Linux User & Developer, Issue 163

Linux User & Developer Issue 163This month’s Linux User & Developer includes my review of the Arduino-produced and Intel-chip-toting Genuino 101 microcontroller and the final five-page news spread, with publisher Imagine shuffling things around and taking the news coverage in-house after lo these many years.

Kindly supplied as a press sample by Intel, the Genuino 101 is special for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s one of the first commercially-available devices to be sold under the new Genuino brand outside the US – a necessity thanks to some hairy legal wrangling between two competing companies who have a claim to the Arduino trademark. Secondly, it’s the first outing for Intel’s new Curie module, a wearable-centric system-on-chip that combines microcomputer and microcontroller functionality.

Where Intel’s previous efforts at developing boards for the maker market have been somewhat hard to love, it’s definitely doing something right with the Genuino 101. The board is based on the popular Arduino Uno layout, includes 5V-safe pins despite running 3.3V logic, and can run most Arduino sketches unmodified. Better still, the Curie module includes integrated Bluetooth Low Energy support and an accelerometer sensor.

The design of the chip, though, is odd, and it’s something on which I focus during the review: the Curie uses two processors, an x86 Quark based on the old Pentium microarchitecture to run an underlying real-time operating system (RTOS) and an Argonaut RISC Core (ARC) which takes care of being a microcontroller and actually running the Arduino sketch. At the time of writing, the divide was stark: the Quark is entirely locked off from user access, taking over automatically for tasks like Bluetooth communication when requested by the ARC. While Intel has promised to release the source for the RTOS, allowing users to run their own code on the Quark as well as the ARC, this has yet to materialise.

Despite this, I was impressed with the Genuino 101 – but to read my full conclusion, you’ll have to hie thee hence to a supermarket, newsagent, or snag an electronic copy via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 161

Linux User & Developer Issue 161To say this month’s Linux User & Developer is a bumper issue is something of an understatement: in addition to my usual four-page news spread, you’ll find a three-strong group test of Steam Machines and a detailed step-by-step guide to building your own Linux box from a pile of parts.

First, the group test. Editor Gavin Thomas contacted me with the news that they had an Alienware Steam Machine in, and asked whether I would be able to source and review a rival device for a head-to-head. I went one better, the overachiever that I am, and thanks to the very lovely people at CyberPower and Zotac I was able to pick up a Syber and NEN to be run through their paces alongside the Alienware.

For Linux User & Developer, the Steam Machines were very new territory. The magazine has previously focused largely on professional uses for Linux, but the launch of mainstream-targeted console-beating gaming PCs running Steam OS – Valve’s gaming-centric customisation of Debian Linux – couldn’t be ignored. I started by designing a series of benchmarks which could be run across all three machines in order to provide a performance comparison, which then needed to take into account the price difference between the two entry-level machines from Alienware and CyberPower and the top-end Zotac NEN. The winner? Well, you’ll have to read the review.

A major group test like this would normally be enough, but Gavin also asked me to come up with a cover feature for the issue: building your own Linux machine. As with the group test, this issue marks the first time Linux User & Developer has strayed into the PC-building arena, and Gavin was looking for someone who could lend an expert eye to the hardware side of the feature.

After an initial hiccough with a parts supplier that let me down, the wonderful people at Overclockers UK were kind enough to loan me a shopping cart full of hardware, including an Intel Skylake processor. The specifications of the machine were kept low enough to appeal to buyers on a budget looking for a future-proof bargain, while having enough poke to ensure a pleasant experience. Naturally, the hardware was chosen specifically with Linux compatibility in mind – though the Skylake family of processors does require the Linux 4.4 kernel or newer to run at its full potential, which is covered in the software-centric second half of the feature.

Issue 161 is definitely a personal highlight, containing as it does such a large percentage of contents from my trusty keyboard. You can see the result for yourself with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent, or through digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 160

Linux User & Developer Issue 160In this month’s Linux User & Developer, following my regular four-page news spread, you’ll find a review of a device that’s a little out of the ordinary: the NeuG, a true random number generator (TRNG) which costs a remarkably small amount.

When you’re using cryptography, you’re chewing up your system’s supply of randomness – or entropy. Linux, in common with other operating systems, works to fill its entropy pool by sampling a variety of things: traffic coming in on the network port, where you’re pointing the mouse and how fast it’s moving, and even how long it takes you to press particular keys. That’s all well and good for a desktop, but for a headless server it can take a while to fill a depleted entropy pool.

Coupled with the fact that it’s very difficult for a computer to produce truly random output, there’s a market for true random number generators. These devices typically cost a small fortune but use a variety of techniques – ranging from physically breaking down pieces of hardware with high voltages and measuring the resulting changes to pointing a webcam at a lava lamp – to generate a constant stream of high-quality entropy.

Enter the NeuG, which was kindly supplied for test by the Free Software Foundation. While it looks like a flash drive that has lost it’s casing, the device is actually a miniature computer in its own right. Using on-board analogue sensors, the NeuG can generate what is claimed to be a stream of true random numbers – numbers which are then pushed through a conditioning hash and spat out of a virtual serial port. Simply link the NeuG to something like the rngd entropy gathering daemon, and kiss goodbye to entropy exhaustion in even headless or virtualised environments.

I have been extremely impressed with the NeuG, especially given its low $50 cost. While there are cheaper alternatives – such as using a $5 Pi Zero and USB TTL serial adapter to create something similar using the BCM2835’s on-board hardware random number generator module – the NeuG’s free nature, whereby the design and source code are all available for review and modification, make it a great choice where certified security isn’t a requirement.

For the full run-down, including benchmarks, you can pick up the latest issue of Linux User & Developer from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 159

Linux User & Developer Issue 159My review for this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine is the frankly impressive CompuLab Fitlet miniature PC, which joins my usual four-page news spread between the publication’s ever-colourful covers.

I first reviewed the Fitlet in Custom PC Issue 148, published last month, but where that review focused on the device’s suitability for the hobbyist and for general-purpose computing my version for Linux User naturally takes the perspective of a die-hard Linux… well, user. As a result, the fact that CompuLab supplied it with a pre-installed version of Linux Mint 17.2 was a bonus – although there’s nothing to stop you wiping the system and installing any other flavour you fancy, thanks to its entirely standard architecture.

Traditionally, driver support in Linux has always been a pain when it comes to shiny new hardware. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a device on the test-bench and found that it requires a bleeding-edge kernel or an array of patches to even boot – but not so the Fitlet. Everything, from the wireless to accelerated graphics, was working just fine out-the-box with the sole exception of the General Purpose Input-Output (GPIO) header – an oversight the company has since corrected with the release of an official SDK.

The sheer array of options on offer is enough to turn anyone’s head, too. Those who like an uncluttered desk will find the VESA bracket accessory a must-have; others might find the DIN rail mount a better choice; still more could opt for the larger passive heatsink to overclock the CPU – a one-setting feature directly in the BIOS, requiring no modification and with no effect on warranty – to wring some more performance out. It’s even possible to spec the Fitlet with different ports thanks to its modular Function And Connectivity Extension T-card (FACET) system: the dual-Ethernet single-eSATA default can be quickly modified to quadruple-Ethernet, if that’s your sort of thing.

It’s fair to say I’m a big fan of the Fitlet, and to read the review in full – plus all the latest happenings in the world of open source – all you need do is head to your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or download the issue digitally via Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 158

Linux User & Developer Issue 158As always, you’ll find two pieces of mine in this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine: the four-page news spread, and a review of Hewlett Packard’s latest Ubuntu-based entry-level laptop, the HP 255 G3.

Based on low-power AMD accelerated processing units, there are three devices to HP’s Ubuntu-powered laptop range: the entry-level 255 G3, as tested; the mid-range 355 G3; and the top-end, yet still budget-friendly, 455 G3. Prices increase by £50 each step up the ladder you take, jumping from just shy of £200 for the 255 G3 to £300 for the 455.

It’s fair to say HP’s hedging its bets with the x55 G3 family: while the model I tested arrived with Canonical’s Ubuntu installed, all versions are also available with Microsoft’s Windows on instead – a fact telegraphed by the use of the Windows logo on the Super key across all models, including the Ubuntu variants. That’s not something I can hold against the company, though: Linux on desktops and laptops has always been a hard sell, though in my opinion it would do better concentrating on higher-end models for developers – as rival Dell did with its Project Sputnik.

Supplied by nearby e-tailer Ebuyer, I had a blast reviewing the laptop – it made a real change from the usual teeny-tiny microcomputers, and photographing something with a back-lit screen is always a fun challenge. I was also surprised to see just how capable the entry-level model was, although it was disappointing to find the now more than three-year-old Ubuntu 12.04 LTS as the operating system of choice.

For my final conclusion on the device, my regular four-page news spread, and a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 158 in your nearest newsagent or supermarket now, or grab it digitally from Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 156

Linux User & Developer Issue 156This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine features a review of a rather special device, Bunnie Huang’s Novena, on top of my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the open source world.

When noted hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang announced that he was to create an open-hardware and open-software laptop, driven by the increasingly closed nature of off-the-shelf alternatives, I was immediately interested. Sadly, when the Novena project’s crowd-funding campaign went live, the pricing – entirely justified by the small production run planned – meant I couldn’t justify a purchase. Thankfully, I have numerous friends in the open hardware community who could – and one, Aaron Nielsen of local Arduino specialist oomlout, was kind enough to lend me his once it had arrived.

The unit I reviewed was the desktop Novena variant, which lacks the battery and charging hardware of the laptop model. Otherwise, it’s the same: an ARM-based open hardware computer in a smart aluminium chassis, designed to be as hackable as possible. It’s also the only system I’ve ever reviewed that came with a selection of tools and a tube of thread-locking compound – required to assemble the device, which arrives in pieces. Even the screen, a Full HD LCD panel, is separate upon delivery – and the assembly instructions include stern warnings on exactly where not to hold it if you want a working Novena at the end of the process.

The Novena certainly isn’t for everyone. Its performance is good for an ARM-based system, but orders of magnitude slower than an x86 machine for computationally-intensive tasks. To concentrate on performance is missing the point, though: the Novena is billed as the hacker’s playground, with everything from the board design and firmware to the microcontroller that drives the optional battery charger available for a sufficiently knowledgeable user to investigate and modify. Add to that a grid-based hardware prototyping area and clever add-ons, including a software defined radio module based on the Myriad-RF 1 from client Lime Microsystems, and you’ve got a seriously tempting device.

The full review, plus my regular news spread, can be read now by visiting your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or by staying where you are and picking up a digital copy via Zinio or similar service.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 155

Linux User & Developer Issue 155This month’s Linux User & Developer magazine, in addition to my usual four-page news spread at the front, includes just one review from my keyboard: the LeMaker Banana Pro single-board computer.

The story of China’s Banana-themed SBCs is one of intrigue, and bears a brief recap. The family started with the Banana Pi, a functional clone of the popular Raspberry Pi with enhanced specifications. Retaining the overall layout of the original Model B, the Banana Pi included a more powerful dual-core AllWinner A20 processor and an on-board SATA port, along with a few less explicable extras like a built-in microphone.

Sales in China were fair, but it’s the ecosystem which is of interest: various models of Banana Pi-based SBCs have been released, thanks to its open-hardware nature, including units that double as wireless routers or even network switches.

The Banana Pro is a direct replacement for the Banana Pi, designed by LeMaker. While keeping most of the specifications – the AllWinner A20 chip, 1GB of RAM, a gigabit Ethernet port – the board has received an overhaul, boasting a more streamlined design which borrows from both the Raspberry Pi Model B and Model B Plus. As a result, you’ll find an extended GPIO header – finished in fetching yellow – and the removal of the dedicated composite video output jack, but only two USB ports – plus the USB OTG port.

When the Banana Pi launched, it offered more power and wider compatibility than the Raspberry Pi it aimed to emulate; with the launch of the quad-core Raspberry Pi 2, however, the two leapfrogged once more. Keeping the dual-core A20 may have been a mistake, as for roughly the same price the official Raspberry Pi 2 offers far more performance – but, that said, real USB ports and SATA connectivity, along with gigabit Ethernet, are features not to be sniffed at.

If you want to read my full conclusion, along with my four-page spread of the latest news from the world of Linux, open hardware and open source, pick up your copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 155 from your nearest newsagent or supermarket now, or get it from the comfort of your own home electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 154

Linux User & Developer Issue 154As always, this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes my four-page news spread along with a review: the PiBorg UltraBorg robot-centric controller board.

I originally reviewed the UltraBorg in The MagPi Issue 33, where I focused on its use as a Raspberry Pi-driven accessory. In the more general-audience Linux User & Developer, however, I was free to take a broader view – which is good, because the UltraBorg is happy working with any microcontroller or microcomputer that can talk I²C to it.

Designed for robotics use, the UltraBorg combines two requirements: sensing and control. There are eight channels, split into two: four are used to control up to four servos or stepper motors via pulse-width modulation (PWM), something the Raspberry Pi can’t do without add-on hardware; the other four are used to pull in values from popular models of ultrasonic distance sensor. The result: using a single board, you can interface with everything you’d need for quite a complex robotics project.

There’s a lot to light about the UltraBorg: it’s small, it’s reasonably affordable, and it combines the two requirements for basic robotics projects. It’s also surprisingly high-resolution, and includes non-volatile memory which is used to store movement limits and zero positions – and if you’ve ever watched your robot shake itself to death on a reset because these were forgotten, you’ll be glad of it. It can also be extended by daisy-chaining multiple units together, if you need more than four channels of motor control or distance sensing.

If you want to read my full conclusion, though, you’ll need to pick up the latest issue, and if you do you’ll discover that the news pages have had an overhaul. The often-ignored calendar section is gone, in favour of a chart run-down powered by data from Distrowatch. There’s also a regular top-five section, and a few other improvements which I think readers should enjoy.

All this, plus things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 153

Linux User & Developer Issue 153In addition to my regular four-page news spread at the front of the magazine, this month’s issue of Linux User & Developer includes a review of the Gizmo 2 single-board computer – a powerful follow-up to the original, which I reviewed back in Issue 125.

Like its predecessor, the Gizmo 2 is based around an AMD Accelerated Processing Unit – specifically, the G-Series GX210HA dual-core chip running at 1GHz – in an open-hardware 4″-square board. Offering improved performance over the original model, the new Gizmo 2 is also available for the first time as a stand-alone system – although this does mean the death of the Explorer Kit, a bundle which included a handy-dandy break-out board for the PCIe-style low-speed expansion connector at the front of the board.

During my review, which took place a few months ago, I did encounter one issue: the BIOS refused to boot from the USB 3.0 ports, limiting OS installation to the Micro-SD Card slot or USB 2.0 ports. As the device offers so much performance – around 85 gigaFLOPS including the integrated Radeon HD 8210E graphics chip – that was a disappointing limitation, but one an updated BIOS has since resolved.

I was a big fan of the original Gizmo, which was significantly better than Intel’s rival MinnowBoard. Although the MinnowBoard Max has since levelled the playing field, I have to say that the Gizmo 2 would still be my board of choice for SBC tasks requiring high graphics performance or x86 compatibility – despite the addition of an annoying active cooling fan – but for my thoughts beyond that you’ll have to pick up a copy of the magazine.

If you do, you’ll find the review, my news spread, and a bunch of stuff written by other people. Linux User & Developer Issue 153 is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio and similar services. My work will also appear in the translated Inside Linux magazine in France in the coming months.