Custom PC, Issue 222

Custom PC Issue 222This month’s five-page Hobby Tech column takes a look at the retro-style Clockwork Pi DevTerm portable computer, the HcX Floppy Disk Emulator tool, and Hex Loader – the first graphic novel I’ve seen in a few decades to arrive with its own tie-in game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

The DevTerm, a follow-up to Clockwork Pi’s excellent GameSHell hand-held console, has been a little delayed. Having originally been due to land in April 2021, it’s only now gone through the review process thanks to the ongoing component shortages afflicting the industry – but it’s definitely been worth the wait. Inspired by classic portable computers like the TRS-80 Model 100, it’s a real anachronism backed by open-source hardware and open-source software.

That’s not to say it’s perfect: the top-end A-0604 model, as reviewed, is incapable of sustaining full-speed operation for more than a few seconds of load before throttling and arrives with the two high-performance cores entirely disabled; the display suffers from a glitch whereby the top four lines are entirely missing; and it took the community to make the tiny trackball less frustrating to use. The sheer joy of the device, thankfully, overrides these concerns. The built-in thermal printer is particularly wonderful, and was used to submit this month’s column – by post.

The HcX Floppy Disk Emulator review, meanwhile, was born from a need I had to image and retrieve data from some floppy disks which had been formatted for use with the Dragon Data family of microcomputers. Despite its name, the software isn’t exclusively usable by those who’ve splashed out on HcX hardware: it can load disk images, including stream captures from a KryoFlux, and provides a range of useful tools including an incredible visual floppy disk explorer – capable of even demonstrating the exact location and shape of damaged areas of a disk.

Finally, Hex Loader. A crowdfunded collaboration between writer Dan Whitehead, illustrator Conor Boyle, and letterer Jim Campbell, Hex Loader is halfway a love-letter to game development in the 1980s and halfway some kind of scathing indictment of consumerism and modern art wrapped in a mystical layer of sorcery. It also comes complete with a tie-in ZX Spectrum game, Combat Wombat – and you can’t say that of many publications released in the 2020s.

Custom PC Issue 222 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download on the official website.

 

Custom PC, Issue 220

Custom PC Issue 220This month’s Hobby Tech dedicates a whopping four pages to one of the most interesting devices I’ve ever had on test: the MNT Research Reform open-hardware laptop. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a look at a classic book of early personal computing history: Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines.

The meat of my latest five-page column is a relatively straightforward review of the MNT Reform, a laptop that’s anything but straightforward. The brainchild of MNT Research, and the second-generation of the core design, the MNT Reform is open – from the design of the chassis with its eye-catching transparent base to the electrical designs for the motherboard, system-on-module, and even the 3D-printed trackball which sits below a mechanical keyboard.

As a laptop, though, it’s easy to find the Reform wanting on a number of fronts – from lacklustre performance to the absence of niceties like having it suspend when you close the lid. I then dive deeper into the project itself – and reveal something both unique and absolutely worthy of celebration, with an enthusiastic and growing community boding well for its future.

Two of the biggest issues highlighted in the review have since been resolved for future production runs: the trackball has been greatly enhanced by the addition of steel bearings, and the troubling power drain while “off” which can empty the batteries has been addressed with a firmware update to put the system management controller into a low-power deep-sleep mode.

Computer Lib/Dream Machines is, despite having been published in 1974, a publication with a very similar ethos at its heart: the idea that computing not only should be accessible to all but must be accessible to all. Long out of print, despite Microsoft’s efforts to publish a professionally typeset and updated version of the eclectic original in 1987, the book manages to be both of-its-era and yet somehow entirely relevant – and that’s even before you flip Computer Lib over to reveal Dream Machines as a second book bound as one.

The original version of the book has been preserved at The Internet Archive, and is well worth a read – though its format means you may spend quite some time zooming in and out.

All this, and more, is available now at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 218

Custom PC Issue 218My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the final-release Mooltipass Mini BLE open-source password management gadget, the SQFMI Watchy hacker-friendly smartwatch kit, and Crackers I: The Gold Rush from Microzeit.

I first previewed the Mooltipass Mini BLE back in Issue 201, after gaining access to the pre-release beta. At the time, a lot of the planned features were either only partially functional or entirely absent – though the hardware, at least, was undeniably solid. In the months since, the team has been hard at work and the final Mooltipass Mini BLE is now in backers’ hands.

To say the project has delivered is no understatement. While there are still holes to fill – the lack of any way to save a password onto the device from an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet is a big one – it handles most tasks with ease, and the integration of Bluetooth Low Energy for wire-free connectivity to target gadgets is a game-changer for the user on the go.

The SQFMI Watchy, by contrast, doesn’t quite manage to deliver on its promises. Designed as an open-hardware project centred on an Espressif ESP32 microcontroller and a compact e-paper sunlight-readable display, the electronics are solid enough – but the plastic case is a low point, and the firmware simply isn’t ready.

Despite having Wi-Fi on board, there’s no way to set the time on the Watchy automatically. The default clock face pulls down weather data, which is nice – but it’s pre-set to New York City, and there’s no obvious way to change that. The relevant variable is hidden, it turns out, in files which do not appear in the Arduino IDE when you edit the open-source sketch – and nowhere in the documentation is this mentioned. For anyone willing to spend a lot of time writing their own code based on poor or entirely absent documentation, there’s promise here – but it’s near-unusable out-of-the-box.

Finally, Crackers I. The first in a pair of books covering the rise of computer software piracy – primarily, but not exclusively, games – and the groups on both sides of the fence, Microzeit’s latest is a hefty tome well worth putting on your coffee table. Presented in full colour, the book is thick enough that its image-heavy nature doesn’t annoy – and the stories it tells are fascinating to boot.

Custom PC Issue 218 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download as part of a time-limited offer.

Custom PC, Issue 211

Custom PC Issue 211My regular Hobby Tech column this month spans the worlds of network attached storage, input devices, and retro gaming, courtesy of reviews covering the Kobol Helios64 open-spec NAS, the Keybordio Atreus ergonomic keyboard, and Neil Thomas’ Retro Tea Breaks.

The NAS, first, is a device I was excited to put on the test bench. A follow-up to Kobol’s earlier and considerably more Heath Robinson Helios4, the Helios64 is an open-spec network attached storage system built around the Rockchip RK3399 six-core Arm processor – not, sadly, the faster RK3399Pro, following an unplanned downgrade when SARS-CoV-2 hit the supply chain.

The board has five SATA ports, one shared with an on-board M.2 SATA slot for an SSD, a chunky heatsink, and both gigabit and 2.5-gig Ethernet – though the first batch of the devices suffers from an unfortunate design flaw in the latter. Other issues abound in the design of the very smart-looking bundled case and plastic drive sleds, though if Kobol’s promise to address these in future production runs is fulfilled the Helios64 could well take its place at the top of the hobby-friendly NAS league.

The Keyboardio Atreus, meanwhile, is an interesting beast: it’s an ultra-compact ergonomic mechanical keyboard based on switching between multiple layers to make up for the reduced number of physical keys. It’s also not Keyboardio’s own design: the company has made a name for itself in mechanical keyboard circles by adopting open-source keyboard designs, with the full consent of their original creators, and bringing them to the mass market via crowdfunding.

Finally, Retro Tea Breaks is a compact hardback tome which also owes its existence to a crowdfunding campaign, this time courtesy of Neil Thomas’ RMC – formerly Retro Man Cave – YouTube channel. The book gathers together transcripts, lightly edited and in some cases updated, of interviews carried out with some big names from the classic gaming scene – ranging from the Oliver twins to George “The Fat Man” Sanger and, surprisingly, Jon St. John, the voice of Duke Nukem himself.

You can find the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine on all good supermarket shelves, at your local newsagent, or online with global delivery now.

The MagPi, Issue 99

The MagPi Issue 99This month’s The MagPi, the official Raspberry Pi magazine, includes a hefty spread taking a look at the newly-launched Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 – bringing the power of the Broadcom BCM2711 to the Compute Module form factor for the first time.

Well, sort of: the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 is actually a wholly new form factor, ditching the old SODIMM edge connector in favour of two high-density connectors on the underside. While that means no backwards compatibility with existing Compute Module carrier boards, third parties have stepped up and launched interposer boards to let you squeeze the new board into old designs.

Having been provided with pre-release access to the Compute Module 4 and its IO Board, my launch feature takes a look at the physical layout and the components that go into the board – with macro photography, including coverage of the high-performance eMMC storage on-board selected models – and runs through a selection of benchmarks testing everything from synthetic and real-world performance to footprint and weight.

One particularly interesting aspect of the benchmarking, and one which will inform designs based around the new module, was thermal throttling analysis: the Raspberry Pi 4 is known to run reasonably hot, though enhancements since launch have brought the temperature down considerably, and moving the same technology into a smaller footprint means the Compute Module 4 gets toasty warm. As Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton explained, passive cooling is going to be a must for most designs.

The MagPi Issue 99 is available now from all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, or as a free-as-in-speech download under a Creative Commons licence.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 13

HackSpace Magazine Issue 13This month’s maker-focused HackSpace Magazine includes my relatively long-term review of an extremely clever, though far from perfect, temperature-controlled soldering ‘station’: the Miniware TS100.

First, some necessary definitions: brushing aside standard, fixed-power soldering irons, you’ll find adjustable-temperature and temperature-controlled irons on the market. The former are, typically, not much larger than a standard soldering iron and include a small knob on the body for adjusting the power and, thus, temperature of the tip. The latter go a step further, reading the temperature of the iron and using the feedback to dynamically adjust the power output to keep the tip as close to a chosen temperature as possible, and most often come with a bulky base station to which the iron is tethered.

The Miniware TS100, and its not-yet-available-in-the-UK successor the TS80, is different. While it’s a fully-fledged temperature-controlled iron, there’s no base station in sight: instead, the iron packs everything it needs into a surprisingly compact body, including a small OLED screen for live feedback and adjustment of its settings.

What’s most interesting about the design, though, is that the firmware that drives its internal microcontroller is open source. It’s entirely possible to download the source code, modify it, and flash it onto the iron with nothing more than a simple USB cable – and many have done that, producing alternative firmwares which either improve its performance or turn it into something else, including a Tetris-playing games console and a functional oscilloscope, entirely.

The TS100 is clever, then, but not perfect. A design which lacks any form of flaring to stop your fingers drifting forward onto the hot tip is one thing, but a larger problem is an ungrounded power design which leaves the tip floating at voltages more than enough to damage sensitive components. Thankfully, the reviewed unit came with a bundled grounding strap – but that leaves you with two wires rather than one, hampering the portability somewhat.

The full review can be read in the print and digital copies of HackSpace Magazine Issue 13, with the latter available for free download now under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 183

Custom PC Issue 183In Hobby Tech this month, there’s a look at a project which has genuinely transformed my mornings, a tiny temperature-controlled soldering iron with a hackable firmware, and the latest brain-melting program-’em-up from Zachtronics.

Starting with the game first, Exapunks caught my eye as soon as I saw it announced by developer Zachtronics. Taking the assembler programming concept of earlier titles TIS-100 and Shenzhen-IO, Exapunks wraps them up in a 90s near-future cyberpunk aesthetic alongside a plot driven by a disease called “the phage” which turns victims into non-functional computers. Because of course it does.

Anyone familiar with Zachtronics’ work will know what to expect, but Exapunks really dials things up. From the puzzles themselves – including one inspired by an early scene in the classic film Hackers – to, in a first for the format, the introduction of real though asynchronous multiplayer on top of the standard leaderboard metrics, Exapunks excels from start to oh-so-tricky finish.

The MiniWare TS100 soldering iron, meanwhile, sounds like it could be straight from Exapunks – or, given its name, TS-100: a compact temperature-controlled soldering iron with built-in screen and an open-source firmware you can hack to control everything from default operating temperature to how long before it enters power-saving “sleep mode.” While far from a perfect design – and since supplanted by the TS80, not yet available from UK stockists – the TS100 is an interesting piece of kit, with its biggest flaw being the need to use a grounding strap to avoid a potentially component-destroying floating voltage at the iron’s tip.

Finally, the project: an effort, using only off-the-shelf software tied together in a Bash shell script, to print out a schedule of the days’ tasks on my Dymo LabelWriter thermal printer. Using the code detailed in the magazine, the project pulls together everything from weather forecasts to my ongoing tasks and Google Calendar weekly schedule – along with a word of the day and, just because, a fortune cookie read out by an ASCII-art cow.

All this, and a variety of other topics, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine on newsagent and supermarket shelves or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 4

Hackspace Issue 4This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a four-page spread detailing two projects from the talented Daniel Bailey: the Manchester Baby inspired C88 and C3232 homebrew microcomputers.

When one normally talks about ‘building’ a computer, the ‘building’ process is akin to Lego: blocks specifically designed to be compatible are clicked together in a reasonably idiot-proof manner, then an off-the-shelf operating system is installed. Daniel’s C88 and C3232 systems, by contrast, are built from the ground up: systems built around using an 8×8 or 32×32 LED display as memory and running a unique processor, built from scratch on an FPGA, with its own instruction set architecture.

The smaller C88 came first, and the larger and more complex C3232 – designed with a mode which allows it to run software originally written for the early Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), or Manchester Baby, without modification – served as a magnum opus for the project. Daniel wasn’t done there, though: a final effort produced the Mini C88, a C88-compatible kit powered by the a low-cost Arduino instead of a more expensive FPGA but boasting near-complete compatibility with the original.

While Daniel has yet to release the kit, a simulator provides a hint of what it’s like to use the C88 or Mini C88: programs are entered into the system one bit at a time using physical toggle-switches, then executed for display on the LED matrix. Examples include simple animations, pseudorandom number generation, and mathematical calculations, while the real C88 can also be connected to external hardware via a general-purpose input-output (GPIO) port missing from the Mini C88.

I’ve long been a fan of Daniel’s creations, and am lucky enough to own a Mini C88 of my very own – but even for those who haven’t caught the systems being demonstrated at various Maker Faires and related events, I’d recommend reading the piece to see just how clever the project really is.

You can see the feature in full by downloading the Creative Commons licensed magazine from the official website, or pick up a copy in print from your nearest newsagent or supermarket.

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.