Tag Archive for Microcomputer

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 16

HackSpace Magazine Issue 16This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a pair of my reviews, the first looking at a computer that’s also a ruler – because that’s not only a thing but the second thing of its kind to come from the same designer – and a new set of charitable Top Trumps-style collectable cards.

First, the ruler-computer. Designed by Brads Projects, the Digirule2 is – as the name suggests – a second-generation design of a compact microcomputer which is also a functional ruler. Printed onto a single circuit board and built around a PIC32 microcontroller, the Digirule2 is inspired by the classic MITS Altair 8800: its memory is displayed on a series of LEDs, and is programmed one bit at a time using push-button switches.

Where the Digirule improves on the Altair, aside from being considerably more affordable and not taking up a huge chunk of your desk, is in having memory slots for saving and loading programmes. These slots come pre-loaded with demonstrations ranging from simple reaction games to a neat persistence-of-vision hack, while the edges of the board are printed with measurements – in binary, naturally – in both centimetres and inches.

The cards, meanwhile, are something a little less technical but no less geeky. Designed by 8bitkick and sold by the Centre for Computing History to fund its restoration and preservation works, the Games Consoles Collectable Cards partner high-quality colour images of classic videogame consoles with statistics that can be compared for a nerdy game of Top Trumps. They also partner well with the Home Computers Collectable Cards, an earlier release now repackaged to match, though sadly the two decks use different statistics and thus can’t be combined into a single mega-deck.

You can read both reviews, and a lot more beside, by picking up a copy of HackSpace Magazine Issue 16 from your nearest newsagent or by downloading a copy for free under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 4

Hackspace Issue 4This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a four-page spread detailing two projects from the talented Daniel Bailey: the Manchester Baby inspired C88 and C3232 homebrew microcomputers.

When one normally talks about ‘building’ a computer, the ‘building’ process is akin to Lego: blocks specifically designed to be compatible are clicked together in a reasonably idiot-proof manner, then an off-the-shelf operating system is installed. Daniel’s C88 and C3232 systems, by contrast, are built from the ground up: systems built around using an 8×8 or 32×32 LED display as memory and running a unique processor, built from scratch on an FPGA, with its own instruction set architecture.

The smaller C88 came first, and the larger and more complex C3232 – designed with a mode which allows it to run software originally written for the early Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), or Manchester Baby, without modification – served as a magnum opus for the project. Daniel wasn’t done there, though: a final effort produced the Mini C88, a C88-compatible kit powered by the a low-cost Arduino instead of a more expensive FPGA but boasting near-complete compatibility with the original.

While Daniel has yet to release the kit, a simulator provides a hint of what it’s like to use the C88 or Mini C88: programs are entered into the system one bit at a time using physical toggle-switches, then executed for display on the LED matrix. Examples include simple animations, pseudorandom number generation, and mathematical calculations, while the real C88 can also be connected to external hardware via a general-purpose input-output (GPIO) port missing from the Mini C88.

I’ve long been a fan of Daniel’s creations, and am lucky enough to own a Mini C88 of my very own – but even for those who haven’t caught the systems being demonstrated at various Maker Faires and related events, I’d recommend reading the piece to see just how clever the project really is.

You can see the feature in full by downloading the Creative Commons licensed magazine from the official website, or pick up a copy in print from your nearest newsagent or supermarket.

Custom PC, Issue 164

Custom PC Issue 164My Hobby Tech column this month is dominated by two reviews of devices which have taken their inspiration from better-known alternatives, but the two couldn’t be more different: the Asus Tinker Board and the SiFive HiFive1. As an added bonus, there’s a look into the wonderful world of hobbyist pinball machine repair, and by that I mean a friend and I repaired some pinball machines and lived to tell the tale.

First, the Tinker Board. There have been rumours flying around since last year that Taiwanese technology giant Asus was looking to carve itself off a slice of the Raspberry Pi pie, and that’s exactly what the Tinker Board is: an attempt to clone the Raspberry Pi. Its footprint and layout are so close to the original that it’s entirely possible to use official Raspberry Pi cases without difficulty, and the features available are a one-for-one match: four USB ports, an Ethernet port, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a 3.5mm jack, CSI and DSI connectors, and even the Pi’s trademark 40-pin GPIO header.

To its credit, Asus has tried to improve upon the original design. The processor is more powerful – quite impressively so, I discovered in my testing – and purportedly supports 4K video playback, the Ethernet supposedly gigabit, there’s support for 24-bit 192KHz high-definition audio, the RAM has been boosted from 1GB to 2GB, and the GPIO port has received colour coding to its pins. Sadly, many of these claims fell short during testing: the Ethernet port’s throughput is sub-100Mb/s even when connected to a gigabit switch, the 4K video playback simply doesn’t work, and the GPIO port is useless for anything save basic on-off pin switching – there’s no I²C, no SPI, no 1Wire, no UART, nothing, with all advanced features simply listed as in-the-works.

The SiFive HiFive1, by contrast, delivers on its promises and more. Designed to mimic the footprint and layout of an Arduino Uno microcontroller, the HiFive1 is notable for the chip at its heart: one of the first off-the-shelf implementations of the open-source RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) architecture. Still in its relative infancy compared to Atmel’s AVR or Intel’s x86 architectures, RISC-V is designed to scale from microcontrollers like SiFive’s through to high-efficiency server systems.

Like the Tinker Board, I ran into a few hiccoughs during testing. Unlike the Tinker Board, they were all quickly addressed. Considering the HiFive1 is only the second major product from SiFive and is the first commercial implementation of the RISC-V architecture to include support in the Arduino IDE for easy programming, I was thrilled with the board – and sad when my time with it came to an end.

Finally, pinball machines. The last page of this month’s column details my visit to the Brew Haus in Bradford with my friend Stuart Childs, but rather than being there for the beer we were there to administer some love to a series of pinball machines the owner had recently installed – one of which, a Data East Star Wars table, was entirely non-functional and missing its keys to boot. Between picking the lock to gain entry, replacing the somehow-shattered bumpers, testing the electronics, and discovering the PSU was hanging by a thread – its screws, interestingly, being attached to the magnet of a nearby speaker – a fun time was had and a working table set up by the end of the evening.

To get the full low-down on all these topics, plus a whole lot of interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local newsagent, supermarket, or other magazine outlet, or pick up a virtual copy via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.

PC & Tech Authority, Issue 230

PC & Tech Authority Issue 230PC & Tech Authority, Australia’s top technology magazine, has published a reprise of a review I originally wrote for PC Pro in the UK: the NextThingCo CHIP and PocketCHIP microcomputers. Here’s what I had to say on the topic when the review was originally published.

NextThingCo’s crowdfunding launch was met with considerable scepticism, and with good reason: at a time when the Raspberry Pi had only just proven you could sustainable sell a fully-functional single-board microcomputer with desktop-ish performance for under $30, NextThingCo was claiming to offer the same thing for $9 – and with integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radio connectivity to boot.

The campaign succeeded, and to critics’ considerable surprise nobody was ripped off: NextThingCo’s CHIP did indeed ship and, as of earlier this year, is now available to purchase direct. While certain corners have been undoubtedly cut – just like the Raspberry Pi, it comes devoid of cables and accessories – and its performance can’t hold a candle to newer Pi models, it’s functional, available, and if you’re willing to supply the extras needed to get it up and running yourself does indeed cost $9.

The PocketCHIP, meawhile, is a fantastic example of what you can do with a CHIP: an open-hardware hand-held computer, complete with clever though painful-to-use bubble-based keyboard, with a very 1990s transparent casing. The screen may be low resolution and resistive rather than capacitive touch, but if I said I didn’t have a blast using the PocketCHIP I’d be lying.

For my full verdict on the device, of course, you’ll have to head to your nearest PC & Tech Authority stockist, whether that’s a newsagent, a supermarket, or one of the digital distributors like Zinio you can browse from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this.

Custom PC, Issue 150

Custom PC Issue 150There’s a bit of a theme to four of the five pages that make up this month’s Hobby Tech column, and with little surprise: I’ve been focusing on the Raspberry Pi Zero, that remarkable £4 microcomputer which is still proving impossible for retailers to keep in stock. That’s not to say it’s entirely Pi-themed, though: I found room for a look at the lovely CodeBug, too.

Naturally, the first thing I had to do when the Raspberry Pi Zero – a fully-functional Raspberry Pi microcomputer, equivalent in specification to the Raspberry Pi Model A+ but with twice the RAM at 512MB and a new 1GHz stock speed for the BCM2835 processor. The fact that the Raspberry Pi Foundation was able to pack all that into a device around half the footprint of the already-tiny Model A+ is impressive enough, but with a retail price of just £4 the Pi Zero is nothing short of revolutionary.

Sadly, my hope that stock issues would be cleared up by the time the issue hit shop shelves proved unfounded: while stock has appeared at the official outlets several times since the Pi Zero launched, it has immediately sold out again – making the device difficult to get hold of and leaving the market rife with sandbaggers flogging the £4 device for anything up to £50 on auction sites. My recommendation: be patient, keep an eye out the official outlets, and don’t reward the sandbaggers with your custom.

With the Pi Zero in hand, I figured a tutorial would be a logical next step. Perhaps one of the most impressive demonstrations of the new form factor’s flexibility comes in turning it into a true random number generator (TRNG) – at least, what Broadcom claims is a TRNG – for a USB-connected server or PC, improving security for a tenth the cost of the nearest off-the-shelf TRNG. While I used the simple method of attaching a USB-to-TTL serial adapter to the Pi Zero’s GPIO header, it’s even possible to create the same device with a single USB cable for data and power by replacing the stock kernel with one tweaked for USB OTG use – a cost-saving trick for another column, perhaps.

Finally, the CodeBug. I’d been planning on reviewing this for some time, but getting my hands on a sample proved tricky until oomlout was kind enough to loan me a unit from the device’s original crowd-funding campaign. Designed for educational use, and the inspiration for the BBC’s much-delayed micro:bit, the CodeBug is a microcontroller with on-board inputs and outputs and a built-in battery connector. Programmed using a modified version of the block-based Scratch language, it’s a great tool for teaching basic computer concepts – and I now have my hands on a few upgrades for the device, which will be appearing in a future issue.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to any good newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this via Zinio and other digital distribution services.

The Battle of Britain’s Home Computers

The Battle of Britain's Home ComputersI was recently asked to give a lecture to members of the Computer Conservation Society on the topic of early British home computers, which is very dear to my heart. For those unfamiliar the CCS is a Specialist Group of the British Computing Society, founded in cooperation with the Science Museum of London and the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, with the aim of conserving and restoring classic computers while working to develop awareness of their historical significance. The group has been responsible for a number of notable successes since its formation in 1989, from the wartime Colossus and Bombe rebuilds to the Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) replica, with a complete list available on the official website.

A benefit of membership is access to the group’s regular lectures, which bring together experts and industry luminaries to share their knowledge – and, for some inexplicable reason, me. Given an hour-long slot – which I cheekily overran by about fifteen minutes, having digressed somewhat along the way – I shared what I know on the ‘golden era’ of British home computing: 1980 to 1984, boom to bust.

The talk was very well received, thanks mostly to a terrifically warm and welcoming audience, and the elongated question-and-answer session at the end was a thrill – and revealed just which of the many computers released in the UK during that time truly had the biggest impact, including the discovery that one brave soul runs his business from a handful of disguised eight-bit micros to this day!

A video of the talk was recorded, but is not yet available. If you have an hour and three quarters to kill and don’t want to wait, you can download the slide deck and stream the audio – just move onto the next slide whenever you hear the thump of me hitting the space bar and you’ll be in-sync. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to listen offline, the slides and an MP3 recording can be downloaded together.

I will be giving the lecture again to the northern branch of the CCS next year, giving you plenty of warning if you’d like to attend.

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.

Custom PC, Issue 124

Custom PC Issue 124My well-received four-page column, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, continues in this most recent issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with a review of the Fuze case for the Raspberry Pi, my progress with uncovering the secrets behind a piece of computing history, and a guide to designing and producing your own custom circuit boards.

First, the review. I’ve already covered the Fuze for Linux User & Developer, with the review scheduled to appear in Issue 133 in print following its early publication to the site, but here I concentrate less on an objective review and more on my subjective experience of the device.

If you haven’t seen it, the Fuze is an all-in-one machine which turns the Raspberry Pi from a bare circuit board into a fully-fledged microcomputer complete with built-in keyboard. Designed to evoke nostalgia for Acorn’s original BBC Micro, the metal chassis is well-made and includes a prototyping area at the top for constructing circuits which connect through a bundled buffered general-purpose input-output (GPIO) interface board.

Designed primarily for education, the Fuze is expensive – thanks largely to its creator’s focus on local manufacturing coupled with the inclusion of numerous electronic components and handy educational project guides – but undeniably impressive. Some issues I ran into while I was writing both features have since been addressed, following an extremely productive phone-call with the Fuze’s inventor, and it has become my go-to device when I need to do some work with a Pi.

For the regular vintage computing section, something a bit special. I recently helped out at the Wuthering Bytes festival in Hebden Bridge, which was organised by my friend Andrew Back – among others. I picked up something special from Andrew: an LJ Electronics Tina microcomputer, something computing museums around the world have scratched their heads over. Ex-RAF, the device appears to be a teaching system – but includes break-outs for everything from the keyboard to the TTL-level display, and built-in software including BASIC, assembler, telecommunications and even a machine-code monitor.

I’m currently working to restore the machine, and to find out some more about its history. The company which created it still exists – as LJ Create, rather than LJ Electronics – so they’re my next port of call. Unfortunately, one of the ROM chips – the one which holds the machine code monitor – is corrupt, but Andrew also gave a second machine to a friend of ours, so I’m hoping to get a clean dump and finish restoration in the near future.

Finally, a tutorial on designing your own printed circuit boards. Based on my experiences making the Sleepduino, an Arduino compatible night-light and white-noise generator, I walk the reader through using freely available software and cheap commercial PCB printing services in order to build custom devices. My software of choice is Fritzing; while it has its detractors, who quite rightly point out it’s relatively restricted and somewhat slow, it’s a lot easier to get started with than any other cross-platform PCB design tool.

All this, plus a bunch of other interesting stuff which I didn’t write, can be found at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on the digital nets via services like Zinio.

PC Pro, Issue 224

PC Pro Issue 224This month’s PC Pro magazine includes another one of my freelance features, this time looking at the open-source Arduino microcontroller platform. While the front-cover splash billing it as a “Raspberry Pi rival” is inaccurate – not my call – the feature itself is packed with detail on the Atmel-based marvel.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done an Arduino-related feature for a magazine: I’m a big fan of the platform, owning multiple Arduinos and Arduino-compatibles. As well as a beginner’s guide for bit-tech, I’ve done features for Computeractive, Linux User & Developer (reprised in the Linux & Open Source Genius Guide, Volume 3) and Custom PC. This latest, however, is the most comprehensive.

Starting with a look at the history of Arduino, the feature walks the reader through why it was created, what its intentions are, how it compares to something like the Raspberry Pi – essentially explaining the difference between a microcontroller and a microcomputer – and how it can be used to create physical computing projects with ease.

Because of PC Pro’s laudable desire to ensure that readers can walk away from an In Depth feature with something concrete, it also includes a tutorial on using the latest ATmega-based Arduino Leonardo to build a macro keypad that can type email signatures, passwords, locate the user in a multi-player role-playing game or even lock the desktop with the press of a single button. Well, a separate single button for each feature, obviously, otherwise things would get confusing.

As usual, I am indebted to the wonderful chaps at Oomlout for providing the hardware for the feature, and to the creators of Arduino itself for making a development platform so simple even I can use the dang thing.

If you’re curious as to how the keypad works, source code for the project is available on my GitHub repository – but I’d still recommend picking up a copy of the magazine for wiring instructions and a jolly good lesson on the history of the Arduino project.

PC Pro Issue 224 is in newsagents, supermarkets and similar establishments now, or can be accessed digitally via Zinio or other platforms.

Raspberry Pi: Einstieg und User Guide

Raspberry Pi Einstieg und User GuideI was greeted by a surprise parcel this morning: a copy of the German translation of my Raspberry Pi User Guide, Raspberry Pi Einstieg und User Guide.

A direct translation of the Raspberry Pi User Guide first edition, Raspberry Pi Einstieg und User Guide includes everything from its English counterpart in a somewhat more compact package published by Verlagsgruppe Hüthig-Jehle-Rehm GmbH under its mitp label and translated by Maren Feilen.

This is the first of a series of translations that will hopefully bring the book to a wider audience. While certainly popular – topping best-seller lists in several countries – there’s no denying that it has sold better in the UK than anywhere else.

If you’re still waiting on a translation into your native language, let me know: agreements have been made for several other languages, and still more are in the negotiation stage, so with luck I’ll have some good news for you.

Raspberry Pi Einstieg und User Guide is available now on Amazon.de and Amazon.co.uk, and in bookstores throughout Germany. If your local doesn’t have a copy, ask them to order it in: it’s ISBN 978-3-8266-9522-3.