Custom PC, Issue 155

Custom PC Issue 155This month’s Hobby Tech column features my field report from the Maker Faire UK 2016 event, an interview with my good friend Daniel Bailey about his brilliant homebrew computers, and a review of the Genuino MKR1000 microcontroller.

First, the event. Attending events like the Maker Faire is always a blast, especially as press when you have an excuse to stick your nose into absolutely everything that’s happening. My attendance this year was sponsored by¬†oomlout, a local hobbyist electronics shop and a client for whom I do blog work, as highlighted in a “Sponsored By” call-out over¬†the two-page spread. As for the event itself, you’ll find coverage of everything from DoES Liverpool’s excellent shooting gallery to affordable laser cutters and even the world’s only crowd-funded and wholly amateur manned space programme.

The event also gave me a chance to catch up with Daniel Bailey at the York Hackspace stand, after nearly a year of trying to find a good time to interview him about his impressive homebrew computers. Built on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and inspired by the classic Manchester Baby, the 8-bit C88 and 32-bit C3232 are incredibly impressive machines – and I can think of no project that better fits with the magazine’s title!

Finally, the MKR1000. Known under the Arduino brand in the US and Genuino brand elsewhere thanks to ongoing trademark disputes, the MKR1000 is Arduino.cc’s answer to the popular Particle Photon Wi-Fi microcontrollers. Featuring a breadboard-friendly layout and integrated 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio, it represents an interesting new direction for the company – albeit one somewhat hobbled by a high price compared against the competition.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people other than me, is awaiting your attention at your local newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 150

Custom PC Issue 150There’s a bit of a theme to four of the five pages that make up this month’s Hobby Tech column, and with little surprise: I’ve been focusing on the Raspberry Pi Zero, that remarkable ¬£4 microcomputer which is still proving impossible for retailers to keep in stock. That’s not to say it’s entirely Pi-themed, though: I found room for a look at the lovely CodeBug, too.

Naturally, the first thing I had to do when the Raspberry Pi Zero Рa fully-functional Raspberry Pi microcomputer, equivalent in specification to the Raspberry Pi Model A+ but with twice the RAM at 512MB and a new 1GHz stock speed for the BCM2835 processor. The fact that the Raspberry Pi Foundation was able to pack all that into a device around half the footprint of the already-tiny Model A+ is impressive enough, but with a retail price of just £4 the Pi Zero is nothing short of revolutionary.

Sadly, my hope that stock issues would be cleared up by the time the issue hit shop shelves proved unfounded: while stock has appeared at the official outlets several times since the Pi Zero launched, it has immediately sold out again – making the device difficult to get hold of and leaving the market rife with sandbaggers flogging the ¬£4 device for anything up to ¬£50 on auction sites. My recommendation: be patient, keep an eye out the official outlets, and don’t reward the sandbaggers with your custom.

With the Pi Zero in hand, I figured a tutorial would be a logical next step. Perhaps one of the most impressive demonstrations of the new form factor’s flexibility comes in turning it into a true random number generator (TRNG) – at least, what Broadcom claims is a TRNG – for a USB-connected server or PC, improving security for a tenth the cost of the nearest off-the-shelf TRNG. While I used the simple method of attaching a USB-to-TTL serial adapter to the Pi Zero’s GPIO header, it’s even possible to create the same device with a single USB cable for data and power by replacing the stock kernel with one tweaked for USB OTG use – a cost-saving trick for another column, perhaps.

Finally, the CodeBug. I’d been planning on reviewing this for some time, but getting my hands on a sample proved tricky until oomlout was kind enough to loan me a unit from the device’s original crowd-funding campaign. Designed for educational use, and the inspiration for the BBC’s much-delayed micro:bit, the CodeBug is a microcontroller with on-board inputs and outputs and a built-in battery connector. Programmed using a modified version of the block-based Scratch language, it’s a great tool for teaching basic computer concepts – and I now have my hands on a few upgrades for the device, which will be appearing in a future issue.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to any good newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this via Zinio and other digital distribution 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.

Custom PC, Issue 145

Custom PC Issue 145In the pages of this month’s Custom PC magazine you’ll find my regular Hobby Tech column split into three segments: a two-page review of the Velleman 3D Printing Pen, a further two pages of coverage from the Liverpool MakeFest, and a final page reviewing the excellent Petduino from Circuitbeard.

First, the Velleman pen, kindly provided by CPC. Considering that I write a column about – among other topics – maker culture, it’s a real surprise I’ve never really delved into 3D printing before. It’s a topic that interest me, but one which is difficult to address easily: printers are bulky, expensive, and even when review samples are available they typically need hours of assembly and fine-tuning which can be difficult to fit into a freelancer’s budget.

The Velleman 3D Printing Pen, on the other hand, requires close to zero set-up. Connect the mains adapter, insert some of the bundled PLA filament, and hold down the motorised feed button, and it starts chucking soft filament out of the nozzle like a good ‘un. It’s a simple design, based on glue guns and ‘inspired’ by the pre-existing 3Doodler, but it lacks the fine control of a true 3D printer: the box shows someone ‘drawing’ the Eiffel Tower, but I call shenanigans on that one.

The event coverage comes courtesy of client oomlout, on whose behalf I attended the first Liverpool MakeFest. It was, as these events often are, a stunning success and great fun, despite a hiccough where my cheap Jessops speed-flash died a few minutes into the day Рan issue I was thankfully quickly able to resolve by running to a nearby photography shop and picking up a second-hand Nikon replacement, thusly also blowing any hope of seeing a profit.

Regardless, there were several personal highlights from the day including a great chat with the event founders and seeing friends including Ben Grey of MeArm fame and Adrian McEwan of DoES Liverpool with his ever-popular Nerf shooting range. I was also pleased to learn that the response of the public was good enough that the Liverpool Central Library is keen to work with organisers to run the MakeFest as an annual event.

Finally, the review. I met up with Circuitbeard – more properly known as Matt Brailsford, and yes his beard is impressive in the hairy flesh – at the recent Halifax Mini Maker Faire, where he was kind enough to provide me with a prototype of his Petduino design. Based on the Arduino platform, the Petduino is part development board and part virtual pet. Designed to get kids – and the young-at-heart – interested in software and hardware development, the Petduino comes with a range of open-source ‘personality’ Arduino sketches which can be installed and hacked about to change its behaviour. It’s a great tool for teaching, and with sales of the initial batch off to a flying start one I predict will be very successful – and I can’t wait to see the promised add-on kits Matt has planned.

All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services now.

Custom PC, Issue 144

Custom PC Issue 144In this month’s Hobby Tech column, I report from the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, build a 4tronix Agobo robot, and take a look at the Acorn x86 Card – a device that let Acorn users try out the joys of Microsoft’s Windows 95.

First, the robot. Designed as a lower-cost and simpler alternative to the Pi2Go-Lite robot I reviewed back in Issue 135, the Agobo is one of the few kits out there designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi Model A+. While that means that you miss out on a few niceties, few of these Рlike the wired Ethernet port Рare all that important to a portable robot build. The advantages outweigh the negatives, too: the Model A+ draws less power, is smaller, lighter, and costs less; the only real shame is that there is no quad-core Raspberry Pi Model A yet available, leaving users stuck with the outdated single-core BCM2835 system-on-chip processor.

As with the Pi2Go-Lite, I enjoyed building the Agobo – a process which was a lot simpler, involving zero soldering and only a little bit of swearing as I tried to get the bearings in the front caster to cooperate – and programming it was a cinch thanks to 4tronix’s great samples. While it’s undeniably more limited than the Pi2Go-Lite or its full-fat Pi2Go brother, the Agobo could well be a good choice for beginners or the budget-conscious – but for a full conclusion, you’ll have to read the review.

I spent two days this month covering the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, with travel expenses very kindly covered by my client oomlout – for whom I’ve been doing regular blog posts – and it was, as these events always are, an absolute pleasure. Housed at Eureka, the national children’s museum, the event – a community-driven spin-off from Make’s Maker Faires – was well-attended, including by numerous guests who had never been to maker-themed events before. There were soldering workshops, hackspaces, a chap who builds automata out of toys, all kinds of wondrous things – and you can read about them in detail this month.

Finally, the Acorn x86 Card. I wasn’t planning to write about it, but I happened to find it while clearing out the office and thought¬†it would be of interest to readers. A relic of the days before x86 compatibility was the norm in personal computers, the add-in card allowed Acorn’s ARM-based Risc PC to run Windows – even Windows 95, at the time the cutting-edge in operating systems. My particular example is a second-generation card featuring a Texas Instruments 486 processor, and I still haven’t got around to fitting it into my Risc PC despite having received it a couple of years ago…

All this, plus a selection of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, is available in Custom PC Issue 144 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 129

Custom PC Issue 129In this month’s Hobby Tech spread, settling nicely into its expanded five-page format, I show readers how to build a near-field communication (NFC) power switch for their PCs, reuse some classic keyboard key caps from an Amstrad CPC 464, review the CubieBoard 2 and interview Ryanteck’s Ryan Walmsley; it’s a bumper column, in other words.

First the review. The CubieBoard 2 has been available internationally for some time, but has only recently reached our shores courtesy low-power PC specialist New IT. Designed as an alternative to the ever-popular Raspberry Pi, the CubieBoard 2 boasts a dual-core AllWinner A20 processor, 1GB of RAM, and – something that will likely interest many – an on-board SATA port with 5V power for 2.5″ storage devices.

The CubieBoard 2 is supplied with a terrible Android port on its internal flash storage, but software support is excellent – unusual for consumer-grade single-board computers like this, which usually abandon the user with a years-old copy of Ubuntu and a hearty handshake. The CubieBoard 2 is, in fact, the official platform used by Fedora for its ARM port. Does that make it a good buy? You’ll have to read the review to find out, I’m afraid.

The cover-flash tutorial was the result of a social visit from John McLear, a friend and fellow hacker who is the brain behind Kickstarter success story the NFC Ring. As its name implies, the NFC Ring packs a pair of near-field communication tags – fully rewritable – into a wearable form-factor. Having supplied me with an early prototype some time ago, John let me rummage through a pile of rejects to find a thinner and more modern version indicative of the final product quality – and thus the concept, a PC power supply that would trigger when the NFC Ring comes into range, was born. A quick shopping trip to the ever-dependable oomlout later, and I was finished in record time.

I’ve recently made the move from my dependable IBM Model F keyboard to a modern Cherry MX mechanical model from Filco. It’s nice, but lacks a little in the style department; which is where a deceased Amstrad CPC 464, already missing some keys, comes in. With a little modification, it turns out you can take the keys from the CPC and use them on a Cherry MX switch – and my keyboard now has a classic Escape key for my troubles.

Finally, Ryan Walmsley. Just 17 years old, Ryan has set up a business creating accessories for the Raspberry Pi. I caught up with him following a successful crowd-funding run on Tindie for his first product, the Ryanteck Motor Control Board or RTK-000-000-001. He’s a fascinating guy, and a real inspiration to anyone who thinks they could never break into the world of hobbyist electronics.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via services including Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 122

Custom PC Issue 122In the latest of my eponymous columns – Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, if you haven’t been following – I take a UK-exclusive look at the Intel MinnowBoard, show readers how to create a 21st century fax machine with an inexpensive thermal printer and an Arduino microcontroller, and investigate the 1980s’ answer to solid-state storage.

First, the MinnowBoard. Intel’s first foray into open hardware, the MinnowBoard is a clear response to the success of the low-cost Raspberry Pi. Although the low-cost part may have been lost along the way – the MinnowBoard retails at around ¬£170, far more than the ¬£30 the top-end Raspberry Pi will cost you – it offers considerable extra power including a 32-bit x86 Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, on-board SATA and even PCI Express expansion.

Another advantage to the MinnowBoard, and a surprise from Intel, is that it’s open hardware: the company has released Board Specification Packages (BSPs) for Yocto Project certification along with Gerbers, schematics and bills of material – everything you could need to build one of your very own. In this, it’s similar to AMD’s Gizmo board – although that features a BIOS which offers greater out-of-the-box compatibility with various operating systems, a more powerful dual-core processor and a slightly smaller footprint.

This month’s tutorial focuses on turning an inexpensive thermal printer – kindly provided by local hobbyist supply house oomlout – into an Arduino-powered teleprinter. Using the Hello, Printer design from GoFreeRange, it creates a simple internet-connected device that will accept text or image data from any web-capable client – and I’ve found it’s absolutely top-hole for shopping lists and reminders.

Sadly, there is a printing error – oh, the irony – in the tutorial: the last entry in the bill of materials, the 400-point breadboard, is missing the link to purchase. If you’re after one, you can find it on oomlout’s website.

Finally, the vintage computing section this month focuses on an all-but abandoned technology: EPROMs. The precursor to modern flash memory, as found in solid-state drives, EPROMs were an incredibly common sight: unlike traditional PROMs, they could be erased using an ultra-violet light ready for reuse and were typically used to hold program information or BIOS data. As something of a computer historian, I find myself using the chips a lot – I was burning a Donkey Kong board for the Nintendo PlayChoice-10 when I got the idea for the feature – but they’re something those who are new to computing are unlikely to see in the wild.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, in Custom PC Issue 122. As usual, you can find it in all good newsagents and supermarkets, or stay indoors and pick up a digital copy from services like Zinio if you’d prefer.

PC Pro, Issue 224

PC Pro Issue 224This month’s PC Pro magazine includes another one of my freelance features, this time looking at the open-source Arduino microcontroller platform. While the front-cover splash billing it as a “Raspberry Pi rival” is inaccurate – not my call – the feature itself is packed with detail on the Atmel-based marvel.

This isn’t the first time I’ve done an Arduino-related feature for a magazine: I’m a big fan of the platform, owning multiple Arduinos and Arduino-compatibles. As well as a beginner’s guide for bit-tech, I’ve done features for Computeractive, Linux User & Developer (reprised in the Linux & Open Source Genius Guide, Volume 3) and Custom PC. This latest, however, is the most comprehensive.

Starting with a look at the history of Arduino, the feature walks the reader through why it was created, what its intentions are, how it compares to something like the Raspberry Pi – essentially explaining the difference between a microcontroller and a microcomputer – and how it can be used to create physical computing projects with ease.

Because of PC Pro’s laudable desire to ensure that readers can walk away from an In Depth feature with something concrete, it also includes a tutorial on using the latest ATmega-based Arduino Leonardo to build a macro keypad that can type email signatures, passwords, locate the user in a multi-player role-playing game or even lock the desktop with the press of a single button. Well, a separate single button for each feature, obviously, otherwise things would get confusing.

As usual, I am indebted to the wonderful chaps at Oomlout for providing the hardware for the feature, and to the creators of Arduino itself for making a development platform so simple even I can use the dang thing.

If you’re curious as to how the keypad works, source code for the project is available on my GitHub repository – but I’d still recommend picking up a copy of the magazine for wiring instructions and a jolly good lesson on the history of the Arduino project.

PC Pro Issue 224 is in newsagents, supermarkets and similar establishments now, or can be accessed digitally via Zinio or other platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 109

Custom PC, Issue 109This month’s Custom PC magazine is a rather special issue: it’s the only place you’ll find a step-by-step photographic feature on how to build Sinclair Computer’s ZX81 kit outside a time-travelling newsagent with good stock of 1981-era magazines.

Having purchased a ZX81 kit from a rapidly-dwindling stock, I knew that I would be building it rather than keeping it unassembled and its purpose in life unfulfilled. I also knew that I’d be trying my damnedest to get a magazine to pick up the story, for the simple reason that there aren’t many of these things left and I wanted as many people to enjoy a little glimpse of history as possible. Thankfully, Custom PC editor Ben Hardwidge agreed – and even put the feature on the top bar of this month’s cover.

The build was an interesting look back at how the face of computing has changed: while Sinclair’s kits required the user to know which end of a soldering iron was safe to hold, modern computing – for all its exponential increase in complexity and power – is relatively simple, requiring little more knowledge than required to put the square peg in the square hole.

It was also a chance for me to exercise my photojournalistic skills, rather than just my writing skills. Using my somewhat outdated Pentax digital SLR, a light tent, two halogen lights and a table-mounted stand, I was able to snap some surprisingly detailed photos using nothing more than the standard 18-55mm kit lens. These photos illustrate every single step, and the art department has done a great job on the layout of the feature.

As well as the exclusive ZX81 build, which has generated considerable interest, this month’s magazine includes my usual Mobile Tech Watch column. This month, I looked at the difference between the x86 and ARM instruction set architectures, and why Intel is going to have its work cut out to compete with ARM in the mobile space.

Finally, this issue includes my review of the Arduino Leonardo, kindly provided by Oomlout. Is it worth the upgrade from the Uno, and are there any downsides to the new single-chip approach taken by the Arduino team in its design? Better pick up a copy of Custom PC and find out, hadn’t you?

Custom PC Issue 109 is available in all good newsagents, most bad ones, and digitally via the Zinio service.