Custom PC, Issue 156

Custom PC Issue 156The latest installment of my long-running Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is four-strong this month: as well as a two-page review of the Particle Electron GSM microcontroller, you’ll find reviews of the Pimoroni Black Hat Hack3r family of Raspberry Pi add-on boards, vintage computing simulator TIS-100, and a look at open-source laser-cut tool holder designs from Wim Van Gool.

First, the tool holders. I’ve never been known for keeping my workspace neat and tidy, but I’ve found that as long as there is something nearby to slot things in I can be trusted to put things back at least half of the time. Trouble is, pen holders are somewhat ill-suited to smaller tools and dedicated tool holders are expensive. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that Wim Van Gool had published design files for a pair of tool holders designed specifically for the sort of compact tools you need for detail electronics work to Thingiverse – and, better still, that they could be cut from cheap medium-density fibreboard (MDF).

The Particle Electron, meanwhile, came to me courtesy a Kickstarter campaign I backed following my delight with the Particle Photon – or, as it was known when I reviewed it back in Issue 132, the Spark Core – Wi-Fi microcontroller. Like its predecessor, the Particle Electron is Arduino-like and powered by Particle’s excellent web-based IDE and cloud infrastructure; where the Photon uses Wi-Fi to connect, though, the Electron uses international mobile infrastructure in either 2G (as reviewed) or 3G flavours. For remote projects where Wi-Fi connectivity can’t be guaranteed, that’s fantastic – but be aware that there are ongoing costs, and that the device is locked down to Particle’s own SIM card (supplied).

Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r boards, meanwhile, are significantly less ‘clever’: at their hearts, the Black Hat Hack3r and Mini Black Hat Hack3r are nothing more than break-out boards for the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin GPIO header. Designed in-house to speed Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) development and released as a product following considerable demand, the ‘dumb’ break-out boards are nevertheless a treat to use: it’s possible to connect a HAT to any model of Pi minus the Compute Module and still retain access to all 40 pins for additional hardware or debugging purposes, or even to daisy-chain the boards to connect multiple HATs to a single Pi – if you don’t mind hacking around the EEPROM issues that may cause.

Finally, TIS-100. I don’t normally review games, but TIS-100 isn’t a normal game: developed by Zachtronics, the creator of Spacechem and the Ruckingeneur series, TIS-100 gives the player control of a fictional 1980s computer system – the Tessellated Intelligence System – with a simplified instruction set. The task: to rewrite corrupted segments of the computer’s firmware, and in doing so uncover the mystery of what happened to the machine’s last owner ‘Uncle Rudy.’ In short: it’s half-game, half-programming-exercise – and pretty much all fantastic.

All this, plus a wealth of other stuff from people other than myself, is awaiting you at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on digital distribution services such as Zinio.

Custom PC, Issue 133

Custom PC Issue 133This month’s Hobby Tech is an absolute giant: seven pages long, owing to a bonus two-page review of the Nvidia Jetson TK1 development board – and many thanks to the guys at Zotac for granting me exclusive access to the UK’s only press sample ahead of its retail launch! The usual five pages are filled with a tutorial on using relays with the Raspberry Pi, an in-depth look at the Phenoptix MeArm, and a tour of the excellent DOSBox software.

The Jetson TK1 is a good place to start. It’s no Raspberry Pi: launching at £199.99 via Maplin – despite a far lower $192 US RRP – the board is designed for developers with big pockets. Despite this, it may actually be worth the cash: it’s by far the fastest single-board computer I’ve ever had on my test bench, with four 2.3GHz Cortex-A15 CPU cores, a fifth ‘Shadow Core’ for background tasks, and 192 Kepler-class graphics processing cores on its sadly actively-cooled chip. There are, however, issues that will trouble hobbyists looking to use the system. Most surprising of these is a lack of OpenCL support, despite the Tegra K1 on which the Jetson TK1 is based supporting it just fine.

From the high-end to the pocket-friendly with the next review: the Phenoptix MeArm. Supplied by Ben Gray, its designer, the MeArm is a kit of laser-cut acrylic parts and a selection of hobby servos for building a desktop robotic arm. Compatible with anything that can drive servos – or even things, like the Raspberry Pi, that can’t, if you add an I2C controller board – the MeArm is a fascinating entry point to hobbyist robotics, and doubly so thanks to its open nature and extremely low cost.

The tutorial this month is an extension to the Twitter-connected doorbell which appeared in Issue 130. Although the original design worked fine, it lacked an audible alert. The solution: using a relay to trigger the original doorbell’s sounder unit, turning my design into a drop-in upgrade for any wired doorbell while also teaching the basics of how relays can extend the capabilities of a microcontroller or microcomputer platform.

Finally, DOSBox. While I’m a big believer in using real-metal hardware for my vintage computing, even I have to admit that sometimes emulators can be extremely handy – and DOSBox is one of the handiest around. More properly termed a simulator, DOSBox allows you to run old MS-DOS software on modern systems – complete with filters that improve the graphics and full network support. Designed primarily for gaming, its compatibility with images created using the KryoFlux – reviewed in Issue 131 – mean it’s perfect for retrieving data from ageing floppy disks, as well as playing Doom the way it should be played!

All this, plus a bunch of other interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your nearest newsagent or supermarket. If you’d prefer not to leave the house, try a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.