This month’s Hobby Tech has a pair of two-page spreads on two very exciting, yet decidedly different, pieces of hardware – the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ and the Gamebuino Meta – along with a look at an update to the Arduino Create platform which brings early support for single-board computers.
First, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. As the name suggests, the new board isn’t quite a full generation above the existing Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. It is, however, a considerable upgrade – primarily thanks to a new packaging for the BCM2837 system-on-chip, now known as the BCM2837B0, which vastly improves its thermal performance and boosts its speed from 1.2GHz to 1.4GHz. Elsewhere, the board includes an upgraded and simplified power supply system, gigabit Ethernet – though limited to around 230Mb/s throughput in real-world terms – and dual-band 802.11ac wireless network capabilities. Naturally, the review also includes thermal imaging analysis – this time using a new overlay technique which, I’m pleased to say, offers a significant improvement in image clarity over my previous approaches.
The Gamebuino Meta, on the other hand, is a very different device to its predecessor. Upgraded from an ATmega microcontroller to an Arm chip, the Gamebuino Meta boasts a colour screen, programmable RGB LED lighting, a general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header with ‘developer backpack’ accessory for easy prototyping – in short, it’s a serious upgrade over the device I reviewed back in Issue 134. Despite the upgrades, though, it’s still extremely accessible, allowing users to write their own games using the Arduino IDE and the Gamebuino library with ease.
Finally, Arduino Create. I’ve been meaning to take a look at the cloud-based development environment for a while, but it wasn’t until it added support for single-board computers like the Raspberry Pi – on top of the Arduino boards it already supported – that I found an excuse to dive in. What I found is somewhat rough around the edges, but shows promise: a fully-functional IDE right in the browser, but with the ability to push sketches – with very little modification for the Raspberry Pi – to devices remotely.
All this, plus the usual raft of things I didn’t write, can be found between the crisp paper covers of Custom PC Issue 178 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.
This month’s issue of The MagPi, the official Raspberry Pi magazine, has a review which took an unexpected turn: the Andrea Electronics PureAudio Array Microphone Development Kit, or MDK.
When Andrea’s kit – which is comprised of a PureAudio-branded USB soundcard based on a common low-cost USB audio chip, a SuperBeam stereo microphone with Velcro fixing pad, and some downloadable software – arrived, it did so under a different name: the Speech Development Kit, or SDK. The brief documentation provided explained that the kit made it easy to develop your own voice-activated software, detecting a trigger phrase and running tasks accordingly.
Sadly, that turned out not to be the case. While the bundled software does indeed activate on a trigger phrase, that’s all it does; to actually achieve anything, you need to write your own software. Not even basic text-to-speech or speech-to-text functionality is included, and while Andrea provided at-the-time unreleased ‘vocabulary files’ for individual instructions these were extremely limited and not user expandable. Worse, the clever filtering library – the only thing that makes the kit stand out from an off-the-shelf microphone and cheap USB soundcard – does not appear to the system as a driver, and is functional only with software you write yourself and the bundled extremely simple demonstration program.
Throughout the review, Andrea Electronics remained in constant communication, and took all my criticisms of the bundle on board. The result: a rapid shift in targeting, removing consumer- and hobbyist-oriented marketing from the bundle and repositioning it as a microphone – rather than speech – development kit aimed solely at professional developers. While it’s still not something I could recommend, it is at least now properly placed in the market.
For the full review, you can pick up The MagPi Issue 69 in print now at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, or download the full issue for free under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.
The launch of a hardware refresh for the low-cost yet surprisingly-capable Raspberry Pi single-board computer is always a great opportunity to take stock of how the project has progressed since its launch six years ago, and the result is this: a special cover feature for The MagPi celebrating the release of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, or Pi 3 B+ to its friends.
Following roughly the same format as my cover feature for the launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 from March 2016, and my cover feature for the Pi Zero’s launch back in November 2015, my multi-page feature begins with an overview of the board highlighting its key new features with high-resolution call-out photography: the new Broadcom BCM2837B0 system-on-chip which dispenses with the old plastic package for a new direct-die layout protected by a metal heatspreader; the new dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio module; a Pi Zero-inspired ground plane antenna, which boosts wireless performance still further; a Power over Ethernet (PoE) header for the optional PoE HAT; gigabit Network connectivity; and a custom-designed power management integrated circuit (PMIC) which improves regulation and assists with the clockspeed increase to 1.4GHz.
Taking a brief pause for a quick getting-started guide for those new to the Raspberry Pi, the feature then gets into its stride with a full suite of benchmarks across two pages. Measuring everything from CPU and memory performance to Ethernet throughput, power draw, and Wi-Fi signal quality, the benchmarks don’t just cover the Pi 3 B+ and its immediate predecessor; the benchmarks compare the new board to every single mainstream model of Raspberry Pi in the project’s history, all the way back to the original Model B from the initial pre-production run. If you’ve ever wondered how things have improved over time, this feature will let you know exactly that.
A further two pages are taken up by my interview with Raspberry Pi Foundation co-founder Eben Upton, who first introduced me to the project all those years ago. Diving into the changes and improvements made in the Pi 3 B+’s design, which is the work of engineer Roger Thornton, the interview also includes several behind-the-scenes images and – because I can never resist the opportunity – a thermal imaging analysis demonstrating how the new packaging and thicker PCB help the Pi 3 B+ deal with heat dissipation, despite its faster clock speed compared to the hot-running Pi 3.
To read through the full feature, which also includes a more detailed getting-started guide and ten project ideas which take advantage of the board’s increased power, head to your local newsagent, supermarket, or download the issue digitally under the permissive Creative Commons licence from the official website.
The launch of the shiny new Raspberry Pi 3 B+ offers a chance to revisit the entire history of the Pi family, benchmarking each device in turn from the original Raspberry Pi Model B launch board with its somewhat limited 256MB of RAM right through to the shiniest and newest board. This post collates the results from a range of different benchmarks, demonstrating how the power of the Pi has changed over the years.
If attempting to replicate the results yourself, there is one key fact to note: the Raspberry Pi has enjoyed somewhere in the range of a 30 percent performance uplift in the last couple of years through software and firmware optimisation alone; comparing the same benchmark run on a Pi using the latest Raspbian operating system today with results gathered a year or more ago will give a false reading, which is why all these results have been gathered using the same firmware and software revision.
First, the ZX Spectrum Next. The product of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign that drew in around three quarters of a million pounds from backers across the world, the ZX Spectrum Next is exactly what it sounds like: the next entry in the long-running Sinclair Spectrum family, long after even its most ardent fans had given up hope. Although based around ‘soft’ cores running on a central FPGA, the Next isn’t an emulator: the open design is entirely compatible with every piece of software or hardware you can throw at it, complete with accessories designed for the original Spectrum. It’ll even fit in a 16K/48K chassis, if you don’t mind drilling a few extra holes.
Those holes, you see, are needed for just some of the Next’s shiny new features: a pair of joystick ports, HDMI and VGA video outputs, and even the ability to insert a Raspberry Pi Zero into a special header for use – once the software has been written – as a co-processor, or as it was known at the time a “copper.” There’s room for up to 2MB of RAM, triple-chip FM synthesis, even Wi-Fi network support – though a design flaw discovered shortly after the review went to print means that anyone with the early-release Model 2A will need to solder a small capacitor onto the voltage regulator for full reliability, an issue fixed with Model 2B onward.
The NesPi, by contrast, is a lot simpler. At its heart, it’s a plastic case into which you can install a Raspberry Pi B+, 2, or 3. Its designers, though, have decided to create something a little different, and the Nintendo Entertainment System ‘inspired’ housing also includes daughterboards which offer four front-facing USB ports – two where the controllers would connect and another two under the ‘cartridge’ flap – along with working power and reset buttons. The Ethernet port is also brought to the front, for no readily apparent reason, while the dedicated power board includes a header for an optional cooling fan.
Finally, Britsoft is a book that has been on my shelves awaiting review for a little while now. A Read Only Memories publication, this impressive hardback tome gathers interview content originally created for the 2014 documentary From Bedrooms to Billions charting the rise of the British computer games industry. You’d be hard pushed, off the top of your head, to think of a luminary of the era not included in the title’s impressive 420 pages, and I had but one real complaint: the layout of the book is easier on the eye than the brain, often making it difficult to follow which speaker is talking and which topic you’re reading.
All this, and the usual collection of stuff by other people, is available now at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
This month’s MagPi magazine includes a review of the Allo DigiOne Player, a clever though high-priced add-on for the Raspberry Pi which its creator claims gives it pitch-perfect digital audio capabilities.
Designed as a ‘digital transport’ – a device which provides a digital, rather than analogue, signal for decoding by an external digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) – the DigiOne Player is a plug-and-play design based on Allo’s DigiOne S/PDIF HAT. As the name suggests, the primary part of the Player is a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) add-on for the Raspberry Pi which provides a Sony/Philips Digital Interface (S/PDIF) audio output on an RCA or BNC jack; the Player is simply a bundle which includes a Pi, case, and cabling.
There’s no denying that the DigiOne is a clever design, with a surprising amount of hardware crammed into a small space. At nearly £150, though, it’s priced head and shoulders above the competition and lacks some of their features – such as the optical output of the £30 JustBoom Digi HAT, ditched due to what Allo calls unacceptable built-in jitter levels avoided through the use of electrical connectivity.
For my conclusion on the device’s value, you can pick up The MagPi Issue 67 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or for free download under a Creative Commons licence via the official website.
First, the vintage gaming feature. Building on a brief from editor Ben Hardwidge, I wanted to do something a little more in-depth than the usual how-to guide. The result is a seven-page feature which begins with a look at the wealth of accessories available to turn a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computing into a powerful emulation station, a two-page expert guide to the legalities of emulation in the UK, step-by-step instructions on downloading, installing, and configuring the RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi, and a look at entirely legitimate sources for read-only memory (ROM) game images.
While I’m fully equipped to handle the how-to and look-at-the-shiny-things sections of the guide myself, the legal aspect required an expert eye kindly provided by Eaton Smith LLP partner Chris Taylor. Legal counsel to a variety of game development and publishing companies, Chris kindly walked through the legalities of developing, downloading, and using emulation software and hardware under UK law – and even threw in a cheeky topical reference to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One ahead of the release of its film adaptation. I’m also grateful to The Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott for taking the time to discuss the Archive’s vast trove of software and in-browser emulation functionality.
Meltdown and Spectre, meanwhile, are a lot less fun. The names given to a quartet of security vulnerabilities hard-baked in to the vast majority of processors built since the 1990s, Meltdown and Spectre are unarguably the worst things to happen to the computer industry since the death of the Commodore Amiga. My three-page look discusses the vulnerabilities, how they can be exploited to gain access to supposedly-protected information, and what companies are doing to fix the problems – and, spoiler, the conclusion there is “not nearly enough.” Since the piece was written, though, there’s one thing to note: installation of the KB4056892 patch for Windows 10 includes faulty microcode protection from Intel which can cause systems to reboot spontaneously, which is resolved through the installation of KB4078130 at the cost of disabling protections against one of the two Spectre vulnerabilities.
Finally, Hobby Tech itself opens with a look at the clever but fragile Opendime from cryptocurrency start-up Coinkite. Designed to turn Bitcoin into a digital bearer bond, an Opendime creates a private key which is stored in a secure enclave accessible only by irrevocably modifying the device by popping off a small surface-mount resistor. So long as the resistor is intact, the theory goes, nobody has access to the private key – meaning you can accept the device as payment without risk. Sadly, since my fairly glowing review was written two things have changed: the Opendime I’ve been carrying around on my keyring has unsealed itself without any visible damage to the resistor or the heatshrink which protects it, an issue Coinkite’s founder and support team have singularly failed to address, and the high transaction fees on the Bitcoin network have dropped from around £20 to around 20p meaning one of the major benefits of using a £15 USB device for in-person transactions has been lost.
The iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, by contrast, is a significantly happier story. I’ve long been a fan of iFixit’s teardowns and the software they developed for presenting the information, so a toolkit with the iFixit seal of approval was high on my want list. Having now received one, I can confirm it’s no disappointment: from the high-quality tools, all bundled with the express intention of making it as easy as possible to dismantle modern electronics, to the smart multi-function storage case, the entire bundle is pleasingly robust.
Finally, Commodore: The Amiga Years. The follow-up to author Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge, The Amiga Years was officially cancelled years ago before being resurrected through a crowdfunding campaign. Since the closure of the campaign, however, the project was beset by delays and a last-minute editing decision that sees the final third of the story, taking Commodore to its sad demise, spun out into yet another book – a move backers criticising the decision have positioned as a blatant attempt at extracting more money. As with A Company on the Edge, though, the story told in The Amiga Years is one well worth the entry price – if suffering a little from Bagnall’s wandering editorial process, whereby topics raised as though you should already know them in Chapter 2 won’t be formally introduced until Chapter 5.
All this, and slightly less stuff by people who aren’t me, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a review of an entirely unique device designed to make it possible to trade the Bitcoin cryptocurrency in-person as a physical item without any of the security risks that would normally be involved: the Coinkite Opendime.
For those unfamiliar, a primer: cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, work on the basis of a distributed ledger system known as the blockchain – a highly-secure database, effectively, which is shared between nodes and which cannot be faked or edited once committed. When you “have Bitcoins” in a “wallet,” what you actually have is the private key required to make transactions on the blockchain to move the coins you own from place to place.
The drawback of this approach compared to cold hard cash is that it becomes impossible to make secure off-chain transactions: you can save your keys to a flash drive, write them in an email, or even print them out and hand them to someone in person, but if you kept a copy it’s perfectly possible for you to transfer the coins to a different “wallet” out from under the recipient’s nose.
The Opendime aims to resolve this. Looking like a denuded flash drive itself, the Opendime is a smart self-contained microcomputer which performs the generation of private keys internally and locks them away – meaning it can receive Bitcoins but not spend them, until such a time as the private key is unlocked by popping a small surface-mount resistor off the board with a physical pin. In other words: if you receive an Opendime which reports it is still sealed, you are guaranteed to be the only person with access to that private key.
Sadly, since penning the relatively-positive review, I’ve encountered a major problem with the Opendime: having carried one on a keyring for a month or so, it spontaneously unsealed itself without the resistor being touched. Support from Coinkite has proven non-existent, and at £15 landed a piece with a minimum order of three units the Opendime is now an expensive but useless trinket while I find myself unable to trust the remaining two in the pack.
The review can be read in full within the magazine itself, which is available in print at all good newsagents and supermarkets and as a free digital download under the Creative Commons licence at HackSpace’s official website.
This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at a very special eight-byte – not a typo – microcomputer, walks through turning a spare Raspberry Pi into a Nav Coin-mining cryptocurrency machine, and looks forward to the launch of the ZX Spectrum Next with a look at a deep-dive book detailing the original Spectrum’s neat Ferranti Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip.
First, the Mini C88. Designed by the multi-talented Daniel Bailey as a more affordable version of his C88, swapping the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) on which he implemented his own processor core design for an Arduino Zero and the extremely clever Dynamic Binary Translation (DBT) technique, the C88 is designed to be about as simple as a computer can get. Based on a custom instruction set, the C88 has just eight memory locations of eight bits apiece and is programmed by toggling each bit using a series of pleasingly tactile switches while monitoring the process on the 8×8 LED matrix that serves as its display.
For regular readers, this will all sound familiar: the original FPGA-based C88 and its 32-byte bigger brother the C3232 were the subject of an interview back in Issue 155. While Daniel has still not turned the C88 into a kit you can head out and buy, the Mini C88 is definite progress in that direction – and, as always, anyone interested in the project should hassle him about it on Twitter.
For those with a Raspberry Pi and a desire to play with cryptocurrency, meanwhile, this month’s tutorial will be of definite interest: a guide to turning a Pi into a ‘Stake Box’ for the Nav Coin cryptocurrency. Designed as an alternative to Bitcoin, Nav Coin offers those who run network nodes rewards in the form of a five percent return on their coin holdings when locked up in this manner. Taking less than an hour to set up and requiring nothing more than a low-powered computer, it’s a great way to get involved – and the Nav Coin project itself definitely one to follow.
Finally, while waiting impatiently for my ZX Spectrum Next microcomputer to land – which, I’m pleased to say, has since happened – I enjoyed a re-read of Chris Smith’s excellent The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to Design a Microcomputer. Based on interviews and deep-dive analysis, the book investigates the tricks and techniques which allowed Sinclair Computers to build the ZX Spectrum micro at such a bare-bones cost – which, in turn, was thanks to clever use of an Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip from Scottish electronics giant Ferranti. Effectively a write-once version of the modern FPGA, Ferranti’s ULA saw the number of components in the ZX81 drop to a quarter compared to the ZX80 and is key to how the ZX Spectrum does what it does.
For all this, and a bunch of other interesting things by people who aren’t me, pick up a copy of Custom PC Issue 174 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
The workshop first: organiser Andrew Back got in touch with me shortly before the OSHCamp workshop day, held in Hebden Bridge as part of the annual Wuthering Bytes technology festival, was due to take place. The scheduled soldering workshop was at risk, he explained, as the person due to run it was no longer available. I was happy to help, and I’m pleased to report a great day was had by all assembling Cuttlefish microcontroller kits – despite the use of some particularly ancient soldering irons with tips which appeared to be made of freshly-hewn coal!
The Haynes Retro Arcade Kit feels like a device which could have been in the DIY console shootout, but it wouldn’t have fared well. Designed by Eight Innovation and slapped with the Haynes brand, the Retro Arcade Kit is a fiddly and distinctly unrewarding soldering kit which ends up as a particularly basic version of Pong. The coin activation system is its only redeeming feature: two pieces of thick solid-core wire sit side by side, and are shorted out by an inserted metal coin to start a fresh game. Not an original trick, but one well implemented – if you ignore the terrible instructions and poor build quality.
Syncthing, meanwhile, has been a mainstay of my toolbox for years. An open-source project designed to keep files on two or more computer systems synchronised, Syncthing is built with security and convenience in mind – and works a treat on the Raspberry Pi. Given that I was needing to find a new home for my off-site backups anyway, as my regular provider CrashPlan is ceasing its cheapest product line, it seemed natural to write up the process of turning a Pi and a USB hard drive into an off-site backup destination.
"Not only should it be an essential purchase with the micro:bit, I would recommend getting the book before getting the micro:bit. Definitely recommended." "This is an amazing educational tool." "For a newcomer I would recommend this book and the BBC micro:bit. Together, they will make an excellent coder/DIY enthusiast out of you or your child." "This is definitely the book to get you started." "The best book on micro:bit I've found so far." "A wealth of information on micro:bit and it's easy to read." "Just started reading your book, and it's exactly what I was looking for."
"I'm constantly reading tech manuals. This book is above and beyond ANY tech manual I have ever read! It is readable, understandable and a fine companion for the Pi." "I have been using computer manuals for 40 years and this is one of the best I have ever read." "All I was looking for is combined in this fantastic book." "I bought this book on my Kindle and it has transformed my understanding." "A brilliant book to help you out." "This book is a must have and works very well on my Kindle - thank you so much for writing it."
In crunch mode on a book project at the moment. As fun as the work is, I'm going to be glad when I get my weekends back. (Nobody's fault but my own - I'm the one who came up with the production schedule!)
Another day, another sighting of my imagery in the wild - but this time it's not a photograph, it's a waveform I created to illustrate tests on the Andrea Electronics stereo microphone I was reviewing. Not seen anyone use that before! https://t.co/E55SqKoavg