CES2017: Complete Register Documentation For The C.H.I.P.

Last October, Next Thing Co., makers of the popular C.H.I.P. platform unleashed the C.H.I.P. Pro, a very capable Linux system on a tiny board. The goal of the C.H.I.P. Pro is to be the brains of a project or product, similar to the Gumstix boards from an ancient era long before the Raspberry Pi.

Introduced alongside the C.H.I.P. Pro was a fantastic little device. The GR8 module is a complete Linux system on a chip, with an ARM Cortex-A8 processor and 256 MB of RAM, all on a relatively small BGA chip. This is a drop-in part that gives any piece of hardware a Linux brain.

There was a datasheet at the time the C.H.I.P. Pro and GR8 module were released, but a datasheet can only go so far. What you really need to use a Linux system on a module is a massive tome filled with descriptions of registers and all the hardware nooks and crannies needed to get the part working. At CES this week, Next Thing Co. brought what everyone has been asking for: an NDA-free complete register documentation for the core they’re using on the GR8 module. This is 400 pages of spiral-bound goodness that will tell you how to do everything with this chip.

Using the C.H.I.P. for products

When the C.H.I.P. was first released, it was easy to write it off as a board glomming on to the popularity of the Raspberry Pi. However, Next Thing Co. didn’t start with the C.H.I.P. – they started with Otto, an animated gif camera built around the Raspberry Pi compute module. The Otto was successful, but the compute module is a little expensive, so Next Thing Co. turned their attention to building a modern, inexpensive version of the old Gumstix boards.

The C.H.I.P. Pro and GR8 is the culmination of this work, and already a few companies have used it in production. At the Next Thing Co. suite, they showed off a new version of the Outernet base station powered by the C.H.I.P. Pro, and the TRNTBL, a wireless, Bluetooth, Airplay, and Spotify-connected turntable.

To illustrate how easy using the C.H.I.P. Pro in a product is, the guys at Next Thing Co. removed the Pi-powered guts of an Otto and replaced it with a C.H.I.P. Pro. There wasn’t much inside – just a battery, camera module, and a few bits and bobs. That’s great for anyone who wants to build a product that needs a relatively fast chip running Linux, and the stuff from Next Thing Co. makes it easy.

NextThingCo Introduces C.H.I.P. Pro, GR8 System On Module

NextThingCo, makers of the very popular C.H.I.P. single board Linux computer, have released the latest iteration of their hardware. It’s the C.H.I.P. Pro, an SBC designed to be the embedded brains of your next great project, product, or Internet of Things thing.

The C.H.I.P. Pro features an Allwinner R8 ARMv7 Cortex-A8 running at 1 GHz, a MALI-400 GPU, and either 256 MB or 512 MB of NAND Flash. The Pro also features 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, and is fully certified by the FCC. This board will be available in December at supposedly any quantity for $16.

The design of the C.H.I.P. Pro is a mix between a module designed to be installed in a product and a single board computer designed for a breadboard. It features castellated edges like hundreds of other modules, but the design means that assembly won’t be as simple as throwing down some paste and reflowing everything. The C.H.I.P. Pro features parts on two sides, making reflow questionable and either 0.1″ headers or a cutout on a PCB necessary. As a single board computer, this thing is small, powerful, and a worthy competitor to the Raspberry Pi Zero. A C.H.I.P. Pro development kit, consisting of two C.H.I.P. Pro units, a ‘debug’ board, and headers for breadboarding, is available for $49, with an estimated ship date in December.

A $16 Linux module with WiFi, Bluetooth, and no NDA is neat, but perhaps a more interesting announcement is that NextThingCo will also be selling the module that powers the C.H.I.P. Pro.

The GR8 module includes an Allwinner R8 ARMv7 Cortex-A8 running at 1 GHz, a MALI-400 GPU, and 256 MB of DDR3 SDRAM. Peripherals include TWI, two UARTS, SPI (SD cards support is hacked onto this), two PWM outputs, a single 6-bit ADC, I2S audio, S/PDIF, one USB 2.0 Host and one USB 2.0 OTG, and a parallel camera interface. This isn’t really a chip meant for video out, but it does support TV out and a parallel LCD interface. A limited datasheet for the GR8 is available on the NextThingCo GitHub.

Putting an entire Linux system on a single BGA module must draw comparisons to the recent release of the Octavo Systems OSD355X family, best known to the Hackaday audiences as the Beaglebone on a chip. Mechanically, the Octavo chip will be a bit easier to solder. Even though it has almost twice as many balls as the GR8, 400 on the Octavo and 252 on the GR8, the Octavo has a much wider pitch between the balls, making escape routing much easier.

Comparing peripherals between the OSD355X and GR8, it’s a bit of a wash, with the OSD coming out slightly ahead with Ethernet, more RAM and fancy TI PRUs. Concerning pricing, the GR8 wins hands down at $6 per chip in any quantity. That’s significantly less than the OSD355X.

The original C.H.I.P. has been exceptionally well received by the community NextThingCo is marketing to, despite the community’s distaste for Allwinner CPUs, cringeworthy PR, and questions concerning the true price of the C.H.I.P.. The C.H.I.P. Pro will surely see more than a few uses, but the GR8 is the real story here. A jellybean part that contains an entire Linux system has been the fevered dream of a madman for years now. The GR8 makes putting the power of open software into any project much easier, and we can’t wait to see the applications it allows.

Hackaday Links: April 17, 2016

There have been really cool happenings in the CNC world for the past few years. There is a recent trend of portable, handheld CNC machines. Yes, you read that correctly. This SIGGRAPH paper demonstrated a handheld router with a camera and a few motors that would make slight corrections to the position of the router. Load in a .DXF or other vector file, and you become the largest CNC machine on the planet. We saw it at one of the Maker Faires, and about a year ago the team soft launched. Apparently, the Shaper router is gearing up for production and [Ben Krasnow] got the first look with a full 17-minute demonstration of [Ben] fabricating parts out of aluminum. It looks like a great tool, and we can’t wait to see this thing in production.

Octoprint is the best way to give a 3D printer a web interface. The dev for Octoprint, [Gina Häußge] used to have a sponsor for developing Octoprint. They’re gone now, which means it’s time for [Gina] to start a Patreon. If you use Octoprint, you know it’s worth more than a dollar a month.

Really bad USB power supplies are nothing new around these parts. There are cheap USB supplies that don’t have any fuses, don’t have any circuit protection, and are noisy as hell. This is the worst USB power supply the Internet has to offer. It’s from one of the relatively new designs of USB power supplies that steps down mains voltage to five USB A ports. [bigclive]’s teardown revealed this was passing half wave mains voltage to the USB ports. It can light up a light bulb. It can kill your phone. The fault? A pinhole in the insulation between the windings of the transformer.

Electronic conference badges are getting excessive, but they can be so much cooler. Here’s Atmel’s take on a high-end conference badge. It has a display, sensors, WiFi, Bluetooth, runs Android, and has 512MB of RAM, 4GB of Flash. It’s a freakin’ mini tablet meant to last for three days.

Speaking of Atmel, they’re having a few growing pains in the merger with Microchip. Employees coming to Microchip from Atmel are getting their severance benefits cut in half. Apparently, the severance benefits given to Atmel employees were not communicated to Microchip before the merger.

Raspberry Pi Zeros are back in production. There’s also going to be a mysterious new feature. Is it WiFi? No, it’s confirmed not to be WiFi. How about Ethernet? Bluetooth? an RTC? Full size HDMI port? Actual pin headers? Audio port? Improved CPU / RAM? No, children. It’s none of these.

C.H.I.P., the nine dollar computer that made some waves last summer, has on-board Flash storage. That means you don’t need to put an image on an SD card. The folks behind C.H.I.P. have recently improved the method for flashing a new OS onto their tiny board: a Chrome plugin. Yes, this sounds completely bizarre, but Chrome plugins are becoming increasingly popular for USB gadget wizardry. You can program an Arduino with Chrome and log USB power profiles with a USB tester and Chrome. You will ride eternal, shiny and chrome.

Upcycle Old Speakers With C.H.I.P.

Sometimes you get a piece of hardware that’s so cool you can’t help but fix it back up. There are a lot of companies after that sweet, sweet Raspberry Pi money, and the $9 US Dollar C.H.I.P. is a very interesting contender for the space. We have been especially enjoying the stream of neat hacks and example projects they’ve been putting out.

In this case, [Peter] wanted to get a pair of walnut speakers up to modern standards. Already suffering from a glut of audio equipment in his personal space, he decided to sweeten the deal by adding support for his library of music.

The first step was ordering a new set of drivers to replace the aged 40-year-old ones occupying the set. After he got them installed, he added C.H.I.P., a power supply, an amplifier, and a 500GB hard-drive. The controlling software behind the installation is the venerable mpd. This way he can control the speakers from any device in his house as long as he had an interface installed for the daemon.

We’re glad these speakers didn’t end up in the garbage behind a goodwill somewhere, and they do look good.

Olimex Claims the World’s First $9 Computer Costs $39

The C.H.I.P. from Next Thing Co. bills itself as the world’s first nine dollar computer. That’s not a lie; their Kickstarter took in over two million dollars for a tiny single board computer with composite Video, WiFi, Bluetooth 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and a 1GHz CPU. That’s a complete computer, sans keyboard, mouse, and monitor. You won’t get that with the $35 Raspberry Pi – you’ll need to add a WiFi adapter and an SD card for the same functionality – and you won’t get that with any other single board computer.

Understandably, the C.H.I.P. is already extremely successful. The company behind it has about 50,000 pre-orders, and people lined up to wait until well into next year for this computer. Exactly how Next Thing Co. managed to build a single board computer and send it out the door for nine dollars is a question that has yet to be answered, and is leaving more than a few people puzzled.

The Olimex blog has given their opinion of the C.H.I.P, and if that’s to be believed, the news isn’t good. The guys at Olimex know their stuff when it comes to making cheap single board computers; they have more than a few for sale, and they know what the Flash and DRAM market is like. To them, it’s impossible to sell a computer like the C.H.I.P. at $9. A quote from Allwinner for a similar module is $16 at the quantity Next Thing Co. would be looking at. That’s just the module with RAM and Flash – no Wifi, no board, no connectors. How could it be possible to sell this computer for only $9?

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Interview with the Creators of CHIP, a $9 Single-Board Computer

Single-board computing is hot on the DIY scene right now and riding that knife edge is C.H.I.P., a project currently in crowd-funding which prices the base unit at just $9. I was happy to run into the crew from Next/Thing Company who developed C.H.I.P. They were happy because, well, the project’s reception has been like a supernova. Right now they’re at about $1.5M of their original $50k goal. We spoke about running Linux on the board, what connectors and pinout headers are available, as well as the various peripheral hardware they have ready for the board.

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C.H.I.P. is a Linux Trojan Horse for Nine Bucks

I’m sure you’ve already heard about C.H.I.P, the $9 Linux computer. It is certainly sexy to say nine-bucks but there should really be an asterisk next to that number. If you want things like VGA or HDMI you need an adapter board which adds cost (natively the board only supports composite video output). I also have questions about MSRP once the Kickstarter is fulfilled. But what’s on my mind isn’t cost; this is still going to be in the realm of extremely-inexpensive no matter what shakes out. Instead, I’d like to look at this being the delivery device for wider Linux acceptance.

chip-single-board-computer

The gist of the hardware is a small board with a SoC boasting a 1GHz clock, half a gig of ram, four gigs of flash, one USB, WiFi and Bluetooth. It also has add-ons that make it a handheld and is being promoted as a gaming console. It’s amazing what you get out of these SoC’s for the cost these days, isn’t it?

For at least a decade people have claimed that this is the year of the Linux desktop. That’s not the right way to think. Adults are brand-loyal and business will stick to things that just work. Trying to convert those two examples is a sisyphean effort. But C.H.I.P. is picking up on a movement that started with Raspberry Pi.

These are entry-level computers and a large portion of the user-base will be kids. I haven’t had a hands-on with this new board, but the marketing certainly makes an effort to show how familiar the GUI will be. This is selling Linux and popular packages like LibreOffice without even tell people they’ll be adopting Linux. If the youngest Raspberry Pi users are maturing into their adolescence with C.H.I.P, what will their early adult years look like? At the least, they will not have an ingrained disposition against Open Source Software (unless experiences with Rasbperry Pi, C.H.I.P., and others is negative). At best they’ll fully embrace FOSS, becoming the next generation of code contributors and concept evangelists. Then every year will be the year of the Linux desktop.