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 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.

PC Pro, Issue 309

PC Pro Issue 309This month’s PC Pro includes my hands-on review of the TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded reimagining of what home computers could have become if the market hadn’t crashed in the mid-80s.

Powered by a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), giving it the ability to transform into anything from a BBC Micro to a Galaxians arcade cabinet, the ZX Spectrum Next is around two years past its original launch schedule. The delay has been attributed to getting everything right, in particular the Rick Dickinson-designed chassis and keyboard – and, in TBBlue’s defence, the entire package is undeniably impressive.

For PC Pro’s testing I went hands-on with a production model of the top-end variant, the ZX Spectrum Next Accelerated. This features 1MB of memory upgradeable to 2MB, which is a lot if you’re thinking in 1980s terms, with a pre-fitted real-time clock and Wi-Fi module to match the mid-range Plus model. The stand-out feature of the Accelerated version, though, is a Raspberry Pi Zero fitted internally to act as a coprocessor – a concept gently borrowed from the BBC Micro and its Tube socket, to which the world’s first Arm processors were connected.

It wasn’t my first experience with the ZX Spectrum Next: I reviewed an early revision of the motherboard, minus case and keyboard, two years ago. In that time, though, the company and the community behind the project have worked to really polish things up: there’s a wire-bound printed manual, though sadly lacking an index; the operating system is swish and the bundled games impressive; the lost 28MHz ultra-fast accelerated operation mode is back, after being dropped in favour of a 14MHz mode following timing issues with the RAM; and while some features aren’t quite ready, in particular the ability to load multiple FPGA cores into a menu and choose from them at boot-up, it’s already a device that will appeal to vintage computing enthusiasts.

The full review is available now in PC Pro Issue 309, available at your nearest stockists or online in print or digital formats.

Custom PC, Issue 202

Custom PC Issue 202This month’s Hobby Tech column opens with a look at the long-delayed but worth-the-wait TBBlue ZX Spectrum Next, moves on to the unique Sega Arcade Pop-Up History from Read Only Memory, and closes on a look at the Raspberry Pi Imager utility.

Issue 202 is not the first time the ZX Spectrum Next, a crowdfunded effort to not only recreate the classic Sinclair machine using modern hardware but to answer the question of what could have been if it weren’t for the microcomputer crash and subsequent sale to Amstrad: the internal hardware was reviewed way back in Issue 176 in the form of the board-only backer reward.

The ZX Spectrum Next is more than just a motherboard, however: its design includes a “toastrack”-inspired chassis and keyboard straight from the drafting board of sadly since-departed former Sinclair industrial designer Rick Dickinson – his last project, it would turn out. The fully-finished hardware, chassis and all, was due to arrive in backers’ hands in January 2018 – but only now, more than two years late, is the hardware finally being delivered.

Thankfully, it’s been worth the wait. Issues with the keyboard’s reliability have been ironed out, errors in the original hardware design resolved, and the firmware which drives the on-board field-programmable gate array (FPGA) updated and tweaked. The 28MHz accelerated mode, missing from the original review, is back, and the custom operating system works smoothly and without issue.

Sega Arcade Pop-Up History is another nostalgia-driven walk down memory lane, but rather than looking at home computers of the 1980s it covers Sega’s “taiken,” or “body sensation,” arcade cabinets – machines which moved to match the on-screen action. The written material is, however, limited: the bulk of the book is given over to card pop-up models of six cabinets, which is a definite first for Hobby Tech.

Finally, the Raspberry Pi Imager. Borrowing shamelessly from Balena’s Etcher, Imager is a tool from the Raspberry Pi Foundation which offers a cross-platform simplified graphical user interface for not only writing disk images to microSD cards but for downloading them too. The flow is just seven or eight clicks long: open Imager, bring up the list of supported operating systems, choose one and confirm, bring up the list of target storage devices and confirm, and flash. There’s even a verification stage, to confirm the image is correctly written – and you can point it at manually-downloaded disk images if your favoured operating system isn’t in the default selection.

All this, and a lot more beside, can be found in Custom PC Issue 202 at all the usual stockists and online from the official website with global delivery.

Custom PC, Issue 200

Custom PC Issue 200In this milestone issue of Custom PC Magazine you’ll find a look at the impressively retro tilde.club service and the wider tildeverse, the edge-AI-focused Orange Pi 4B single-board computer, and the Pi Hut ZeroDock accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero.

First, tilde.club – which requires a little history lesson for context. In the early days of networked computing, particularly on systems based on UNIX or the later POSIX standard, users hosted shared files in their home folders – which were given the shortcut ~. Today, shared systems have given way to virtual private servers (VPSes), but tilde.club offers a reproducible platform for those who miss the early days: your own directory, with public and private areas, on a truly shared POSIX-compliant server.

As well as hosting simple websites – there’s no server-side scripting here – you can join in internal email discussions, an on-server BBS, a text-based interface for the popular Reddit social network, and even play multiplayer games, all in the comfort of your terminal. A major delay in approving accounts for the original tilde.club – five years before a volunteer took over the service and began clearing the queue – also gave rise to the tildeverse, a network of tilde.club-based servers many of which focus on particular topics of interest.

The Orange Pi 4B, by contrast, is very much not a throwback but a piece of hardware designed to sit at the cutting edge. Mimicking, with a few modifications, the layout of a Raspberry Pi single-board computer, the Orange Pi 4B offers a Rockchip RK3399 six-core processor – two high-performance cores, four low-power cores – alongside a neural processing unit (NPU) coprocessor for edge-AI acceleration. As usual, my review looks at software support, hardware performance, and thermal imaging – along with an investigation of what the NPU brings to the table.

Finally, the Pi Hut ZeroDock is a handy but sadly pricey accessory for the Raspberry Pi Zero family of single-board computers. Constructed from laser-cut acrylic, the ZeroDock houses a Pi Zero, a bundled compact solderless breadboard, and a small number of accessories like USB dongles and SD Card adapters. For those using a Pi Zero for prototyping, it’s a great tool – but at £10, twice the price of the Pi Zero board itself, it’s a little too expensive to be a must-have.

The full feature can be found on newsagent and supermarket shelves now, or purchased for global delivery from the official Custom PC website.

 

Custom PC, Issue 199

Custom PC Issue 199This month’s Hobby Tech column breaks out the thermal camera once again for a look at Pimoroni’s Heatsink Case for the Raspberry Pi 4, discusses the new Code the Classics educational programming book with Eben Upton, and reviews Bitmap Books’ The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games.

Pimoroni’s surprisingly robust case for the Raspberry Pi 4 – and not, thanks to changes made in the ports on the board, for any other model of Raspberry Pi – is something of an anomaly in the company’s stock: it’s not an in-house design, but rather a third party creation placed in Pimoroni packaging. There’s also not that much to it: the case is nothing more than two pieces of aluminium, some screws, and three thermal interface material (TIM) pads – of which, Pimoroni’s instructions inform the buyer, you should only use one.

Aside from mechanical fit and feel, the majority of the testing took place using my in-house thermal throttling benchmark – ten minutes of heavy CPU and GPU workload plus a five-minute cooldown period, tracked over one-second intervals – and via thermal imaging. The latter is an increasingly important tool for this type of review: placing the heatsink under the thermal camera revealed that there was little thermal headroom in the design, meaning it may not be wholly appropriate for extreme environments or overclocking scenarios – despite handling the benchmark well.

Upton’s Code the Classics, meanwhile, is a programming book with a difference: It takes an in-depth look at a series of classic game types and teaches the reader not only how to program their own but what went into the creation of the originals, including interviewing some big names from the industry. It’s half coffee-table, half-educational and wholly clever – and while Eben Upton provided the code, it’s a definite team effort with Sean Tracey, Dan Malone, Alastair Brimble, David Crookes, Andrew Gillet, and Liz Upton all contributing according to their own skills. Impressively, the entire book is also available to download free of charge under a Creative Commons licence.

Finally, The Art of Point and Click Adventure Games is yet another colourful coffee-table tome from Bitmap Books’ Sam Dyer, and one well worth picking up. Reviewed in the since sold-out Collector’s Edition form – packaged in an oversized cardboard housing designed to mimic big-box PC games of yore, complete with a USB stick disguised as a somewhat shrunken 3.5″ floppy disk – it makes an excellent companion piece to The CRPG Book from the same publisher, and is up to Bitmap’s usual excellent quality.

Custom PC Issue 199 is available now from all good supermarkets and newsagents, via several digital distribution platforms, or for online purchase with global delivery from the Raspberry Pi Press store.

Custom PC, Issue 197

Custom PC Issue 197This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at Argon 40’s revised Argon One – or Argon 1, depending on which bit of the packaging you’re looking at – case for the Raspberry Pi 4, the RISC-V-based Sipeed Longan Nano development board, and Toshi Omagari’s Arcade Game Typography.

First, the Argon 1 Pi 4 case. Externally, this looks a lot like the Argon One reviewed back in Issue 188; internally, though, things have been shifted around to provide support for the latest Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer – and the brown-outs caused by the smart power and cooling board drawing too much power are now a thing of the past.

As with its predecessor, the Argon 1 Pi 4 is impressively solid and does a great job at cooling the Raspberry Pi 4 by using the aluminium housing as a heatsink – even running a heavy synthetic workload, the temperature didn’t reach the minimum required to activate the built-in PWM-controlled cooling fan. It also adds some neat features, such as a labelled and colour-coded GPIO header, neater cabling through the shifting of audio and video ports to the rear, and a smart power button.

Shortly after the review was completed, but thankfully before the magazine went to press, the power board on the Argon 1 Pi 4 died – thankfully without taking the Raspberry Pi 4 with it. The review was updated accordingly, and since then Argon 40 has been stellar in attempting to resolve the problem – paying to have the faulty board returned for analysis and replacing both the faulty board and the entire unit in order to get things back up and running. While it will be a short while before it’s clear whether the failure was a one-off or not, it’s certainly impossible to fault the company’s customer service ethos.

The Sipeed Longan Nano, supplied by Seeed Studio, is an interesting beast: costing less than $5, the board is based on a low-power RISC-V microcontroller with a breadboard-friendly board design and a built-in low-resolution colour LCD display. For the money, the hardware is absolutely incredible – especially as Seeed has even designed a rough but serviceable acrylic case for the board, bundled at no additional cost.

The software and documentation, however, is definitely an issue. The libraries provided failed in a variety of ways – including an inability to use printf() or open a serial port – and the English documentation is extremely sparse. Particularly lacking is anything to demonstrate the use of the LCD – bar a single example program documented using Chinese in-line comments.

Finally, Arcade Game Typography. I’ve reviewed a lot of retro-computing coffee-table books over the years, but Omagari’s book is the first to concentrate solely on fonts and typography as used in classic arcade games – and given Omagari’s work as a designer for Monotype UK, it’s fair to say he knows his stuff. The result is a fascinating book, and one which is currently available in a limited 1,000-copy hardback print run from Read-Only Memory if the standard paperback isn’t shiny enough for you.

Custom PC Issue 197 is available on supermarket and newsagent shelves now, or can be ordered for global delivery from the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 189

Custom PC Issue 189This month, my regular Hobby Tech column opens with a look at a RISC-V based not-quite-off-the-shelf personal computer build by AB Open, walks readers through building a weather monitor powered by a Raspberry Pi and a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT, and marvels at the excesses of the computer retail scene in the 1970s and 1980s via David Pleasance’s Commodore: The Inside Story.

First, the PC. The majority of PCs on desks around the world today are based on processors which use the x86 architecture or its 64-bit equivalent; a small handful are based on similar Arm chips to the ones you might find in your smartphone; and an even smaller number are powered by things like Zilog Z80s, MOS 6502s, and Motorola 68000s belonging to people who just don’t like to throw away a perfectly good decades-old system. The system built by AB Open recently, though, is different: it’s based on RISC-V, an open instruction set architecture (ISA) for which anyone can – given time, money, and a fair smattering of expertise – build a chip.

“It might be some time before there’s an off-the-shelf chip that can compete with x86 on raw performance and traditional benchmarks,” AB Open’s Andrew Back, who for full disclosure is a client of mine, admits, “but the open nature of the ISA, and the ecosystem developing around it, is driving a renaissance in novel computer architectures.” By way of proof: a fully-functional Linux-based desktop PC, built in a custom-designed laser-cut chassis, created using the SiFive HiFive Unleashed development board and Microsemi expansion board.

From a PC you can browse the web on to one which flashes a few lights: the Raspberry Pi weather monitor is a remix of a project I published in Issue 153, to use a Pimoroni Unicorn HAT LED matrix to graph energy usage in my home. This time, the same hardware is repurposed to show animated weather icons based on data downloaded from OpenWeatherMap – and, despite the low resolution of the LED matrix, it works an absolute treat.

Finally, Commodore: The Inside Story sounds like it should be an exhaustive history of the company behind one of the world’s biggest-selling home computers. It isn’t. Instead, it’s a two-part affair: the first is a series of personally recollections, presented in a very similar fashion to the stories you might hear if you took author David Pleasance to the pub and asked him about his time working in Commodore’s sales and marketing division; the second is a collection of guest chapters, and as fun as it is reading about orgies in Consumer Electronics Show hotels and drink-driving incidents the second half is, for me, the better half.

All this, and a raft more, can be found at your nearest newsagent or supermarket; the electronic version, meanwhile, is enjoying a brief holiday while background administration relating to its recent switch of publishers takes place.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 16

HackSpace Magazine Issue 16This month’s HackSpace Magazine includes a pair of my reviews, the first looking at a computer that’s also a ruler – because that’s not only a thing but the second thing of its kind to come from the same designer – and a new set of charitable Top Trumps-style collectable cards.

First, the ruler-computer. Designed by Brads Projects, the Digirule2 is – as the name suggests – a second-generation design of a compact microcomputer which is also a functional ruler. Printed onto a single circuit board and built around a PIC32 microcontroller, the Digirule2 is inspired by the classic MITS Altair 8800: its memory is displayed on a series of LEDs, and is programmed one bit at a time using push-button switches.

Where the Digirule improves on the Altair, aside from being considerably more affordable and not taking up a huge chunk of your desk, is in having memory slots for saving and loading programmes. These slots come pre-loaded with demonstrations ranging from simple reaction games to a neat persistence-of-vision hack, while the edges of the board are printed with measurements – in binary, naturally – in both centimetres and inches.

The cards, meanwhile, are something a little less technical but no less geeky. Designed by 8bitkick and sold by the Centre for Computing History to fund its restoration and preservation works, the Games Consoles Collectable Cards partner high-quality colour images of classic videogame consoles with statistics that can be compared for a nerdy game of Top Trumps. They also partner well with the Home Computers Collectable Cards, an earlier release now repackaged to match, though sadly the two decks use different statistics and thus can’t be combined into a single mega-deck.

You can read both reviews, and a lot more beside, by picking up a copy of HackSpace Magazine Issue 16 from your nearest newsagent or by downloading a copy for free under a Creative Commons licence from the official website.

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.