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February 16, 2015

As Nice As Pi…

Filed under: Hardware,Technology — admin @ 1:07 am

And a Raspberry Pie, at that.

On February 29th, 2012, a small UK charity released an absolutely tiny microcomputer to the waiting world. It wasn’t much to look at [see the photo, below]. In fact, it wasn’t much when it came to performance, either. The initial release model came with a 700MHz, single-core processor from Broadcom, 256Mb of RAM, an SD Card slot for “disc storage”, an HDMI output port, and a 3.5mm jackplug for audio. Small enough to fit in a [“kitchen-sized”] box of matches, this machine was released for about $35 with the intent that it could be supplied to school children to promote programming and technology skills.

There is some lovely synergy here… Many of the Team responsible for developing the Pi started started out working for a small UK computer company, Acorn, back in the early 1980s. Acorn produced the “BBC Microcomputer” for schools, then went on to design their own 32-bit RISC processor (the Acorn Risk Machine). If you recognise the name, it’s because ARM Holdings Limited, effectively an offspring of those early foundations, is responsible for designing chips that power most of the world’s smartphones. And, of course, the Broadcom chip that powers the Raspberry Pi is an ARM core.

So: cool, right? Well… mostly. The early iterations of the Pi (a Model A, A+, B and B+) were all very successful, reliable, and economical, but not exactly powerful… But that’s just changed… Enter the Raspberry Pi 2… An iterative improvement on the Model B+, the Pi2 comes with 1Gb RAM, a faster, Quad-Core Broadcom chip, much improved graphics [like: quite capable of generating a 1920×1080 resolution display to play video content!]…

There are various software images that can be used to power it, too: Raspbian, a port of Debian Linux to the Arm architecture; RaspBMC, a port of the popular XBMC derivative of “X-Box Media Centre” [to create a full-featured meadia centre; plus RiscOS – a port of the Operating System that first debuted in about 1986 on the Acorn Archimedes – the first commercially-available computer with an Acorn/ARM chip inside it.

What’s not to like?

RaspberryPi

Now, OK, you may be thinking: hang on – this is hardly powerful enough to do *anything* useful. But you’d be wrong… This setup is roughly equivalent in power to a dual-processor Intel Pentium II system with similar RAM; a high-speed 16Gb micro-SD card is likely faster than the 8.4Gb PATA drives of the day, too – and the SoC graphics is comfortably a match for what was on offer at the time… Well, they have gone from strength to strength – and are used in robotics, home automation, classrooms and, even, super-computer classes at universities [building a 120-note super-cluster from RasPis, which cost $35 each, is a bit more realistic than more expensive gear.

And on of the harder skills to learn in IT today is “how to do more with less” – how to tune and tweak something to work with seriously constrained resources. You can’t beat as RasPi for that… It really is as nice as Pi… [sic]

August 23, 2014

The Sound of Silence

Filed under: Hardware,Technology — admin @ 10:59 pm

Back in June 2012, I bought myself a Shuttle X35 fanless PC. This fabulous little personal computer came with a 1.6GHz Intel Atom dual-core CPU, to which I added 4Gb of laptop RAM and a 90Gb Kingston SSD. Result: a stunning little desktop machine more than capable of handling a 1920×1200 monitor and providing me with basic web and email activities, and completely, 100% silent to boot. What’s not to like?

Truth be told, precious little. In fact, the only real “gripe” I could level at the X35 was an inability to power a pair of monitors. But let’s be honest, what could I reasonably expect for £180?

Fast-forward to August 2014 and, sadly, my Shuttle suffered what turned out to be a crippling failure when it’s integrated Ethernet Port decided to die on me. I suspect this was due to  slightly excessive cable tension… but whatever the root cause, it turned out to be terminal. Time to hit the web and come up with a replacement. And I struck gold. The folks over at AtLast Solutions have been building a range of fan-less and small-form-factor PCs for quite some time know, and their experience shows.

A phone call to discuss my requirements and I was recommended the “Newton” system, built around a dual-core i5 processor. Offering 4 cores with hyper-threading, this model had not been my first choice (since I had been tempted by the Core i7 options). However, I soon learned that the i5 alternative has improved graphics (courtesy of Intel HD5000 Pro GPU, roughly twice as powerful as the i7’s 4600GPU) and runs cooler to boot. I pushed the specification to the limit, opting for 16Gb of RAM and a huge SSD, but now have a machine that dual-boots between a 64-bit edition of Win7 Pro [supplied and installed for me] and a 64-bit edition of Linux Mint 17.0 (Qiana). This combination works flawlessly: I can select my OS of choice at boot time, and switch between them in seconds.

No, this is nowhere near the economy level of the Shuttle X35, but, oh my, it simply blows away the older unit in terms of speed and sheer fun. Better yet, the Newton is equipped with an HDMI Port and a Display Port… My Dell 24″ Monitors have suitable connectors, so I now switch between systems using monitor input selectors rather than a KVM switch. Much, much better.

Awesome solution: I’m chuffed.

Huge thanks and kudos to the guys over at AtLast Solutions!

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