Degrees Of Freedom: Booting ARM Processors

Any modern computer with an x86 processor, whether it’s Intel or AMD, is a lost cause for software freedom and privacy. We harp on this a lot, but it’s worth repeating that it’s nearly impossible to get free, open-source firmware to run on them thanks to the Intel Management Engine (IME) and the AMD Platform Security Processor (PSP). Without libre firmware there’s no way to trust anything else, even if your operating system is completely open-source.

The IME or PSP have access to memory, storage, and the network stack even if the computer is shut down, and even after the computer boots they run at such a low level that the operating system can’t be aware of what they’re really doing. Luckily, there’s a dark horse in the race in the personal computing world that gives us some hope that one day there will be an x86 competitor that allows their users to have a free firmware that they can trust. ARM processors, which have been steadily increasing their user share for years but are seeing a surge of interest since the recent announcement by Apple, are poised to take over the personal computing world and hopefully allow us some relevant, modern options for those concerned with freedom and privacy. But in the real world of ARM processors the road ahead will decidedly long, windy, and forked.

Even ignoring tedious nitpicks that the distinction between RISC vs CISC is more blurred now than it was “back in the day”, RISC machines like ARM have a natural leg up on the x86 CISC machines built by Intel and AMD. These RISC machines use fewer instructions and perform with much more thermal efficiency than their x86 competitors. They can often be passively cooled, avoiding need to be actively cooled, unlike many AMD/Intel machines that often have noisy or bulky fans. But for me, the most interesting advantage is the ability to run ARM machines without the proprietary firmware present with x86 chips.

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Adapter Brings M.2 WiFi Cards To The Pinebook Pro

The Pinebook Pro is a considerably more capable machine than the $99 Pinebook released in 2017, but the open source laptop still isn’t exactly a powerhouse by modern standards. The system is intended to compete with mid-range Chromebooks, and to that end, few would argue it’s not worth the $199 price tag. But there’s still room for improvement, and at this price point that makes it a hardware hacker’s delight.

[TobleMiner] has recently released the design files for a drop-in adapter that allows you to install M.2 wireless cards like the Intel AX200 in the Pinebook Pro. With the latest-and-greatest WiFi 6 technology onboard, transfer rates as high as 600 Mbps have been demonstrated on this relatively low-cost Linux laptop. It sounds like there’s a possibility the adapter will be offered officially through the Pine store at some point in the future, but in the meantime, you can always spin up your own copy if you feel the need for speed on your Pinebook Pro.

The adapter takes the place of the official M.2 SSD upgrade board, which means users will need to choose between expanded storage and an upgraded wireless card. But [TobleMiner] hints that a version of the adapter with a second M.2 slot should be possible in the future. The design also features pads to install an optional voltage regulator, as testing has shown that the Pinebook Pro’s 3.3 V line can fluctuate a bit depending on battery level.

We took a close look at the original Pinebook when it was released, and came away cautiously optimistic. The Pro model appears to be an improvement in every way imaginable, and upgrades like this show just what’s possible when users are free to explore their hardware.