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.

Custom PC, Issue 185

Custom PC Issue 185In my regular Hobby Tech column this month you’ll find a detailed review of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ single-board computer, another of the ever-so-slightly less-powerful Digirule2, and of Adam Fisher’s exhaustive Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley.

First, the Raspberry Pi. The first model to use the A+ form factor – smaller PCB, only one USB port, full-size display (DSI), camera (CSI), and HDMI ports, analogue audio-video (AV) – in the last four years, the Pi 3A+ is an impressive beast for cramming the full performance of the larger, more expensive Pi 3B+ into a smaller form factor. I was concerned, upon first unpacking, that the smaller PCB would undo the good work on the thermal-transfer front that made the Pi 3B+ such a good improvement on the original Pi 3B; a quick test under a thermal imaging camera, though, showed that I was worrying over nothing.

The Digirule2 is a markedly different beast. While it’s a single-board computer, it’s one which is designed more for fun than functionality: built into the form factor of a ruler, complete with inches and centimetres marked in binary along the upper and lower edges, the Digirule2 is inspired by classic machines like the Altair 8800. Press a series of buttons to program a particular memory location; press another button to switch to the next; and press a third to see your program run on the built-in LEDs. One particularly impressive feature is an eight-slot program storage, allowing you to save and load your programs directly on the device – and all without having to hook up your punch-tape reader/writer.

Finally, Adam Fisher’s Valley of Genius is a book in the mould of Fire in the Valley: an attempt to document the rise and, frankly, continued rise of Silicon Valley and the companies it has birthed. Culled from over 200 individual interviews, the book uses direct quotation rather than any attempt to weave a narrative but dodges dryness by weaving multiple subjects’ remembrances into each themed chapter. The final effect is less an interview and more a conversation between some of the industry’s biggest names, from the birth of the mouse right through to the modern age.

To read the full column, pick up Custom PC Issue 185 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 181

Custom PC Issue 181In this month’s Hobby Tech column I take a look at two LED-adorned educational electronics kits, the Kitronik :GAME ZIP 64 and the Kano Pixel Kit, along with Mark Hardisty’s latest retrogaming project, The Classic Adventurer.

Kitronik’s :GAME ZIP 64, which will henceforth be known as the much easier to both read and type Game Zip 64, is a clever little add-on for the BBC micro:bit educational platform. Designed to mate with the BBC micro:bit’s edge connector, the Game Zip 64 adds 64 individually-addressable RGB LEDs, a major upgrade on the single-colour 25-LED matrix on the BBC micro:bit itself, buttons to form a four-way directional control pad, two fire buttons, a piezoelectric buzzer, and – interestingly – a vibration motor.

While the sample Python programs – Snake and Pong – are pretty poor, Kitronik has produced a series of lesson plans around the device which are absolutely fantastic, and put the £40 asking price well into ‘bargain’ territory for anyone looking to move on from the built-in features of the bare BBC micro:bit itself.

The Kano Pixel Kit is, on the face of it, a similar device: a matrix of 128 LEDs – twice the number of the Game Zip 64 – dominate the front, but control is limited to a function dial and a couple of buttons. It’s also Kano’s first truly standalone product, eschewing the normal Raspberry Pi for an on-board Espressif ESP-WROOM-32 microcontroller. As with the Kano Computer Kit, the Pixel Kit’s software – which, sadly, is not available for mainstream Linux, despite coming in a Raspberry Pi variant – is fantastic, but its development cost is likely behind the eyebrow-raising £75 asking price.

Finally, Mark Hardisty’s latest project – after putting his groundbreaking tome on the history of Gremlin Graphics to bed and recreating some classic artwork in Inlay – is The Classic Adventurer, a magazine dedicated to the glory days of interactive fiction. Available in print and also, all credit to him, as a free-as-in-beer DRM-unencumbered PDF download, each issue is packed with brilliant art and fascinating articles ranging from interviews to reviews with some behind-the-scenes stuff thrown in for good measure. It’s a fantastic project, and definitely one to follow.

All this, plus the usual raft of other people’s work, can be found at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

 

Custom PC, Issue 180

This month’s Custom PC Magazine sees my Hobby Tech column take a look at TheC64 Mini, a rather annoyingly-stylised recreation of the classic Commodore 64, experiment with Raspberry Pi-powered cluster computing via GNU Parallel, and drink a toast to the memory of the late and lamented Rick Dickinson.

First, Rick. Best known for having been Sinclair Radionics’ – later Research, still later Computers – in-house industrial designer, Rick is the man responsible for the iconic look of the ZX80, ZX81, Sinclair Spectrum, and Sinclair QL, among other devices. While blame for their keyboards lies further up the chain, Rick did the best with his instructions to the point where his designs are still immediately recognisable today. Sadly, Rick had been in ill health of late, and recently passed; my article in this month’s magazine serves as a ode to his memory.

TheC64 Mini, then, feels like a bit of an insult, being as it is the modern incarnation of a device from US Sinclair rival Commodore. Created by Retro Games Limited – not to be confused with Retro Computers Limited, creators of the two-years-late-and-counting ZX Vega+ handheld console, but rather a separate company formed by a split between RCL’s directors present and former – TheC64 Mini appears, at first glance, to be a breadbin-style Commodore 64 that’s been shrunk in the wash.

While deserving plaudits for actually existing, unlike the ZX Vega+, TheC64 Mini isn’t exactly a stellar success: inside its casing, which is dominated by a completely fake keyboard, is a tiny Arm-based single-board computer running Linux and a hacked-around version of the Vice emulator. Its emulation suffers from input lag, something RGL originally attempted to blame on people’s TVs before releasing an update which reduced the problem without completely fixing it, and the bundled Competition Pro-style joystick compounds the problem by being absolutely awful to use courtesy of a rubber membrane design that should have been left on the drawing board.

Finally, the cluster computing tutorial walks the reader through creating a multi-node cluster – of Raspberry Pis, in this instance, though the tutorial is equally applicable to anything that’ll run SSH and GNU Parallel – and pushing otherwise-serial workloads to it in order to vastly accelerate their performance. In the sample workload, which passes multiple images through Google’s Guetzli processor, run-time went from 1,755 seconds in single-threaded serial mode to 125 seconds running on the eight-node cluster – housed in a Ground Electronics Circumference C25 chassis, because if you’re going to do something you should do it in style.

All this, and the usual selection of other interesting articles, can be found in your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

HackSpace Magazine, Issue 5

HackSpace Magazine Issue 5My contribution to the latest issue of HackSpace Magazine is a detailed look at the ZX Spectrum Next, an open-hardware reimplementation of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum microcomputer with a wealth of improvements and enhancements.

Officially licensed from the current owner of the Spectrum rights – Sky In-Home Services, oddly enough, which requires only that a portion of any proceeds are donated to charity – the ZX Spectrum Next builds on the original with a Z80 implementation on a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) which can be run in accelerated mode at up to 14MHz, up to 2MB of memory, SD card storage, built-in joystick ports, crystal-clear HDMI video output, four-channel AY sound, support for original Spectrum keyboards or modern PS/2 keyboards, and even optional real-time clock, ESP8266 Wi-Fi, and Raspberry Pi Zero-based co-processor add-ons.

Despite these upgrades – and more I haven’t mentioned, including a brand-new operating system dubbed NextOS, 256-colour display modes, and hardware sprite support – the ZX Spectrum Next also boasts full backwards compatibility with software and hardware designed for the original Spectrum family, which is something of an impressive achievement given the relatively modest resources available to its creators following a successful crowdfunding campaign for its production.

The ZX Spectrum Next reviewed here, though, isn’t quite the finished article. Provided to backers eager to get their hands on the device as early as possible, the board-only ZX Spectrum Next Issue 2A is aimed primarily at developers. It also comes with an annoying design flaw, which was discovered post-review: a missing capacitor which can cause stability issues when coupled with low-quality power supplies. The finalised Issue 2B, its creators promise, will include the missing capacitor along with a keyboard and chassis housing designed by Sinclair’s long-term industrial designer Rick Dickinson.

For a full look at the ZX Spectrum Next, you can pick up Hackspace Magazine Issue 5 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or as a free download under the Creative Commons licence at the official website.

Custom PC, Issue 175

Custom PC Issue 175This month’s Custom PC is a bit of a Halfacree takeover, boasting a whopping 15 pages of my content: a seven-page guide to building a Raspberry Pi-powered vintage gaming console, a three-page look at the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities, and my usual five-page Hobby Tech column with reviews of the Coinkite Opendime, iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, and Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: The Amiga Years.

First, the vintage gaming feature. Building on a brief from editor Ben Hardwidge, I wanted to do something a little more in-depth than the usual how-to guide. The result is a seven-page feature which begins with a look at the wealth of accessories available to turn a Raspberry Pi or other single-board computing into a powerful emulation station, a two-page expert guide to the legalities of emulation in the UK, step-by-step instructions on downloading, installing, and configuring the RetroPie on a Raspberry Pi, and a look at entirely legitimate sources for read-only memory (ROM) game images.

While I’m fully equipped to handle the how-to and look-at-the-shiny-things sections of the guide myself, the legal aspect required an expert eye kindly provided by Eaton Smith LLP partner Chris Taylor. Legal counsel to a variety of game development and publishing companies, Chris kindly walked through the legalities of developing, downloading, and using emulation software and hardware under UK law – and even threw in a cheeky topical reference to Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One ahead of the release of its film adaptation. I’m also grateful to The Internet Archive’s software curator Jason Scott for taking the time to discuss the Archive’s vast trove of software and in-browser emulation functionality.

Meltdown and Spectre, meanwhile, are a lot less fun. The names given to a quartet of security vulnerabilities hard-baked in to the vast majority of processors built since the 1990s, Meltdown and Spectre are unarguably the worst things to happen to the computer industry since the death of the Commodore Amiga. My three-page look discusses the vulnerabilities, how they can be exploited to gain access to supposedly-protected information, and what companies are doing to fix the problems – and, spoiler, the conclusion there is “not nearly enough.” Since the piece was written, though, there’s one thing to note: installation of the KB4056892 patch for Windows 10 includes faulty microcode protection from Intel which can cause systems to reboot spontaneously, which is resolved through the installation of KB4078130 at the cost of disabling protections against one of the two Spectre vulnerabilities.

Finally, Hobby Tech itself opens with a look at the clever but fragile Opendime from cryptocurrency start-up Coinkite. Designed to turn Bitcoin into a digital bearer bond, an Opendime creates a private key which is stored in a secure enclave accessible only by irrevocably modifying the device by popping off a small surface-mount resistor. So long as the resistor is intact, the theory goes, nobody has access to the private key – meaning you can accept the device as payment without risk. Sadly, since my fairly glowing review was written two things have changed: the Opendime I’ve been carrying around on my keyring has unsealed itself without any visible damage to the resistor or the heatshrink which protects it, an issue Coinkite’s founder and support team have singularly failed to address, and the high transaction fees on the Bitcoin network have dropped from around £20 to around 20p meaning one of the major benefits of using a £15 USB device for in-person transactions has been lost.

The iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit, by contrast, is a significantly happier story. I’ve long been a fan of iFixit’s teardowns and the software they developed for presenting the information, so a toolkit with the iFixit seal of approval was high on my want list. Having now received one, I can confirm it’s no disappointment: from the high-quality tools, all bundled with the express intention of making it as easy as possible to dismantle modern electronics, to the smart multi-function storage case, the entire bundle is pleasingly robust.

Finally, Commodore: The Amiga Years. The follow-up to author Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge, The Amiga Years was officially cancelled years ago before being resurrected through a crowdfunding campaign. Since the closure of the campaign, however, the project was beset by delays and a last-minute editing decision that sees the final third of the story, taking Commodore to its sad demise, spun out into yet another book – a move backers criticising the decision have positioned as a blatant attempt at extracting more money. As with A Company on the Edge, though, the story told in The Amiga Years is one well worth the entry price – if suffering a little from Bagnall’s wandering editorial process, whereby topics raised as though you should already know them in Chapter 2 won’t be formally introduced until Chapter 5.

All this, and slightly less stuff by people who aren’t me, can be found at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 174

Custom PC Issue 174This month’s Hobby Tech column takes a look at a very special eight-byte – not a typo – microcomputer, walks through turning a spare Raspberry Pi into a Nav Coin-mining cryptocurrency machine, and looks forward to the launch of the ZX Spectrum Next with a look at a deep-dive book detailing the original Spectrum’s neat Ferranti Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip.

First, the Mini C88. Designed by the multi-talented Daniel Bailey as a more affordable version of his C88, swapping the field-programmable gate array (FPGA) on which he implemented his own processor core design for an Arduino Zero and the extremely clever Dynamic Binary Translation (DBT) technique, the C88 is designed to be about as simple as a computer can get. Based on a custom instruction set, the C88 has just eight memory locations of eight bits apiece and is programmed by toggling each bit using a series of pleasingly tactile switches while monitoring the process on the 8×8 LED matrix that serves as its display.

For regular readers, this will all sound familiar: the original FPGA-based C88 and its 32-byte bigger brother the C3232 were the subject of an interview back in Issue 155. While Daniel has still not turned the C88 into a kit you can head out and buy, the Mini C88 is definite progress in that direction – and, as always, anyone interested in the project should hassle him about it on Twitter.

For those with a Raspberry Pi and a desire to play with cryptocurrency, meanwhile, this month’s tutorial will be of definite interest: a guide to turning a Pi into a ‘Stake Box’ for the Nav Coin cryptocurrency. Designed as an alternative to Bitcoin, Nav Coin offers those who run network nodes rewards in the form of a five percent return on their coin holdings when locked up in this manner. Taking less than an hour to set up and requiring nothing more than a low-powered computer, it’s a great way to get involved – and the Nav Coin project itself definitely one to follow.

Finally, while waiting impatiently for my ZX Spectrum Next microcomputer to land – which, I’m pleased to say, has since happened – I enjoyed a re-read of Chris Smith’s excellent The ZX Spectrum ULA: How to Design a Microcomputer. Based on interviews and deep-dive analysis, the book investigates the tricks and techniques which allowed Sinclair Computers to build the ZX Spectrum micro at such a bare-bones cost – which, in turn, was thanks to clever use of an Uncommitted Logic Array (ULA) chip from Scottish electronics giant Ferranti. Effectively a write-once version of the modern FPGA, Ferranti’s ULA saw the number of components in the ZX81 drop to a quarter compared to the ZX80 and is key to how the ZX Spectrum does what it does.

For all this, and a bunch of other interesting things by people who aren’t me, pick up a copy of Custom PC Issue 174 from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 172

Custom PC Issue 172That this month’s Hobby Tech column includes the review of a single-board computer should come as no surprise; that it’s a Windows 10 machine, though, certainly shakes things up a bit – as do a guest appearance by my trusty Cambridge Computers Z88 and an interview with Indiegogo’s Joel Hughes on the topic of crowdfunding.

The DFRobot LattePanda isn’t a new device, but it’s new to me. While I’ve probably reviewed more single-board computers than any other device category – and written the book on more than one – the LattePanda stands out from the crowd for two reasons: it uses an Intel Atom processor with considerable grunt, and it runs Microsoft’s Windows 10 Home operating system. Add in to that an on-board Arduino-compatible microcontroller and you’ve got a very interesting system indeed – and one which only got more interesting when I popped it under the thermal camera.

My interview with Indegogo’s Joel Hughes, meanwhile, took place in the spacious hall of Copenhagen’s former meat-packing district as part of the TechBBQ event. “We want to democratise funding as much as possible and level the playing field for great ideas,” he told me, before I threw a few tricky questions about some high-profile campaigns that had perhaps fallen short of greatness – or even mediocrity. “I don’t feel, the majority of the time, that it’s malicious,” he claimed on the topic of campaign operators who fail to keep their backers in the loop on post-fundraising progress. “I think they’re busy doing their own thing and almost forget about the comment section a little.”

Finally, the Cambridge Computers Z88. Although it’s been in my possession for many years, has a bag-friendly A4 footprint, and runs for a full day’s work on a set of double-A batteries, I’ve shied away from using Uncle Clive’s portable for serious work owing to the difficulties in actually getting documents off its internal memory and onto something more modern. The purchase of a PC Link II kit and some clever open-source software, though, has solved the problem, and if you see me out and about at events don’t be surprised if I’m taking notes on a rubber-keyed classic.

All this, plus a bunch of other stuff, is available at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar distribution services.