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.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects BookI’ve been writing for The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, since its major relaunch under the editorial leadership of Russell Barnes. That’s long enough to have built up a reasonable amount of content – and it’s that content you’ll find the The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, published today under a Creative Commons licence.

Inside the 200 page book, which is available in print and as a DRM-free PDF download, you’ll find several pieces of my work. The first is entitled ‘Crowdfundings Greatest Hits,” an eight-page investigation of some of the biggest Pi-related crowd-funded projects around – and some of its biggest failures, too. This was a great piece to work on, involving plenty of research and interviews, and was the first to break the news that Azorean was relying on additional external investment to fulfil rewards in its Ziphius campaign – rewards which have still not been fulfilled, more than a year after its original launch date.

You’ll also find reprints of several of my reviews: there’s the Pimoroni Display-o-Tron 3000 add-on, the Weaved IoT remote access system, the 4Tronix Agobo low-cost robot chassis, Velleman’s 3D Printing Pen, and the excellent Swanky Paint from local coding outfit WetGenes. Naturally, each is accompanied by photography which is also published under a Creative Commons licence – and is, as always, available for reuse from my Flickr page.

This marks the first book to which I have contributed which is published under a Creative Commons licence, but it certainly won’t be the last. Allowing for free non-commercial reuse and encouraging sharing and copying, it’s an approach at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to that taken by most publishers – and one of which I heartily approve.

You can download The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book for free from the official website, while print copies are available from the swag store or the usual high-street outlets.

The MagPi, Issue 38

The MagPi Issue 38In this month’s official Raspberry Pi magazine, The MagPi, you’ll find my review of the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit, as kindly supplied by CPC – a great follow-on to Issue 37’s review of the more basic Kitronik Electro-Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Starter Pack.

Like the Kitronik bundle, the Adafruit Gemma Starter Kit is focused on teaching the user about the uses of conductive thread for wearable and soft-circuit projects. Like the Kitronik bundle, it’s heavily focused on making things light up. Unlike Kitronik’s creation, though, it offers more than just simple on-off circuit potential: the kit is based around a Gemma, a small Arduino-compatible microcontroller designed by Adafruit in partnership with Arduino.cc.

While basic compared to a full Arduino Uno or similar, having just three GPIO pins and no user-accessible serial port, the Gemma is nevertheless surprisingly flexible. It’s also accessible: there’s a USB port right on the board, while support is included in the Arduino IDE as standard. Although the 3.3V logic can be annoying for those coming from 5V Arduino projects, it’s nothing a level-shifter can’t fix – and for The MagPi’s audience of Raspberry Pi enthusiasts, 3.3V logic will be entirely familiar and compatible with their existing parts bucket.

The rest of the kit is well thought out, too. There’s a number of NeoPixel RGB LEDs, offering a wide range of lighting effects, and a generous amount of fine conductive thread pre-wound onto a machine-compatible bobbin. Better still, there’s a pack of needles – something the Kitronik bundle missed, making a trip to the shops necessary for anyone who hasn’t already got a sewing kit with a wide-gauge needle to hand. There’s even a set of leads with crocodile clips, making testing your circuit prior to sewing the components down a breeze.

It’s fair to say that I’m a fan of the Gemma kit, but to get my full opinion you’ll need to pick up a copy of The MagPi Issue 38. It’s available in print from Tesco and WH Smith, or as a free PDF download from the official website if you’d comfortable where you are.

The MagPi, Issue 37

The MagPi Issue 37In this month’s MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, you’ll find the first in a series of more generally maker-themed reviews. This time around it’s a look at the Kitronik Electro Fashion Deluxe E-Textiles Pack, kindly supplied by CPC.

For me, this review was a chance to try my hand at wearable electronics, a branch of the maker movement I had previously ignored. While there’s a lot to be said for more complex projects, such as the growing number of hobbyist-friendly PCB manufacturing houses who can produce flexible boards in small quantities, there’s nothing quite as accessible as conductive thread. Coupled with specially-designed components, or through-hole parts quickly modified for mounting onto fabric, it allows the maker to easily build simple wearable circuits at a very low cost and with no complex or expensive tools.

The Kitronik bundle, sold under the company’s Electro Fashion brand, is a cheap and fairly solid starter kit with one curious omission: there’s no needle. Having stolen one from the household sewing tin, I was able to get started with a simple project: fitting a small LED to the fingertip of an old glove. Sadly, that’s about as complex a project as you’re likely to achieve with the kit: unsurprisingly, given its low price, there’s nothing like a microcontroller among its components. Aside from a button and a couple of switches, the smartest any of the parts get are a set of through-hole LEDs with built-in flasher circuits.

That’s not to put the kit down, though. For a taster of what’s possible with conductive thread, it’s near-unbeatable for the price – and for more complex projects Kitronik’s Electro Fashion range has plenty of compatible components and accessories.

You can pick up a print copy of The MagPi Issue 37 now at WH Smiths, or – as always – download a digital version, licensed under Creative Commons, from the official website.