An M-Core module plugged into its devboard. Around it are Ethernet, HDMI, Type-C, two USB-A ports, one MicroSD card socket and one unpopulated footprint for a WiFi module

MangoPi To Bring A SD-Card-Sized Linux Module

Today’s Diminutive Device is a small castellated System-On-Module (Twitter link, nitter proxy) from [MangoPi] called M-Core, with a quad-core A53 CPU and 1 GB of RAM. As such, it’s very capable of running Linux, and even sports an HDMI output! Taking a closer look at the devboard picture, we can spot traces for three USB 2.0 ports, what seems to be two SDIO interfaces for MicroSD or WiFi cards, and an Ethernet MagJack with its termination network. This is a decent set of interfaces, rivaling what we’d expect out of a Pi Zero!

More importantly, this module is as small as an SD card itself – or as an OLED display that we hobbyists sprinkle onto our projects. Having power of Linux in such a small footprint is certainly something to behold! The back of the module is mostly flat, save for a few decoupling capacitors on the other side of the CPU – it seems, an Allwinner H616. On top of it, we can see the CPU itself, a small buck regulator and a DDR3 RAM chip, as well as tightly-packed passives. There’s even an unpopulated footprint for a DFN8 QSPI flash chip – with a lightweight enough OS build, you could perhaps dedicate your MicroSD card to storage only.

The devboard for uses the “FlexyPins”-like connectivity technique we’ve covered recently, and [MangoPi] say they bought those pins on TaoBao. We can’t help but be a bit amused at the thought of putting HDMI through such connections, but it seems to work well enough! Castellated modules like these are relatively easy to work with, so it shouldn’t be hard to literally pop this module out of the devboard and figuratively pop it onto your PCB. Next step is, reportedly, porting Armbian to this board, likely solving quite a few software support hurdles.

MangoPi have been posting updates on their Twitter page over the last few weeks, and, as it comes with the format, a lot of questions are left unanswered. Why does the devboard only show a single linear regulator of the kind we typically expect to deliver 1 A at most? Will we get higher-RAM versions? What’s the price going to look like? Will this module ever get to market? We can only hope, but if it does indeed, we are sure to see a few projects with these, whether it’s smart glasses, smart displays, phones, handhelds or malicious wall chargers. As usual, community makes or breaks an SBC, and we shall watch this one closely.

We thank [WifiCable] and [DjBiohazard] for sharing this with us!

Another Homebrew Linux Board Success Story

It’s truly incredible what the hobbyist is now capable of. While it would have seemed all but impossible a few years ago, we’re happy to report that yet another dedicated hardware hacker has managed to spin up their own custom Linux single-board computer. Creator [Ian Kilgore] tells us the only goal when developing CATFOOD (yes, that’s the name) was to gain confidence with at-home board production, so it looks like a success to us.

To those who’ve been keeping an eye on this sort of thing, it will probably come as no surprise to hear [Ian] was inspired by the work of [Jay Carlson], who arguably kicked off this whole trend when he put together a bevy of homebrew Linux boards in an effort to compare different System-in-Package ICs. His incredibly detailed write-up of the experience and lessons learned along the way has emboldened other brave souls to take up the challenge.

The USB-C powered board uses an ARM i.MX 6ULL processor and features DDR3, NAND flash, and an Ethernet interface. That last one was the biggest deviation from the reference design, which meant it took a little fiddling to get right. For anyone playing along at home, [Ian] collected up the lessons learned while developing CATFOOD, bringing the whole learning experience full circle.

If you’re interested in more homebrew Linux SBCs, we’d highly recommend reading up on the WiFiWart developed by [Walker]. Over the course of about six months, we got to watch the open hardware board go from concept to a diminutive first prototype.

Where Are All The Cheap X86 Single Board PCs?

If we were to think of a retrocomputer, the chances are we might have something from the classic 8-bit days or maybe a game console spring to mind. It’s almost a shock to see mundane desktop PCs of the DOS and Pentium era join them, but those machines now form an important way to play DOS and Windows 95 games which are unsuited to more modern operating systems. For those who wish to play the games on appropriate hardware without a grubby beige mini-tower and a huge CRT monitor, there’s even the option to buy one of these machines new: in the form of a much more svelte Pentium-based PC104 industrial PC.

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Putting An Ultra-Tiny Linux Board In A Phone Charger…Eventually

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.

The RTL8188CUS is likely to get integrated later on.

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.

Even if you’re not interested in the idea of hiding security appliances inside of everyday objects, this project is a fascinating glimpse into the process of creating your own custom Linux board. Whether you’re looking to put into a wall wart or a drone, it’s pretty incredible to think we’ve reached the point where an individual can spin up their own miniature SBC.

New Part Day: Hackboard 2, An X86 Single-Board Computer

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.

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New BBC Micro:bit Adds Microphone And Speaker

There’s an old tale that TV companies only need to make a few years of kids’ TV shows, because their audience constantly grows out of their offerings and is replaced by a new set with no prior knowledge of the old shows. Whether it’s true or not is up for debate, but does the same apply to single board computers aimed at kids? The original BBC micro:bit was first announced back in 2015 and must be interesting its second generation of kids by now, but that hasn’t stopped them bringing out a second version of the little educational computer. How do you update such a simple device? Time to take a look.

Edge connector shown on the original micro:bit design

The form factor of the new board is substantially the same as its predecessor, with the same edge connector and large connection pads, and the familiar LED matrix display. The most obvious additions are a small speaker and MEMS microphone allowing kids to interact with audio in their code, but less obvious is a new touch button in the micro:bit logo. The original had it in the silk screen layer, while the new one has it as copper for a capacitive sensor.

The silicon has an upgrade too, now sporting a Nordic Semiconductor nRF52833 running at 64 MHz and sporting 512k of ROM and 128k of RAM with built-in Bluetooth Low Energy. Binaries are incompatible with the original, however all the development environments can recompile code for a new universal binary format capable of running the appropriate software for either version.

The micro:bit has been more of a hit in schools than it has in our community, perhaps because it has the misfortune to have arrived alongside so many strong competitors. However it remains a powerful contender whose easy programming alongside the power of more traditional toolchains make it a good choice for kids and grown-ups alike.  We took a look at the original back in 2016, if you are interested.

Odyssey Is A X86 Computer Packing An Arduino Along For The Trip

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.