The MagPi, Issue 43

The MagPi Issue 43It’s a special week for the Raspberry Pi Foundation: it’s celebrating its fourth birthday with the launch of the new Raspberry Pi 3. It’s a special day for me, too: the latest MagPi magazine boasts a total of thirteen pages of my content, including the cover splash: a detailed and thorough look at the new model.

Boasting on-board Wi-Fi (a community request since the original model launched four years ago), Bluetooth 4.1, Bluetooth Low Energy, and a faster 64-bit ARMv8 processor, the new Pi 3 is a bit of a beast. My cover feature for the magazine begins with a look at those behind it with a double-page spread featuring interviews with project co-founder Eben Upton and the Foundation’s director of hardware and the man responsible for circuit design James Adams – and a massive thank-you to both for sparing the time to talk to me at one of their busiest ever periods!

The feature then moves on to a look a the board itself, with a hero photo of the board spread across another two pages. Each major feature of the board, from the shiny new 64-bit BCM2837 system-on-chip (SoC) processor to the BCM43438 radio module – which required me to get out the microscope in order to capture its markings – has a call-out with close-up photography and an explanation of how it has changed since the Raspberry Pi 2.

Next up is a benchmark spread, which required me to come up with a detailed suite of tests. After some experimentation, I settled on a selection of classic benchmarks – SysBench CPU in single- and multi-threaded modes, Linpack with and without NEON support, Whetstone, Dhrystone, SysBench memory read and write, Ethernet throughput, Quake III Arena timedemo performance, and power draw at load and idle. As an added bonus, I also came up with a way of measuring general-purpose input-output (GPIO) performance under Python, writing a simple benchmark to toggle a pin on and off as quickly as possible and measuring the speed with a frequency counter connected to the GPIO header.

The next double-page spread looks at helping the reader get started with the new device. I walk readers through modifying an existing Raspbian installation to boot on the Pi 3 by editing config.txt, setting up the Wi-Fi module, enabling true OpenGL acceleration on the graphics processor, and how to write programs to get the best performance on the Pi 3. Sadly, I was unable to explain how to use the Bluetooth 4.1 and Bluetooth Low Energy features, as software support was not available at the time of writing.

The spread then ends with a look at five things you could do with a Pi 3 in order to take advantage of the new features and boosted performance. My work for the magazine continues, though, with a review of the Proster VC99 multimeter and Pimoroni pHAT DAC, before coming to a close with a one-page news piece regarding the production status of the popular Raspberry Pi Zero – helping to explain why it has been so difficult to get hold of and settling concerns that it may be bumped to the back of the production queue now the Pi 3 is out.

All 13 pages of my content, and plenty of other stuff by people who aren’t me, are available from your nearest supermarket or newsagent, or as a free PDF download under a Creative Commons licence from The MagPi’s official website.

Custom PC, Issue 130

Custom PC Issue 130This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC magazine is something of a Pi-extravaganza, featuring a tutorial on how I built a Python-powered doorbell so I wouldn’t miss deliveries when I’m in the upstairs office and a review of the Wolfson Audio Board add-on. If you’re not a Pi-fan, fear not: there’s also my write-up of the first RetroCollect Video Games Market event in Leeds.

That’s a good place to start, in fact. The brainchild of RetroCollect founder Adam Buchanan, the RCVGM brought sellers and buyers from across the UK under the roof of Leeds Town Hall to see what happened. The turn-out was far higher than expected, with a queue snaking through the building and half-way around the outside, but those who stuck with it and got inside were in for a treat.

Exhibitors at the event included people selling 8-bit inspired Hama-bead art, hand-made game-themed jewellery and clothing, and hardware and software from the early 8-bit era right the way through to modern day. Personal highlights included a tour of BetaGamma’s Bas Gialopsos’ latest creations, including hot-rodded Spectrums and a composite video adapter for the Atari 2600, and a chance to chat with Philip Murphy about his North-East Retro Gaming events where over a hundred arcade cabinets, classic consoles and pinball tables are set to free play for the weekend.

For the Pi fan, the tutorial this month demonstrates how a relatively simple hardware hack – a switch connected to the GPIO port – can be used to bring some intelligence to every-day objects. Although I work from home, I often miss deliveries because I’m listening to music and can’t hear the doorbell. While I could have purchased a wireless door-chime with two receivers, I had Pis and switches a-plenty and decided to go for a homebrew solution with Twitter integration – with great success.

Finally for this month, the review of the Wolfson Audio Board. Kindly provided by CPC, the board connects to the GPIO header on the Model A and Model B Revision 2 – but not Revision 1 – Raspberry Pi boards and provides a considerable upgrade to its audio capabilities. To get a full idea of what it can do, you’ll have to buy the magazine – but its highlights include SPDIF digital audio inputs and outputs, high-definition playback, on-board amplification and even a pair of MEMS microphones for stereo recording.

All this, plus a bunch of fascinating stuff that I didn’t write, can be yours at your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via services like Zinio.

Raspberry Pi for Kids

Raspberry Pi for KidsThose of you who follow my every move may remember a few projects I created for Dennis Publishing’s Computeractive publication, centring around the Raspberry Pi and Arduino single-board systems – in particular the three-part series walking newcomers through creating software and hardware accessories for the Pi, which proved extremely popular with readers. So popular, in fact, that Dennis has extracted the tutorial on building a switch-based game controller and republished it in the MagBook Raspberry Pi for Kids.

If you missed it the first time around, the tutorial was designed as the follow-up to an earlier guide on writing a simple snake game in Python. Using microswitches, resistors, a segment of stripboard and a soldering iron, readers are shown how to add a dedicated game controller – connected through the Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header – to the system and modify the game’s source code accordingly. Reader feedback was good, and the relatively simple circuit makes it a logical choice for the MagBook’s target audience – although younger kids should, naturally, be supervised when using a soldering iron.

The MagBook also makes heavy use of my photography, both in my tutorial and throughout the rest of the publication where various images of my Pis can be found gracing its pages. Sadly, in an editorial oversight, my name appears to have been missed off the list of contributors – but I’m sure that will be quickly corrected in a future edition.

The Raspberry Pi for Kids MagBook is available in newsagents and supermarkets now, or via Amazon.

Raspberry Pi User Guide, Second Edition

Raspberry Pi User Guide Second EditionSince I wrote the Raspberry Pi User Guide over a year ago, the project has changed dramatically. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has grown in size and stature, a new hardware revision has been released, the Model A finally hit the streets and users have been treated to dramatic improvements in the quantity, accessibility and quality of the software available.

As a result, I’m pleased to announce the release of the Raspberry Pi User Guide Second Edition. Significantly longer than the original release, the book has been thoroughly updated to cover the Model A, Model B Revision 2, and the Camera Module. Additional new features include step-by-step instructions for using the Raspberry Pi Software Configuration Tool, the New Out-Of-Box Software (NOOBS) installer, and various other tweaks to bring it bang up-to-date.

For those who haven’t taken the plunge into the world of Raspberry Pi yet, congratulations: you can now pick up a considerably better book to help you get started. For those who have already bought a copy of the First Edition, a consolation prize: I have negotiated with the publisher, Wiley & Sons, to produce an updated ‘Second Printing’ of the First Edition in eBook form. If you’ve purchased the First Edition in electronic format, delete and re-download the title to receive various free updates including Model A and Model B Revision 2 details. You’ll know if your particular store has updated the title, as there’ll be a sash at the top-right explaining the updated content.

The Raspberry Pi User Guide Second Edition is available from all good – and plenty of not-so-good – book sellers throughout the world and is also an official stock item of the Raspberry Pi Swag Store, profits from which go to help the Foundation complete its work in pushing the envelope of computing education both at home and abroad. High levels of interest in the title – the First Edition has at this point sold around 100,000 copies world-wide across its various translations – do mean that you may have a short wait for stock, though – so if you’re hoping to buy it as a Christmas present and see it available from somewhere, I’d advise against delaying your purchase.

Electronic copies of the Second Edition are at the time of writing hard to come by but, as with the First Edition, expect to see it in Kindle, Google Play Books, iBooks, PDF, ePub and various other proprietary and non-proprietary formats – as well as DRM-free via O’Reilly in the US – in the very near future.

Custom PC, Issue 121

Custom PC Issue 121Another month, another Hobby Tech column for Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC magazine. This month, I’ve been mostly playing with some toys that the rather lovely people at Ciseco have sent me: the Pi-Lite and the Raspberry Pi Wireless Inventors Kit.

But first, the traditional vintage computing section – and it’s a corker this month. Spanning a bumper two pages, this month I spoke to my rather talented friend Charlotte Gore about a project she’s been working on: the SIDI, a MIDI-to-SID-chip adapter designed with musicians firmly in mind.

The SID chip, for those who don’t know, was developed by Bob Yannes and found fame as the component of the Commodore 64 that really made the system stand out from the crowd. Famously described by Yannes’ colleague Charles Winterble as “10 times better than anything out there, and 20 times better than it needs to be,” the SID chip is still in use today to provide crunchy sounds for everyone from chiptune artists to mainstream musicians.

Trouble is, it’s a pain in the proverbial to use if you’re not a techie. That’s where the SIDI project comes in: a brave attempt to create a control surface that allows a musician, with absolutely no knowledge of programming, the Commodore 64, or the SID chip itself, to twiddle a few knobs, press keys on a MIDI keyboard and coax forth those iconic sounds. Even at this early stage of development – and when Gore started the project, her electronics experience was around the level of changing batteries in remote controls – it’s a stunning creation, and if you have any interest in electronic music, the C64, SID chips or how vintage electronics can be reborn I’d heartily recommend giving the feature a read.

Next, on to Ciseco. The company was kind enough to send over a couple of their latest toys: the white edition of the Pi-Lite, and the Raspberry Pi Wireless Inventors Kit. The first is an add-on board for the Pi that provides an LED matrix, programmable via the UART connection on the GPIO pins. To make full use of the gift, I create a small tutorial – highlighted on the cover splash – for displaying a scrolling graph of CPU activity. As usual, the code is up on GitHub if you’re curious.

The RasWIK, to use its contracted name, is a bit more involved: not due to launch until next month, the kit provides a radio-equipped Arduino clone, a matching radio board for the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header, and a selection of components for experimentation. I had an absolute blast playing with this, even though at the time of writing the software was still at a very early stage. It provides possibly the simplest platform for experimenting with wireless sensor networks I’ve ever seen – and there’ll be a second review of the kit, written when the software was a bit more polished, appearing in a future Linux User & Developer magazine.

All this, plus the usual maker-themed news snippets, can be yours if you just pop over to your local newsagent, supermarket, or even just stay in and download a copy of the magazine from Zinio or another digital distribution platform.

Custom PC, Issue 118

Custom PC Issue 118I hinted last month that there were changes afoot at Custom PC, and this latest issue is the result: my regular two-page interview column has been replaced with Hobby Tech, a new four-page extravaganza celebrating the best of the hacker, maker and retrocomputing communities.

In other words: it’s a column where I get to waffle on about the sort of things I do for fun these days. While getting paid. What’s not to like?

It’s likely to be a couple of issues before the column gets into its full swing – the idea is that it will evolve into a 21st century update of Jerry Pournelle’s old column from BYTE magazine, which has long been one of my favourite pieces of content. I’m no Pournelle, but hopefully I can rustle up something that will keep the readers entertained each month.

So, onto the column itself. This month, the focus – as evidenced by the issue’s cover splash – is on the work I’ve done turning a Raspberry Pi into a low-cost NAS. Taking the form of a tutorial, this part looks at how I used Btrfs, SSH and a pair of external hard drives to create a low-cost, low-power destination for my backups and miscellaneous files. If you’re struggling with “page allocation failure” messages in your Pi’s kernel log, it also includes advice about that.

That’s only two pages, however, and Hobby Tech is bigger than that. So, there was room for a quick review of the excellent ExpEYES Junior developed by the Inter-University Accelerator Centre in New Delhi as an educational aid. Connecting to a USB port and driven by an open-source Python toolkit, the device acts as a programmable power supply, four-channel storage oscilloscope, microphone, analogue-to-digital converter, signal generator and more – and comes with the components required to perform 50 experiments.

Finally, for the retrocomputing enthusiasts, an explanation of how I turned a second-hand Amiga A1200 – purchased, incidentally, from Custom PC’s sister website – into more than the sum of its parts. Those who follow me on Twitter will be aware of my work in that regard: fitting heatsinks to prolong the life, replacing the plastics and keyboard, upgrading the Kickstart ROMs, installing a CompactFlash hard drive and connecting the system to my home network.

If that sounds like something of a hodgepodge of topics, then that’s probably because it is; the link between them all is that they’re all subjects about which I am extremely passionate, and I hope that comes across in the column.

I’m very keen to get feedback on Hobby Tech, as is editor Ben Hardwidge: it’s a new direction for the magazine, and something of an experiment. Please, if you’ve read this month’s Custom PC, leave a comment with your thoughts either here or on the magazine discussion forum. Likewise, if you’ve got any ideas for topics or devices you’d like to see covered in future Hobby Tech columns, let me know!

Custom PC Issue 118 is available pretty much everywhere, but if it isn’t then grab a digital copy from Zinio or an equivalent service instead.

Computeractive, Issue 383

Computeractive, Issue 383The latest issue of Computeractive magazine features the last portion of my three-part series looking at practical projects for the Raspberry Pi, and this one is a doozy: it involves getting your soldering iron out.

Going beyond the material originally prepared for my book, the Raspberry Pi User Guide, this latest feature takes some stripboard, switches, wiring and resistors and creates a fully-functional four-way game controller which connects directly to the Raspberry Pi’s general purpose input output (GPIO) header.

The Snake game, created for the book and featured in last issue’s tutorial on writing games using Python and the pygame library, is modified to understand both keyboard and GPIO-driven gamepad input. It’s a lot to ask of Computeractive’s readership, most of whom have probably never picked up a soldering iron before, but I’m hopeful that a few will be tempted to try it out – and made sure there were plenty of diagrams available to make things as clear as possible.

For those who want to take the project further, there are still spare GPIO pins on the Pi – meaning it’s perfectly possible to add a fire button or two for controlling a more complex game. If programming is more your thing, the fact that the code is modified to monitor both keyboard and GPIO input means it’s fairly straightforward to add a second player to the game – creating a simple version of the Tron lightcycle game.

Computeractive Issue 383 is available pretty much anywhere magazines are normally found, or online through Computeractive Direct.

Computeractive, Issue 382

Computeractive, Issue 382Continuing my three-part series for Computeractive, in this issue you’ll find a guide to writing a simple arcade game for the Raspberry Pi using Python and the pygame library. It’s rather more in-depth than the magazine would normally cover, but that’s the whole purpose of the Raspberry Pi project after all: to get more people programming, and to dispel the myth that it’s something only a select few can ever attempt.

Those of you with eagle eyes may spot similarities between this issue’s tutorial and the pygame chapter of my book, the Raspberry Pi User Guide. There’s a good reason for that: the programs are the same. The Snake game is a great way to demonstrate game programming: it requires only four inputs – one for each cardinal direction – has a simple scoring mechanism and doesn’t require AI for the enemies. It also teaches a surprising chunk of the Python language, including the concept of stacks – used to store the location of each snake segment.

Next issue, the final part will be branching off from the book in a dramatic way: introducing the idea of building a custom game controller – to control the snake with, naturally – from scratch and connecting it to the Raspberry Pi’s General Purpose Input/Output (GPIO) port. Even if you’ve read the book – and I hope you have – I’d recommend picking up a copy!

Computeractive Issue 382 is available in all good newsagents, most bad ones, and via the Computeractive Direct website.

The Raspberry Pi User Guide

Raspberry Pi User Guide, Preliminary CoverThe magazine work has been, you may have noticed, slow of late. There’s a very good reason for this: I’ve been working on a semi-secret project which can now be officially unveiled. That project is the Raspberry Pi User Guide. (That’s a rough draft cover, by the way.)

Written in collaboration with Eben Upton, co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and inventor of the device itself, it’s a 240-page manual which aims to gently introduce the user into the world of the Raspberry Pi. No real technical knowledge is assumed – although by the time you get to to the sections on the GPIO port, it probably helps – and it aims to allow those without Linux experience to get up and running quickly on the remarkably sub-$35 single-board computer.

Subjects covered in the book include a quick introduction to Linux including system administration and maintenance, flashing the SD card, programming the Pi in Scratch and Python, making use of the 26-pin GPIO port, using the Pi as a home theatre system or general-purpose PC, and even a beginner’s guide to soldering.

The book is being published by Wiley & Sons in the UK and US in dead-tree and eBook formats, alongside an eBook-only introductory guide called Meet the Raspberry Pi. This slimmed-down version includes the first six chapters of the full-size book – which cover getting started and practical uses for the Pi – along with an extract from the ‘Hardware Hacking’ chapter. For those who just want to get started, it’s a cut-price alternative to the dead-tree release.

The book is undergoing final review and production now, with a view to getting Meet the Raspberry Pi out in the coming weeks and the Raspberry Pi User Guide whenever the printing presses can churn copies out fast enough. The electronic versions will be available in ePub, Kindle and PDF formats.

The dead-tree release can be pre-ordered on Amazon now, if you feel so inclined. Alternatively, the ePub can be pre-ordered from Wiley.

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Custom PC, Issue 106

Custom PC, Issue 106This month’s Custom PC Magazine includes my usual Mobile Tech Watch column along with a central feature: a hands-on guide to the Raspberry Pi.

First, the column. In a slight departure from the norm, I took a look at whether transparent, foldable electronics – as seen in films like Iron Man 2 and Ultraviolet (yes, I watched – and enjoyed – Ultravoilet. Don’t judge me) are in any way possible using current technologies.

The answer came as a surprise: yes, yes they are. Between Samsung’s transparent OLED displays, LG’s flexible electrophoretic screens, Rice University’s transparent and flexible electronics and Yuan Yang’s equally bendy see-through battery technology, it’s well within reach if a company has the R&D funds to spare.

The feature – the first full-length feature I’ve done for Custom PC in a long while – sits in the middle of the mag and holds the coveted “Plus” spot on the cover. Unlike my previous Raspberry Pi pieces, which have been reviews, this is a hands-on how-to tutorial starting off with an overview of what’s on the board and branching out into step-by-step guides on setting it up, turning it into a network attached storage (NAS) device, a home theatre PC, and how to address the general-purpose IO (GPIO) pins through Python. It also includes a section on overclocking, albeit with the required “it’s not a good idea to do this” warning in pride of place.

Sadly, there are a couple of hiccoughs with the piece, introduced during the layout and editing stage. It’s nothing major, although a couple of the commands won’t run correctly without modification. Custom PC’s editor, Ben Hardwidge, has promised that corrections will be published in the next issue and on the Custom PC Facebook page. Meanwhile, here are my original (correct) listings for each broken step:

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