Custom PC, Issue 148

Custom PC Issue 148My regular Hobby Tech column is undeniably review-heavy this month, with three separate items spread across its five pages: the CompuLab Fitlet, the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit, and the Widdop.

To deal with the latter first, the Widdop is a bit of an odd thing to review at first glance as it was available exclusively to those who attended this year’s Wuthering Bytes festival. There’s method in my madness, though: it’s a variant of the Cordwood puzzle designed by Saar Drimer at Boldport, and a review of the Widdop is equally applicable to its predecessor. In short, it’s a soldering kit sans instructions: two artistically designed and matching circuit boards are supplied along with a fistful of components, and it’s up to the user to not only work out how it should be assembled but then how to interface it to a microcontroller or other controlling system – great fun!

The Bare Conductive Touch Board, by contrast, is readily available. I had previously experienced the delights of the Touch Board, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller with built-in capacitive touch sensing and audio playback capabilities, at the Manchester MakeFest where the Manchester Arduino group were demonstrating Touch Board-powered musical food bowls. The Starter Kit, though, is something else entirely. Packed in an oversized box it contains everything you need to get started, from the conductive paint which made Bare Conductive famous to the Touch Board itself pre-loaded with a voice-led 12-step tutorial.

The booklet is the real prize, though. Walking the user through three projects, it’s one of the best I’ve seen: well produced with exciting photographs and a great attention to detail. The primary project, too, is innovative: a stencil and overlay in the shape of a house demonstrates how the conductive paint can be used to create interactive art, with the remaining two projects offering an intruder alarm – for bare-footed intruders, at least – and a look at adding interactivity to household objects.

Finally, the Fitlet. I’ve been a fan of CompuLab’s tiny Linux-compatible PCs for a while, but the Fitlet is the first I’ve had a chance to review. Supplied in its top-end form with an AMD A10-Micro6700T quad-core processor, it has the grunt of a low-mid-range office desktop but in a passively cooled form factor little larger than a cased Raspberry Pi. Compared to the already diminutive Intel NUC, it’s absolutely tiny: the smallest NUC has a volume of 0.417 litres, while the Fitlet is just 0.215 litres in volume.

Despite its size, there’s a bit of everything: as reviewed, the Fitlet offers on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, dual gigabit Ethernet ports, three USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, powered eSATA, and even a GPIO connector – which, sadly, lacked driver support at the time of my review, an issue CompuLab has now resolved with the release of an official Software Development Kit (SDK). Running Linux Mint 17.2 but compatible with most any operating system that would run on an x86-64 desktop, the CompuLab is definitely one of the most exciting devices I’ve had the privilege to test recently – although that excitement is tempered by a £300 selling price in the UK, putting it on-par with the more computationally powerful Intel NUC.

All this, plus interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be found between the covers of Custom PC Issue 148 at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 114

Custom PC Issue 114Continuing my newly-reborn column, re-imagined as an interview slot rather than the old Mobile Tech Watch format, this month’s issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC magazine covers the impending launch of Intel’s Next Unit of Computing, or NUC, compact PC form-factor.

Designed to do for desktops what the Ultrabook project is doing for laptops, Intel’s NUC is an impressive creation: measuring a mere 10cm on a side, the ultra-compact design packs a Intel Core i3 3217U dual-core processor running at 1.8GHz into a box the size of which would traditionally have required a low-power Atom, AMD APU or ARM processor. Coupled with support for up to 16GB of RAM, two mini PCI Express slots and both HDMI and Thunderbolt display connectivity, it’s an exciting entry into a market Intel has traditionally eschewed.

To find out what Intel’s plans were for the project, how it came about and what the NUC can really offer over other ultra-compact embedded computing systems, I spoke to Intel’s John Deatherage, director of the company’s Client Boards Division.

While Deatherage didn’t call out ARM by name during the interview, his comments on the compatibility of the x86-64 architecture processor at the heart of the NUC said plenty about Intel’s feelings regarding the Cambridge-based low-power processor specialist.

The main advantage of the NUC is the fact it is a fully scalable computing system, with our first version running a third-generation Core i3 with full HD Graphics capabilities running x86 code. There are no limitations in terms of software, driver compatibility, or performance that some would expect given the size of the system.

Interestingly, Intel is choosing to launch the NUC into the market as an own-brand product, as well as allowing its processor customers to licence the design and build their own NUC devices. It’s a move Intel has avoided in the past, but one Deatherage explained away as “just one way to enter the market quickly.”

The NUC is a niche product, for sure: while it draws less power and takes up less space than a traditional desktop, it’s also significantly more expensive. While it could make headway in the digital signage market, these customers rarely care much about x86 compatibility or raw performance – if you’ve ever travelled by train in the UK, you’ll be familiar with digital noticeboards and timetables which can be clearly seen to be running a web browser somebody forgot to put into full-screen mode.

To find out what issues Intel had shrinking its desktop technology into such a small form factor, its hopes for the system and whether it could form the basis of a new Steam Box-like games console, pick up the latest Custom PC from your favourite newsagent or supermarket, or grab it in the form of a vast collection of zeros and ones through Zinio.