Sunday, May 23, 2021

Thoughts on the Raspberry Pi aftermarket

 I have owned many raspberry Pi's over the last decade. For the most part I have been pretty satisfied with them as development and project platforms. The Raspberry Pi is well thought out, well designed for its purpose and is well supported by both the manufacturer and the community that has grown around it. What I have not been satisfied with is the third party hardware market that has popped up.

Let me say upfront that not all the hardware I have ordered over the years has been terrible, some of it has worked perfectly. However, the vast majority of these things have failed in some major way making the product either barely usable or not usable at all. Case in point, I recently bought a HyperPixel 4" screen from a company called Pimoroni. This product came highly recommended and was well reviewed and the instructions for getting it working were on the surface fairly easy.

My problems with this device started very early, at first, it would flash on for just a second and then the screen would go blank for no apparent reason, the Raspberry Pi was working fine, I could plug it into the HDMI and get video fine, I could plug other devices into the GPIO and get it working perfectly fine. After 2 days of troubleshooting this, I figured out that the I2C drivers interfered with the screen working properly, when ever those drivers polled the GPIO pins the screen would blank and not come back until a hard shutdown occurred. Completely disabling I2C and SPI on the system made it slightly better, as I could then use it for several hours before the screen blanked. There was absolutely no mention of this problem in any of the documentation anywhere, nor was there any mention of the problem on the Pimoroni forums. I thought maybe I simply had a bad screen, maybe it was just sensitive to the voltage being put out by the GPIO, so I put in an RMA request and pretty quickly, I received a replacement, same exact problem. At this point, I just gave up on it.

Again, if this had been the first time I received a half ass product, I probably would not think much about it, but over and over it has happened. It is a really sad state of affairs when I can jury rig something up on a breadboard from spare parts that works better than the professionally built version. Unfortunately I do do not have any good advise on how to tell the good from the bad here, these crap devices are often well reviewed and have very few publicized problems. All I can really say is, if you can build it yourself, do it, if you can't, well, "May the buyer beware!".

As a side note, if you are looking for a 4" screen for a Raspberry Pi, Miuzei makes a pretty good Touchscreen that works as promised with very few issues, my only real issue with it, is it does use the HDMI port, but that is not a show stopper, it just adds a cable I was looking to avoid.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Building a PC

I do not build computers very often, my daily driver is an Alienware and I am not ashamed of that. The fact is, I am generally too lazy to build out a PC to my spec, when I can generally just go buy a pre build with 99% of what I want at the time. This is not to say I have never built a PC, I have in fact build probably 50 or 60 computers over the years, I simply do not do it anymore. The last time I build one was when I needed a system to run my website on and I needed a lot of memory to run multiple virtual machines and a redundant RAID array, this was perhaps 6 or 7 years ago

A bit more than week ago, I was on vacation and having lunch with the wife where she works. I noticed an older Pentium brand processor sitting on the shelf for about $70, more out of curiosity than anything I asked what type of CPU it was, the wife said it was an Intel G4400 dual core 3.3 Ghz Processor that had been sitting in inventory for over 2 years and she would make a deal with me if I bought the MSI B250I Motherboard they had on the shelf for, that had also been sitting on the shelf for awhile. So I said, sure throw in some RAM and lets see what the bugger costs, it came to just over $200 with 8GB of Crucial 3200 RAM. Not too shabby really. I of course still needed a case and storage, so when I got home I went on Amazon and found a nice small form factor ITX case, yes, the motherboard is an ITX board. The motherboard supports an M.2 card for storage, so I decided to grab a 256 GB SSD M.2 card, with shipping and handling, it came to about $120 total.

I got the case and m.2 card on Wednesday and was ready to put it all together. Two things I already had, was a 1 TB hard drive, that I intended to use as a 2nd drive to install games and store data. The second thing is I decided to use an old AMD R 5440 I had laying around. My experience with integrated video has never been good and with the current pricing of decent video cards being nothing less than outlandish, I figured this was a better option than not. The one thing I lacked was a copy of Windows 10. Yes, I know, I am a Linux guy, but I decided I should probably have at least one system in the house that ran Windows 10. However, for the moment, I decided just to install Linux on the thing until I decided where to get a copy of Windows from.

Assembly of the system took me maybe 20 minutes, sans cable management. System posted on the first power up, and I was mildly proud of myself. The install of Linux took another 20 minutes, and dame that SSD is fast, the fucking machine literally boots in 5 seconds. The next day, I looked around for what a copy of Windows would cost me, which was somewhere in the $130-$140 range, I was not thrilled about this, since that would constitute 25% of the cost of the machine. After thinking about it, I decided to sacrifice the Windows 10 virtual machine I had, that I never really used for anything. I removed the registration key from it, deleted the VM and then used it to activate windows on the new system. 

Keep in mind, this is not supposed to be a power house machine, it is supposed to be an adequate secondary machine. I am pretty satisfied with this build, it has a low profile, it is quiet and it is reasonable fast with the M.2 card in it and even the 1TB spindle drive is not terrible.

Edit for update 12/12/2021:

Since I put this system together I have been on the hunt for a brand new in box low end video card for a reasonable price. Unfortunately that has not been easy, the only thing really available in the sub $100 range has been GT 710 Nvidia cards, which were total junk 10 years ago when they were first released. The lowest acceptable cards I could find like the GT 1030, were still going for at least a $150 and that was more than i was willing to spend for a slightly less junk video card. Best Buy had a Christmas sale and I was finally able to get a GT 1030 for $100. So I think for the time being, this system is done.