Tag Archive for Smartphone

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 10

HackSpace Magazine Issue 10Readers over a certain age will remember the glorious, though brief, age of the personal digital assistant: pocket-size gadgets, typically though not always in clamshell format, exemplified by Psion’s classic Series 5MX. The rise of the smartphone was the death of the PDA, but there’s a company still clinging to the dream: Planet Computers, with its Gemini PDA.

Reviewed in the latest HackSpace Magazine in Gemini 4G form, which adds an LTE radio for data and voice traffic allowing the device to double as a cumbersome smartphone, the Gemini traces its lineage all the way back to the Psion Series 5. Sadly, as a loaner Series 5MX kindly provided by The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC) proved, the resemblance is only skin-deep: the clever sliding keyboard mechanism of Psion’s design is replaced in the Gemini by a straightforward fold supported by a too-weak metal hinge at the back which only loosens over time.

Given HackSpace’s target audience, my review focused less on the device as supplied – running Android 7 – and more on how it acts when given a customised version of Debian Linux supplied for the more technical user by Planet Computers. Installation wasn’t straightforward, sadly, and use even less so – and a battery life test revealed the unoptimised nature of the Debian port, cutting nearly four hours off the device’s lifespan during a video playback test.

I’m still a believer that there’s a demand out there, albeit small, for what would be a true Psion Series 5MX successor: robust, chunky yet pocket-size, with an outdoor-readable display based perhaps based on colour E-Ink technology. Sadly, the Gemini isn’t it.

The full review is available now, both in print and as a free-as-in-speech-and-beer digital download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 154

Custom PC Issue 154In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a good long look at the BBC micro:bit, CubieTech’s latest Cubietruck Plus (Cubieboard 5) single-board computer, and a pack of Top Trumps-inspired playing cards based on vintage computers.

Beginning with the micro:bit, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of a press sample when the much-redesigned educational device was finally ready to ship to schools across the UK. Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller and boasting integrated Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), the micro:bit’s main selling point is its excellent support: the web IDE includes four languages suitable for everyone from absolute beginners to experts, there is documentation galore, and the BBC’s TV output includes shows which remind me of the glory days of the BBC Micro and its related programming.

At least, that would be a selling point if the board was actually up for sale. Despite having now mostly fulfilled its promise to ship free micro:bits to all Year Seven pupils in the UK, the BBC has still made no announcement about commercial availability for the educational gadget. Those whose appetites are whetted by the review, then, are best off looking at the CodeBug on which the micro:bit was based, or the new Genuino/Arduino 101 if Bluetooth LE support is a requirement.

The Cubietruck Plus, meanwhile, is an altogether different beast. Kindly supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the board is – as the name suggests – a follow-up to CubieTech’s original Cubietruck. The old dual-core processor is long gone, replaced with an Allwinner H8 octa-core chip that blazed through benchmarks with aplomb – and without hitting the boiling-point temperature highs of the rival Raspberry Pi 3.

Sadly, there’s one piece of information that didn’t make it into the review: shortly after the issue went to press, security researchers discovered a debug vulnerability left in Allwinner’s customised Linux kernel which allows any application on the system to gain root permission. Although affecting only selected operating systems, it’s something to be aware of if you’re in the market for an Allwinner-powered SBC.

Finally, the playing cards. Created by start-up 8bitkick following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the deck is nostalgia in a box. The idea is to bring the Top Trumps concept of collectable, trivia-esque comparison gaming to vintage computing: the cards feature everything from the Acorn Atom to the TI-99/4A, plus a joker in the deck in the form of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.

The cards are printed with a very high quality finish, but it’s the source of the images that is of most interest: rather than take the pictures itself, 8bitkick has instead scoured the web for images in the public domain or licensed as Creative Commons. It’s no theft, though: while most Creative Commons licenses allow for even commercial reuse if properly attributed, 8bitkick has promised to upload the full deck design to its website for free download and printing.

All this, plus lots of interesting things by people who aren’t me, is only a short trip to the newsagent’s away – or you can stay exactly where you are and grab a digital copy from Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 165

Linux User & Developer Issue 165For my regular review in Linux User & Developer this month I had the great pleasure to spend time with the BBC’s first serious hardware project since it teamed up with Acorn in the 80s: the BBC micro:bit.

Originally known as the Micro Bit, the micro:bit is a teeny-tiny microcontroller-based educational programming platform based on the CodeBug. Like the CodeBug, the micro:bit uses a 5×5 LED matrix on its front side as its main method of communicating with the outside world; unlike the CodeBug, the micro:bit includes built-in Bluetooth Low Energy support as well as a gyroscope and magnetic compass, along with the two-button input layout the two share.

With the backing of the BBC, and a major funding drive from Barclay’s which has seen a micro:bit promised to ever Year Seven pupil the UK entirely free of charge, it’s no surprise to see that plenty of companies are involved in the project. At launch, the device boasted no fewer than four programming languages – three provided by Microsoft – in its web-based IDE, along with a neat smartphone app built by Samsung allowing for Bluetooth LE-based interaction and even wireless flashing of programs.

Based on the ARM Cortex-M0 microcontroller (and, oddly, a significantly more powerful Cortex-M0+ which is used exclusively to handle the USB Mass Storage implementation, allowing for mbed-style drag-and-drop flashing without the need to install drivers or a toolchain locally) the micro:bit is impressive, as is the wealth of documentation and supporting materials the BBC has compiled. There’s a catch, mind you: so far, the BBC has not announced commercial availability – meaning we have no idea how much the gadget is going to cost people not included in the generous Barclay’s-funded giveaway programme.

For the full low-down, plus a lot more interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, head to your local magazine outlet or stay where you are and pick up a digital copy via Zinio or similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 152

Linux User & Developer Issue 152The pages of this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine include, in addition to my regular four-page news spread near the front, a review of the interesting Bq Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition smartphone.

While it’s a shift from my usual review fodder – although I have reviewed Android tablets for a LU&D group-test a few years ago – the Bq Aquaris is an interesting beast. Based on hardware designed for an entry-level Android smartphone, the operating system has been replaced with a very-early-release build of Ubuntu Touch, otherwise known as Ubuntu for Phones and born from the abortive Ubuntu for Android project.

As the name suggests, Ubuntu for Phones is designed specifically for smartphones and includes UI modifications as required. Its biggest innovation is in Scopes, app-like ‘views’ which gather information from multiple – though, at present, very limited – sources for at-a-glance viewing. The Today scope, for example, shows weather and upcoming appointments, while a Nearby scope shows weather and nearby Yelp listings.

The whole thing feels like a mash-up between Android 1.5, webOS, and Sailfish, complete with a card-like multitasking environment and gesture-based access to various system functions. Ubuntu for Phones’ biggest selling-point, though, is the ability to act as a converged device by connecting to a display, keyboard and mouse and switching to a desktop-style user interface – a feature entirely missing from the entry-level Aquaris, which will be a disappointment for anyone who remembers the failed crowd-funding campaign for the top-end Ubuntu Edge device.

If you want to know my conclusions, Linux User & Developer Issue 152 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or digitally via Zinio: Linux User & Developer and similar services.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 132

Linux User & Developer Issue 132In this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine, in addition to my usual four-page spread of news from the free, libre and open source software and hardware world, I take a look at a gadget I was really rather excited to play with: the ZTE Open, the first globally available Firefox phone to come from a big-name brand.

I’m a heavy Firefox user myself – it’s installed on all my devices, although the Android version is a little buggy for me to use it as a day-to-day replacement for Chrome – so when I heard that ZTE was releasing a smartphone based on the Boot 2 Gecko (B2G) project, now known as Firefox OS, I had to snag a unit.

Sold directly through eBay, the ZTE Open is a budget-friendly beast. At just £59.99 SIM-free, the handset is priced to sell yet boasts the very latest build of Mozilla’s HTML5-powered operating system. Designed as an alternative to Google’s Android, Firefox OS doesn’t have ‘apps’ in the traditional sense: instead, it uses a chromeless build of Firefox to provide access to web-based applications, which are ‘installed’ on the handset in seconds without taking up any local storage space.

It’s a great theory, but does it come off in practice? Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the review – but let’s just say I wasn’t too sad to see the back of the ZTE Open when the review was complete. I may be in the minority there, however: the company has sold thousands of the handsets since its recent launch, despite zero advertising.

If you’re interested in reading my review, or my regular four-page news spread, or even something that I didn’t write, you can pick up Linux User & Developer Issue 132 in any decent newsagent or supermarket, or digitally on Zinio or other magazine distribution platforms. You can also find more information on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 117

Custom PC Issue 117This month’s Custom PC sees my interview slot taken up with a chat to Nick Thibieroz, senior manager of AMD’s Independent Software Vendor (ISV) Gaming Engineering division, regarding his company’s latest attempt at increasing the immersion of games: TressFX.

If you’re not familiar with the technology, and if that’s the case shame on you for not following my work on bit-tech, TressFX – or to give it its full name, TressFX Hair – is a GPU-accelerated physics engine designed to simulate the interaction between a character’s hair and the surrounding environment. Wind, rain, branches, even the character’s body all interact with thousands of simulated hair strands to create a surprisingly realistic effect.

It’s something the industry has been working towards for years – hardly a SIGGRAPH event goes by without Nvidia showcasing another hair simulation system – but the computational complexity of the task has made it difficult to implement in a working game engine. That’s something AMD has solved, and it waited until it had the system in a shipping game – the new Tomb Raider reboot – before announcing the technology.

The biggest feature of the issue, however, is a special one: an in-depth look at how the development of mobile hardware differs from that of desktop hardware. With input from industry veterans including Nvidia, AMD, Intel and Imagination Technologies, it’s a – hopefully – interesting look at how developing for portable platforms has resulted in some significantly different technologies emerging.

Nvidia is a perfect example: it talks up its Tegra mobile processor as having GeForce-like graphics processing elements, but in truth there’s a distinct difference in how the two technologies work. Interestingly, it’s also the case that development of mobile processing hardware – which has to work in very tight power envelopes – has dramatically changed how the company approaches its power-hungry desktop graphics hardware, too.

It’s a big feature, and one I’m proud to have worked on: hopefully, by the end, readers will be able to better understand how smartphone and tablet hardware – which, thanks to projects like the Kickstarter-funded Ouya console, are increasingly finding their way onto people’s desks – compares to traditional desktop devices.

If you want to learn more about TressFX Hair and its development, or about the development of mobile-centric hardware and the challenges therein, you could do worse than picking up a copy of Custom PC Issue 117 – available in dead-tree format and digitally via Zinio or most other services.

This also marks the last time my column in Custom PC will take the form of a two-page interview spread: big changes are afoot, and I’m proud to say that the column will be taking on a very different – and hopefully more engaging – format from the next issue onwards.

Custom PC, Issue 107

Custom PC Magazine, Issue 107In this month’s Custom PC Magazine, I continue my regular Mobile Tech Watch column with a look at two interesting technologies for altering the way we interact with mobile phones: Kyocera’s tissue conduction audio system and Disney’s Touché technology.

First, Disney’s Touché. Now Disney isn’t a name regularly associated with high-tech breakthroughs, but Touché is something very special indeed: the mouse-themed company has worked out a process called swept-frequency capacitive sensing, which takes the current state of the art in touch-screen systems and makes something almost entirely new.

Unlike a traditional capacitive or resistive touch-screen, Disney’s Touché can not only track multiple touch points but also whether the finger is bent or straight. It can be applied to large areas cheaply – one suggested application is a sofa which can tell when you’re lying down for a nap and pause your film for you – and even works underwater.

Kyocera’s technology is less immediately impressive, but potentially more useful in the short term. Due to appear in an upcoming Android-based smartphone from the company, the tissue conduction audio system uses a ceramic transducer to vibrate the membranes of the ear – resulting in crystal-clear audio even when the ears are completely blocked.

It’s a technology that has been used in hearing aids, but Kyocera is the first to apply it to a smartphone. By all accounts, it works impressively well: even when using traditional headphones blaring music down the subjects’ lug-holes, the voice on the other end of the line came through loud and clear.

You can read about both technologies in Custom PC Issue 107, on shelves now or available for digital download via the Zinio website.