Custom PC, Issue 226

Custom PC Issue 226My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the Argon40 Eon network attached storage case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the unusual SB Components RoundyPi and RoundyFi smart display boards, and The Colouring Book of Retro Computers by Neil Thomas and Stoo Cambridge.

Regular readers will be familiar with Argon40’s well-designed metal – and, in its more recent efforts to offer something to the budget crowd, plastic – Raspberry Pi cases. The Eon, which follows on from the One and Neo in a naming scheme which leaves the company no option but to name its next product something like Noe, Eno, or Oen, is different. It’s huge, for a start, because it can hold not only a Raspberry Pi but four SATA hard drives and a USB SSD.

It’s designed to turn a Raspberry Pi into a network-attached storage (NAS) system, and it delivers on its promises – with one major caveat: Testing showed that its weedy internal fan is entirely incapable of keeping the drives cool. Coupled with some software issues surrounding the smart on-board OLED display panel and the Eon is the first Argon40 product that hasn’t been a easy recommendation.

The RoundyPi and RoundyFi, meanwhile, are a lot smaller. Built around the Raspberry Pi RP2040 and the Espressif ESP-12E microcontrollers respectively, these unusual boards offer an integrated means of communicating with an unusual full-colour 240×240 LCD display. They’re eye-catching, but the code samples leave a lot to be desired – and there’s no way to recreate the sample images used in the company’s Kickstarter campaign without considerable effort.

The Colouring Book of Retro Computers is, oddly enough, the second colouring book I’ve reviewed in Hobby Tech after the similarly-named Retro Computer Colouring Book in Issue 214. This time around, though, considerably more effort has been put into its creation – including the hiring of noted video game artist Stoo Cambridge, of Sensible Software fame, to create the illustrations. The result isn’t perfect – product names and company logos are omitted out of an overabundance of caution, and several pages in the print version have been accidentally produced from low-resolution JPEG versions of Cambridge’s excellent illustrations – but it definitely raises a smile.

Custom PC Issue 226 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 225

Custom PC Issue 225My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC Magazine takes a look at the IceWhale Tech ZimaBoard, a self-styled “single-board server,” the relatively low-cost yet high-performance DytSpectrumOwl thermal inspection camera, and the Cyntech Raspberry Pi Heatsink Case – the latter an imposing block of hefty plastic and metal.

The ZimaBoard 216, the cheapest model in the ZimaBoard family, is an interestingly-designed single-board computer which arrives ensconced in its own heatsink case. Powered by an Intel Celeron N3450 – a quiet upgrade from the Celeron N3350 originally planned, likely as a result of component shortages – the base model includes 2GB of LPDDR4 memory and 16GB of eMMC storage pre-loaded with a Linux-based operating system dubbed “Casa OS.”

The hardware is well-designed and comes with room for expansion courtesy of USB 3 ports, two gigabit Ethernet ports, two SATA 6Gbps ports, and – unusually – a PCI Express slot to the side. Actually using the slot, sadly, isn’t easy – and there’s a lot of work still to be done in addressing usability and security issues in the custom OS.

The DytSpectrumOwl is another piece of well-designed hardware somewhat hampered by weaker software. Built by Dianyang Tech, the DytSpectrumOwl is built for thermal analysis of PCBs and materials via a surprisingly high-resolution camera module on a neat adjustable stand – functionally equivalent to, though slightly lower resolution than, the FLIR ETS320 I reviewed back in Issue 201.

At less than half the price, though, the DytSpectrumOwl is a tempting alternative to the FLIR model – and it includes a wonderfully useful focus adjustment knob, dramatically increasing its flexibility. Its software, however, is Windows-only and outputs annoyingly non-standard radiometric JPEG images lacking a visible scale.

Finally, Cyntech’s take on a protective and cooling case for the Raspberry Pi family is a surprisingly chunky design built from plastic with an upper metal heatsink. Built from just three parts – plus an optional fourth spacer layer to make room for a fan, for when passive cooling isn’t enough – the case is pleasingly robust and does a perfectly good job of keeping the Raspberry Pi’s processor from throttling during intensive workloads. Its price, though, makes it hard to recommend over third-party alternatives.

All this, and a whole lot more, is available now from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 223

Custom PC Issue 223In this months’ Hobby Tech column I take a look at the open-source, though not open-hardware, Bangle.js 2 smartwatch, dig deep into digital archaeology with some Dragon 32 floppy disk analysis, and read Microzeit’s Crackers II: The Data Storm.

First, the smartwatch. Back in Issue 218 I reviewed the SQFMI Watchy, a hacker-friendly but bulky smartwatch built around a low-power electrophoretic display. The Bangle.js 2 is a slicker, slimmer device which uses a colour Sharp Memory LCD panel – colour, yet still sunlight readable. Unlike the Watchy, though, it’s not a wholly new creation: it’s an off-the-shelf smartwatch imported in bulk from its Chinese manufacturer, then given new life with the real star of the show: The Bangle.js firmware.

Developed by Gordon Williams, Bangle.js – which is open source – allows users to write smartwatch applications and extensions in JavaScript, which are then transferred onto the smartwatch from a browser-based app store. The original, considerably bulkier, Bangle.js smartwatch proved popular enough that the store was well-populated at launch – though that’s not to say I didn’t encounter a few bugs and gotchas during my testing.

My work on digital archaeology, meanwhile, was surprisingly bug-free – given I was working to blend modern technology with floppy disks last accessed back in the 1980s. Having been imaging some 3.5″ floppy disks originally used with a Dragon 32 microcomputer, I found myself in need of accessing the raw files within – something loading the disk images into an emulator couldn’t provide.

It’s at this stage I must thank Adrien Destugues, Haiku OS developer, who came to my aid with a port of a tool originally written in 1997 for MS-DOS compatibles by engineer Graham E. Kinns: the Dragon DOS Utils. Using Kinns’ original source code, Destugues was able to port the tools to Linux – giving me what I needed to access the files within the floppy disk images and finish my investigations by loading and decoding a series of saved images into The GIMP.

Finally, Crackers II is – unsurprisingly – the follow-up to Microzeit’s Crackers I: The Gold Rush, coincidentally also reviewed in Issue 218. Picking up where the original left off, the book charts the growth of the software piracy scene on bulletin board systems – along with diversions into the worlds of ASCII art, copy markets, and copy protection systems. As with the earlier book, it’s heavy on the imagery – but there’s plenty of meat in the text too.

Custom PC Issue 223 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 221

Custom PC Issue 221My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W single-board computer, the Sipeed Nezha D1 RISC-V also-single-board-computer, and an autobiography from Sierra On-Line co-founder Ken Williams.

The Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W is, as the name suggests, the successor to the Raspberry Pi Zero W – in turn a follow-up to the original Raspberry Pi Zero, adding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. All three are being sold alongside each other, at the pleasingly-spaced price points of $5, $10, and $15 – but that extra cash on the new model brings with it a big boost in performance thanks to a more powerful quad-core processor in a custom package alongside 512MB of RAM.

I put the board through a range of benchmarks, from raw performance in both synthetic and real-world workloads to thermal management – including high-resolution thermal imagery under a FLIR ETS320 thermal inspection camera. The results show a device that isn’t without its flaws – that 512MB of RAM, in particular, limits its capabilities – but for the cash may well be one of the most tempting single-board computers on the market today.

The Nezha D1, by contrast, is less tempting thanks to a roughly £100 price point for a device which just about meets the performance of the considerably cheaper Raspberry Pi Zero W and is considerably outclassed by the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W. Those picking the board up, though, won’t be doing so for speed but for the fact it’s one of the first devices on the market to feature Allwinner’s D1 system-on-chip, a part built on the open-source Alibaba T-Head XuanTie C906 core.

Run through as many benchmarks as possible – which, with software support still underway, is fewer than usual – the board proved capable, but poor documentation outside Chinese-language materials make getting anything done with the system a slog. Thankfully, things are improving on that front: RISC-V International has sent out a number of Nezha D1 boards to early adopters across the world who are working hard to bring up new software and write improved and translated documentation – meaning it’s going to be worth revisiting the board in the coming months to see where things stand then.

Finally, Not All Fair Tales Have Happy Endings is Ken Williams’ autobiography, covering the days leading up to the founding of Sierra On-Line – a name which will be familiar to gamers across at least two generations. It’s a refreshingly honest account of the company’s start, success, and ultimate failure, and one which doesn’t necessarily paint Williams in the greatest of lights: he comes across as obsessed with money, treating games as mere commodities to be sold, and pushed his wife into a career of programming despite a total lack of interest or, in the early days, aptitude on her part – though the latter did give rise to Roberta Williams’ creating some of the best-remembered adventure games in history, so it’s hard to be too critical on that front.

All this, and more, is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 220

Custom PC Issue 220This month’s Hobby Tech dedicates a whopping four pages to one of the most interesting devices I’ve ever had on test: the MNT Research Reform open-hardware laptop. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a look at a classic book of early personal computing history: Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines.

The meat of my latest five-page column is a relatively straightforward review of the MNT Reform, a laptop that’s anything but straightforward. The brainchild of MNT Research, and the second-generation of the core design, the MNT Reform is open – from the design of the chassis with its eye-catching transparent base to the electrical designs for the motherboard, system-on-module, and even the 3D-printed trackball which sits below a mechanical keyboard.

As a laptop, though, it’s easy to find the Reform wanting on a number of fronts – from lacklustre performance to the absence of niceties like having it suspend when you close the lid. I then dive deeper into the project itself – and reveal something both unique and absolutely worthy of celebration, with an enthusiastic and growing community boding well for its future.

Two of the biggest issues highlighted in the review have since been resolved for future production runs: the trackball has been greatly enhanced by the addition of steel bearings, and the troubling power drain while “off” which can empty the batteries has been addressed with a firmware update to put the system management controller into a low-power deep-sleep mode.

Computer Lib/Dream Machines is, despite having been published in 1974, a publication with a very similar ethos at its heart: the idea that computing not only should be accessible to all but must be accessible to all. Long out of print, despite Microsoft’s efforts to publish a professionally typeset and updated version of the eclectic original in 1987, the book manages to be both of-its-era and yet somehow entirely relevant – and that’s even before you flip Computer Lib over to reveal Dream Machines as a second book bound as one.

The original version of the book has been preserved at The Internet Archive, and is well worth a read – though its format means you may spend quite some time zooming in and out.

All this, and more, is available now at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 219

Custom PC Issue 219In this month’s Custom PC I take a look at the Airxed IRX Smart Home Hub, revisit the Kobol Helios64 open-spec network attached storage (NAS) appliance, and read through Wired’s pocket-size guide to quantum computing by Amit Katwala.

First, the hub. Looking for all the world like a fat gloss-finish hockey puck, the IRX is effectively a cross between a programmable remote and an environmental monitor. Inside the housing is an array of through-hole infrared LEDs, arranged in a hedgehog-like pattern. Trigger an IR signal using the companion app, and they all fire at once offering room-filling coverage – not like the bad old days of taping an IR blaster to a sensor to get the positioning just right.

Combine that functionality with a temperature and humidity sensor, all drive by an Espressif ESP-12S ESP8266-based microcontroller, and you’ve an interesting device. Sadly, despite an attractive price there are a fair few downsides to the design – and I was entirely unable to find my Yahama AV receiver in the list of infrared gadgets it could control.

I originally reviewed the Helios64, meanwhile, back in Issue 211. At the time my conclusion was that, despite some glaring design flaws and software issues, it was a tempting buy – a conclusion I now revisit on the news that Kobol is closing up shop and the bug-fixed second revision will no longer be released. Couple that with the discovery of yet more hardware failures and serious concerns about the Armbian project on which the device runs, and it’s no longer recommended – even if you could pick one up cheaply on the second-hand market.

Finally, Quantum Computing is the first in a series of compact primers covering a range of topics selected by Wired Magazine. Written by Amit Katwala, it’s a broad though shallow romp through the latest in the field of quantum computing technology – looking at everything from its impact on cryptography to commercial quantum systems. For the curious, it’s a great introduction to the topic – but most will be left wanting something more when they reach the end.

Custom PC Issue 219 is available from all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, and as a free PDF download as part of a time-limited offer.

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2022

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2022The latest issue of The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook, an annual aimed at those looking to find out what they can do with their Raspberry Pi, is out now – and in it you’ll find my in-depth coverage of the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller board.

Within the special dedicated Raspberry Pi Pico section of the annual is my two-page introduction to the board, an in-depth spread covering its specifications and the various components which make up the hardware – with plenty of high-quality photography, taken in my in-house studio – and an explanation of exactly what a microcontroller is and how the RP2040 at the heart of the Raspberry Pi Pico works.

You’ll also find my guide to programming the Pico in MicroPython and C/C++, an interview with chief operating officer James Adams and senior engineering manager Nick Francis, comment from Eben Upton, a simple hardware “hello, world” tutorial in MicroPython, and a step-by-step guide to safely soldering headers onto the Raspberry Pi Pico’s general-purpose input/output (GPIO) pins.

There’s also a brief overview of my book, Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico – which, for those who want to explore the topic further, is available as a free PDF download under a Creative Commons licence.

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2022 is available in all good newsagents and bookstores now, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free download under a permissive Creative Commons licence.

Custom PC, Issue 218

Custom PC Issue 218My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the final-release Mooltipass Mini BLE open-source password management gadget, the SQFMI Watchy hacker-friendly smartwatch kit, and Crackers I: The Gold Rush from Microzeit.

I first previewed the Mooltipass Mini BLE back in Issue 201, after gaining access to the pre-release beta. At the time, a lot of the planned features were either only partially functional or entirely absent – though the hardware, at least, was undeniably solid. In the months since, the team has been hard at work and the final Mooltipass Mini BLE is now in backers’ hands.

To say the project has delivered is no understatement. While there are still holes to fill – the lack of any way to save a password onto the device from an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet is a big one – it handles most tasks with ease, and the integration of Bluetooth Low Energy for wire-free connectivity to target gadgets is a game-changer for the user on the go.

The SQFMI Watchy, by contrast, doesn’t quite manage to deliver on its promises. Designed as an open-hardware project centred on an Espressif ESP32 microcontroller and a compact e-paper sunlight-readable display, the electronics are solid enough – but the plastic case is a low point, and the firmware simply isn’t ready.

Despite having Wi-Fi on board, there’s no way to set the time on the Watchy automatically. The default clock face pulls down weather data, which is nice – but it’s pre-set to New York City, and there’s no obvious way to change that. The relevant variable is hidden, it turns out, in files which do not appear in the Arduino IDE when you edit the open-source sketch – and nowhere in the documentation is this mentioned. For anyone willing to spend a lot of time writing their own code based on poor or entirely absent documentation, there’s promise here – but it’s near-unusable out-of-the-box.

Finally, Crackers I. The first in a pair of books covering the rise of computer software piracy – primarily, but not exclusively, games – and the groups on both sides of the fence, Microzeit’s latest is a hefty tome well worth putting on your coffee table. Presented in full colour, the book is thick enough that its image-heavy nature doesn’t annoy – and the stories it tells are fascinating to boot.

Custom PC Issue 218 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download as part of a time-limited offer.

Custom PC, Issue 217

Custom PC Issue 217In this month’s instalment of my five-page Hobby Tech column for Custom PC Magazine, I take a look at the Oratek Tofu carrier board for the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 the Zymbit HSM6 hardware security module, and Tim Danton’s The Computers That Made Britain.

The Oratek Tofu is one of a growing number of carrier boards which take a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 system-on-module and turn it into a fully-functional compact computer. Designed to break out all the features of the module, there’s only one thing missing: it has no USB 3.0 ports, with Oratek having made the decision to instead break out the PCI Express lanes which would normally connect to a USB 3.0 controller to an M.2 B-key slot for PCIe devices – and an optional adapter board adds support for NVMe storage, too.

Add in a 3D-printed and smartly-designed case, and the Tofu is a tempting proposition – let down only by high pricing. It’s understandable given the small production batch, but if Oratek could find a way to bring the costs down it’d go a long way to making a Tofu plus CM4 a competitor to a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.

The Zymbit HSM6, meanwhile, is a successor to the HSM4. They’re both ultra-compact hardware security modules, designed primarily for integration into custom designs but available with a carrier board for connection to a Raspberry Pi or Nvidia Jetson for development and experimentation.

The HSM6 offers all the features of the HSM4, plus dedicated support for acting as a hardware cryptocurrency wallet. As with the Tofu, though, the pricing is likely to be an issue – and there’s nothing in the way of user-friendly software available for the device, with users instead being given a smattering of C/C++ and Python sample code and left to experiment.

Finally, The Computers That Made Britain – and a disclosure: I’ve worked with the author Tim Danton, editor of PC Pro Magazine, several times. That has no bearing on my opinion of his book, though: a meticulously researched walk through computers which, while not all were made or even designed in Britain, had an undeniable impact on the country’s coteries of computing enthusiasts and developers.

Building on both original interviews, third-party reportage, and contemporary reports, the book isn’t exhaustive but is definitely enjoyable – and bonus points should be given to a high-quality index, all too often missing from these books, which makes it easily usable for reference once you’ve read it cover-to-cover.

Custom PC Issue 217 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a free digital download on the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 108

The MagPi Issue 108This month’s issue of The MagPi Magazine includes another of my tutorials for those looking to get started with the MicroPython platform on the Raspberry Pi Pico microcontroller: a data logger, which makes use of the microcontroller’s ability to run saved code away from a computer and its flash file system.

Originally written as part of Get Started with MicroPython on Raspberry Pi Pico: The Official Guide, my guide to physical computing on Raspberry Pi’s first-ever microcontroller development board, this latest tutorial – one of the last in the book – covers file handling in MicroPython, which can often trip up new users: opening a file for writing erases any previous contents, giving you an empty file if you’re not careful.

The tutorial then moves on to reading and formatting temperature data from the on-board sensor, storing it in a file for later loading, and even running the Raspberry Pi Pico without being connected to a Raspberry Pi or other computer – making use of a special file name to load code on boot without user interaction.

The MagPi Issue 108 is available at now at all good newsagents and supermarkets, online with global delivery, or as a Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free zero-cost PDF download on the official website.