Custom PC, Issue 142

Custom PC Issue 142Continuing my regular column, the five-page Gareth Halfacree’s Hobby Tech, I spent this month’s page allowance on a look at the Arachnid Labs Tsunami, the Banana Pro, and analysed the legal battle underway between two companies claiming to be Arduino.

To begin, the Tsunami. I first looked at this interesting Arduino-compatible open-hardware device for another client, oomlout, publishing a hands-on preview of the device in early April. Created by Nick Johnson and crowd-funded via Kickstarter, the Tsunami is an interesting beast: while it shows itself to the Arduino IDE as an Arduino Leonardo compatible, the Tsunami is designed exclusively for signal generation and analysis work.

Priced at a fraction of the cost of a commercial signal analyser, the Tsunami is surprisingly capable. While code samples were limited at the time of writing, I was able to generate sine waves based on input from the serial console and even complex waveforms based on the Kansas City standard – the standard required to communicate with eight-bit microcomputers via their tape inputs. Nick’s own demonstrations include using the input and output simultaneously to graph the frequency response of audio equipment.

While the Tsunami is only available as a pre-order at present, the Banana Pro is readily available from your favourite Chinese wholesalers. Based on Lemaker’s Banana Pi but with a different manufacturing partner, the device offers a number of upgrades while still boasting compatibility with the Raspberry Pi from which it takes its inspiration. While the presence of a 40-pin GPIO header and integrated Wi-Fi is good news, the use of a dual-core processor when the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B offers a quad-core at roughly the same price is an undeniable disappointment – but you’ll need to read the review to make your mind up as to whether it’s worth the sacrifice.

My final two pages are spent looking at the current spat between Arduino LLC and Arduino Srl., the latter being the company founded under a different name to manufacture boards under licence from the former. With a new owner and a confusing new name, Arduino Srl. has earned the ire of many in the Arduino community – especially as it has begun releasing boards of its own which are direct clones of the Arduino LLC designs. The full story, naturally, is more complex, and I do the best I can to present both sides in the limited word-count available.

All this, plus the usual collection of things that are written by people that aren’t me – including the return of Richard Swinburn’s Our Man in Taiwan column, long absent from the magazine – can be yours for a trip to your local newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 151

Linux User & Developer Issue 151This latest issue of Linux User & Developer magazine includes, in addition to my usual four-page news spread, a two-page review of Intel’s latest entry into the embedded market: the Quark-based Edison, an ultra-tiny single-board computer the size of a postage stamp.

Sadly, the Edison I reviewed isn’t quite the Edison that Intel originally unveiled. The original Edison was to use the SD Card form factor, making it easy to build expansion boards by using a standard SD Card slot component. It was also to run exclusively on the Quark, a low-power x86 processor built from the old Pentium microarchitecture. The latter feature was nixed when feedback from users of the Galileo, another Quark-based embedded development board, revealed that it was too underpowered to be of much use; the former when Intel discovered it didn’t have enough pins on the SD Card layout to make useful connections.

The result of these last-minute modifications is the Edison you can buy today. The SD Card layout has been ditched for a stamp-sized board featuring a high-density Samtec connector on the underside, making it more awkward for hobbyist development, while the Quark chip is still present but relegated to coprocessor status while an Atom processor handles running the operating system.

My review sample, kindly provided by Intel UK, came with the Arduino-compatible break-out board. When connected to the Edison, this creates an overly expensive and extremely large development board with Arduino-compatible headers – but one which, the promise goes, you can use to refine a design which can then be implemented in a far smaller footprint using a bare Edison board and your own custom break-out board.

As for how I got on with the Edison and whether I rate it as any better than Intel’s previous offerings – the Galileo and MinnowBoard families – you’ll have to buy the issue to find out. If you do, you’ll also be treated to my regular four-page spread of all the latest news in the world of GNU/Linux, open-hardware, open-software, open-governance, and open-anything-else-that-catches-my-eye, plus a bunch of articles written by people who aren’t me.

Linux User & Developer Issue 151 is available in all good supermarkets and newsagents, many bad ones, and digitally via services including Zinio now.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 150

Linux User & Developer, Issue 150This month’s Linux User & Developer includes both my regular four-page news spread and a review of the MinnowBoard Max single-board computer from Intel.

The MinnowBoard Max is the latest in Intel’s increasingly scattershot efforts to make an impact in the hobbyist-grade single-board computer market. Like its predecessor, the MinnowBoard Max is open hardware and produced in partnership with CircuitCo – the company behind the BeagleBoard and BeagleBone Black – and features the x86 instruction set architecture. Where it differs is in how easy it is to use and how much power it can offer.

I reviewed the original MinnowBoard design back in Issue 131, and found it lacking on a couple of levels: the single-core Atom chip was woefully underpowered compared to rival boards like the Gizmo, and its 32-bit UEFI firmware made it near-impossible to boot any operating system bar the bundled and extremely cut-down Yocto Linux installation.

The MinnowBoard Max clearly demonstrates that Intel is listening to feedback, though. The 32-bit single-core Atom is now a 64-bit dual-core model, and comes complete with a 64-bit UEFI implementation. The result: significantly improved compatibility and performance. A single-core version, slightly cheaper and drawing less power, is also available but not something I have yet tested.

As to whether the MinnowBoard Max is a worthy investment in a market near-monopolised by chips based on the ARM instruction set architecture, you’ll have to read the full review to find out.

The review, my four-page spread of all the latest happenings in the world of open-everything, and a whole bunch of stuff written by other people is available now from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 140

Custom PC, Issue 140In this month’s Hobby Tech column I interview my friend and talented maker Bob Stone, review the ZoomFloppy accessory, and review the Gizmo 2 single-board computer, in roughly that order.

Looking at the interview first, I arranged to quiz Bob after bumping into him at an event a while back. Bob was present as a representative of York Hackspace, showing off a project they had been working on dubbed Spacehack. Inspired by a mobile game, Spacehack gives players the job of keeping a rusty old spaceship in one piece by performing various tasks on a physical control panel which remaps everything between rounds. If that weren’t confusing enough, the instructions that appear on your panel may be for a control on someone else’s – leading to plenty of frantic shouting.

Talking to Bob is always a pleasure, and interviewing him was likewise. He’s a man who knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to inject a little bit of humour into proceedings, and that hopefully comes across in the piece. Having played Spacehack, I can attest to both its difficulty and its brilliance and if anyone local builds their own – the hardware and software are both permissively licensed, naturally – I’d be up for a tournament.

The ZoomFloppy is a natural extension to the KryoFlux I reviewed back in Issue 131. Where the KryoFlux offers a means to connect old-fashioned floppy drives to a modern computer for archival-grade access, the ZoomFloppy is a little different: it’s designed specifically for Commodore devices. Its most common use, as the name suggests, is to provide an interface between a Commodore 1541/1571 floppy drive and a modern PC but it also offers the ability to talk to any Commodore-compatible serial device: printers, plotters, even modems. Better still, you can talk to these devices from directly within an emulator – I couldn’t help but grin when I loaded an Infocom game into the Vice emulator from the original floppy on an 1571 drive.

Finally, the Gizmo 2. I reviewed the original Gizmo in Issue 125 of Linux User & Developer, and was suitably impressed by its performance. The Gizmo 2, I’m pleased to say, blows its predecessor out of the water but isn’t without its own foibles. During my review, I ran into an issue in the firmware which prevented it from booting any device connected into its USB 3.0 ports. Although USB 2.0 worked fine, this had a negative effect on speed – and while the issue was still outstanding at the time of publication, I’m pleased to say a new BIOS has been released as a result of my feedback which fixes the problem and makes the Gizmo a great choice for anyone who needs x86 compatibility and impressive compute performance from a single-board computer.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your local supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your own home via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 149

Linux User & Developer Issue 149This month’s Linux User & Developer features my usual four pages of news from the world of openness alongside a review of some interesting software I’ve been playing with: Keybase.

Created, oddly enough, by the co-founders of dating site OkCupid, Max Krohn and Chris Coyne, Keybase is technically little more than a wrapper around the open-source Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) implementation GNU Privacy Guard (GPG). Conceptually, however, it turns the entire PGP/GPG concept on its head, and in doing so aims to make it as easy as possible for less technical types to enjoy the benefits of strong cryptography.

A quick backgrounder: PGP/GPG use public-key cryptography, which is a highly-secure method of sharing secrets. Rather than traditional encryption, which requires a secret known to both parties, public-key cryptography splits the secret in two: the public key is available to anyone, but can only be used for encryption; decryption requires the private key, kept secret. It can be best imagined as an extremely secure padlock: I can give you the padlock, but once you’ve snapped it shut only my key will open it again.

The trouble then comes from verifying that the public key you’ve encrypted to genuinely belongs to your intended recipient, and not to a third-party trying to eavesdrop on your conversation. In the PGP/GPG world, this is assured by a ‘web of trust’ in which individuals physically meet and verify the identity of others, whose public keys are then cryptographically signed. Secure, but awkward.

Keybase’s solution: automated verification powered by social networking. ‘Proofs’ are posted to various social networks, currently ranging from Twitter and Reddit to Coinbase and even the DNS records of your personal website. These proofs are cryptographically signed with your private key. When someone wants to encrypt a message to you, they can verify these proofs through the Keybase website – or, for improved security, an open-source command-line application which wraps around GPG – to confirm that the key they are using belongs to the person in control of said accounts.

Coupled with a neat web interface which allows, among other features, non-members to quickly send encrypted messages to any Keybase member, it’s a great project. While it’s currently in beta, it shows considerable promise – and given the government du jour’s focus on eroding privacy, it’s something everyone should at least consider playing with.

To read the full review, plus my ever-enlightening four-page news spread and event calendar, head to your local newsagent or supermarket, or grab a digital copy via Zinio or similar distribution services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 146

Linux User & Developer Issue 146In this month’s Linux User & Developer Magazine, my usual four-page news spread is joined by a review of the remarkably compact SolidRun CuBox-i4Pro ARM-based microcomputer – but don’t let its diminutive size fool you into thinking that it lacks grunt.

Kindly supplied by Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT, the CuBox-i4Pro can be considered a companion product to SolidRun’s Raspberry Pi-like HummingBoard. Where the HummingBoard is clearly aimed at electronics enthusiasts, with its bare circuit board and easily-accessible – and undeniably Raspberry Pi-inspired – general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header, the CuBox-i family is more polished. Like its predecessor, the CuBox, it’s supplied in a roughly cubic plastic case which achieves its tiny footprint with clever use of a dual-board mezzanine design and includes features – like eSATA and optical audio connectivity – that highlight its targeting of the home theatre market.

I was undeniably impressed by the performance of the CuBox-i4Pro, the top-end model in the CuBox-i range. As well as 2GB of memory, the system packs a quad-core Freescale i.MX6 processor. Its biggest feature, however, is compatibility: software created for the enthusiast-centric HummingBoard can be run on the CuBox-i family without modification, and vice-versa. Ever the sceptic, I proved this to myself by taking a micro-SD card I’d prepared for the HummingBoard and sticking it into the CuBox-i4Pro; it booted up perfectly and without complaint.

That cross-compatibility makes SolidRun one of the only companies to offer product ranges aimed at both enthusiasts and those who want a finished plug-and-play product. Whether it will tempt anyone into making the leap from rival platforms, of course, remains to be seen – but it’s worth mentioning that the HummingBoard has already seen adoption as the go-to ARM testbed platform for several Linux distributions.

If you want to know my final verdict, as well as giving yourself a chance to catch up on the month’s happenings in the open source, open hardware, open governance and open-anything-else-interesting world, you’d best head over to your local newsagent or supermarket and pick up a copy. Alternatively, you can read it from the comfort of wherever you happen to be right now via digital distribution services including Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 136

Custom PC Issue 136This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC magazine reviews a next-generation version of the Fuze Powered by Raspberry Pi kit, previews the upcoming MinnowBoard Max from Intel, and publishes an interview with Sam ‘MrSidC64’ Dyer, author of Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium – the spelling a deliberate pun on ‘Commodore,’ if you were wondering.

First, the Fuze T2 review. I’d already looked at the original Fuze, courtesy its inventor Jon Silvera, back in Issue 124, and little has changed from the aerial view: it’s still a robust steel case inspired by the BBC Micros of the 80s, designed to house a keyboard, Raspberry Pi and a break-out board for the general-purpose input-output (GPIO) pins, sold either on its own or as a bundle with child-friendly electronics tutorials and a handful of simple components for experimentation. Looking in more detail, however, shows that plenty has changed: following feedback, Jon has redesigned to case to include the ability to mount the Pi sideways to prevent little fingers pulling out the SD card, added Lego-compatible holes to the side, and best of all included a four-port USB hub with integrated power supply that provides proper 5V/500mA ports while simultaneously powering the Pi itself. A much-improved GPIO break-out board is another welcome addition, featuring compatibility with existing add-on boards as well as integrated analogue-to-digital and hardware pulse-width modulation (PWM) pins – something the Pi alone sorely lacks.

The MinnowBoard Max, meanwhile, is easily recognisable as a new design entirely. Designed to replace Intel’s old MinnowBoard, reviewed back in Issue 122, the Max features a proper 64-bit dual-core Atom processor with 64-bit UEFI implementation – meaning that the limited compatibility of its predecessor is a thing of the past. The design is more compact, the entire platform more accessible to beginners, and as usual it’s entirely open in both software and hardware – even the UEFI BIOS is based on Intel’s open-source code. For those who find ARM development boards too much of a stretch after years of x86 programming, it’s certainly worth investigating and I was impressed with the pre-release prototype I was provided. Sadly, the release of the final production model has hit a few last-minute delays – although I’m expecting stock of both the dual-core and single-core variants to appear in the channel before the end of the year.

Lastly, my interview with Sam Dyer. A graphic designer by trade, Sam launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund a new coffee table book all about the software available for the Commodore 64, his first real computer. As a massive Commodore fan myself, I was a backer and when the book arrived earlier this year I knew I would have to write about it. Sam was kind enough to give me some of his time to answer questions about his early days of computing, the technology behind capturing the images that make up the book, and its at-the-time impending successor Commodore Amiga: A Visual Commpendium – which yesterday closed funding with a massive £130,000 raised from fellow Commodore fans. Yes, including me.

All this, plus a variety of words written by people who aren’t me, can be yours now with a trip to the newsagent or supermarket, or from the comfort of your home or office via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.

Raspberry Pi User Guide, Third Edition

Raspberry Pi User Guide Third EditionThe recent launch of the Raspberry Pi Model B+, a redesign of the popular single-board computer that addresses some issues with the original while doubling the number of USB ports and increasing the size of the GPIO header, unsurprisingly means that there’s a need for a new user guide. As a result, it should come as no surprise that J. Wiley & Sons has published the Raspberry Pi User Guide Third Edition, a revised work that adds details regarding the new Model B+.

Completed earlier this year thanks to pre-release access to a prototype Model B+ provided by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, the latest edition of my book includes everything a reader needs to know about the latest model. The chapter on using GPIO has been updated to include a full pin-out of the new elongated header and details on how best to use the new USB ports have been added. It’s not all about the Model B+, however: there are entirely new chapters in this edition, including one covering basic programming with Minecraft: Pi Edition from Mojang.

The release of this third edition comes surprisingly soon after the Raspberry Pi Second Edition hit shelves, but those who have already purchased the previous edition needn’t panic: unless you have a Model B+ there’s little you desperately need to know that isn’t contained in the previous release, and if you have a burning desire to use Minecraft: Pi Edition you can find a similar tutorial in my recently-published MagBook 21 Brilliant Projects for the Raspberry Pi from Dennis Publishing – along with, as the title suggests, another 20 projects that you won’t find in the User Guide.

The Raspberry Pi User Guide Third Edition is due to arrive in stock at most outlets within the next couple of weeks, with Amazon UK taking pre-orders for a 19th of September delivery date. If you can’t wait that long, the Kindle Edition is already available for immediate download. Those buying in other countries or high-street book shops should ask their retailer for ISBN 978-1118921661. As with previous editions, numerous translations will follow in the near future.

Raspberry Pi: 21 Brilliant Projects

Raspberry Pi: 21 Brilliant ProjectsA few months ago I was approached by PC Pro’s Priti Patel with a project proposal: a MagBook featuring a number of interesting projects for the low-cost Raspberry Pi microcomputer. I, naturally, jumped at the chance, and the fruit – pun entirely intended, I’m afraid – of my labour is now available.

Entitled Raspberry Pi: 21 Brilliant Projects, the MagBook features 141 full-colour pages of projects designed for beginner to intermediate users. The introductory projects are, as you might expect, gentle indeed: unboxing and connecting the Pi, installing an operating system via the New Out-Of-Box Software (NOOBS), and the like. From there, the MagBook then covers four project categories: Productivity, Entertainment, Plug-In Hardware and DIY & Advanced.

In the Productivity chapter, I walk the reader through safely overclocking the Pi to boost its performance, sharing a keyboard and mouse with a desktop without the need to move any cables, using the Pi as a thin client for a desktop or laptop running Windows, OS X or Linux, setting up a TOR proxy, and installing and running the popular WordPress blogging platform.

In Entertainment, readers see how to convert any TV with HDMI, DVI, SCART or composite video inputs into a smart TV, work with Minecraft Pi Edition, emulate vintage gaming platforms, and build a headless Internet radio receiver.

For the Plug-In Hardware chapter, I wrote up how to build a digital photo frame, the use of USB-connected application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to mine Bitcoins, a Twitter-powered motion-sensing security system, how to configure the Pi for fully wireless use, and how to combine the power of the Pi with that of the Arduino microcontroller.

Finally, in the DIY & Advanced section, the reader learns how to use the Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) capabilities to build a traffic light system, create a doorbell that sends Twitter messages when activated, drive motors for a robotics system, build a custom arcade controller, create an Internet of Things printer, and how to cluster multiple Raspberry Pi units together to boost performance.

The MagBook is available in supermarkets and newsagents now, and will soon start shipping from Amazon UK for £9.99.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 141

Linux User & Developer Issue 141In the latest issue of Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer, in addition to my usual four-page spread of the latest news from the world of open source, I review the Synology DS414j network attached storage (NAS) system and the Duo Security two-factor authentication platform.

I actually came across Duo Security when I learned that support for the platform had been added to the LastPass password management service. Signing up for an account and registering my details, I found that the software could be quickly and easily used to protect an SSH server – and with more than one public-facing SSH server, that piqued my interest.

Duo Security is a two-factor authentication system which uses push messaging to a smartphone application, turning your phone into the ‘thing-you-have’ portion of the setup and precluding the need to buy a dedicated security token. There’s fallback to other authentication measures, from offline token generation similar to Google Authenticator through to SMS and even voice call functionality. Better still, an account is free for ‘enterprises’ of fewer than ten users.

The Synology DS414j, meanwhile, is the latest NAS device to appear from the company and one designed as an upgrade from its popular dual-bay boxes. Featuring four 3.5″ SATA drive bays, the DS414j comes with Synology’s excellent DiskStation Manager (DSM) Linux distribution, but there’s little doubting corners have been cut: the drive bays are not hot-swappable for a start, which means downtime if you need to swap out a failed drive.

My conclusions on both products, plus my take on the most interesting open-source stories of the month, can be yours with a simple trip to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via digital distribution services like Zinio.