First, the ruler-computer. Designed by Brads Projects, the Digirule2 is – as the name suggests – a second-generation design of a compact microcomputer which is also a functional ruler. Printed onto a single circuit board and built around a PIC32 microcontroller, the Digirule2 is inspired by the classic MITS Altair 8800: its memory is displayed on a series of LEDs, and is programmed one bit at a time using push-button switches.
Where the Digirule improves on the Altair, aside from being considerably more affordable and not taking up a huge chunk of your desk, is in having memory slots for saving and loading programmes. These slots come pre-loaded with demonstrations ranging from simple reaction games to a neat persistence-of-vision hack, while the edges of the board are printed with measurements – in binary, naturally – in both centimetres and inches.
The cards, meanwhile, are something a little less technical but no less geeky. Designed by 8bitkick and sold by the Centre for Computing History to fund its restoration and preservation works, the Games Consoles Collectable Cards partner high-quality colour images of classic videogame consoles with statistics that can be compared for a nerdy game of Top Trumps. They also partner well with the Home Computers Collectable Cards, an earlier release now repackaged to match, though sadly the two decks use different statistics and thus can’t be combined into a single mega-deck.
You can read both reviews, and a lot more beside, by picking up a copy of HackSpace Magazine Issue 16 from your nearest newsagent or by downloading a copy for free under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.
To start with the interview, Eric surprised the gaming world late last year by announcing what at first glance appears to be a me-too product following in the footsteps of the Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini and Sony PlayStation Classic, not to mention the raft of Atari- and Sega-licensed devices that came before them: the PC Classic, which aims to bring older games back to the living room.
“Our principal engineer saw that people were joking about things like ‘the VCR Classic’ and ‘the PC Classic’ and he pitched it to me because he felt we could actually make a PC Classic, and moreover make it really cool,” Eric told me during our interview. “I discussed the project with a bunch of people from various backgrounds and varying amounts of technical ability, and most people took an immediate liking to it and would say something like ‘oh, yeah, if I could play Jill of the Jungle on my couch, I’d totally buy one!'”
The CompuCleaner, meanwhile, is an attempt on my part to reduce my environmental impact and fatten my wallet: an electric air-blower which aims to replace cans of compressed air for cleaning electronics. Anyone who has an actively-cooled PC will know that the vents and fans need to be kept clear, but the problem only gets worse when you need to take photos of things for a living – and the CompuCleaner, bar a few little niggles, is a fantastic way to do that without running through half a dozen air cans a week.
Finally, Eric Amos’ The Game Console is an impressive book covering many – but far from all – games consoles from the early days of the Atari VCS up to more modern systems. Light on text, the book’s focus is Eric’s high-quality photography – imagery he took, initially, to contribute to Wikipedia in place of the often low-quality photography that adorned classic console pages. While it’s not something you’re likely to sit and read cover-to-cover, it’s not only a pleasing thing to flick through but a great way to support Eric’s work in taking ever more photographs of increasingly-esoteric hardware.
For all these, head to your favourite newsagent, supermarket, or stay where you are and download the digital version via Zinio or similar distribution services.
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.
Starting with the latter, A Gremlin in the Works is another fantastic coffee-table book from retro computing publisher Bitmap Books (the founder of which, Sam Dyer, I interviewed back in Custom PC Issue 136). Written by Mark Hardisty based on exhaustive interviews – and retaining the question-and-answer style of the transcripts, making for an accurate rendition of the subjects’ thoughts but a slightly tiresome read – the two-volume book chronicles the rise and fall of gaming pioneer Gremlin Graphics. As a massive fan of Gremlin’s output – to this day the intro music to Hero Quest brings joy to my heart, and I blame my sweet tooth on a Zool addiction – A Gremlin in the Works is a book I’d long been looking forward to reading, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.
Blog in a Box, meanwhile, is an interesting beast. At its heart, it’s a single-purpose GNU/Linux distribution for the Raspberry Pi created by Automattic as a means of making it easier for people to run the WordPress blogging platform from the device. It’s not provided as a downloadable drive image, as with most distributions, though; instead, Automattic has written a cross-platform program which customises various settings – title, passwords, email accounts, things like that – and configures them so the Pi is ready to rock on first boot. It’s a neat idea, but one which still needs polish: I found the Linux version failed to run properly on my Ubuntu 16.04 desktop, and several features promised by the tool were disabled when the Pi actually started up. It’s a tool with promise, though, and I look forward to revisiting it should Automattic release an update.
Finally, the Mooltipass Mini. The brainchild of Mathieu Stephan, the Mooltipass Mini builds on its non-Mini predecessor to create a pocket-sized hardware password safe for all your accounts – or, at least, as many as will fit in 8Mb (1MB) of internal memory. The Mooltipass Mini is a tool for the adequately paranoid: passwords, though not usernames, are stored in the device’s internal memory under AES-256 encryption with the private key located on a removable smart card itself locked with a four-hexadecimal-character PIN. When a password is required, its entry can be found on the screen and the Mooltipass does its best impression of a USB keyboard by typing the account details in on your behalf – or, when the optional software is installed, filling in forms in browser windows automatically upon manual confirmation on the device itself.
Having long advocated for the use of password managers to promote high-quality password use and discourage password reuse, the Mooltipass Mini is a near-perfect companion. It addresses the majority of the problems with traditional password managers, like how to keep the encrypted database accessible while preventing its theft. While there are undeniable issues, such as the £61 (inc. VAT) retail price and the need to buy two so you have a backup to use if the primary one fails, it has become a part of my security arsenal – and one I feel comfortable using thanks to the project’s open-source nature for both the software and underlying hardware.
All this, and a whole mess of other things written by people who aren’t me, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.
Readers of my regular Hobby Tech column this month will find a BBC micro:bit-driven tutorial alongside two reviews covering the remarkable Raspberry Pi Zero W microcomputer and the fascinating Delete by Paul Atkinson.
The idea for the tutorial came about while working on a chapter of my upcoming Micro:bit User Guide, and seemed like a perfect fit for the readers of Custom PC Magazine: turning the low-cost yet extremely flexible micro:bit into an addressable USB-connected 5×5 LED matrix and having it display current CPU load in a constantly-updating bar graph. Naturally, the same technique could be used to graph almost anything.
The secret lies in MicroPython’s REPL, an interactive interpreter which can run on the micro:bit and accept commands via the USB serial port. By switching the micro:bit into REPL mode, it can be slaved to another system over USB. The result: the entire program code, written in Python using the serial, time, and psutil libraries, exists purely on the host machine. A quick bit of Blu-tack later, and my monitor was wearing a CPU monitor which worked even when the display was off.
The Pi Zero W, meanwhile, was a device to which I had been looking forward for quite some time. An upgraded version of the original £5 Raspberry Pi Zero microcomputer, the Pi Zero W differs in only one respect: it has a built-in radio module, the same BCM43438 as found on the far larger and more expensive Raspberry Pi 3.
While the addition of the radio module, which offers Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, and 2.4GHz Wi-FI connectivity, almost doubles the price of the Pi Zero W to £9.60, it’s money well spent. In almost every Pi Zero project I have built, I’ve ended up using a USB OTG adaptor and low-cost USB Wi-Fi dongle to add network connectivity, and having it on-board – even at a slightly higher cost compared to a USB-connected solution – makes life considerably easier.
Finally, Delete. Billed as “a design history of computer vapourware,” Paul Atkinson’s coffee table book is packed with high-quality photographs – and, for the rarer machines, the occasional rescaled JPEG exhibiting unfortunate compression artefacts – covering machines from an upgraded Sinclair QL to a bright yellow IBM that never left the drawing board. Each comes with pages on its history, with interview subjects detailing features and failures alike, and while not all machines were strictly vapourware few are likely to have a place in the average vintage computing collection. In short: if you like old computers you’ll like Delete, which is available now from Amazon and other bookstores under ISBN 978-0857853479.
As always, you can read the whole column and a whole lot more by picking up Custom PC Issue 166 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar services.
This month’s Hobby Tech column features my field report from the Maker Faire UK 2016 event, an interview with my good friend Daniel Bailey about his brilliant homebrew computers, and a review of the Genuino MKR1000 microcontroller.
First, the event. Attending events like the Maker Faire is always a blast, especially as press when you have an excuse to stick your nose into absolutely everything that’s happening. My attendance this year was sponsored by oomlout, a local hobbyist electronics shop and a client for whom I do blog work, as highlighted in a “Sponsored By” call-out over the two-page spread. As for the event itself, you’ll find coverage of everything from DoES Liverpool’s excellent shooting gallery to affordable laser cutters and even the world’s only crowd-funded and wholly amateur manned space programme.
The event also gave me a chance to catch up with Daniel Bailey at the York Hackspace stand, after nearly a year of trying to find a good time to interview him about his impressive homebrew computers. Built on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and inspired by the classic Manchester Baby, the 8-bit C88 and 32-bit C3232 are incredibly impressive machines – and I can think of no project that better fits with the magazine’s title!
Finally, the MKR1000. Known under the Arduino brand in the US and Genuino brand elsewhere thanks to ongoing trademark disputes, the MKR1000 is Arduino.cc’s answer to the popular Particle Photon Wi-Fi microcontrollers. Featuring a breadboard-friendly layout and integrated 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi radio, it represents an interesting new direction for the company – albeit one somewhat hobbled by a high price compared against the competition.
All this, plus the usual raft of interesting things written by people other than me, is awaiting your attention at your local newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.
In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a good long look at the BBC micro:bit, CubieTech’s latest Cubietruck Plus (Cubieboard 5) single-board computer, and a pack of Top Trumps-inspired playing cards based on vintage computers.
Beginning with the micro:bit, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a press sample when the much-redesigned educational device was finally ready to ship to schools across the UK. Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller and boasting integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the micro:bit’s main selling point is its excellent support: the web IDE includes four languages suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to experts, there is documentation galore, and the BBC’s TV output includes shows which remind me of the glory days of the BBC Micro and its related programming.
At least, that would be a selling point if the board was actually up for sale. Despite having now mostly fulfilled its promise to ship free micro:bits to all Year Seven pupils in the UK, the BBC has still made no announcement about commercial availability for the educational gadget. Those whose appetites are whetted by the review, then, are best off looking at the CodeBug on which the micro:bit was based, or the new Genuino/Arduino 101 if Bluetooth LE support is a requirement.
The Cubietruck Plus, meanwhile, is an altogether different beast. Kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the board is – as the name suggests – a follow-up to CubieTech’s original Cubietruck. The old dual-core processor is long gone, replaced with an Allwinner H8 octa-core chip that blazed through benchmarks with aplomb – and without hitting the boiling-point temperature highs of the rival Raspberry Pi 3.
Sadly, there’s one piece of information that didn’t make it into the review: shortly after the issue went to press, security researchers discovered a debug vulnerability left in Allwinner’s customised Linux kernel which allows any application on the system to gain root permission. Although affecting only selected operating systems, it’s something to be aware of if you’re in the market for an Allwinner-powered SBC.
Finally, the playing cards. Created by start-up 8bitkick following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the deck is nostalgia in a box. The idea is to bring the Top Trumps concept of collectable, trivia-esque comparison gaming to vintage computing: the cards feature everything from the Acorn Atom to the TI-99/4A, plus a joker in the deck in the form of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.
The cards are printed with a very high quality finish, but it’s the source of the images that is of most interest: rather than take the pictures itself, 8bitkick has instead scoured the web for images in the public domain or licensed as Creative Commons. It’s no theft, though: while most Creative Commons licenses allow for even commercial reuse if properly attributed, 8bitkick has promised to upload the full deck design to its website for free download and printing.
All this, plus lots of interesting things by people who aren’t me, is only a short trip to the newsagent’s away – or you can stay exactly where you are and grab a digital copy from Zinio or similar services.