Custom PC, Issue 204

Custom PC Issue 204In my Hobby Tech column this month I go hands-on with the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB single-board computer, the considerably more powerful Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit, and take a look at Alex Wiltshire and John Short’s Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation.

First, the Raspberry Pi 4. Launched with a view to providing power users with something a with a little more headroom than the 4GB model – itself a fourfold increase on the memory available on its direct predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 – the new 8GB model doubles the maximum memory while retaining full backwards compatibility. With that said, though, getting the most out of the device does require a 64-bit operating system – and I take a look at third-party options as well as the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s own Raspberry Pi OS in 64-bit builds.

The Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit is another device that takes advantage of a 64-bit operating system, but with a very different focus: where the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB is aimed at hobbyists, the Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit looks towards the professional end of the market – and offers some serious GPU horsepower for machine learning work, plus a new “cloud native” software model that containerises workloads to separate them from the underlying OS and to make it easy to run multiple workloads on a single device.

Finally, Home Computers is another in a series of coffee-table tomes investigating early personal computers – but one with a twist: The 100 machines contained within are taken exclusively from The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. Each is captured in a series of high-quality photographs, including some close-ups and detail shots you won’t find elsewhere, and accompanied with a short write-up of its origins and capabilities. While it would have been nice to see the machines switched on – each is captured in its powered-off state, a shame given the Centre’s reputation as a hands-on “living museum” – it’s still a great book for vintage computing enthusiasts.

Custom PC Issue 204 is available now at the usual stockists, or online with global delivery from the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 94

The MagPi Issue 94This month’s The MagPi Magazine celebrates the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB, the latest single-board computer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation – and the most expensive and highest-specification model to boot.

My cover feature for the launch begins with an overview of the board, which is effectively identical to the previous 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB models bar the memory module in use. With 8GB of LPDDR4 on board, it has twice the memory of its nearest predecessor – and eight times the entry-level model, since pseudo-retired when falling memory prices brought the cost of the 2GB model down to the same level as the 1GB.

The next two pages diverge from my usual launch-day coverage, replacing benchmarks with a dive into the sort of use-cases that could justify moving from 4GB to 8GB of RAM: storage caching, disk-free computing, in-memory databases, virtual machines and containerised applications, machine learning and the like.

The reason for the shift away from benchmarking is simple: in repeated testing the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB proved absolutely identical in performance to any other model of Raspberry Pi 4, unless the workload exceeded available free memory. While it would have been easy to develop synthetic benchmarks which would show a dramatic improvement in performance for the new model, it would have been misleading to anyone expecting to see a speed boost for day-to-day computing.

From there, the feature moves on to an interview with Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton on the timing of the launch – “[it is] absolutely as soon as we can,” he told me during the interview, “the memory packages we’re using are literally some of the first off the production line, a brand-new, shiny memory technology” – the sort of user the new model targets, the Foundation’s work on a 64-bit version of the Raspberry Pi OS which launches in beta today alongside the new board, and the future of the Raspberry Pi 4 range which, sadly, is not likely to include a 16GB model.

The full feature is available to read now in The MagPi Issue 94, available to purchase with global delivery or to download as a free Creative Commons-licensed PDF on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 202

Custom PC Issue 202This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at the long-delayed but worth-the-wait TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, moves on to the unique Sega Arcade Pop-Up History from Read Only Memory, and closes on a look at the Raspberry Pi Imager utility.

Issue 202 is not the first time the ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded effort to not only recreate the classic Sinclair machine using modern hardware but to answer the question of what could have been if it weren’t for the microcomputer crash and subsequent sale to Amstrad: the internal hardware was reviewed way back in Issue 176 in the form of the board-only backer reward.

The ZX Spectrum Next is more than just a motherboard, however: its design includes a “toastrack”-inspired chassis and keyboard straight from the drafting board of sadly since-departed former Sinclair industrial designer Rick Dickinson – his last project, it would turn out. The fully-finished hardware, chassis and all, was due to arrive in backers’ hands in January 2018 – but only now, more than two years late, is the hardware finally being delivered.

Thankfully, it’s been worth the wait. Issues with the keyboard’s reliability have been ironed out, errors in the original hardware design resolved, and the firmware which drives the on-board field-programmable gate array (FPGA) updated and tweaked. The 28MHz accelerated mode, missing from the original review, is back, and the custom operating system works smoothly and without issue.

Sega Arcade Pop-Up History is another nostalgia-driven walk down memory lane, but rather than looking at home computers of the 1980s it covers Sega’s “taiken,” or “body sensation,” arcade cabinets – machines which moved to match the on-screen action. The written material is, however, limited: the bulk of the book is given over to card pop-up models of six cabinets, which is a definite first for Hobby Tech.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi Imager. Borrowing shamelessly from Balena’s Etcher, Imager is a tool from the Raspberry Pi Foundation which offers a cross-platform simplified graphical user interface for not only writing disk images to microSD cards but for downloading them too. The flow is just seven or eight clicks long: open Imager, bring up the list of supported operating systems, choose one and confirm, bring up the list of target storage devices and confirm, and flash. There’s even a verification stage, to confirm the image is correctly written – and you can point it at manually-downloaded disk images if your favoured operating system isn’t in the default selection.

All this, and a lot more beside, can be found in Custom PC Issue 202 at all the usual stockists and online from the official website with global delivery.

The MagPi, Issue 93

The MagPi Issue 93In this month’s The MagPi Magazine you’ll find my cover feature on working from home using a Raspberry Pi as a fully-functional desktop computer – and, as an added bonus, my photography of the TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next.

First, the cover feature. With a massive explosion in the number of people working remotely worldwide, and the corresponding shortages in hardware and accessories, now is a great time to look towards the Raspberry Pi as a functional alternative to traditional PCs. The six-page feature is split into three sections. The first of these sections looks at installing a Raspberry Pi Camera Module – or the newly-launched Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera Module – or USB webcam and using it for video conferencing via Google Hangouts.

The second section looks at online collaboration platforms, from Google Docs and Google Drive to Slack, Discord, and Firefox Send. The last section takes a look at LibreOffice, the open-source equivalent to Microsoft Office which is pre-installed in Raspbian Linux and fully compatible with the Raspberry Pi. Finally, a sprinkling of tips and tricks complete the feature.

The ZX Spectrum Next review, meanwhile, was written by The MagPi’s editor Lucy Hattersly, but illustrated by me: My hero shot of the ZX Spectrum Next, plus a close-up of the Rick Dickinson-designed keyboard which proved responsible for a two-year delay on the device as it was tweaked for maximum quality and performance, grace the two-page feature alongside a pair of images taken from the ZX Spectrum Next promotional materials.

All this, and more, is available in both the print edition and the free Creative Commons-licensed PDF download from the official magazine website.

Custom PC, Issue 201

Custom PC Issue 201This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at the upcoming Mooltipass BLE hardware password dongle, FLIR’s ETS320 thermal camera for electronics testing, and has a word from Eben Upton about the cost-reduced Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB single-board computer.

First, the Mooltipass BLE. I reviewed the Mooltipass Mini – itself a successor to the original, bulkier Mooltipass – back in Issue 168: a compact, metal-encased device, the Mooltipass Mini holds your passwords in encrypted storage accessible only using a smartcard and four-digit hexadecimal PIN. I’ve been using the Mooltipass Mini with great success since its launch, but it’s always a bit of a pain to use with a mobile device – requiring a USB cable and OTG adapter.

The Mooltipass BLE aims to fix that, by integrated a Bluetooth Low Energy radio. While it can still operate in tethered USB mode, the Bluetooth radio plus internal battery give it a newfound freedom – though my experience is as a beta tester, with finalised and fully-functional firmware still under active development before the device goes on open sale.

The FLIR ETS320, by contrast, is a fully-finished piece of hardware. Regular readers will know that I’ve long been an advocate of thermal imaging analysis for revealing the secrets of electronic devices, and the ETS320 is a considerable upgrade from my usual FLIR C2: the 80×60 resolution thermal sensor of the C2 is replaced by an impressive 320×240 version in the ETS320, at the cost of a dramatically reduced maximum focus distance. I’d also like to thank FLIR for its partnership: the ETS320 has become a permanent fixture in my toolkit, and will be used alongside the C2 for thermal analysis in future hardware reviews.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB. While the board itself isn’t new, its pricing is: Raspberry Pi Trading recently decided, prompted by falling RAM prices, to retire the 1GB model and make the 2GB model the new entry point into the family. “2GB is a much more viable desktop platform than 1GB,” RPT chief executive Eben Upton told me in an interview for the column. “1GB is great for embedded, but for a desktop platform it’s just a little bit too tight. What it means is that we’re now back to having a really viable desktop machine at our signature price point.”

The full column is available now in Custom PC Issue 201 at your local newsagent, supermarket, or for global delivery from the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 91

The MagPi Issue 91Hitting shop shelves just two days before the Raspberry Pi Foundation celebrates its eighth birthday, this month’s MagPi brings a surprise: A permanent reduction in the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 2GB’s price down to that of the original 1GB entry-level model.

In a three-page feature on the move I investigate exactly what doubling the RAM means for the user, demonstrate how to use the Terminal to see exactly how much RAM your particular Raspberry Pi has available – along with how much is being used by programs and cache, and how much is free or can be freed – and interview Raspberry Pi Trading chief executive Eben Upton on how the price has been brought down, the explosive growth in the Raspberry Pi’s specifications over the past eight years, and exactly how 2GB makes for a great desktop in a world where even entry-level smartphones frequently come with 4GB.

“If you look at Windows, or even a traditional Linux desktop distro, there’s been a sort of relaxation,” Upton told me during our interview for the piece.  “As there’s been more memory available, people have loosened their belts a little bit and sort of flumped down and started consuming more memory, when we really haven’t. We’re still using an LXDE-derived desktop environment; you know, we care about every 10MB of memory usage. That’s the reason why the 2GB model is a really, really useful desktop.”

The shift effectively sees the 1GB model retired, though it will still be made available at the original $35 price point for those who have designed precisely that amount of RAM into their projects – but with the 2GB model costing the same, it’s not likely to be selling in any real volume from this point forward.

MagPi Issue 91 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, and can be ordered for global delivery or downloaded as a free Creative Commons-licensed PDF from the official website. The price cut, meanwhile, is live globally today.

Custom PC, Issue 199

Custom PC Issue 199This month’s Hobby Tech column breaks out the thermal camera once again for a look at Pimoroni’s Heatsink Case for the Raspberry Pi 4, discusses the new Code the Classics educational programming book with Eben Upton, and reviews Bitmap Books’ The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games.

Pimoroni’s surprisingly robust case for the Raspberry Pi 4 – and not, thanks to changes made in the ports on the board, for any other model of Raspberry Pi – is something of an anomaly in the company’s stock: it’s not an in-house design, but rather a third party creation placed in Pimoroni packaging. There’s also not that much to it: the case is nothing more than two pieces of aluminium, some screws, and three thermal interface material (TIM) pads – of which, Pimoroni’s instructions inform the buyer, you should only use one.

Aside from mechanical fit and feel, the majority of the testing took place using my in-house thermal throttling benchmark – ten minutes of heavy CPU and GPU workload plus a five-minute cooldown period, tracked over one-second intervals – and via thermal imaging. The latter is an increasingly important tool for this type of review: placing the heatsink under the thermal camera revealed that there was little thermal headroom in the design, meaning it may not be wholly appropriate for extreme environments or overclocking scenarios – despite handling the benchmark well.

Upton’s Code the Classics, meanwhile, is a programming book with a difference: It takes an in-depth look at a series of classic game types and teaches the reader not only how to program their own but what went into the creation of the originals, including interviewing some big names from the industry. It’s half coffee-table, half-educational and wholly clever – and while Eben Upton provided the code, it’s a definite team effort with Sean Tracey, Dan Malone, Alastair Brimble, David Crookes, Andrew Gillet, and Liz Upton all contributing according to their own skills. Impressively, the entire book is also available to download free of charge under a Creative Commons licence.

Finally, The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games is yet another colourful coffee-table tome from Bitmap Books’ Sam Dyer, and one well worth picking up. Reviewed in the since sold-out Collector’s Edition form – packaged in an oversized cardboard housing designed to mimic big-box PC games of yore, complete with a USB stick disguised as a somewhat shrunken 3.5″ floppy disk – it makes an excellent companion piece to The CRPG Book from the same publisher, and is up to Bitmap’s usual excellent quality.

Custom PC Issue 199 is available now from all good supermarkets and newsagents, via several digital distribution platforms, or for online purchase with global delivery from the Raspberry Pi Press store.

Custom PC, Issue 198

Custom PC Issue 198This month’s Hobby Tech opens on an interview with Bitmap Books founder Sam Dyer, covering what his nostalgia-driven coffee-table book specialist publisher has been up to in the half-decade since last we spoke, moves on to a preview of the soft-launched Sensoreq CooliPi Raspberry Pi 4 case and heatsink, and ends with a look at UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan.

I last interviewed Dyer on the back of the launch of Bitmap Books’ inaugural publication, the crowdfunded Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium – the spelling of the latter, he was at pains to tell me at the time, a deliberate pun. In the five years since, Dyer’s press has moved from collecting screenshots of Commodore 64 and Amiga games to producing some big-budget hardback titles, most recently including officially licensed titles – a rarity in the all-too-often copyright-ignorant retro gaming sphere. There’s more to come, too, Dyer told me in this latest interview – including some non-gaming works, including a Micro Machines-focused book dubbed Micro But Many due later this year.

The CooliPi case, meanwhile, is an interesting beast – not least because not only is the plastic base 3D printed rather than laser-cut or injection-moulded, but the design files to print your own are provided for free download. That’s because the secret sauce sits on top: a custom-milled and surprisingly hefty aluminium heatsink, available in a variety of colours. The case is cleverly designed and its cooling performance, even operating without the optional mount for a 5V fan, is the best I’ve seen – though the Hobby Tech piece is a preview, rather than review, as creator Sensoreq finishes a few last tweaks before the design can be considered fully final.

Finally, Kernighan’s memoir – written by a man who, in his own words, was “present at the creation [of the UNIX operating system] but not responsible” – is a thoroughly enjoyable first-person perspective on some of the most important works in computing history, and the precursor to the Linux-based operating system on which I’m typing right now. A vanity press publication, created through Amazon’s print-on-demand service, the book’s print quality isn’t great – most obvious on the cover, where an extremely low-resolution image has been stretched blurringly around the book giving the impression of a knock-off – but the content more than makes up for its production values.

All this, and more, can be found on the shelves of your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or for worldwide delivery from the official website.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, Volume 5

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 5Raspberry Pi Press has launched the fifth entry in the ongoing Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book series, a family of bookazine-style publications gathering hands-on content previously published in The MagPi Magazine – and, as usual, my content is included.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 5 is the first volume to be published since the introduction of the Raspberry Pi 4 family – the first in a new generation of single-board computers which brings with it a considerably more powerful processor, the first new graphics processor in Raspberry Pi history, two high-speed USB 3.0 ports, true gigabit-capable Ethernet, and dual-4k display compatibility.

While the bulk of the projects in the book are suitable for any model of Raspberry Pi, there’s some Raspberry Pi 4 exclusive stuff too – in particular my detailed look at the boards, originally written for the Mag Pi’s launch feature. The first feature in the book, it covers the specifications and features of the new board, a look at its performance in a range of synthetic and real-world workloads and including throughput on both Wi-Fi and Ethernet network connections, and two two-page interview spreads with user experience engineer Simon Long and Raspberry Pi Foundation co-founder Eben Upton on both the Raspberry Pi 4 and the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system launched at the same time.

There’s only one thing missing compared to the original version of the feature: thermal performance, including the high-resolution thermal imagery I take of devices on test. There’s a good reason for that: in the latest issue of The MagPi I provided a twelve-page in-depth investigation into the thermal performance of the Raspberry Pi 4 since its launch to the present day through a string of firmware updates designed to decrease power usage and heat output. This represents a considerably more up-to-date look at the board’s thermal performance than in the original launch feature, and it’s entirely sensible to exclude the original test from its republication.

The book is available to buy now in all good supermarkets, newsagents, and for global delivery from the official website; alternatively, a DRM-free PDF copy can be downloaded free of charge under a Creative Commons licence.

Custom PC, Issue 197

Custom PC Issue 197This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Argon 40’s revised Argon One – or Argon 1, depending on which bit of the packaging you’re looking at – case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the RISC-V-based Sipeed Longan Nano development board, and Toshi Omagari’s Arcade Game Typography.

First, the Argon 1 Pi 4 case. Externally, this looks a lot like the Argon One reviewed back in Issue 188; internally, though, things have been shifted around to provide support for the latest Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – and the brown-outs caused by the smart power and cooling board drawing too much power are now a thing of the past.

As with its predecessor, the Argon 1 Pi 4 is impressively solid and does a great job at cooling the Raspberry Pi 4 by using the aluminium housing as a heatsink – even running a heavy synthetic workload, the temperature didn’t reach the minimum required to activate the built-in PWM-controlled cooling fan. It also adds some neat features, such as a labelled and colour-coded GPIO header, neater cabling through the shifting of audio and video ports to the rear, and a smart power button.

Shortly after the review was completed, but thankfully before the magazine went to press, the power board on the Argon 1 Pi 4 died – thankfully without taking the Raspberry Pi 4 with it. The review was updated accordingly, and since then Argon 40 has been stellar in attempting to resolve the problem – paying to have the faulty board returned for analysis and replacing both the faulty board and the entire unit in order to get things back up and running. While it will be a short while before it’s clear whether the failure was a one-off or not, it’s certainly impossible to fault the company’s customer service ethos.

The Sipeed Longan Nano, supplied by Seeed Studio, is an interesting beast: costing less than $5, the board is based on a low-power RISC-V microcontroller with a breadboard-friendly board design and a built-in low-resolution colour LCD display. For the money, the hardware is absolutely incredible – especially as Seeed has even designed a rough but serviceable acrylic case for the board, bundled at no additional cost.

The software and documentation, however, is definitely an issue. The libraries provided failed in a variety of ways – including an inability to use printf() or open a serial port – and the English documentation is extremely sparse. Particularly lacking is anything to demonstrate the use of the LCD – bar a single example program documented using Chinese in-line comments.

Finally, Arcade Game Typography. I’ve reviewed a lot of retro-computing coffee-table books over the years, but Omagari’s book is the first to concentrate solely on fonts and typography as used in classic arcade games – and given Omagari’s work as a designer for Monotype UK, it’s fair to say he knows his stuff. The result is a fascinating book, and one which is currently available in a limited 1,000-copy hardback print run from Read-Only Memory if the standard paperback isn’t shiny enough for you.

Custom PC Issue 197 is available on supermarket and newsagent shelves now, or can be ordered for global delivery from the official website.