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.

Custom PC, Issue 195

Custom PC Issue 195This month’s Hobby Tech column opens on an interview with Ryan Brown on the impressive Quarter Arcades miniature fully-licensed reproduction arcade cabinets, moves on to a review of the RISC-V-based Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT for the Raspberry Pi, and closes with a look at Pimoroni’s clever Inky wHAT electrophoretic display.

First, the interview. Answering the important question first, Brown admitted that “the pun certainly helps” when it came to deciding to what scale the Quarter Arcades cabinets should be produced: each carefully-designed reproduction, modelled on real period-appropriate cabinets, is built to a quarter scale both as a means of having it sit nicely on a desk and of providing a name which echoes the most commonly-required coin of US arcade cabinets.

While the Quarter Arcade range is currently limited to licensed properties including Pac-Man and Galaga, Brown has indicated there’s potential there to expand: “Starting with the most beloved classics really helps us open doors to other, more niche arcade games, and even potentially games that never reached the arcade.”

The Seeed Studio Grove AI HAT, by contrast, was an undeniable disappointment. Based on the Kendryte K210 system-on-chip, which uses the RISC-V instruction set architecture and includes a co-processor designed to accelerate artificial intelligence workloads, the AI HAT can be used as a stand-alone development board or attached on top of a Raspberry Pi – but in the latter mode is almost entirely divorced from the Pi itself, to the point where it’s not even possible to program the AI HAT without detaching it again and connecting it to a more traditional PC.

Finally, the Inky wHAT. Another Raspberry Pi HAT (Hardware Attached on Top) board, the Inky wHAT offers a 4.2″ electrophoretic display in three colours: red, black, and white in the model reviewed, with a yellow variant available alongside a slightly cheaper black-and-white two-colour version. Forming the heart of a project which will appear in next month’s magazine, the Inky wHAT impressed – though it would be nice to see the price drop a little, given how cheap full-colour though considerably more power-hungry LCD panels are these days.

Custom PC Issue 195 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and digitally through the usual outlets.

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 164

Custom PC Issue 164My Hobby Tech column this month is dominated by two reviews of devices which have taken their inspiration from better-known alternatives, but the two couldn’t be more different: the Asus Tinker Board and the SiFive HiFive1. As an added bonus, there’s a look into the wonderful world of hobbyist pinball machine repair, and by that I mean a friend and I repaired some pinball machines and lived to tell the tale.

First, the Tinker Board. There have been rumours flying around since last year that Taiwanese technology giant Asus was looking to carve itself off a slice of the Raspberry Pi pie, and that’s exactly what the Tinker Board is: an attempt to clone the Raspberry Pi. Its footprint and layout are so close to the original that it’s entirely possible to use official Raspberry Pi cases without difficulty, and the features available are a one-for-one match: four USB ports, an Ethernet port, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a 3.5mm jack, CSI and DSI connectors, and even the Pi’s trademark 40-pin GPIO header.

To its credit, Asus has tried to improve upon the original design. The processor is more powerful – quite impressively so, I discovered in my testing – and purportedly supports 4K video playback, the Ethernet supposedly gigabit, there’s support for 24-bit 192KHz high-definition audio, the RAM has been boosted from 1GB to 2GB, and the GPIO port has received colour coding to its pins. Sadly, many of these claims fell short during testing: the Ethernet port’s throughput is sub-100Mb/s even when connected to a gigabit switch, the 4K video playback simply doesn’t work, and the GPIO port is useless for anything save basic on-off pin switching – there’s no I²C, no SPI, no 1Wire, no UART, nothing, with all advanced features simply listed as in-the-works.

The SiFive HiFive1, by contrast, delivers on its promises and more. Designed to mimic the footprint and layout of an Arduino Uno microcontroller, the HiFive1 is notable for the chip at its heart: one of the first off-the-shelf implementations of the open-source RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) architecture. Still in its relative infancy compared to Atmel’s AVR or Intel’s x86 architectures, RISC-V is designed to scale from microcontrollers like SiFive’s through to high-efficiency server systems.

Like the Tinker Board, I ran into a few hiccoughs during testing. Unlike the Tinker Board, they were all quickly addressed. Considering the HiFive1 is only the second major product from SiFive and is the first commercial implementation of the RISC-V architecture to include support in the Arduino IDE for easy programming, I was thrilled with the board – and sad when my time with it came to an end.

Finally, pinball machines. The last page of this month’s column details my visit to the Brew Haus in Bradford with my friend Stuart Childs, but rather than being there for the beer we were there to administer some love to a series of pinball machines the owner had recently installed – one of which, a Data East Star Wars table, was entirely non-functional and missing its keys to boot. Between picking the lock to gain entry, replacing the somehow-shattered bumpers, testing the electronics, and discovering the PSU was hanging by a thread – its screws, interestingly, being attached to the magnet of a nearby speaker – a fun time was had and a working table set up by the end of the evening.

To get the full low-down on all these topics, plus a whole lot of interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local newsagent, supermarket, or other magazine outlet, or pick up a virtual copy via Zinio or similar digital distribution services.