Custom PC, Issue 205

Custom PC Issue 205This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at the Raspberry Pi High Quality (HQ) Camera Module, Seeed Studio’s impressively feature-packed Wio Terminal development board, and Read Only Memory’s follow-up to game developer interview collection Britsoft, Japansoft.

First the Raspberry Pi HQ Camera Module. The third full revision of the Camera Serial Interface (CSI)-connected low-cost camera add-on for Raspberry Pi and compatible single-board computers – after the original Raspberry Pi Camera Module was replaced with a higher-quality Sony sensor upgrade – the HQ Camera Module is built around a 12.3-megapixel Sony IMX477 sensor, offering increased resolution and improved low-light performance.

The biggest change, though, is that the lens has gone: Instead of a small plastic lens pre-fitted to the sensor, the HQ Camera Module accepts C- and CS-mount lenses – the same type of lens you’d find for security camera sensors. Two lenses make up the official offerings – a 6mm wide-angle and a 16mm telephoto – with third parties selling various alternatives including microscope-style macro lenses.

The Wio Terminal has a sensor of its own, but it’s not a camera: it’s an almost-all-in-one development board built around Microchip’s ATSAMD51 system-on-chip. Packed into a plastic housing with 2.4″ 320×240 colour LCD, the development board includes buttons, joystick, buzzer, LED, light sensor, and an infrared emitter – but, oddly, no battery, which needs to be added using an external accessory which considerably increases the device’s bulk.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Wio Terminal, though, is its general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header: a 40-pin female header, it shares the Raspberry Pi pinout and allows the Wio Terminal to act as a standalone device or to be connected to a Raspberry Pi as a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT)-style accessory – though doing so without some kind of extension cable covers the sensors on the underside.

Finally, Japansoft is a follow-up to the impressive Britsoft which follows exactly the same format: selected bite-sized extracts from interviews with notable game developers, only this time – as the name implies – looking at the Japanese games industry rather than the British. Where Britsoft culled its material from interviews carried out for the 2014 documentary From Bedrooms to Billions, Japansoft isn’t an original publication either: everything within comes from John Szczepaniak’s The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers and is simply reformatted to match the style of Britsoft.

That’s not to say Japansoft isn’t worth reading, but it does mean that anyone who has already seen Szczepaniak’s work will find nothing new. It also makes no effort to fact-check any of the claims within, instead placing a warning that its contents do not represent “a verified factual account” of the history presented.

Custom PC Issue 205 is available now from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 197

Custom PC Issue 197This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Argon 40’s revised Argon One – or Argon 1, depending on which bit of the packaging you’re looking at – case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the RISC-V-based Sipeed Longan Nano development board, and Toshi Omagari’s Arcade Game Typography.

First, the Argon 1 Pi 4 case. Externally, this looks a lot like the Argon One reviewed back in Issue 188; internally, though, things have been shifted around to provide support for the latest Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – and the brown-outs caused by the smart power and cooling board drawing too much power are now a thing of the past.

As with its predecessor, the Argon 1 Pi 4 is impressively solid and does a great job at cooling the Raspberry Pi 4 by using the aluminium housing as a heatsink – even running a heavy synthetic workload, the temperature didn’t reach the minimum required to activate the built-in PWM-controlled cooling fan. It also adds some neat features, such as a labelled and colour-coded GPIO header, neater cabling through the shifting of audio and video ports to the rear, and a smart power button.

Shortly after the review was completed, but thankfully before the magazine went to press, the power board on the Argon 1 Pi 4 died – thankfully without taking the Raspberry Pi 4 with it. The review was updated accordingly, and since then Argon 40 has been stellar in attempting to resolve the problem – paying to have the faulty board returned for analysis and replacing both the faulty board and the entire unit in order to get things back up and running. While it will be a short while before it’s clear whether the failure was a one-off or not, it’s certainly impossible to fault the company’s customer service ethos.

The Sipeed Longan Nano, supplied by Seeed Studio, is an interesting beast: costing less than $5, the board is based on a low-power RISC-V microcontroller with a breadboard-friendly board design and a built-in low-resolution colour LCD display. For the money, the hardware is absolutely incredible – especially as Seeed has even designed a rough but serviceable acrylic case for the board, bundled at no additional cost.

The software and documentation, however, is definitely an issue. The libraries provided failed in a variety of ways – including an inability to use printf() or open a serial port – and the English documentation is extremely sparse. Particularly lacking is anything to demonstrate the use of the LCD – bar a single example program documented using Chinese in-line comments.

Finally, Arcade Game Typography. I’ve reviewed a lot of retro-computing coffee-table books over the years, but Omagari’s book is the first to concentrate solely on fonts and typography as used in classic arcade games – and given Omagari’s work as a designer for Monotype UK, it’s fair to say he knows his stuff. The result is a fascinating book, and one which is currently available in a limited 1,000-copy hardback print run from Read-Only Memory if the standard paperback isn’t shiny enough for you.

Custom PC Issue 197 is available on supermarket and newsagent shelves now, or can be ordered for global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 193

Custom PC Issue 193My Hobby Tech column focuses this month on the Raspberry Pi 4, the amazingly inexpensive M5Stick-C microcontroller platform, and Zach Barth’s game design retrospective Zach-Like.

The column opens with the Raspberry Pi 4 review, a two-page look at the layout, features, functionality, and performance of the latest single-board computer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. As always, there’s plenty of photography – including thermal imagery, using an in-house process I developed to get the most detail possible by combining visible light and infrared photography into a single print-resolution image.

My look at the M5Stick-C, part of the M5Stack family of products, needs no such clever photography – though there is a shot of the device on my wrist, thanks to a bundled watch strap mount. Designed around the low-cost ESP32 microcontroller the M5Stick-C includes buttons, a full-colour screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, LEDs, a range of sensors, a built-in battery chargeable over USB Type-C, and the aforementioned watch strap plus a wall-mount bracket, LEGO-compatible mounting bracket, and even a built-in magnet – and all for under £10 excluding VAT. It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly cheap enough.

Cheaper, though, is Zach-Like, a collection of game design documents charting the early days of Zach Barth and his company Zachtronics. Initially available as a limited-run print edition on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, Zach-Like is now available as a free electronic download on Steam in PDF format – and comes with a huge selection of bonus content, including playable versions of several unreleased games and prototypes. At £10, Zach-Like would be a bargain; for free, it’s astonishing.

You’ll find the full column, and a lot more, in Custom PC Issue 193 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or on any one of a selection of digital distribution platforms.

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 13

HackSpace Magazine Issue 13This month’s maker-focused HackSpace Magazine includes my relatively long-term review of an extremely clever, though far from perfect, temperature-controlled soldering ‘station’: the Miniware TS100.

First, some necessary definitions: brushing aside standard, fixed-power soldering irons, you’ll find adjustable-temperature and temperature-controlled irons on the market. The former are, typically, not much larger than a standard soldering iron and include a small knob on the body for adjusting the power and, thus, temperature of the tip. The latter go a step further, reading the temperature of the iron and using the feedback to dynamically adjust the power output to keep the tip as close to a chosen temperature as possible, and most often come with a bulky base station to which the iron is tethered.

The Miniware TS100, and its not-yet-available-in-the-UK successor the TS80, is different. While it’s a fully-fledged temperature-controlled iron, there’s no base station in sight: instead, the iron packs everything it needs into a surprisingly compact body, including a small OLED screen for live feedback and adjustment of its settings.

What’s most interesting about the design, though, is that the firmware that drives its internal microcontroller is open source. It’s entirely possible to download the source code, modify it, and flash it onto the iron with nothing more than a simple USB cable – and many have done that, producing alternative firmwares which either improve its performance or turn it into something else, including a Tetris-playing games console and a functional oscilloscope, entirely.

The TS100 is clever, then, but not perfect. A design which lacks any form of flaring to stop your fingers drifting forward onto the hot tip is one thing, but a larger problem is an ungrounded power design which leaves the tip floating at voltages more than enough to damage sensitive components. Thankfully, the reviewed unit came with a bundled grounding strap – but that leaves you with two wires rather than one, hampering the portability somewhat.

The full review can be read in the print and digital copies of HackSpace Magazine Issue 13, with the latter available for free download now under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 182

Custom PC Issue 182In my Hobby Tech column this month, I take a look at the disappointing Planet Computers Gemini PDA, the significantly less disappointing Proto-Pic Program-o-Tron, and the recent updates designed to make the Raspbian operating system for the Raspberry Pi significantly more welcoming to newcomers.

First, the Gemini PDA. I’ve long been a fan of the clamshell personal digital assistant (PDA) form factor, and it was with a heavy heart that I finally hung up my Psion Series 5 after it became clear that smartphones had won that particular war. Now, the format is back courtesy of Planet Computers and the crowdfunded Gemini PDA – a design based on the Psion Series 5 and put together by one of the staff responsible for the original, but which misses its mark at almost every turn.

At its heart, the Gemini PDA is an Android smartphone – even the non-4G version, which is simply an Android smartphone with the cellular radio removed. While it’s possible to run a Debian-based Linux on top, the experience is poor – but, that said, no more poor than the buggy Android build supplied with the device, which insists on booting up in German despite being clearly marked as a UK model. The hardware, too, disappoints: performance under Linux is not where it should be, and while the keyboard is a near-perfect match to the original Psion design the clever sliding hinge mechanism is entirely missing in favour of a loose and flimsy metal kickstand that fails to provide nearly enough support.

Many thanks must go to the National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), which kindly provided an original Psion Series 5MX PDA for direct head-to-head comparison during the review.

The Program-o-Tron, after a disappointing start to the month, proved considerably better. Again crowdfunded, the Proto-Pic device is designed to make life easier for those working with Atmel ATmega microcontrollers. Rather than having to program each chip individually from a PC, the Program-o-Tron allows you to hold six hex files on an SD card and flash them onto a chip inserted in the ZIF socket at the push of a button – and, even better, to take a dump of the contents of a chip, including its fuse settings, to clone it without ever needing to touch the original program code.

Finally, the recent update to Raspbian operating system for the Raspberry Pi brought a couple of changes for the better: a lightening of the load when it comes to pre-installed software, complete with a tool to add packages back in on-demand, and a first-run welcome wizard which walks newcomers through configuring the Wi-Fi networking, localisation settings, and choosing a new password. The latter is particularly welcome: since launch, the default for Raspbian has been to keep the ‘pi’ and ‘raspberry’ username and password combination, making it easy for attackers to gain access to systems accidentally or deliberately connected to public networks. By asking users to choose a new password on first boot, the hole is closed.

To read more, pick up Custom PC Issue 182 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 174

Custom PC Issue 174This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at a very special eight-byte – not a typo – microcomputer, walks through turning a spare Raspberry Pi into a Nav Coin-mining cryptocurrency machine, and looks forward to the launch of the ZX Spectrum Next with a look at a deep-dive book detailing the original Spectrum’s neat Ferranti Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip.

First, the Mini C88. Designed by the multi-talented Daniel Bailey as a more affordable version of his C88, swapping the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) on which he implemented his own processor core design for an Arduino Zero and the extremely clever Dynamic Binary Translation (DBT) technique, the C88 is designed to be about as simple as a computer can get. Based on a custom instruction set, the C88 has just eight memory locations of eight bits apiece and is programmed by toggling each bit using a series of pleasingly tactile switches while monitoring the process on the 8×8 LED matrix that serves as its display.

For regular readers, this will all sound familiar: the original FPGA-based C88 and its 32-byte bigger brother the C3232 were the subject of an interview back in Issue 155. While Daniel has still not turned the C88 into a kit you can head out and buy, the Mini C88 is definite progress in that direction – and, as always, anyone interested in the project should hassle him about it on Twitter.

For those with a Raspberry Pi and a desire to play with cryptocurrency, meanwhile, this month’s tutorial will be of definite interest: a guide to turning a Pi into a ‘Stake Box’ for the Nav Coin cryptocurrency. Designed as an alternative to Bitcoin, Nav Coin offers those who run network nodes rewards in the form of a five percent return on their coin holdings when locked up in this manner. Taking less than an hour to set up and requiring nothing more than a low-powered computer, it’s a great way to get involved – and the Nav Coin project itself definitely one to follow.

Finally, while waiting impatiently for my ZX Spectrum Next microcomputer to land – which, I’m pleased to say, has since happened – I enjoyed a re-read of Chris Smith’s excellent The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to Design a Microcomputer. Based on interviews and deep-dive analysis, the book investigates the tricks and techniques which allowed Sinclair Computers to build the ZX Spectrum micro at such a bare-bones cost – which, in turn, was thanks to clever use of an Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip from Scottish electronics giant Ferranti. Effectively a write-once version of the modern FPGA, Ferranti’s ULA saw the number of components in the ZX81 drop to a quarter compared to the ZX80 and is key to how the ZX Spectrum does what it does.

For all this, and a bunch of other interesting things by people who aren’t me, pick up a copy of Custom PC Issue 174 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 173

Custom PC Issue 173This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the learn-by-post Tron-Club Electronics Kits, the excellent Core Memory, and revisits one of the biggest disappointments of the year: the Asus Tinker Board.

First, the re-review. I originally tested the Asus Tinker Board – or Tinkerboard, or TinkerBoard, depending on which piece of documentation you’re reading – back in Issue 164 when it first hit the market. At the time, the device was impossible to recommend: the top-end hardware, capable of outperforming even the latest Raspberry Pi 3 against which it is designed to compete, was let down by woeful and unfinished software. Nine months on, I decided to give Asus a second chance and load the latest software to see if anything had improved – and I’m pleased to say that many, though far from all, of the issues I had back in March have been addressed.

The Tron-Club Electronics Kits, meanwhile, are smart subscription packages supplied monthly with a claimed minimum of 21 circuits in every pack. Based around discrete components in the Basic Kits and a microcontroller in the Advanced Kits, I was lucky enough to receive a sample of both from Bit-Tech forumite Byron Collier who had finished with them himself.

Finally, Core Memory. Continuing my trend to buy coffee table books despite not actually having a coffee table, I picked up Mark Richard and John Alderman’s book – subtitled “A Visual History of Vintage Computers” – a few years ago, and while it’s now out of print it is still readily available from Amazon and other retailers and, frankly, well worth the cash, despite a few errors in Alderman’s supporting text.

All this, and the usual collection of things written by people who aren’t me, is available from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

 

PC Pro, Issue 279

PC Pro Issue 279This month’s PC Pro includes a review of something a little out of the ordinary: the open-source, microcontroller-powered OpenScope MZ oscilloscope from Digilent.

Based on the original OpenScope and manufactured following a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the OpenScope MZ is designed primarily for education and hobbyist use. While it lacks the bandwidth you’d need for professional use, it makes up for it in ease of use: it can be connected to your wireless network for tangle-free operation, includes cables which mate handily with the 2.54mm headers common to hobbyist electronics, and uses cross-platform software capable of running on everything from a powerful desktop to a low-end smartphone.

Better still, the OpenScope MZ is, as the name implies, open: the hardware design, firmware, and software are open source, allowing anyone with the knowledge to add features or customise the device as they see fit.

More information on the OpenScope MZ is available on the official website, while you can read my review in full by picking up a copy of PC Pro Issue 279 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

PC Pro, Issue 277

PC Pro Issue 277This month’s issue of PC Pro includes a four-way Battle Royale of DIY handheld games consoles, starting with the MAKERbuino and Creoqode 2048 also reviewed in this month’s Custom PC and including the original Gamebuino and Arduboy to complete the round-up.

There’s never been a higher focus on teaching kids to program – not even during the height of the microcomputing boom in the 1980s, when every home had a Spectrum and every school a BBC Model B partially funded by the government’s Computers in Schools initiative – but there’s a risk of turning kids off if all they’re doing is moving sprites around on a screen. To address this, a number of inventors have come up with physical devices to target instead: from the BBC micro:bit, the spiritual successor to the original Acorn-designed BBC Micro, to the handheld consoles in this month’s group test.

Each of the consoles on test have two things in common. The first is obvious: the focus is more on writing your own games, rather than just playing things other people have created. The second lies under the hood: all four consoles on test are based on Atmel microcontrollers and are compatible with the popular Arduino IDE programming environment.

There are more differences than similarities, though. The Creoqode 2048 is the most physically impressive – and imposing – machine on test thanks to its large footprint and bright RGB LED display, but falls down with poor supporting documentation and rebranded off-the-shelf parts sold at a massive markup; the Arduboy is, by contrast, the tiniest on test with a wallet-friendly design but limited capabilities. The Gamebuino has long been one of my favourite Arduino-compatible projects, but the MAKERbuino takes the concept a stage further with small hardware improvements and a shift from a pre-assembled unit to a solder-it-yourself kit using entirely through-hole components.

If you want to know which device walks away as the king of the hill, though, you’ll have to pick up the latest issue of PC Pro either physically at all good newsagents and supermarkets or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.