If you’ve ever wanted to tackle an electronics project but didn’t quite know where to start, my latest article for The MagPi Magazine should get you up and running: it’s a look at resources for learning beginner-level electronics.
Centred, naturally enough, around the Raspberry Pi itself, my feature walks through a number of different resources: books, including Phil King’s Simple Electronics with GPIO Zero, all-in-one electronics kits of components and project sheets, online courses, and video tutorials for everything from connected LEDs and switches to the Raspberry Pi through to core concepts surrounding precisely what electricity is and how it works.
As with all Raspberry Pi Press publications, The MagPi Issue 77 is available for free download under a Creative Commons licence from the official website, or you can pick up physical copies in your favourite newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you are right now via the Raspberry Pi Press Store.
This month’s issue of The MagPi, the official Raspberry Pi magazine, has a review which took an unexpected turn: the Andrea Electronics PureAudio Array Microphone Development Kit, or MDK.
When Andrea’s kit – which is comprised of a PureAudio-branded USB soundcard based on a common low-cost USB audio chip, a SuperBeam stereo microphone with Velcro fixing pad, and some downloadable software – arrived, it did so under a different name: the Speech Development Kit, or SDK. The brief documentation provided explained that the kit made it easy to develop your own voice-activated software, detecting a trigger phrase and running tasks accordingly.
Sadly, that turned out not to be the case. While the bundled software does indeed activate on a trigger phrase, that’s all it does; to actually achieve anything, you need to write your own software. Not even basic text-to-speech or speech-to-text functionality is included, and while Andrea provided at-the-time unreleased ‘vocabulary files’ for individual instructions these were extremely limited and not user expandable. Worse, the clever filtering library – the only thing that makes the kit stand out from an off-the-shelf microphone and cheap USB soundcard – does not appear to the system as a driver, and is functional only with software you write yourself and the bundled extremely simple demonstration program.
Throughout the review, Andrea Electronics remained in constant communication, and took all my criticisms of the bundle on board. The result: a rapid shift in targeting, removing consumer- and hobbyist-oriented marketing from the bundle and repositioning it as a microphone – rather than speech – development kit aimed solely at professional developers. While it’s still not something I could recommend, it is at least now properly placed in the market.
For the full review, you can pick up The MagPi Issue 69 in print now at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, or download the full issue for free under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.
The launch of a hardware refresh for the low-cost yet surprisingly-capable Raspberry Pi single-board computer is always a great opportunity to take stock of how the project has progressed since its launch six years ago, and the result is this: a special cover feature for The MagPi celebrating the release of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, or Pi 3 B+ to its friends.
Following roughly the same format as my cover feature for the launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 from March 2016, and my cover feature for the Pi Zero’s launch back in November 2015, my multi-page feature begins with an overview of the board highlighting its key new features with high-resolution call-out photography: the new Broadcom BCM2837B0 system-on-chip which dispenses with the old plastic package for a new direct-die layout protected by a metal heatspreader; the new dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio module; a Pi Zero-inspired ground plane antenna, which boosts wireless performance still further; a Power over Ethernet (PoE) header for the optional PoE HAT; gigabit Network connectivity; and a custom-designed power management integrated circuit (PMIC) which improves regulation and assists with the clockspeed increase to 1.4GHz.
Taking a brief pause for a quick getting-started guide for those new to the Raspberry Pi, the feature then gets into its stride with a full suite of benchmarks across two pages. Measuring everything from CPU and memory performance to Ethernet throughput, power draw, and Wi-Fi signal quality, the benchmarks don’t just cover the Pi 3 B+ and its immediate predecessor; the benchmarks compare the new board to every single mainstream model of Raspberry Pi in the project’s history, all the way back to the original Model B from the initial pre-production run. If you’ve ever wondered how things have improved over time, this feature will let you know exactly that.
A further two pages are taken up by my interview with Raspberry Pi Foundation co-founder Eben Upton, who first introduced me to the project all those years ago. Diving into the changes and improvements made in the Pi 3 B+’s design, which is the work of engineer Roger Thornton, the interview also includes several behind-the-scenes images and – because I can never resist the opportunity – a thermal imaging analysis demonstrating how the new packaging and thicker PCB help the Pi 3 B+ deal with heat dissipation, despite its faster clock speed compared to the hot-running Pi 3.
To read through the full feature, which also includes a more detailed getting-started guide and ten project ideas which take advantage of the board’s increased power, head to your local newsagent, supermarket, or download the issue digitally under the permissive Creative Commons licence from the official website.
This month’s MagPi magazine includes a review of the Allo DigiOne Player, a clever though high-priced add-on for the Raspberry Pi which its creator claims gives it pitch-perfect digital audio capabilities.
Designed as a ‘digital transport’ – a device which provides a digital, rather than analogue, signal for decoding by an external digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) – the DigiOne Player is a plug-and-play design based on Allo’s DigiOne S/PDIF HAT. As the name suggests, the primary part of the Player is a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) add-on for the Raspberry Pi which provides a Sony/Philips Digital Interface (S/PDIF) audio output on an RCA or BNC jack; the Player is simply a bundle which includes a Pi, case, and cabling.
There’s no denying that the DigiOne is a clever design, with a surprising amount of hardware crammed into a small space. At nearly £150, though, it’s priced head and shoulders above the competition and lacks some of their features – such as the optical output of the £30 JustBoom Digi HAT, ditched due to what Allo calls unacceptable built-in jitter levels avoided through the use of electrical connectivity.
For my conclusion on the device’s value, you can pick up The MagPi Issue 67 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or for free download under a Creative Commons licence via the official website.
This month’s The MagPi Magazine, the official publication of the Raspberry Pi community, features my review of an impressive compact network-attached storage (NAS) device: the Nextcloud Box.
Built around the PiDrive storage system from Western Digital Labs and featuring software from the open-source Nextcloud project – itself born from a fork of the Owncloud project – the Nextcloud Box does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a box which runs Nextcloud.
More accurately, it’s a box that can run Nextcloud. Out of the box, there’s a key piece missing: the packaging reveals a two-part plastic chassis with clever magnetic clasp, a smart split power and data cable, a power supply, a 1TB Western Digital 2.5″ hard drive, and a micro-SD card with the Nextcloud software already loaded onto an Ubuntu Core installation. What you don’t get is a Raspberry Pi: the brains need to be supplied separately, with only the Raspberry Pi 2 supported at the time of writing.
Once you’ve affixed your Pi in place with the bundled Torx screwdriver and screws, you can begin the installation process – which is as simple as putting the micro-SD card in and connecting power. Over the course of a few minutes the operating system is copied to the 1TB hard drive, and then the system reboots ready for configuration.
Nextcloud is, I have to say, incredibly impressive software. While there’s some way to go in certain aspects of usability – in particular setting the NAS up for access from outside your home network requires a bit of fiddling at the command line, registration of a domain name, and manual port forwarding on your router or gateway – the UI and general functionality are both polished to a high standard.
For my full opinion on the device, though, you’ll have to read the review – and you can do so for free by downloading the Creative Commons licensed DRM-free PDF at the official MagPi website, or by picking up a print copy from your nearest supermarket or newsagent.
Inside this month’s MagPi Magazine – the first issue to feature a cover-mounted DVD, boasting a bootable copy of the new Debian+Pixel Linux distribution for readers to try – you’ll find my review of a rather special little gadget: the Mirobot v2 programmable robot.
I’ve played with educational robots before, but the Mirobot caught my eye the minute I saw inventor Ben Pirt demonstrating it at the Maker Faire UK earlier this year. With a chassis made entirely from laser-cut MDF, the Mirobot is an impressive package: Ben has designed it so that every component nestles in holes cut out from the MDF sheets themselves, making for an extremely compact box which pops nicely through your letterbox and leaving almost zero waste once assembled.
The Mirobot is designed primarily for use as a turtle, and includes a mount for a pen so it can draw on suitable surfaces. Where it differs from most rival designs is that it can be programmed entirely through a browser: an on-board web server, running on the popular ESP8266 microcontroller, can work as a standalone hotspot with simple Scratch-inspired drag-and-drop programming interface or connect to your home Wi-Fi and allow access to additional languages, a point-and-click interface, and even a set of buttons for direct remote control.
With the exception of the Scratch language, which relies on Adobe Flash Player, everything works an absolute treat on the Raspberry Pi, but the Mirobot isn’t limited to this: it can be programmed from any modern web-connected device, from a laptop to a smartphone, or for more advanced users interfaced with via a well-documented application programming interface (API) from the language of your choice. Assembly is quick and easy, requiring absolutely no tools, and while aligning the pen and motors is a little trickier that’s a one-off job.
To read the full review, either pick up a paper copy of The MagPi Issue 53 and enjoy your bonus cover DVD or download the entire issue for free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.
It’s a Christmas themed issue for The MagPi this month but you wouldn’t know it to look at my review of the Dremel 3000 Four-Star Kit, a new bundle packing the eponymous company’s most popular rotary tool with a range of accessories in a disappointingly cheap plastic toolbox.
That the toolbox – and bundled ‘chess set,’ which is actually just a chequerboard on the reverse of the packaging and some cardboard counters – is so poorly designed was an undeniable letdown as I unboxed the Dremel 3000 kit. Thankfully, things soon looked up: it’s been a few decades since I bought a rotary tool, and it seems things have improved immensely in that time.
My favourite of the bundled accessories – which includes a flexi-shaft add-on, cutting accessories, milling bits, polishing bits, and basically everything you might need to do a wide range of tool-suitable jobs – was the EZ-SpeedClic system. A replacement for the old screw-and-mandrel method of securing grinding and cutting discs into the tool, EZ-SpeedClic requires nothing more than a push and a twist to secure the specially-reinforced discs into place. A shame, then, that so few SpeedClic discs were included, with the majority in the kit being of the old-fashioned screw-in variety.
Still, the review was a fun opportunity to get myself back up to speed on the latest developments in Dremel’s design, and if you want to know my final opinion on the kit you can read the whole review – the whole magazine, in fact – for free by downloading the Creative Commons licensed issue from the official website.
The 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.
This month’s MagPi Magazine includes my first look at FORMcard, a crowdfunded bioplastic which aims to make building and repairing objects as simple as making a nice hot cup of tea.
I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, the mouldable silicone rubber, but FORMcard was new to me when the company reached out to highlight its various features. Supplied in packs of three and in a variety of colours, each FORMcard is a block of plastic the size of three or so stacked credit cards. Out of the box, they do little: they’re slightly flexible, though not very, have the logo embossed on the corner, and could be used as a ice-scraper in a pinch.
Dunk the card into hot water – anything above around 60°C works well – and the secret is revealed: the plastic, a starch-based bioplastic which is claimed to be non-toxic and food safe, softens and melts. Fish it out with a spoon and you can begin to form it into whatever shape you desire: a patch for a broken piece of more traditional plastic, a stand for your smartphone, a cube, whatever.
Unlike Sugru, FORMcard sets in minutes as it cools down; it’s also considerably harder and stronger when set, enough so that you can create a handle for a screwdriver from it. It’s also reusable, which is both a strength and a weakness: it means you can use a FORMcard for a temporary repair, unlike single-use Sugru, but it also means it’s absolutely useless for anything that might reach 60°C or more – including creating cases for hot-running electronics or insulating pan handles, both tasks to which I’ve put Sugru with considerable success.
For my final opinion, and a bunch of other interesting stuff from people who aren’t me, you can pop to your local newsagent or supermarket to pick up The MagPi Issue 51, or download your free Creative Commons licensed copy from the official website.
This month’s MagPi magazine is a little bit special: it’s Issue 50, celebrated with a shiny foil cover in the physical edition. Inside, you’ll find two pieces of mine: an interview with Dark Water Foundation’s Barry Getty regarding his Dark Control motor boards, and a review of the Sugru Rebel Tech Kit which should be heading to shelves in time for Christmas shopping.
I first met Barry at the Liverpool MakeFest event in 2015, where he was running a workshop to build Arduino-based LEGO remote operated submersible vehicles (ROSVs) which could be piloted through an obstacle course installed in a fish tank at the end of the table. When he got back in touch a year later to show off his Raspberry Pi motor control board add-ons, I knew I needed to interview him on the topic.
The Dark Control boards differ from most motor control boards available in their scope: both models, designed for ESC and DC motor types, include six outputs for full freedom of movement. Various extras, including GPIO pass-through and room for additional hardware, are included, and it’s little surprise to find that Barry’s Kickstarter campaign closed with 145 per cent of its goal funding.
The Sugru kit, meanwhile, is something of a passion of mine. I’ve lost count of the number of things I’ve fixed around the house thanks to “mouldable glue” Sugru, and when they got in touch with details of an upcoming introductory kit I jumped at the chance to have a look. The bundle includes a storage tin, guitar pick for moulding, four packs of Sugru, and a full-colour booklet of projects. If you’re familiar with Sugru, there’s nothing there that’s a must-have compared to just buying a plain pack of the stuff, but if you’re introducing others to the wonderful putty that hardens into silicone rubber it’s a fantastic bundle.
Finally, the book review section of the magazine includes a pleasant surprise: a review of my Raspberry Pi User Guide Fourth Edition, in which it is described as “a reference which will become as essential as its three predecessors.” High praise indeed!
The MagPi Issue 50 is available in all good newsagents and supermarkets now, or can be downloaded free of charge in Creative Commons-licensed PDF format from the official website.
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