3 years ago

Custom PC UK 2014-01


hoBBY tech GARETH HALFACREE’S The latest tips, tricks and news in the world of computer hobbyism, from Raspberry Pi and Android to retro computing THE FUZE – POWERED BY RASPBERRY Pi Readers who were around in the 1980s will remember the heyday of microcomputing: the Sinclair Spectrum, the Acorn Atom, the Dragon 32, the Grundy NewBrain – plus a selection of others from overseas. All were designed to get people started with learning how to program a relatively simple computer system. The 1980s might be over, but there has been a recent resurgence in these ideals with the launch of the Raspberry Pi. Sadly, for all its low-cost capabilities, however, the Pi is far closer to a modern desktop or laptop than the microcomputers of yore. That’s where the Fuze comes in. The brainchild of Jon Silvera, the Fuze attempts to bridge the gap between the easily accessible microcomputers of the 1980s, and the power and flexibility of the Raspberry Pi. Available as a standalone kit, designed primarily for education, or as a kit where you just add a Pi, the Fuze turns the Pi into a proper BBC Micro-style computer. The sturdy metal case is finished in an eyecatching red and black colour scheme. Inside, mounted to a removable tray, sits a Raspberry The integrated mounting tray has pigtails that break out all the important connections, except composite video Pi Model B, with the majority of its ports – except composite video, for some reason – brought to the rear of the case via small pigtail adaptors. Vents to the left and right offer the little cooling the Pi requires, while the top of the case includes a built-in USB keyboard that connects to one of the Pi’s two USB ports. The design of the case includes an interesting trench above the keyboard, the use for which becomes apparent when you look at what else is included: the left-hand side of the trench provides a GPIO breakout board, which protects the Pi from easy damage using built- A bundled IO board provides easy access to the Pi’s GPIO pins, and uses diodes to protect against miswiring in diodes, while a bundled miniature breadboard fills much of the remainder, leaving a little room to build up a small collection of components to the right. This feature reveals the difference between the Pi and a traditional PC: the kit includes a small selection of electronic components – LEDs, a buzzer, switches – and downloadable project cards, which teach schoolchildren how to wire them up and program them. The programming step is where the Fuze really feels like a throwback to the 1980s. Rather than using Python, the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s default language, the Fuze includes a customised Raspian installation on an SD card with Fuze Basic. Developed by Gordon Henderson, Fuze Basic will feel immediately familiar to any child of the 1980s. Double clicking the icon provides a white-on-black interface clearly born from Acorn’s design ethos, but brought bang up to date. As well as an interactive command interpreter, Fuze Basic includes a built-in text editor for free-text editing of programs, rather than having to replace faulty lines in their entirety, as with traditional Basicbased microcomputers. A small bundled manual provides quick references for the Fuze Basic command set, including the instructions – based heavily on the syntax of the popular Arduino IDE – for controlling the Pi’s GPIO pins. The Fuze isn’t without its faults though – the full kit is undeniably expensive, costing £180 inc VAT with the Pi and components, or £90 inc VAT for the case, breadboard and expansion module alone. While schools can deduct VAT from that price, home buyers may be put off. The Fuze is available now from 12 January 2014

CUSTOMISATION ELECTRONIC ARCHAEOLOGY: THE TINA II Created some time in the early 1980s, the LJ Electronics Tina II was primarily aimed at education. Based roughly on the same design as Acorn’s BBC Micro, and sharing the same MOS Technology 6502 processor, the Tina is an extremely interesting beast; the motherboard sits outside the metal case, with everything laid out in a pseudo-block diagram approach and labelled according to its purpose. Like today’s Raspberry Pi, the device also includes some interesting extras. A row of general-purpose input-output pins are located to the left, designed for large plugboard-style jacks, while a bench-top power supply splits off from the main linear PSU – with its massive heatsinks – at the top. There’s even an EPROM burner located at the bottom right of the board. Sadly, finding information on the Tina isn’t easy. It came to me, via my friend Andrew Back, from an electronic flea market where it had been sold untested as an ex-RAF device. Searching online, there’s little evidence it ever existed – just a brief mention in the manual for its lower-end variant, the Emma, and one sentence on a page dedicated to LJ Electronics’ robotic arm kits. Even the National Museum of Computing and the Museum for Computer History had never heard of it. As a result, I decided to do a little digital archaeology with the aid of my EPROM burner. Taking the helpfully labelled and socketed EPROM chips off the board, I dumped each one onto my desktop PC for analysis. Saving them in a binary format, I could run the handy Removing that battery is a priority: the alkaline crystals will erode the PCB UNIX ‘strings’ utility across the files in order to quickly find and dump the ASCII text contents. The result was a goldmine of information, courtesy of an built-in help system. The Tina, it seems, has a number of advanced features: a built-in machine code monitor, debug routines, the aforementioned EPROM burner, a surprisingly advanced file management system for optional disk drives and even a variant of BASIC. Sadly, the process also revealed a roadblock to getting the system working again. The last ROM, which holds the machine code monitor, is corrupt; there’s evidence that the label covering the quartz window has been peeled back at some point, possibly letting in enough light to scramble the data. Replacing the ROM is key to getting Tina back on its feet, but it isn’t going to be easy; while the company that created it, now known as LJ Create, still exists, it hasn’t been eager to respond to my emails, and I know of only one other Tina out there – supplied by Andrew to another of his friends. If that Tina has a working ROM, I’m golden – but if not, this process could get extremely difficult. I’m not going to let that put me off, though, as I’m concentrating on physical restoration. The large linear PSU will need attention, and a battery needs desoldering and replacing before the leaking alkaline crystals burn through the circuitboard. I’m also going to contact the RAF to find Tina’s purpose there – the uneven wear on a small number of keys suggests active use, so it almost certainly has a story to tell. When faced with an unknown device, dumping the EPROMs can reveal interesting secrets The contents of one of Tina’s EPROMs, showing the integrated help system The keyboard shows signs of uneven wear, suggesting Tina has seen active use 14 January 2014 13

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