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 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.

Make: Magazine, Volume 79

Make: Magazine Volume 79This month brings with it my first cover feature for a new client, and it’s one of which I’ve long been a fan: Make: Magazine, the maker-centric electronic hobbyist publication, now in its 79th volume.

For this issue, its biggest of the year, I contributed two features. The first is the biggest: the Boards Guide 2021, the latest version of the magazine’s annual pull-out reference to the latest single-board computers and microcontroller development boards around. It’s an undeniably handy guide, offering everything from key specifications – right down to the number of analogue inputs you’ll find on general-purpose input/output headers, as but one example – to up-to-date pricing, though the latter is rather more variable than usual thanks to continued supply chain issues and component shortages.

Having been provided with a list of the boards to be included, I went through and fact-checked all the specifications – filling in blanks where necessary. At one point, faced with a board for which no dimensions were publicly listed and for which the creator couldn’t be immediately contacted I turned to an unusual approach: estimating its size from a perspective-corrected image of the board, based on the spacing on the 2.54mm header. When I finally obtained official measurements just ahead of deadline, my estimate turned out to be accurate to two significant figures – and I can’t say I wasn’t thrilled!

The second feature, also available on the Make: Magazine website, takes a look at Raspberry Pi’s first in-house microcontroller, the RP2040, and its rapid adoption by third-party board makers. For this, I initially researched a list of nearly 80 RP2040-based devices – pulling in key specifications and features, as with the larger Boards Guide feature – which editor Mike Senese and I then narrowed down to a shortlist to be featured in the magazine and online. Finally, I prepared a brief write-up to accompany the shortlist.

Make: Magazine Volume 79 is available at all good newsagents now, and is available for print and digital subscription on the official website.

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 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.

The MagPi, Issue 107

The MagPi Issue 107This 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 temperature sensor, using the analogue-to-digital converter (ADC) built into the RP2040.

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, the tutorial builds in the same way as the other projects in the book – introducing core concepts then building step-by-step from a minimum-viable project up to a fully-functional completed device.

As with other tutorials written for the book, full source code – in MicroPython – is provided, along with a wiring diagram which shows how to wire up a potentiometer using two or three pins and why that makes a difference to how it works. The project can be attacked with no additional hardware, however: the temperature sensor is built into the RP2040 microcontroller on board the Raspberry Pi Pico, and readers are free to skip building the potentiometer circuit if they don’t have the component lying around.

The MagPi Issue 107 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.

Custom PC, Issue 215

Custom PC Issue 215My regular Hobby Tech column takes a look at three very different, yet related, items in this month’s Custom PC: the PiStorm accelerator for the Commodore Amiga; the Remodo X Bluetooth remote from Remotec; and Joshua M. Pearce’s Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects.

First, the PiStorm. I’ve long been a fan of Commodore’s ill-fated Amiga family of computers, and while my collection isn’t what it used to be I still have a couple keeping me company around the office. It was in one of these I installed the PiStorm, an open-source accelerator and expansion board designed to be powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ – and, in the future, by still-more-powerful models in the Raspberry Pi range.

Donated by my good fried Jaimie Vandenbergh, who had picked up a handful of the low-cost boards for his own use, the PiStorm is nothing short of incredible. Effectively turning the Raspberry Pi into an emulated Motorola processor, it increases an Amiga’s compute performance, memory, graphics capabilities, storage, and even – though not at the time of writing – gives it the ability to connect via a Wi-Fi network. In short: it’s a must-have.

The Remodo X remote, meanwhile, is another accessory aimed at the Raspberry Pi – and a smaller niche. Targeting home automation and home theatre uses, the Remodo X is a surprisingly stylish device with just four buttons on its front and the ability to distinguish between short- and long-press for eight custom-mapped functions.

The device works via both Bluetooth and infrared, though for a gadget Remotec claims is specifically designed for a Raspberry Pi there’s a distinct lack of software: customising its buttons requires a smartphone app, and can’t be done on the Raspberry Pi itself.

Finally, Using Open-Source Projects is a book I wanted to love – after all, I’m a big proponent of free and open-source software and hardware. Sadly, it entirely fails to deliver on its promise – spreading an already-slim book far too thin across far too many topics. Some of the blame lies on the author, but some on the publisher – in particular the poor print quality and bizarre failure to flag the use of a figure which compares an original black-and-white image to its colourised equivalent yet shows both before and after shots in black and white.

The full column, and much more besides, is available in your nearest supermarket or newsagent now, online with global delivery, or – as part of a limited-time offer – as a DRM-free PDF download at zero cost.

Custom PC, Issue 213

Custom PC Issue 213In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at how GL shaders can make the video output from emulators – in particular DOSBox – look an awful lot closer to how you remember the same software running on real hardware, review the Argon One M.2 case for the Raspberry Pi 4 family of single-board computers, and take a look at an unusual children’s book: Big Data Girl by Fred Wordie with illustrations by Santiago Taberna.

First, the shaders. Few would argue that the move away from bulky and power-hungry cathode-ray tube displays to modern liquid-crystal displays was a bad thing, except for possibly vintage game enthusiasts. The “pixel art” of old, you see, was never meant to show big, blocky, individual pixels: the CRT would smooth and blend things as a by-product of its relative inaccuracy, meaning when you fire up a classic like Doom or Moraff’s World and feel disappointed in its appearance it’s not entirely down to rose-tinted spectacles.

Shaders, typically but not exclusively written in GL Shader Language, can help. In the opening piece for this month’s column, I look at how these handy add-ons can turn the block output of an emulator into a surprisingly convincing simulation of a CRT – complete with curvature and overscan, if that’s your wont. The difference in appearance is little short of astounding – though it may take some customisation before you’re fully satisfied with the results.

The Argon One M.2, meanwhile, looks externally a lot like the previous entries in the Argon One case family. There’s the same metal shell, which doubles as a heatsink and means the built-in temperature-controlled fan rarely activates, the same magnetic cover hiding a colour-coded and silkscreened general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header, and the same layout which puts all the Raspberry Pi’s various ports to the rear for neater cabling.

Where the new design differs is in a larger base, which hides the circuitry for converting an M.2 SATA SSD into a USB-attached storage device. Unlike the NESPi 4, reviewed back in Issue 210, this one works properly in USB Attached SCSI (UAS) mode, giving a throughput of 387/300MBps read/write on a test SSD rated at 500/320MBps.

Finally, Big Data Girl is a bit of a departure for the column, as it’s a children’s book – but one with a difference: Wordie’s crowdfunded title aims to introduce the concept of “big data,” anthropomorphised as a friendly little girl, highlighting both how useful it can be and how it can impact your privacy. It’s a smart idea, and Taberna’s illustrations are fantastic, but serves more as a conversation starter for parents already familiar with the concepts than a stand-alone guide to the subject.

Custom PC Issue 213 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, digital distribution platforms, and from the official website with international delivery.