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.

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.

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 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.