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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New Part Day: This $10 Rocking Single Board Computer Does Everything You Want

Single board computers are great, but what we really need areĀ cheap single board computers. Running Linux on anything isn’t as good as running Linux on everything, and all that. To that end, here is the Rock Pi S, a $10 single board computer with Ethernet, WiFi, and it costs $10.

This one comes from the boffins at Radxa, already behind the footnote-worthy Rock Pi 4, a single board computer that appears to be heavily derived from the Raspberry Pi but with a 4 in the name so it’s obviously better. It also has 4 GeeBees of RAM, so it’s got that going for it too. Their latest product is the Rock Pi S, a board that seems as though it’s taking inspiration from the C.H.I.P.. The biggest selling point is of course the price: $10 for the version with 256MB of RAM and without WiFi or Bluetooth. Various other incarnations exist with permutations of 256MB or 512MB of RAM, and with or without WiFi and Bluetooth. The highest spec variant costs $16, but is sold out at the moment.

This tiny little single board computer fills a need in the marketplace; the Raspberry Pi Zero is cheap and small when it’s available, but sometimes you need Ethernet for various reasons and a real USB A port is great to have. We’re looking forward to the builds this tiny board enables and all the fantastic creations that will come from a community so very interested in single board computers.