFlag NESPi 4 saw a few benchmarks – focusing primarily on whether its small and always-running internal fan could keep a Raspberry Pi 4 cool and how the clever SATA-to-USB adapter, which accepts a 7mm SSD disguised in a plastic housing shaped after a NES cartridge, handled throughput. Sadly, testing also revealed a few issues with the otherwise-clever casing – in particular the fact that the SATA adapter is unusable in the Raspberry Pi’s default USB Attached SCSI (UAS) operation mode and takes a performance penalty if you manually override it.

Finally, Ubuntu 20.10 is the first release of Canonical’s Linux distribution to prove the company’s promise that it will treat the Raspberry Pi family as a first-class citizen going forward. In addition to 32- and 64-bit variants of the Ubuntu Server operating system, available in earlier releases, Ubuntu 20.10 is available in a new Ubuntu Desktop release – which includes a full graphical user interface and a handy range of pre-installed software, along with support for installing more via the apt package manager or Canonical’s Snap Store platform.

Custom PC Issue 210 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, or online with global delivery from the official website.

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021This year’s holiday release from Raspberry Pi Press is The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021, a tome which collects 200 pages of content previously published in The MagPi and makes it available ready for wrapping and nestling under the tree.

My primary contribution for this year’s Handbook centres around the Raspberry Pi 400, the latest single-board computer in the Raspberry Pi family. Built into a keyboard housing, the most-in-one layout is a new venture for Raspberry Pi – and you’ll find my imagery in the book’s getting started section for newcomers.

You’ll also find a six-page abridged edition of my Raspberry Pi 400 feature from The MagPi Issue 100, down from the original twelve with the main removal being the detailed benchmarking. The new thinner variant still includes plenty of imagery, including a graphical tour of all the external features and ports found on the Raspberry Pi 400, plus my interview with its designer Simon Martin and Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton.

You’ll find more of my work scattered throughout, too, including screenshots and tutorials cribbed from The Official Raspberry PI Beginner’s Guide 4th Edition – along with a wealth of material from my fellow MagPi contributors.

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021 is available to buy now with global delivery, or to download as a DRM-free Creative Commons-licensed PDF, on the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 100

The MagPi Issue 100For this bumper issue of The MagPi, celebrating 100 issues since its launch as a fanzine and subsequent adoption as the official Raspberry Pi magazine, I take a deep dive into the company’s latest single-board computer: the very-nearly-all-in-one Raspberry Pi 400.

Built into a keyboard housing, the Raspberry Pi 400 is almost everything you need: just add a USB Type-C power supply, microSD, mouse, and display. For those buying the Personal Computer Kit – previously the Desktop Kit – that’s reduced to only needing an external display. Better still, the design includes the Raspberry Pi family’s first passive cooling system – and a speed boost from 1.5GHz to 1.8GHz.

Across the hefty 12-page feature I take the reader on a visual tour of the new board’s external ports and internal features – stripping it down to the surprisingly large single-board computer ensconced within – before taking a break for an interview with principal hardware engineer Simon Martin and Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton on the project’s origins and development.

Benchmarks follow, putting hard numbers to the speed boost that has seen the CPU clocked from the default 1.5GHz on the Raspberry Pi 4 to 1.8GHz on the Raspberry Pi 400. As with previous launches, these include historical measurements going all the way back to the original Raspberry Pi Model A and Model B – detailing the performance of every board, bar the industrial-focus Compute Modules, across synthetic and real-world workloads.

The full review is available now in The MagPi Issue 100 from supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a free Creative Commons licensed PDF download on the official website.

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, 4th Edition and Translations

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner's Guide 4th EditionMy introductory Raspberry Pi book, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, has now been released in a fourth edition, bringing updates for the Raspberry Pi 4 8GB, Raspberry Pi 400, and new software revisions.

Bundled with every Raspberry Pi Desktop Kit sold, and available in paperback and free-as-in-speech Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free PDF, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide has proven incredibly popular. The latest release includes updates to reflect changes in the Raspberry Pi OS and bundled software, alongside coverage of the all-in-one Raspberry Pi 400 and higher-specification Raspberry Pi 4 8GB.

The new edition is also now available in translation for the first time: As well as the original English edition, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide can now be read in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, with additional translations in the works. As always, my thanks go out to the translation team at Raspberry Pi Press for making that happen.

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide 4th Edition is available to buy now in all the above languages with global delivery from the official website; it can also be downloaded under free-as-in-speech terms as a Creative Commons-licensed PDF file, unencumbered by DRM. For anyone considering picking up a Raspberry Pi 400, a print copy of the book is also bundled in the Raspberry Pi 400 Desktop Kit as well as in the Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop Kit.

The MagPi, Issue 99

The MagPi Issue 99This month’s The MagPi, the official Raspberry Pi magazine, includes a hefty spread taking a look at the newly-launched Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 – bringing the power of the Broadcom BCM2711 to the Compute Module form factor for the first time.

Well, sort of: the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 is actually a wholly new form factor, ditching the old SODIMM edge connector in favour of two high-density connectors on the underside. While that means no backwards compatibility with existing Compute Module carrier boards, third parties have stepped up and launched interposer boards to let you squeeze the new board into old designs.

Having been provided with pre-release access to the Compute Module 4 and its IO Board, my launch feature takes a look at the physical layout and the components that go into the board – with macro photography, including coverage of the high-performance eMMC storage on-board selected models – and runs through a selection of benchmarks testing everything from synthetic and real-world performance to footprint and weight.

One particularly interesting aspect of the benchmarking, and one which will inform designs based around the new module, was thermal throttling analysis: the Raspberry Pi 4 is known to run reasonably hot, though enhancements since launch have brought the temperature down considerably, and moving the same technology into a smaller footprint means the Compute Module 4 gets toasty warm. As Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton explained, passive cooling is going to be a must for most designs.

The MagPi Issue 99 is available now from all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, or as a free-as-in-speech download under a Creative Commons licence.

Custom PC, Issue 204

Custom PC Issue 204In my Hobby Tech column this month I go hands-on with the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB single-board computer, the considerably more powerful Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit, and take a look at Alex Wiltshire and John Short’s Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation.

First, the Raspberry Pi 4. Launched with a view to providing power users with something a with a little more headroom than the 4GB model – itself a fourfold increase on the memory available on its direct predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 – the new 8GB model doubles the maximum memory while retaining full backwards compatibility. With that said, though, getting the most out of the device does require a 64-bit operating system – and I take a look at third-party options as well as the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s own Raspberry Pi OS in 64-bit builds.

The Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit is another device that takes advantage of a 64-bit operating system, but with a very different focus: where the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB is aimed at hobbyists, the Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit looks towards the professional end of the market – and offers some serious GPU horsepower for machine learning work, plus a new “cloud native” software model that containerises workloads to separate them from the underlying OS and to make it easy to run multiple workloads on a single device.

Finally, Home Computers is another in a series of coffee-table tomes investigating early personal computers – but one with a twist: The 100 machines contained within are taken exclusively from The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. Each is captured in a series of high-quality photographs, including some close-ups and detail shots you won’t find elsewhere, and accompanied with a short write-up of its origins and capabilities. While it would have been nice to see the machines switched on – each is captured in its powered-off state, a shame given the Centre’s reputation as a hands-on “living museum” – it’s still a great book for vintage computing enthusiasts.

Custom PC Issue 204 is available now at the usual stockists, or online with global delivery from the official website.