Custom PC, Issue 113

Custom PC, Issue 113This month’s Mobile Tech Watch column for Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine reveals a new direction for my regular two-page slot: rather than a look at mobile technologies, the column will in future focus on interviews with luminaries from the computer industry – and not just the mobile side of things. As a result, the Mobile Tech Watch moniker is going, with this issue marking the last time you’ll see the name appear in the magazine.

As a transition piece, the final Mobile Tech Watch column uses the interview format but looking at a mobile technology: specifically, Intel’s work on many-core processors for mobile devices. While the company’s efforts in exascale computing, with its Many Integrated Cores (MIC) architecture and Xeon Phi co-processor board, are well known, the effect the research is likely to have on future mobile devices is less so – hence my desire to shine a light on proceedings.

My subject for the interview was Jim Held, Intel Fellow and Labs Director for Microprocessor and Programming Research. Leading the team responsible for the Terascale Research Processor and Single-Chip Cloud Computer, both of which would feed directly into the development of the now-shipping Xeon Phi 50-core PCI Express board, Held certainly knows his stuff and was an absolute pleasure to talk to.

During the interview, Held touched on how his team’s research will lead to extremely efficient smartphone processors, with new power management features allowing applications greater control over processor states than ever before. The result, in theory, should be smartphones, tablets and laptops with significantly improved battery life – something that is already being implemented in Intel’s current-generation products.

“There’s a lag between when we begin doing research and when things appear in the marketplace,” Held told me. “You’re seeing the benefit – and you will in the Core line as well as the Atom line – the results of our research into how to improve the efficiency of the microarchitecture, and to improve the fine-grained management of the use of power on the die.”

What else does Held have in store for Intel’s future? Pick up the magazine and find out.

Custom PC Issue 113 is available in newsagents, supermarkets, delivered via subscription, and digitally through the Zinio service, so you’ve really no excuse not to read it.

Custom PC, Issue 112

Custom PC, Issue 112This month, my regular Mobile Tech Watch column takes a look at a name from the dim and distant past that is looking to take on ARM and Intel at their own game: MIPS Technologies.

Back in the mists of time, MIPS was a popular RISC architecture, and its low-power chips compete with ARM in the burgeoning palmtop market. I remember having a Philips Nino, a compact little Windows CE device with a greyscale liquid-crystal display and about 8MB of RAM, which was based on a MIPS-architecture chip. Lovely little thing, it was. Had a blue backlight, like a wristwatch.

But I digress.

In this month’s column, I take a look at how MIPS is trying to get back into the mobile market after a hiatus that saw it relegated to niche high-performance computing products. It’s having a certain amount of success, too: its latest chips already have design wins to rival those of Intel, although clearly aren’t making much of an impact against the giant that is ARM and its multitudinous licensees.

Incidentally, this column was originally due to be published in Issue 111, but an interview with Adapteva about the Parallella highly-parallel development platform took precedence. The piece is still germane, despite a month’s delay, although it is lacking one piece of information which only came to light after the issue had gone to press: MIPS is being acquired by low-power graphics specialist Imagination Technology, possibly as a play to produce its own system-on-chip designs with in-house CPU and GPU components.

Custom PC Issue 112 is available from pretty much any supermarket or newsagent, most corner shops, some libraries, and wherever dead-tree magazines are normally found, or can be downloaded as a string of zeroes and ones from the Zinio website.

Custom PC, Issue 111

Custom PC Issue 111This month’s Custom PC sees an interesting diversion from the norm in my Mobile Tech Watch column, as I talk to Andreas Olofsson of Adapteva about his company’s Epiphany architecture and the Parallella project.

If you’ve not come across the concept, Parallella is Adapteva’s attempt to push its innovative many-core co-processor design into the mainstream. Raising money through Kickstarter, the company hopes to produce a credit-card sized development board with a dual-core Cortex-A9 chip alongside a 16-core Epiphany-III co-processor. Should things go well, the company additionally aims to release a more powerful $199 model with a 64-core Epiphany-IV chip.

Andreas is a great guy, whom I’ve interviewed before on many-core computing topics. He’s open about the inspiration for the project – the Raspberry Pi, naturally – and what his company hopes to achieve, and appears to have a realistic attitude towards the issues that stand between Adapteva and mass-market success.

Since writing the piece, the Parallella project has proved popular on Kickstarter, standing at $387,873 pledged of a $750,000 goal. With only nine days to go, however, Adapteva may struggle to hit its target – and, thanks to the all-or-nothing nature of Kickstarter funding, if it misses the target it goes home with nothing.

This piece is to be followed with another interview with Andreas in the next Linux User & Developer magazine, looking further into the open source nature of the Parallella project and the impact the Epiphany co-processor could have on the FOSS community – so if this article interested you, pick up a copy of that too for another look at the project.

Custom PC Issue 111 is available in all good newsagents, plenty of bad ones, the better dentists’ waiting rooms and digitally via Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 110

Custom PC, Issue 110In this month’s Custom PC, I have three features: my regular Mobile Tech Watch column, a bonus opinion column, and a how-to guide on constructing a temperature-sensitive LED from an Arduino microcontroller following a reader request on the Bit-Tech forums.

First, Mobile Tech Watch: on the request of editor Ben Hardwidge, this month’s column looks at cloud gaming technologies – specifically Gaikai and Nvidia’s GeForce Grid proejct – and whether mobile gaming is truly turning a corner. Now, this article was written and submitted before high-profile cloud gaming company OnLive closed, sacked half its staff and re-opened to avoid massive debts, but the article’s focus specifically on Gaikai means it’s none the worse for that.

Cloud gaming is certainly generating plenty of interest: offering console-quality games on mobile platforms, and even branching out into Smart TVs – Samsung has signed a deal with Gaikai to put the company’s technology into its next TV sets for console-free gaming – it’s a something-for-nothing deal for the end-user, but can cost a fortune to run. Even using the very latest Nvidia Grid technology, a Gaikai server can only run four simultaneous streams.

Do I think that cloud gaming has a future, or is it a just a fad? Better read this month’s column to find out, hadn’t you?

Next, the cover-gracing LED temperature sensor feature. Following a reader request, I designed, programmed and constructed a temperature sensor that uses an Arduino to vary the colour of an RGB LED. If the case is cold, the LED is blue; as the case warms up, red is added and blue removed until the LED is completely red.

The code is available on my GitHub repository, while a correction to an equation I fat-fingered in the feature can be found on Bit-Tech.

Finally, the op-ed: normally, I only do a single column for each issue, but illness meant there was a last-minute gap as this issue was going to press. To solve the problem, I stepped in and wrote an opinion column on patents, the problem with patents and a suggestion for how said problem can be resolved. Considering the short deadline and the research-heavy nature of the piece, I’m extremely pleased with how it turned out.

For all this and more, pick up Custom PC Issue 110 wherever geeky magazines are sold, or digitally via Zinio.


Custom PC, Issue 109

Custom PC, Issue 109This month’s Custom PC magazine is a rather special issue: it’s the only place you’ll find a step-by-step photographic feature on how to build Sinclair Computer’s ZX81 kit outside a time-travelling newsagent with good stock of 1981-era magazines.

Having purchased a ZX81 kit from a rapidly-dwindling stock, I knew that I would be building it rather than keeping it unassembled and its purpose in life unfulfilled. I also knew that I’d be trying my damnedest to get a magazine to pick up the story, for the simple reason that there aren’t many of these things left and I wanted as many people to enjoy a little glimpse of history as possible. Thankfully, Custom PC editor Ben Hardwidge agreed – and even put the feature on the top bar of this month’s cover.

The build was an interesting look back at how the face of computing has changed: while Sinclair’s kits required the user to know which end of a soldering iron was safe to hold, modern computing – for all its exponential increase in complexity and power – is relatively simple, requiring little more knowledge than required to put the square peg in the square hole.

It was also a chance for me to exercise my photojournalistic skills, rather than just my writing skills. Using my somewhat outdated Pentax digital SLR, a light tent, two halogen lights and a table-mounted stand, I was able to snap some surprisingly detailed photos using nothing more than the standard 18-55mm kit lens. These photos illustrate every single step, and the art department has done a great job on the layout of the feature.

As well as the exclusive ZX81 build, which has generated considerable interest, this month’s magazine includes my usual Mobile Tech Watch column. This month, I looked at the difference between the x86 and ARM instruction set architectures, and why Intel is going to have its work cut out to compete with ARM in the mobile space.

Finally, this issue includes my review of the Arduino Leonardo, kindly provided by Oomlout. Is it worth the upgrade from the Uno, and are there any downsides to the new single-chip approach taken by the Arduino team in its design? Better pick up a copy of Custom PC and find out, hadn’t you?

Custom PC Issue 109 is available in all good newsagents, most bad ones, and digitally via the Zinio service.

Custom PC, Issue 108

Custom PC Issue 108 CoverIn this month’s Custom PC magazine, my regular Mobile Tech Watch takes a look at some impressive display technologies that are making their way into mobile devices: the Tactus Tactile Layer, LG’s five-inch Full HD panel, and Japan Display’s 651ppi monster.

Apple gets a lot of press for its ‘Retina Display’ products – despite not actually manufacturing or designing the high-resolution panels itself. As the column shows, however, the company is going to have some serious competition on its hands in the near future. LG’s five-inch Full HD panel, for example, boasts a full 1920×1080 resolution for a 440 pixel per inch (ppi) density – blowing Apple’s products out of the water.

For even more detail, Japan Display’s 651ppi panel is difficult to beat – although, sadly, it measures just 2.3 inches diagonally. Both companies’ creations do however demonstrate a growing trend towards increasing pixel density which – when handled cleverly – can result in a major quality boost over existing display systems.

The odd one out this month is Tactus. Unlike LG or Japan Display’s technologies, the Tactus Tactile Layer doesn’t improve the image quality of the device at all. Instead, it adds actual raised keys for a real keyboard-like feeling on tablets and smartphones. How? Well, you’ll have to pick up the latest issue of Custom PC magazine to find out!

The magazine should be in all good – and quite a few sketchy – newsagents now, or you can pick it up on the Zinio digital distribution service.

Custom PC, Issue 107

Custom PC Magazine, Issue 107In this month’s Custom PC Magazine, I continue my regular Mobile Tech Watch column with a look at two interesting technologies for altering the way we interact with mobile phones: Kyocera’s tissue conduction audio system and Disney’s Touché technology.

First, Disney’s Touché. Now Disney isn’t a name regularly associated with high-tech breakthroughs, but Touché is something very special indeed: the mouse-themed company has worked out a process called swept-frequency capacitive sensing, which takes the current state of the art in touch-screen systems and makes something almost entirely new.

Unlike a traditional capacitive or resistive touch-screen, Disney’s Touché can not only track multiple touch points but also whether the finger is bent or straight. It can be applied to large areas cheaply – one suggested application is a sofa which can tell when you’re lying down for a nap and pause your film for you – and even works underwater.

Kyocera’s technology is less immediately impressive, but potentially more useful in the short term. Due to appear in an upcoming Android-based smartphone from the company, the tissue conduction audio system uses a ceramic transducer to vibrate the membranes of the ear – resulting in crystal-clear audio even when the ears are completely blocked.

It’s a technology that has been used in hearing aids, but Kyocera is the first to apply it to a smartphone. By all accounts, it works impressively well: even when using traditional headphones blaring music down the subjects’ lug-holes, the voice on the other end of the line came through loud and clear.

You can read about both technologies in Custom PC Issue 107, on shelves now or available for digital download via the Zinio website.

Custom PC, Issue 106

Custom PC, Issue 106This month’s Custom PC Magazine includes my usual Mobile Tech Watch column along with a central feature: a hands-on guide to the Raspberry Pi.

First, the column. In a slight departure from the norm, I took a look at whether transparent, foldable electronics – as seen in films like Iron Man 2 and Ultraviolet (yes, I watched – and enjoyed – Ultravoilet. Don’t judge me) are in any way possible using current technologies.

The answer came as a surprise: yes, yes they are. Between Samsung’s transparent OLED displays, LG’s flexible electrophoretic screens, Rice University’s transparent and flexible electronics and Yuan Yang’s equally bendy see-through battery technology, it’s well within reach if a company has the R&D funds to spare.

The feature – the first full-length feature I’ve done for Custom PC in a long while – sits in the middle of the mag and holds the coveted “Plus” spot on the cover. Unlike my previous Raspberry Pi pieces, which have been reviews, this is a hands-on how-to tutorial starting off with an overview of what’s on the board and branching out into step-by-step guides on setting it up, turning it into a network attached storage (NAS) device, a home theatre PC, and how to address the general-purpose IO (GPIO) pins through Python. It also includes a section on overclocking, albeit with the required “it’s not a good idea to do this” warning in pride of place.

Sadly, there are a couple of hiccoughs with the piece, introduced during the layout and editing stage. It’s nothing major, although a couple of the commands won’t run correctly without modification. Custom PC’s editor, Ben Hardwidge, has promised that corrections will be published in the next issue and on the Custom PC Facebook page. Meanwhile, here are my original (correct) listings for each broken step:

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Custom PC, Issue 105

Custom PC Magazine, Issue 105In this month’s Mobile Tech Watch, my regular column in Dennis Publishing’s enthusiast-oriented Custom PC Magazine, I cover two major advances in the world of smartphone and tablet technology: STMicro’s creation of the first Secure Digital 3.0 voltage-level translator, and Chamtech’s spray-on antenna technology.

The latter, naturally, is rather more interesting: a military contractor, Chamtech claims to have developed a simple kit which allows antennas for almost any frequency to be applied from a spray can. The result: walls, buildings and even trees can be turned into tunable antennas. For the military, it offer the potential to quickly set up field communications bases using whatever is available at the time; for the mobile industry, it promises a solution to the ‘not in my back yard’ attitude some people have to 3G masts.

Chamtech, sadly, is being somewhat cagey on whether it plans to offer the technology for commercial, rather than military, exploitation – but it would be missing a serious opportunity if it didn’t.

STMicro’s announcement of the first voltage-level translator for SD 3.0, by contrast, is both more prosaic and more likely to result in visible improvements in the short term:  boosting read speeds to 50MB/s and capacities to 2TB, the third major revision to the Secure Digital standard is a big one – and one which will start to make itself known in devices over the coming year.

Custom PC Issue 105 is available in shops now, or for digital download via the Zinio website.

Custom PC, Issue 104

Custom PC Magazine, Issue 104 coverThis month’s Custom PC includes, as is usual, my ongoing Mobile Tech Watch column. In it, I take a look at two waterproofing technologies from HzO and Liquipel, which claim to alter your portable electronics on a molecular level in order to make them fully waterproof without the need for a case, and Qualcomm’s purchase of Pixtronix, a company which makes microelectrical-mechnical system (MEMS) display technologies.

Both sections of this month’s columns have more a feel of how I want the column to work than last month’s, which was a simple round-up of technologies announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES.) Concentrating on just two main technologies allows me to look at things in considerably more depth and, hopefully, provide an informative look at the technology which goes in to mobile devices for Custom PC readers.

Sadly, the timing of the piece could have been better: because the article was written so close to CES, getting in touch with representatives from Liquipel and HzO proved difficult. I was eventually able to get hold of some press materials, but the interviews for which I’d hoped never materialised. Qualcomm and Pixtronix also proved difficult to contact, but for a different reason: as the article was written, Qualcomm announced its intentions to purchase Pixtronix which put paid to any PR activities on either part until the ink was dry on the deal.

Nevertheless, I was – hopefully – able to still produce an interesting piece. At least, nobody’s emailed any death threats yet…

Custom PC issue 104 is in shops now, and is also available on digital newsstand Zinio.