Hands-On With PineCube: An Open IP Camera Begging For Better Kernel Support

When the PineCube was announced by the Pine64 project in 2020, it created a fair bit of interest. Most of this was due to the appeal of a single-board computer (SBC) in a network-based (IP) camera form factor with integrated camera module, for a mere $29.99. Add an enclosure to it, and you would have a neat little package combining a 5 MP camera module with 100 Mbit Ethernet and WiFi. As a bonus, the system could be powered either via an optional battery pack as well as passive PoE, in addition to MicroUSB.

A few weeks ago I bought two of these boards, as part of a client project, and set out to use it for a custom IP camera implementation. With existing Linux-on-SBC and MIPI (CSI) camera experience on my end ranging from the Raspberry Pi to the Odroid, Orange Pi and Banana Pi boards, I felt fairly confident that I could make it work with minimal fuss.

Unfortunately, my experiences were anything but positive. After spending many hours with the PineCube, I’m not able to recommend it for those seeking an IP camera. There are many reasons for this, which I’ll try to explain in this article.

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TRS-80 Model 100 Gets 64-Bit CPU And A Very Wide LCD

To say the TRS-80 Model 100 was ahead of its time would be something of an understatement. It had a high-quality mechanical keyboard, phenomenal battery life, plenty of I/O and expansion capabilities, and was actually small and light enough to easily carry around. While its layout might seem to be a bit dated to modern eyes, there’s little debate that it was one of the most successful and influential computers in history.

So it’s little surprise that [belsamber] thought the Model 100 might make an ideal platform for his mobile command line work. With a few modifications, naturally. While technically the nearly 40 year old portable could connect to a Linux computer as a simple serial terminal, its outdated and non-backlit LCD leaves a bit to be desired in 2021. But there’s little sense in upgrading the display if he’d still be saddled with the anemic Intel 80C85 motherboard, so he decided to clean house and replace everything.

Once stripped of the original hardware, the Model 100’s enclosure offered up plenty of room for a Pine A64 LTS single-board computer, four 18650 cells, and a 1920×480 ultra-wide LCD. While not a perfect match for the dimensions of the original panel, the new screen is an exceptionally close fit. The keyboard has been left intact, but rather than adding a QMK-compatible microcontroller to the mix, [belsamber] wired the matrix directly into the GPIO of the A64.

While we know some retro aficionados might shed a tear to see an iconic computer get gutted, [belsamber] mentions that nothing will go to waste; the parts he pulled from this machine will serve as spares for a second Model 100 he has in his collection. Besides, given the immense popularity of these machines, they aren’t exactly rare to begin with.

As an aside, we recently saw this same unique display used in a 3D printed desktop computer with distinctively retro-futuristic styling. We didn’t have miniature 4:1 ratio displays on our list of 2021 hardware predictions, but it seems they’re already making a strong showing.

Review: Pine64 Pinecil Soldering Iron

There was a time when decent quality soldering irons were substantial affairs, soldering stations with a chunky base unit containing the electronics and a lightweight handheld iron for the work. That has changed with the arrival of a new breed of microprocessor controlled lightweight handheld irons. There’s a new kid on the block from a company we associate more with open-source phones, laptops, and single board computers, Pine64 have produced the Pinecil. It’s a lightweight handheld iron with some innovative features at an attractive price, but does it raise the bar sufficiently to take on the competition?

I put the Pinecil through its paces, and and although the device is fully open source, give it a teardown for good measure. Spoiler: it’s my new favorite.
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New Part Day: Bouffalo Labs BL602 RISC-V Wi-Fi/Bluetooth SoC

We should all by now be used to microcontrollers with wireless hardware on board, with Espressif or Nordic Labs dominating the hacker scene. There have been several other contenders in this arena over the years that haven’t really caught the attention of our community, usually because of the opacity of their available information.

A new contender should be worth a second look though. The BL602 from Bouffalo Labs is a Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth LE-capable microcontroller with a 32-bit RISC-V derived core. If that doesn’t interest you much, perhaps news that the PINE64 folks are spearheading an effort to reverse engineer it for a fully open-source blob-free wireless implementation might sharpen your attention.

So where can you get your hands on one? Hold your horses, this chip is at an early stage in its gestation. We can see that there are some exciting possibilities in store, but we’re still figuring out the hardware interfaces and other software required to make it work. A community is hard at work reverse engineering it, which leads us back to the PINE64 story we mentioned earlier.

You can find BL602 modules from AliExpress vendors, but the PINE64 folks will offer you a free one if you join their blob reverse engineering effort. Take note though, this offer is for those prepared to show commitment to the project, so don’t spam them in the hope of free stuff if you won’t be helping deliver the goods.

We might see the BL602 gaining an open-source toolchain and internal blobs over the coming months thanks to the efforts of those working on it. Just as the ESP8266 did back in 2014, it’s starting as a black box with a relative scarcity of information. But if this hacking effort pays off, we’ll have a cheap RISC-V Wi-Fi and Bluetooth module with entirely open-source software from the silicon upwards. What a time to be alive!

Thanks [Renze] for the tip.

Teardown: Recon Sentinel

It might be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the average home had only a single Internet connected device in it. This beige box, known as a “desktop computer” in those olden days, was a hub of information and productivity for the whole family. There was a good chance you might even need to wait for your turn to use it, since it’s not like you had a personal device in your pocket that let you log on from the bathroom whatever room you might be in at the time. Which is just as well, since even if you had broadband back then, you certainly weren’t shooting it around the house with the Magic Internet Beams that we take for granted now.

Things are a lot more complicated today. Your computer(s) are only part of the equation. Now there’s mobile phones and tablets sharing your Internet connection, in addition to whatever smart gadgets you’ve brought into the mix. When your doorbell and half the light bulbs in the house have their own IP address, it takes more than a fresh copy of Norton AntiVirus to keep everything secure.

Which is precisely what Cigent Technology says the Recon Sentinel was designed for. Rather than protecting a single computer or device, this little gadget is advertised as being able to secure your entire network by sniffing out suspicious activity and providing instant notifications when new hardware is connected. According to the official whitepaper, it also runs a honeypot service Cigent calls a “cyber deception engine” and is capable of deploying “Active Defense Countermeasures” to confuse malicious devices that attempt to attack it.

It certainly sounds impressive. But for $149.99 plus an annual subscription fee, it better. If you’re hoping this teardown will tell you if it’s worth springing for the $899.99 Lifetime Subscription package, don’t get too excited. This isn’t a review, we’re only interested in cracking this thing open and seeing what makes it tick.

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A Cyberdeck Built With Ergonomics In Mind

With a new decade looming over us, the hot new thing for hackers and makers everywhere is to build cyberdecks to go with the flashy black-and-neon clothing that the sci-fi films of old predicted we’d all be wearing come next year. [Phil Hagelberg] has been designing one based on his own ergonomic keyboard, prioritizing not only form but also function.

The Atreus mechanical keyboard has a split layout that foregoes the traditional typewriter-inherited staggered arrangement in favor of one that better fits the user’s hands. The reduced number of keys limits hand movement for a more comfortable writing experience, however if you use function keys often, the trade-off is that you’ll need to use an auxiliary key to access them.

The deck [Phil] documents for us here is built from the ground up around that same design and aims to be small enough for travel, yet pleasant enough for serious use. It’s gone through four revisions so far, including an interesting one where the keyboard is laid out on the sides for using while standing up. As for the brains of the machine, the past revisions have used different flavors of Raspberry Pi and even a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone, though the latest model has a Pine64 running the show. How much has changed between each finished prototype really goes to show that you don’t have to get it right the first time, and it’s always good to experiment with a new idea to see what works.

[Phil] is now moving onto a fifth prototype, and hopes to eventually sell kits for building the whole cyberdeck along with the kits already available for the standalone keyboard. We’ve been struck by the creativity shown in these cyberdeck builds, which range from reusing retro computer shells to completely printing out a whole new one for a unique look. We can’t say for sure if this custom form-factor will eventually surpass mass-produced laptops, but it sure would be hella cool if it did.

PostmarketOS Turns 600 Days Old

PostmarketOS began work on a real Linux distribution for Android phones just over 600 days ago. They recently blogged about the state of the project and ensured us that the project is definitely not dead.

PostmarketOS’ overarching goal remains a 10 year life-cycle for smartphones. We previously covered the project on Hackaday to give an introduction. Today, we’ll concern ourselves with the progress the PostmarketOS team has made.

The team admits that they’re stuck in the proof-of-concept phase, and need to break out of it. This has required foundational changes to the operating system to enable development across a wide variety of devices and processor architectures. There’s now a binary package repository powered by builds.sr.ht which will allow users to install packages for their specific device.

Other updates include fixing support for the Nexus 5 and Raspberry Pi Zero, creating support for open source hardware devices including the Pine A64-LTS and Purism Librem 5. PostmarketOS now boots on a total of 112 different devices.

We’re excited to see the PostmarketOS project making progress. With the widespread move to mobile devices, users lose control over their computing devices. PostmarketOS gives us the ability to run code that we can read and modify on these devices. It’s no small feat though. Supporting the wide variety of custom hardware in mobile devices requires a lot of effort.

While it may be a while before PostmarketOS is your daily driver, the project is well suited to building task-specific devices that require connectivity, a touch screen, and a battery. We bet a lot of Hackaday readers have a junk drawer phone that could become a project with the help of PostmarketOS.