Go Mobile Gaming with RetroPie!

Go mobile gaming with RetroPie. RetroPie bundles a ton of emulators for lots of different gaming platforms and is amazing! With all this great software, I took the plunge and built three handheld gaming devices using the Raspberry Pi Zero W. For this project I picked three popular project kits:

At the most fundamental level, all three of these kits use the Raspberry Pi Zero W so they all run the same code on the same hardware. Because of this, I will evaluate them based on features they bring to bear, build difficulty, quality, and overall impression.

A Word About Tools

As a quick aside, let’s talk about the tools necessary to build a hand held gaming system. The experts will tell you there is a good tool and a tool that makes things possible. I will tell you that the good tools are necessary for consistent results. Some of them are rather expensive. That said, I wanted to list the tools that will help you go mobile gaming with RetroPie.

There are a couple of things I didn’t want to mention specifics for but that you should also acquire. First is a good multimeter. Browse Amazon to find one. You will need one of these to test your solder joints, particularly when building the Null 2 and Picicle. When you get weird results, chances are extremely good this stems from a pad or two not being completely connected. The second thing you should acquire first is stranded wire in 26, 28 and 30 gauges, preferably with silicon insulation. Adafruit has this stuff all day long. There are times when you need to tie things together, like USB ports and speakers. Using the wrong wire can make it impossible to assemble once you are finished. A silicon insulating jacket is harder to melt and is much more pliable in tight spaces.

Hakko FX-951 ESD Safe Solder Station

Permanently cluttering a portion of my desk now is a Hakko FX-951 solder station. It is far and away better than the $15 soldering irons I used for the first 45 years of my life, and I cannot express how much of an improvement this represents overall. I selected the Hakko T15-JS02 tip which resembles a pen refill, but which provides a curved, fine point. It is perfect for smaller solder joints. The Hakko unit also does a great job of heating up and cooling down extremely quickly, and holds a perfect steady temperature. I highly recommend this or a similar Hakko solution for this project.

Kester Solder 63/37 .015 Diameter

The solder you select should have a melting temperature that is safe for the work you are doing. For this project, it should also be thin enough to not drown the tiny parts you’ll be working with. When you’re soldering a capacitor or resistor that is no more than a couple mm long, you’ll need to be working with this kind of material. Also, LEAD. The 63/37 represents the percentage of lead in the product. 63% tin and 37% lead. Ventilation is key here. A small fan and a window? They also make fans to suck the fumes through a filter. Do not breath lead fumes.

Solder Paste / Flux is critical!

I don’t necessarily have a recommendation for a particular product here, but search Amazon and find a good solder paste/flux. You need this to help keep things clean and to draw molten solder to contact points. You will be super happy with the results. Also pick up some of those individually wrapped alcohol wipes like nurses use. They are perfect for cleaning up excess solder paste so things turn out beautiful.

Prusa Mk3S 3D Printer

Okay, this isn’t entirely necessary except that the Pi Grrl Zero and Null 2 have 3D printed cases. If you do not have a 3D printer yet, this is the best one in my opinion. Also, where have you been? Any modern maker should have this and a free hobby license of Fusion 360 at the ready.

M3 and M2.5 Screws and Nuts

I highly recommend going to Amazon and ordering a couple of multipack cases of M3 and M2.5 socket head screws. You won’t need them for everything in this list, but they come in very handy in general when making things these days. I used a few short ones to hold the internals in the Pi Grrl as an example. They aren’t expensive and they are not readily available in stores that I have found.

Mobile Gaming with RetroPie and Pi Grrl Zero

Up first is the Adafruit Pi Grrl Zero. I love Adafruit! They have so many cool ideas, projects and information. Their projects are great learning tools, and the Pi Grrl Zero is no different. Like the rest of my three projects, the heart of this handheld is the Raspberry Pi Zero W. Note that using the wireless version of the Pi Zero will require you to manually install the software from a base RetroPie image. Even with this caveat, the instructions provided are very good, and the entire process is outlined perfectly.

Pi Grrl Zero W

There are many good things about this project and I think they boil down to it being a relatively low stress way to learn more about handheld gaming. You will have to solder quite a bit, but all the connections you make are pretty easily accomplished. The practice you get doing this project will prove invaluable on the others. While the Adafruit site warns this is not a beginner project, it is by far the easiest to build out of the three projects I list here.

Pros:

  • Great instructions
  • High quality parts
  • FUN to build!
  • No intensely small or delicate parts
  • Includes a full USB 2.0 female port for connecting keyboards, etc.

Cons:

  • Small Screen
  • Loud buttons
  • No sound
  • Manual Shutdown Procedure
  • Have to dismantle to remove the SD card (but shouldn’t be necessary, really)

The Pi Grrl Zero is a great platform to start from. There are plenty of remix projects where people have increased the size of the screen and added sound. If you’re into it, I would love to hear how well you are able to use it to go retro-gaming using the Raspberry Pi Zero and RetroPie.

Mobile Gaming with RetroPie and Picicle

If you haven’t heard of the Picicle Kit, you’re in for a treat! There are a couple of important differences between this kit and the Pi GRRL Zero. The first is that it ships with Acrylic parts for the case and buttons. You’ll have to glue it together, and they recommend UV activated super glue for this purpose. Use it sparingly.

Picicle. Yes, I built two.

Pros:

  • Sound! It uses a single speaker, but it works.
  • Bigger Screen
  • Buttons are quiet
  • Power off initiates automated shutdown
  • It’s Pretty! Custom PCB for everything.
  • USB and SD Card accessible fully assembled.

Cons:

  • Difficult to Build
  • Testing solder joints requires two heads and 4 hands.
  • Mini USB… Only PS3/4 controllers still use that, right?
  • Acrylic screws. I’m sure there is a better way.

I really enjoyed building the Picicle kit because I learned a great deal. If you have never surface soldered a Raspberry Pi to a board you might want to figure out a good way to practice first. I suggest using a very small amount of solder and definitely use flux. In the end, this is a great way to go mobile gaming with RetroPie.

Picicle Build Advice

When you assemble the Pi to the Picicle board, you will have to work hard to make sure the header pins are properly aligned. I used two M3 screws with nuts to secure it to the board after I had used alignment pins on the GPIO header. I made small adjustments by holding it up to the light. There are a couple of pinholes that will help make sure you have things perfectly centered. Then as an added measure, I used capton tape to help make sure the header side of the board was firm against the PCB. This will help ensure the least amount of solder is used with the least chance of it bridging to other pins.

Use an incredibly small amount of solder and do not fill up the cavity created by the GPIO header holes. You should actually see the solder bubble sink down into the cavity. Also, be sure to check every single connection that is listed to test. There should be 0 ohms resistance for every single one. The results if you do not do this, even for the nearly impossible screen pads, is regrettably wild.

If you leave a divot in each of the GPIO header holes, they serve to hold the tip of your multi-meter during testing. That’s especially handy when you have to test the other end on the other side of the board. It also hopefully keeps you from creating bridges between the PI and the board, which would be difficult to fix. In my opinion, this is far from the most difficult part of this kit assembly.

What exactly was so difficult with the Picicle?

It was simply tedious. Be patient while soldering each individual piece. The surface mount resistors and capacitors are tiny. They are not difficult to get right, they are just very small and easy to lose. The big trouble spots for me wound up being the TP4056 charging IC, and the mini USB connector. I managed to fix both problems by using the solder wick and pulling excess solder from them both. I later went back in and prettied them up. The charging IC of course caused it to not want to charge the battery. The USB port resulted in a high pitched squeal that would never end once I had powered the unit off. When it was on, it worked fine.

One way you might combat this in your own build is to have younger eyes or use a microscope during assembly. Something to magnify the work in a substantial enough way to allow you to more accurately apply solder. I believe in my own build my problem was not believing I was getting enough solder and then overdoing it. The USB port in particular, I never saw where the short occurred. I think it might have bridged to the case metal from one of the pins, but the space is so small, I never saw where it happened.

Mobile Gaming with RetroPie and Null 2

The Null 2 kit is probably my favorite one over all. I only have one mild gripe and that is the shutdown requires a key combination, then a power off. I prefer the way the Picicle implemented a shutdown of the Linux system simply as part of what happens when you turn the switch off. There is a single sheet operator’s manual online which is a nice touch. Not everything is obvious with this one.

That said, the Null 2 provides a custom PCB like the Picicle, but separates audio and charging to a custom made set of separate boards, so assembly is greatly simplified. The quality of the audio is far superior as well, not just for being in stereo, but overall. There is only one surface mount resistor, and just be aware, it is loose in the packaging and easy to lose.

Null 2

Pros:

  • Stereo Sound
  • Relatively Easy Build
  • Headphone Jack
  • Quiet buttons
  • Test pads right beside major solder points

Cons:

  • Advised to charge only while turned off
  • A bit difficult to assemble the case itself.

The case for the Null 2 is up to the builder. There are a couple provided via Thingiverse. I opted for the version with the deeper back to accommodate the battery. There are remixes out there, and there’s nothing stopping you from drawing your own up and going a completely different route. You are also provided with plans for an acrylic version as well.

Conclusions and Postulations

Overall Winner: Null 2

I already let the cat out of the bag on my favorite, and that’s the Null 2. It was an easy build, there are test pads galore, making verification of solder joints a snap. The SD card is exposed for easy exchange after the build. The sound is excellent.

Build Challenge Winner: Picicle

From a satisfaction standpoint, I was looking to be challenged, and for that the reward goes to the Picicle. It was my first foray into surface mount components and it delivered frustration in spades. I used support chat on Tindie a couple times and received adequate support leading to success.

Learning Winner: Pi GRRL Zero

I started with the Pi GRRL Zero, and I am glad I did. It is a functional unit, it is easy to get things right with it, and it is fun. I keep a couple of these with me at family get togethers and hand them to unruly children. If you’re looking to just try things out, I highly recommend this unit.

Final Thoughts on RetroPie Gaming

When you get ready to go mobile gaming with RetroPie, I hope you have as much fun as I’ve had. These kits are fun to build and entertaining to have. I genuinely hope you find the information I’ve provided helpful and look forward to hearing from you if you decide to build one of these kits yourself.

Hold it in. Hold it back.

What’s it like having a child? It’s like taking your entire being and everything you’ve ever accomplished, taking your next breath and the one after that, every ounce of energy you have to survive, and placing it on red then watching the wheel spin. It’s putting everything on the line and then sitting on the edge of your seat, tense, scared, exhilarated. And watching a little chest rise and fall. Rise and fall. Feeling the rush of a hurricane, feeling the turbine of a jet, then holding it all in. Rise and fall. Rise and fall.

That chest gets bigger, the world gets smaller.

Your back gets weaker and your energy fades. You still watch that person move, work, suffer, win, lose, and be. Your bets were already placed, and no one can change your choice. It just is as it is, and you can’t get off the edge of your seat. Clenched fists and the brazen and irrational belief you are watching greatness happen. A biologically programmed fervor and yet a reason to believe in the presence of actual magic in the universe.

Through failed tests, wrecked cars…

Every other bump, fists remain clenched, ass remains sore. Perched on the edge of your seat, you are also thankful and aware. In a new way you are relaxed and accomplished. And you love. All the time.

2019 RAM Rebel Truck Review

I bought and all-new 2019 Ram Rebel Crew Cab pick-up truck, and I like it a lot. I think Ram has continued to challenge the status quo with some seriously interesting strategies, and those come at something of a price. I’m not talking sticker shock because as far as I can tell even the most stripped down trucks these days are a lot more expensive than I would have thought they would be. I’m really talking about a learning curve, of sorts. This is my personal take on what you get for your money in the “all-new” Ram 1500 truck.

What about Ford? What about Chevy?

If you’re looking for reasons why I picked a Ram over a Ford or Chevy, you might be somewhat disappointed. What I will say to cover that question is that I didn’t like Ford’s fit and finish, and I don’t like the materials and presentation in a Chevy, especially on the interior. Styling-wise I like them all, but I felt I was getting a better put together machine in a Ram. That’s my personal opinion, and you don’t have to take it up for yourself. I’m good either way.

Things I Don’t Like – 2019 Ram Rebel Crew Cab

I don’t want to write a shit sandwich about this truck, so I’ll start with the stuff I really don’t like. After that, I’ll introduce you to what I think makes this truck work well.

Emergency Braking – Stinks

First, let’s talk about emergency braking. I think it sucks. The only place I’ve had it fire so far is backing into my own driveway. No kids or animals darting around, nothing. It’s a slight incline from the street and it appears to me at least that it might be detecting the hill it is rolling up. I don’t really know. The main reason I hate the feature is that I like the idea of it. So rather than turn it off completely, I’ve developed the habit of switching the rear park sensors off when backing into my driveway. I’m pretty confident that with the backup camera, well adjusted mirrors, and a completely familiar surrounding, I can avoid the one-off situation there. I sincerely hope this is something they can fix with a software update along the way somewhere.

Under-Seat Storage – Unfunny Joke

One thing I believe you should skip while you are investigating this truck is the rear under-seat storage. I’m not talking about the awesome in-floor storage boxes, I’m talking about the stupid little fence you can pull out to contain items on the floor under the rear seats. They should be ashamed. I’m thinking about dropping the $389 for the Tuffy lock box. I’ve seen these products personally at least once and think they’re worth the investment. I’ll send up a review on that if I decide to go that direction.

Fuel Economy – Drinks Like a Fish

Under the hood...
5.7 Liter Hemi

Another problem with this truck is fuel economy. I know, I opted for a 5.7 liter Hemi, so I effectively opted out of getting great mileage. It just seems strange to me that my father gets 20-30 MPG in a diesel 3500. If they offered a diesel in this truck I’d have taken it. If that’s what it takes to get a strong truck with good mileage, they should offer it. I have recorded every fill up so far and on the high side, I get north of 16 MPG. In town, I get maybe 12 MPG. I have a pretty aggressive driving style, and I guess I pay for that. Also, I fully recognize that shopping in this lineup no matter the manufacturer, starts with deciding you don’t really care about fuel economy. Still, I don’t like it, so I list it here as a negative for this truck.

Seats – Leather is scarce, No power passenger, No coolers

If you think I’m stretching to find things I don’t like, that may be true to a degree. How about offering full leather seats in the Rebel trim without having to buy a special trim level? Plus, I lost my seat coolers. Plus, they should have made the passenger seat power adjustable like the driver’s.

Where is 4×4 Auto Mode?

There are some things I admit not understanding completely, like losing the 4×4 Auto feature I had in my sport trim 2011. I wonder why they don’t just make 4×4 auto mode default and call it all wheel drive. Evidently the Rebel 4×4 system is intended to be more off-road than on, so they dropped that extra bit? I miss it.

Aero Height is Uncomfortable

One final thing I dislike has to do with “Aero” mode in the air suspension. The advertised intention was that the truck would lower itself at high speed to save 1% fuel efficiency. The problem with that is that when it is in that lowered stance, it rides like total ass. It’s not as bad as rolling off in “Entry/Exit” mode, which is awful just like any lowered vehicle would be, but it takes away from your highway miles, making them too stiff and somewhat uncomfortable. Luckily you can turn that feature off, so I did. I just ride around at “Normal” height. By the way, Normal on this truck is higher than normal on others. Get the running boards because waiting for it to raise and lower for Entry level is ridiculous.

Things I Like – 2019 Ram Rebel Crew Cab Pick-up Truck

Now we’ll get on to the good stuff about this truck. I’ll start where I left off above with the suspension. Traditionally you’d add a leveling kit, but with the air suspension, the Rebel rides level right from the factory. Plus you can get decent ground clearance for those times you want to take it off road. I don’t like spending $60k to go mudding, but sometimes a little more clearance is a good thing. I really like the wheels and tires they started me out on, too. They are comfortable, relatively quiet, and they have a nice appearance that matches the rest of the truck.

The Roof is Awesome!

Can you say panoramic sunroof? Oh man! You have to open the shade twice to get the full effect, but the roof is one of my top 5 favorite features. Sun load can be quite high with the shade back, especially if you sweat in the snow like I do. Still, rolling that shade back is a really nice thing to be able to do.

The Lighting is Spectacular

The LED headlights are great. My 2011 had old school halogens, and these really are an upgrade. The cornering lights are unexpectedly nice in dark spots, too. And lighting in general is exceptional. The bed lights are an excellent addition.

Bed Tie-Downs are Great

While we’re in the bed fooling around, I’ll mention the bed tie down bars. There’s no better feature, I think. I imagine there’s going to come a time when I load something and they’ll be in the way. At least you can move the hooks along the rail, so’ll bet the trade-off will be minimal there as well. I’ve made use of mine already, and haven’t owned the truck but long enough to make one payment. Seems like a total win to me!

Infotainment – The Best Ever

If you’re shopping for one of these trucks and are excited about the “infotainment” system, it is awesome. That 12″ screen is a window into the new age. I use Android Auto and the system has been completely usable in all the best ways. The built-in navigation system is fantastic, too. I’ve compared routes it suggests to Waze and Google Maps, and they are similar. The voice for navigation is also quite pleasant and doesn’t have an overly mechanical or synthetic cadence.

You get a set of USB ports front and back that include fast charging USB C. As a bonus, using Android Auto removes your need to touch or see your phone. There is a great clip you can slide it into and keep it secure. It is really nice to not have to find a place to stick some cheesy phone holder. The integrations offered make it reasonably possible to not fidget with your phone in any way while you are driving. It works, it appears to be reliable, and I can’t say enough good things about it. I did not opt for the upgraded speaker system, so mine is just the regular Alpine system. It sounds awesome though. I may not be a super audiophile, but to my ear, it sounds great.

Premium Console Storage is Fantastic

One thing I am still challenged by a little bit is the dial gear shift on the dash. My first car was a Dodge. It had push buttons to the left of the steering wheel, used to select Drive, Reverse, Neutral, etc. Other Chrysler products have interesting configurations, so while this isn’t weird in that sense, muscle memory is substantial here. I’ve grabbed a water bottle trying to shift from reverse to drive a couple times. Still, I will gladly trade the shift lever for the storage provided by the console in this truck. Yes sir, that part is spot on perfect.

Hotspot

One technical feature that works well yet is a mystery why anyone would want it is the hot spot. It is powered by AT&T and comes with a “free” 1 gig / 3 month trial plan. Mine was used up in about three days. I’m fairly confident you’d need to go with an unlimited data package on it. I guess if your unlimited cell plan keeps you from activating a hot-spot on any of your phones, it might make sense. As it stands for us, though, we don’t really need it. It does work, and performance is pretty good. So if that’s for you, I can attest that it does indeed work quite well.

All the regular stuff like power, braking, steering, comfort, and other such topics are spot on in this truck. Driver position is perfect, passenger room and comfort is second to none. If you are one of those people who don’t want a truck because it is too austere, you might want to take a look and update your expectations.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I find the 2019 Ram Rebel Crew Cab truck to be an incredibly nice and capable vehicle. There is a learning curve for some things but those all come together to tell a great story. It is all about getting where you need to go and back again in the most satisfying of ways. I personally feel at home in this truck, and expect to be exceptionally well satisfied for the next ten years. If you care about my opinion and are on the fence, I confirm the hype swirling around this truck. I can’t imagine being disappointed in buying one. I hope you enjoyed reading what I had to say and find my commentary enlightening.

While I’m advocating strongly for this vehicle, I think it is only fair for people to get a glimpse into what you might NOT like about this truck. I’m still a little bitter about the price, but don’t have any remorse in making the purchase. I guess that’s about the best argument for buying it I can make.

Mother’s Day

Michell and Taco

Mother’s Day in the US is all about honoring those who gave us life, held our hands, wiped our noses, and stood us up to take on the world. If you have one, and I know you do, you should do something for her to let her know you care. Even if she’s not with us, you should do this thing that is in your heart for her. I’m extraordinarily lucky to still have my mom. She is in my thoughts every day. She comes up in conversations regularly, especially in topics having to do with being honest and taking pride in your work. But before I get too far down this rabbit hole trying to illustrate how much I love my mother, I want to take a detour and land in a different place altogether.

I am among the most fortunate on this planet having had a stable nuclear family unit growing up. My mother and father were present and accountable my entire childhood and still are to this day. I have drawn strength from their bond my entire life, so I have struggled with what I laid in contrast before my own child. While not everything is my fault, the buck stops here. This single maxim made me deal with a lot of guilt, even some that was not my own. In the end, the relentless return to the right path when a mistake was made, and the acceptance and forgiveness of myself has lead my son and me to a better place. He still has his mother, but our family unit did not survive. After a divorce and many long months and years, we remain standing. And we both gained something we never would have bet on.

A truly remarkable thing happened along this journey from then to now, and this is why I started writing this note. I met someone that carried the gift of family love in her heart and was willing to share it. In her, I found the same comfort and relaxed control I always felt in my own original nuclear family. I found myself acting like myself; there was no requirement to be anything but me. Like going home, her heart was a comfort. She took on the enormous task of helping me manage from afar the disaster my young son was surviving day to day. She fearlessly challenged me to disabuse myself of more and more false notions and toxic history, and she did the same for our son. She continued to help build us up by shouldering the burdens with us. In case it bears repeating, none of this was easy. While she never had a child born of her own body, she is among the most amazing mothers I have ever met face to face. I honor her today and every day. And don’t worry, I’m not trying to take anyone’s motherhood away. I am simply challenging you to remember that some folks drop responsibilities while other people pick them up.

There are all sorts of mothers in this world. Some gave birth and share DNA with their children. Some bring their children out of the darkness of the system through adoption. Still others inherit their children through the processes of divorce and marriage. In far too many instances mothers of all stripes have to work to not only show these young people love, but help rebuild broken foundations of trust and even dignity. All of these fine people deserve our love and respect.

I have finally found in this perfect match, the person who will stand beside me and be that solid backstop for our son to come back to when he needs it. If he needs it. While the entire history hasn’t been what I wanted for our son, the future is precisely what he and every son ultimately needs. I am eternally grateful, humbled. Loved.

Thank you Michell. I love you.