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 155

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

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

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

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

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

Custom PC, Issue 149

Custom PC Issue 149This month’s Hobby Tech has just two component parts: a long-term review of the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station, and a in-depth guide to building an ultrasonic distance sensor using a Spark Core for a somewhat novel application: shaming me into using my standing desk more.

Looking at the tutorial first, it all stemmed from an office move in which I bought a vast quantity of Ikea furniture. Among it all was a new desk, which for a small extra fee I was able to get with a simple hand-crank mechanism fitted to adjust its height. As I spend the vast majority of my life in front of a computer, I thought a little change like spending some of the day standing instead of sitting would do me the world of good – but, as could be expected, after an initial burst of enthusiasm I found myself using the desk in sitting mode more often than not.

This month’s project was my attempt to rectify that. Using a cheap ultrasonic distance sensor and a Spark Core microcontroller – now known as a Particle Photon, following a major rebranding exercise – I built a device which could track the distance between the surface of the desk and the ceiling and thus report whether it was in sitting or standing mode. When a mode change was detected, it would post a message to Twitter – thus publicly shaming me if I spent too long in sitting mode.

It’s a bit of a daft project, but one which demonstrates some useful techniques: it uses a resistor ladder to lower the 5V output from the ultrasonic sensor to a Spark Core-friendly 3.3V, it shows how a Wi-Fi-connected microcontroller can report readings to a remote system, and even uses If This Then That (IFTTT) to automatically post messages to Twitter based on those readings. As to whether it actually encouraged me to spend more time standing? Not so much.

As the tutorial’s complexity meant taking up a three-page spread, there was only room for one additional feature this month: a two-page long-term review of the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station, which I bought some time ago to replace my Maplin-branded variable-output soldering iron. Despite its surprisingly reasonable cost, purchased from the ever-reliable CPC, it’s proven a sturdy tool and is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for an entry-level upgrade from fixed-output irons. It’s also a pleasure to be able to form a long-term opinion on something: all too frequently I review items on a short-term basis, which reveals nothing about their reliability over time. Having been using the Tenma for well over a year now, though, I can personally guarantee its longevity.

All this, plus a variety of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.