Custom PC, Issue 139

Custom PC Issue 139My desk has been getting a little overloaded with new toys of late, so this month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is review-heavy to help clear that backlog. While the column opens with a two-page tutorial on building a PirateBox, this is followed by a spread looking at four of Pimoroni’s Raspberry Pi add-ons with a concluding page of my thoughts on Imagination Technologies’ Creator CI20 development board.

Looking at the tutorial first, I have to admit to a little trepidation in asking my editor, Ben Hardwidge, to support something called a PirateBox. Thankfully, while its name is designed to raise eyebrows, the concept is free of anything that could reasonably enrage the copyright cartel. A PirateBox is simply a Wi-Fi router running a modified version of the OpenWRT Linux distribution, tailored for localised chat and file sharing. It has no connection to the internet, and if paired with the right low-power hardware can run for days from a cheap USB battery pack. While you could certainly use it to distribute copyright content illegitimately, the fact that you have to be in close physical proximity limits its usefulness – but it’s absolutely top-tier for sharing files at events, which is the use I had in mind when I set out to build the thing.

Pimoroni, a local company just across the way in sunny Sheffield, made a name for themselves by being one of the first to build attractive and affordable add-on boards for the Raspberry Pi. Despite being good friends with the team, I’ve never actually reviewed any of their products – until Gee Bartlett took me on a tour of the factory and pressed four of their most popular creations into my hands. So, rather than spin it out over the next four months, a two-page spread was in order to review the boards: the education-centric PiBrella, the interestingly-shaped PiGlow, the impressive Displayotron-3000, and the retina-searing Unicorn HAT. Spoiler: they’re all pretty great, and the guys are working on some more advanced projects that I can’t wait to get on the test-bench for future issues.

Finally, the Creator CI20. While it sometimes feels that all I do is test single-board computers – not that I’m complaining, they’re absolutely fascinating – the CI20 breaks from the crowd by using the MIPS instruction set architecture. The creation of Imagination Technologies – the company behind the graphics hardware that powered Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast console, fact-fans – the board has clearly been taken from an existing oddly-shaped design but offers plenty of power for the maker community to hack around, including boasting significantly improved general-purpose performance compared to the majority of the ARM-based boards I’ve tested.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a visit to your local newsagent or supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.

Custom PC, Issue 120

Custom PC Issue 120My eponymous Hobby Tech column – which, I’m pleased to report, has enjoyed excellent feedback from readers, including some who have now been tempted back into a subscription having previously let it lapse – continues in this month’s Custom PC with the usual mix of maker and vintage topics.

The tutorial this month surrounds the Nook Simple Touch, a low-end Android tablet masquerading as an eReader. Offering month-long battery life, a sunlight-readable E-Ink display and micro-SD card storage expansion, the device proved tempting enough at its discounted £29 price – a time-limited offer, Nook claimed – that stocks soon sold out.

There’s a good reason for that: as the column shows, it’s possible to bypass restrictions built into the device and turn it into a fully-functional Android tablet, complete with games, web browser, note-taking applications and – key to its popularity – the Kindle and Kobo apps, giving the device access to third-party eBook stores. Okay, so it’s Android 2.1 and some software doesn’t work – but it’s still a great device for the cash.

The review takes a look at the BeagleBone Black, a low-cost and extremely powerful competitor to the Raspberry Pi. Although not as in-depth as my review for Linux User & Developer, I take a look from the perspective of a less-Linux-oriented user – and find the out-of-box experience something to recommend.

Finally, vintage technology – in which I suck it up and admit to a failure. In the month this column was written, I’d attempted to solder a SCART cable into my old Master System console – it’s a reversible modification, don’t worry – in order to get high-quality RGB output rather than the usual fuzzy RF-modulated signal it offers as standard. Although I think I did everything right, for some reason the signal is unstable – something I’m going to have to investigate at a future date.

Custom PC Issue 120 is available from all good newsagents, or digitally via Zinio and other services.