Categories
Hardware

A New Lease of Life

I changed jobs about 18 months ago, and I’m already getting known as ‘that’ guy when it comes to fiddling with technology!

So, a colleague turned up at work with a laptop which had been given to him by a family member, after they’d bought a newer machine. He said it was running slowly and asked me if I’d have a look.

It seemed reasonably modern, probably about 7 or 8 years old. However it was running Windows 7, which I don’t really know my way around too well having not used Windows myself since the days of Windows 98 and Windows XP.

I was able to find out enough information to establish that the machine was slow because the hard drive was struggling with multiple read errors. My colleague also said it crashed a lot and some files had disappeared. A quick boot into Linux with my trusty USB stick (which is always in my pocket!) confirmed the SMART data on the drive showed it was unserviceable. So I gave him the bad news and suggested it needed a replacement disk.

We discussed use cases to decide on a size, and he ended up ordering a small solid state disk for about £25 including delivery. I showed him which screws to undo to swap the drive out and gave him a USB installer for Ubuntu, explaining that I didn’t have a way to get him a copy of Windows and he’d need to talk to someone else about that.

The new drive duly arrived, and my colleague was able to fit the disk and install Ubuntu from scratch using the USB stick I’d lent him. My colleague would be the first to say he’s not very technical, so I think credit is due to the GNU/Linux community for making Linux so easy to use these days.

Even more exciting (to me!) is that my colleague has absolutely no plans to go back to Windows. He’s found software to do everything he wants, says the machine is faster than it ever was and is happy to have an up to date and modern laptop for an outlay of £25.

I really enjoy helping people to try Linux and realise that when they thought they needed a new computer, they often don’t. Machines are saved from landfill, and resources aren’t wasted on an unnecessary new machine. Everyone wins!

If you’d like to try running Linux on your computer, I’d recommend trying Ubuntu because it is well thought out and works on most things with ease. You can download it for free from this link.

Categories
Hardware

The RC2014 Computer

While at Liverpool Makefest last June, I bought myself a kit to build an RC2014 Z80-based computer.

The kit was very well made, with high quality circuit boards which accepted solder very easily, along with sufficient documentation to make the whole building process smooth and enjoyable.

I found the process quite educational too, as the design of the kit splits out the various functions of a computer into separate boards which then plug into a backplane with a common bus linking the parts together. It was good to see how the CPU, ROM, RAM, Clock and I/O all work together to make a functional microcomputer.

I was able to talk to the RC2014 from another computer over a serial connection, but I found I got the real ‘retro’ feel when I added the RC2014 ‘video card’ – which is a serial terminal based on a Raspberry Pi Zero. This meant I could plug my creation into a monitor and keyboard without the need for a separate computer, making the whole thing into a self-contained 8-bit microcomputer.

I also added an I/O board of LEDs and switches so I could interact with the computer without the need for a monitor or keyboard.

My RC2014 incrementing binary numbers…

You can purchase a kit yourself or find out more about this little marvel at this website.

Categories
Amateur Radio Hardware

SharkRF OpenSpot

I’ve been having a lot of success using my MD380 DMR transceiver together with the Isle of Man’s DMR repeater network. Sadly though, my house isn’t in coverage of the repeaters. This means I can’t use my handheld at home.

The solution to this problem has come in the form of a Radio/IP gateway called the OpenSpot, and manufactured by SharkRF.

This allows my DMR radio to send packets to global DMR networks (Brandmeister, DMR+ etc.) and for incoming packets to be sent to my radio over RF.  Essentially it’s like having my own DMR ‘repeater’ at home so that I can use my handheld radio on all of the global networks as if I was in coverage of a DMR repeater.

Configuration was easy, via an HTTP web interface. Once set up, all the control can be done from the radio. Linking and unlinking can be done by sending group calls to specific talkgroups which means there’s no need to keep using a computer to use the device. All you need is your handheld radio.

I’ve been impressed with the build quality, the support forums, and the constant releases of new firmware with new features. I haven’t tried it yet, but it should be possible to use my OpenSpot to also communicate on the non-DMR D-STAR and System Fusion networks too, even though I only have a DMR radio. You can’t even do that with a full on DMR repeater!

Categories
Amateur Radio Hardware Isle of Man

The Things are coming…

Recently, I attended #offcamp – a barcamp style discussion around open data which was organised by @bcs_isleofman and free to attend.

The morning sessions were OK and it was good to see that some thought is being given to making data open and available, especially data that has been collected by governments and already paid for by the public.

However, what really caught my attention was the crowd sourcing of data using sensors and the Internet of Things. I hadn’t realised that the problem of expensive telecoms links for remote IoT devices is beginning to be solved by new RF chipsets based on spread spectrum techniques similar to those used in QRP amateur radio experiments.

Sadly most of these RF technologies are proprietary, but that doesn’t mean that the infrastructure built with them has to be. A group of people from Amsterdam have built The Things Network which is an open movement with the aim of providing free and open communications for IoT devices around the world.

Given my interest in radio and electronics, together with the open philosophy of building something free for community use, I knew that I wanted to get involved with this. So, I’ve established an Isle of Man community with the aim of getting our very own Things Network established here.

Categories
Hardware

Guerrilla Wifi?

This week, I tried some different firmware on the ESP8266 modules that I have. I flashed a version of NodeMCU which allows Lua scripts (and other files) to be uploaded.

By using this software: https://github.com/reischle/CaptiveIntraweb I was able to turn the ESP8266 into a wifi access point which serves a static site, regardless of what web address the end user tries to reach.

Given the small size and modest power requirements, this would be great for announcing things to a wide audience by placing an ESP8266 in a busy area, and choosing an ‘inviting’ SSID for people to connect to.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether to use this for marketing, advertising or political activism…