What’s Old Is New Again: A Linux PC From A Set Top Box

There was a time around two decades ago, when the new hotness was taking control of home routers to use as small Linux computers. An echo of this era lives on in the name of the OpenWrt minimal Linux distribution, in reference to the Linksys WRT54G router which started it all. Routers as small computers were displaced by small cheap Linux machines from the likes of Raspberry Pi, and the promise of discarded home network gear doing interesting stuff receded. Now it might just be back, as [Jasper Devreker] shows us an Android TV set-top box from a mobile carrier repurposed as a Linux computer that can even run a desktop environment.

The method starts as you might expect, by identifying a mystery connector as a debug serial port. This outputs all sorts of interesting boot information, but can be dropped into a uBoot shell. From here with a bit of effort the eMMC storage could be dumped, and from that the nature of the machine could be deduced. The CPU is an Amlogic quad core ARM Cortex-A53 SoC, which by a stroke of luck is a target for which an Armbian build is available. From there a Linux installation could be assembled, and even an AFCE desktop.

These boxes are handed out in the hundreds of thousands by home connectivity providers, so there’s value in this type of hack as they become available for experimenters. Perhaps it’s more useful as a small headless Linux machine than as a desktop, but we sense there are more machines to come in this line.

If you’d like a little bit of history on hackable Linux devices, have a read of one of our earliest posts featuring the Linksys WRT54G.

37 thoughts on “What’s Old Is New Again: A Linux PC From A Set Top Box

    1. Weren’t the ST-based set-top chips (I want to say ST20 series?) based on an evolution of the Transputer architecture? Assuming you’re talking about the chips which were used in the really early Sky Digiboxes. I don’t think the chips had the grunt to run a Linux kernel, the braincells are failing but I could swear ST ran an RTOS on them, possibly even one they wrote themselves. They certainly designed their own filing system for DVR storage at one point.

      All musing aside, the hardest part with all of these is often getting hold of the drivers (and learning to use them), sadly. Content providers got really antsy after all the hacks in the 2000s, and a lot of the recent STB chips are really well locked-down.

        1. ST got out of the business a few years back. And then sort of didn’t.

          Last ST chip I worked with was an STih205 (Or was it the 207?) It had a single SH4 based core (Or ST40, as they called it) and could do 1080p60. Apparently announced in 2012.

          We used Linux on it – but a quick perusal of the internet reminds me there was the other option of OS21. (STs own OS – vaguely remember it might have been a real time OS?)

          Vaguely remember we were looking at a later ST chip that used ARM and did 4k – but ST weren’t supporting (couldn’t support?) it.

          The only other ST chip I’ve worked with was an ST92R195.

  1. The way they did it is interesting, but I don’t think all was necessary to just install Linux. These little computers are already just Linux with an “Android overlay”, and these chips are so common, there are already “pi-like” SBCs using this exact chip… Any effort to recycle them (because they are relatively bad processors with normal graphics) is good, but you can already do a lot of things just by rooting the Android OS.

      1. Yeah, if you just want to SSH (assuming an SSH client is installed already) and have whatever editor is already on there, sure. I guess you could build and manually install any other software, but sounds like a huge pain. And then you’re stuck with any vulnerabilities that existed when the image was originally built or last OTA updated, which I wouldn’t have much confidence in, so I wouldn’t want to put any SSH keys on it, which takes away most of the use cases for coasting on the existing OS.

        If you want access to any package management and a secure environment, that isn’t acceptable.

      2. i always struggle with the decision of how much of the stock os i want to purge.

        but i just wanted to point out that antique kernels are mostly fine. the question isn’t its age but whether they did a good job of supplying drivers and power save modes and so on. i’d rather a good old kernel than a broken new one any day!

        i say this from the perspective of having a 9 year old arm chromebook with debian and a 9 year old stock chromeos kernel (i built it myself..from the chromeos git repository). for ridiculous reasons, i still use that laptop every summer, and the only thing i notice from its old kernel is that i have to use openvpn instead of wireguard (and probably even that limitation isn’t firm, but). i do let debian update itself regularly and thankfully it hasn’t undergone any kernel-dependent changes in most of a decade.. ymmv.

    1. I just load emulators and roms on em. Then a usb wireless con and you have a fun afternoon ahead. Great repurposed gift too. I had some android boxes and even a voip phone I did that too for fun and everyone has commented on how much more they play it than they thought. I think the HDMI crisp graphics wins them over on their old faves. Anyway just a thought. Mind you, most of these folks are pretty basic in terms of tech so even a kodi stick would scare them lol. Maybe they could be used as a full head computer for a robot build? that kinda thing. Sounds like fun though. Good luck :)

  2. Are these the T95 supers? I tried clicking on the link and it’s down so probably the site got hammered with a ton of requests.

    I’d like to hurry up and buy one before the prices surge.

  3. Inovato is selling the T95 as the quadra, preloaded with armbian but they also have all of the patches for the aw A6 available for download. It’s surprisingly speedy for what it is. I managed to get a full INDI server for telescope remote control working on it, and working quite well. Little boxes like these can definitely a reasonable pi alternative.

  4. Does anyone have any ideas about doing something similar with the Humax Freeview TV boxes (HDT2000, etc)?
    There’s a nice ecosystem for the FOX-T2 which adds some nifty features to the STB (hummy.tv) like remote scheduling, programme download, etc, but it would be nice to completely replace the whole enchilada, especially on non T2s. It’d make a reasonably nice platform – 1Tb HD, HDMI, USB, LAN. Not sure how many cores they have.
    I think the Humax boxes are based on a Broadcom ARM/MIPS chipset. mI may be wrong. Haven’t opened one up for a good while.
    That’s the problem with these, and the other STBs that are technically now almost obsolete. I’d like to think we could save more of them from landfill and potentially repurpose them.

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