HackSpace Magazine, Issue 5

HackSpace Magazine Issue 5My contribution to the latest issue of HackSpace Magazine is a detailed look at the ZX Spectrum Next, an open-hardware reimplementation of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum microcomputer with a wealth of improvements and enhancements.

Officially licensed from the current owner of the Spectrum rights – Sky In-Home Services, oddly enough, which requires only that a portion of any proceeds are donated to charity – the ZX Spectrum Next builds on the original with a Z80 implementation on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) which can be run in accelerated mode at up to 14MHz, up to 2MB of memory, SD card storage, built-in joystick ports, crystal-clear HDMI video output, four-channel AY sound, support for original Spectrum keyboards or modern PS/2 keyboards, and even optional real-time clock, ESP8266 Wi-Fi, and Raspberry Pi Zero-based co-processor add-ons.

Despite these upgrades – and more I haven’t mentioned, including a brand-new operating system dubbed NextOS, 256-colour display modes, and hardware sprite support – the ZX Spectrum Next also boasts full backwards compatibility with software and hardware designed for the original Spectrum family, which is something of an impressive achievement given the relatively modest resources available to its creators following a successful crowdfunding campaign for its production.

The ZX Spectrum Next reviewed here, though, isn’t quite the finished article. Provided to backers eager to get their hands on the device as early as possible, the board-only ZX Spectrum Next Issue 2A is aimed primarily at developers. It also comes with an annoying design flaw, which was discovered post-review: a missing capacitor which can cause stability issues when coupled with low-quality power supplies. The finalised Issue 2B, its creators promise, will include the missing capacitor along with a keyboard and chassis housing designed by Sinclair’s long-term industrial designer Rick Dickinson.

For a full look at the ZX Spectrum Next, you can pick up Hackspace Magazine Issue 5 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or as a free download under the Creative Commons licence at the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 146

Custom PC Issue 146This month’s Hobby Tech column begins with a look at a topic that has been close to my heart for a number of years now: thermal imaging, and how it can be applied to the field of hobbyist electronics and technology review. If that weren’t interesting enough, there’s also a review of the Novena open-hardware all-in-one desktop, and a look at a little-known bug-fix applied to Sinclair’s classic ZX81 microcomputer.

For years, I’ve wanted a thermal camera. Recently, the price of cameras has plummeted and I was finally able to justify – just about – the cost of the entry-level Flir C2. While it takes a while to get used to thinking in resolutions of 80×60 – the total resolution of the Flir Lepton thermal imaging module featured in the C2 – I’ve been having no end of fun capturing thermal data on everything from single-board computers to my cat.

In the column, though, I argue for the application of thermal imaging in the hobbyist realm. With smartphone-connected thermal cameras now available in the low-hundreds, and a broken-out Lepton module the equal of the one found in the C2 available for just £160, a thermal imaging sensor is no longer the preserve of well-heeled professionals. I’ve found mine useful for tasks from finding hot-spots on a board design to spotting heatsinks which were not properly mated to the components below.

When I wasn’t playing with the thermal camera, I was playing with the Kosagi Novena. Born from the mind of noted hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang, the Novena is remarkable: it’s a truly open computer, with everything from the firmware through to the board designs being published under an open-source licence. Loaned by UK hobbyist electronics shop oomlout, I was sad to give the crowd-funded Novena back – despite an ARM-based processor outclassed by even the cheapest of x86 laptop parts.

Finally, the ZX81. I’ve been clearing out much of my classic computer collection as I shift to a smaller office, and while I had to get rid of my rather rare Sinclair ZX81 I wanted to record its existence for posterity. From the very original production run, this machine boasted the ‘cockroach’ – a bug-fix for a fault in the ROM implemented in hardware, with a hand-soldered board attached to the top of the system’s CPU. It’s a jarring sight, and one that I was privileged to see in person: only a handful of cockroach-model ZX81s, fixed while the company waited for corrected ROM chips to arrive, exist and they’re all externally identical to non-cockroach models.

All this, plus a wide selection of stuff written by people who aren’t me, is available now from your local newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 127

Custom PC Issue 127Regular readers of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine may notice that there’s been a dramatic redesign by editor Ben Hardwidge this month. The size of the magazine has been increased, returning to its original A4 footprint, and the overall look has been brought bang up to date. It’s something of a rebirth for the publication, and one that comes with good news for fans of my eponymous Hobby Tech column: thanks to extremely positive reader feedback, from this issue forth the column will be five pages long instead of four – making it the longest column in the magazine by far.

This month, as the cover splash demonstrates, I cover work I’ve done restoring an original rubber-key ZX Spectrum using a replica faceplate developed by Rich Mellor of RWAP Software. A long-time Sinclair supporter, Rich also took the time to answer my questions in a brief interview segment; if you’ve ever wondered what would possess someone to spend time and money developing a range of products and accessories for a system that hasn’t been in production for approaching three decades, I’d say it’s well worth a read.

I also walk the reader through using a Raspberry Pi as a secondary display. While I’ve done something similar before, back in Custom PC Issue 123, this time it’s a little different: I’m using a Pi to revitalise a SoundMaster High Resolution Monochrome Monitor I recently acquired, using its single composite video input to add a wonderfully anachronistic amber display to my desktop. The same technique, which relies on the ability to forward X data over SSH, can be used to add any composite or HDMI compatible display to any networked system.

Finally, I offer my thoughts on the PiFace Control & Display accessory for the Raspberry Pi, kindly provided by CPC. Built for embedded designs, the PiFace C&D adds a 16×2 LCD, a bunch of buttons, a three-way joystick and an infra-red receiver to the Pi’s GPIO port. The result is a system which can be controlled away from a keyboard and mouse, and it comes with plenty of Python-powered example code to get the user started. I’ve already had an idea or two for projects…

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be yours if you venture to your local newsagent or supermarket. Alternatively, stay indoors where it’s warm and pick up copy digitally via services like Zinio.