Tag Archive for Software

Custom PC, Issue 166

Custom PC Issue 166Readers of my regular Hobby Tech column this month will find a BBC micro:bit-driven tutorial alongside two reviews covering the remarkable Raspberry Pi Zero W microcomputer and the fascinating Delete by Paul Atkinson.

The idea for the tutorial came about while working on a chapter of my upcoming Micro:bit User Guide, and seemed like a perfect fit for the readers of Custom PC Magazine: turning the low-cost yet extremely flexible micro:bit into an addressable USB-connected 5×5 LED matrix and having it display current CPU load in a constantly-updating bar graph. Naturally, the same technique could be used to graph almost anything.

The secret lies in MicroPython’s REPL, an interactive interpreter which can run on the micro:bit and accept commands via the USB serial port. By switching the micro:bit into REPL mode, it can be slaved to another system over USB. The result: the entire program code, written in Python using the serial, time, and psutil libraries, exists purely on the host machine. A quick bit of Blu-tack later, and my monitor was wearing a CPU monitor which worked even when the display was off.

The Pi Zero W, meanwhile, was a device to which I had been looking forward for quite some time. An upgraded version of the original £5 Raspberry Pi Zero microcomputer, the Pi Zero W differs in only one respect: it has a built-in radio module, the same BCM43438 as found on the far larger and more expensive Raspberry Pi 3.

While the addition of the radio module, which offers Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, and 2.4GHz Wi-FI connectivity, almost doubles the price of the Pi Zero W to £9.60, it’s money well spent. In almost every Pi Zero project I have built, I’ve ended up using a USB OTG adaptor and low-cost USB Wi-Fi dongle to add network connectivity, and having it on-board – even at a slightly higher cost compared to a USB-connected solution – makes life considerably easier.

Finally, Delete. Billed as “a design history of computer vapourware,” Paul Atkinson’s coffee table book is packed with high-quality photographs – and, for the rarer machines, the occasional rescaled JPEG exhibiting unfortunate compression artefacts – covering machines from an upgraded Sinclair QL to a bright yellow IBM that never left the drawing board. Each comes with pages on its history, with interview subjects detailing features and failures alike, and while not all machines were strictly vapourware few are likely to have a place in the average vintage computing collection. In short: if you like old computers you’ll like Delete, which is available now from Amazon and other bookstores under ISBN 978-0857853479.

As always, you can read the whole column and a whole lot more by picking up Custom PC Issue 166 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 163

Custom PC Issue 163My work for Hobby Tech this month involved rather more soldering than is usual, in order to assemble the parts required for reviews of the Boldport Club’s Ligemdio and Touchy kits and the Dark Control Raspberry Pi motor control boards – though, at least, the final review of the freshly-launched Debian+Pixel Linux distribution was free of fumes.

First, the Boldport Club. I’ve reviewed one of Saar Drimer’s impressively artistic circuit kits before, back in November 2015, but where you used to have to camp out on the Boldport website to pick up the latest small-production-run kit there’s a new option: monthly subscription. Members of the Boldport Club get a series of parcels, typically but not always including a kit featuring a Saar-designed printed circuit board but almost always being aimed more at the experienced engineer than the absolute beginner.

For a flavour of what Boldport Club members can expect, Saar sent over two kits: the Touchy, a touch-sensitive microcontroller dedicated to the memory of maker Oliver Coles, and the Ligemdio, a handy-dandy USB-powered LED tester. The latter proved far simpler to build than the former: anyone used to beginner through-hole kits would undeniably find the surface mount components on the Touchy a challenge, but therein lies its attraction.

The soldering on the Dark Control boards, by contrast, was considerably less tricky. Created by the Dark Water Foundation and funded via Kickstarter, the Dark Control boards – one for DC motors and the other for ESC motors – are impressive beasts. Designed to mimic the footprint of the diminutive Raspberry Pi Zero, the boards include the ability to run a minimum of six independent motors, include room for a nine-degree sensor add-on, and can be linked to remote control hardware for network-free control of everything from submarines to aerial drones.

Finally, Debian+Pixel is Raspbian for the masses. Like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel is built on top of Debian Linux; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel uses the Pixel desktop environment; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel includes a selection of educational software chosen by the Raspberry Pi community. Unlike Raspbian, though, Debian+Pixel runs on almost any x86 PC – meaning you don’t need a Raspberry Pi.

The software is, as you’d expect from a distribution based on one of the oldest Linux variants around, stable. The Pixel interface looks the same whether you’re running on a Pi or a traditional PC, and only the speed at which programs open and run gives it away. Sadly, there are one or two omissions largely as a result of licensing agreements: the handy Wolfram Alpha application is nowhere to be found, as is the extremely buggy Minecraft Pi Edition that saw one release back in 2013 before being abandoned by the now Microsoft-owned Mojang.

For the full run-down of all these shiny things, plus a whole bunch of other stuff written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC magazine in your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 161

Custom PC Issue 161In this latest issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine you’ll find – to no great surprise – my long-running five-page Hobby Tech column, covering the handy thermoplastic FORMcard, the Raspberry Pi powered Nextcloud Box, and Zachtronics’ Shenzhen I/O.

Looking at Shenzhen I/O first: it’s rare that I’ll write a game review as part of Hobby Tech, but Zachtronics’ output is a typical exception. The last I covered was the company’s excellent eight-bit minicomputer ‘simulator’ TIS-100, and Shenzhen I/O builds on that premise with a new near-future theme. The player is placed in the role of a newly-hired engineer at a Chinese electronics concern and given the task of building increasingly complex hardware from simple components using a drag-and-drop interface and a simple TIS-100-like instruction set.

As good as the game itself is – and it’s absolutely fantastic – it’s the manual that really caught my attention. Like the Infocom feelies of old, the document is written entirely in-universe and acts as a series of emails, manual extracts, data sheets, and reference material for the hardware and projects you’ll be tackling through the game. If TIS-100 whet your whistle, you won’t be disappointed with Shenzhen I/O.

The Nextcloud Box, meanwhile, is something a little more professional. Designed around the Western Digital Labs PiDrive product, it offers a simple means to build a single-drive low-power 1TB network attached storage (NAS) device running Nextcloud’s open-source software on top of the Ubuntu Snappy Core operating system.

My review of the Nextcloud Box goes into great detail about its features and capabilities, but there are two things that struck me during the review process and are worth highlighting here. The first is that the WD Labs’ box, emblazoned with Nextcloud branding, really needs a rethink: the cables go through very sharp bends, and those using cheaper cables may find they don’t last very long at all. The other is that getting set up for local access was an absolute breeze, without even the need to connect a monitor to the device – something other Pi-powered project creators could do with copying.

Finally, the FORMcard review. I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, a mouldable silicone putty which hardens into rubber overnight, and when I was contacted to see if I would be interested in giving rival FORMcard a try I jumped at the chance. Created by Peter Marigold and crowdfunded into production, FORMcard is a starch-based bioplastic which softens with the application of heat. Simply take one of the credit card footprint plastic sheets, dunk it in hot water for a minute, then mould it to your hearts desire. Unlike Sugru, it hardens in minutes and is fully reusable – assuming you can remove it from whatever surface you smeared it over – but it’s, for obvious reasons, not the material to use if you’re patching something that gets hot.

For my full opinions on all three items, plus the usual array of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of right where you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Linux User & Developer, Issue 172

Linux User & Developer Issue 172Readers of this latest issue of Imagine Publishing’s Linux User & Developer will find my review of the surprisingly capable Nextcloud Box, a bare-bones network attached storage (NAS) system based around a Raspberry Pi 2.

Provided as a press sample by Nextcloud, the company split from the Owncloud project, the Nextcloud Box is at its heart a rebadged – though, oddly, cheaper – Western Digital Labs PiDrive. Inside the box you find the black plastic housing, a 1TB USB hard drive, a clever splitter cable for power and data, and the screws you need to mount your own Raspberry Pi. You also get a small 4GB micro-SD card, which serves as the bootstrap device: on first run, the operating system is copied from this micro-SD to the 1TB hard drive.

It’s the contents of the micro-SD card that makes the Nextcloud Box distinct from the PiDrive: it contains a copy of Ubuntu Snappy Core and a preinstalled Snap of the Nextcloud NAS software. Administered almost entirely from a web interface, Nextcloud proved to a powerful NAS package with everything from encrypted storage and remote access to centralised calendar and contact facilities – and with additional functionality available through a built-in ‘app store’ feature.

If you’re interested to read the full review Linux User & Developer Issue 172 is on shelves now at supermarkets and newsagents throughout the land, or can be grabbed in digital format from Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 159

Custom PC Issue 159Hobby Tech this month covers the launch of the Sugru Rebel Tech Kit, the performance improvements made possible in the latest Arduino IDE, and ends with bad news for Arduino.cc’s new Genuino brand which, I’m pleased to say, has since been replaced by significantly better news.

Sugru, for those not familiar, is remarkable stuff. Straight from the packet it has the consistency of well-worked Blu-tack, if not slightly softer, but with nothing more than time hardens into a firm silicone rubber. It’s waterproof, heatproof, electrically insulative, and I’ve used it in the past for everything from mounting a tablet to the side of my monitor to customising the scales on a Leatherman multitool.

The Rebel Tech Kit, then, is Sugru’s attempt to grab some Christmas gift traffic. Featuring four sachets of Sugru, a guitar pick for moulding and removal, a storage tin, and a full-colour project booklet, there’s not much in there for those already experienced in the ways of “mouldable glue.” For newcomers, though, it’s a fantastic introduction, and one I can see appearing under trees around the world.

The Arduino IDE tests, meanwhile, were fun to carry out. Updates to the AVR Core – the toolchain used for ATmega-based microcontroller boards like the Arduino Uno and Arduino Mega – have brought with them the promise of smaller binary sizes and improved performance, which was an excuse to pull out my microcontroller benchmark family: the floating-point Whetstone, integer Dhrystone, and my own pin-toggling IOBench. The result is an in-depth look at the improvements you can expect from upgrading, complete with pretty graphs and even prettier screenshots.

Finally, the Genuino’s death knell. At the time of writing, noted Sheffield-based hobbyist supply house Pimoroni had revealed the outcome of months of negotiations with Arduino.cc: they would no longer stock the company’s boards. The reason: the ongoing legal battle with Arduino.org over international trademark rights, which had seen Arduino.cc launch the Genuino brand. A refusal to sell Genuino-branded hardware to resellers that would make them available in the US was causing headaches that Pimoroni could do without, which were detailed in the company’s blog post and expanded upon in the final page of my column this month.

Publishing, though, has considerable lead times, and in the time it’s taken this issue to hit shop shelves there’s been a welcome development: Arduino.cc and Arduino.org have merged, ending all legal proceedings between the two and meaning that the problems experienced by Pimoroni over trademark rights and product geo-fencing should no longer be an issue. The impact of this merger, and what it means for the Arduino user, will be explored in a future column.

All this, plus a bunch of interesting stuff from people other than myself, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally on Zinio and other distribution platforms.

The MagPi, Issue 36

The MagPi Issue 36This month’s The MagPi, the official Raspberry Pi magazine, is rather special: it’s the first print issue since the community-created publication was taken under the wing of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. While previous issues were available in limited-edition print runs created through crowd-funding efforts, from now on the magazine will be found in major high-street shops as standard – starting with WH Smith. This doesn’t mean the free digital download is going away, though: all content is still Creative Commons licensed, and the PDF download will be available free of charge at the same time as the print issue hits shelves.

Publication changes aside, there are two pieces of note in this month’s issue: a review of Wetgene’s Swanky Paint, and another of the Velleman 3D Printing Pen.

Going for the hardware first, local electronics giant CPC was kind enough to send over a box of goodies including the printing pen and some wearable kits – about which you’ll read more in future issues – when they found out I was running low on review hardware. Created by Velleman, a company better known for its test equipment, the 3D Printing Pen is a near-direct copy of the 3Doodler: the extrusion system of a PLA-based 3D printer stripped out of its three-directional housing and placed inside a pen-like grip.

The idea, the instructions explain, is that you can ‘draw’ three-dimensional objects freehand – taking away the complexity and expense of a traditional 3D printer. The remaining technology is simple, and nothing particularly new: you can think of the pen as a glue-gun using plastic in place of glue. The box shows someone drawing a scale model of the Eiffel Tower freehand, but I found it a major struggle to even get my simple cubes and pyramids looking recognisable.

I had a lot more luck with Swanky Paint, created by local coding house Wetgenes. I had previously interviewed the two programmers behind the software back in Custom PC Issue 141, but this time I took their most famous creation in-hand and gave it a thorough testing: Swanky Paint. Available in cross-platform browser-based flavours as well as native versions for traditional PCs, smartphones, tablets, and the Raspberry Pi, Swanky Paint is inspired by EA’s classic Deluxe Paint – the go-to art package for an entire generation of game artists – and shares UI and UX similarities, down to the keyboard shortcuts on offer.

Where Deluxe Paint had its pixels on show due to the low resolution of computing equipment at the time, though, Swanky Paint revels in it. Designed for retro ‘pixel-art’ projects, the software makes everything as easy as possible and includes a surprising level of polish for an early alpha release – including various effects designed to emulate the smoothing glow of a traditional CRT display.

If you want to find out my conclusions on both products, as well as read a bunch of great stuff by people who aren’t me, you can pick up a print copy of The MagPi Issue 36 in your local WH Smith, or download the free PDF from the official website.

Linux & Open Source Genius Guide, Volume 7

Linux & Open Source Genius Guide Volume 7Each year, Imagine Publishing takes the content from its Linux User & Developer publication and repackages it in ‘Bookazine’ format – a portmanteau of ‘book’ and ‘magazine,’ equivalent to Dennis Publishing’s rival ‘MagBook’ brand. The Linux & Open Source Genius Guide Volume 7 is the latest, and includes as one of its central offerings a cover feature I wrote for the magazine.

Originally published in Linux User & Developer Issue 148, the Ultimate Distro & FOSS Guide 2015 does exactly what it says on the tin: attempts to provide the information required for users to sort through the thousands of Linux distributions and free software packages available and pick the one that best fits their needs.

It’s a spin on the traditional format: rather than simply listing the ‘best’ distributions in general, I took a selection of categories and selected the front-runners for each: Linux for developers, for enterprises, for security professionals, and for those looking for a distribution with rolling-release development methodology.

To keep things interesting, the piece also included five related free and open source software (FOSS) packages related to each category, aside from the last which instead highlighted five general-purpose FOSS packages to which I gave my personal seal of approval. The result is a detailed guide which is significantly larger and more involved than in previous years, and one which was a pleasure to research.

There’s plenty more to be found in the ‘Bookazine,’ of course, and if you’re interested I’d recommend heading to your local newsagent, supermarket, or staying in and picking up a copy electronically via Zinio or similar services.

The MagPi, Issue 34

The MagPi Issue 34Another month, another cover feature for the official Raspberry Pi magazine The MagPi. This time around, I take a look at Microsoft’s generous offer of a free copy of Windows 10 IoT Core for all Raspberry Pi 2 owners, and what it could mean for the Raspberry Pi community – and if that wasn’t enough, I take some time to review the 4tronix Agobo robot kit as well.

The cover feature is a two-part affair: the first section, which looks at exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core actually is – which is vastly different from the impression given by the mainstream press that Microsoft was giving away a full desktop-class operating system – as well as how it can be used is my work; a following section looking at a selection of projects which are already powered by the Raspberry Pi 2 and Windows 10 was written by editor Russell Barnes.

As well as helping to clarify exactly what Windows 10 IoT Core is and can do, my section of the feature includes a guide to getting started with the software – which is not as easy to obtain as, for example, Raspbian, requiring registration with Microsoft and to search on a surprisingly user-unfriendly section of the company’s website before agreeing to a pair of end-user licence agreements – and an analysis of B15, the HoloLens- and Raspberry Pi-powered robot Microsoft showed off at its Build event earlier this year.

The review, meanwhile, involved building an Agobo robot kit supplied by the lovely 4tronix. Simpler than the Pi2Go-Lite I reviewed for Custom PC Issue 135, the Agobo is designed exclusively for the Raspberry Pi Model A+ and as a result is compact and lightweight. It’s also great fun, and a kit I’d heartily recommend to anyone wanting a simple and straightforward Pi-powered robot kit.

All this, plus plenty of projects, reviews and features written by people other than myself, is available to download for free as a DRM-free and Creative Commons-licensed PDF from the official website.

The MagPi, Issue 32

The MagPi Issue 32The MagPi magazine, created by the Raspberry Pi community, has undergone a major relaunch. Now an official product of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, it enjoys a significantly larger budget under the leadership of editor Russell Barnes – with whom I have previously worked on Linux User & Developer – and the result is impressive: both quantity and quality of content has improved, but is still licensed under Creative Commons for free download and non-commercial reuse. When Russell asked me if I wanted to be involved with the relaunch, I naturally agreed and the cover story of this issue is the result.

Russell wanted a feature which highlighted the Raspberry Pi-related crowd-funding campaigns of the past and present, showing the community what they had achieved as a group. After some brainstorming, we decided on a mixed feature format which would combine coverage of the most fiscally successful crowd-funding campaigns, interview extracts with their creators, as well as advice from those who have been there and done that on how others can achieve similar success for their own crowd-funding campaigns.

Naturally, there had to be some balance to the piece, and that took the form of a section detailing a high-profile failure. I was able to talk to the company behind Ziphius – an aquatic drone powered by the Raspberry Pi, long overdue and with backers clamouring for refunds – and find out the problems it had encountered, including the exclusive admission of financial problems it had been withholding from its backers.

While the cover story is the largest of my contributions this month, I have also penned two reviews for this latest issue: a review of the Displayotron-3000 add-on board from Sheffield-based Pimoroni, and the Weaved port-forwarding software designed to make it easier to build internet-accessible services on a Raspberry Pi located behind a locked-down router or firewall.

If you’re interested and would like to read any of the above, you can download the entire magazine as a DRM-free PDF from the official website.