The MagPi, Issue 53

The MagPi Issue 53Inside 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.

The MagPi, Issue 52

The MagPi Issue 52It’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 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.

The MagPi, Issue 51

The MagPi Issue 51This 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.

The MagPi, Issue 50

The MagPi Issue 50This 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.

The MagPi, Issue 49

The MagPi Issue 49The latest issue of The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, includes my two-page interview with Grant Macaulay of Theo Lasers, along with what is now rapidly becoming a go-to image I took of a Raspberry Pi 3 artfully rotated and pasted onto the cover.

I first met Grant at the Maker Faire UK event earlier this year, and got talking to him about the project he had quit his job to build: Theo Lasers. Designed to address the lack of affordable entry-level laser cutters and engravers for hobbyist and educational use, Theo Lasers came from a simple idea: “I’m going to make a laser cutter with a laser cutter,” he laughingly explained in front of a stand of prototypes proving he could do just that.

In the months since the event, Grant has been hard at work improving upon his design. In particular, with the aid of a developer friend, he’s moved from basing the hardware on an Arduino Mega microcontroller to using a Raspberry Pi Zero. In doing so his team developed Theo Controller, a browser-based control and monitoring system which runs entirely on the Pi and which can accept input from any web-compatible device. Coupled with an on-board display, SD card reader, and even the ability to run from battery or solar power, and Grant’s design definitely stands out from the competition even before you see its eye-catching wooden chassis.

Grant’s due to launch a Kickstarter campaign to begin mass production of the Theo Laser cutters in early September, with more details available from the official website. The interview, meanwhile, can be read for free in the Creative Commons licensed The MagPi Issue 49, out now.

The MagPi, Issue 43

The MagPi Issue 43It’s a special week for the Raspberry Pi Foundation: it’s celebrating its fourth birthday with the launch of the new Raspberry Pi 3. It’s a special day for me, too: the latest MagPi magazine boasts a total of thirteen pages of my content, including the cover splash: a detailed and thorough look at the new model.

Boasting on-board Wi-Fi (a community request since the original model launched four years ago), Bluetooth 4.1, Bluetooth Low Energy, and a faster 64-bit ARMv8 processor, the new Pi 3 is a bit of a beast. My cover feature for the magazine begins with a look at those behind it with a double-page spread featuring interviews with project co-founder Eben Upton and the Foundation’s director of hardware and the man responsible for circuit design James Adams – and a massive thank-you to both for sparing the time to talk to me at one of their busiest ever periods!

The feature then moves on to a look a the board itself, with a hero photo of the board spread across another two pages. Each major feature of the board, from the shiny new 64-bit BCM2837 system-on-chip (SoC) processor to the BCM43438 radio module – which required me to get out the microscope in order to capture its markings – has a call-out with close-up photography and an explanation of how it has changed since the Raspberry Pi 2.

Next up is a benchmark spread, which required me to come up with a detailed suite of tests. After some experimentation, I settled on a selection of classic benchmarks – SysBench CPU in single- and multi-threaded modes, Linpack with and without NEON support, Whetstone, Dhrystone, SysBench memory read and write, Ethernet throughput, Quake III Arena timedemo performance, and power draw at load and idle. As an added bonus, I also came up with a way of measuring general-purpose input-output (GPIO) performance under Python, writing a simple benchmark to toggle a pin on and off as quickly as possible and measuring the speed with a frequency counter connected to the GPIO header.

The next double-page spread looks at helping the reader get started with the new device. I walk readers through modifying an existing Raspbian installation to boot on the Pi 3 by editing config.txt, setting up the Wi-Fi module, enabling true OpenGL acceleration on the graphics processor, and how to write programs to get the best performance on the Pi 3. Sadly, I was unable to explain how to use the Bluetooth 4.1 and Bluetooth Low Energy features, as software support was not available at the time of writing.

The spread then ends with a look at five things you could do with a Pi 3 in order to take advantage of the new features and boosted performance. My work for the magazine continues, though, with a review of the Proster VC99 multimeter and Pimoroni pHAT DAC, before coming to a close with a one-page news piece regarding the production status of the popular Raspberry Pi Zero – helping to explain why it has been so difficult to get hold of and settling concerns that it may be bumped to the back of the production queue now the Pi 3 is out.

All 13 pages of my content, and plenty of other stuff by people who aren’t me, are available from your nearest supermarket or newsagent, or as a free PDF download under a Creative Commons licence from The MagPi’s official website.

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.

The MagPi, Issue 41

The MagPi Issue 41Following on from last month’s Pi Zero extravaganza, my workload for the latest issue of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s MagPi was pretty light: a single review, looking at the wonderful Bare Conductive Touch Board Starter Kit.

I actually received and wrote this review some time ago, but various flat-plan changes led to it being bumped from its planned issue with the first suitable gap being in this New Year’s edition – published, as is so often the case with print publications, just before Christmas. Thankfully, the Touch Board isn’t really something that ages, and the model you would buy today is the same as the one I reviewed a few months back.

For those not familiar with the company’s output, Bare Conductive made a name for itself with a conductive paint suitable for making paper-based circuits. This was followed by the Touch Board, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller with built in capacitive touch and distance-tracking sensor capable of playing MP3 audio files from a micro-SD card depending on which of its inputs were triggered. The Starter Kit, then, unsurprisingly brings both inventions together: there’s a pot of the conductive paint plus a tube for more accurate dispensing, a brush, a Touch Board, crocodile clips, a rechargeable speaker, micro-SD, USB cable, and everything you need to build three example projects.

The bundled book is extremely good: printed on quality paper in full colour and with a modern layout, it goes some way to justifying the far-from-impulse near-£100 price point of the kit. So too does the out-of-box experience: MP3 files are pre-loaded on the micro-SD card, and if you connect the touch board to a USB port for power and poke each contact in turn you’ll be given voice guidance through its capabilities and use.

If you want to read more about the kit, the review is available in the free MagPi Issue 41 PDF or in print at newsagents and supermarkets throughout the UK.

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.