Custom PC, Issue 132

Custom PC Issue 132In this month’s Hobby Tech column I show the reader how to make an Internet of Things ticker-tape system using a cheap thermal printer, talk about the wonderful Internet Archive, review the Cubietruck single-board computer and the Spark Core wireless microcontroller.

First, the Internet Archive. A not-for-profit organisation based in the US, the Internet Archive has no lesser goal than to preserve and provide public access to all media. It’s home to video and audio recordings, text files, books, and the famous WayBack Machine that provides a user-friendly interface to its archived websites. For Hobby Tech, the key feature is found in one particular area of the site: the Computer Magazine Archives, which includes full-colour scans of every issue of BYTE, Commodore Format, Dragon User and more. It’s a treasure-trove of information, and one that relies on public funding to operate.

This month’s tutorial is a riff on the tutorial in Issue 122. Where that used an Arduino to turn a thermal printer into a 21st century fax machine, this tutorial uses the same printer connected to a Raspberry Pi to print a daily summary of your digital life, including local weather reports and a Sudoku puzzle. It also monitors Twitter for mentions of any keyword you like and prints messages as they arrive. Based on the Adafruit IoT Printer project, it’s a neat way to integrate a little physicality into today’s increasingly electronic lifestyle.

Finally, the reviews. First up is the Cubietruck, also known as the Cubieboard 3. Supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the Cubieboard takes the same AllWinner A20 processor as its predecessor but packs it into a new, larger chassis that includes some major improvements. Perhaps the best of these is a bundled acrylic chassis which houses both the board itself and a 2.5in hard drive in an over-under fashion, creating what I’m pretty certain is the smallest network-attached storage (NAS) device I’ve ever seen.

The Spark Core, meanwhile, is another ARM-based single-board computer, but one that aims at a vastly different market. Supplied by CPC following its massively successful début on crowd-funding site Kickstarter, the Spark Core is a microcontroller featuring a teeny-tiny breadboard-compatible layout and a Texas Instruments Wi-Fi chip. Configuration takes place from a smartphone, while the chip itself can be programmed and flashed wirelessly using a browser-based IDE. It’s a neat creation, and one for which I already have several projects in mind.

All this, plus various features written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 131

Custom PC Issue 131Continuing my terrifically successful Hobby Tech column this month, I cover the building of an arcade controller for the Raspberry Pi using genuine parts and the board’s handy-dandy general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, the Software Preservation Society’s KryoFlux floppy imaging device, review the Matrix TBS2910 mini-PC and offer a preview of the first real competitors to the Pi’s reign: the Banana Pi and the Hummingboard.

First, the Matrix: yes, it’s the same board I reviewed for Linux User & Developer this month, so don’t expect any surprises. It’s still a quad-core Freescale i.MX6 design with pre-loaded XBMC-based Linux distribution, designed for use as an open-source platform to encourage sales of TBS’ digital tuner devices. I was a little more generous this time around, mind, as the majority of Custom PC’s readership use Windows as their primary operating system; as a result, the use of a Windows-only utility to switch operating systems on the Matrix isn’t the no-no that it was for Linux User’s readers.

The KryoFlux is probably my personal highlight from this month’s column. Designed and produced by the Software Preservation Society, a not-for-profit group with no lesser aim than the storage and preservation of every game ever released on almost any computing platform, the KryoFlux is a universal floppy drive controller with a USB interface. Combined with the SPS’ software, it allows very low-level sampling of any floppy disk regardless of format, storing details on the magnetic flux transition timings for later decoding. Oh, and you can write disk images back to fresh media. For a collector with a large quantity of decaying magnetic media surrounding him, it’s an absolute lifesaver – if somewhat expensive for its small component count.

This month’s tutorial focuses on turning some old arcade components into a joystick for a Raspberry Pi-powered games console. It’s actually a lot simpler than you might think: digital joysticks are little more than a set of switches, and fire buttons are single switches; the process is no more complicated than the introductory switch-reading project I wrote for the Raspberry Pi User Guide. Combined with some handy-dandy open-source software, it works a treat – as long as your chosen game doesn’t tax the Pi’s poor 700MHz processor too much, of course.

Finally, the Banana Pi and Hummingboard. Both announced at roughly the same time, the two boards are the first in what I’m sure is to be a long line of Raspberry Pi clones. They’re not slavish copies, however: both bring new features to the table, starting with the promise of more power. The Banana Pi, from Chinese embedded computing specialist Lemaker, boasts an AllWinner A20 dual-core module that offers a rough quadrupling of the Pi’s CPU power; the Hummingboard, previously known as SolidRun’s Carrier One, will be available in models up to and included a Freescale i.MX6 quad-core unit. Add in SATA connectivity and even PCI Express, and you’ve got an interesting pair of designs.

I very deliberately didn’t include a review of either device, however: the Banana Pi’s board design is finalised, but the software is in pre-alpha status and is not comparable to the Raspberry Pi’s years-polished offerings. The Hummingboard, meanwhile, has yet to be fully released with my version being a limited-run single-core developer-only prototype kindly provided by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT. The finished version is due soon, and there’s a dual-core mid-range model with my name on it.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your nearest newsagent, supermarket or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services like Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 139

Linux User & Developer Issue 139In addition to my usual four-page news spread, this month’s Linux User & Developer includes a pair of reviews: the PiFace Control & Display add-on for the Raspberry Pi, and the Cubieboard 2 single-board computer.

First, the Cubieboard 2. Despite its name, the Cubieboard 2 is near-identical to the original Cubieboard; where the original had an AllWinner A10 system-on-chip (SoC) processor, however, its successor boasts the more powerful AllWinner A20 – cleverly designed to be pin-compatible for easy upgrades.

Buying the Cubieboard in the UK was never easy, especially given the original model’s limited production run. Low-power computing specialist New IT has solved that problem, becoming a reseller for the boards. That’s good news, because the Cubieboard 2 – and its more powerful follow-up, the Cubietruck – is an impressive device: as well as the dual-core Cortex-A7 1GHz processor, it boasts 1GB of DDR3 memory, 4GB of on-board NAND flash storage – pre-loaded with a customised version of Google’s Android by default – and includes on-board SATA in addition to the usual Ethernet, USB and audio connectivity.

The Cubieboard’s true power is hidden on the underside of the board: a pair of 48-pin headers provide access to almost every single feature on the AllWinner A20 chip, from hacker-friendly I2C and SPI to LVDS and VGA video signals. In my opinion, this alone – even ignoring the significantly improved performance – is a reason to consider paying the premium the board demands over the popular Raspberry Pi.

Speaking of the Pi, the PiFace Control & Display add-on is an impressive piece of equipment. A piggyback board designed to mount onto the Pi’s GPIO header, the PiFace C&D offers a 16×2 character-based LCD panel, a series of buttons and an infra-red receiver – all of which can be addressed using a simple Python-based library, replete with example projects from a game of hangman to a system monitor script.

With the Pi being well-suited to embedded projects thanks to its GPIO capabilities, low power draw and impressive pricing, the PiFace C&D makes implementing such projects without local access to a display and keyboard a cinch. While the pricing is perhaps a little high – doubling the cost of a Model A-based project – it does make life a lot easier.

Finally, my news spread this month covers the launch of the WebScaleSQL MySQL fork, Nvidia’s Jetson K1 developer board, Facebook’s Hack language, the brief tenure of Mozilla chief executive Brendan Eich, the Canonical-KDE display server spat, the rebirth of the Full Disclosure mailing list and more.

For all this, and a bunch of stuff I didn’t write, head to your local newsagent or supermarket, or pick up a digital copy from Zinio. French readers can expect to see the same content, translated and published under the Inside Linux title, on shop shelves next month.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 123

Linux User & Developer, Issue 123This month’s Linux User & Developer contains just a single piece of mine, a review of the quite remarkable CuBox microcomputer – largely thanks to previous pieces for rival magazines and my book the Raspberry Pi User Guide having excluded me from taking part in the cover-splashed Raspberry Pi birthday activities.

The reason I call the CuBox remarkable is due to its size: measuring just 55mm x 55mm and 42mm tall with a weight of 91g, it makes the Raspberry Pi look like a behemoth of a system. It also comes with its own cleverly-designed case and a selection of features that make it clear it is intended for home theatre use: a front-mounted IrDA receiver allows for remote control, while optical audio out provides digital clarity for music. Coupled with a gigabit Ethernet connection and a 3Gb/s eSATA port for external storage, you’ve got a powerful little machine.

Internally, the CuBox reveals its secret: it’s not a single-board computer like the Raspberry Pi at all, relying instead on a mezzanine layout that splits some functionality out into a daughterboard. The presence of a heatsink – well, a bent piece of aluminium thermal-taped to the 800MHz Marvell Armada ARMv7 system-on-chip processor – also comes as a surprise.

But can the CuBox justify its top-end £105 pricing – UPDATE: since the review was written, the price has dropped to £95 – when rival devices like the popular Raspberry Pi and far faster Olimex A13-OLinuXino-WiFi cost so much less? You’ll have to buy the magazine to find out.

Linux User & Developer Issue 123 is available in selected supermarkets and newsagents, digitally via Zinio or direct through the official website.