Custom PC, Issue 225

Custom PC Issue 225My Hobby Tech column for this month’s Custom PC Magazine takes a look at the IceWhale Tech ZimaBoard, a self-styled “single-board server,” the relatively low-cost yet high-performance DytSpectrumOwl thermal inspection camera, and the Cyntech Raspberry Pi Heatsink Case – the latter an imposing block of hefty plastic and metal.

The ZimaBoard 216, the cheapest model in the ZimaBoard family, is an interestingly-designed single-board computer which arrives ensconced in its own heatsink case. Powered by an Intel Celeron N3450 – a quiet upgrade from the Celeron N3350 originally planned, likely as a result of component shortages – the base model includes 2GB of LPDDR4 memory and 16GB of eMMC storage pre-loaded with a Linux-based operating system dubbed “Casa OS.”

The hardware is well-designed and comes with room for expansion courtesy of USB 3 ports, two gigabit Ethernet ports, two SATA 6Gbps ports, and – unusually – a PCI Express slot to the side. Actually using the slot, sadly, isn’t easy – and there’s a lot of work still to be done in addressing usability and security issues in the custom OS.

The DytSpectrumOwl is another piece of well-designed hardware somewhat hampered by weaker software. Built by Dianyang Tech, the DytSpectrumOwl is built for thermal analysis of PCBs and materials via a surprisingly high-resolution camera module on a neat adjustable stand – functionally equivalent to, though slightly lower resolution than, the FLIR ETS320 I reviewed back in Issue 201.

At less than half the price, though, the DytSpectrumOwl is a tempting alternative to the FLIR model – and it includes a wonderfully useful focus adjustment knob, dramatically increasing its flexibility. Its software, however, is Windows-only and outputs annoyingly non-standard radiometric JPEG images lacking a visible scale.

Finally, Cyntech’s take on a protective and cooling case for the Raspberry Pi family is a surprisingly chunky design built from plastic with an upper metal heatsink. Built from just three parts – plus an optional fourth spacer layer to make room for a fan, for when passive cooling isn’t enough – the case is pleasingly robust and does a perfectly good job of keeping the Raspberry Pi’s processor from throttling during intensive workloads. Its price, though, makes it hard to recommend over third-party alternatives.

All this, and a whole lot more, is available now from your nearest newsagent or supermarket, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 222

Custom PC Issue 222This month’s five-page Hobby Tech column takes a look at the retro-style Clockwork Pi DevTerm portable computer, the HcX Floppy Disk Emulator tool, and Hex Loader – the first graphic novel I’ve seen in a few decades to arrive with its own tie-in game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

The DevTerm, a follow-up to Clockwork Pi’s excellent GameSHell hand-held console, has been a little delayed. Having originally been due to land in April 2021, it’s only now gone through the review process thanks to the ongoing component shortages afflicting the industry – but it’s definitely been worth the wait. Inspired by classic portable computers like the TRS-80 Model 100, it’s a real anachronism backed by open-source hardware and open-source software.

That’s not to say it’s perfect: the top-end A-0604 model, as reviewed, is incapable of sustaining full-speed operation for more than a few seconds of load before throttling and arrives with the two high-performance cores entirely disabled; the display suffers from a glitch whereby the top four lines are entirely missing; and it took the community to make the tiny trackball less frustrating to use. The sheer joy of the device, thankfully, overrides these concerns. The built-in thermal printer is particularly wonderful, and was used to submit this month’s column – by post.

The HcX Floppy Disk Emulator review, meanwhile, was born from a need I had to image and retrieve data from some floppy disks which had been formatted for use with the Dragon Data family of microcomputers. Despite its name, the software isn’t exclusively usable by those who’ve splashed out on HcX hardware: it can load disk images, including stream captures from a KryoFlux, and provides a range of useful tools including an incredible visual floppy disk explorer – capable of even demonstrating the exact location and shape of damaged areas of a disk.

Finally, Hex Loader. A crowdfunded collaboration between writer Dan Whitehead, illustrator Conor Boyle, and letterer Jim Campbell, Hex Loader is halfway a love-letter to game development in the 1980s and halfway some kind of scathing indictment of consumerism and modern art wrapped in a mystical layer of sorcery. It also comes complete with a tie-in ZX Spectrum game, Combat Wombat – and you can’t say that of many publications released in the 2020s.

Custom PC Issue 222 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download on the official website.

 

Custom PC, Issue 221

Custom PC Issue 221My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W single-board computer, the Sipeed Nezha D1 RISC-V also-single-board-computer, and an autobiography from Sierra On-Line co-founder Ken Williams.

The Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W is, as the name suggests, the successor to the Raspberry Pi Zero W – in turn a follow-up to the original Raspberry Pi Zero, adding Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. All three are being sold alongside each other, at the pleasingly-spaced price points of $5, $10, and $15 – but that extra cash on the new model brings with it a big boost in performance thanks to a more powerful quad-core processor in a custom package alongside 512MB of RAM.

I put the board through a range of benchmarks, from raw performance in both synthetic and real-world workloads to thermal management – including high-resolution thermal imagery under a FLIR ETS320 thermal inspection camera. The results show a device that isn’t without its flaws – that 512MB of RAM, in particular, limits its capabilities – but for the cash may well be one of the most tempting single-board computers on the market today.

The Nezha D1, by contrast, is less tempting thanks to a roughly £100 price point for a device which just about meets the performance of the considerably cheaper Raspberry Pi Zero W and is considerably outclassed by the Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W. Those picking the board up, though, won’t be doing so for speed but for the fact it’s one of the first devices on the market to feature Allwinner’s D1 system-on-chip, a part built on the open-source Alibaba T-Head XuanTie C906 core.

Run through as many benchmarks as possible – which, with software support still underway, is fewer than usual – the board proved capable, but poor documentation outside Chinese-language materials make getting anything done with the system a slog. Thankfully, things are improving on that front: RISC-V International has sent out a number of Nezha D1 boards to early adopters across the world who are working hard to bring up new software and write improved and translated documentation – meaning it’s going to be worth revisiting the board in the coming months to see where things stand then.

Finally, Not All Fair Tales Have Happy Endings is Ken Williams’ autobiography, covering the days leading up to the founding of Sierra On-Line – a name which will be familiar to gamers across at least two generations. It’s a refreshingly honest account of the company’s start, success, and ultimate failure, and one which doesn’t necessarily paint Williams in the greatest of lights: he comes across as obsessed with money, treating games as mere commodities to be sold, and pushed his wife into a career of programming despite a total lack of interest or, in the early days, aptitude on her part – though the latter did give rise to Roberta Williams’ creating some of the best-remembered adventure games in history, so it’s hard to be too critical on that front.

All this, and more, is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Make: Magazine, Volume 79

Make: Magazine Volume 79This month brings with it my first cover feature for a new client, and it’s one of which I’ve long been a fan: Make: Magazine, the maker-centric electronic hobbyist publication, now in its 79th volume.

For this issue, its biggest of the year, I contributed two features. The first is the biggest: the Boards Guide 2021, the latest version of the magazine’s annual pull-out reference to the latest single-board computers and microcontroller development boards around. It’s an undeniably handy guide, offering everything from key specifications – right down to the number of analogue inputs you’ll find on general-purpose input/output headers, as but one example – to up-to-date pricing, though the latter is rather more variable than usual thanks to continued supply chain issues and component shortages.

Having been provided with a list of the boards to be included, I went through and fact-checked all the specifications – filling in blanks where necessary. At one point, faced with a board for which no dimensions were publicly listed and for which the creator couldn’t be immediately contacted I turned to an unusual approach: estimating its size from a perspective-corrected image of the board, based on the spacing on the 2.54mm header. When I finally obtained official measurements just ahead of deadline, my estimate turned out to be accurate to two significant figures – and I can’t say I wasn’t thrilled!

The second feature, also available on the Make: Magazine website, takes a look at Raspberry Pi’s first in-house microcontroller, the RP2040, and its rapid adoption by third-party board makers. For this, I initially researched a list of nearly 80 RP2040-based devices – pulling in key specifications and features, as with the larger Boards Guide feature – which editor Mike Senese and I then narrowed down to a shortlist to be featured in the magazine and online. Finally, I prepared a brief write-up to accompany the shortlist.

Make: Magazine Volume 79 is available at all good newsagents now, and is available for print and digital subscription on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 215

Custom PC Issue 215My regular Hobby Tech column takes a look at three very different, yet related, items in this month’s Custom PC: the PiStorm accelerator for the Commodore Amiga; the Remodo X Bluetooth remote from Remotec; and Joshua M. Pearce’s Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects.

First, the PiStorm. I’ve long been a fan of Commodore’s ill-fated Amiga family of computers, and while my collection isn’t what it used to be I still have a couple keeping me company around the office. It was in one of these I installed the PiStorm, an open-source accelerator and expansion board designed to be powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ – and, in the future, by still-more-powerful models in the Raspberry Pi range.

Donated by my good fried Jaimie Vandenbergh, who had picked up a handful of the low-cost boards for his own use, the PiStorm is nothing short of incredible. Effectively turning the Raspberry Pi into an emulated Motorola processor, it increases an Amiga’s compute performance, memory, graphics capabilities, storage, and even – though not at the time of writing – gives it the ability to connect via a Wi-Fi network. In short: it’s a must-have.

The Remodo X remote, meanwhile, is another accessory aimed at the Raspberry Pi – and a smaller niche. Targeting home automation and home theatre uses, the Remodo X is a surprisingly stylish device with just four buttons on its front and the ability to distinguish between short- and long-press for eight custom-mapped functions.

The device works via both Bluetooth and infrared, though for a gadget Remotec claims is specifically designed for a Raspberry Pi there’s a distinct lack of software: customising its buttons requires a smartphone app, and can’t be done on the Raspberry Pi itself.

Finally, Using Open-Source Projects is a book I wanted to love – after all, I’m a big proponent of free and open-source software and hardware. Sadly, it entirely fails to deliver on its promise – spreading an already-slim book far too thin across far too many topics. Some of the blame lies on the author, but some on the publisher – in particular the poor print quality and bizarre failure to flag the use of a figure which compares an original black-and-white image to its colourised equivalent yet shows both before and after shots in black and white.

The full column, and much more besides, is available in your nearest supermarket or newsagent now, online with global delivery, or – as part of a limited-time offer – as a DRM-free PDF download at zero cost.

Custom PC, Issue 209

Custom PC Issue 209In this month’s instalment of my regular Hobby Tech feature, I take a look at the new Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 family, Nvidia’s lower-cost Jetson Nano 2GB, and Sid Meier’s Sid Meier’s Memoir! – a book with what must be the most well-fitting title in history.

The Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 is, as the name suggests, a successor to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3+ and Compute Module 3 ranges – themselves designed as a follow-up to the Raspberry Pi Compute Module, which took the core technology from the Raspberry Pi single-board computer and placed it into a system-on-module (SOM) form factor.

In my two-page review I take the new Compute Module through its paces, take a look at the redesigned and considerably cheaper carrier board, and warn of one major caveat: the redesigned module ditches the SODIMM form factor of its predecessors, meaning it’s not backwards-compatible with earlier carrier boards without a third-party interposer board between the two.

The Nvidia Jetson Nano 2GB, meanwhile, isn’t as identical to the original Nvidia Jetson Nano reviewed back in Issue 191. While, yes, the headline change is the drop from 4GB to 2GB of RAM, there are other modifications – including the loss of a hidden slot for an optional Wi-Fi card, fewer and slower USB ports, and the dropping of the second MIPI Camera Serial Interface (CSI) port added to its bigger sibling in a mid-stream refresh.

Finally, Sid Meier’s Memoir! – named in the style of the man’s games like Sid Meier’s Civilization and Sid Meier’s Pirates! – is a potted history of one of the pioneers of strategy gaming’s career, as told to author Jennifer Lee Noonan. It’s a text-heavy tome split into roughly chronological chapters, and absolutely fascinating – even if it does finally put to bed the myth of Gandhi’s overflow bug in Civilization.

Custom PC Issue 209 is available now from your local supermarket, newsagent, or online with global delivery from the official website.

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021This year’s holiday release from Raspberry Pi Press is The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021, a tome which collects 200 pages of content previously published in The MagPi and makes it available ready for wrapping and nestling under the tree.

My primary contribution for this year’s Handbook centres around the Raspberry Pi 400, the latest single-board computer in the Raspberry Pi family. Built into a keyboard housing, the most-in-one layout is a new venture for Raspberry Pi – and you’ll find my imagery in the book’s getting started section for newcomers.

You’ll also find a six-page abridged edition of my Raspberry Pi 400 feature from The MagPi Issue 100, down from the original twelve with the main removal being the detailed benchmarking. The new thinner variant still includes plenty of imagery, including a graphical tour of all the external features and ports found on the Raspberry Pi 400, plus my interview with its designer Simon Martin and Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton.

You’ll find more of my work scattered throughout, too, including screenshots and tutorials cribbed from The Official Raspberry PI Beginner’s Guide 4th Edition – along with a wealth of material from my fellow MagPi contributors.

The Official Raspberry Pi Handbook 2021 is available to buy now with global delivery, or to download as a DRM-free Creative Commons-licensed PDF, on the official website.

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, 4th Edition and Translations

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner's Guide 4th EditionMy introductory Raspberry Pi book, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide, has now been released in a fourth edition, bringing updates for the Raspberry Pi 4 8GB, Raspberry Pi 400, and new software revisions.

Bundled with every Raspberry Pi Desktop Kit sold, and available in paperback and free-as-in-speech Creative Commons-licensed DRM-free PDF, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide has proven incredibly popular. The latest release includes updates to reflect changes in the Raspberry Pi OS and bundled software, alongside coverage of the all-in-one Raspberry Pi 400 and higher-specification Raspberry Pi 4 8GB.

The new edition is also now available in translation for the first time: As well as the original English edition, The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide can now be read in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, with additional translations in the works. As always, my thanks go out to the translation team at Raspberry Pi Press for making that happen.

The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide 4th Edition is available to buy now in all the above languages with global delivery from the official website; it can also be downloaded under free-as-in-speech terms as a Creative Commons-licensed PDF file, unencumbered by DRM. For anyone considering picking up a Raspberry Pi 400, a print copy of the book is also bundled in the Raspberry Pi 400 Desktop Kit as well as in the Raspberry Pi 4 Desktop Kit.

Custom PC, Issue 204

Custom PC Issue 204In my Hobby Tech column this month I go hands-on with the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB single-board computer, the considerably more powerful Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit, and take a look at Alex Wiltshire and John Short’s Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation.

First, the Raspberry Pi 4. Launched with a view to providing power users with something a with a little more headroom than the 4GB model – itself a fourfold increase on the memory available on its direct predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 – the new 8GB model doubles the maximum memory while retaining full backwards compatibility. With that said, though, getting the most out of the device does require a 64-bit operating system – and I take a look at third-party options as well as the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s own Raspberry Pi OS in 64-bit builds.

The Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit is another device that takes advantage of a 64-bit operating system, but with a very different focus: where the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB is aimed at hobbyists, the Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit looks towards the professional end of the market – and offers some serious GPU horsepower for machine learning work, plus a new “cloud native” software model that containerises workloads to separate them from the underlying OS and to make it easy to run multiple workloads on a single device.

Finally, Home Computers is another in a series of coffee-table tomes investigating early personal computers – but one with a twist: The 100 machines contained within are taken exclusively from The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. Each is captured in a series of high-quality photographs, including some close-ups and detail shots you won’t find elsewhere, and accompanied with a short write-up of its origins and capabilities. While it would have been nice to see the machines switched on – each is captured in its powered-off state, a shame given the Centre’s reputation as a hands-on “living museum” – it’s still a great book for vintage computing enthusiasts.

Custom PC Issue 204 is available now at the usual stockists, or online with global delivery from the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 94

The MagPi Issue 94This month’s The MagPi Magazine celebrates the launch of the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB, the latest single-board computer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation – and the most expensive and highest-specification model to boot.

My cover feature for the launch begins with an overview of the board, which is effectively identical to the previous 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB models bar the memory module in use. With 8GB of LPDDR4 on board, it has twice the memory of its nearest predecessor – and eight times the entry-level model, since pseudo-retired when falling memory prices brought the cost of the 2GB model down to the same level as the 1GB.

The next two pages diverge from my usual launch-day coverage, replacing benchmarks with a dive into the sort of use-cases that could justify moving from 4GB to 8GB of RAM: storage caching, disk-free computing, in-memory databases, virtual machines and containerised applications, machine learning and the like.

The reason for the shift away from benchmarking is simple: in repeated testing the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB proved absolutely identical in performance to any other model of Raspberry Pi 4, unless the workload exceeded available free memory. While it would have been easy to develop synthetic benchmarks which would show a dramatic improvement in performance for the new model, it would have been misleading to anyone expecting to see a speed boost for day-to-day computing.

From there, the feature moves on to an interview with Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton on the timing of the launch – “[it is] absolutely as soon as we can,” he told me during the interview, “the memory packages we’re using are literally some of the first off the production line, a brand-new, shiny memory technology” – the sort of user the new model targets, the Foundation’s work on a 64-bit version of the Raspberry Pi OS which launches in beta today alongside the new board, and the future of the Raspberry Pi 4 range which, sadly, is not likely to include a 16GB model.

The full feature is available to read now in The MagPi Issue 94, available to purchase with global delivery or to download as a free Creative Commons-licensed PDF on the official website.