Custom PC, Issue 169

Custom PC Issue 169My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC features three reviews: the CubieBoard 6 single-board computer, the Digilent OpenScope MZ open-hardware multi-function oscilloscope, and a book detailing the rise and fall of gaming legends the Bitmap Brothers.

The CubieBoard 6, to start, was kindly provided by low-power computing specialist New IT. Despite its high version number, the device felt like a blast from the past as soon as I opened the box: it’s based on almost exactly the same form factor as the original CubieBoard and its successor the CubieBoard 2, after which creator CubieTech moved towards bulkier designs with up-to-eight-core processors. A return to form is no bad thing: CubieTech boasts that the CubieBoard 6 can be used as a drop-in replacement for most CubieBoard 1 and 2 projects.

For the review, I ran the device through the usual raft of benchmarks and gave it a direct comparison to the Raspberry Pi 3 with which it competes. One interesting shift from the norm, though, was in thermal imagery analysis which revealed that the CubieBoard’s SATA-to-USB bridge chip draws considerable power even when no SATA device is connected – something that would have been difficult to ascertain any other way.

The OpenScope MZ, meanwhile, is a very different beast – though, technically speaking, also a single-board computer of sorts. The successor to Digilent’s original OpenScope, the OpenScope MZ is a hobbyist- and education-centric open-hardware dual-channel oscilloscope with additional functionality as a function generator, power supply, and logic analyser. Where it differs from its competition, though, is in the presence of a Wi-Fi chip which allows you to connect to the device remotely – which, coupled with the browser-based software used to drive the thing makes it compatible with everything from Windows desktops to a Raspberry Pi or smartphone running the Linux variant of your choice.

Finally, The Bitmap Brothers Universe is a fantastic coffee table tome charting the history of the titular giants of gaming familiar to any Amiga owner present or former. Written based on painstaking interview work by Duncan Harris and published by Read Only Memories, the bulk of the book is in single-colour print with reproduced concept art and illustrations breaking up the prose; the exception comes in the form of colour plates on glossy black paper, which use a series of neat post-process effects in an attempt to simulate their appearance on an old cathode-ray tube (CRT) display Рthe way they were originally meant to be seen.

All this, and the usual interesting things written by others, can be found on the shelves of your local supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 166

Linux User & Developer Issue 166This month’s Linux User & Developer includes a¬†review of the Cubietruck Plus – also known as the Cubieboard 5 – I previously reviewed in Custom PC Issue 154.

CubieTech’s latest design, the Cubietruck Plus borrows the overall design from its predecessor but swaps out the weedy dual-core Allwinner A20 processor for an altogether beefier H8 octa-core chip. Kindly supplied for review by low-power computing specialist New IT, I was eager to put the board through its paces – especially as previous octa-core single-board computer (SBC) designs have suffered from some reliability issues when fully loaded for extended periods.

Sadly, as with my earlier review, there’s one piece of information which didn’t come to light prior to the deadline: devices, including single-board computers, based on Allwinner chips and using the company’s modified Linux kernel source have been found to suffer from a back-door which allows any process running on the system to silently and immediately gain root-level (superuser) privileges. While it doesn’t allow for remote execution, it can make existing bugs more readily exploitable – and if you’re using the Cubietruck Plus or any other Allwinner-based device, it’s worth checking to see if you’re affected.

This aside, the Cubietruck Plus certainly impressed during both reviews – though if you want to find out if I think it justifies its considerable price premium over the four-core Raspberry Pi 3, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.

Micro Mart, Issue 1349

Micro Mart Issue 1349It’s been a while since I’ve graced the pages of Dennis Publishing’s popular weekly Micro Mart, with my last being a cover feature on the ARM architecture in Issue 1235 followed by a feature on Valve’s Steam Box console plans in Issue 1251. For this latest issue, I’ve penned a review of the Raspberry Pi 2 single-board computer as kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT.

As the author of the Raspberry Pi User Guide, which will be entering its fourth edition by the end of the year, I can safely say I bring a certain amount of knowledge to the table for this particular topic. The Micro Mart coverage is one of the first print reviews to be published, with a longer review due to appear in my Hobby Tech column in a future Custom PC Magazine issue.

The Raspberry Pi itself, of course, needs little introduction. In its most recent revision, properly known as the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, the team have replaced the ageing Broadcom BCM2835 single-core ARMv6 system-on-chip (SoC) processor with a specially-designed drop-in replacement: the quad-core ARMv7 BCM2836. The result is a device significantly more powerful than its predecessor, but one for which software to take full advantage of its capabilities is still thin on the ground.

If you’d like to read the full review, Micro Mart Issue 1349 is available in all good newsagents, most supermarkets, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 148

Linux User & Developer Issue 147As well as my usual four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes a two-page review of the CubieBoard 4 single-board computer and a chunk of work I did for the Ultimate Distro & FOSS Guide 2015.

Looking at the guide first, it’s a natural follow-on to the work I’ve done in years past for the magazine. Each year, a multi-page round-up of the ‘best’ Linux distributions is published; this year, deputy editor Gavin Thomas asked for something a little different. The result: a write-up of picks for ‘best’ distribution in a variety of categories, but also covering free and open-source software (FOSS) packages which can be installed in any distribution to extend its capabilities in a given category.

Some of the feature was written in-house by the magazine’s staff writers, but I was given four categories relevant to my expertise: Linux for developers, for enterprises, for security professionals, and for those looking for a distribution with rolling-release development methodology. In each case, a top pick was selected along with three alternatives. Five FOSS packages relating to the category were also highlighted, except in the rolling-release section where instead I highlighted five general-purpose FOSS packages which have received my personal seal of approval.

My review of the CubieBoard 4 from low-power computing specialist New IT takes the perspective of a Linux-confident user, as is usual for the magazine. As a result, some of the software-related disadvantages I highlighted in my review of the same hardware for Custom PC don’t apply – although it’s still fair to say that CubieTech should spend a little more time on polishing the sharp edges of its software releases before it brings out yet another new product.

For those unfamiliar, the big selling point of the CubieBoard 4 is that it packs eight ARM-based processing cores into a low-power fanless design. Using ARM’s big.LITTLE design paradigm, four are high-performance cores while four are low-power cores. Unlike its rivals, however, the CubieBoard 4’s AllWinner A80 chip provides the host OS with access to all eight cores simultaneously – making for a seriously powerful machine for multi-threaded use. While heat builds up quickly if you’re thrashing all eight cores, it’s one of the most powerful SBCs I’ve tested besting even the ¬£199.99 Nvidia Jetson TK1 on CPU-bound multi-threaded tasks.

All this, plus my regular four-page look at upcoming events and everything interesting in the open source, open hardware, open governance and anything-else-open-I-think-of world, is available now at your local newsagent or digitally via Zinio and similar services. As always, my content will be republished translated into French in the coming months as part of Inside Linux Magazine.

UPDATE 20150130:

Since writing the CubieBoard 4 review, which was based on the v1.1 hardware revision, CubieTech has modified the board and released v1.2. New IT has kindly sent out an updated model, and there are numerous changes for the better: the Wi-Fi antenna no longer pushes up against a case bolt, the glue-on heatsink has been swapped out for a push-pin version with a tube of thermal interface material (TIM) and an air-gap between the fins and the top of the case, and the case itself has been revised to accommodate the push-pins. The GPIO header also now comes with a pin mapping table silk-screened directly onto the PCB for quick reference. While none of these improvements are dramatic enough to alter the overall score, they’re certainly welcomed.

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.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 145

Linux User & Developer Issue 145In addition to my usual four-page news spread this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes a review of the SolidRun HummingBoard-i2eX, a powerful dual-core microcomputer designed to be roughly Raspberry Pi compatible.

If my description of the HummingBoard sounds familiar, it should: I reviewed the same device in a head-to-head with the similarly Raspberry Pi-inspired Banana Pi in Custom PC Issue 134. Where that review focused on a hobbyist perspective – given that it appeared in my regular five-page spread, Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech – this review is more tailored for the Linux crowd to better address the magazine’s target audience. The board itself, of course, remains unchanged: a dual-core Freescale i.MX6 processor with powerful graphics is installed alongside a chunk of RAM on a computer-on-module (COM) mezzanine board inserted into a feature-packed expansion board, both being supplied by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT.

Little time passed between the two reviews, so there wasn’t any chance for SolidRun to tweak the software. At the time of writing, Android 4.4 KitKat was available alongside a Debian variant which truly unlocked the power of the processor. Most impressive of all, however, is the cross-compatibility: the HummingBoard is based on the Carrier-One, an internal development board used by SolidRun while testing the Freescale chip; the same chip is available in single-, dual- and quad-core flavours in the company’s CuBox-i family of media-centric microcomputers – and the HummingBoard is entirely software-compatible, to the extent of being able to take a micro-SD card out of a CuBox-i and boot it on a HummingBoard without modification.

As to whether the board, which includes mSATA and mini-PCI Express connectivity in addition to the usual USB and GPIO features you’d expect of a Raspberry Pi-alike, is worth the cash, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to find out. If you do, you’ll also find four pages of the finest news I could cull from the worlds of open software, open hardware, open governance and more – along with the usual monthly event calendar.

You can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 145 at your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 135

Custom PC Issue 135There’s no tutorial in this month’s Hobby Tech, for one simple reason: the only interesting thing I built this month is actually from a kit, and more suited to a review-format write-up. As a result, you’ll find in the pages of Custom PC Issue 135 a two-page review of the Pi2Go-Lite robot kit, a spread on my visit to the Wuthering Bytes festival in Hebden Bridge, and a review of the surprisingly powerful CuBox-i4Pro.

Starting with the robot, Gareth Davies of UK-based educational electronics concern 4tronix was kind enough to send me an early sample of a Raspberry Pi-powered robotics kit he has put together. Dubbed the Pi2Go-Lite, it’s a cost-reduced solder-it-yourself version of a more feature-filled and pre-assembled Pi2Go design. Despite this, it’s hardly lacking in features: as well as a pair of motors driving wheels with rubber tyres and a metal 360-degree bearing caster at the front, the robot includes numerous sensors including infra-red for line-following and impact warnings and ultrasonic for distance measuring.

The kit was a delight to build, being mostly through-hole components with a small introduction to surface-mount soldering in order to – rather cleverly, in my opinion – mount standard through-hole infra-red sensors on the front edge of the main circuit board. The robot itself is driven from the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header – Pi not supplied – which is in turn driven by a set of AA batteries. I had great fun with the build, and I’d recommend checking out the review if you fancy a bit of Python-powered robotics yourself.

Wuthering Bytes, as those who follow me on Twitter – or, indeed, in real life – will know, is a maker-themed technology event in Hebden Bridge each year. As with last year’s event, I was invited by co-founder Andrew Back to comp√®re the Friday’s formal talk sessions and then used that to guilt the team into letting me attend the Saturday talks and Sunday workshops for free. Personal highlights of the event included a talk by Sophie Wilson, co-inventor of the ARM processor architecture, on the future of semiconductors and some excellent hands-on workshops on the Sunday – and I’m already looking forward to Wuthering Bytes 2015.

Finally, the CuBox-i4Pro. Kindly supplied by the lovely Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT, SolidRun’s latest revision of the ultra-compact CuBox concept features an amazingly powerful quad-core Freescale i.MX6 processor. It’s the quad-core variant, in fact, of the chip you’ll find in the HummingBoard I reviewed last month, with SolidRun having worked to ensure software written for one can be used on the other.

For all this, plus various things written by people who aren’t me, you’ll want to either venture to your local newsagent or supermarket or stay in and download a digital copy of Custom PC Issue 135 via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 134

Custom PC Issue 134In this month’s Hobby Tech column I spend a fair amount of my time looking at the excellent Gamebuino, an Arduino-compatible hand-held games console I had the pleasure of backing on Indiegogo. As well as an interview with its creator, Aur√©lien Rodot, there’s a tutorial on building a cut-down variant on a breadboard, alongside a pair of reviews covering the Banana Pi and HummingBoard i2eX.

First, the reviews. I’ve had a prototype HummingBoard and a retail-model Banana Pi for a while, but have held off on giving either a proper review – although Issue 131 did include a preview of both. In the case of the HummingBoard, I needed to wait for final-release hardware; the Banana Pi, meanwhile, suffered from low-quality early-release software. Thankfully, both issues have now been addressed – the former thanks to the ever-lovely New IT, the latter due to the diligent work of the software developers working on the Banana Pi project – and I’ve been able to dedicate two pages this issue to a full head-to-head review of both devices.

My interview with Rodot comes off the back of his hugely successful Indiegogo campaign to build an Arduinio-compatible hand-held games console. Ending more than a thousand per cent above his original goal, the project caught the public’s attention in a major way – and with one of the finished products in my hand, it’s easy to see why. Although its 32KB of program storage, 2KB of RAM and tiny Nokia LCD are minimalist, the device is easily accessible for those wanting to learn game programming and can even act as an I¬≤C controller thanks to two broken-out buses on the top-side.

Sadly, there’s no way to get your hands on a Gamebuino post-Indiegogo until Rodot launches his web store – planned for October, he tells me – so to tide readers over this month’s column includes a two-page tutorial on building your own. Although significantly cut down compared to the real thing – there’s no light sensor, speaker, battery, or micro-SD card reader – it’s a quick and easy project that allows users to start playing with the Gamebuino ecosystem ahead of the device’s general availability.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 143

Linux User & Developer Issue 143In this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine you’ll find, in addition to my usual four-page news spread, a review of the Banana Pi – a ‘clone’ of the Raspberry Pi featuring upgraded specifications.

I first discussed the Banana Pi in Custom PC Issue 131, where I compared it to the impending launch of the SolidRun HummingBoard. I shied away from offering a true review of either device, however: the HummingBoard had not been released at the time and I was working on pre-production hardware, while the Banana Pi suffered from glitchy software that its creators assured me would be addressed in future updates. Sure enough, the software has now been bolstered and works like a charm – giving me the chance to really put the Banana Pi through its paces.

There’s been plenty of negative sentiment towards the Banana Pi since it hit the Chinese market, mostly centring around its clearly Raspberry Pi-inspired name and more-or-less cloned layout. I, however, welcome its release: with a more powerful Raspberry Pi at least a year or more away from release, the Banana Pi is a perfect upgrade for those who find the Raspberry’s single-core ARMv6 processor – woefully out of date by modern standards, having been near-obsolete when the board launched two years ago – lacking.

The Banana Pi isn’t just a slavish copy, either. Sure, the 26-pin GPIO header is present and correct and you’ll find the right ports in more or less the right places, but the board includes a dual-core ARMv7 processor, 1GB of RAM, SATA connectivity and even an on-board microphone. In short, it’s a serious upgrade and offers considerably more software compatibility than the device from which it takes its inspiration – including the ability to run Android, something that was promised for the Raspberry Pi shortly after launch but never materialised.

If you want to read my conclusion on whether the board is worth the ¬£41.95 that UK reseller New IT is charging, you’ll have to pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 143 either physically or via Zinio and similar digital distribution service. If you do, you’ll also find four pages of the latest open source and open hardware news, an events calendar, and a variety of things written by people who aren’t me.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 142

Linux User & Developer Issue 142This month’s Linux User & Developer includes, in addition to my usual four-page news spread, a review of the Cubietruck single-board computer from the creators of the Cubieboard family.

I reviewed the Cubietruck’s predecessor, the lower-cost Cubieboard 2, back in Issue 139. Glancing at the specifications, it’s easy to see they’re related: the same AllWinner A20 dual-core system-on-chip ARMv7 processor is present and correct, although the DDR3 memory has been doubled to 2GB. The general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header is also shifted, moved from the underside location of the Cubieboard 2 to the top side in a more traditional layout, but in doing so its creators have chopped the number of pins from 96 to 54.

The loss of GPIO pins is matched by the addition of extra features not present in the Cubieboard 2: integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity using an on-board chip antenna and a gigabit Ethernet connection. That makes the Cubietruck an interesting device for low-power storage: the system comes bundled with a case that allows a 2.5″ hard drive to be slung under the unit with both 5V power and SATA data passing up to the Cubieboard’s on-board ports via a small cut-out in the PCB. It’s clever, although a slightly bottlenecked network means you won’t get the full gigabit throughput you’d see on a more powerful x86-based server.

The real question with the Cubietruck, however, is whether it’s worth the price. Supplier New IT sells the Cubietruck for ¬£89.95, a ¬£40 premium over its predecessor. While that price does come with the features listed above plus the aforementioned acrylic case and a small, optional, heatsink for the SoC, whether it’s worth the extra will depend on your target application.

To find out my final opinion on the device, plus to read about all the latest news in the world of free, libre and open-source software, open governance and more, pick up a copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 142 at your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio or a similar service. French readers will, as always, see a translation of my news and review appear in Inside Linux Magazine in the coming months.