Building Portable Linux Devices: Never Been Easier, But Still Hard

We live in a Golden Age of single-board computers. There was a time when a portable computer that was any good was a relatively rare and expensive device, certainly not something you could expect to replicate for yourself. A Psion, or later a Palm or perhaps a WinCE device would have been a lot more than an impulse purchase, and could not easily have been replicated using the components then available to the experimenter.

Thanks to spin-offs from technology developed for set-top boxes and mobile phones we can now buy any one of a pile of different boards that have almost equivalent power to a desktop computer. The experimenter can leverage that computing power to create their own small portables. Zerophone creator Arsenijs Picugins spoke about the tricky parts of designing a LInux portable at the recent Hackaday Superconference. You’ll find his talk below the break, which makes for a fascinating primer for those tempted to walk in his footsteps.

Zerophone – a Raspberry Pi Smartphone

Minor Details of Portables are the Majority of the Build

In theory, it’s pretty easy to use one of these boards to make a portable computer. Take one of the smaller members of the Raspberry Pi or Beaglebone families, add a battery and a display, and away you go. But as always the devil is in the detail, and for a truly successful build there are a wealth of variables to attend to.

In his talk, Arsenijs takes us through the challenges of power supplies, connectors, and interfaces. In particular there is considerable challenge to running an SBC from a battery small enough to be portable, as efficiency concerns and the ability to easily recharge make for a critical set of choices. Then we learn of another pitfall, that of using USB as a default interface. Power loss in converting 5V to 3.3V that is inconsequential for a desktop computer is a battery-killer in a small device, so we’re pointed at the array of alternatives.

Zerophone screen menu [via @ZeroPhoneOSHW]

Screen Size is a Tricky Spec to Settle

If you’ve been tempted by one of those cheap Raspberry Pi touch screens, you’ll certainly understand that while a full desktop on a screen the size of a playing card looks cool, the reality is almost unusable. Your device will require a user interface that fits its form factor, which from his experience, Arsenijs suggests is best achieved through the medium of buttons rather than a touchscreen on smaller screens. There are a variety of UI and display libraries he introduces us to which make the whole process significantly easier.

Arsenijs’ Zerophone Raspberry Pi smartphone was a finalist in the 2017 Hackaday Prize, and remains an exemplary portable project from which many others can gain inspiration. We are privileged that he was able to bring his experience to speak at the Superconference, and his talk makes for a fascinating watch.

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Teardown of a (Relatively) Cheap Thermal Camera

The cost of tools and test equipment has largely been on the downward trend for years, making it now more affordable than ever to get into the hacking and making scene. This is particularly visible with something like the venerable oscilloscope: a piece of equipment that was near unobtainium for the home hacker a decade ago, you can now get digital pocket scope for as little as $20 USD. But there are still pieces of gear which haven’t quite hit the sort of prices we’d like to see.

A perfect example are thermal imaging cameras. The cheap ones are usually so low resolution they might as well just be thermometers, but the higher resolution ones can cost thousands. [Rob Scott] recently wrote in to tell us about a very promising middle ground, the HTI HT-A1. But he didn’t just point it out to us, he also tore it down and laid its internal’s bare for our entertainment. Now that’s our kind of introduction.

[Rob] walks us through the disassembly of the device, which is made unnecessarily difficult due to the fact that half the screws are hidden under a glued on screen bezel. That means a heat gun, a thin tool, and patience are in order if you want to get inside the device. It’s bad enough they use these kinds of construction techniques on modern smartphones, but at least they’re so thin that we can understand the reasoning. Why this chunky thing needs to resort to such measures is beyond us.

Eventually he cracks the HT-A1 open and is greeted with a single double-sided PCB. The top side is pretty much bare except for the buttons and the LCD display, and the flip side is largely just a breakout for a quad-core Allwinner A33 daughterboard. [Rob] theorizes this is to keep costs down by allowing reuse of the modular A33 board on other devices. Given the A33’s use in so many cheap tablets, it’s also possible HTI simply purchased these daughterboards as a drop-in component and designed their own board around it.

There’s not much else inside the HT-A1 beyond the rechargeable battery pack and thermal camera, both attached to the device’s rear panel. [Rob] noticed that the date on the thermal camera PCB is a full two years older than the date on the main PCB, leading one to wonder if HTI might have gotten a good deal on a bunch of these slightly outdated sensors and spun up a whole device around them.

The HT-A1 is high enough resolution that you can actually pick out individual components on a PCB, and at $400 USD is approaching a reasonable price point for the individual hacker. Which is not to say it’s cheap, but at least you get a useful tool for your money. We wouldn’t suggest you buy this device on a whim, but if you do a lot of diagnostic work, it might pay for itself after a couple repairs.

If that’s still a little too rich for your blood, we’ve covered a handful of DIY options which might better fit your budget.

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SMART Response XE Gets Wireless Bootloader

A few months back we first brought word of the progress being made in unlocking the SMART Response XE, an ATmega128RFA powered handheld computer that allowed teachers to create an interactive curriculum in the days before all the kids got Chromebooks. Featuring 2.4 Ghz wireless communication, a 384×160 LCD, and a full QWERTY keyboard, schools paid around $100 each for them 2010. Now selling for as little as $5 on eBay, these Arduino-compatible devices only need a little coaxing and an external programmer to get your own code running.

The previous post inspired [Larry Bank] to try his hand at hacking the SMART Response XE, and so far he’s made some very impressive progress. Not only has he come up with his own support library, but he’s also created a way to upload Arduino code to the devices through their integrated 802.15.4 radio. With his setup, you no longer need to open the SMART Response XE and attach a programmer, making it much easier to test and deploy software.

[Larry] has written up a very detailed account of his development process, and goes through the trouble of including his ideas that didn’t work. Getting reliable communication between two of these classroom gadgets proved a bit tricky, and it took a bit of circling around until he hit on a protocol that worked.

The trick is that you need to use one SMART Response XE attached to your computer as a “hub” to upload code to other XEs. But given how cheap they are this isn’t that big of a deal, especially considering the boost in productivity it will net you. [Larry] added a 5 x 2 female header to his “hub” XE so he could close the device back up, and also added a physical power switch. In the video after the break, you can see a demonstration of the setup sending a simple program to a nearby XE.

Between this wireless bootloader and the Arduboy compatibility covered previously, we’d suggest you get your SMART Response XE now. We wouldn’t be surprised if the prices of these things start going up like they did with the IM-ME. Continue reading “SMART Response XE Gets Wireless Bootloader”

DIY Scientific Calculator Powered By Pi Zero

It’s the eternal question hackers face: do you built it, or do you buy it? The low cost and high availability of electronic gadgets means we increasingly take the latter option. Especially since it often ends up that building your own version will cost more than just buying a commercial product; and that’s before you factor in the time you’ll spend working on it.

But such concerns clearly don’t phase [Andrea Cavalli]. Sure he could just buy a scientific calculator, but it wouldn’t really be his scientific calculator. Instead, he’s taking the scenic route and building his own scientific calculator from scratch. The case is 3D printed, the PCB is custom, and even the software is his own creation.

His PCB hooks right up to the GPIO pins of the internal Raspberry Pi Zero, making interfacing with the dome switch keyboard very easy. The board also holds the power management hardware for the device, including the physical power switch, USB connection for charging, and TPS79942DDCR linear regulator.

The case, including the buttons, is entirely 3D printed. At this point the buttons don’t actually have any labels on them, which presumably makes the calculator more than a little challenging to use, but no doubt [Andrea] is working on that for a later revision of the hardware. A particularly nice detail is the hatch to access the Pi’s micro SD card, making it easy to update the software or completely switch operating systems without having to take the calculator apart.

After the kernel messages scroll by, the Pi boots right into the Java calculator environment. This gives the user a fairly standard scientific calculator experience, complete with nice touches like variable highlighting. The Mario mini-game probably isn’t strictly required, but if you’re writing the code for your own calculator you can do whatever you want.

Here at Hackaday we’ve seen a calculator that got a Raspberry Pi upgrade, a classic scientific calculator emulated with an Arduino, and of course we’ve raved about the NumWorks open source graphing calculator. Even with such stiff competition, we think this project is well on its way to being one of the most impressive calculators we’ve ever come across.

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Classroom Gadget Turned Arduino Compatible

Cheap second-hand hardware is usually a fertile ground for hacking, and by looks of this project, the digital classroom aids that were all the rage a few years back are no exception. [is0-mick] writes in to tell us how he managed to hack one of these devices, a SMART Reponse XE, into an Arduboy compatible game system. As it turns out, this particular gadget is powered by an ATmega128RFA, which is essentially an Arduino-compatible AVR microcontroller with a 2.4GHz RF transceiver tacked on. This makes it an extremely interesting platform for hacking, especially since they are going for as little as $3 USD on eBay.

There’s no USB-Serial converter built into the SMART Response XE, so you’ll need to provide your own external programmer to flash the device. But luckily there’s a labeled ISP connector right on the board which makes it pretty straightforward to get everything wired up.

Of course, getting the hardware working was slightly more complicated than just flashing an Arduino Sketch onto the thing. [is0-mick] has provided his bootloader and modified libraries to get the device’s QWERTY keyboard and ST7586S controlled 384×160 LCD working.

Playing games is fun, but when his friend [en4rab] sent him the SMART Response XE to fiddle with, the goal was actually to turn them into cheap 2.4 GHz analyzers similar to what was done with the IM-ME. It seems they’re well on their way, and [is0-mick] invites anyone who might be interested in filling in some of the blanks on the RF side to get involved.

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Sonar in Your Hand

Sonar measures distance by emitting a sound and clocking how long it takes the sound to travel. This works in any medium capable of transmitting sound such as water, air, or in the case of FingerPing, flesh and bone. FingerPing is a project at Georgia Tech headed by [Cheng Zhang] which measures hand position by sending soundwaves through the thumb and measuring the time on four different receivers. These readings tell which bones the sound travels through and allow the device to figure out where the thumb is touching. Hand positions like this include American Sign Language one through ten.

From the perspective of discreetly one through ten on a mobile device, this opens up a lot of possibilities for computer input while remaining pretty unobtrusive. We see prototypes which are more capable of reading gestures but also draw attention if you wear them on a bus. It is a classic trade-off between convenience and function but this type of reading is unique and could combine with other bio signals for finer results.

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Pocket-size Pi Zero Desktop features e-paper Display

[Ramin Assadollahi] uses his Raspberry Pi Zero W as a self-contained mobile desktop, connecting to it over VNC from another computer when he wants to hack away at some code or work on a new project. But he often found himself wishing there was some convenient way of displaying pertinent into right on the device, such as what IP address the Pi Zero had pulled. Then he found the 2.13 inch e-Paper HAT for the Pi Zero from Waveshare, and it all clicked into place.

The final device, which he refers to as the StickPi, combines a Pi Zero W, the Waveshare e-Paper display, and a strip of protoboard featuring a few tactile buttons, all inside of a 3D printed case. To really get the most out of the internal volume of his case, [Ramin] soldered the header pins to the Pi Zero in the middle, allowing him to create a space-saving “sandwich” out of all the components.

With the e-Paper display, [Ramin] now has a way to show information on the device itself without having to connect to it over the network. But thanks to the tactile switches on the back connected to the Pi’s GPIO, he also has six programmable buttons that could do anything he wants.

In the most basic implementation, each button could execute a command or script on the Pi. But [Ramin] has something a little more advanced in mind. In the video after the break, he explains that his next step is going to be working on an actual user interface for the Pi’s e-Paper screen, making use of the roughly gamepad style layout of the rear buttons. A “paged” interface with scrolling options would allow the user to perform all sorts of functions quickly and easily, and we’re looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen somebody try to turn the Pi Zero into a more mobile-friendly platform, and the construction method here actually reminds us of a much smaller version of the Zero Phone.

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