Author Archives: Rob Zwetsloot

Build the ultimate 4K home theatre PC using a Raspberry Pi 4 and Kodi

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We love Raspberry Pi for how it’s helping a new generation of children learn to code, how it’s resulted in an explosion of new makers of all ages, and how it’s really easy to turn any TV into a smart TV.

While we always have a few Raspberry Pi computers at hand for making robots and cooking gadgets, or just simply coding a Scratch game, there’s always at least one in the house powering a TV. With the release of the super-powered Raspberry Pi 4, it’s time to fully upgrade our media centre to become a 4K-playing powerhouse.

We asked Wes Archer to take us through setting one up. Grab a Raspberry Pi 4 and a micro-HDMI cable, and let’s get started.

Get the right hardware

Only Raspberry Pi 4 can output at 4K, so it’s important to remember this when deciding on which Raspberry Pi to choose.

Raspberry Pi has been a perfect choice for a home media centre ever since it was released in 2012, due to it being inexpensive and supported by an active community. Now that 4K content is fast becoming the new standard for digital media, the demand for devices that support 4K streaming is growing, and fortunately, Raspberry Pi 4 can handle this with ease! There are three versions of Raspberry Pi 4, differentiated by the amount of RAM they have: 1GB, 2GB, or 4GB. So, which one should you go for? In our tests, all versions worked just fine, so go with the one you can afford.

Raspberry Pi Cases

Flirc Raspberry Pi 4 case

Made of aluminium and designed to be its own heatsink, the Flirc case for Raspberry Pi 4 is a perfect choice and looks great as part of any home media entertainment setup. This will look at home in any home entertainment system.

Official Raspberry Pi 4 case (in black and grey)

The official Raspberry Pi 4 case is always a good choice, especially the black and grey edition as it blends in well within any home entertainment setup. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also hack the case to hold a small fan for extra cooling.

Aluminium Heatsink Case for Raspberry Pi 4

Another case made of aluminium, this is effectively a giant heatsink that helps keep your Raspberry Pi 4 cool when in use. It has a choice of three colours – black, gold, and gunmetal grey – so is a great option if you want something a little different.

Optional Raspberry Pi add-ons

Maxtor 2TB external USB 3.0 HDD

4K content can be quite large and your storage will run out quickly if you have a large collection. Having an external hard drive connected directly to your Raspberry Pi using the faster USB 3.0 connection will be extremely handy and avoids any streaming lag.

Raspberry Pi Fan SHIM

The extra power Raspberry Pi 4 brings means things can get quite hot, especially when decoding 4K media files, so having a fan can really help keep things cool. Pimoroni’s Fan SHIM is ideal due to its size and noise (no loud buzzing here). There is a Python script available, but it also “just works” with the power supplied by Raspberry Pi’s GPIO pins.

Raspberry Pi TV HAT

If you are feeling adventurous, you can add a Raspberry Pi TV HAT to your 4K media centre to enable the DVR feature in Kodi to watch live TV. You may want to connect your main aerial for the best reception. This will add a perfect finishing touch to your 4K media centre.

Rii i8+ Mini Wireless Keyboard

If your TV does not support HDMI-CEC, allowing you to use your TV remote to control Kodi, then this nifty wireless keyboard is extremely helpful. Plug the USB dongle into your Raspberry Pi, turn on the keyboard, and that’s it. You now have a mini keyboard and mouse to navigate with.

Read more for free…

Looking to read the rest of this article? We don’t blame you. Build the ultimate 4K home theatre PC using a Raspberry Pi 4 and Kodi is this month’s feature article for the brand-new MagPi magazine issue 87, out today.

You can read issue 87 today, for free, right now, by visiting The MagPi website.

You can also purchase issue 87 from the Raspberry Pi Press website with free worldwide delivery, from the Raspberry Pi Store, Cambridge, and from newsagents and supermarkets across the UK.

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Raspberry Pi 4: a full desktop replacement?

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The MagPi magazine puts Raspberry Pi 4 to the ultimate test as writer and all-round tech tinkerer PJ Evans uses it for a week as his desktop computer.

When Raspberry Pi 4 was launched earlier in 2019, the significant improvements in processor speed, data throughput, and graphics handling lead to an interesting change of direction for this once humble small computer. Although it’s impressive that you can run a full Linux operating system on a $35 device, a lot of people were just using their Raspberry Pi to get Scratch or Python IDLE up and running. Many people were skipping the graphical side altogether and using smaller models, such as Raspberry Pi Zero, for projects previously covered by Arduino and other microcontrollers.

Raspberry Pi desktop experience

Raspberry Pi 4 was different. Tellingly, the Raspberry Pi Foundation released a new all-in-one kit and named it the Desktop Kit. For the first time truly in Raspberry Pi history, the new model was considered powerful enough to be used as a daily computer without any significant compromise. Challenge accepted. We asked PJ Evans to spend a week using a Raspberry Pi 4 as his only machine. Here’s what happened.

Day 1 | Monday

Decisions, decisions

Our new favourite single-board computer comes in a selection of RAM sizes: 1GB, 2GB, or 4GB. Given a price difference of £20 between the 1GB and 4GB versions, it made sense to go right for the top specification. That’s the version included in the official Desktop Kit that I went out and bought for £105 (inc. VAT) at the official Raspberry Pi store; it normally retails for $120 plus local taxes. My last laptop was £1900. I’m not suggesting that the two can be reasonably compared in terms of performance, but £1795 minus the cost of a monitor is a difference worth remarking upon.

Back at the office, I inspected the contents. For your money you get: a 4GB version of Raspberry Pi 4, thoughtfully already installed in the new official case; the official keyboard and mouse; the new USB-C power supply; a 16GB microSD card preloaded with the Raspbian Buster operating system; and a copy of The Official Raspberry Pi Beginner’s Guide 252-page book. It’s very well packaged and presented, with little plastic waste. The book is the icing on the cake if you are looking at this set for a young person’s first computer, short-circuiting the ‘now what do I do?’ stage. What pleased me, in particular, was the inclusion of two micro-HDMI cables in the kit, allowing me to set up a dual-screen system without delay.

First tests

I set up my new workstation next to my existing laptop, with two 1080p monitors that only had DVI connectors, so I had to get a couple of £2 adapters and an additional cable to get sound out of the audio jack of my Raspberry Pi. Time for an initial test-drive. Booting up into Raspbian Buster was quick, about ten seconds, and connection to WiFi easy. There’s no doubting the feel of the speed improvements. Yes, I’ve read all the benchmark tests, but I wanted to know how that translates to user experience. This new kit does not disappoint.

Raspbian has matured impressively as an OS. For my daily desktop scenario, the jewel in the crown is Chromium: having such a capable web browser is what makes this whole experiment feasible. Others have upped their game, too: Firefox has come a long way, and many other browsers are now available, such as Vivaldi. A check of some of my most visited sites showed Chromium to be just as capable as Chrome on my regular machine. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t as snappy and I hit a few bumps, but we’ll get to that.

A day of impressions

I’m no expert when it comes to GPUs, but I was impressed with the dual-monitor support. The setup worked first time and didn’t seem to have any detrimental effect on the machine’s performance. I was expecting slow window drawing or things getting ‘stuck’, but this wasn’t the case.

By the end of the first day, I was getting used to the keyboard and mouse too. They are a nice mixture of being both functional and aesthetically pleasing. The keyboard comes with a three-port hub, so you can connect the mouse if you wish. It does not have the build quality and precision of my daily wireless keyboard and trackpad, but for a fraction of the price, I was surprised how much I got for my money. By the end of the week, I’d grown quite fond of it.

Day 2 | Tuesday

Back to basics…


If you’d like to see what PJ got up to for the rest of his week spent using Raspberry Pi as a desktop replacement, head over to The MagPi magazine’s website, where you can either buy the magazine with international home delivery or download the PDF for FREE!

The MagPi magazine is also available from most high street newsagents in the UK, or from the Raspberry Pi store in Cambridge.

What we’re trying to say, dear reader, is that there is absolutely no reason for you not to read the rest of this article. And when you have, let us know what you thought of it in the comments below.

And while we have your attention, here’s the latest video from The MagPi — a teaser of their review for the rather nifty RockyBorg, available now from PiBorg.

RockyBorg: the £99 Raspberry Pi robot!

Power. Performance. Pint-sized. The new RockyBorg has it all. Read our review in The MagPi 85: https://magpi.cc/get85 Would you like a FREE #RaspberryPi? Subscribe today to twelve months print subscription! You can see all our subscription offers on The MagPi magazine website: https://magpi.cc/subscribe

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Raspberry Pi underwater camera drone | The MagPi 80

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Never let it be said that some makers won’t jump in at the deep end for their ambitious experiments with the Raspberry Pi. When Ievgenii Tkachenko fancied a challenge, he sought to go where few had gone before by creating an underwater drone, successfully producing a working prototype that he’s now hard at work refining.

Inspired by watching inventors on the Discovery Channel, Ievgenii has learned much from his endeavour. “For me it was a significant engineering challenge,” he says, and while he has ended up submerging himself within a process of trial-and-error, the results so far have been impressive.

Pi dive

The project began with a loose plan in Ievgenii’s head. “I knew what I should have in the project as a minimum: motions, lights, camera, and a gyroscope inside the device and smartphone control outside,” he explains. “Pretty simple, but I didn’t have a clue what equipment I would be able to use for the drone, and I was limited by finances.”

Bearing that in mind, one of his first moves was to choose a Raspberry Pi 3B, which he says was perfect for controlling the motors, diodes, and gyroscope while sending video streams from a camera and receiving commands from a control device.

The Raspberry Pi 3 sits in the housing and connects to a LiPo battery that also powers the LEDs and motors

“I was really surprised that this small board has a fully functional UNIX-based OS and that software like the Node.js server can be easily installed,” he tells us. “It has control input and output pins and there are a lot of libraries. With an Ethernet port and wireless LAN and a camera, it just felt plug-and-play. I couldn’t find a better solution.”

The LEDs are attached to radiators to prevent overheating, and a pulse driver is used for flashlight control

Working with a friend, Ievgenii sought to create suitable housing for the components, which included a twin twisted-pair wire suitable for transferring data underwater, an electric motor, an electronic speed control, an LED together with a pulse driver, and a battery. Four motors were attached to the outside of the housing, and efforts were made to ensure it was waterproof. Tests in a bath and out on a lake were conducted.

Streaming video

With a WiFi router on the shore connected to the Raspberry Pi via RJ45 connectors and an Ethernet cable, Ievgenii developed an Android application to connect to the Raspberry Pi by address and port (“as an Android developer, I’m used to working with the platform”). This also allowed movement to be controlled via the touchscreen, although he says a gamepad for Android can also be used. When it’s up and running, the Pi streams a video from the camera to the app — “live video streaming is not simple, and I spent a lot of time on the solution” — but the wired connection means the drone can only currently travel as far as the cable length allows.

The camera was placed in this transparent waterproof case attached to the front of the waterproof housing

In that sense, it’s not perfect. “It’s also hard to handle the drone, and it needs to be enhanced with an additional controls board and a few more electromotors for smooth movement,” Ievgenii admits. But as well as wanting to base the project on fast and reliable C++ code and make use of a USB 4K camera, he can see the future potential and he feels it will swim rather than sink.

“Similar drones are used for boat inspections, and they can also be used by rescue squads or for scientific purposes,” he points out. “They can be used to discover a vast marine world without training and risks too. In fact, now that I understand the Raspberry Pi, I know I can create almost anything, from a radio electronic toy car to a smart home.”

The MagPi magazine

This article was lovingly borrowed from the latest issue of The MagPi magazine. Pick up your copy of issue 80 from your local stockist, online, or by downloading the free PDF.

Subscribers to The MagPi also get a rather delightful subscription gift!

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MagPi 76: our updated Raspberry Pi Superguide!

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Hi folks, Rob from The MagPi here! The holiday season will soon be upon us, and that means a lot of Raspberry Pis will be given as gifts. For all these new Pi users, we thought it was time to update our beginners’ guide for 2019 in issue 76 of The MagPi, out now!

And yes, this includes the brand-new 3A+.

Look, up on the magazine rack!

Is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s Superguide!

In this Superguide, we’ll take you through the initial setup of the Pi, we’ll help you familiarise yourself with it, and we’ll even show you a couple of fun Pi projects to get started with! Whether you’re a complete newbie to Raspberry Pi or you want need a little refresher, our guide has got you covered.

Superb

3A+ subscription offer!

Speaking of the Raspberry Pi 3A+, we have a full feature on the fresh addition to the Raspberry Pi family, including all the juicy benchmarks, stats, and info you’d ever want to know. There’s even an interview with Eben Upton and Roger Thornton about its development!

In fact, we love the 3A+ so much that we’re offering a brand-new, limited-time subscription offer: sign up for a twelve-month print subscription of The MagPi now, and you’ll get a Raspberry Pi 3A+ completely free!

Hurry though, this offer only runs as long as stocks last.

Be quick, this offer won’t be around forever!

Heads, Pac-Man, and Christmas lights

Of course, there also are amazing projects, guides, and reviews in this issue. This includes As We Are, a mesmerising art project that displays people’s faces on a 14-foot tall screen shaped like a head. We also show you how to start making Pac-Man in our monthly Pygame tutorial, and our smart lights guide has a bit of a festive flair to it.

Get The MagPi 76

You can get The MagPi 76 from WHSmith, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Asda. If you live in the US, head over to your local Barnes & Noble or Micro Center in the next few days for a print copy. You can also get the issue online: check it out on our store, or digitally via our Android or iOS apps. And don’t forget, there’s always the free PDF.

Rolling subscription offer!

Want to support the Raspberry Pi Foundation and the magazine? As well as the subscription mentioned above, you can now take out a monthly £5 subscription to the magazine, effectively creating a rolling pre‑order system that saves you money on each issue.

The MagPi subscription offer — The MagPi 75

That’s it for now! I’ll see you next time around Christmas.

 

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Can’t Drive This, the 4D arcade machine

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A Raspberry Pi–powered arcade display with hidden interactive controls won over the crowds at Gamescom. Rosie Hattersley and Rob Zwetsloot got the inside scoop.

Pixel Maniacs is a Nuremberg-based games maker that started out making mobile apps. These days it specialises in games for PC, Xbox One, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch. You Can’t Drive is its first foray into gaming with a Raspberry Pi.

If you’re going to add a little something extra to wow the crowd at the Gamescom video games trade fair, a Raspberry Pi is a surefire way of getting you noticed. And that’s the way Pixel Maniacs went about it.

The Nuremberg-based games developer retrofitted an arcade machine with a Raspberry Pi to showcase its intentionally silly Can’t Drive This precarious driving game at Gamescom.

This two-player co-operative game involves one player building the track while the other drives along it.

Complete with wrecking balls, explosions, an inconvenient number of walls, and the jeopardy of having to construct your road as you negotiate your way, at speed, across an ocean to the relative safety of the next lump of land, Can’t Drive This is a fast‑paced racing game.

Splash action

Pixel Maniacs then took things up a notch by providing interactive elements, building a mock 4D arcade game (so-named because they feature interactive elements such as motion cabinets). The fourth dimension, in this case, saw the inclusion of a water spray, fan, and console lights. For its Gamescom debut, Pixel Maniacs presented Can’t Drive This in a retro arcade cabinet, where hordes of gaming fans gathered round its four-way split screen to enjoy the action.

Getting to the heart of the matter and replacing the original 1980s kit with modern-day processors and Pi-powered additions

Adding Raspberry Pi gaming to the mix was about aiding the game development process as much as anything. Andy Holtz, Pixel Maniacs’ software engineer, told The MagPi that the team wanted an LED matrix with 256 RGB LEDs to render sprite-sheet animations. “We knew we needed a powerful machine with enough RAM, and a huge community, to get the scripts running.”

Pixel Maniacs’ offices have several Raspberry Pi–controlled monitors and a soundboard, so the team knew the Pi’s potential.

The schematic for the 4D arcade machine, showing the importance of the Raspberry Pi as a controller.

The arcade version of the game runs off a gaming laptop cunningly hidden within the walls of the cabinet, while the Raspberry Pi delivers the game’s surprise elements such as an unexpected blast from a water spray. A fan can be triggered to simulate stormy weather, and lights start flashing crazily when the cars crash. Holtz explains that the laptop “constantly sends information about the game’s state to the Raspberry Pi, via a USB UART controller. The Pi reads these state messages, converts them, and sends according commands to the fans, water nozzle, camera, and the LED light matrix. So when players drive through water, the PC sends the info to the Pi, and [the latter] turns on the nozzle, spraying them.”

Having played your heart out, you get a photo-booth-style shot of you in full-on gaming action.

The arcade idea came about when Pixel Maniacs visited the offices of German gaming magazine M! Games and spied an abandoned, out-of-order 1980s arcade machine lurking unloved in a corner. Pixel Maniacs set about rejuvenating it, Da Doo Ron Ron soundtrack and all.

Sustained action

Ideas are one thing; standing up to the rigours of a full weekend’s uninterrupted gameplay at the world’s biggest games meet is something else. Holtz tells us, “The Raspberry Pi performed like a beast throughout the entire time. Gamescom was open from 9am till 8pm, so it had to run for eleven hours straight, without overheating or crashing. Fortunately, it did. None of the peripherals connected to the Pi had any problems, and we did not have a single crash.”

A Raspberry Pi 3B+ was used to trigger the water spray, lights, and fans, bringing an extra element to the gameplay, as well as rendering the arcade machine’s graphics.

Fans were enthusiastic too, with uniformly positive feedback, and one Gamescom attendee attempting to buy the arcade version there and then. As Andy Holtz says, though, you don’t sell your baby. Instead, Pixel Maniacs is demoing it at games conventions in Germany this autumn, before launching Can’t Drive This across gaming platforms at the end of the year.

This article was printed in The MagPi issue 75. Get your copy of The MagPi in stores now, or download it as a free PDF here.

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Brand-new books from The MagPi and HackSpace magazine

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Hey folks, Rob from The MagPi here! Halloween is over and November has just begun, which means CHRISTMAS IS ALMOST HERE! It’s never too early to think about Christmas — I start in September, the moment mince pies hit shelves.

Elf GIF

What most people seem to dread about Christmas is finding the right gifts, so I’m here to help you out. We’ve just released two new books: our Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book volume 4, and the brand-new Book of Making volume 1 from the team at HackSpace magazine!

Book of Making volume 1

HackSpace magazine book 1 - Raspberry Pi

Spoiler alert: it’s a book full of making

The Book of Making volume 1 contains 50 of the very best projects from HackSpace magazine, including awesome project showcases and amazing guides for building your own incredible creations. Expect to encounter trebuchets, custom drones, a homemade tandoori oven, and much more! And yes, there are some choice Raspberry Pi projects as well.

The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book volume 4

The MagPi Raspberry pi Projects book 4

More projects, more guides, and more reviews!

Volume 4 of the Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book is once again jam-packed with Raspberry Pi goodness in its 200 pages, with projects, build guides, reviews, and a little refresher for beginners to the world of Raspberry Pi. Whether you’re new to Pi or have every single model, there’s something in there for you, no matter your skill level.

Free shipping? Worldwide??

You can buy the Book of Making and the Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book volume 4 right now from the Raspberry Pi Press Store, and here’s the best part: they both have free worldwide shipping! They also roll up pretty neatly, in case you want to slot them into someone’s Christmas stocking. And you can also find them at our usual newsagents.

Both books are available as free PDF downloads, so you can try before you buy. When you purchase any of our publications, you contribute toward the hard work of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, so why not double your giving this holiday season by helping us put the power of digital making into the hands of people all over the world?

Anyway, that’s it for now — I’m off for more mince pies!

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