The Fifteen Dollar Linux Computer

Over the years we’ve seen many small computer boards of various abilities, among them many powerful enough to be almost-useful Linux general purpose computers. We’ve also seen more than a few computers that claimed the impossible, usually an amazing spec for a tiny price tag. Here for once is a small computer that’s neither of those two; a minimum viable Linux handheld terminal whose $15 USD price tag is openly discussed as a target price for a large production run rather than touted as its retail price.

It’s the work of legendary former Hackaday writer [Brian Benchoff], and instead of being merely a PCB it’s a fully usable computer with case, keyboard and display. It’s based upon an Allwinner F1C100s SoC, it’s powered by AAA cells, and it sports a split rubber keyboard that likely builds on his previous experience with the VT-69 portable RS-232 terminal. On the back is a USB port and an SD reader, and in the centre of the front panel lies a 320 x 240 pixel display. It’s important to note that this is not intended to run a GUI, while it’s DOOM-capable it remains very much a command-line Linux tool. Perhaps most interestingly it’s claimed that all the parts are available in quantity here in the chip shortage, so maybe there’s even a chance we might see it as more than a project. We can hope.

Thanks [Sathish Guru V] for the tip.

64 thoughts on “The Fifteen Dollar Linux Computer

    1. Except that community is all about one-off builds. Showing a “what if” at 10k quantities might as well be a render. Keep in mind that the Dumb Terminal never materialized, and the creator of these projects has been disagreeable at best with much of the maker community. While this is neat, why not focus on something that can be made easier?

      1. While I can’t speak to disagreeableness (sp?), you do realize we’re in the middle of a huge semiconductor shortage, right? I wouldn’t fault someone for being unable to build something because parts simply don’t exist. You might be able to buy a single STM32, but I wouldn’t want to take a product built on one of those chips into production.

        The fact that this project is built around components that can be bought today shows a great deal of sophistication. It helps that it looks a lot better than a Bluetooth keyboard crammed into a tackle box, too.

      2. lol “the Dumb Terminal never materialized” my specific thought is that there’s no way someone who made a terminal hadn’t learned better than to design a keyboard layout like that. seems i was right

    1. I see Allwinner SoCs in these sorts of projects a lot, but have no experience with them myself.

      What’s the problem with Allwinner, and what might be a better choice of SoC for a project like this? I’ve been wanting to do something very similar and was looking at almost the same SoC.

          1. The project write-up says there’s a pin-compatible version with 64MB of RAM.

            Frankly, that’s plenty for text-based things I’d do on a system this small. IRC, SSH, Telnet, maybe some tiny, platform-specific C programs to add utilities suitable for a small device? I could live with 64MB I think.

          2. My first pc had 32mb ram and 133MHz 32bit processor, with this I could easily run windows 95, office and even visual studio, plus play quake I at nice resolutions. But it struggled a little with mp3 decoding. This soc has 530MHz.

          3. I first used Linux on a 32MB Pentium 233 machine – and that was with a full KDE 1.x UI at 800×600.

            However the ARM9 in this SoC is very weak even compared to an old Pentium MMX, but it’s over 500MHz. A CoreMark for an ARM11 is not that far behind the Pentium, per MHz, I can’t find an ARM9 result. It might be competitive overall.

            What this device shows IMO is the huge sacrifices you need to make to get a BoM of $15 when you need a CPU, RAM, keyboard and storage. A BoM of $30 would result in far greater gains in all areas – but it’s $30.

    1. I’d need a minimum of 480×320 as display. A PiZero and such a display cold be an option. The slower one please … because battery life. And wireless as pluggable option might save even more juice?

    1. It is right along the lines of something really cool and actually USEFUL for many of us, though I think the keyboard being so small might be too much of a detraction. Still better than trying to use a phone’s onscreen keyboard for anything like a shell command where you can’t use the autocorrect type stuff by miles as its got proper buttons, probably even big enough for a ham handed person like me to just about manage…

      If this was scaled up just a little – maybe clam-shell the screen (and add a speaker, headphone jack etc in the void around it?) so the keyboard can be bigger while still very pocketable I think it would be exactly what I want for my roaming around need to ssh into something, check a config etc.

      1. I saw a used Chromebook with an 11″ (720) display, 4 gigabytes of RAM, reasonable-sized keyboard, Celeron 3060, and the usual standard bits advertised locally for $40. It looked like a new one, and the seller stated the battery lasts between 7 and 12 hours, depending on his videos to ebook consumption ratio. I realize that a person would have to open the case and remove the write-protect screw in order to install a Linux distro on the device – but, even still, for a theoretical price of $15… the thing on this article is no bargain, IMHO.

        1. A chromebook could be great, exactly what you want for your use but there is something to be said for having physical buttons and a pocket able formfactor for your roving machine, this or those old phones with the sliding keyboard for instance. When you don’t want the device for video functions you just want enough screen and refresh to operate the terminal so you can debug and fix that headless system – perhaps while sat on the floor (in the tiny server room/closet) next to it pulling cables out hunting the bad one etc..

          IMO give this thing a few tweaks, add a headphone jack and it becomes my music player of choice as its battery life we be stupendous compared to any smartphone, as well being the ready access SSH controls for all the headless stuff I have and quite possibly with the addition of IR blaster a great universal remotecontrol too! All things you can techincally (perhaps with some re-working) do on a chromebook or smartphone, but those are more general tools and quite large.

          And as for cost if you think you can find a use for such a neat and properly pocket sized device twice the chromebook’s cost probably isn’t a deal breaker – it is still cheapish and if you have the need for the nicer to use than a smartphone portable SSH type thing (which many of us probably will do at some point if not always being a community of hackers) then the chromebook just plain doesn’t do the job, and nor does the smartphone, as those things are hell to type on.

          (Obviously when it is not too inconvenient to the task I’ll sit behind my nice monitor with the model M for all my SSH needs, but there are times a pocket sized device that isn’t hell to type on would be handy)

          1. As I have disabilities, the split keyboard works great for me. Give me a second go large monitor, and I have a production machine with right upgrades, which you all know I have no idea what that is. Could potentially be a hit with special niche.

  1. Clockwork Pi’s DevTerm fills a similar niche at 20X the price. But honestly this little guy reminds me of the ZipIt I used to run Linux on. I think one of those 3G/LTE modules would turn this into exactly the sort of email/texting gadget that I could carry around on a regular basis.
    But take my preferences with a grain of salt. I’m the sort that thinks that a Danger Hiptop was the pinnacle of mobile device design.

  2. It’s not my form factor.
    I’m willing to pay up to EUR200 for a Linux computer in the form factor of the old Psion’s.
    The Gemini PDA exists, but it’s over twice the price of what I’m willing to spend for an extra gadget.

    I’m also interested in a Linux Tablet, minimum 1920*1080 pixels and touch screen.
    There is the Pinebook, but it does not have the resolution, and it’s not available either at the moment.

    The Olimex Teres comes close, but it’s both too big to be portable, and it has a too low resolution to be used (modified into) a tablet.

    The only solution seems to be to hack something together from parts.

      1. Adam, since you’re asking, I have a GPD Micro PC and I love it. Clamshell form factor, great keyboard (for its size), real ethernet and USB ports, runs real Linux (I’m using Mint and haven’t found any nagging issues so far!) If you have big pockets, it does fit. I wear cargo pants and there’s plenty of room in the leg pockets for the device. It ships with a 12V USB-C charger but it will happily charge from an old 5V micro-USB charger with a cheap adapter.

        I was eagerly following the Dragonbox Pyra, but the GPD turned out much cheaper and I didn’t really need the touchscreen or gaming stuff, and the Pyra lacks those ethernet and serial ports. I’ve heard the Pyra’s keyboard is amazing though!

        Look, if someone released an updated Nokia N900, I’d probably buy one. But for a real device that exists now, that isn’t a kickstarter or a victim of the chip shortage, this thing is awesome.

  3. As above stated, some things I’d want (but not require) are just not available, yes I’ve looked at (drooled over) them, but just not there affordably. This however is perfect for me as a portable terminal to check on irc from the living room (and not carry a laptop through the home). Awesome. Hail ye this equipment.

  4. So, this looks neat, but what if…

    Swap out the Allwinner SoC with, say, a Raspberry Pi Zero 2 (for 16x as much RAM if nothing else).

    Swap out the 320×240 2.3″ screen with, say, one of those 1440×1600 3.5″ screens that are used in the Project North Star VR thing.

    It’d end up being a bit bigger, considerably more expensive, and possibly full of unobtanium in the current market, so it probably wouldn’t fit the original use case. But perhaps more useful? In theory?

    1. heh he proposed a specific set of tradeoffs to reach an outrageous pricepoint and you counter with a totally different set of tradeoffs that would yield a price point about 10x-30x higher, on the basis that your tradeoffs might produce a useful product.

      this is the raspi end-user-product ecosystem in a nutshell. there’s already a variety of pi-powered laptops you can buy as kits or assembled products and they all fall short of being as useful as a regular PC laptop that costs between 0.75x and 2x as much, depending on the product. the irony is, the PC laptop is more well supported by more open linux drivers and distributions, and has more open hardware in general.

      raspi hits a few targets really well, and hits a few others too well to ignore even if it is a hard compromise. but when it comes to the specific niche of a useful portable computer, it’s really really hard to beat a low-end PC laptop. and raspi, in particular, can’t come close. the trade offs you make just hurt too much for that purpose.

      a $300 laptop is already so cheap that something less usable simply isn’t interesting even if it is literally $15. the only reason you’d deviate is if you really needed a unique form factor.

      1. This is niche but the reason I’m working on a rpi laptop right now is to have something that has a whole bunch of GPIO pins accessible that I can use, so I can plug a SPI or I2C part directly into and interface with, use for TTL in place of an FTDI chip. I’d like to put an atmega328 in there as well, so I can have several ADC channels and hardware PWM output right from the side of my quasi laptop. Both at work and at home, I end up plugging in an arduino or some skeezy USB to GPIO dongle on a several times a week basis, and I’ve gotten the stink eye from muggles on airplanes when I start plugging wiring into my laptop and running jumper wires between bare boards to debug an I2C setup.
        An RPI laptop that can run avrdude, serves as an ADC and PWM, and has a dozen GPIO pins, is worth $300 to me.

        1. [smellsofbikes], do you have a link to your pi laptop project? I was looking at something similar using a CM4 until other projects got in the way. All I really want is an updated pi-top, but those guys decided that they wanted to make a weird tablet thing instead, yuck.

    2. Nothing worse than a designed by committee thread that derails a project.

      This is not Made a Wish foundation. You are welcome to hack up your own. May be OP should put money where his mouth is by making the one he is talking about…

  5. I have one of those chips (Lichee Nano), it is supposed to do composite video out, although I didn’t look hard enough for the driver, but maybe it would be an interesting addition to such a project?

  6. Runs on AAAs? Rechargeable batteries I hope. Why not some widely available removable lithium ion phone battery? Can still be sold separately to keep coats low, but doesn’t produce an endless stream of dead batteries or need those batteries to be removed to charge. It could possibly keep it thinner as well. Everything else about it is acceptable in my opinion. If I had one, that’d be the first thing I’d hack into it. Oh, and is the USB port USB-C?

    1. Read the link, USB port is C, ok. Battery argument is understandable, but didn’t consider removable lithium batteries that might be found in phones or cameras. The AAAs are chargeable in place, so that’s nice until they leak.

    2. AAA has a few advantages:
      – they are standardized and you can buy them from most brick and mortar. e.g. grocery, drug store. You don’t have to special order them.
      – they can be mailed internationally. Li-ion can’t.
      – they might leak but they don’t catch fire if you handle them wrong. The leaking part is easily handled. You want to make sure that the battery compartment is separated from the circuits.

  7. “I remember him as perhaps HaD’s worst and most cantankerous writer.”

    I can realize and remember many other HaD writers is being less literate and able than Benchoff. I do not remember any other HaD writer that was more controversial.

    I do miss the days of Mr. Torrone running HaD, where ‘different’ opinions mattered. But there is the Adafruit blog, where different opinions still matter.

  8. Ok nice. Just a question: what’s the point? Everyone has a smartphone which is an incredibly powerful piece of hardware compared to this, and most run a type of Linux. Also, at least on developed countries, heaps of almost new hardware get discarded every day, semiconductor shortage or not… This is just a novelty item right? No real practical need…

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