Custom PC, Issue 156

Custom PC Issue 156The latest installment of my long-running Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is four-strong this month: as well as a two-page review of the Particle Electron GSM microcontroller, you’ll find reviews of the Pimoroni Black Hat Hack3r family of Raspberry Pi add-on boards, vintage computing simulator TIS-100, and a look at open-source laser-cut tool holder designs from Wim Van Gool.

First, the tool holders. I’ve never been known for keeping my workspace neat and tidy, but I’ve found that as long as there is something nearby to slot things in I can be trusted to put things back at least half of the time. Trouble is, pen holders are somewhat ill-suited to smaller tools and dedicated tool holders are expensive. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that Wim Van Gool had published design files for a pair of tool holders designed specifically for the sort of compact tools you need for detail electronics work to Thingiverse – and, better still, that they could be cut from cheap medium-density fibreboard (MDF).

The Particle Electron, meanwhile, came to me courtesy a Kickstarter campaign I backed following my delight with the Particle Photon – or, as it was known when I reviewed it back in Issue 132, the Spark Core – Wi-Fi microcontroller. Like its predecessor, the Particle Electron is Arduino-like and powered by Particle’s excellent web-based IDE and cloud infrastructure; where the Photon uses Wi-Fi to connect, though, the Electron uses international mobile infrastructure in either 2G (as reviewed) or 3G flavours. For remote projects where Wi-Fi connectivity can’t be guaranteed, that’s fantastic – but be aware that there are ongoing costs, and that the device is locked down to Particle’s own SIM card (supplied).

Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r boards, meanwhile, are significantly less ‘clever’: at their hearts, the Black Hat Hack3r and Mini Black Hat Hack3r are nothing more than break-out boards for the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin GPIO header. Designed in-house to speed Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) development and released as a product following considerable demand, the ‘dumb’ break-out boards are nevertheless a treat to use: it’s possible to connect a HAT to any model of Pi minus the Compute Module and still retain access to all 40 pins for additional hardware or debugging purposes, or even to daisy-chain the boards to connect multiple HATs to a single Pi – if you don’t mind hacking around the EEPROM issues that may cause.

Finally, TIS-100. I don’t normally¬†review games, but TIS-100 isn’t a normal¬†game: developed by Zachtronics, the creator of Spacechem and the Ruckingeneur series, TIS-100 gives the player control of a fictional 1980s computer system – the Tessellated Intelligence System – with a simplified instruction set. The task: to rewrite corrupted segments of the computer’s firmware, and in doing so uncover the mystery of what happened to the machine’s last owner ‘Uncle Rudy.’ In short: it’s half-game, half-programming-exercise – and pretty much all fantastic.

All this, plus a wealth of other stuff from people other than myself, is awaiting you at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 152

Linux User & Developer Issue 152The pages of this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine include, in addition to my regular four-page news spread near the front, a review of the interesting Bq Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition smartphone.

While it’s a shift from my usual review fodder – although I have reviewed Android tablets for a LU&D group-test a few years ago – the Bq Aquaris is an interesting beast. Based on hardware designed for an entry-level Android smartphone, the operating system has been replaced with a very-early-release build of Ubuntu Touch, otherwise known as Ubuntu for Phones and born from the abortive Ubuntu for Android project.

As the name suggests, Ubuntu for Phones is designed specifically for smartphones and includes UI modifications as required. Its biggest innovation is in Scopes, app-like ‘views’ which gather information from multiple – though, at present, very limited – sources for at-a-glance viewing. The Today scope, for example, shows weather and upcoming appointments, while a Nearby scope shows weather and nearby Yelp listings.

The whole thing feels like a mash-up between Android 1.5, webOS, and Sailfish, complete with a card-like multitasking environment and gesture-based access to various system functions. Ubuntu for Phones’ biggest selling-point, though, is the ability to act as a converged device by connecting to a display, keyboard and mouse and switching to a desktop-style user interface – a feature entirely missing from the entry-level Aquaris, which will be a disappointment for anyone who remembers the failed crowd-funding campaign for the top-end Ubuntu Edge device.

If you want to know my conclusions, Linux User & Developer Issue 152 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio: Linux User & Developer and similar services.