DIY Laptop Aims for Complete Hardware Freedom

Open source software has unquestionably gone from fringe idealism to mainstream, even if the average person doesn’t really know it. From their web browser to their smartphone operating system, more people are running open source software today than at any other time in the history of computing, and the numbers are only getting bigger. While we can debate how well some companies are handling their responsibilities to the open source community, overall this is probably a lot closer to an open source utopia that many of us ever believed we’d get.

For argument’s sake, let’s say the software is settled. What’s next? Well, if we’ve got all the open source software we could ever ask for, naturally we now need to run it on open source hardware. Just like our software, we want to see how it works, we want to modify it, and to fix it ourselves if we want. These goals are precisely what [Lukas Hartmann] had in mind when he started work on Reform, the latest entry in the world of fully open source laptops.

A plate of fresh keycaps

Like the Novena that came before it, the Reform leverages the four-core ARM Cortex-A9 NXP i.MX6 SoC to deliver tablet-level performance, though [Lukas] mentions the design may migrated to the upgraded six-core version of the chip in the future which should give it a little more punch. The SoC is paired with the Vivante GC2000 GPU which can be used under Linux without any binary blobs. Most hardware is connected to the system via the USB 2.0 bus, though networking is provided by a ThinkPenguin mini PCI-e wireless adapter, and on-board SATA handles the 128 GB SSD.

While the internals are relatively run-of-the-mill these days, the work that [Lukas] has done on the case and input devices is definitely very impressive. He partnered with industrial designer [Ana Dantas] to get the look and feel of the system down, and built almost everything out of 3D printed parts. Even the keyboard caps and the trackball were manufactured in house on a Formlabs Form 2. Rather than using an off-the-shelf USB HID solution, [Lukas] is using Teensy LC boards to interface the custom input hardware with the OS.

[Lukas] is still working on how and when the Reform will be made available to the public. After some refinements, the team hopes to make both kits and individual parts available, and of course put all the files up so you can build your own if you’ve got the equipment. A mockup Amazon listing for the Reform has been posted to get the public’s feedback on the look and features of the machine, and [Lukas] asks that anyone with comments and suggestions send him an email.

Between the Reform, Novena, and the Olimex, competition in the realm of DIY laptops is frankly staggering. Now we just need more people working on open hardware smartphones.

Thanks to [Adrian] for the tip.

Olimex Announces Their Open Source Laptop

A few months ago at the Hackaday | Belgrade conference, [Tsvetan Usunov], the brains behind Olimex, gave a talk on a project he’s been working on. He’s creating an Open Source Hacker’s Laptop. The impetus for this project came to [Tsvetan] after looking at how many laptops he’s thrown away over the years. Battery capacity degrades, keyboards have a fight with coffee, and manufacturers seem to purposely make laptops hard to repair.

Now, this do it yourself, Open Source Hardware and hacker-friendly laptop is complete. The Olimex TERES I laptop has been built, plastic has been injected into molds, and all the mechanical and electronic CAD files are up on GitHub. This Open Source laptop is done, but you can’t buy it quite yet; for that, we’ll have to wait until Olimex comes back from FOSDEM.

The design of this laptop is completely Open Source. Usually when we hear this phrase, the Open Source part only means the electronics and firmware. Yes, there are exceptions, but the STL files for the PiTop, the ‘3D printable Raspberry Pi laptop’ are not available, rendering the ‘3D printable’ part of PiTop’s marketing splurge incongruent with reality. If you want to build a case for the Open Source laptop to date, [Bunnie]’s Novena, random GitHub repos are the best source. The Olimex TERES I is completely different; not only can you simply buy all the parts for the laptop, the hardware files are going up too. To be fair, this laptop is built with injection molded parts and will probably be extremely difficult to print on a standard desktop filament printer. The effort is there, though, and this laptop can truly be built from source.

As far as specs go, this should be a fairly capable laptop. The core PCB is built around an Allwinner ARM Cortex-A53, sporting 1GB of DDR3L RAM, 4GB of eMMC Flash, WiFi, Bluetooth, a camera, and an 11.6″ 1366×768 display. Compared to an off-the-shelf, bargain-basement consumer craptop, those aren’t great specs, but at least the price is consummate with performance: The TERES I will sell for only €225, or about $250 USD. That’s almost impulse buy territory, and we can’t wait to get our hands on one.

The Open Source Hacker’s Laptop

[Tsvetan Usunov] has been Mr. Olimex for about twenty five years now, and since then, he’s been through a lot of laptops. Remember when power connectors were soldered directly to the motherboard? [Tsvetan] does, and he’s fixed his share of laptops. Sometimes, fixing a laptop doesn’t make any sense; vendors usually make laptops that are hard to repair, and things just inexplicably break. Every year, a few of [Tsvetan]’s laptops die, and the batteries of the rest lose capacity among other wear and tear. Despite some amazing progress from the major manufacturers, laptops are still throwaway devices.

Since [Tsvetan] makes ARM boards, boards with the ~duino suffix, and other electronic paraphernalia, it’s only natural that he would think about building his own laptop. It’s something he’s been working on for a while, but [Tsvetan] shared his progress on an Open Source, hacker’s laptop at the Hackaday | Belgrade conference.

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25 Years of Hardware Manufacturing in Plovdiv

Plovdiv, Bulgaria has a long history of design and innovation going back at least 6000 years to cultures like the Thracians, Celts, and Romans. In the last decade it is also an important center for open hardware innovation — reviving the lost glory of the computer hardware industry from the former “Soviet bloc countries”. One of the companies in the region that has thrived is a 5000 square-meter microelectronics factory which you may have heard of before: Olimex.

Olimex has over 25 years of experience in designing, prototyping, and manufacturing printed circuit boards, components, and complete electronic products. Over the last decade it has evolved into a shining example of an open hardware company. We recently had the chance to visited Olimex and to meet its CEO, Tsvetan Usunov.

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Olimex Claims the World’s First $9 Computer Costs $39

The C.H.I.P. from Next Thing Co. bills itself as the world’s first nine dollar computer. That’s not a lie; their Kickstarter took in over two million dollars for a tiny single board computer with composite Video, WiFi, Bluetooth 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and a 1GHz CPU. That’s a complete computer, sans keyboard, mouse, and monitor. You won’t get that with the $35 Raspberry Pi – you’ll need to add a WiFi adapter and an SD card for the same functionality – and you won’t get that with any other single board computer.

Understandably, the C.H.I.P. is already extremely successful. The company behind it has about 50,000 pre-orders, and people lined up to wait until well into next year for this computer. Exactly how Next Thing Co. managed to build a single board computer and send it out the door for nine dollars is a question that has yet to be answered, and is leaving more than a few people puzzled.

The Olimex blog has given their opinion of the C.H.I.P, and if that’s to be believed, the news isn’t good. The guys at Olimex know their stuff when it comes to making cheap single board computers; they have more than a few for sale, and they know what the Flash and DRAM market is like. To them, it’s impossible to sell a computer like the C.H.I.P. at $9. A quote from Allwinner for a similar module is $16 at the quantity Next Thing Co. would be looking at. That’s just the module with RAM and Flash – no Wifi, no board, no connectors. How could it be possible to sell this computer for only $9?

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Controlling a Hot Plate’s Temperature for the Lab

When you need precise heating — like for the acetone polishing shown above — the control hardware is everything. Buying a commercial, programmable, controller unit can cost a pretty penny. Instead of purchasing one, try creating one from scratch like [BrittLiv] did.

[BrittLiv] is a Chemical and Biological Engineer who wanted something that performs well enough to be relied upon as a lab tool. Her design utilizes a plain, old hot plate and with some temperature feedback to run custom temperature ramps from programs stored on an SD card.

The system she developed was dealing directly with temperatures up to 338°F. The heating element is driven from mains, using an SSR for control but there is also a mechanical switch in there if you need to manually kill the element for some reason. An ATmega328 monitors the heating process via an MAX6675 thermocouple interface board. This control circuitry is powered from a transformer and bridge rectifier inside the case (but populated on a different circuit board).

She didn’t stop after getting the circuit working. The project includes a nice case and user interface that will have visitors to your lab oohing and aahing.

Make that C64 Keyboard Work as a USB Keyboard


Let’s face it, we all have keyboard peculiarities. Don’t try to deny it, everyone who types a lot has an opinion of the keyboard they stroke so frequently. We know [Brian Benchoff] swears by his model M, and we’re guessing he was the one that bumped into [Evan] and convinced him to write about his conversion of a Commodore 64 keyboard for use as a USB device.

This is not [Evan’s] first rodeo. We recently saw him fixing up the worn off letters of his own model M. But this time around there’s some clever microcontroller work at play. Apparently mapping 122 keys using an Atmel AVR 32u4 chip (built in USB connectivity) is quite a task. Luckily someone’s already worked out all kinds of good things and is sharing the love with the Soarer’s Keyboard Controller Firmware. Of course it handles scanning, but also includes debounce, muxing, and the trick to scan more keys than the uC has pins for. We still don’t fully understand that bit of it. But [Evan] did post the config file he’s using so perhaps after we get elbow-deep in the code we’ll have a better understanding.

If you give this a try, we want to hear about it. Anyone have any modern keyboards they’re in love with? Leave a comment below.