Tag Archive for Tool

Custom PC, Issue 186

Custom PC Issue 186This month’s Hobby Tech column features an interview with Eric Yockey on his company’s PC Classic microconsole, a review of the it-really-blows IT Dusters CompuCleaner, and of Eric Amos’ coffee-table tome The Game Console.

To start with the interview, Eric surprised the gaming world late last year by announcing what at first glance appears to be a me-too product following in the footsteps of the Nintendo Entertainment System Classic Mini and Sony PlayStation Classic, not to mention the raft of Atari- and Sega-licensed devices that came before them: the PC Classic, which aims to bring older games back to the living room.

“Our principal engineer saw that people were joking about things like ‘the VCR Classic’ and ‘the PC Classic’ and he pitched it to me because he felt we could actually make a PC Classic, and moreover make it really cool,” Eric told me during our interview. “I discussed the project with a bunch of people from various backgrounds and varying amounts of technical ability, and most people took an immediate liking to it and would say something like ‘oh, yeah, if I could play Jill of the Jungle on my couch, I’d totally buy one!'”

The CompuCleaner, meanwhile, is an attempt on my part to reduce my environmental impact and fatten my wallet: an electric air-blower which aims to replace cans of compressed air for cleaning electronics. Anyone who has an actively-cooled PC will know that the vents and fans need to be kept clear, but the problem only gets worse when you need to take photos of things for a living – and the CompuCleaner, bar a few little niggles, is a fantastic way to do that without running through half a dozen air cans a week.

Finally, Eric Amos’ The Game Console is an impressive book covering many – but far from all – games consoles from the early days of the Atari VCS up to more modern systems. Light on text, the book’s focus is Eric’s high-quality photography – imagery he took, initially, to contribute to Wikipedia in place of the often low-quality photography that adorned classic console pages. While it’s not something you’re likely to sit and read cover-to-cover, it’s not only a pleasing thing to flick through but a great way to support Eric’s work in taking ever more photographs of increasingly-esoteric hardware.

For all these, head to your favourite newsagent, supermarket, or stay where you are and download the digital version via Zinio or similar distribution services.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 13

HackSpace Magazine Issue 13This month’s maker-focused HackSpace Magazine includes my relatively long-term review of an extremely clever, though far from perfect, temperature-controlled soldering ‘station’: the Miniware TS100.

First, some necessary definitions: brushing aside standard, fixed-power soldering irons, you’ll find adjustable-temperature and temperature-controlled irons on the market. The former are, typically, not much larger than a standard soldering iron and include a small knob on the body for adjusting the power and, thus, temperature of the tip. The latter go a step further, reading the temperature of the iron and using the feedback to dynamically adjust the power output to keep the tip as close to a chosen temperature as possible, and most often come with a bulky base station to which the iron is tethered.

The Miniware TS100, and its not-yet-available-in-the-UK successor the TS80, is different. While it’s a fully-fledged temperature-controlled iron, there’s no base station in sight: instead, the iron packs everything it needs into a surprisingly compact body, including a small OLED screen for live feedback and adjustment of its settings.

What’s most interesting about the design, though, is that the firmware that drives its internal microcontroller is open source. It’s entirely possible to download the source code, modify it, and flash it onto the iron with nothing more than a simple USB cable – and many have done that, producing alternative firmwares which either improve its performance or turn it into something else, including a Tetris-playing games console and a functional oscilloscope, entirely.

The TS100 is clever, then, but not perfect. A design which lacks any form of flaring to stop your fingers drifting forward onto the hot tip is one thing, but a larger problem is an ungrounded power design which leaves the tip floating at voltages more than enough to damage sensitive components. Thankfully, the reviewed unit came with a bundled grounding strap – but that leaves you with two wires rather than one, hampering the portability somewhat.

The full review can be read in the print and digital copies of HackSpace Magazine Issue 13, with the latter available for free download now 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.

Custom PC, Issue 152

Custom PC Issue 152In this month’s Hobby Tech column I review the Proster VC99 multimeter, the Intel/Arduino Genuino 101 microcontroller development board, and discuss the challenges in developing meaningful benchmarks for testing devices where memory is measured in kilobytes.

Unusually for a hardware review, the multimeter was actually a personal purchase: I’d been using a Maplin-branded multimeter for quite some time, but the low cost and seemingly broad features of the Proster VC99 – also known as the Vichy 99, and sold under a variety of badges – convinced me it was time for an upgrade. While doing so cost me a back-lit display, I gained a variety of functions from frequency counting up to a neat analogue bar-graph on the display for seeing spikes and dips that would otherwise be lost on a numerical output.

The frequency counter came in particularly handy for my Genuino 101 review: writing a simple Arduino Sketch which does nothing more than toggle a pin on and off as fast as possible, I was able to read how quickly that happened to give me an idea of the IO performance of the Genuino compared with other Arduino boards I have lying around. Coupled with a look at the Intel Curie module which powers the device, providing Bluetooth connectivity and an integrated accelerometer, that’s enough for a solid review.

I don’t want to do solid reviews, though, I want to do great reviews, so the last page of this month’s five-page spread looks at how I benchmarked the compute performance of the Genuino 101 against an Arduino Nano for a direct, head-to-head comparison. It’s not as easy as it sounds: with mere kilobytes of memory, it’s not like I could just install PC Mark and be done with it. Interested parties will find a detailed explanation of how I went about modifying the traditional Dhrystone and Whetstone benchmarks to run on both devices, including trimming things to fit into the Arduino Nano’s tiny memory allowance, and how to interpret the results.

All this, plus stuff by people who aren’t me, is available at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or from the comfort of your home via digital distribution services including Zinio.

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.