Tag Archive for Soldering

Custom PC, Issue 183

Custom PC Issue 183In Hobby Tech this month, there’s a look at a project which has genuinely transformed my mornings, a tiny temperature-controlled soldering iron with a hackable firmware, and the latest brain-melting program-’em-up from Zachtronics.

Starting with the game first, Exapunks caught my eye as soon as I saw it announced by developer Zachtronics. Taking the assembler programming concept of earlier titles TIS-100 and Shenzhen-IO, Exapunks wraps them up in a 90s near-future cyberpunk aesthetic alongside a plot driven by a disease called “the phage” which turns victims into non-functional computers. Because of course it does.

Anyone familiar with Zachtronics’ work will know what to expect, but Exapunks really dials things up. From the puzzles themselves – including one inspired by an early scene in the classic film Hackers – to, in a first for the format, the introduction of real though asynchronous multiplayer on top of the standard leaderboard metrics, Exapunks excels from start to oh-so-tricky finish.

The MiniWare TS100 soldering iron, meanwhile, sounds like it could be straight from Exapunks – or, given its name, TS-100: a compact temperature-controlled soldering iron with built-in screen and an open-source firmware you can hack to control everything from default operating temperature to how long before it enters power-saving “sleep mode.” While far from a perfect design – and since supplanted by the TS80, not yet available from UK stockists – the TS100 is an interesting piece of kit, with its biggest flaw being the need to use a grounding strap to avoid a potentially component-destroying floating voltage at the iron’s tip.

Finally, the project: an effort, using only off-the-shelf software tied together in a Bash shell script, to print out a schedule of the days’ tasks on my Dymo LabelWriter thermal printer. Using the code detailed in the magazine, the project pulls together everything from weather forecasts to my ongoing tasks and Google Calendar weekly schedule – along with a word of the day and, just because, a fortune cookie read out by an ASCII-art cow.

All this, and a variety of other topics, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine on newsagent and supermarket shelves or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 171

Custom PC Issue 171This month’s Custom PC magazine has a bumper crop for fans of Hobby Tech: a four-page shoot-out of do-it-yourself handheld games consoles on top of my usual five-page column, which this time around looks at setting up Syncthing on a Raspberry Pi, building the Haynes Retro Arcade Kit, and my time running a soldering workshop at the Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG) UK OSHCamp gathering.

The workshop first: organiser Andrew Back got in touch with me shortly before the OSHCamp workshop day, held in Hebden Bridge as part of the annual Wuthering Bytes technology festival, was due to take place. The scheduled soldering workshop was at risk, he explained, as the person due to run it was no longer available. I was happy to help, and I’m pleased to report a great day was had by all assembling Cuttlefish microcontroller kits – despite the use of some particularly ancient soldering irons with tips which appeared to be made of freshly-hewn coal!

The Haynes Retro Arcade Kit feels like a device which could have been in the DIY console shootout, but it wouldn’t have fared well. Designed by Eight Innovation and slapped with the Haynes brand, the Retro Arcade Kit is a fiddly and distinctly unrewarding soldering kit which ends up as a particularly basic version of Pong. The coin activation system is its only redeeming feature: two pieces of thick solid-core wire sit side by side, and are shorted out by an inserted metal coin to start a fresh game. Not an original trick, but one well implemented – if you ignore the terrible instructions and poor build quality.

Syncthing, meanwhile, has been a mainstay of my toolbox for years. An open-source project designed to keep files on two or more computer systems synchronised, Syncthing is built with security and convenience in mind – and works a treat on the Raspberry Pi. Given that I was needing to find a new home for my off-site backups anyway, as my regular provider CrashPlan is ceasing its cheapest product line, it seemed natural to write up the process of turning a Pi and a USB hard drive into an off-site backup destination.

Finally, the four-page DIY console shoot-out is a reprint of the same feature as it appeared in PC Pro Issue 277 in mid-September. As before, four Arduino-compatible devices are covered: the Gamebuino, MAKERbuino, Creoqode 2048, and Arduboy.

All this, and the usual selection of things written by others, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution services.

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.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, Volume 2

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 2The Raspberry Pi Foundation has published the second in its Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book series, and as usually there’s a whole raft of my material to be found within its black-clad pages.

The book begins with practical guides and tutorials, including my guide to adding a physical reset switch to the RUN header on any modern Raspberry Pi Zero. It’s the review section where you’ll find the bulk of my work, however, beginning with a look at a couple of handy tools for makers: the Proster VC99 multimeter and the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station.

Further on you’ll find detailed reviews of two microcontroller-based products which can interface with the Raspberry Pi or operate entirely standalone: the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit and the Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit. The former acts as an introduction to the world of conductive thread, while the latter uses conductive ink to complete the circuits in its bundled guide.

Finally, my contributions to the Projects Book Volume 2 end with a review of the Pimoroni pHAT DAC, a compact add-on for the Raspberry Pi Zero – though mechanically compatible with any other modern Pi model bar the bare Compute Module family – which adds a high-quality digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and 3.5mm jack. Those looking to wire a Pi into the stereo systems can also solder on optional stereo RCA jacks, which I thought was a particularly nice feature.

As with the previous book in the series, the Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book Volume 2 is available to download free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 151

Custom PC Issue 151In my latest Hobby Tech column for Custom PC, I take a look at the Pi Zero-specific pHAT family of add-on boards from local electronics wizards Pimoroni, review the Guitar computer-on-module from China’s LeMaker, and show readers how to enhance a Raspberry Pi with a simple reset-stroke-power switch.

Firstly, the pHATs. The launch of the Raspberry Pi Zero, reviewed in last month’s Hobby Tech, brought with it the opportunity for Pi experts like Pimoroni to come out with some add-on devices matching the same form factor – which is, unsurprisingly, exactly what the company has done. The result is a family of, at the time of the review, three tiny add-on boards: the Explorer pHAT, Scroll pHAT, and pHAT DAC. Each comes with unpopulated GPIO, giving the user the option of soldering on the bundled female header for the ability to easily remove the device or soldering it directly to a Pi Zero to make an ultra-compact electronic sandwich.

The Explorer pHAT is the most versatile of the bunch, adding 5V outputs, inputs, analogue inputs, and even a pair of motor control channels to the Pi’s otherwise feature-light 3.3V GPIO header. The Scroll pHAT, meanwhile, features some bright white LEDs in a 5×11 matrix and comes with software for scrolling messages. Finally, the pHAT DAC is an ultra-compact digital to analogue converter capable of playing back 192KHz 24-bit audio via a pre-fitted 3.5mm jack or optional pair of RCA jacks. In short: there’s a little something for everyone.

The Guitar is LeMaker’s follow-up device to what was previously known as the Banana Pi – and, like its predecessor, LeMaker is taking design cues from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. This time, it’s made a Compute Module-alike: a small SODIMM-layout computer-on-module which comes bundled with a break-out board to access its various features. Considering the high price of the official Compute Module, I had high hopes for the budget-friendly Guitar – and I’m pleased to say that it mostly didn’t disappoint.

Finally, the reset switch tutorial. A variant of the tutorial I prepared for The MagPi tailored specifically to the Custom PC audience, it walks the reader through adding a simple switch to any Raspberry Pi – but focusing on the new Zero – in order to quickly reset the device in the event of a crash. As an added bonus, it also allows you to power the Pi on from a shut-down state.

All this, plus a bunch of stuff written by people other than me, can be yours in Custom PC Issue 151. Either pick up a physical copy from wherever magazines congregate, or snag it digitally via Zinio or similar distribution services.

The MagPi, Issue 42

The MagPi Issue 42This month’s instalment of The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, includes a short project I created upon request from editor Russell Barnes: soldering a reset switch to a Raspberry Pi Zero.

While part of a feature on projects specifically for the Zero, the reset switch mod is actually applicable to any modern Raspberry Pi. It makes use of the RUN header, which when shorted out causes the processor on the Pi to act as though the power has been briefly cut. The result: an instant hard reboot, even if you’ve found a way to crash the system hard. The header also doubles as a remote power switch: if the Pi is powered off but plugged into a live power supply, shorting the RUN header will begin the boot process.

Attaching a switch to the reset header is as simple as soldering two pins, but the audience of the magazine spans the gamut from absolute beginner to highly-qualified engineer. As a result, a very specific angle was chosen for the tutorial: introducing someone to the art of soldering, using the simple two-pin reset switch as a less daunting entry point than the significantly larger GPIO header soldering project found back in Issue 40.

As always, the tutorial includes plenty of photography taken in my home studio. For much of the work I do, I’ve found my Nikon 40mm macro lens to be indispensable; the only time it typically leaves my camera is if I’m doing portraiture or low-light photography (in which case it’s replaced by an f1.8 50mm prime lens) or if I need wide-angle or telephoto shots (15-35mm and 70-300mm lenses respectively) during event coverage.

The tutorial, plus various exciting Pi-related things written by people other than myself, can be found gracing the shelves of supermarkets and newsagents throughout the country, or can be downloaded free of charge from the official website under a Creative Commons licence.

Custom PC, Issue 149

Custom PC Issue 149This month’s Hobby Tech has just two component parts: a long-term review of the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station, and a in-depth guide to building an ultrasonic distance sensor using a Spark Core for a somewhat novel application: shaming me into using my standing desk more.

Looking at the tutorial first, it all stemmed from an office move in which I bought a vast quantity of Ikea furniture. Among it all was a new desk, which for a small extra fee I was able to get with a simple hand-crank mechanism fitted to adjust its height. As I spend the vast majority of my life in front of a computer, I thought a little change like spending some of the day standing instead of sitting would do me the world of good – but, as could be expected, after an initial burst of enthusiasm I found myself using the desk in sitting mode more often than not.

This month’s project was my attempt to rectify that. Using a cheap ultrasonic distance sensor and a Spark Core microcontroller – now known as a Particle Photon, following a major rebranding exercise – I built a device which could track the distance between the surface of the desk and the ceiling and thus report whether it was in sitting or standing mode. When a mode change was detected, it would post a message to Twitter – thus publicly shaming me if I spent too long in sitting mode.

It’s a bit of a daft project, but one which demonstrates some useful techniques: it uses a resistor ladder to lower the 5V output from the ultrasonic sensor to a Spark Core-friendly 3.3V, it shows how a Wi-Fi-connected microcontroller can report readings to a remote system, and even uses If This Then That (IFTTT) to automatically post messages to Twitter based on those readings. As to whether it actually encouraged me to spend more time standing? Not so much.

As the tutorial’s complexity meant taking up a three-page spread, there was only room for one additional feature this month: a two-page long-term review of the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station, which I bought some time ago to replace my Maplin-branded variable-output soldering iron. Despite its surprisingly reasonable cost, purchased from the ever-reliable CPC, it’s proven a sturdy tool and is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for an entry-level upgrade from fixed-output irons. It’s also a pleasure to be able to form a long-term opinion on something: all too frequently I review items on a short-term basis, which reveals nothing about their reliability over time. Having been using the Tenma for well over a year now, though, I can personally guarantee its longevity.

All this, plus a variety of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.

The MagPi, Issue 40

The MagPi Issue 40This month’s MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, is just a little bit special: it is, to my knowledge, the first magazine ever to include a cover-mounted computer. The release of the magazine today also represents the launch of a brand-new Raspberry Pi model: the Raspberry Pi Zero.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been playing with the Pi Zero for some time, having worked on three of the hardware projects you’ll find between the covers of this extra-special issue. After peeling the Pi Zero from the cover, readers will be shown how to solder general-purpose input/output (GPIO) headers onto its otherwise extremely flat face, connect its serial port to a computer for use as a true random number generator (TRNG), and use it with an existing HAT add-on to act as a mood lamp.

The three projects I created for this issue were chosen from a long, long list. The Pi Zero is an exciting device: it features the same specifications as the Raspberry Pi Model A, but in a brand-new form factor a fraction of the size of the original. Naturally, some features have been cut: just like the Model A there’s no Ethernet chip, but there are also no CSI or DSI connectors and no analogue audio or video ports – though composite video is broken out to a solder pad for the adventurous. The ports that do remain have also been modified: the full-size HDMI port is replaced by a mini-HDMI, and the full-size USB port is a micro-USB port which requires a USB On-The-Go (OTG) adapter before it can be connected to standard USB peripherals.

In doing this, the Foundation has created a device that excites me even more than the full-size models. With a production cost so low that it can be cover-mounted on a high-street magazine, it’s now possible to put a full Linux computer in more project than ever before – and with a simple low-cost USB OTG adapter and a Wi-Fi dongle, it can be networked for a total outlay of well below $10. It is, in short, a game-changer, and I look forward to working on many more Pi Zero-related projects in the near future.

If that wasn’t enough, you’ll also find my review of the Tenma 60W Digital Soldering Station which has been my trusty companion in various projects over the last couple of years. It’s always nice to be able to give a device a good, long-haul test before drawing your conclusions and I’ve certainly put the miles in on the Tenma. As I warn in the review a hobbyist doesn’t strictly need a soldering station, but it does make life easier – and the low cost of this unit, purchased from CPC, makes it easy to recommend for those who fancy an upgrade.

All this, plus more – and, remember the cover-mounted Pi Zero – is available in your nearest WH Smith. The magazine itself is also available as a DRM-free PDF download from the official website, licensed under Creative Commons terms, but obviously you’ll have to buy a Pi Zero separately if you want to follow along with any of my projects.

Custom PC, Issue 143

Custom PC Issue 143My Hobby Tech spread continues in Issue 143 of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine with two reviews and a review-slash-walkthrough: the Orange Pi Plus, the GrovePi+ Starter Kit, and the Kim Uno kit.

For me, the most interesting toy of the month was undoubtedly the Kim Uno. Designed by Oscar Vermeulen, the Kim Uno is a kit-form microcomputer designed to emulate the classic MOS Technologies KIM-1, designed by Chuck Peddle to showcase the company’s at-the-time cutting-edge 6502 microprocessor. Naturally, there’s no 6502 to be found in the Kim Uno: instead, an Arduino Pro Mini – based on one of Atmel’s popular microcontrollers – sits at the rear of a calculator-sized circuit-board and provides the grunt required to run any KIM-1 application you care to name, including the famous Microchess.

A simple solder-it-together kit – or pay extra to have one built by Oscar’s own fair hand – the Kim Uno is a great way to practice your skills even before you tackle the joys of 6502 machine-code programming. Oscar’s online documentation is thorough and detailed, and for anyone who knows 6502 the Kim Uno is a must-have especially at just £10 plus shipping.

The Kim Uno was the most fun project of the month, but it was closely followed by a GrovePi+ Starter Kit kindly supplied by Dexter Industries. Designed to bring Seeed’s Grove ‘smart module’ design to the Raspberry Pi, the kit includes a piggyback board which connects to the Pi’s GPIO port and a wealth of additional inputs and outputs, all of which connect via simple keyed wires. For newcomers to electronics, the Grove platform takes the complexity out of wiring up even relatively complex projects – and the GrovePi+ board itself makes using Grove hardware a cinch.

Finally, the Orange Pi Plus is one of the growing number of would-be Raspberry Pi beaters coming out of the technology markets of China. Using the AllWinner H3 system-on-chip processor the Orange Pi Plus can’t match the performance of the latest Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, but it does offer significantly more built-in capability: SATA, gigabit Ethernet, infra-red, even 802.11b/g/n wireless with bundled ultra-compact dipole antenna. The Orange Pi Plus, and the other members in the Orange Pi family, are clearly inspired by Lemaker’s Banana Pi and offer much of the same software compatibility, including platforms like Android not supported by the Raspberry Pi itself.

If you want to know my final opinion on all this hardware, or if you’re for some reason interested in things written by people who aren’t me, Custom PC Issue 143 is available now in print or digital form.