Among security professionals, a “drop box” is a device that can be covertly installed at a target location and phone home over the Internet, providing a back door into what might be an otherwise secure network. We’ve seen both commercial and DIY versions of this concept, and as you might expect, one of the main goals is to make the device look as inconspicuous as possible. Which is why [Walker] is hoping to build one into a standard USB wall charger.
This project is still in the early stages, but we like what we see so far. [Walker] aims to make this a 100% free and open source device, starting from the tools he’s using to produce the CAD files all the way up to the firmware the final hardware will run. With none of the currently available single-board computers (SBCs) meeting his list of requirements, the first step is to build a miniature Linux machine that’s got enough processing power to run useful security tools locally. Obviously such a board would be of great interest to the larger hacker and maker community.
So far, [Walker] has decided on his primary components and is working on a larger development board before really going all-in on the miniaturization process. As of right now he’s planning on using the Allwinner A33 to power the board, a sub-$10 USD chipset most commonly seen in low-cost Android tablets.
The A33 boasts a quad-core Cortex-A7 clocked at 1.2 GHz, and offers USB, I2C, and SPI interfaces for expansion. It will be paired with 1 GB of DDR3 RAM, and an SD card to hold the operating system. Naturally a device like this will need WiFi, but until [Walker] can decide on which chip to use, the plan is to just use a USB wireless adapter. The Realtek RTL8188CUS is a strong contender, as the fact that it comes in both USB and module versions should make its eventual integration seamless.
From the old Gumstix boards to everyone’s favorite Raspberry Pi, common single-board computers (SBCs) have traditionally had at least one thing in common: an ARM processor. But that’s not to say hackers and makers haven’t been interested in an SBC with a proper x86 processor. Which is why the $99 Hackboard 2 is so exciting. With a modern x86 chip at the core it’s akin to a small footprint desktop motherboard, but with all the extra features that we’ve come to expect in a hacker-friendly SBC.
So what’s the big deal? In a word, compatibility. The fact that these diminutive computing devices shied away from the x86 architecture that most of us have been using on our desktops and laptops since the 1980s originally introduced software compatibility issues, but this was largely outweighed by the advantages of ARM. The latest NVIDIA Jetson is running on an ARM chip for the same reason the smartphone in your pocket is: they’re smaller, cheaper, and more energy efficient than x86.
However they’re rarely more powerful. Even the latest and greatest Raspberry Pi 4, often touted as a viable desktop replacement thanks to its quad core Cortex-A72, will get absolutely trounced by the pokiest of Intel’s Celeron CPUs. The performance gap is just too great. While the Pi can admirably handle most of the tasks the hacker community asks of it, there will always be a call for a board that puts raw processing power before anything else.
Sucking down nearly 40 watts at full tilt, the Hackboard 2 isn’t the SBC you’d want to use for a solar powered weather station. But if you’re putting together a set top box to play back video and run the occasional emulator, its Celeron N4020 processor and Intel UHD 600 GPU represent the most powerful combination available for a device of this size.
It’s fair to say that many Hackaday readers will have a propensity for hoarding electronic or tech junk. Who hasn’t hung on to something because “It might be useful someday”? Spare a thought for [Mike Drew], who in his own words is “buried alive by tablets”. In this case the tablets are Intel-based ones that look as though they ran one of those cut-down Windows versions, and they appear to be rejects from a repair shop processing customer returns that he saved from the dumpster. They are missing their backs, and not all of their screens work, but they amount to a tidy pile of Stuff That’s Too Good To Throw Away.
The exact spec is a 1.4 GHz quad-core Atom with 4 GB of RAM and 32 GB of Flash, and appear from the photos to have HDMI and USB 3 interfaces. Happily they run Linux Mint 20 so they have plenty of potential, but there is only so much that one person can do with them before running out of ideas. He tells us he’s made a Folding@Home cluster, but beyond that he’s open to suggestions. Depending on the age of the commenter no doubt he’ll be exhorted to run Beowulf or mine Bitcoin, but we’d suggest more sensible ideas.
So, what would you do with them? They lack the handy GPIO port of a Raspberry Pi, but with suitable USB peripherals could you use them in any lowish-power distributed node project where the popular SBC would be the usual choice? Perhaps something like WeeWX, or OpenEnergyMonitor. Or how about distributed mesh network nodes, after all there’s an x86 port of LibreMesh. It’s obvious that there’s plenty of potential to be found, so help [Mike] with his problematic bounty in the comments.
We love the simplicity of Arduino for focused tasks, we love how Raspberry Pi GPIO pins open a doorway to a wide world of peripherals, and we love the software ecosystem of Intel’s x86 instruction set. It’s great that some products manage to combine all of them together into a single compact package, and we welcome the recent addition of Seeed Studio’s Odyssey X86J4105.
[Ars Technica] recently looked one over and found it impressive from the perspective of a small networked computer, but they didn’t dig too deeply into the maker-friendly side of the product. We can look at the product documentation to see some interesting details. This board is larger than a Raspberry Pi, but its GPIO pins were laid out in exactly the same order as that on a Pi. Some HATs could plug right in, eliminating all the electrical integration leaving just the software issue of ARM vs x86. Tasks that are not suitable for CPU-controlled GPIO (such as generating reliable PWM) can be offloaded to an on-board Arduino-compatible microcontroller. It is built around the SAMD21 chip, similar to the Arduino MKR and Arduino Zero but the pinout does not appear to match any of the popular Arduino form factors.
The Odyssey is not the first x86 single board computer (SBC) to have GPIO pins and an onboard Arduino assistant. LattePanda for example has been executing that game plan (minus the Raspberry Pi pin layout) for the past few years. We’ve followed them since their Kickstarter origins and we’ve featured creative uses here and there. LattePanda’s current offerings are built around Intel CPUs ranging from Atom to Core m3. The Odyssey’s Celeron is roughly in the middle of that range, and the SAMD21 is more capable than the ATmega32U4 (Arduino Leonardo) on board a LattePanda. We always love seeing more options in a market for us to find the right tradeoff to match a given project, and we look forward to the epic journeys yet to come.
For those of us who remember the Motorola 68000 microprocessor, it’s likely that a sizeable quantity of those memories will come in the form of a cream or grey box with a Commodore, Atari, or Apple logo on it These machines were the affordable creative workstations of their day, and under the hood were a tour de force of custom silicon and clever hardware design. We might, therefore, be excused for an association between 68000 based computers and complexity, but in reality, they are as straightforward to interface as the rest of the crop of late-1970s silicon. We can see it in [Matt Sarnoff]’s 68k-nano, about as simple a 68000-based single-board computer as it’s possible to get.
But for all its simplicity, this board is no slouch. It packs a megabyte of RAM, 64k of ROM, a 16550 UART, and an IDE interface for a CompactFlash card. There is also provision for a real-time clock module, through an interesting bit-banged SPI interface from the 16550’s control lines. There appears also to be a 50-pin expansion header.
Software-wise there is a ROM monitor that provides test and housekeeping functions, and which loads an executable from the card plugged into the IDE interface if there is one. This feature makes the board especially interesting, as it opens up the possibility of running a μClinux or similar kernel for a more fully-featured operating system.
The 68k doesn’t receive the attention here that some of its 8-bit contemporaries do, but it still appears from time to time. We’ve certainly featured at least one other 68000-based SBC in the past.
The Raspberry Pi 4 represents a significant performance increase over previous generations, unlocking potential applications that were simply beyond the abilities of these diminutive Single Board Computers (SBCs) in the past. Some would even argue that the Pi 4, with a quad-core Cortex-A72 running at 1.5 GHz, now holds its own as a lightweight ARM desktop computer for those interested in finally breaking free from x86.
For those who are invested in the 1 GB model, have no fear. Rather than delete the product from the lineup entirely, the company will be keeping it available for anyone who needs it. So if you’ve got a commercial or industrial application that might not take kindly to the hardware getting switched out, you’ll still have a source of spares. That said, the pricing for the 1 GB model won’t be changing, so there’s no cost advantage to using it in new designs.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen more and more hackers building their own custom computers. We’re not just talking casemods here; enabled by advancements in desktop 3D printing and increasingly powerful boards such as the Raspberry Pi 4, these are machines designed and built from the ground up to meet the creator’s particular set of needs and desires.
A perfect example of this trend is the Rasptop 2.0, a remarkably practical design for a 3D printed miniature laptop. Despite the name, you don’t even need to use the Raspberry Pi if you don’t want to. Creator [Morgan Lowe] has designed the Rasptop to take other single board computers (SBCs) such as the Asus Tinker Board or even the Intel Atom powered Up Board. So whether you want an energy efficient ARM machine running Linux for development, or a mobile Windows box for on the go gaming, you can use the same printed parts.
At the most basic level, the Rasptop 2.0 is just a hollow box with a hinged compartment for a screen mounted on top. You’re free to equip it with whatever hardware you chose. If you’re after maximum runtime you could fill all the free space with batteries, or maybe install multiple hard drives if you’re a data horder in need of a mobile terminal. Even the various SBCs that [Morgan] has tested are really just suggestions. The choice is yours.
Perhaps also our favorite feature of the Rasptop is how he worked a keyboard into the design. Rather than just leaving a big rectangle in the STL for you to shove a mobile keyboard into, the top surface is designed to mount the PCB and membrane keypad of one of those mini wireless keyboards you see on all the import sites. Aside from the fact it’s a good deal chunkier than what we expect from modern mobile devices, it has a very finished and professional overall look.