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.

98 thoughts on “C.H.I.P. is a Linux Trojan Horse for Nine Bucks

  1. I’m still extremely skeptical – mainly because that $9 price includes _worldwide shipping_. Normally it costs $15 just to add shipping to something from US to Canada, nevermind worldwide.

    So let’s go as reasonable as we can and say that you’re just going standard postal rates, so maybe an average of about $3 for shipping and packaging materials (assuming labour is free)… That means $6 for the device, and they must be making at least some money there. I can’t see the actual BOM of the materials for the device being less than $6, nevermind a complete product assembled and ready to be used.

    I’m a little worried that the title of this article might be more dead-on than intended.

      1. And did not check Kickstarter page. Shipping is $20 extra for me so suddenly $9 computer turned into $29 + VAT + customs computer (parcels < €10 are tax free here).

        1. Here (Austria) the limit is about €20 AFAIK. But only the product value counts ($9). BUT as soon as you reach the limit you have to pay VAT and customs for the whole sum, including shipping.

        1. > Usually only the actual value of goods are taxed and not the shipping charges.
          > I do not live in EU, so YMMV.

          They do include shipping charges in the value of goods here in the EU, possibly due to too many sellers willing to help people avoid customs by boosting shipping and lowering goods value.

          1. Under 20€ you don’t have charges or fees related to Customs. That’s why I still buy cheap electronic parts from usual /common chinese vendors. ESP8266, ~3.50$, shipping included from china. It takes up to 20 days but you can have them without Customs problems. It can be shipped to Europe without paying additional fees or VAT on Customs

    1. I don’t see how they can do it either… I figure they grab the market for the Kickstarter and then up the price on the second production run hoping that there will be enough community proof-of-concept to get people to pay it.

      1. I’m 99% positive C.H.I.P. is a loss-leader.

        They’re charging $10 for the battery, $10 for the VGA board, and $15 for the HDMI board. There are *no limits* on those rewards. For the C.H.I.P. itself, those rewards *are* limited. They’ve increased it to 10K total units (with the second 5K slipping to January), and if those fill up they’ll probably add more with later shipping, to delay the fulfillment time on that.

        But there’s no way the battery, VGA board, or HDMI board cost anything close to that. But most people won’t be satisfied with just composite out, so they plunk down the larger reward, and you can manage with zero margin above B.O.M. on the C.H.I.P.

        I have to figure you’re right that after Kickstarter, the price for C.H.I.P. only goes up.

        1. you can find a tablet with the same Allwinner and memory sizes,
          but including, 7″ with capacitive touch, battery, camera, speaker, mini hdmi,
          Wifi and charger for ~$30

  2. In my experience libreoffice spreadsheets has a LOT more bugs than OpenOffice… If you’re a student get OpenOffice if you need to use array functions like linest (for doing regression analysis and getting trend lines for data, and the statistics to show how well the data fits)

    1. Strange, my experiences have been exactly the opposite. I use it for work and only LibreOffice will open the password protected docs we have to pass around.

          1. vendor lock in

            It is superior to other suites, but the cost is just too high and I don’t mean cost of creating the document, but forcing everybody else to use your software (M$ still doesn’t know what open format means when it comes to Office).

        1. Well, easier said than done. I personally dislike a lot MS Office, I am typing from a linux box right now, but since Office has so many users already, sometimes I am forced to use it anyway. Some example: I work in a big company that uses MS software and they are not willing to switch to anything free and more efficient. I have to write an academic paper, an essay etc. where I collaborate with people that use only MSWord and Microcal Origin (a good software for graphs etc.). Unfortunately there I cannot use free alternatives. Still I would encourage schools to adopt free software and teach kids to use it, I would find it a great step for the transition.

  3. Shipping is not included. If you read the comments on Kickstart er you would see people complaining about $20 shipping. I went in for a pocket CHIP and it gave me $10 shipping. The real issue to complain about is its not shipping for a year! That will probably slip as well.

  4. Look at the delivery dates – the “one of everything” package isn’t expected to ship until May 2016, by then there will be at least a dozen Chinese clones already shipping, and for less money. What’s eating up all that time?

  5. Other than the price and lack of a few outputs, this is just a different spin on the Ras Pi. Heck, it’s effectively Sugar-Free Raspberry Pi.

    Would someone more familiar with the project please enlighten me as to how exactly C.H.I.P is breaking new ground/doing something differently enough as to be more useful than what’s already out there?

      1. this, and the cost beats the raspi…it looks like it has a lot of GPIO but i don’t think it really does, their page said only 8 GPIO…(plus spi, lcd…)
        that it doesn’t have hdmi or vga onboard isn’t a huge factor
        having to wait a year is a pretty big turn off though…like i don’t want it that bad, if i need something for a project i’d fork over the extra 20 something dollars for a raspi

    1. A Beowulf that would fit in a cigarette package with wifi to communicate. I’d like twenty (that should nullify shipping), but I’ll wait til next year and see what’s out then.

  6. What a brilliant idea! I have a tribe of kids, I home-school them in STEM, and C.H.I.P. looks perfect for almost any project they may want to undertake. The R.Pi is great but C.H.I.P. allows you to break a few and not worry, an important freedom if you wan to learn as fast a fearlessly as possible. Basically what they are offering is close to what I could get if cheap Linux running Tablets were modular and had access to the GPIO lines. If they add the extra modules to Scratch, so that kids could start using add on hardware in Scratch before moving on to Python etc., I am sure they will eventually sell millions of the PocketC.H.I.P.s

    1. Raspberry pi has such a great community that I’d say it would be a much better way to go. This new CHIP will be tough to figure out especially for someone who is new.

      1. It’s an embedded Linux board. From the userspace level, there’s not going to be any substantial difference between this and a raspberry pi (or any other Linux SBC for that matter).

        1. Yea, for people who are acquainted with the embedded world, but for someone who is starting out raspberry pi has so much information that anybody can get started.

  7. “If you want things like VGA or HDMI you need an adapter board which adds cost (naively the board only supports composite video output).”

    I would actually argue that the use of the word ‘naively’ here does /not/ constitute a typo. Thought I’d mention it, tho, since there are apt to be people who disagree with me on that.

    1. Yeah, I can’t say I’d want to use composite on new projects.

      The bare board supposedly delivers 7 months from now. Anything tier with adapters delivers 12 months from now. So if I want a display adapter. They’re trying to pitch it as a lightweight desktop, OK, but there’s plenty now for not that much more, rather than being without your money for a year.

  8. Interesting thing to know: the SoC manufacturer (Allwinner) is blatantly violating the GPL for some time now. They use Linux binary blob components: http://linux-sunxi.org/GPL_Violations

    Recently they posted small amounts of source on their github account ( https://github.com/allwinner-zh/ ), while at the same time obfuscating their binaries: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/linux-sunxi/NKyOR4gxYgY

    So either Next Thing Co are bluffing with their claim “both C.H.I.P. and PocketC.H.I.P. are both TOTALLY OPEN SOURCE” or they just managed to convert Allwinner into a Linux loving company…

    More here: http://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=news_item&px=Allwinner-GPL-Violate-Proof

    1. They may well open it up completely, given it is what they worked on +5 years ago. It is an old SOC design isn’t it, and they are looking to get as much out of it on the long tail side of things. Seems like good business to do so now, there is no longer a competitive advantage to be secretive with that design any more.

    2. That and lack of documentation.
      You don’t want to use an Allwinner SoC in your project, You’ll end up tearing your hairs from your head…
      Trust me, I own a Cubieboard.

      Bonus P.S. Afaik Allwinner SoCs don’t appear in the kernel device tree. So, Useless.

      1. I partially agree, though there’s emerging mainline Linux support for the Allwinner stuff. If you don’t need multimedia (which tons of embedded projects do not), then mainline is probably “good enough” — and it obviously includes DTS support.

        It all depends on who you are and what you’re trying to do. For commercial projects, I stick to Freescale or TI application processors, since they have way better customer support (and Linux support). But I could imagine buying a couple of these guys to play around with.

    3. My thoughts exactly!
      Allwinner might even be worse than what the pi is using in term of binary blob and closed source firmware…

      Dude… you’d think someone launching an embedded project would know a little bit about this… It just prove the “openess” is just marketing.

      Please boycott allwinner product.

    4. “We’ve worked very closely with the amazing team at Allwinner Technology to insure that all the necessary documentation and source code for the System on Chip and Power Management Chips used in C.H.I.P. will be available for the community to use and learn from.”

      Suggests that maybe they have?

  9. I cant wait for some of these inexpensive linux SOC boards to be out of kickstarter. Linio and Yun are just too expensive.

    All of the recent linux board kickstarter projects look awesome at the prices they are talking.

    Hard to know what will happen with them – but sure enough China will soon put out dev boards in these prices – they are often just the SOC reference circuit more or less.

  10. Considering wifi router sticks that can run OpenWRT sell for $8 on Aliexpress, $9 + shipping in a year from now for something a with more power is not a big stretch.
    The only risk I see is the RAM – 512M DDR3 currently costs $3 in volume. If the price goes up to $4, there goes their margin…

    1. It is because it is a open source project which will provide schematics, an ecosystem, support and so on. Much more valuable than a random TV stick.

      Though I did just head off to ali to see these $8 boards you mentioned!

    2. Eh, actually, after some thought, I think I disagree with your comment. First of all I couldnt find $8 OpenWRT capable devices at Ali, just a $15 pocket router. Still cheap! But the hardware is lacking for development purposes.

      Here is why these boards are notable. They use cheap SOCs but add additional RAM, peripheral support and headers, create a standard GPIO interface with clear documentation.

      Furthermore, all the parts and the assembly get put together in Asia – yes. What is more telling is that these new boards via kickstarter represent the best potential of crowdfunding and internet open source. At $9-15 for these new US designed, supported, and documented products, much of the profit motive is stripped away. These are group of people making designs and developing software for chips that would otherwise be extremely difficult to use for casual development or project purposes. This is a product niche many of us rely on to create things to make a living.

      Hard work centered around open source projects is not something to laugh off and point at Alibaba about. OpenWRT routers will never offer the features these boards will offer.

      Go look at the CHIP kickstarter. That thing is really cool.

  11. The ‘too good to be true’ alarm is certainly ringing a little.. But it looks legit – unlike many of the kickstarter scams that are totally obvious scams from the get go – like the graphene batteries.

  12. it’s not $9, it’s more like $25. Considering that most stores from china can ship small stuff to Europe with tracking number for like $3-4-5 i say the shipping covers part of the cost. Not saying i would not want one of these for that price, i would. Even if it stays below the price of a Pi A it has some interesting trade offs.

  13. I don’t mind the fact that there is no built in hdmi. I don’t use raspberri pis as desktops either.

    This has builtin wifi, bluetooth and a battery charger. Basically a tablet without screen.

    Perfect for headless servers like octoprint and the like.

  14. Could be my next bot, seems nice and really cost effective.
    I don’t care about video or wired ethernet, this could be perfect for a robot, it has: wireless board, few gpios and a builtin charging method for attaching lipo batteries. I need to attach this thing to the adafruit 16 channel pwm to control servos.
    Really disappointing for the delivery and the shipping fees, I’ll get some sort of clone (hopefully with lots of pwm controls) of it or i’ll stick with my Pis for a while

  15. I think it’s the next big thing in IoT since ESP8266. If the smaller ESP modules are too small (few GPIO, slow CPU, not enough flash/RAM) this can help. It has a lot more power.
    OTOH shipping is a reasonable $5 into the US, international shipping is more than twice the device itself. For $29 I’d rather buy a RPi.
    Oh, and for me, 2002 was the year of the Linux desktop. And every year since that time.

    1. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The A13 is used in low-end Android tablets. The ESP8266 is used for low-power WiFi actuators and sensors. You generally only go with a Linux SBC if you need graphics/multimedia or high-performance networking.

      1. Certainly it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. But if you want to eat some fruit, and you don’t want to pay too much, either of those could be a good choice.
        If you want a low-power sensor, you can use an ESP. If you need to store the results temporarily (e.g. network failure), the CHIP’s 4GiB flash would come handy. The same goes if you need a bit more CPU and RAM to compute something locally. Simply the CHIP could do more independently for some additional cost. And it’s a Linux system, so you don’t need to learn a new SDK or a new script language.

        I like ESP8266 though, I have more ESPs than CHIPs, and since $29 is the double of what I’d willing to pay, that’ll stay like that.

        If you actually want to use CHIP as a desktop computer, you’ll need the HDMI shield, and the price advantage is lost compared to the RPi you can buy any time (and RPi already has a huge community, good documentation, and many ready-to-use solutions).

  16. It’s kind of funny to see this post tagged “Raspberry Pi”, an already extremely hyped product (oh, the “movement”, yeah, right, yeah).

    And if your 9 bucks “board” has any hardware flaw (what about freezing after $random hours?), well, it was a 9 bucks thing shipped from China, right? And you’re a hobbyist, right?

  17. Too many red flags.

    The website reminds me of an all-too-slick 30-minute, high-production-cost infomercial designed to convince you to pay $99.99 for a cheap pair of $1.99 orange-tinted, “U-V protecting” sunglasses.

    “…C.H.I.P.’s open source operating system is easy to use and navigate. Its graphical display is just like what you’re used to!…” Such as?

    “C.H.I.P. TEACHES YOU TO CODE…C.H.I.P. comes pre-loaded with Scratch – an easy to learn language that teaches the basics of programing by making stories, games, and animations…”
    So these purveyors of high tech consider this their idea of teaching programming?

    “…That’s why both C.H.I.P. and PocketC.H.I.P. are both TOTALLY OPEN SOURCE…”
    The people behind this project are supposed to be high-tech-knowledgeable gurus, by inference; by implication. They DON’T KNOW of Allwinner’s terrible FOSS relationship? Give me a break.

    “…We’ve worked very closely with the amazing team at Allwinner Technology to insure that all the necessary documentation and source code for the System on Chip and Power Management Chips used in C.H.I.P. will be available for the community to use and learn from…”
    As The Bard says, “Methinks he protesteth too much.” How about we hear from Allwinner as to their unconditional agreement that they have completely signed up (figuratively AND literally) with the letter, intent, and spirit of FOSS in this situation.

    No mention as to when full production is anticipated, BUT…you can get one sometime in December, 2015, if you pledge RIGHT NOW, ’cause there are only 1689 slots left (5/09/2015).
    Don’t get all starry-eyed about a $9 computer when you don’t know anything about its general availability.

    Too many red flags.

    1. Your cynicism is ridiculous and unwarranted. There are several open-source Allwinner-based boards out there (MarsBoard, plus the more famous Olimex stuff comes to mind). Why would this be any different? Sure, Allwinner’s GPU drivers are binary blobs, but so are everyone else’s, so I’m not sure what you expect?

      I don’t think the price seems unbelievable — I see plenty of Linux-based WiFi routers on AliExpress/eBay in that $9 price range. Sure, they’re AR9331-based designs, and the Allwinner stuff is slightly more expensive, but a $9 board isn’t unfathomable. I’ve got an A13-based PCB I’m putting together with a BOM cost of about $12, and I’m buying parts in single quantity off AliExpress. Obviously, C.H.I.P. could easily get the BOM down to $4 or $5.

  18. This article has a TERRIBLE title. It makes C.H.I.P. sound like some device used for *hacking into* a Linux system. I originally skipped right over it without a second thought, because I have zero interest in that. Ended up seeing it elsewhere this morning, and wondered “why didn’t HAD cover this?” Before sending in a tip, I searched to make sure it hadn’t been covered, and found out it had; just under a title obfuscated by useless wit.

    So now, assuming this is legit and ships according to the stated schedule, I’ll be waiting an additional month because I missed the December batch. Thanks HAD!

  19. Having read all the comments and looked at the device the 4GB storage seems a bit limiting to me. At least with a Pi you can choose your preferred size of memory card and you can change it in future if more storage is needed.

    I shall be sticking with my Pi. Because i can have my Pi and eat it for much the same price as shipping a chip with a hdmi board to England costs…

  20. I almost jumped on this kickstarter last week because it seemed like a great miniRPi-like device that had an easy way of going portable. But seeing as how I couldn’t figure out how to order the CHIP+HDMI and a Pocket+CHIP at the same time to save on shipping costs (+$20 here times 2), I passed up on it.

    Glad I skipped too, because upon realizing that 1st gen is best to stay away from (in my case), plus the cost adds up to a RPi2 in the end anyway. By the time these ship out, its possible an RPi could be released that has fewer I/O’s and can thus be made smaller, and/or even include a WiFi/BT chip on it as well. The RPi2 wasn’t expected until 2017, but that came out 2 years early so I believe they’ll continue to refresh the unit more often – especially when “competitors” like these create enough interest in those special components.

    1. Almost the same here..
      Do you know the Domino project that was mentioned earlier? It’s smaller, cheaper, and will be available a lot sooner.

      Just hurry, it’ll be closed in 9 hours :)

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