Official Launch Of The Asus Tinker Board

Earlier this year, a new single board computer was announced, and subsequently made its way onto the market. The Tinker Board was a little different from the rest of the crop of Raspberry Pi lookalikes, it didn’t come from a no-name company or a crowdfunding site, instead it came from a trusted name, Asus. As a result, it is a very high quality piece of hardware, upon which we remarked when we reviewed it.

Unfortunately, though we were extremely impressed with the board itself, we panned the Asus software and support offering of the time, because it was so patchy as to be non-existent. We had reached out to Asus while writing the review but received no answer, but subsequently they contacted us with a sorry tale of some Tinker Boards finding their way onto the market early, before their official launch and before they had put together their support offering. We updated our review accordingly, after all it is a very good product and we didn’t like to have to pan it in our review.

This week then, news has come through from Asus that they have now launched the board officially. There is a new OS version based on Debian 9, which features hardware acceleration for both the Chromium web browser and the bundled UHD media player. There is also an upcoming Android release though it is still in beta at time of writing and there is little more information.

The Tinker Board is one of the best of the current crop of Raspberry Pi-like single board computers, and it easily trounces the Pi itself on most counts. To see it launched alongside a meaningful software and support offering will give it a chance to prove itself. In our original review we urged tech-savvy readers to buy one anyway, now it has some of the backup it deserves we’d urge you to buy one for your non-technical family members too.

Retrofitting An Amstrad CPC6128 With A Floppy Emulator

In the home computer boom of 1980s Britain, you could describe Amstrad as the third-placed home-grown player after Sinclair and Acorn. If you were a computer enthusiast kid rather than a gamer kid, you wanted Acorn’s BBC Micro, your parents bought you Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum because it was cheaper, and you thought the Amstrads were cool because they came with a better monitor than your family’s cast-off 1970s TV.

Amstrad were not a computer company headed by a technical wizard, instead they were a consumer electronics company whose founder [Alan Sugar] had a keen nose for the preferences of the consumer. Thus the Amstrad machines were different from some of their competitors: they were more polished, more appliances than experimental tools. Mass storage devices such as tape decks and floppy drives were built-in, every Amstrad came with its own dedicated monitor, and keyboards were decent quality as you’d see on a “proper” computer.

The high-end Amstrad model was the CPC6128. It came with a 3″ floppy drive, and of most interest, it could run the CP/M operating system. If your parents bought you an Amstrad CPC as a 1980s teen, it wouldn’t have been this one, so they are considerably less common than their 64k brethren with the cassette deck. One has found its way into [Drygol]’s hands though, and because the vintage 3″ floppies are unobtainable nowadays he’s fitted a floppy emulator board that stores data on an SD card.

In a sense, in that this is simply the fitting of an off-the-shelf board to a computer, it’s Not A Hack. But misses the point. This is an unusual home computer from the 8-bit era and his write-up is as much a teardown as it is  a howto. We don’t often get to see inside a 6128.

Fitting the board required the fabrication of a cable, with some very neat soldering work. The board has an LCD display, which is mounted in the floppy opening with a 3D printed bezel. The result is a very usable retro computer, without too much in the way of wanton remodeling.

This is probably the first real Amstrad 6128 we’ve shown you, but that hasn’t stopped enthusiasts making a clone with original chips, and another on an FPGA.


An 8-Bit Transport Triggered Architecture CPU in TTL

When we are introduced to the internals of a microprocessor, it is most likely that we will be shown something like one of the first generation of 8-bit CPUs from the 1970s. There will be the familiar group of registers and counters, an arithmetic and logic unit (ALU), and an instruction decoder with associated control logic. A complex instruction set causes the decoder to marshal registers and ALU to perform all the various functions in the right order. CPUs may have moved on in many ways since the 1970s, but the block diagram of an 8080 or similar still provides a basic grounding for the beginner.

So when we tell you about another home-made CPU using TTL logic chips, you might expect it to follow this well-worn path. Fortunately though the hardware hacking community is always capable of springing surprises upon us, and [Szoftveres] has done just that with his design. It’s a one-instruction-set machine following a transport triggered architecture, and that means it deviates sharply from the conventional architecture described above. Each instruction is a move between the different physical functions of the processor, and computation is achieved by the physical functions working on the data as it is moved into them and presenting the result on their outputs ready to be moved elsewhere. The result is a computer that is in its own way beautifully simple, though at the expense of some inflexibility and lack of some hardware functions we take for granted in more conventional processors.

This machine has been built on a piece of stripboard, and has an accompanying board with display, keypad, and a modem. There is a small board based upon an ATmega8 microcontroller which performs the function of fast program loading, and can be removed once the code is loaded. Software can be written in a C-like language anc compiled using the compiler in his GitHub repository, and he has produced a YouTube video of the machine in operation. This project is well worth reading through in-depth, for its introduction to this slightly unusual architecture.

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Prisoners Build DIY Computers and Hack Prison Network

The Internet is everywhere. The latest anecdotal evidence of this is a story of prison inmates that build their own computer and connected it to the internet. Back in 2015, prisoners at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio built two computers from discarded parts which they transported 1,100 feet through prison grounds (even passing a security checkpoint) before hiding them in the ceiling of a training room. The information has just been made public after the release of the Inspector General’s report (PDF). This report is fascinating and worth your time to read.

This Ethernet router was located in a training room in the prison. Physical access is everything in computer security.

Prisoners managed to access the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections network using login credentials of a retired prison employee who is currently working as a contract employee. The inmates plotted to steal the identity of another inmate and file tax returns under their name. They also gained access to internal records of other prisoners and checked out websites on how to manufacture drugs and DIY weapons, before prison officers were able to find the hidden computers. From the report:

The ODAS OIT analysis also revealed that malicious activity had been occurring within the ODRC inmate network. ODAS OIT reported, “…inmates appeared to have been conducting attacks against the ODRC network using proxy machines that were connected to the inmate and department networks.” Additionally, ODAS OIT reported, “It appears the Departmental Offender Tracking System (DOTS) portal was attacked and inmate passes were created. Findings of bitcoin wallets, stripe accounts, bank accounts, and credit card accounts point toward possible identity fraud, along with other possible cyber-crimes.”

The prisoners involved knew what they were doing. From the interview with the inmate it seems the computers were set up as a remote desktop bridge between internal computers they were allowed to use and the wider internet. They would use a computer on the inmate network and use a remote desktop to access the illicit computers. These were running Kali Linux and there’s a list of “malicious tools” found on the machines. It’s pretty much what you’d expect to find on a Kali install but the most amusing one listed in the report is “Hand-Crafted Software”.

This seems crazy, but prisoners have always been coming up with new ideas to get one over on the guards — like building DIY tattoo guns, When you have a lot of time on your hands and little responsibility, crazy ideas don’t seem so crazy after all.

Build Your Own PC — Really

There was a time when building your own computer meant a lot of soldering or wire wrapping. At some point, though, building a PC has come to mean buying a motherboard, a power supply, and just plugging a few wires together. There’s nothing wrong with that, but [Scott Baker] wanted to really build a PC. He put together an Xi 8088, a design from [Sergey] who has many interesting projects on his site. [Scott] did a great build log plus a video, which you can see below.

As the name implies, this isn’t a modern i7 powerhouse. It is a classic 8088 PC with a 16-bit backplane. On the plus side, almost everything is conventional through-hole parts, excepting an optional compact flash socket and part of the VGA card. [Scott] acquired the boards from the Retrobrew forum’s inventory of boards where forum users make PCBs available for projects like this.

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The Improved Luggable PC

There are exactly two types of personal computers available today. If you need a lot of horsepower, a powerful GPU, or a full-power CPU, you’re going to end up with a desktop. If you need something portable, you’re getting a laptop with a wimpy CPU and an underpowered GPU. Historically, there has been a third type of PC, the luggable. The luggable is a desktop PC crammed into a case that makes it slightly more portable than a desktop and a monitor.  You cannot buy a luggable PC case right now. They simply do not exist as a commercial product you can shove your own hardware into. This is a form factor an entire industry forgot.

Now there’s a DIY luggable PC. This project from [Roger] packs a standard ATX motherboard, a full-size GPU, a full-size power supply, and everything else that makes a desktop PC powerful into a case that can be stored in an overhead bin.

[Roger] has been working on this project for a while, and it was featured on Hackaday back when it looked like a RepRap Mendel. There have been some significant improvements over the earlier iterations of this project, including a very, very cool hinge mechanism that allows the display to fold in when the computer isn’t being used. It’s a mechanical wonder that prevents scratches. Neat. The rest of the case is constructed out of 2020 aluminum extrusion, and about a one kilogram spool of filament.

Since this is a portable case, there are a few compromises. There are no 5.25″ bays, no 3.5″ bays, and few 2.5″ bays. M.2 SSDs and USB-powered CD drives exist, so this isn’t a big deal.

This is a truly fantastic case in a form factor you can’t buy anywhere else. If you have a spare monitor and a bit of extrusion sitting around, this is one to build yourself.

PC In A Mouse

[Slider2732] got his Orange Pi Zero working with a 3 watt amplifier, wireless keyboard (with built-in mouse), and car reversing monitor. But he needed a case to house it in. He remembered that he used to make parameters for ghost hunting by filling PC mouse cases with all sorts of electronics. So why not put the Orange Pi Zero in a mouse too? Looking through his mouse collection, he picked out an old Logitech optical mouse and went to work.

We like that the Logitech has transparent bottom halves, perfect for proving to anyone who might be skeptical that the PC really is in the mouse. A great enhancement we think would be to make the mouse actually be the mouse too! But there doesn’t seem to be enough room left for that. What’s smaller than a Pi Zero that will also run the armbian Linux distribution, OpenELEC Mediacenter, Kodi and a bunch of games?

He even set up the wireless networking for watching YouTube videos. Check out the build and demo video after the break.

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