Tag Archive for Review

Custom PC, Issue 192

Custom PC Issue 192This month’s Hobby Tech kicks off with a look at the Zepsch PocketStar – by far the smallest Arduino-compatible games console I’ve seen – and the Pimoroni Keybow, before reviewing Felipe Pepe’s The CRPG Book in digital form.

The pages of my Hobby Tech column are no stranger to Arduino-compatible handheld consoles: over the years I’ve reviewed the Gamebuino and its MAKERbuino spin-off, the Creoqode 2048, the Arduboy – then all four at once in a head-to-head group test – and most recently the Gamebuino Meta. Of these, the Arduboy was the smallest with a footprint matching a credit card and a thickness of around three cards stacked.

The PocketStar, a crowdfunded creation from Zepsch, has it beaten. Although thicker than the Arduboy, the Game Boy-inspired design has a tiny 50x30mm footprint, despite packing a colour screen and haptic feedback motor. What it doesn’t include, sadly, is a speaker – though it was originally planned, and the mounting point is still present – but it at least includes the ability to switch between games on the fly, something the Arduboy sadly lacks.

The Pimoroni Keybow, by contrast, is a very different beast. A no-solder DIY kit, the Keybow is a nine-button programmable keypad with a difference: rather than using a Teensy, Arduino, or other microcontroller, it uses a Raspberry Pi Zero WH. The reason why isn’t really adequately explained in the product briefing: it connects to the host machine via USB rather than Bluetooth, and makes no use of the Zero WH’s Wi-Fi connectivity either – though third-party firmware is available to vastly expand its functionality. Despite some bugs in the official firmware and the aforementioned surprising lack of wireless connectivity – switching to the Zero H, which does not include a radio, would shave a fiver off the retail price – it’s certainly an interesting desk accessory with plenty of flexibility.

The CRPG Book, published by Bitmap Books, doesn’t have author Felipe Pepe’s name on the cover. There’s a reason for that: it’s a collaborative effort, the physical incarnation of a four-year effort from 119 authors to document the computer role-playing game genre in as much detail as possible – going all the way back to the PLATO system and its infamous ‘friendly orange glow.’ The result is an exhaustive tome, brought to life with full-colour printing between its hardback covers – though the review is based on a digital copy, the physical version having been rejected by Bitmap Books’ quality control post-printing and sent back to the factory for a re-do with the first of the reprints due to land towards the end of the month.

While The CRPG Book is far from perfect – there are a few issues with typography and grammar, increasing in frequency as you work your way towards the back of the book – it’s pretty close to it, and made even more pleasing by the fact that the £29.99 print edition is joined by a free, Creative Commons-licensed download available from the official website. Sales of the print edition, meanwhile, have raised £12,475 in author royalties for Felipe Pepe – royalties which he has donated in full to Vocação, a not-for-profit Brazilian organisation aimed at getting children and teenagers in poor communities access to quality education.

Custom PC Magazine Issue 192 is available now at all good newsagents, supermarkets, and via the Raspberry Pi Press store. Digital outlets will update later today.

The MagPi, Issue 83

The MagPi Issue 83This week saw the release of the Raspberry Pi 4, first in a new generation of single-board computers from the not-for-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation. As is usual for the launches, I was approached by The MagPi Magazine – the Foundation’s official publication – to prepare coverage for the launch, including interviews, imagery, and a wealth of benchmarks.

My coverage for the magazine, spread across a whopping 12 pages, begins with a high-resolution hero shot of the board with macro-image call-outs for its key features and components – including the new USB Type-C power connector, BCM2711B0 system-on-chip, and shiny dual-micro-HDMI video outputs capable of driving high-resolution 4K displays.

Next, there’s an interview with Foundation co-founder Eben Upton covering everything from the reason the board is available now when a 2020 launch had previously been suggested, how it can potentially replace a desktop PC in a range of environments, backwards compatibility with the existing Raspberry Pi ecosystem, and a hidden Easter Egg on the PCB – only accessible to those brave or foolhardy enough to unsolder the USB connector.

The benchmarking section, spread across four pages, marks a departure from previous launches: this time around I pulled the focus away from synthetic benchmarks, though the classic Linpack still makes an appearance if only to demonstrate how the Arm processors’ NEON extensions can dramatically improve performance, in favour of a variety of real-world workloads: image editing with the GIMP, file compression with bzip2 and lbzip2, browser performance in Chromium, and gaming performance with OpenArena, alongside USB, Ethernet, and Wi-Fi throughputs. In all cases, the workloads are entirely reproducible: all packages used for the real-world workloads are available at launch in the Raspbian Buster software repositories. If four pages isn’t enough, additional benchmarks are available on my Medium post.

As usual, the benchmarking also includes a thermal analysis: images of the Raspberry Pi 4 and its immediate predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ were taken after a ten-minute CPU-heavy workload using a Flir thermal imaging camera, the data processed to a fixed temperature scale of 22-80°C to avoid noise from ambient surfaces, then overlaid on an edge-enhanced high-resolution visible-light image of their respective boards using a high-contrast rainbow colour palette. These images represent a fair amount of work, but there’s no better way to see both how hot the Pis get under continuous load and which components are responsible for that heat – not to mention how effective the design is at bleeding the heat off through the PCB, something with which the older Raspberry Pi models with plastic-encased chips have struggled.

Finally, the piece closes with a two-page interview with Simon Long on the new Raspbian ‘Buster’ operating system – launching ahead of the upstream Debian 10 ‘Buster’ release, interestingly – and its revised, flatter user interface. While much of the under-the-hood work for Buster was to get it ready for the Raspberry Pi 4 – previous Raspbian releases won’t work on the new board – it’s also available for older Raspberry Pi models, and comes with some convincing reasons to upgrade along with a handful of software compatibility issues that offer a reason to hang fire.

As always, The MagPi Issue 83 is available to buy in print format from all good newsagents, supermarkets, and book sellers; a free digital copy, released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike-NoCommercial licence, is also available from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 191

Custom PC Issue 191This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Nvdia’s first-ever entry into the maker market with the Jetson Nano, guides the reader through assisting the Internet Archive with its Sisyphean task, and takes a look at the Xiaomi Wowstick cordless screwdriver.

First, Nvidia’s offering. While the original Jetson TK1 single-board computer was sold through the since-departed high-street electronics outlet Maplin in the UK, its near-£200 price tag meant it wasn’t of much interest to the pocket-money shopper. Its successors in the Jetson family have been successively more expensive, culminating in the £1,199 Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier reviewed last month. The Jetson Nano, by contrast, is just £95 – £101.50 if you include shipping – and is specifically aimed at makers and tinkerers.

The board uses a system-on-module (SOM) on carrier design, dominated by a massive heatsink. Although it’s perfectly possible to view the device as a souped-up and considerably more expensive Raspberry Pi, general-purpose computing isn’t Nvidia’s primary market: instead, it’s aiming to bring a new generation of developers into the CUDA GPU-accelerated computing ecosystem by using the Jetson Nano as a jumping-off point for deep learning and machine intelligence projects, including its own Jetbot autonomous robot platform.

The guide, meanwhile, walks the reader through using almost any PC to assist the Internet Archive with its goal of storing all the world’s information for immediate retrieval. Written as I was firing up a Warrior – the name given by the Archive Team to its distributed data capture systems – to assist with the archiving of the last bits of Google+ before its closure, the step-by-step instructions will let anyone contribute to the not-for-profit effort.

Finally, the Wowstick comes from a company better known in the UK for its cut-price smartphones: Xiaomi. Designed, as with much of the company’s output, to give a premium feel, the USB-rechargeable electric screwdriver is aimed at fine electronics work rather than flat-pack assembly – and does a surprisingly good job of it. Only limited torque for locked-down or larger screws and a terrible case whose tiny magnets are improperly attached let the bundle down.

For the full run-down on all this and more you can pick up Custom PC Issue 191 from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or snag a digital copy from Zinio or similar services. Alternatively, a new subscription offer will get you the next three issues for just £5 – renewing at £25 every six issues if you don’t cancel beforehand.

PC Pro, Issue 297

PC Pro Issue 297The Labs Test in this month’s PC Pro is something of a bumper one: I ran a whopping 14 miniature PCs, from a cleverly cased Raspberry Pi up to a behemoth of a system squeezing in an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080, through a gamut of tests including size and weight, power draw, productivity and gaming benchmarks to see which would come out on top.

The work of a solid few weeks, the Labs saw system after system bouncing onto and off the test bench. As well as requiring the actual testing, all photography was carried out in-house – with thanks to my wife, who served as a hand model for the article’s hero shot – with each system photographed from all angles and internally, plus a smart isometric view in which the scale is maintained so the reader can easily compare the relative sizes of each machine on test. Given that the feature is about miniature PCs, such easy at-a-glance comparison is key to knowing which machine meets the readers’ personal requirements.

A Labs Test like this wouldn’t be possible without the cooperation of a range of companies, of course, and I’d like to thank the suppliers of machines for the test: ASRock, Asus, Intel, Mini-ITX.com, Lenovo, QuietPC, Raspberry Pi, and Shuttle. Additional thanks go to Intel, Nvidia, and Overclockers UK, who provided components required to build up the bare-bones systems on test.

As is traditional for a PC Pro Labs Test, the content is split between reviews – four 700-word focus reviews and ten 350-word supplementary reviews – and features, including an interview with Intel’s Ed Barkhuysen on the company’s modular vision for the future of computing, a buyer’s guide covering things to consider when making the move to an ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) system, a two-page features table covering everything you could want to know about each system on test, a look at external GPU (eGPU) products as a way of expanding the performance of mini-PCs, and a “View from the Labs” opinion editorial to round things out.

This feature also marks the first time the in-house PC Pro benchmark suite – which measures system performance for image editing, video playback, and multitasking workloads – has been run not only on Linux-based, rather than Windows, systems but also on a Raspberry Pi. To achieve that, I worked to port the PowerShell-based suite to the Bash shell while using the same cross-platform applications to ensure each platform can be compared as fairly as possible.

PC Pro Issue 297 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Linux Format, Issue 250

Linux Format Issue 250In my first piece for Linux Format I look at the Nvidia Jetson AGX Xavier system-on-module, an incredibly powerful device the company hopes will transform the field of autonomous machines and other machine learning initiatives – and the precursor to the recently-launched and significantly more affordable hobbyist device the Jetson Nano.

In contrast to the Jetson AGX Xavier review in Custom PC Issue 190, which takes an exclusively hands-on approach, my piece for Linux Format opens with a look at the history of Nvidia’s Jetson family and the company’s various efforts to make the name synonymous with autonomous machines.

The piece then moves on to the device itself, which is impressively powerful for its sub-30W power draw – but many features of which are inaccessible pending software updates which are still not available. This issue, which extends in part at least to the documentation supporting the platform, is something Nvidia really needs to address if it’s serious about having the device – and the hobbyist Jetson Nano – appeal to the educational market as well as experienced developers looking to build high-end machine learning implementations.

Linux Format Issue 250 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, and can be downloaded in electronic form from Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 190

Custom PC Issue 190My Hobby Tech column this month, wrapped in Custom PC’s newly-redesigned layout, takes a look at a powerful yet low-power machine likely out of the reach of most hobbyists along with the mind-bending 90s web simulator Hypnospace Outlaw and the book Robotics with Raspberry Pi by Matt Timmons-Brown.

First, the headline act: Nvidia’s Jetson AGX Xavier is its flagship entry in the Jetson range of Arm-based embedded computers, which launched with the Jetson TK1 I reviewed way back in Issue 133, and comes with a price tag to match: £1,199, dropping to £819 with educational discount. At that price, it’s a device aimed at professional developers more than hobbyists – but it provides a hint as to what to expect from the far more affordable and hobbyist-focused Jetson Nano, a full review of which will appear in next month’s column.

Hypnospace Outlaw, meanwhile, is Jay Tholen’s attempt at marrying what is effectively a 90s web simulator with a sci-fi plot involving headsets which let you browse while you sleep. Crowdfunded via Kickstarter, the game isn’t quite what was originally promised – but, frankly, that’s no bad thing: what has been delivered is impressively immersive and likely to thrill anyone who was around during the heyday of Geocities and Angelfire.

Finally, Robotics with Raspberry Pi is the first full book from self-styled “Raspberry Pi Guy” Matt Timmons-Brown. Designed with a very friendly hands-on approach in mind, the book walks the reader through the proces sof building a robot with each chapter adding new functionality: line following, Bluetooth remote control, user-addressable LEDs, a speaker, and even machine vision via the Raspberry Pi Camera Module. While a little muddled in places, it’s one of the better tomes on the subject – and one that avoids the usual pitfall of being little more than an elongated instruction manual for a single off-the-shelf robot kit.

Custom PC Issue 190 is available in all good newsagents and supermarkets now, and will shortly land on digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 189

Custom PC Issue 189This month, my regular Hobby Tech column opens with a look at a RISC-V based not-quite-off-the-shelf personal computer build by AB Open, walks readers through building a weather monitor powered by a Raspberry Pi and a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT, and marvels at the excesses of the computer retail scene in the 1970s and 1980s via David Pleasance’s Commodore: The Inside Story.

First, the PC. The majority of PCs on desks around the world today are based on processors which use the x86 architecture or its 64-bit equivalent; a small handful are based on similar Arm chips to the ones you might find in your smartphone; and an even smaller number are powered by things like Zilog Z80s, MOS 6502s, and Motorola 68000s belonging to people who just don’t like to throw away a perfectly good decades-old system. The system built by AB Open recently, though, is different: it’s based on RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture (ISA) for which anyone can – given time, money, and a fair smattering of expertise – build a chip.

“It might be some time before there’s an off-the-shelf chip that can compete with x86 on raw performance and traditional benchmarks,” AB Open’s Andrew Back, who for full disclosure is a client of mine, admits, “but the open nature of the ISA, and the ecosystem developing around it, is driving a renaissance in novel computer architectures.” By way of proof: a fully-functional Linux-based desktop PC, built in a custom-designed laser-cut chassis, created using the SiFive HiFive Unleashed development board and Microsemi expansion board.

From a PC you can browse the web on to one which flashes a few lights: the Raspberry Pi weather monitor is a remix of a project I published in Issue 153, to use a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT LED matrix to graph energy usage in my home. This time, the same hardware is repurposed to show animated weather icons based on data downloaded from OpenWeatherMap – and, despite the low resolution of the LED matrix, it works an absolute treat.

Finally, Commodore: The Inside Story sounds like it should be an exhaustive history of the company behind one of the world’s biggest-selling home computers. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a two-part affair: the first is a series of personally recollections, presented in a very similar fashion to the stories you might hear if you took author David Pleasance to the pub and asked him about his time working in Commodore’s sales and marketing division; the second is a collection of guest chapters, and as fun as it is reading about orgies in Consumer Electronics Show hotels and drink-driving incidents the second half is, for me, the better half.

All this, and a raft more, can be found at your nearest newsagent or supermarket; the electronic version, meanwhile, is enjoying a brief holiday while background administration relating to its recent switch of publishers takes place.

Custom PC, Issue 188

Custom PC Issue 188This month’s Hobby Tech, my regular five-page column for Custom PC Magazine, takes a look at the Argon One aluminium case for the Raspberry Pi, the now Flash-free Scratch 3 visual programming environment, and Sean McManus’ Mission Python.

First, the case. Created as a single piece of aluminium with a plastic base-plate, the Argon One is more than just a means of protecting a Raspberry Pi: it includes a daughterboard that pulls the HDMI and analogue AV ports to the rear for neater cabling, another that adds a fan for active cooling and a smart power button while also bringing the GPIO header out with colour coding and silk-screened pin references on the case itself, and a magnetic cover to hide said GPIO port when it’s not in use.

More importantly, though, it’s one of only a few cases that actually improves the thermal performance of the Raspberry Pi when installed. Even ignoring the fan, which makes little practical difference to operating temperatures, the difference between uncased and cased is an impressive 24°C thanks to the use of the upper half of the case as a giant heatsink. The only real problem, and it’s one creator Argon Forty claims to be working to resolve, is the hefty voltage drop from the fan-and-power daughterboard: unless you’re using the Argon One 5.25V Power Supply or a similar compatible, expect to see frequent undervoltage throttling.

Scratch 3, meanwhile, has proven itself a worthy upgrade for the popular block-based visual programming environment first created at MIT. While switching the stage and script area around and shuffling a few of the block colours is unnecessary and potentially confusing, new features including integration with translation and text-to-speech APIs and an easy extension manager are definitely welcome – as is the departure from relying on Adobe’s Flash technology. Sadly, though, at the time of writing Scratch 3 still did not support the Raspberry Pi, though work is in progress on that front.

Finally, Mission Python: as the author of a few books myself I know only too well how tricky it is to walk the line between introducing concepts in a friendly and approachable manner and being patronising, as well as trying to aim a publication at a broad age range. Sean McManus, who is no stranger to bookstore shelves, proves it can be done with Mission Python as he walks the reader through creating a game in Python using the Pygame Zero wrapper around the Pygame library. The result is colourful and fun without being in any way condescending, and a definite recommendation for anyone interested in flexing their Python skills.

All this, and the usual selection of articles not written by me, can be found on the shelves of your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

The MagPi, Issue 79

The MagPi Issue 79In this month’s issue of The MagPi Magazine you’ll find my review of the Argon One, a clever case for the Raspberry Pi that if creator Argon Forty’s name is anything to go by will be followed up by 39 successive designs.

Raspberry Pi cases are ten a penny, but the crowdfunded Argon One stands out for one very heavy reason: the majority of the case, bar a plastic base, is made from a single piece of aluminium. It gives the case heft, but serves a real purpose too: the Raspberry Pi’s system-on-chip (SoC) is connected to the body of the case via a pillar of aluminium – turning the entire case into a giant heatsink.

It’s a great idea, and definitely works, but means the case has restricted compatibility: only the Rasbperry Pi 3 Model B and Model B+ will fit, with other models having their SoCs in a different position. If your Pi does fit, you’ll find the Argon One works a charm – though a built-in fan appears to make little practical difference to temperature levels.

The only real fly in the ointment, though, is that a daughterboard which provides a smart power button on the rear and power for the fan – joined by a second that moves the analogue AV and HDMI ports to the rear with the others – causes enough voltage drop to trigger ‘undervolt’ warnings and throttling on most power supplies. Only Argon Forty’s own 5.25V/3A supply, or an equivalent, avoids this – information that came too late for backers of the original Kickstarter campaign.

The full review, and a lot more beside, is available at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or for free download under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 16

HackSpace Magazine Issue 16This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a pair of my reviews, the first looking at a computer that’s also a ruler – because that’s not only a thing but the second thing of its kind to come from the same designer – and a new set of charitable Top Trumps-style collectable cards.

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.