Custom PC, Issue 170

Custom PC Issue 170This month’s Hobby Tech column has a particular focus on do-it-yourself handheld gaming, looking at two Arduino-compatible yet totally different kits: the Creoqode 2048 and the MAKERbuino. As an added bonus, there’s also a review of a set of Arlent-brand soldering iron tips coupled with a lesson on just why keeping your tips in tip-top condition is so very important.

First, the Creoqode 2048. Initially produced following a successful crowdfunding campaign, London-based Creoqode has since improved and expanded the original 2048 design. Built around a hefty 64×32 RGB LED matrix display, the laser-cut chassis is eye-catching but not pocket friendly in any sense of the word: the entire unit is the largest handheld I’ve seen since the 1980s and you won’t get change from £200 once you’ve added shipping to the sky-high £189 asking price.

If Creoqode had done a better job of putting the kit together, that pricing could be overlooked. Sadly, the design is a mishmash of off-the-shelf parts – including a Mega2560 Pro Mini microcontroller, entirely unmodified save a cheeky change to the silkscreen to plaster the Creoqode logo where it most definitely does not belong – with some of the most awkward wiring imaginable. Worse still, the solder-free assembly turns out to be misleading: the use of too-thin cables in the battery holder means you’ll need to whip out a soldering iron and effect your own repairs if you want your console to do anything other than reset itself after a few minutes of use.

The MAKERbuino, by contrast, couldn’t be more different. Created as a soldering kit variant of the open-hardware Gamebuino, reviewed back in Issue 134, the MAKERbuino is a fraction of the price but infinitely more usable. Like the Gamebuino, the MAKERbuino loads its games from a bundled SD Card – whereas the 2048 is limited to a single ‘game’ (in reality incredibly basic demonstration of its capabilities, provided for some reason as Microsoft Word documents rather than INO files) which can only be swapped out by connecting it to a computer. The MAKERbuino also benefits from the incredible Gamebuino community, built up over the years since its launch, with dozens of available games and a great quality framework for building your own.

The Arlent-brand soldering iron tip review came about as I was preparing to build the MAKERbuino kit and spotted that the tip on my soldering station was somewhat past its prime. If you’ve ever found your soldering skills appearing to worsen, rather than improve, over time, then you’re probably the victim of an ageing tip. At less than a tenner for ten tips of varying shape and size from supplier Persder, they were definitely worth a shot – and I’m pleased to say have been performing admirably since.

All this, and the usual raft of interesting stuff written by other people, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally 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 148

Custom PC Issue 148My regular Hobby Tech column is undeniably review-heavy this month, with three separate items spread across its five pages: the CompuLab Fitlet, the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit, and the Widdop.

To deal with the latter first, the Widdop is a bit of an odd thing to review at first glance as it was available exclusively to those who attended this year’s Wuthering Bytes festival. There’s method in my madness, though: it’s a variant of the Cordwood puzzle designed by Saar Drimer at Boldport, and a review of the Widdop is equally applicable to its predecessor. In short, it’s a soldering kit sans instructions: two artistically designed and matching circuit boards are supplied along with a fistful of components, and it’s up to the user to not only work out how it should be assembled but then how to interface it to a microcontroller or other controlling system – great fun!

The Bare Conductive Touch Board, by contrast, is readily available. I had previously experienced the delights of the Touch Board, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller with built-in capacitive touch sensing and audio playback capabilities, at the Manchester MakeFest where the Manchester Arduino group were demonstrating Touch Board-powered musical food bowls. The Starter Kit, though, is something else entirely. Packed in an oversized box it contains everything you need to get started, from the conductive paint which made Bare Conductive famous to the Touch Board itself pre-loaded with a voice-led 12-step tutorial.

The booklet is the real prize, though. Walking the user through three projects, it’s one of the best I’ve seen: well produced with exciting photographs and a great attention to detail. The primary project, too, is innovative: a stencil and overlay in the shape of a house demonstrates how the conductive paint can be used to create interactive art, with the remaining two projects offering an intruder alarm – for bare-footed intruders, at least – and a look at adding interactivity to household objects.

Finally, the Fitlet. I’ve been a fan of CompuLab’s tiny Linux-compatible PCs for a while, but the Fitlet is the first I’ve had a chance to review. Supplied in its top-end form with an AMD A10-Micro6700T quad-core processor, it has the grunt of a low-mid-range office desktop but in a passively cooled form factor little larger than a cased Raspberry Pi. Compared to the already diminutive Intel NUC, it’s absolutely tiny: the smallest NUC has a volume of 0.417 litres, while the Fitlet is just 0.215 litres in volume.

Despite its size, there’s a bit of everything: as reviewed, the Fitlet offers on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, dual gigabit Ethernet ports, three USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, powered eSATA, and even a GPIO connector – which, sadly, lacked driver support at the time of my review, an issue CompuLab has now resolved with the release of an official Software Development Kit (SDK). Running Linux Mint 17.2 but compatible with most any operating system that would run on an x86-64 desktop, the CompuLab is definitely one of the most exciting devices I’ve had the privilege to test recently – although that excitement is tempered by a £300 selling price in the UK, putting it on-par with the more computationally powerful Intel NUC.

All this, plus interesting stuff written by people who aren’t me, can be found between the covers of Custom PC Issue 148 at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of your own home via digital distribution services such as Zinio.