Custom PC, Issue 165

Custom PC Issue 165This month’s issue of Custom PC Magazine marks a milestone: four years since I started writing my Hobby Tech column. To celebrate, three reviews spanning its five pages: the Ryanteck RTk.GPIO, the Kitronik Micro:bit Inventor’s Kit, and the Pimoroni GPIO Hammer Header – the only piece of electronic equipment I’ve ever reviewed installed with a hammer.

First, the RTk.GPIO. The brainchild of Ryan Walmsley, interviewed back in Issue 129, the RTk.GPIO is designed to bring all the joy of the Raspberry Pi’s general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header to any PC with a free USB port. A surprisingly sizeable red-hued circuit board, the RTk.GPIO includes a Pi-compatible 40-pin GPIO header with pin-out on the silkscreen. A quick¬†pip install of the Python library later, and you can pretty much take any RPi.GPIO program and have it run natively on your Windows, Linux, or macOS machine.

Perhaps the biggest power of the RTk.GPIO is in assisting with the development of software for Pi add-ons, using the extra computing power of a desktop or laptop to make your life easier then allowing you to transfer your program to a real Raspberry Pi with minimal changes once complete. Its only real downside, in fact, is price: it’s more expensive than picking up a Raspberry Pi Zero and turning it into a USB device, though undeniably smoother to use.

The Kitronik kit, meanwhile, is one of a range of add-ons I’ve been playing with for my upcoming¬†Micro:bit User’s Guide. Based around a GPIO expansion board for the micro:bit’s edge connector, the kit comes with mounting plate, solderless breadboard, jumper wires, and all the components you need to work through the included full-colour tutorial book – plus, in the version I picked up, the micro:bit itself, though the kit is also available without for those who already have the BBC’s miniature marvel.

In the years I’ve been playing with hobbyist electronics, I’ve seen these kits go from the most hastily thrown together things to extremely polished collections of hardware – and Kitronik’s kit definitely sits at the right end of that spectrum. There are nits to be picked, such as the lack of a handy plastic parts box for storage and no use of the lovely breadboard overlay sheets that make the Arduino-centric ARDX kit so easy to use, but it’s hard to imagine someone buying the Kitronik kit and being disappointed.

Finally, the GPIO Hammer Header. I’ve long been a fan of Pimoroni’s products, but the Hammer Header is by far both the simplest and the smartest I’ve seen. Designed for anyone who has purchased a Raspberry Pi Zero and wants to make use of the unpopulated GPIO header but who doesn’t fancy firing up a soldering iron, the kit makes use of cleverly-shaped pins which can make a suitable electrical connection purely mechanically.

The kit gets its name from the acrylic jig used for installation: assemble the jig with the Pi Zero in the middle, then give it a few sharp raps with a hammer to push the pins home. Male and female variants are available, allowing you to quickly install headers on both the Pi Zero and compact pHAT add-on boards, and to my surprise both installed quickly, easily, and without a single poor joint – and in a fraction of the time of soldering all 40 pins by hand.

For all this, and more, pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio or similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 129

Custom PC Issue 129In this month’s Hobby Tech spread, settling nicely into its expanded five-page format, I show readers how to build a near-field communication (NFC) power switch for their PCs, reuse some classic keyboard key caps from an Amstrad CPC 464, review the CubieBoard 2 and interview Ryanteck’s Ryan Walmsley; it’s a bumper column, in other words.

First the review. The CubieBoard 2 has been available internationally for some time, but has only recently reached our shores courtesy low-power PC specialist New IT. Designed as an alternative to the ever-popular Raspberry Pi, the CubieBoard 2 boasts a dual-core AllWinner A20 processor, 1GB of RAM, and – something that will likely interest many – an on-board SATA port with 5V power for 2.5″ storage devices.

The CubieBoard 2 is supplied with a terrible Android port on its internal flash storage, but software support is excellent – unusual for consumer-grade single-board computers like this, which usually abandon the user with a years-old copy of Ubuntu and a hearty handshake. The CubieBoard 2 is, in fact, the official platform used by Fedora for its ARM port. Does that make it a good buy? You’ll have to read the review to find out, I’m afraid.

The cover-flash tutorial was the result of a social visit from John McLear, a friend and fellow hacker who is the brain behind Kickstarter success story the NFC Ring. As its name implies, the NFC Ring packs a pair of near-field communication tags – fully rewritable – into a wearable form-factor. Having supplied me with an early prototype some time ago, John let me rummage through a pile of rejects to find a thinner and more modern version indicative of the final product quality – and thus the concept, a PC power supply that would trigger when the NFC Ring comes into range, was born. A quick shopping trip to the ever-dependable oomlout later, and I was finished in record time.

I’ve recently made the move from my dependable IBM Model F keyboard to a modern Cherry MX mechanical model from Filco. It’s nice, but lacks a little in the style department; which is where a deceased Amstrad CPC 464, already missing some keys, comes in. With a little modification, it turns out you can take the keys from the CPC and use them on a Cherry MX switch – and my keyboard now has a classic Escape key for my troubles.

Finally, Ryan Walmsley. Just 17 years old, Ryan has set up a business creating accessories for the Raspberry Pi. I caught up with him following a successful crowd-funding run on Tindie for his first product, the Ryanteck Motor Control Board or RTK-000-000-001. He’s a fascinating guy, and a real inspiration to anyone who thinks they could never break into the world of hobbyist electronics.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff from people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via services including Zinio.