Modularity is a fun topic for us. There’s something satisfying about seeing a complex system split into parts and these parts made replaceable. We often want some parts of our devices swapped, after all – for repair or upgrade purposes, and often, it’s just fun to scour eBay for laptop parts, equipping your Thinkpad with the combination of parts that fits you best. Having always been fascinated by modularity, I believe that hackers deserve to know what’s been happening on the CPU module front over the past decade.
We’ve gotten used to swapping components in desktop PCs, given their unparalleled modularity, and it’s big news when someone tries to split a yet-monolithic concept like a phone or a laptop into modules. Sometimes, the CPU itself is put into a module. From the grandiose idea of Project Ara, to Intel’s Compute Card, to Framework laptop’s standardized motherboards, companies have been trying to capitalize on what CPU module standardization can bring them.
There’s some hobbyist-driven and hobbyist-friendly modular standards, too – the kind you can already use to wrangle a powerful layout-demanding CPU and RAM combo and place it on your simple self-designed board. I’d like to tell you about a few notable modular CPU concepts – their ideas, complexities, constraints and stories. As you work on that one ambitious project of yours – you know, the one, – it’s likely you will benefit a lot from such a standard. Or, perhaps, you’ll find it necessary to design the next standard for others to use – after all, we all know there’s never too few standards! Continue reading “Future Brings CPU Modules, And The Future Is Now”→
Whether we’re talking about Gibson’s Sprawl or our increasingly dystopian reality, one of the defining characteristics of a cyberdeck is that it can be easily customized and upgraded over time. While a few of the builds we’ve covered over the last couple of years have focused more on style than substance, we really appreciate the designs that embrace the concept of modularity to make sure the system can evolve to meet the changing demands of hacking on the go.
To that end, the M3TAL from [BlastoSupreme] is a perfect example of what a cyberdeck should be. Naturally it’s got the cyberpunk aesthetics we’ve come to expect, but more importantly, it’s designed so modifications and repairs are as quick and painless as possible. The trick is the use of a 2020 aluminum extrusion frame, which allows external panels and components to be attached anywhere along the length of the deck using T-Nuts. Similarly, by mounting internal components to “sleds” that ride between the pieces of extrusion, the electronics can easily be removed or swapped out as complete modules.
Furthering the idea of expandability, [BlastoSupreme] included an authentic 3.5 floppy drive on the M3TAL that allows him to pack an incredible 1.44 MB onto each rugged and portable disk. OK, so maybe the floppy drive isn’t terribly impressive compared to 2021 tech, but it does seem oddly appropriate for a cyberdeck. On the opposite side of the deck there’s a RetroCART slot, which cloaks modern USB devices in clunky faux cartridges. This provides a unified physical format for everything from removable storage to microcontrollers and software defined radio receivers.
What makes a cyberdeck? Looking as though it came from an alternate reality version of the 1980s is a good start, but certainly isn’t required. If you’re really trying to adhere to the cyberpunk ethos, any good deck should be modular enough that it can be easily repaired and upgraded over time. In fact, if it’s not in a constant state of evolution and flux, you’ve probably done something wrong. If you can hit those goals and make it look retro-futuristic at the same time, even better.
Which is why the Clockwork DevTerm is such an interesting device. It ticks off nearly every box that the custom cyberdeck builds we’ve covered over the last couple years have, while at the same time being approachable enough for a more mainstream audience. You won’t need a 3D printer, soldering iron, or hot glue gun to build your own DevTerm. Of course if you do have those tools and the skills to put them to work, then this might be the ideal platform to build on.
With a 65% QWERTY keyboard and widescreen display, the DevTerm looks a lot like early portable computers such as the TRS-80 Model 100. But unlike the machines it draws inspiration from, the display is a 6.8 inch 1280 x 480 IPS panel, and there’s no pokey Intel 8085 chip inside. The $220 USD base model is powered by the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3, and if you need a little more punch, there are a few higher priced options that slot in a more powerful custom module. Like the Waveshare Pi CM laptop we recently looked at, there’s sadly no support for the newer CM4; but at least the DevTerm is modular enough that it doesn’t seem out of the question that Clockwork could release a new mainboard down the line. Or perhaps somebody in the community will even do it for them.
Speaking of which, the board in the DevTerm has been designed in two pieces so that “EXT Module” side can be swapped out with custom hardware without compromising the core functionality of the system. The stock board comes with extra USB ports, a micro USB UART port for debugging, a CSI camera connector, and an interface for an included thermal printer that slots into a bay on the rear of the computer. Clockwork says they hope the community really runs wild with their own EXT boards, especially since the schematics and relevant design files for the entire system are all going to be put on GitHub and released under the GPL v3.
They say that anything that sounds too good to be true probably is, and if we’re honest, we’re getting a little of that from the DevTerm. An (CPU BLOBs aside!) open hardware portable Linux computer with this kind of modularity is basically a hacker’s dream come true, and thus far the only way to get one was to build it yourself. It’s hard to believe that Clockwork will be able to put something like this out for less than the cost of a cheap laptop without cutting some serious corners somewhere, but we’d absolutely love to be proven wrong when it’s released next year.
Over the years there have been a variety of modular electronic systems allowing the creation of complex circuits by the interconnection of modules containing individual functions. Hexabitz, a selection of interlocking polygonal small PCBs, is just such a system. What can it bring to the table that others haven’t done already?
The problem facing designers of modular electronics is this: all devices have different requirements and interfaces. To allow connection between modules that preserves all these connections requires an ever-increasing complexity in the inter-module connectors, or the application of a little intelligence to the problem. The Hexabitz designers have opted for the latter angle, equipping each module with an STM32 microcontroller that allows it to identify both itself and its function, and to establish a mesh network with other modules in the same connected project. This also gives the system the ability to farm off computing tasks to individual modules rather than relying solely upon a single microcontroller or single-board computer.
An extremely comprehensive array of modules can be had for the system, which lends it some interesting possibilities, however, it suffers from the inherent problem of modular electronic systems, that it is less easy to incorporate non-standard functions. If they can crack a prototyping module coupled with an easy way to tell its microcontroller to identify whatever function is upon it, they might have a winner.
[Ekawahyu Susilo]’s twist on the modular circuit kit, SnapBloks helps you create circuits by stacking components on top of each other with the help of three magnetic contacts that not only keep the modules stuck together but also deliver power, ground, and data to each part.
[Ekawahyu] envisioned it as a prototyping kit, used to whip together an idea without a lot of hassle. It could also be an educational aid, used to teach Arduino coding while skipping the confusing tangle of wiring. You can stack a sound module on top of a power module to make a buzzer, or attach power to a wheel Blok to make a robot.
With version 2 of the project [Ekawahyu] updated the look with color-coded shells, with pink signifying input Bloks, green for output, orange for communication, and blue for power. Each Blok has a Arduino chip inside — an STM32, which Hackaday reviewed back in March. For version three, he hopes to leverage the ESP8266 to make a WiFi-enabled Blok. [Ekawahyu]’s idea of having a cheap SMD Arduino in every module seems like a smart way to simplify module creation—no “controller block” needed!