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.

Custom PC, Issue 144

Custom PC Issue 144In this month’s Hobby Tech column, I report from the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, build a 4tronix Agobo robot, and take a look at the Acorn x86 Card – a device that let Acorn users try out the joys of Microsoft’s Windows 95.

First, the robot. Designed as a lower-cost and simpler alternative to the Pi2Go-Lite robot I reviewed back in Issue 135, the Agobo is one of the few kits out there designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi Model A+. While that means that you miss out on a few niceties, few of these – like the wired Ethernet port – are all that important to a portable robot build. The advantages outweigh the negatives, too: the Model A+ draws less power, is smaller, lighter, and costs less; the only real shame is that there is no quad-core Raspberry Pi Model A yet available, leaving users stuck with the outdated single-core BCM2835 system-on-chip processor.

As with the Pi2Go-Lite, I enjoyed building the Agobo – a process which was a lot simpler, involving zero soldering and only a little bit of swearing as I tried to get the bearings in the front caster to cooperate – and programming it was a cinch thanks to 4tronix’s great samples. While it’s undeniably more limited than the Pi2Go-Lite or its full-fat Pi2Go brother, the Agobo could well be a good choice for beginners or the budget-conscious – but for a full conclusion, you’ll have to read the review.

I spent two days this month covering the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, with travel expenses very kindly covered by my client oomlout – for whom I’ve been doing regular blog posts – and it was, as these events always are, an absolute pleasure. Housed at Eureka, the national children’s museum, the event – a community-driven spin-off from Make’s Maker Faires – was well-attended, including by numerous guests who had never been to maker-themed events before. There were soldering workshops, hackspaces, a chap who builds automata out of toys, all kinds of wondrous things – and you can read about them in detail this month.

Finally, the Acorn x86 Card. I wasn’t planning to write about it, but I happened to find it while clearing out the office and thought it would be of interest to readers. A relic of the days before x86 compatibility was the norm in personal computers, the add-in card allowed Acorn’s ARM-based Risc PC to run Windows – even Windows 95, at the time the cutting-edge in operating systems. My particular example is a second-generation card featuring a Texas Instruments 486 processor, and I still haven’t got around to fitting it into my Risc PC despite having received it a couple of years ago…

All this, plus a selection of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, is available in Custom PC Issue 144 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 132

Custom PC Issue 132In this month’s Hobby Tech column I show the reader how to make an Internet of Things ticker-tape system using a cheap thermal printer, talk about the wonderful Internet Archive, review the Cubietruck single-board computer and the Spark Core wireless microcontroller.

First, the Internet Archive. A not-for-profit organisation based in the US, the Internet Archive has no lesser goal than to preserve and provide public access to all media. It’s home to video and audio recordings, text files, books, and the famous WayBack Machine that provides a user-friendly interface to its archived websites. For Hobby Tech, the key feature is found in one particular area of the site: the Computer Magazine Archives, which includes full-colour scans of every issue of BYTE, Commodore Format, Dragon User and more. It’s a treasure-trove of information, and one that relies on public funding to operate.

This month’s tutorial is a riff on the tutorial in Issue 122. Where that used an Arduino to turn a thermal printer into a 21st century fax machine, this tutorial uses the same printer connected to a Raspberry Pi to print a daily summary of your digital life, including local weather reports and a Sudoku puzzle. It also monitors Twitter for mentions of any keyword you like and prints messages as they arrive. Based on the Adafruit IoT Printer project, it’s a neat way to integrate a little physicality into today’s increasingly electronic lifestyle.

Finally, the reviews. First up is the Cubietruck, also known as the Cubieboard 3. Supplied by low-power computing specialist New IT, the Cubieboard takes the same AllWinner A20 processor as its predecessor but packs it into a new, larger chassis that includes some major improvements. Perhaps the best of these is a bundled acrylic chassis which houses both the board itself and a 2.5in hard drive in an over-under fashion, creating what I’m pretty certain is the smallest network-attached storage (NAS) device I’ve ever seen.

The Spark Core, meanwhile, is another ARM-based single-board computer, but one that aims at a vastly different market. Supplied by CPC following its massively successful dĂ©but on crowd-funding site Kickstarter, the Spark Core is a microcontroller featuring a teeny-tiny breadboard-compatible layout and a Texas Instruments Wi-Fi chip. Configuration takes place from a smartphone, while the chip itself can be programmed and flashed wirelessly using a browser-based IDE. It’s a neat creation, and one for which I already have several projects in mind.

All this, plus various features written by people who aren’t me, can be yours with a trip to your nearest newsagent or supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.