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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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What is the best 3.14159 device?

24 January 2019

Tinkering with electronics has become a lot different today than it was when I was a youngster, more than half a century ago.

Back in the day, you'd find me out in the garage, surrounded by piles of old PA amplifiers, radios and box after box of "scrounged" parts, each carefully removed from some redundant or unused electronic device.

From this pile of scrap I was able to build a bewildering array of interesting things and keep myself amused for endless hours.

My favourite parts were 6SN7 dual triodes, 807 power valves, AC126 small signal transistors and OA95 germanium diodes. From these (and other parts), it was possible to build almost anything you wanted -- so long as it didn't have to be small, elegant or professional looking.

My bedroom was also packed with things like 100 watt valve-based PA amplifiers, short-wave radios -- cobbled together out of multiple domestic radio chassis and connected to endless yards of copper wire strung out on poles in the back yard. To say it looked like a mad scientist's laboratory would not be stretching the truth too far.

Today however, things are a little different.

When I was young, software just wasn't a thing for the amateur electronics engineer.

We didn't have any microprocessors or microcontrollers that could be programmed and reprogrammed in a way that allowed the same hardware to perform a wide range of diverse tasks. If we wanted a device, we custom designed and built it to perform the required job and only the required job.

Today it seems that "electronics" tinkerers spend much more time behind the keyboard than on the cool end of a soldering iron -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Single board microcomputers (SBCs) like the Raspberry Pi (RP) have made the hobby not only more interesting but also more fulfilling.

Whereas I might spend a huge number of hours toiling away with soldering-iron in hand to come up with even the simplest electronic device, today you can just grab an RP off the shelf, hook up a few of the GPIO lines to some sensors, a display or some kind of servo/actuator and then it's simply a matter of cutting a little code to make it all work.

I've seen some incredible RP-based devices being demonstrated over the years and it never ceases to amaze me just how inventive and clever people can be.

There are countless "mini-arcade" machines which combine an RP, an LCD display and some buttons or a joystick inside a scaled down version of an old Space-Invaders arcade box. Some of these even include simulator software for once-popular game consoles so that the range of classic games is almost endless.

I've also seen entire laptops built around the RP, with LCD screen and full keyboard all carefully contained within a 3D printed foldable laptop-style case. The same goes for RP-based tablets (albeit rather bulky ones).

Another popular application of the RP is as a robot controller. People have built all sorts of mechanical masterpieces around the RP and used it as an intelligent brain for surprisingly autonomous rovers and such. There are even drones which use the RP as their onboard controller and brains.

The one thing I like about the SBC approach to this hobby is that it frees up more time for delving into the mechanical engineering side and for focusing on the solution rather than the implementation of that solution. I believe this results in broader thinking and a better, more rounded skillset for those who are really "into" this sort of thing.

As for myself, I'm just about to start work on an RP-based system for the workshop. It will integrate the job of security (burglar alarm), webcam (inside and out) as well as providing me with a handy web-based media centre so that I can tune into web-radio, music streams and such. This will leave the laptop free for more important tasks.

While I'm at it, I think I'll pick up a few RP Zero devices, just for the hell of it and because I'm pretty sure that I'll find a few problems for them to solve as well.

Of course I'm still spending a reasonable amount of time behind the soldering iron -- or at least I will be over the next few weeks as I build a new speed controller for my lathe -- the original Sino-built one having spat the dummy for the last time.

Today's questions for readers: what is the most impressive device you've seen built around a Raspberry Pi? Do you have an RP and if so, what do you use it for?

Has the hobby of electronics changed much during your involvement?

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