2016: As The Hardware World Turns


Soon, the ball will drop in Times Square, someone will realize you can turn ‘2018’ into a pair of novelty sunglasses, and the forgotten mumbled lyrics of Auld Lang Syne will echo through New Year’s Eve parties. It’s time once again to recount the last 366 days, and what a year it’s been.

Arduino got into an argument with Arduino and Arduino won. We got new Raspberry Pis. Video cards are finally getting to the point where VR is practical. The FCC inadvertently killed security in home routers before fixing the problem. All of this is small potatoes and really doesn’t capture the essence of 2016. It’s been a weird year.

Want proof 2016 was different? This year, Microsoft announced they would provide a Linux ‘shim’ with every version of Windows. By definition, 2016 was the year of the Linux desktop. That’s how weird things have been in 2016.

Man, 2016 Sucked, Didn’t It?

By all accounts, 2016 wasn’t a good year. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Antonin Scalia, Morley Safer, George Martin, Marvin Minsky, Keith Emerson, Doctor Heimlich, George Michael, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Janet Reno, Elie Weisel, Gene Wilder, Kimbo Slice, Erik Bauersfeld (voiced It’s a Trap), Anton Yelchin, Kenny Baker, Arnold Palmer, Leonard Cohen, Harambe, Fidel Castro, John Glenn, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Alan Thicke all passed away this year. Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford died at the predictably young age of 46. Lemmy lived harder and faster than anyone and beat this terrible year by three days.

In the political sphere, 2016 will go down as the start of something. It’s far too early to tell what the end result will be, but between Brexit, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the release of the Panama Papers, a failed Turkish coup, and the presidential election in Gambia, 2016 was a year without parallel. Historians and sociologists are beginning to opine on this year, with the first drafts of the history books citing 2016 as the beginning of a populist revolution. Right now, only one thing is clear: Twitter somehow played a part.

I would like to point out we had absolutely no political coverage at all. You’re welcome. The absence of anything political was an editorial prerogative, and by our judgment was the best thing to do. Like our conscious decision not to embed tweets into posts, it’s one of the many editorial decisions we make that goes without thanks or recognition. It would have been so easy and very profitable to pump out a few half-baked opinion pieces on the US presidential election this year. The word ‘trump’ is a verb, and could be easily dropped into a few very clever headlines. This level of restraint deserves, I think, a few pats on the back.

Oh yeah, the Cubs won the World Series, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, we’re going to get a great NOFX album real soon, and the trend of over-hopped beer is finally coming to an end. It doesn’t balance the rest of the year, but it’s something, right?


2016 In 3D Printers

2016 was the year 3D printing started to recover from Makerbot, with advances seen in both very low-end printers and the slow but steady rise of dual (and quad) extrusion.

Last year, a good $200 3D printer would have been inconceivable.
Last year, a good $200 3D printer would have been inconceivable.

At CES last January, Monoprice announced a $200 3D printer. The Monoprice MP Select Mini was really just a rebadge of the Malyan M200, but holy crap this thing is awesome. This printer is cheap at just $200, but it’s more than capable of handling anything you could throw at it. It has a 32-bit controller board, and save for a few upgrades (PEI sheet for the bed, maybe throw a larger stepper in the extruder), this printer would be worthwhile at twice the price.

2016 was the year we started to see usable dual extrusion on desktop 3D printers. Dual extrusion isn’t a new thing — it was available on the plywood Makerbots back in the day. Dual extrusion that worked well is another thing entirely. At this year’s MRRF, E3D released Scaffold, a water-soluble filament that is best described as, ‘the stuff gel-cap pharmaceuticals are made out of’. Unlike HIPS or PVA, Scaffold is easy to print with, non-toxic and can be dissolved in water. Dissolvable filament is one of the best use cases for dual extrusion, and with E3D’s Scaffold, dual extrusion makes sense now.

Of course, dual extrusion traditionally means two extruders and two hotends. If you want quad extrusion, that’s four extruders. This design is ultimately impractical; it’s either too much mass to move around, or there aren’t enough pins on a controller board. Prusa turned these ideas on their head this year with the release of the quad material upgrade for the i3 Mk2. Instead of four different hotends, the Prusa multi-material upgrade only uses one hotend to print in four different colors. The results are spectacular, and it does it using only three extra stepper motors and a simple, cheap breakout board. In 2017, you’re going to see a lot of companies bring a Prusa-style multi-material machine to market.

Last year’s review of the state of 3D printing lamented the lack of a mainstream CoreXY printer. This year brought us the D-Bot by [spauda], the first CoreXY printer to be picked up by the community.

MakerBot sold the Smart Extruder – a part that should not fail – in packs of three.
MakerBot sold the Smart Extruder – a part that should not fail – in packs of three.

Makerbot is dead. We knew this last year, but we had to wait for the yearly financials to be released. Makerbot stopped manufacturing their printers in Brooklyn, and now the easy break ovens are manufactured in China. Every other manufacturer of 3D printers is now selling more units than Makerbot. Still, Makerbot released their sixth generation of printers this year, and Makerbot seems to be transitioning to a software company.

I have said time and time again that the public perception of 3D printing is tied directly to Makerbot, and no writings on the state of consumer 3D printing mention this basic fact. The graph of the hype cycle matches shares of SYSS. The general public is a few years behind the enthusiast market, so 2018 or 2019 should see a resurgence of 3D printing in the public’s mind. Will Makerbot be around then? Yes, and they might even be making printers a few years from now.


2016 In Embedded

ESP32

[Sprite_tm])'s keychain Game Boy
[Sprite_tm])’s keychain Game Boy

In 2014, a weird chip showed up on Seeed Studio. It was the ESP8266, and while initially this chip was simply a WiFi chip with a UART, hackers got their hands on this tiny little module and turned it into one of the most interesting electronic building blocks in recent memory. 2016 saw the release of the ESP32, the successor to the ESP8266. The first info for the new ESP32 dribbled out around this time last year, and the specs were amazing. The ESP32 is a dual-core WiFi and Bluetooth powerhouse that’s available for peanuts and shows awesome promise. Right now, the ESP32 is fairly rare, but it is available in quantity one. If you want to, you can build the tiniest Game Boy in the World with it. We welcome 2017 and all the ESP32 hacks it will bring.

The Raspberry Pi Zero Does Not Exist

Cattywampus. The chip layout on the Orange Pi is cattywampus.
Cattywampus. The chip layout on the Orange Pi is cattywampus.

In November of last year, the Raspberry Pi Zero was released. Idiots on the Internet suggested the Pi Zero didn’t exist operating under the theory that since you can’t buy a Ferrari right now, Ferraris don’t exist either. Disregarding that derailed train of thought, there was a very good reason for the limited production of the Pi Zero. The Pi Foundation was busy manufacturing the Raspberry Pi 3. The Pi 3 was released in February of this year, and is proving to be one of the best single board computers available. It’s fast, has amazing support, and yes, you can just go out and buy one, just like a Raspberry Pi Zero.

In other single board computer news, Orange Pi figured out how to rotate parts on a PCB. Intel did something, but not documentation. The DEF CON badge was an x86 chip, and there’s a really, really small x86 system.

This year, Microchip acquired Atmel for $3.56 Billion. The PIC vs AVR microcontroller holy war is over. What will become of our ATMegas? At the very least, AVRs will still be around. There’s a new version of “the Arduino”, the ATMega328. It’s the ATMega328PB. There are new ATtinys.  There is, however, a lot of speculation over what will happen to Atmel and the chips we love so dearly. Microchip released a statement. This statement said, basically nothing. That’s good news. “Microchip will continue their philosophy of customer-driven obsolescence,” and Microchip is very good at keeping parts in the catalog long after they have been rendered obsolete. Don’t count on the DIP ‘Tiny85 disappearing anytime soon. Microchip did screw up the Atmel social media today, but at least the chips will be alright.

sea-of-chips

2016 saw the release of the first Big-O Open microcontrollers. Finally, there’s a glimmer of hope that our silicon will be unencumbered by patents and licenses. Open-V is the first Open Microcontroller, and the HiFive 1 brings the RISC-V core to the Arduino form factor. The RISC-V ISA isn’t a big deal now, but take a look around and see how many ARM microcontrollers are around you. All of those chip manufacturers pay a licensing fee to ARM. RISC-V doesn’t have that. Kids, this is one to put on your resume.

2016 In Hardware

Computing

Image by Ruben de Rijcke CC-BY-SA 3.0Since the dawn of computing, we have all wanted one port. We needed something to attach microphones, hard drives, keyboards, printers, and phones to our computers. It would be nice if this port could supply power. The ability to connect an external device directly to the PCI bus would be neat, and connecting a display through the same cable would be really cool.In 2016, we sort of have it. The USB Type-C port, with Thunderbolt 3, is the closest we’ve ever gotten to this dream.

Apple is the standard bearer of new ports. Just look at the original iMac. In an age filled with serial, parallel, and joystick ports, Apple took their ADB cables and turned them into USB ports. The industry quickly adopted USB, and 20 years later, Apple decided to do it again.

Apple’s new MacBook Pros are rightly called out for being too expensive, but there is one huge advancement here: the only ports on these machines are Thunderbolt 3 with USB-C. Donglepocolapse is now a word, but it’s not going to last long. My cache of Griffin iMates tell me that. Look forward to fewer ports on your machines in the coming years, thanks to Apple and their support of Thunderbolt 3. Just don’t cheap out on the cables.

The Galaxy Note 7 sold like hotcakes in 2016. Wait, I have another one. Samsung was on fire this year with the Galaxy Note 7. This year, Samsung’s flagship phone, the Galaxy Note 7 blew up. The problem was with the battery, and a few devices turned into bombs while charging. Samsung recalled the Note 7, and it’s illegal to take this phone on a commercial airline in the US. With this many lithium-powered devices, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. Despite being outlawed by the FAA and kicked off cellular networks, the Note 7 is still selling for about $200 on eBay. I kind of want one.

Microsoft and Apple

heart

If 2016 wasn’t weird enough, Apple and Microsoft swapped places. Now the Evil Empire is based out of Cupertino and innovation is coming out of Redmond. Microsoft started this whole mess in March (two days before April Fools) by saying Cygwin Can Suck It. Ubuntu will run with native Windows libraries. In reality, everything is still Windows, but Microsoft is providing a ‘shim’ that will allow Linux binaries to run.

Apple Sucks Now, Here’s A Thinkpad Buyer’s Guide. For the past few years, Apple hasn’t been paying attention to the Macintosh. Really: go look at the MacRumors Buyer’s Guide and note the release schedule. Desktops are forgotten, the flagship Mac desktop hasn’t been updated in three years, and the recent update of the MacBook Pro was poorly received. In contrast, Microsoft recently released the Surface Studio PC, a neat piece of hardware that’s even better than an iMac and a Wacom Cintiq. Microsoft will soon require manufacturers to use ‘precision touchpads’ in laptops, giving Windows users an experience similar to the excellent Apple touchpads. The world has turned upside down, and soon we may see bog-standard Windows laptops with the same high-quality hardware found in Apple machines.

2016 wasn’t all bad for Apple. Pressured by the FBI to build a new version of iOS with a backdoor, Apple CEO Tim Cook did something amazing. He said no. The eleventh largest company in the world stood up for civil liberties and user privacy. Around here we swing anti-corporate and anti-establishment, but we have to give Tim Cook the respect he deserves for this action. Of course, a backdoor in iOS wouldn’t have done anything, and the FBI eventually cracked the phone in question, but still, Apple deserves a lot of respect. There’s a lot of real courage over there.

Actual Hardware

We’ve had desktop CNC mills forever, and the RepRap project is still a noble pursuit. 2016 brought some very cool new machines to market, allowing weekend warriors access to the same tools the big boys have.

static1-squarespaceWazer is a real waterjet machine that fits on your workbench. For a few thousand dollars, you can cut glass into any shape you want. You can cut metal without heating it. You can cut carbon fiber without wearing out a blade.

A waterjet has a lot of requirements — you need high-pressure pumps, nozzles that can withstand abrasion, and a consumable medium. It took several years, but Wazer finally released their machine with a successful Kickstarter.

Although the Shaper isn’t fundamentally different from a ShopBot, this hand-held CNC router is technically the largest CNC router on the planet. Instead of an XY gantry, Shaper uses computer vision and an attentive human operator to keep a bit where it should be. It’s amazing technology that’s been years in the making, but in 2016, this neat piece of kit was finally released.

What does 2017 have in store? It’s a bit too early to tell, but desktop injection molding might be a thing next year. Everything will be bigger, better, and cheaper.


Looking Forward

How does 2017 look like for Hackaday? This year was great for the entire Hackaday family. Editorially, we could have sold out so hard. So hard like you wouldn’t believe. We didn’t. You’re welcome. We’re producing more and better content than we ever have before.

Tindie, our ever-faithful robotic dog, is going gangbusters. Every day, more people are selling their electronic and ‘maker’ paraphernalia on Tindie. Hackaday.io is likewise going crazy. Growth is huge, and we continue to have the best hardware community on the Internet. This year was the third Hackaday Prize The entries were amazing, the work was fantastic, and someone even found a use for ferrofluid that wasn’t just artsy-fartsy stuff. We gave away a lot of prizes, and learned a lot from the hundreds of submissions. The SuperConference was a blast, and we already have a theme for next year: “SuperCon IV – Because ‘Zoso’ was already taken”.

What does 2017 have in store for Hackaday? More. More of everything. The third edition of the Hackaday Omnibus is in the works, and thanks to our fantastic community managers, we’re doing more events than ever before. 2017 is going to be a great year, and it’s all thanks to you, our readers.



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