Custom PC, Issue 226

Custom PC Issue 226My Hobby Tech column this month takes a look at the Argon40 Eon network attached storage case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the unusual SB Components RoundyPi and RoundyFi smart display boards, and The Colouring Book of Retro Computers by Neil Thomas and Stoo Cambridge.

Regular readers will be familiar with Argon40’s well-designed metal – and, in its more recent efforts to offer something to the budget crowd, plastic – Raspberry Pi cases. The Eon, which follows on from the One and Neo in a naming scheme which leaves the company no option but to name its next product something like Noe, Eno, or Oen, is different. It’s huge, for a start, because it can hold not only a Raspberry Pi but four SATA hard drives and a USB SSD.

It’s designed to turn a Raspberry Pi into a network-attached storage (NAS) system, and it delivers on its promises – with one major caveat: Testing showed that its weedy internal fan is entirely incapable of keeping the drives cool. Coupled with some software issues surrounding the smart on-board OLED display panel and the Eon is the first Argon40 product that hasn’t been a easy recommendation.

The RoundyPi and RoundyFi, meanwhile, are a lot smaller. Built around the Raspberry Pi RP2040 and the Espressif ESP-12E microcontrollers respectively, these unusual boards offer an integrated means of communicating with an unusual full-colour 240×240 LCD display. They’re eye-catching, but the code samples leave a lot to be desired – and there’s no way to recreate the sample images used in the company’s Kickstarter campaign without considerable effort.

The Colouring Book of Retro Computers is, oddly enough, the second colouring book I’ve reviewed in Hobby Tech after the similarly-named Retro Computer Colouring Book in Issue 214. This time around, though, considerably more effort has been put into its creation – including the hiring of noted video game artist Stoo Cambridge, of Sensible Software fame, to create the illustrations. The result isn’t perfect – product names and company logos are omitted out of an overabundance of caution, and several pages in the print version have been accidentally produced from low-resolution JPEG versions of Cambridge’s excellent illustrations – but it definitely raises a smile.

Custom PC Issue 226 is available now at all good supermarkets and newsagents, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 223

Custom PC Issue 223In this months’ Hobby Tech column I take a look at the open-source, though not open-hardware, Bangle.js 2 smartwatch, dig deep into digital archaeology with some Dragon 32 floppy disk analysis, and read Microzeit’s Crackers II: The Data Storm.

First, the smartwatch. Back in Issue 218 I reviewed the SQFMI Watchy, a hacker-friendly but bulky smartwatch built around a low-power electrophoretic display. The Bangle.js 2 is a slicker, slimmer device which uses a colour Sharp Memory LCD panel – colour, yet still sunlight readable. Unlike the Watchy, though, it’s not a wholly new creation: it’s an off-the-shelf smartwatch imported in bulk from its Chinese manufacturer, then given new life with the real star of the show: The Bangle.js firmware.

Developed by Gordon Williams, Bangle.js – which is open source – allows users to write smartwatch applications and extensions in JavaScript, which are then transferred onto the smartwatch from a browser-based app store. The original, considerably bulkier, Bangle.js smartwatch proved popular enough that the store was well-populated at launch – though that’s not to say I didn’t encounter a few bugs and gotchas during my testing.

My work on digital archaeology, meanwhile, was surprisingly bug-free – given I was working to blend modern technology with floppy disks last accessed back in the 1980s. Having been imaging some 3.5″ floppy disks originally used with a Dragon 32 microcomputer, I found myself in need of accessing the raw files within – something loading the disk images into an emulator couldn’t provide.

It’s at this stage I must thank Adrien Destugues, Haiku OS developer, who came to my aid with a port of a tool originally written in 1997 for MS-DOS compatibles by engineer Graham E. Kinns: the Dragon DOS Utils. Using Kinns’ original source code, Destugues was able to port the tools to Linux – giving me what I needed to access the files within the floppy disk images and finish my investigations by loading and decoding a series of saved images into The GIMP.

Finally, Crackers II is – unsurprisingly – the follow-up to Microzeit’s Crackers I: The Gold Rush, coincidentally also reviewed in Issue 218. Picking up where the original left off, the book charts the growth of the software piracy scene on bulletin board systems – along with diversions into the worlds of ASCII art, copy markets, and copy protection systems. As with the earlier book, it’s heavy on the imagery – but there’s plenty of meat in the text too.

Custom PC Issue 223 is available at all good supermarkets and newsagents now, online with global delivery, or as a free PDF download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 222

Custom PC Issue 222This month’s five-page Hobby Tech column takes a look at the retro-style Clockwork Pi DevTerm portable computer, the HcX Floppy Disk Emulator tool, and Hex Loader – the first graphic novel I’ve seen in a few decades to arrive with its own tie-in game for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

The DevTerm, a follow-up to Clockwork Pi’s excellent GameSHell hand-held console, has been a little delayed. Having originally been due to land in April 2021, it’s only now gone through the review process thanks to the ongoing component shortages afflicting the industry – but it’s definitely been worth the wait. Inspired by classic portable computers like the TRS-80 Model 100, it’s a real anachronism backed by open-source hardware and open-source software.

That’s not to say it’s perfect: the top-end A-0604 model, as reviewed, is incapable of sustaining full-speed operation for more than a few seconds of load before throttling and arrives with the two high-performance cores entirely disabled; the display suffers from a glitch whereby the top four lines are entirely missing; and it took the community to make the tiny trackball less frustrating to use. The sheer joy of the device, thankfully, overrides these concerns. The built-in thermal printer is particularly wonderful, and was used to submit this month’s column – by post.

The HcX Floppy Disk Emulator review, meanwhile, was born from a need I had to image and retrieve data from some floppy disks which had been formatted for use with the Dragon Data family of microcomputers. Despite its name, the software isn’t exclusively usable by those who’ve splashed out on HcX hardware: it can load disk images, including stream captures from a KryoFlux, and provides a range of useful tools including an incredible visual floppy disk explorer – capable of even demonstrating the exact location and shape of damaged areas of a disk.

Finally, Hex Loader. A crowdfunded collaboration between writer Dan Whitehead, illustrator Conor Boyle, and letterer Jim Campbell, Hex Loader is halfway a love-letter to game development in the 1980s and halfway some kind of scathing indictment of consumerism and modern art wrapped in a mystical layer of sorcery. It also comes complete with a tie-in ZX Spectrum game, Combat Wombat – and you can’t say that of many publications released in the 2020s.

Custom PC Issue 222 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download on the official website.

 

Custom PC, Issue 220

Custom PC Issue 220This month’s Hobby Tech dedicates a whopping four pages to one of the most interesting devices I’ve ever had on test: the MNT Research Reform open-hardware laptop. If that weren’t enough, there’s also a look at a classic book of early personal computing history: Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines.

The meat of my latest five-page column is a relatively straightforward review of the MNT Reform, a laptop that’s anything but straightforward. The brainchild of MNT Research, and the second-generation of the core design, the MNT Reform is open – from the design of the chassis with its eye-catching transparent base to the electrical designs for the motherboard, system-on-module, and even the 3D-printed trackball which sits below a mechanical keyboard.

As a laptop, though, it’s easy to find the Reform wanting on a number of fronts – from lacklustre performance to the absence of niceties like having it suspend when you close the lid. I then dive deeper into the project itself – and reveal something both unique and absolutely worthy of celebration, with an enthusiastic and growing community boding well for its future.

Two of the biggest issues highlighted in the review have since been resolved for future production runs: the trackball has been greatly enhanced by the addition of steel bearings, and the troubling power drain while “off” which can empty the batteries has been addressed with a firmware update to put the system management controller into a low-power deep-sleep mode.

Computer Lib/Dream Machines is, despite having been published in 1974, a publication with a very similar ethos at its heart: the idea that computing not only should be accessible to all but must be accessible to all. Long out of print, despite Microsoft’s efforts to publish a professionally typeset and updated version of the eclectic original in 1987, the book manages to be both of-its-era and yet somehow entirely relevant – and that’s even before you flip Computer Lib over to reveal Dream Machines as a second book bound as one.

The original version of the book has been preserved at The Internet Archive, and is well worth a read – though its format means you may spend quite some time zooming in and out.

All this, and more, is available now at your nearest supermarket or newsagent, online with global delivery, or as a DRM-free PDF download from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 217

Custom PC Issue 217In this month’s instalment of my five-page Hobby Tech column for Custom PC Magazine, I take a look at the Oratek Tofu carrier board for the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 the Zymbit HSM6 hardware security module, and Tim Danton’s The Computers That Made Britain.

The Oratek Tofu is one of a growing number of carrier boards which take a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 system-on-module and turn it into a fully-functional compact computer. Designed to break out all the features of the module, there’s only one thing missing: it has no USB 3.0 ports, with Oratek having made the decision to instead break out the PCI Express lanes which would normally connect to a USB 3.0 controller to an M.2 B-key slot for PCIe devices – and an optional adapter board adds support for NVMe storage, too.

Add in a 3D-printed and smartly-designed case, and the Tofu is a tempting proposition – let down only by high pricing. It’s understandable given the small production batch, but if Oratek could find a way to bring the costs down it’d go a long way to making a Tofu plus CM4 a competitor to a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.

The Zymbit HSM6, meanwhile, is a successor to the HSM4. They’re both ultra-compact hardware security modules, designed primarily for integration into custom designs but available with a carrier board for connection to a Raspberry Pi or Nvidia Jetson for development and experimentation.

The HSM6 offers all the features of the HSM4, plus dedicated support for acting as a hardware cryptocurrency wallet. As with the Tofu, though, the pricing is likely to be an issue – and there’s nothing in the way of user-friendly software available for the device, with users instead being given a smattering of C/C++ and Python sample code and left to experiment.

Finally, The Computers That Made Britain – and a disclosure: I’ve worked with the author Tim Danton, editor of PC Pro Magazine, several times. That has no bearing on my opinion of his book, though: a meticulously researched walk through computers which, while not all were made or even designed in Britain, had an undeniable impact on the country’s coteries of computing enthusiasts and developers.

Building on both original interviews, third-party reportage, and contemporary reports, the book isn’t exhaustive but is definitely enjoyable – and bonus points should be given to a high-quality index, all too often missing from these books, which makes it easily usable for reference once you’ve read it cover-to-cover.

Custom PC Issue 217 is available at all good newsagents and supermarkets now, online with global delivery, or as a free digital download on the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 215

Custom PC Issue 215My regular Hobby Tech column takes a look at three very different, yet related, items in this month’s Custom PC: the PiStorm accelerator for the Commodore Amiga; the Remodo X Bluetooth remote from Remotec; and Joshua M. Pearce’s Create, Share, and Save Money Using Open-Source Projects.

First, the PiStorm. I’ve long been a fan of Commodore’s ill-fated Amiga family of computers, and while my collection isn’t what it used to be I still have a couple keeping me company around the office. It was in one of these I installed the PiStorm, an open-source accelerator and expansion board designed to be powered by a Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ – and, in the future, by still-more-powerful models in the Raspberry Pi range.

Donated by my good fried Jaimie Vandenbergh, who had picked up a handful of the low-cost boards for his own use, the PiStorm is nothing short of incredible. Effectively turning the Raspberry Pi into an emulated Motorola processor, it increases an Amiga’s compute performance, memory, graphics capabilities, storage, and even – though not at the time of writing – gives it the ability to connect via a Wi-Fi network. In short: it’s a must-have.

The Remodo X remote, meanwhile, is another accessory aimed at the Raspberry Pi – and a smaller niche. Targeting home automation and home theatre uses, the Remodo X is a surprisingly stylish device with just four buttons on its front and the ability to distinguish between short- and long-press for eight custom-mapped functions.

The device works via both Bluetooth and infrared, though for a gadget Remotec claims is specifically designed for a Raspberry Pi there’s a distinct lack of software: customising its buttons requires a smartphone app, and can’t be done on the Raspberry Pi itself.

Finally, Using Open-Source Projects is a book I wanted to love – after all, I’m a big proponent of free and open-source software and hardware. Sadly, it entirely fails to deliver on its promise – spreading an already-slim book far too thin across far too many topics. Some of the blame lies on the author, but some on the publisher – in particular the poor print quality and bizarre failure to flag the use of a figure which compares an original black-and-white image to its colourised equivalent yet shows both before and after shots in black and white.

The full column, and much more besides, is available in your nearest supermarket or newsagent now, online with global delivery, or – as part of a limited-time offer – as a DRM-free PDF download at zero cost.

Custom PC, Issue 213

Custom PC Issue 213In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at how GL shaders can make the video output from emulators – in particular DOSBox – look an awful lot closer to how you remember the same software running on real hardware, review the Argon One M.2 case for the Raspberry Pi 4 family of single-board computers, and take a look at an unusual children’s book: Big Data Girl by Fred Wordie with illustrations by Santiago Taberna.

First, the shaders. Few would argue that the move away from bulky and power-hungry cathode-ray tube displays to modern liquid-crystal displays was a bad thing, except for possibly vintage game enthusiasts. The “pixel art” of old, you see, was never meant to show big, blocky, individual pixels: the CRT would smooth and blend things as a by-product of its relative inaccuracy, meaning when you fire up a classic like Doom or Moraff’s World and feel disappointed in its appearance it’s not entirely down to rose-tinted spectacles.

Shaders, typically but not exclusively written in GL Shader Language, can help. In the opening piece for this month’s column, I look at how these handy add-ons can turn the block output of an emulator into a surprisingly convincing simulation of a CRT – complete with curvature and overscan, if that’s your wont. The difference in appearance is little short of astounding – though it may take some customisation before you’re fully satisfied with the results.

The Argon One M.2, meanwhile, looks externally a lot like the previous entries in the Argon One case family. There’s the same metal shell, which doubles as a heatsink and means the built-in temperature-controlled fan rarely activates, the same magnetic cover hiding a colour-coded and silkscreened general-purpose input/output (GPIO) header, and the same layout which puts all the Raspberry Pi’s various ports to the rear for neater cabling.

Where the new design differs is in a larger base, which hides the circuitry for converting an M.2 SATA SSD into a USB-attached storage device. Unlike the NESPi 4, reviewed back in Issue 210, this one works properly in USB Attached SCSI (UAS) mode, giving a throughput of 387/300MBps read/write on a test SSD rated at 500/320MBps.

Finally, Big Data Girl is a bit of a departure for the column, as it’s a children’s book – but one with a difference: Wordie’s crowdfunded title aims to introduce the concept of “big data,” anthropomorphised as a friendly little girl, highlighting both how useful it can be and how it can impact your privacy. It’s a smart idea, and Taberna’s illustrations are fantastic, but serves more as a conversation starter for parents already familiar with the concepts than a stand-alone guide to the subject.

Custom PC Issue 213 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, digital distribution platforms, and from the official website with international delivery.

Custom PC, Issue 207

Custom PC Issue 207This month’s Hobby Tech column for Custom PC Magazine takes a look at the hidden costs of stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printing, the RISC OS Direct operating system for the Raspberry Pi, and Steven K. Roberts’ classic memoir Computing Across America.

The 3D printing feature was born of a personal cost – literally, money I spent after diving head-first into the world of SLA 3D printing having been tempted by a low-cost entry-level printer. While the printer itself cost around £150, I spent as much again on the accessories required to get good results – from resin and cleaning tools to an ultraviolet curing station and the FEP sheets which form the bottom of the resin vat.

While the feature focuses on SLA printing, which uses a resin cured by exposure to ultraviolet light, there are costs associated with the more common FFF 3D printers too – including finding ways to protect the plastic filament they use from moisture.

Any readers of a certain vintage will likely remember the original RISC OS, an operating system developed initially for Acorn’s Archimedes family then for the later Risc PC. While Acorn itself went away, RISC OS didn’t – and the launch of the original Raspberry Pi, powered by Arm technology which started life at Acorn, gave it a shot in the arm.

RISC OS Direct is an effort to take the modern RISC OS and make it approachable for newcomers, rather than experienced RISC-takers. As a result, it includes a selection of applications pre-installed – from word processors to web browsers – and a handy-dandy wallpaper which doubles as a quick-reference guide. More detailed documentation is also provided, including electronic copies of programming manuals, for those who want to dive deeper.

Computing Across America, finally, isn’t a new book: It was published in the 1980s by Steven Roberts, the self-styled “high-tech nomad” who sold his house and possessions to cycle across America on a custom-built “Winnebiko” with little more than a TRS-80 Model 100 microcomputer for company. While now out of print, the title is available to borrow from The Internet Archive – and makes for fascinating, if often salacious, reading.

Custom PC Issue 207 is available now at all good supermarkets, newsagents, and online with global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 206

Custom PC, Issue 206This month’s Hobby Tech feature takes a look at the recently-unearthed Nine Tiles prototype ROM for the ZX Spectrum by installing it on a ZX Spectrum Next, dramatically improves the flexibility of the FLIR ETS320 thermal inspection camera, and pores over classic computer commercials courtesy of coffee-table tome Do You Compute?.

First, the prototype ROM. In my review of the ZX Spectrum Next in Custom PC Issue 202, I mentioned that it’s possible to create new “machine personalities” – both by replacing the read-only memory (ROM) files used in Spectrum mode and by loading new cores onto the FPGA at the machine’s heart. Shortly prior to the ZX Spectrum Next’s launch, the Centre for Computing History received a trove of artefacts from Nine Tiles – including a prototype ZX Spectrum which was used to develop a ROM which never actually made it onto the publicly-launched machines.

The Centre had negotiated to make the ROM image available for free download for educational and academic purposes, which gave me an opportunity to load the ROM onto the ZX Spectrum Next and create the Nine Tiles Prototype as a usable machine personality. What followed was a process of debugging and reverse-engineering in order to make the ROM functional on the Next – a process which, I’m pleased to say, was wholly successful.

The FLIR ETS320, meanwhile, was reviewed back in Issue 201 – and one of my biggest complaints was its incredibly short focal length, meaning that it is only possible to analyse a very small part of a given circuit board under the thermal sensor. While the camera platform is capable of rising up, anything above 70mm away from the device on test is too blurry to be of use – unless, that is, you take advantage of a 3D-printed tool to manually adjust focus. The improvement is stark, as thermal images published in the piece demonstrate.

Finally, Do You Compute? is a book which looks not at the history of computing but at the history of selling computing – specifically, as the subtitle makes clear, “from the Atomic Age to the Y2K bug.” Put together by Ryan Mungia and Steven Heller, the book is a fantastic chronological walk through the shift in computers being for governments and big businesses to any businesses and eventually the home user.

It also has a major flaw, and it’s not one caused by the authors: Apple, for reasons unspecified, declined to provide permission for its adverts to be reproduced in the book. With Apple having been at the very forefront of the personal computing revolution, and well-known for iconic adverts from its 1984 Superbowl commercial to “Think Different” and “Rip Mix Burn,” it leaves a real hole in the book.

Custom PC Issue 206 is available now in supermarkets, newsagents, and online with global delivery via the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 204

Custom PC Issue 204In my Hobby Tech column this month I go hands-on with the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB single-board computer, the considerably more powerful Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit, and take a look at Alex Wiltshire and John Short’s Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation.

First, the Raspberry Pi 4. Launched with a view to providing power users with something a with a little more headroom than the 4GB model – itself a fourfold increase on the memory available on its direct predecessor the Raspberry Pi 3 – the new 8GB model doubles the maximum memory while retaining full backwards compatibility. With that said, though, getting the most out of the device does require a 64-bit operating system – and I take a look at third-party options as well as the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s own Raspberry Pi OS in 64-bit builds.

The Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit is another device that takes advantage of a 64-bit operating system, but with a very different focus: where the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B 8GB is aimed at hobbyists, the Nvidia Jetson NX Developer Kit looks towards the professional end of the market – and offers some serious GPU horsepower for machine learning work, plus a new “cloud native” software model that containerises workloads to separate them from the underlying OS and to make it easy to run multiple workloads on a single device.

Finally, Home Computers is another in a series of coffee-table tomes investigating early personal computers – but one with a twist: The 100 machines contained within are taken exclusively from The Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. Each is captured in a series of high-quality photographs, including some close-ups and detail shots you won’t find elsewhere, and accompanied with a short write-up of its origins and capabilities. While it would have been nice to see the machines switched on – each is captured in its powered-off state, a shame given the Centre’s reputation as a hands-on “living museum” – it’s still a great book for vintage computing enthusiasts.

Custom PC Issue 204 is available now at the usual stockists, or online with global delivery from the official website.