Custom PC, Issue 189

Custom PC Issue 189This month, my regular Hobby Tech column opens with a look at a RISC-V based not-quite-off-the-shelf personal computer build by AB Open, walks readers through building a weather monitor powered by a Raspberry Pi and a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT, and marvels at the excesses of the computer retail scene in the 1970s and 1980s via David Pleasance’s Commodore: The Inside Story.

First, the PC. The majority of PCs on desks around the world today are based on processors which use the x86 architecture or its 64-bit equivalent; a small handful are based on similar Arm chips to the ones you might find in your smartphone; and an even smaller number are powered by things like Zilog Z80s, MOS 6502s, and Motorola 68000s belonging to people who just don’t like to throw away a perfectly good decades-old system. The system built by AB Open recently, though, is different: it’s based on RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture (ISA) for which anyone can – given time, money, and a fair smattering of expertise – build a chip.

“It might be some time before there’s an off-the-shelf chip that can compete with x86 on raw performance and traditional benchmarks,” AB Open’s Andrew Back, who for full disclosure is a client of mine, admits, “but the open nature of the ISA, and the ecosystem developing around it, is driving a renaissance in novel computer architectures.” By way of proof: a fully-functional Linux-based desktop PC, built in a custom-designed laser-cut chassis, created using the SiFive HiFive Unleashed development board and Microsemi expansion board.

From a PC you can browse the web on to one which flashes a few lights: the Raspberry Pi weather monitor is a remix of a project I published in Issue 153, to use a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT LED matrix to graph energy usage in my home. This time, the same hardware is repurposed to show animated weather icons based on data downloaded from OpenWeatherMap – and, despite the low resolution of the LED matrix, it works an absolute treat.

Finally, Commodore: The Inside Story sounds like it should be an exhaustive history of the company behind one of the world’s biggest-selling home computers. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a two-part affair: the first is a series of personally recollections, presented in a very similar fashion to the stories you might hear if you took author David Pleasance to the pub and asked him about his time working in Commodore’s sales and marketing division; the second is a collection of guest chapters, and as fun as it is reading about orgies in Consumer Electronics Show hotels and drink-driving incidents the second half is, for me, the better half.

All this, and a raft more, can be found at your nearest newsagent or supermarket; the electronic version, meanwhile, is enjoying a brief holiday while background administration relating to its recent switch of publishers takes place.

PC Pro, Issue 279

PC Pro Issue 279This month’s PC Pro includes a review of something a little out of the ordinary: the open-source, microcontroller-powered OpenScope MZ oscilloscope from Digilent.

Based on the original OpenScope and manufactured following a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, the OpenScope MZ is designed primarily for education and hobbyist use. While it lacks the bandwidth you’d need for professional use, it makes up for it in ease of use: it can be connected to your wireless network for tangle-free operation, includes cables which mate handily with the 2.54mm headers common to hobbyist electronics, and uses cross-platform software capable of running on everything from a powerful desktop to a low-end smartphone.

Better still, the OpenScope MZ is, as the name implies, open: the hardware design, firmware, and software are open source, allowing anyone with the knowledge to add features or customise the device as they see fit.

More information on the OpenScope MZ is available on the official website, while you can read my review in full by picking up a copy of PC Pro Issue 279 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 168

Custom PC Issue 168This month’s Hobby Tech column is taken up with a trio of reviews covering the pretty darn impressive Mooltipass Mini hardware password manager, Automattic’s Blog in a Box distribution for the Raspberry Pi, and Mark Hardisty’s A Gremlin in the Works.

Starting with the latter, A Gremlin in the Works is another fantastic coffee-table book from retro computing publisher Bitmap Books (the founder of which, Sam Dyer, I interviewed back in Custom PC Issue 136). Written by Mark Hardisty based on exhaustive interviews – and retaining the question-and-answer style of the transcripts, making for an accurate rendition of the subjects’ thoughts but a slightly tiresome read – the two-volume book chronicles the rise and fall of gaming pioneer Gremlin Graphics. As a massive fan of Gremlin’s output – to this day the intro music to Hero Quest brings joy to my heart, and I blame my sweet tooth on a Zool addiction – A Gremlin in the Works is a book I’d long been looking forward to reading, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.

Blog in a Box, meanwhile, is an interesting beast. At its heart, it’s a single-purpose GNU/Linux distribution for the Raspberry Pi created by Automattic as a means of making it easier for people to run the WordPress blogging platform from the device. It’s not provided as a downloadable drive image, as with most distributions, though; instead, Automattic has written a cross-platform program which customises various settings – title, passwords, email accounts, things like that – and configures them so the Pi is ready to rock on first boot. It’s a neat idea, but one which still needs polish: I found the Linux version failed to run properly on my Ubuntu 16.04 desktop, and several features promised by the tool were disabled when the Pi actually started up. It’s a tool with promise, though, and I look forward to revisiting it should Automattic release an update.

Finally, the Mooltipass Mini. The brainchild of Mathieu Stephan, the Mooltipass Mini builds on its non-Mini predecessor to create a pocket-sized hardware password safe for all your accounts – or, at least, as many as will fit in 8Mb (1MB) of internal memory. The Mooltipass Mini is a tool for the adequately paranoid: passwords, though not usernames, are stored in the device’s internal memory under AES-256 encryption with the private key located on a removable smart card itself locked with a four-hexadecimal-character PIN. When a password is required, its entry can be found on the screen and the Mooltipass does its best impression of a USB keyboard by typing the account details in on your behalf – or, when the optional software is installed, filling in forms in browser windows automatically upon manual confirmation on the device itself.

Having long advocated for the use of password managers to promote high-quality password use and discourage password reuse, the Mooltipass Mini is a near-perfect companion. It addresses the majority of the problems with traditional password managers, like how to keep the encrypted database accessible while preventing its theft. While there are undeniable issues, such as the £61 (inc. VAT) retail price and the need to buy two so you have a backup to use if the primary one fails, it has become a part of my security arsenal – and one I feel comfortable using thanks to the project’s open-source nature for both the software and underlying hardware.

All this, and a whole mess of other things written by people who aren’t me, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 162

Custom PC Issue 162In Hobby Tech this month I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi-based Kano Complete Computer Kit, the eight-bit Arduboy handheld games console, and the undeniably impressive Mirobot educational robot.

To look at the Mirobot first, it’s no secret that I was eager to put it through its paces. Turtle-style robots, which roll around the floor drawing pictures, were immensely popular in the 80s, and the Mirobot looks to bring the technology bang up to date. Entirely open source, from the circuits to the software, the Mirobot is based around two microcontrollers: an Arduino, which handles the actual robotics, and an ESP8266, which provides Wi-Fi connectivity and handles the user interface and ever-so-smart over-the-air (OTA) flashing capabilities.

The Mirobot screams smart from the moment you open the package: its body is made from laser-cut MDF, and the panels form the packaging itself. Everything is put together without tools, and getting up and running requires no software installation – just a device with a modern browser. Multiple programming languages are available, and an API for those who want to roll their own software. In short, I’m a Mirobot fan – and I’d heartily recommend picking one up if you’ve an interest in open-source robotics or programming for education.

The Kano Complete Computer Kit, on the other hand, comes at education from a very different perspective. Billed somewhat disingenuously as a computer you ‘build,’ the kit is at its heart a speaker and case for a bundle Raspberry Pi alongside a customised operating system which is the project’s true selling point.

The Kano kits have been around for a while now, but the Complete Computer Kit as reviewed is new: the computer side has been refreshed to include the latest Raspberry Pi 3, while the bundle also includes a high-quality but non-touch display which accepts the Kano-cased Pi in its rear. It’s a lovely kit, and the software – which you can download for free and run on your own Raspberry Pi – is phenomenal, but its cost definitely lets it down: at £299 RRP it’s massively overpriced.

Finally, the Arduboy. Crowdfunded and hit by numerous delays on its way to market, the Arduboy is an extremely smart little handheld console based around an Arduino-compatible ATmega microprocessor. Games are written in the Arduino IDE then flashed onto the credit card sized device via USB, and play out on a teeny-tiny little single-colour OLED panel which is sadly prone to bad banding.

The Arduboy is a lovely device, but it’s not the first design I’ve seen – and nor is it my favourite. The Gamebuino, reviewed back in Issue 134, still sits at the top for a number of reasons: it’s cheaper, it has better battery life, and it has a clever system for loading games from a bundled micro-SD card. The Arduboy, by contrast, is slimmer, has a clearer display, but can only carry a single game at a time. When you want to switch games, you’ll need a computer with the Arduino IDE – and that’s a major drawback in a portable gaming device.

All this can be yours, alongside the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC Magazine, Issue 158

Custom PC Magazine Issue 158This month, my regular Hobby Tech column is interview-heavy. You’ll find two pages dedicated to Grant Macaulay of Theo Lasers, another two to Barry Getty of the Dark Water Foundation, and a final page reviewing the Genuino Zero microcontroller simply for a change of pace.

First, Grant. I met Grant at the recent Maker Faire UK, where he was showcasing prototypes of the Theo Laser laser cutters. These devices immediately caught my eye: rather than the usual red or beige metal, the cases were made from unfinished laser-cut wood. Each housed a low-power diode laser, and the top-end model was set to retail for around £1,000. A few months later Grant was getting ready to hit the go-live button on a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, and kindly took some time to walk me through his hopes for Theo Lasers – not to mention the thinking behind his decision to release everything from the hardware designs to the source code under a permissive, open-source licence.

Barry’s another contact from an event: Liverpool MakeFest 2015. There, I talked to Barry as his Dark Water Foundation ran a Lego-based workshop teaching the young and the not-so-young how to build open-source remote-operated submersible vehicles (ROSVs). Like Grant, Barry’s work didn’t stop when my original interview ended and I recently caught up with him to discuss some new designs: the Dark Control boards. Designed for use with the Raspberry Pi, these add-on boards allow for connecting up to six motors – important, he tells me, for full freedom of movement – quickly and easily, while also adding support for radio control systems and inertial measurement units.

Finally, the Genuino Zero. Kindly provided by oomlout as part of a collection of hardware I’m slowly working my way through testing, the Genuino Zero – known as the Arduino Zero in the US – drops Arduino’s traditional 8-bit ATmega microcontroller family in favour of a 32-bit ARM Cortex-M0+. The result is a board that looks for all the world like an Arduino Uno, but which offers considerably different capabilities and improved performance.

All this, and the usual selection of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be found in your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

The MagPi, Issue 49

The MagPi Issue 49The latest issue of The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, includes my two-page interview with Grant Macaulay of Theo Lasers, along with what is now rapidly becoming a go-to image I took of a Raspberry Pi 3 artfully rotated and pasted onto the cover.

I first met Grant at the Maker Faire UK event earlier this year, and got talking to him about the project he had quit his job to build: Theo Lasers. Designed to address the lack of affordable entry-level laser cutters and engravers for hobbyist and educational use, Theo Lasers came from a simple idea: “I’m going to make a laser cutter with a laser cutter,” he laughingly explained in front of a stand of prototypes proving he could do just that.

In the months since the event, Grant has been hard at work improving upon his design. In particular, with the aid of a developer friend, he’s moved from basing the hardware on an Arduino Mega microcontroller to using a Raspberry Pi Zero. In doing so his team developed Theo Controller, a browser-based control and monitoring system which runs entirely on the Pi and which can accept input from any web-compatible device. Coupled with an on-board display, SD card reader, and even the ability to run from battery or solar power, and Grant’s design definitely stands out from the competition even before you see its eye-catching wooden chassis.

Grant’s due to launch a Kickstarter campaign to begin mass production of the Theo Laser cutters in early September, with more details available from the official website. The interview, meanwhile, can be read for free in the Creative Commons licensed The MagPi Issue 49, out now.

Custom PC, Issue 156

Custom PC Issue 156The latest installment of my long-running Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is four-strong this month: as well as a two-page review of the Particle Electron GSM microcontroller, you’ll find reviews of the Pimoroni Black Hat Hack3r family of Raspberry Pi add-on boards, vintage computing simulator TIS-100, and a look at open-source laser-cut tool holder designs from Wim Van Gool.

First, the tool holders. I’ve never been known for keeping my workspace neat and tidy, but I’ve found that as long as there is something nearby to slot things in I can be trusted to put things back at least half of the time. Trouble is, pen holders are somewhat ill-suited to smaller tools and dedicated tool holders are expensive. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that Wim Van Gool had published design files for a pair of tool holders designed specifically for the sort of compact tools you need for detail electronics work to Thingiverse – and, better still, that they could be cut from cheap medium-density fibreboard (MDF).

The Particle Electron, meanwhile, came to me courtesy a Kickstarter campaign I backed following my delight with the Particle Photon – or, as it was known when I reviewed it back in Issue 132, the Spark Core – Wi-Fi microcontroller. Like its predecessor, the Particle Electron is Arduino-like and powered by Particle’s excellent web-based IDE and cloud infrastructure; where the Photon uses Wi-Fi to connect, though, the Electron uses international mobile infrastructure in either 2G (as reviewed) or 3G flavours. For remote projects where Wi-Fi connectivity can’t be guaranteed, that’s fantastic – but be aware that there are ongoing costs, and that the device is locked down to Particle’s own SIM card (supplied).

Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r boards, meanwhile, are significantly less ‘clever’: at their hearts, the Black Hat Hack3r and Mini Black Hat Hack3r are nothing more than break-out boards for the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin GPIO header. Designed in-house to speed Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) development and released as a product following considerable demand, the ‘dumb’ break-out boards are nevertheless a treat to use: it’s possible to connect a HAT to any model of Pi minus the Compute Module and still retain access to all 40 pins for additional hardware or debugging purposes, or even to daisy-chain the boards to connect multiple HATs to a single Pi – if you don’t mind hacking around the EEPROM issues that may cause.

Finally, TIS-100. I don’t normally review games, but TIS-100 isn’t a normal game: developed by Zachtronics, the creator of Spacechem and the Ruckingeneur series, TIS-100 gives the player control of a fictional 1980s computer system – the Tessellated Intelligence System – with a simplified instruction set. The task: to rewrite corrupted segments of the computer’s firmware, and in doing so uncover the mystery of what happened to the machine’s last owner ‘Uncle Rudy.’ In short: it’s half-game, half-programming-exercise – and pretty much all fantastic.

All this, plus a wealth of other stuff from people other than myself, is awaiting you at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 147

Custom PC Issue 147This month’s Hobby Tech column kicks off with a two-page head-to-head review of rival starter kits for those interested in having a crack at e-textiles technology: the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit and the Kitronik Electro-Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Pack, both courtesy CPC.

The field of e-textiles, or soft circuits, is driven by one invention: conductive thread. There are various ways of making thread that can conduct electricity, and the two companies featured in my review have opted for different methods: Adafruit weaves thread directly out of stainless steel, which produces a thin yet strong thread; Kitronik takes traditional thread and coats it in a layer of silver before weaving it into a thicker denier which is softer and more flexible than Adafruit’s version. Either way, the result is the same: a thread you can sew, by hand or machine, and which conducts electricity to any electronic components your heart desires – up to a power draw of a handful of micro-amps, of course.

The two kits both look to introduce the user to e-textiles, and there’s a shared approach which concentrates on that most traditional of hardware Hello, World projects, making LEDs light up. The lower-cost Kitronik kit focuses on dumb switches, although some bundled full-size LEDs have built-in blinking circuitry for a modicum of intelligence; the more expensive Adafruit kit, meanwhile, includes the company’s Arduino-compatible Gemma wearable microcontroller, giving it considerably more flexibility. It also includes needles, a strange omission from the otherwise ready-to-go kit put together by Kitronik. As to which came out on top, you’ll just have to read the review to find out.

Another two pages of this month’s column are spent on my report from Manchester MakeFest, unrelated to the recent Liverpool MakeFest, and my personal highlights from the Museum of Science and Industry’s first home-brew maker-centric event. These included Bare Conductive Touch Board powered signing bowls used in the education of special needs pupils, a teletype clattering out ASCII art from a paper tape courtesy the Manchester Vintage and Retro Computing Enthusiasts group, and the wonderful blend of analogue and digital that is the B0rkestra project. There’s plenty more I couldn’t fit into the wordcount, with more coverage of the event available on the oomlout blog for the curious.

Finally, I had the opportunity to talk to Ben Gray about his MeArm project. Reviewed in an early form back in Issue 133, the MeArm is a low-cost hobbyist robot arm built from a single piece of laser-cut acrylic and released under an open hardware licence. Since my original review, Ben has closed down his hobbyist supply company Phenoptix in order to concentrate on MeArm full time, and it shows – the new design is a considerable improvement, and now comes with optional joypad attachment and even a dedicated microcontroller option. Ben’s promised to send across a review sample of the new and improved MeArm as soon as he’s able, so expect to see it covered more fully in a future issue.

All this, plus other interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you’re reading this from via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 146

Custom PC Issue 146This month’s Hobby Tech column begins with a look at a topic that has been close to my heart for a number of years now: thermal imaging, and how it can be applied to the field of hobbyist electronics and technology review. If that weren’t interesting enough, there’s also a review of the Novena open-hardware all-in-one desktop, and a look at a little-known bug-fix applied to Sinclair’s classic ZX81 microcomputer.

For years, I’ve wanted a thermal camera. Recently, the price of cameras has plummeted and I was finally able to justify – just about – the cost of the entry-level Flir C2. While it takes a while to get used to thinking in resolutions of 80×60 – the total resolution of the Flir Lepton thermal imaging module featured in the C2 – I’ve been having no end of fun capturing thermal data on everything from single-board computers to my cat.

In the column, though, I argue for the application of thermal imaging in the hobbyist realm. With smartphone-connected thermal cameras now available in the low-hundreds, and a broken-out Lepton module the equal of the one found in the C2 available for just £160, a thermal imaging sensor is no longer the preserve of well-heeled professionals. I’ve found mine useful for tasks from finding hot-spots on a board design to spotting heatsinks which were not properly mated to the components below.

When I wasn’t playing with the thermal camera, I was playing with the Kosagi Novena. Born from the mind of noted hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang, the Novena is remarkable: it’s a truly open computer, with everything from the firmware through to the board designs being published under an open-source licence. Loaned by UK hobbyist electronics shop oomlout, I was sad to give the crowd-funded Novena back – despite an ARM-based processor outclassed by even the cheapest of x86 laptop parts.

Finally, the ZX81. I’ve been clearing out much of my classic computer collection as I shift to a smaller office, and while I had to get rid of my rather rare Sinclair ZX81 I wanted to record its existence for posterity. From the very original production run, this machine boasted the ‘cockroach’ – a bug-fix for a fault in the ROM implemented in hardware, with a hand-soldered board attached to the top of the system’s CPU. It’s a jarring sight, and one that I was privileged to see in person: only a handful of cockroach-model ZX81s, fixed while the company waited for corrected ROM chips to arrive, exist and they’re all externally identical to non-cockroach models.

All this, plus a wide selection of stuff written by people who aren’t me, is available now from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and 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.