Custom PC, Issue 196

Custom PC Issue 196My Hobby Tech column this month opens with a look at a surprisingly swish programming environment for the Nintendo Switch, of all things, walks through the creation of a power-saving networked display using the Pimoroni Inky wHAT and a Raspberry Pi, and looks at a book which purports to chart the history of Apple Macintosh gaming.

First, the programming environment. Fuze4 Nintendo Switch, available now on the Nintendo eShop, builds on the Fuze BASIC programming language originally developed for the Raspberry Pi and reviewed – alongside its BBC Micro-inspired housings – in Issue 124 and Issue 136. This time around, though, the language is considerably less BASIC and more like a hybrid between BASIC, Python, and a bit of C thrown in for good measure. It’s also less focused on things like sensor reading and GPIO control – for obvious reason – and instead designed specifically for a single task: making games.

There are aspects that need polish – in particular the sharing of created projects, which at present can only be done via Nintendo’s clunky friends-list system – but overall Fuze4 Nintendo Switch is impressive. You’ll want a keyboard, but once you get started it’s easy to build some impressive projects – one demo supplied with the game showcases a fluid 3D engine with dynamic lighting, created in a remarkably short number of lines.

The Inky wHAT project, meanwhile, was largely a means of documenting something I created for my own use: an electrophoretic display that would display the output of the schedule printer I detailed in Issue 183 without needing to print on physical paper. There’s a twist, too: after finding that the only box-frame available that would fit the project depth-wise was too large, I created a mock-up of an Amiga Workbench desktop to frame the smaller Inky wHAT display – and the effect is surprisingly convincing.

Finally, Richard Moss’ The Secret History of Mac Gaming was a pleasure to read, though a few aspects of Apple’s history are presented from the eyes of a fanboy rather than a historian. Switching between recollection, research, interview content, and contributed material, the book does a great job of documenting the largely-forgotten history of gaming on Apple Macs – though it could have benefited from another editing and layout pass, in particular to avoid the recurring issue where screenshots either appear out-of-order or without any reference in the text.

As always, the latest Custom PC Magazine is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets, or can be ordered for worldwide delivery from Raspberry Pi Press.

Custom PC, Issue 195

Custom PC Issue 195This month’s Hobby Tech column opens on an interview with Ryan Brown on the impressive Quarter Arcades miniature fully-licensed reproduction arcade cabinets, moves on to a review of the RISC-V-based Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT for the Raspberry Pi, and closes with a look at Pimoroni’s clever Inky wHAT electrophoretic display.

First, the interview. Answering the important question first, Brown admitted that “the pun certainly helps” when it came to deciding to what scale the Quarter Arcades cabinets should be produced: each carefully-designed reproduction, modelled on real period-appropriate cabinets, is built to a quarter scale both as a means of having it sit nicely on a desk and of providing a name which echoes the most commonly-required coin of US arcade cabinets.

While the Quarter Arcade range is currently limited to licensed properties including Pac-Man and Galaga, Brown has indicated there’s potential there to expand: “Starting with the most beloved classics really helps us open doors to other, more niche arcade games, and even potentially games that never reached the arcade.”

The Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT, by contrast, was an undeniable disappointment. Based on the Kendryte K210 system-on-chip, which uses the RISC-V instruction set architecture and includes a co-processor designed to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads, the AI HAT can be used as a stand-alone development board or attached on top of a Raspberry Pi – but in the latter mode is almost entirely divorced from the Pi itself, to the point where it’s not even possible to program the AI HAT without detaching it again and connecting it to a more traditional PC.

Finally, the Inky wHAT. Another Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) board, the Inky wHAT offers a 4.2″ electrophoretic display in three colours: red, black, and white in the model reviewed, with a yellow variant available alongside a slightly cheaper black-and-white two-colour version. Forming the heart of a project which will appear in next month’s magazine, the Inky wHAT impressed – though it would be nice to see the price drop a little, given how cheap full-colour though considerably more power-hungry LCD panels are these days.

Custom PC Issue 195 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally through the usual outlets.

Custom PC, Issue 194

Custom PC Issue 194My regular Hobby Tech feature provided two opportunities to break out the thermal camera, thanks to a detailed analysis of a range of cooling products for the Raspberry Pi 4 and a review of the Libre Computer Project’s La Frite single-board computer – and there was even time to take a look at Brian Dear’s exhaustive title The Friendly Orange Glow: The Untold Story of the Rise of Cyberculture.

First, La Frite. Funded, as with all Libre Computer Project boards, via crowdfunding, the compact single-board computer is designed to compete with the like of the Raspberry Pi. It certainly has its selling points: there’s a mounting point on the underside for an eMMC storage module, though it uses proprietary mounting holes; there’s a clever midship-mounted Ethernet port to reduce the overall height; and it even comes with the option of a clever two-piece aluminium case that doubles as a heatsink. Sadly, the board’s performance isn’t there, its software support struggles, and despite the name of the organisation its openness is limited to targeting mainstream Linux kernels; the board itself is a proprietary design.

Moving on to the topic of the Raspberry Pi 4, there’s no secret now that the new high-performance processor at its heart runs a little warm. For my analysis of the issue and a look at some potential solutions, a benchmarking workload was executed while temperature and clockspeed were measured and charted – demonstrating handily the loss of performance you get when the system-on-chip begins to heat up.

These data are joined by the same workload while the Raspberry Pi 4 is enjoying the benefits of a range of third-party cooling products: the Pimoroni Heatsink and Fan Shim options, the former running in passive-only and fan-assisted modes and the latter in always-on and software-controlled modes, along with the 52Pi Ice Tower heatsink and fan assembly as supplied by Seeed Studio and running in 5V, 3V3, and wholly passive modes. The temperatures across the run are then charted, while thermal imagery provides a visual insight into how the whole board heats under passive and active cooling.

Finally, The Friendly Orange Glow is a book I’d heartily recommend to anyone interested in the history of a surprising range of modern technologies – from flat-panel plasma displays and multiplayer gaming to Microsoft’s FreeCell. Charting the rise and fall of PLATO, a computer-assisted learning platform now largely forgotten by history, the book is about more than just technology: as its subtitle, The Untold History of the Rise of Cyberculture, suggests, PLATO and those who built and used it were responsible for cultural movements that wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere in the world for decades.

You can pick up the latest issue of Custom PC Magazine at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or online at the Raspberry Pi Press Store, or grab it in digital form via the usual distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 192

Custom PC Issue 192This month’s Hobby Tech kicks off with a look at the Zepsch PocketStar – by far the smallest Arduino-compatible games console I’ve seen – and the Pimoroni Keybow, before reviewing Felipe Pepe’s The CRPG Book in digital form.

The pages of my Hobby Tech column are no stranger to Arduino-compatible handheld consoles: over the years I’ve reviewed the Gamebuino and its MAKERbuino spin-off, the Creoqode 2048, the Arduboy – then all four at once in a head-to-head group test – and most recently the Gamebuino Meta. Of these, the Arduboy was the smallest with a footprint matching a credit card and a thickness of around three cards stacked.

The PocketStar, a crowdfunded creation from Zepsch, has it beaten. Although thicker than the Arduboy, the Game Boy-inspired design has a tiny 50x30mm footprint, despite packing a colour screen and haptic feedback motor. What it doesn’t include, sadly, is a speaker – though it was originally planned, and the mounting point is still present – but it at least includes the ability to switch between games on the fly, something the Arduboy sadly lacks.

The Pimoroni Keybow, by contrast, is a very different beast. A no-solder DIY kit, the Keybow is a nine-button programmable keypad with a difference: rather than using a Teensy, Arduino, or other microcontroller, it uses a Raspberry Pi Zero WH. The reason why isn’t really adequately explained in the product briefing: it connects to the host machine via USB rather than Bluetooth, and makes no use of the Zero WH’s Wi-Fi connectivity either – though third-party firmware is available to vastly expand its functionality. Despite some bugs in the official firmware and the aforementioned surprising lack of wireless connectivity – switching to the Zero H, which does not include a radio, would shave a fiver off the retail price – it’s certainly an interesting desk accessory with plenty of flexibility.

The CRPG Book, published by Bitmap Books, doesn’t have author Felipe Pepe’s name on the cover. There’s a reason for that: it’s a collaborative effort, the physical incarnation of a four-year effort from 119 authors to document the computer role-playing game genre in as much detail as possible – going all the way back to the PLATO system and its infamous ‘friendly orange glow.’ The result is an exhaustive tome, brought to life with full-colour printing between its hardback covers – though the review is based on a digital copy, the physical version having been rejected by Bitmap Books’ quality control post-printing and sent back to the factory for a re-do with the first of the reprints due to land towards the end of the month.

While The CRPG Book is far from perfect – there are a few issues with typography and grammar, increasing in frequency as you work your way towards the back of the book – it’s pretty close to it, and made even more pleasing by the fact that the £29.99 print edition is joined by a free, Creative Commons-licensed download available from the official website. Sales of the print edition, meanwhile, have raised £12,475 in author royalties for Felipe Pepe – royalties which he has donated in full to Vocação, a not-for-profit Brazilian organisation aimed at getting children and teenagers in poor communities access to quality education.

Custom PC Magazine Issue 192 is available now at all good newsagents, supermarkets, and via the Raspberry Pi Press store. Digital outlets will update later today.

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.

Custom PC, Issue 165

Custom PC Issue 165This month’s issue of Custom PC Magazine marks a milestone: four years since I started writing my Hobby Tech column. To celebrate, three reviews spanning its five pages: the Ryanteck RTk.GPIO, the Kitronik Micro:bit Inventor’s Kit, and the Pimoroni GPIO Hammer Header – the only piece of electronic equipment I’ve ever reviewed installed with a hammer.

First, the RTk.GPIO. The brainchild of Ryan Walmsley, interviewed back in Issue 129, the RTk.GPIO is designed to bring all the joy of the Raspberry Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header to any PC with a free USB port. A surprisingly sizeable red-hued circuit board, the RTk.GPIO includes a Pi-compatible 40-pin GPIO header with pin-out on the silkscreen. A quick pip install of the Python library later, and you can pretty much take any RPi.GPIO program and have it run natively on your Windows, Linux, or macOS machine.

Perhaps the biggest power of the RTk.GPIO is in assisting with the development of software for Pi add-ons, using the extra computing power of a desktop or laptop to make your life easier then allowing you to transfer your program to a real Raspberry Pi with minimal changes once complete. Its only real downside, in fact, is price: it’s more expensive than picking up a Raspberry Pi Zero and turning it into a USB device, though undeniably smoother to use.

The Kitronik kit, meanwhile, is one of a range of add-ons I’ve been playing with for my upcoming Micro:bit User’s Guide. Based around a GPIO expansion board for the micro:bit’s edge connector, the kit comes with mounting plate, solderless breadboard, jumper wires, and all the components you need to work through the included full-colour tutorial book – plus, in the version I picked up, the micro:bit itself, though the kit is also available without for those who already have the BBC’s miniature marvel.

In the years I’ve been playing with hobbyist electronics, I’ve seen these kits go from the most hastily thrown together things to extremely polished collections of hardware – and Kitronik’s kit definitely sits at the right end of that spectrum. There are nits to be picked, such as the lack of a handy plastic parts box for storage and no use of the lovely breadboard overlay sheets that make the Arduino-centric ARDX kit so easy to use, but it’s hard to imagine someone buying the Kitronik kit and being disappointed.

Finally, the GPIO Hammer Header. I’ve long been a fan of Pimoroni’s products, but the Hammer Header is by far both the simplest and the smartest I’ve seen. Designed for anyone who has purchased a Raspberry Pi Zero and wants to make use of the unpopulated GPIO header but who doesn’t fancy firing up a soldering iron, the kit makes use of cleverly-shaped pins which can make a suitable electrical connection purely mechanically.

The kit gets its name from the acrylic jig used for installation: assemble the jig with the Pi Zero in the middle, then give it a few sharp raps with a hammer to push the pins home. Male and female variants are available, allowing you to quickly install headers on both the Pi Zero and compact pHAT add-on boards, and to my surprise both installed quickly, easily, and without a single poor joint – and in a fraction of the time of soldering all 40 pins by hand.

For all this, and more, pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, Volume 2

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 2The Raspberry Pi Foundation has published the second in its Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book series, and as usually there’s a whole raft of my material to be found within its black-clad pages.

The book begins with practical guides and tutorials, including my guide to adding a physical reset switch to the RUN header on any modern Raspberry Pi Zero. It’s the review section where you’ll find the bulk of my work, however, beginning with a look at a couple of handy tools for makers: the Proster VC99 multimeter and the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station.

Further on you’ll find detailed reviews of two microcontroller-based products which can interface with the Raspberry Pi or operate entirely standalone: the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit and the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit. The former acts as an introduction to the world of conductive thread, while the latter uses conductive ink to complete the circuits in its bundled guide.

Finally, my contributions to the Projects Book Volume 2 end with a review of the Pimoroni pHAT DAC, a compact add-on for the Raspberry Pi Zero – though mechanically compatible with any other modern Pi model bar the bare Compute Module family – which adds a high-quality digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and 3.5mm jack. Those looking to wire a Pi into the stereo systems can also solder on optional stereo RCA jacks, which I thought was a particularly nice feature.

As with the previous book in the series, the Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 2 is available to download free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 159

Custom PC Issue 159Hobby Tech this month covers the launch of the Sugru Rebel Tech Kit, the performance improvements made possible in the latest Arduino IDE, and ends with bad news for Arduino.cc’s new Genuino brand which, I’m pleased to say, has since been replaced by significantly better news.

Sugru, for those not familiar, is remarkable stuff. Straight from the packet it has the consistency of well-worked Blu-tack, if not slightly softer, but with nothing more than time hardens into a firm silicone rubber. It’s waterproof, heatproof, electrically insulative, and I’ve used it in the past for everything from mounting a tablet to the side of my monitor to customising the scales on a Leatherman multitool.

The Rebel Tech Kit, then, is Sugru’s attempt to grab some Christmas gift traffic. Featuring four sachets of Sugru, a guitar pick for moulding and removal, a storage tin, and a full-colour project booklet, there’s not much in there for those already experienced in the ways of “mouldable glue.” For newcomers, though, it’s a fantastic introduction, and one I can see appearing under trees around the world.

The Arduino IDE tests, meanwhile, were fun to carry out. Updates to the AVR Core – the toolchain used for ATmega-based microcontroller boards like the Arduino Uno and Arduino Mega – have brought with them the promise of smaller binary sizes and improved performance, which was an excuse to pull out my microcontroller benchmark family: the floating-point Whetstone, integer Dhrystone, and my own pin-toggling IOBench. The result is an in-depth look at the improvements you can expect from upgrading, complete with pretty graphs and even prettier screenshots.

Finally, the Genuino’s death knell. At the time of writing, noted Sheffield-based hobbyist supply house Pimoroni had revealed the outcome of months of negotiations with Arduino.cc: they would no longer stock the company’s boards. The reason: the ongoing legal battle with Arduino.org over international trademark rights, which had seen Arduino.cc launch the Genuino brand. A refusal to sell Genuino-branded hardware to resellers that would make them available in the US was causing headaches that Pimoroni could do without, which were detailed in the company’s blog post and expanded upon in the final page of my column this month.

Publishing, though, has considerable lead times, and in the time it’s taken this issue to hit shop shelves there’s been a welcome development: Arduino.cc and Arduino.org have merged, ending all legal proceedings between the two and meaning that the problems experienced by Pimoroni over trademark rights and product geo-fencing should no longer be an issue. The impact of this merger, and what it means for the Arduino user, will be explored in a future column.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff from people other than myself, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally on Zinio and other 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.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 167

Linux User & Developer Issue 167This month’s Linux User & Developer includes my review of Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r family of break-out boards, designed for both the mainstream Raspberry Pi and ultra-compact Raspberry Pi Zero single-board computers (SBCs).

While Pimoroni isn’t exclusively focused on the Raspberry Pi platform, it’s no secret that the Sheffield-based company has plenty of ideas in mind for enhancing the popular devices. The Black Hat Hack3r range started out as an internal development tool, designed to make it easier to debug Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) devices – add-on boards which cover the 40-pin general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header on top of the Raspberry Pi – without having to deal with a rat’s nest of cables or easily-knocked debug clips.

The boards are simple at their heart: with no active components, all they do is mirror the GPIO header. A ribbon cable connects the board – available in full-size and a Mini variant designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi Zero – to the Pi’s GPIO header, and the HAT under investigation is connected to the mirrored header. A third header then provides full access to all 40 pins, which opens up a wealth of possibilities: you can add additional hardware at the same time as the HAT, sniff signals coming to or from the HAT for debugging or reverse engineering reasons, or even connect more than one HAT to a single Pi by daisy-chaining multiple boards.

I’ve long been a fan of Pimoroni’s designs, and the Black Hat Hack3rs are no exception to the company’s rule of clever boards with attractive layouts and finishes. To get my full opinion, though, you’ll have to pick up a copy of Linux User & Developer Issue 167 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via digital distribution services such as Zinio.