Custom PC, Issue 193

Custom PC Issue 193My Hobby Tech column focuses this month on the Raspberry Pi 4, the amazingly inexpensive M5Stick-C microcontroller platform, and Zach Barth’s game design retrospective Zach-Like.

The column opens with the Raspberry Pi 4 review, a two-page look at the layout, features, functionality, and performance of the latest single-board computer from the Raspberry Pi Foundation. As always, there’s plenty of photography – including thermal imagery, using an in-house process I developed to get the most detail possible by combining visible light and infrared photography into a single print-resolution image.

My look at the M5Stick-C, part of the M5Stack family of products, needs no such clever photography – though there is a shot of the device on my wrist, thanks to a bundled watch strap mount. Designed around the low-cost ESP32 microcontroller the M5Stick-C includes buttons, a full-colour screen, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, LEDs, a range of sensors, a built-in battery chargeable over USB Type-C, and the aforementioned watch strap plus a wall-mount bracket, LEGO-compatible mounting bracket, and even a built-in magnet – and all for under £10 excluding VAT. It may not be perfect, but it’s certainly cheap enough.

Cheaper, though, is Zach-Like, a collection of game design documents charting the early days of Zach Barth and his company Zachtronics. Initially available as a limited-run print edition on crowdfunding site Kickstarter, Zach-Like is now available as a free electronic download on Steam in PDF format – and comes with a huge selection of bonus content, including playable versions of several unreleased games and prototypes. At £10, Zach-Like would be a bargain; for free, it’s astonishing.

You’ll find the full column, and a lot more, in Custom PC Issue 193 at your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or on any one of a selection of digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 183

Custom PC Issue 183In Hobby Tech this month, there’s a look at a project which has genuinely transformed my mornings, a tiny temperature-controlled soldering iron with a hackable firmware, and the latest brain-melting program-’em-up from Zachtronics.

Starting with the game first, Exapunks caught my eye as soon as I saw it announced by developer Zachtronics. Taking the assembler programming concept of earlier titles TIS-100 and Shenzhen-IO, Exapunks wraps them up in a 90s near-future cyberpunk aesthetic alongside a plot driven by a disease called “the phage” which turns victims into non-functional computers. Because of course it does.

Anyone familiar with Zachtronics’ work will know what to expect, but Exapunks really dials things up. From the puzzles themselves – including one inspired by an early scene in the classic film Hackers – to, in a first for the format, the introduction of real though asynchronous multiplayer on top of the standard leaderboard metrics, Exapunks excels from start to oh-so-tricky finish.

The MiniWare TS100 soldering iron, meanwhile, sounds like it could be straight from Exapunks – or, given its name, TS-100: a compact temperature-controlled soldering iron with built-in screen and an open-source firmware you can hack to control everything from default operating temperature to how long before it enters power-saving “sleep mode.” While far from a perfect design – and since supplanted by the TS80, not yet available from UK stockists – the TS100 is an interesting piece of kit, with its biggest flaw being the need to use a grounding strap to avoid a potentially component-destroying floating voltage at the iron’s tip.

Finally, the project: an effort, using only off-the-shelf software tied together in a Bash shell script, to print out a schedule of the days’ tasks on my Dymo LabelWriter thermal printer. Using the code detailed in the magazine, the project pulls together everything from weather forecasts to my ongoing tasks and Google Calendar weekly schedule – along with a word of the day and, just because, a fortune cookie read out by an ASCII-art cow.

All this, and a variety of other topics, is available in the latest Custom PC Magazine on newsagent and supermarket shelves or electronically via Zinio and similar services.

Custom PC, Issue 161

Custom PC Issue 161In this latest issue of Dennis Publishing’s Custom PC Magazine you’ll find – to no great surprise – my long-running five-page Hobby Tech column, covering the handy thermoplastic FORMcard, the Raspberry Pi powered Nextcloud Box, and Zachtronics’ Shenzhen I/O.

Looking at Shenzhen I/O first: it’s rare that I’ll write a game review as part of Hobby Tech, but Zachtronics’ output is a typical exception. The last I covered was the company’s excellent eight-bit minicomputer ‘simulator’ TIS-100, and Shenzhen I/O builds on that premise with a new near-future theme. The player is placed in the role of a newly-hired engineer at a Chinese electronics concern and given the task of building increasingly complex hardware from simple components using a drag-and-drop interface and a simple TIS-100-like instruction set.

As good as the game itself is – and it’s absolutely fantastic – it’s the manual that really caught my attention. Like the Infocom feelies of old, the document is written entirely in-universe and acts as a series of emails, manual extracts, data sheets, and reference material for the hardware and projects you’ll be tackling through the game. If TIS-100 whet your whistle, you won’t be disappointed with Shenzhen I/O.

The Nextcloud Box, meanwhile, is something a little more professional. Designed around the Western Digital Labs PiDrive product, it offers a simple means to build a single-drive low-power 1TB network attached storage (NAS) device running Nextcloud’s open-source software on top of the Ubuntu Snappy Core operating system.

My review of the Nextcloud Box goes into great detail about its features and capabilities, but there are two things that struck me during the review process and are worth highlighting here. The first is that the WD Labs’ box, emblazoned with Nextcloud branding, really needs a rethink: the cables go through very sharp bends, and those using cheaper cables may find they don’t last very long at all. The other is that getting set up for local access was an absolute breeze, without even the need to connect a monitor to the device – something other Pi-powered project creators could do with copying.

Finally, the FORMcard review. I’ve long been a fan of Sugru, a mouldable silicone putty which hardens into rubber overnight, and when I was contacted to see if I would be interested in giving rival FORMcard a try I jumped at the chance. Created by Peter Marigold and crowdfunded into production, FORMcard is a starch-based bioplastic which softens with the application of heat. Simply take one of the credit card footprint plastic sheets, dunk it in hot water for a minute, then mould it to your hearts desire. Unlike Sugru, it hardens in minutes and is fully reusable – assuming you can remove it from whatever surface you smeared it over – but it’s, for obvious reasons, not the material to use if you’re patching something that gets hot.

For my full opinions on all three items, plus the usual array of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC Magazine from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of right where you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.

Custom PC, Issue 156

Custom PC Issue 156The latest installment of my long-running Hobby Tech column for Custom PC is four-strong this month: as well as a two-page review of the Particle Electron GSM microcontroller, you’ll find reviews of the Pimoroni Black Hat Hack3r family of Raspberry Pi add-on boards, vintage computing simulator TIS-100, and a look at open-source laser-cut tool holder designs from Wim Van Gool.

First, the tool holders. I’ve never been known for keeping my workspace neat and tidy, but I’ve found that as long as there is something nearby to slot things in I can be trusted to put things back at least half of the time. Trouble is, pen holders are somewhat ill-suited to smaller tools and dedicated tool holders are expensive. Imagine my joy, then, when I discovered that Wim Van Gool had published design files for a pair of tool holders designed specifically for the sort of compact tools you need for detail electronics work to Thingiverse – and, better still, that they could be cut from cheap medium-density fibreboard (MDF).

The Particle Electron, meanwhile, came to me courtesy a Kickstarter campaign I backed following my delight with the Particle Photon – or, as it was known when I reviewed it back in Issue 132, the Spark Core – Wi-Fi microcontroller. Like its predecessor, the Particle Electron is Arduino-like and powered by Particle’s excellent web-based IDE and cloud infrastructure; where the Photon uses Wi-Fi to connect, though, the Electron uses international mobile infrastructure in either 2G (as reviewed) or 3G flavours. For remote projects where Wi-Fi connectivity can’t be guaranteed, that’s fantastic – but be aware that there are ongoing costs, and that the device is locked down to Particle’s own SIM card (supplied).

Pimoroni’s Black Hat Hack3r boards, meanwhile, are significantly less ‘clever’: at their hearts, the Black Hat Hack3r and Mini Black Hat Hack3r are nothing more than break-out boards for the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin GPIO header. Designed in-house to speed Hardware Attached on Top (HAT) development and released as a product following considerable demand, the ‘dumb’ break-out boards are nevertheless a treat to use: it’s possible to connect a HAT to any model of Pi minus the Compute Module and still retain access to all 40 pins for additional hardware or debugging purposes, or even to daisy-chain the boards to connect multiple HATs to a single Pi – if you don’t mind hacking around the EEPROM issues that may cause.

Finally, TIS-100. I don’t normally review games, but TIS-100 isn’t a normal game: developed by Zachtronics, the creator of Spacechem and the Ruckingeneur series, TIS-100 gives the player control of a fictional 1980s computer system – the Tessellated Intelligence System – with a simplified instruction set. The task: to rewrite corrupted segments of the computer’s firmware, and in doing so uncover the mystery of what happened to the machine’s last owner ‘Uncle Rudy.’ In short: it’s half-game, half-programming-exercise – and pretty much all fantastic.

All this, plus a wealth of other stuff from people other than myself, is awaiting you at your local newsagent, supermarket, or on digital distribution services such as Zinio.