Raspberry Pi 400 | Blathering

I am not one of those individuals who gets the new fancy hardware because I am an Internet nobody and that is just fine by me (as I sulk, rocking back and forth in the corner). That doesn’t mean I am not without my opinions.

Raspberry Pi 400 Kit

I watched a video early in the morning about the Pi 400 on Retro Recipes from the perspective of using it as a kind of retro machine, like an ultimate emulation machine in a compact size. The marketing on the box says it is a “complete personal computer built into a compact keyboard” which interestingly like the Commodore 64 of years past.

Granted, that is a much larger keyboard in comparison but for the time, it was rather compact when compared to its contemporaries of similar performance. The back of the Pi 400 has all the typical ports exposed on a standard Pi 4 so you have available all that was previously available but in a different form factor.

Specifications

This isn’t, by any stretch, an amazingly high performing computer but it is also no slouch. It features a Broadcom BCM2711 quad-core Cortex-A72 (ARM v8) 64-bit SoC @ 1.8GHz processor, 4GB of DDR4 RAM, wireless networking, dual-display output through 2 micro HDMI ports for 4K video playback, MicroSD Card slot for whatever operating system you plan to run, 2x USB 3.0 ports, 1x USB 2.0 port USB-C for power a Gigabit Ethernet port and finally a 40-pin GPIO header so all the fun of the Raspberry Pi is exposed.

It is claimed to have an operating temperature from 0°C to +50°C ambient. I am quite sure that going above 50°C would likely cause some kind of thermal throttling.

Essentially, this is a Pi 4 in a different package with the intent to be manufactured until 2026. That is an incredible length of time.

Design

This machine has the footprint of 286 mm × 122 mm × 23 mm. If you are metric shy, that is 11-¼” x 4-⅜” x ⅞” That makes this machine quite small and indeed compact. According to Perifractic Retro Recipes. The design is solid with just a bit of sponginess on the Enter key, “5% from perfect” was the claim

Picture taken from Retro Recipes Pi 400 video

It is quite obvious with the internals, that this is a completely different design than the standard Pi 4.

Picture taken from Retro Recipes Pi 400 video
Picture taken from Retro Recipes Pi 400 video

I am pleasantly surprised to see this elegantly simple designed board on the interior, not just a Pi 4 with connector wires to the back. It does look like reliability was a factor in the design and manufacturing of this equipment.

I am not sure how many times one would plan on getting to the internals of this computer, as everything for which you need access is on the back, I am concerned about cooling. The CPU is heat taped to the metal shield so that should help with thermal dissipation. I know that some early Pi 4s did have serious issues with getting too hot. That makes me a bit concerned and therefore, I would be interested in seeing what some stress testing would yield on this machine.

Possible Uses

If you have any interest in developing things on single board computers, this is absolutely a great way to work on something to rapidly test it out. Since there isn’t the mess of parts and pieces as you would more likely have with a standard Raspberry Pi, here you plug in the power, the monitor, and whatever you are working on to the back of the Pi4. Admittedly, unless you are developing to deploy this on the Pi 4, some of the specifics may not work on early versions of the Pi. I can’t say for sure but I do know that there are different images for different Pis.

I see a strong propensity for this device to become the “Ultimate Retro Arch machine” that you keep in your living room or video game den. With the keyboard, sturdy case and available USB ports on the back, it would be cost effectively simple to play all the games of yester-year on this without putting at risk of damage, the real hardware. Specifically, I am thinking for those times I do play retro-games with my kids, I do worry just a bit for the safety of my machines.

Although I think there is a better argument for an old netbook, I do think that this would be a great choice for a child’s first computer. It would, perhaps be better, to have them sit properly at a desk and do their typing tutor there or a nice little work station to learn and explore, taking advantage of the GPIO on the back, making wonderful electronics creations which leads me to my last point.

As an inspiration education tool for children or adults. Lets be fair here, this is a toy for an adult, just as much as it is for a child. This is a super cool kit that is more than just an educational tool for youngest of populations. This is a great tool for any age to learn and dig into it that has the vulnerable bits protected. This frees up any apprehension of getting all the right pieces and not having some collection of things that looks like a science experiment, dominating a desktop or workbench. The GPIO pins on this device are shielded from an accidental drop or scoot that might short something out. This is a much safer way to conduct reckless mad-scientist like electronics experimentation

What I Like

The kit looks like the way to go. It has a retail of $100 (though I can’t find anyone selling it at this time) which comes with an official power supply, mouse, HDMI cable and perhaps, most importantly, a beautiful manual that is loaded with pages of all kinds of informative educational excitement. This is essentially an educational tool that comes with a real manual like the days of old. For me, the manual is key. Thumbing through the pages documentation, running my fingers down the inner spine of the book encourage it to stay open and explore all that it has to offer. There is something about that smell of a freshly bound book that makes an experience real and memorable (I realize, I am dreaming here).

The build quality looks more than adequate. I would absolutely gauge my expectations around the $100 mark and wouldn’t try to compare this with a modern Dell Latitude in fit, function and performance. That would be completely ridiculous. Based on other reviews, they keyboard looks to be just 5% from perfect which is more than adequate for me and especially more than adequate as an educational tool.

All the connections are on the back, like in good all-in-one Commodore 64 fashion and is nicely shrouded to protect against accidental shorting of pins or parts on the board. It doesn’t protect against everything but would protect against most accidental clumsiness.

Perhaps most important of all, this is spearhead into he inspiration of future generations to develop and create solutions. It is that first computer you can feel good about giving a child that he or she can take the time to learn and create. This is the beginning of something that is far better than having them plunk away on a phone or tablet being entertained like mindless automatons. This can be used to just just consume but to create and give to the world in which we live.

What I Don’t Like

The case uses clips to hold it together as opposed to screws. I am aware that screws do cause significant increases in manufacturing cost, so I understand the decision to forego case screws. That just happens to be my preference.

There are some incompatibilities between the Pi 400 and the Pi 4. Though I believe it has largely been worked out and since it is Linux that is running on top of the hardware, I am quite certain, through the magic of configuration files, kernel modules can be turned on and off based on the underlying hardware platform.

Since this is an ARM based system, anything that is built to run on top of it is likely to be unique for this specific ARM platform. ARM tends to lack standards across the architecture, which I believe is holding back the wide spread adoption of ARM (among other things). It is at least one reason I don’t just run out and by ARM devices.

Worst of all, I can’t seem to find any place that has them for sale. It looks like it’s sold out! So, all I can do at this point is kick my feat up, dream and wonder about all the fun I could be having with this… until my goldfish-like attention span drifts me off to another intellectual curiosity.

Final Thoughts

This is a great little piece of kit that is essentially a STEM course in a box. The design, the look and from what I can tell by other reviews, build quality are top notch, especially at this price point of $100 for the kit and $70 for the computer/keyboard itself.

I don’t have an immediate use for such a device but I can say that I would love to get my hands on one and play with it. Test it out and see what it can do. I do think it would make for a great Retro Arch machine. Even better would be to run openSUSE on this with all the Retro goodness and even for some productivity.

I think the best use of this particular machine is in education. The cost is low enough that you could buy for a whole classroom without breaking the bank and inspire future generations to develop and create wonderful solutions for the next generation of challenges.

Lastly, why 400? Should I have been making parallels to the Atari 400 as opposed to the Commodore 64? The keyboard on the Atari 400 was awful…

References

Retro Recipes Pi 400 Video
https://www.raspberrypi.org/products/raspberry-pi-400/
Raspberry Pi 400 Specifications
http://www.retroarch.com/
https://www.opensuse.org/

Acer AspireOne D255 with openSUSE Tumbleweed Xfce

Anytime someone wants to give me a piece of hardware, it’s hard for me to say, “no.” I received this Acer AspireOne D255 as payment for installing openSUSE Leap on an HP Laptop. This little netbook was a bit slower than my other Acer AspireOne and with only 1 GiB of RAM and a dead battery. I tried to see if I could install anything but the hard drive was at it’s end of life. So, thing sat in a drawer for about a year or so. I found that there are some education open source programs that are quite educational and since I would rather my kids not play games on phones and tablets, now was the time for me to act.

I purchased a new battery and a charger for this computer which cost me all of $21. I ordered a 2 GiB stick of DDR3 memory so that whenever it did arrive, I could upgrade that as well.

Taking apart the AspireOne is not that difficult, at all, you just have to know how to get to the screws to drop the back panel. Annoyingly, you have to remove the keyboard by essentially pushing back little detents to pop the thing out. It isn’t exactly work made for large hands.

Under the keyboard the screws that require removal are all marked with arrows and the last bit is to push the panel off using a screwdriver. That will expose the goodness that this machine keeps hidden away.

The hard drive sits in in a caddy and the memory is held in place with the usual spring clip arrangement. After replacing the failed Hard Drive with an SSD, it was time to do the installation.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see how it would go to have my eight year old boy install openSUSE Tumbleweed with Xfce. I expected to direct a couple steps, of which would be how I want the partitions to be laid out, the username and password as well as the root password. I also instructed him to turn off the CPU vulnerability mitigations as well. I saw no need for this computer to need those.

I wanted to see if he could do the rest without my help. Amazingly, but really not so amazingly, he was able to do it. This made me think and smile and reinforce the fact that the YaST installer is actually quite easy to use. I mean, if an eight year old can do it…

My boy recognized Windows 7 wasn’t on it any longer and corrected the mislabeling.

After playing with Xfce on openSUSE in the virtual machine, I really wanted to see how it felt on some 10 year old netbooks, or more specifically, this under powered unit with only 1 GiB of RAM.

Surprisingly, the system runs quite well and doesn’t seem too terribly encumbered by the lack of RAM. Granted, most of what is being done at this time are simple programs geared for educating my kids but getting on the web didn’t prove to be a problem either. It was able to YouTube without any irritating stutter.

After booting to a settled system. The AspireOne was using about 380 MiB of RAM. I could probably force it lower by removing some things but I don’t see it as necessary at this time. Instead, I will pop in that 2 GiB DDR3 SODIMM and leave quite a bit of headroom for some of the other educational things to come.

The “new” battery for this machine did have one drawback. It is a little thicker than the original one and now it sits at a bit of an angle when set down. It does make it a bit harder to slip into a neoprene case but the flip side is that it won’t suffocate if left running on the couch

The applications I installed for the time being to make using them a bit better are:

  • Syncthing-Gtk – I have a series of files in written as well as audio and video form that are for memory work. For them to have read-only access to it from their machines is a huge plus when they are not home.
  • Gcompris – This is a great educational application with lots of games and such to help teach the basic foundational things like numbers, letters and learning the sounds. It is also a great tool to teach the kids to learn to use a mouse or touchpad as well.
  • Tux Paint – it is a fine little application to teach the basics of creating images in on a computer.
  • qsynergy – this is more for my convenience so that I can more easily “help” them fro my computer. I do want to note, that I did purchase a license key for this applicaiton.
  • Crossover Linux – I have an older version of Rosetta Stone that is packed with many languages. I specifically want them to take time to learn Latin and German. This will reduce the irritation of having only a single machine for the kids to share. One little note. There was an issue with sound. The PulseAudio module was not available in the Wine Configurator. The solution was to install libpulse0-32bit

What I Like

I really like that I am able to install a “heavy weight” distribution like openSUSE onto a rather under powered an really quite anemic machine. I was incredibly surprised how Xfce looked and felt on this machine. Although, much to my chagrin, my daughter made hers all pink and bright instead of my preference of dark and green of which I initially set. I guess, without any instruction at all, she too sees the importance of making it personal.

This machines gets crazy long battery life. For a machine as “long in the tooth” as this is. I am shocked that it can run all day on battery. I will place a lot of that credit to openSUSE’s default use of TLP as well as the fact Xfce is very resource conscious.

This is going to certainly enhance the quality of the my supplied education to my kids. Inexpensive laptops running a resource conscious operating system with all the underpinning bells and whistles provided by openSUSE.

What I Don’t Like

For whatever reason the libpulse0-32bit module didn’t install with Crossover Linux. I don’t think that is a fault of openSUSE, maybe Crossover but that was an irritation that required a few extra steps.

The machine itself is too small for my fingers. The keyboard is okay but it is just slightly smaller than what I like. It isn’t easy to do extended typing on it. The touchpad, also a bit undersized and the “mouse buttons” although separate from the touchpad, are not great. This is part of the reason I like having Synergy to use my main system to use as an input device. I suppose I could plug in a mouse and keyboard…

Final Thoughts

I will never take for granted how great Linux can keep older hardware highly functional. In this case, using openSUSE Tumbleweed with Xfce is absolutely enhancing the use experience on this old, under-powered machine. Consequently, I am able to better enhance the quality of education for my kids.

I have a new love for these end of life netbooks. Just a few short days ago, they were sitting stacked on top of one another collecting dust. Now they are sources of furthering my children’s education and they enjoy using them. I have developed an aversion to my kids being on mobile devices like phones and tablets. I want them to learn and know to use a keyboard and mouse or touchpad. I am hoping, as time progresses, I can further their education on the use and eventually administration of Linux, especially openSUSE or MX Linux.

For 9 year old Amazed on how performant this AspireOne D255 is. The Atom N550 is able to do a lot more than I expected and it looks like I will get a significant amount of time out of it. I must say, once again, how grateful I am to everyone that has anything to do with any of the tools that make this possible. From the kernel and applications, to the package maintainers and the folks in the server room delivers each of those Tumbleweed snapshots, and everyone in between or have some ancillary relation to any project, thank you.

References

openSUSE Tumbleweed Download
Atom N550 CPU Benchmark
Syncthing-Gtk
Gcompris
Tux Paint
qsynergy
Crossover Linux

LeoCAD | Free LEGO® CAD Software on openSUSE Linux

LeoCAD-00-Title.png

CAD is not only what I do for my profession, I also do it for fun. For personal projects, I have been having a great time with using FreeCAD, a very capable and feature-full parametric modeler. With a recent resurgence of Legos in my house and falling into some web-searching rabbit holes, I stumbled upon this Lego CAD software called LeoCAD. I am currently using the AppImage on openSUSE that works fantastically well. I’m sure it will work on any modern Linux Distribution. It is also available for those “other” platforms. It can be downloaded from here:

https://www.leocad.org/download.html

The nice thing about AppImages is that there is nothing to do to install it. I created a folder where I keep all my AppImage files. Using Dolphin, I made the .AppImage executable so that you can just double-click to execute the file and run LeoCAD.

LeoCAD-01-Permissions.png

Um… Why?

Beyond the cool factor of creating Legos in virtual space or loading up those childhood models and modifying them in ways that you didn’t have the parts for as a child, there are lessons you can teach kids with this software.

LeoCAD-02-Invader.png

LeoCAD is not only an extremely enjoyable toy but it is a great tool for teaching my kids the principles of Assembly, Sub-Assembly and Master Assemblies and the some understandings of spacial relations. At the very basic level, using LeoCAD to create, you are putting pieces together to create a very basic “assembly” or model.

LeoCAD-03-Invader Cockpit Partial.png

To put together a model you create it, much like in real life, piece by piece. There is an extensive library of parts from which to choose. You can search through by category or use the part numbers to more rapidly locate what it is that you need. Those parts can be colored from what you see in the pallet which are, from my understanding, actual Lego colors. Here is a fun fact. On Legos that are made in the 1990s-ish or newer, will have a part number molded into each part on a “non visual” surface. If your eyes are older… you might need a magnifying glass.

Another very cool feature of LeoCAD is the ability to order steps on a model. If you have a desire to create your very own instruction booklet, that can be done with LeoCAD.

LeoCAD-04-Invader Cockpit.png

Once you have created a Sub-Assembly, or as LeoCAD calls them, “Submodel” you can bring each Assembly / model in together in a “Master Assembly”.

LeoCAD-05-Invader Ship.png

Any assemblies or Submodels can be treated like any other Lego part. Objects are objects whether they are individual pieces or Submodels.

For whatever Submodel Tab you have selected, you can view the parts used by selecting: Submodel > Properties… then select the “Parts Used” tab. This gives you a complete list of all the individual pieces you have used in your model. If you so choose, you can take this list and purchase the necessary pieces to build your creation.

LeoCAD-07-Parts List.png

Unfortunately, I was unable to find a way to export this list into a spreadsheet, so that does complicate matters somewhat.

If you want to download some Lego Sets to spin around LeoCAD, check out the Ldraw site. You will need to know the set number to look up to get the CAD files. If you would like to look at this the previously pictured Blacktron Invader, from 1987, see here.

Lego Project

After some playing with LeoCAD, my boy and I began talking about what we should build. We are both fans of Star Wars and he liked all these old 1980s themed Lego space sets so we decided to put two of them together and made a “Blacktron AT-ST”. It was a good way to go head-first in really learning and understanding this software and it’s quirks.

LeoCAD-10-Blackktron AT-ST.png

Just building the model in LeoCAD took about a week of work. That was a few hours here and there. Much of the time spent was learning how to effectively navigate the software and fine the proper parts in the library. The actual assembly process of the pieces is pretty intuitive. You do have to play with the snap points when doing less common assembly angles but it is in no way difficult. This was probably a bit too ambitious for a first project but it was completed. There are a total of 428 parts divided into 24 submodels one of which is the Master Assembly (submodel) that all the individual models assemble into.

We took the parts list and went through the Legos we had to determine what was on hand, then we put the rest into a “wishlist” on Bricklink.com where we were then able to order the parts necessary to build it. My boy used this an entry for a craft project for the local county fair. It was fun for the both of us. Maybe me more so than him but this application along with the resources through the Internet is essentially a childhood fantasy come reality.

Blacktron AT-ST-01
Blacktron AT-ST

I want to note that this is not in any way an original design. This is heavily based on an actual licensed model and essentially recolored to look like it could fit with the rest of the Blacktron theme. Now, it is just another Lego model toy on our Lego table.

What I like

Assembling Legos in the virtual space, although not as satisfying as the snap of the genuine article, is fun and can really allow you to flesh out some ideas somewhat rapidly. The benefit is, you can take that virtual model and turn it into a real model.

Another thing I like to do with LeoCAD is documenting changes I make to a design. If I come up with an idea, I like it, I can make it in the LeoCAD and date stamp it. This way, I have the freedom to make the changes to the real model and I have a point I can go back to as a reference.

LeoCAD is very fast and snappy using only the Intel GPU. I have run it on my AMD GPU as well as and I am sure it is performing better but not so much that I can tell the difference.

LeoCAD-11-ColorsIt is easy to change the colors of parts of the Legos and if you are doing a virtual prototype, it is much easier to swap out the colors of parts on LeoCAD than it it is with Actual Legos.

There are all kinds of 3D models to download, look at and modify to your hearts content from Ldraw.org. If you need to look up set numbers, use this resource: brickset.com.

What I don’t Like

There isn’t much to not like about this software. There are only two issues that I have with it. There is no way to export the Bill of Material / Parts list to any kind of file. Even a way to export to CSV would be fantastic. As it stands today, you can copy only one cell at a time. Hopefully there will be an export feature in the future.

There is no collision detection between parts and pieces. So, it is possible to bury parts within parts. Some kind of “align” and “orient” option would be great too when assembling components.

Lastly, and really, least important, the UI is too light. I would prefer a dark theme. Not a big deal but it would be nice.

Final Thoughts

LeoCAD is not only a great tool for teaching the concepts of Computer Aided Design but it is an incredibly fun toy with which to play. I didn’t realize what kind of fun-spiral I could fall into. LeoCAD is an incredibly useful tool to teach CAD and many CAD concepts.

If you have a passing interest in Legos or CAD or both, this is worth checking out. Opening up Lego models from your childhood, spinning them around and modifying them like you would have done so many years ago is a great way to spend a weekend where the weather isn’t cooperative. Being able to create, modify and document your ideas is fantastic but the best part about LeoCAD is, at no time will playing with these Legos pose any risk to your feet.

Further Reading

LeoCAD Site

LDraw.org, open standard for LEGO® CAD programs

LeoCAD on GitHub

BrickLink.com Lego® Marketplace

Brickset.com, Lego® Set Guide