Based on the WiFi / Bluetooth wunderchip, clad in a polycarbonate frame, and looking like something that would be an amazing cell phone for 2005, the WiPhone is now available on Kickstarter.
We’ve seen the WiPhone before, and it’s an interesting set of features for what is effectively an ESP32 board with some buttons and a screen. It’s become something of a platform, with expansion daughterboards for LTE, LoRa, a camera, a Bus Pirate, and a programmable NFC/RFID doohickey. If you’ve longed for the day of big ‘ol Nokia brick phones, want to hack your phone, but don’t really care about actually having cellular connectivity, this is something that’s right up your alley.
Although the WiPhone looks like a usable product that was designed by someone with a sense of design, it still is Open Source. You can build your own, and there are dozens of expansion boards that will plug into the back of the WiPhone for prototyping, experimentation, and RGB Gaming LEDs. There’s no cellular modem on the WiPhone, though; for calls you’ll have to turn to SIP or VoIP apps.
Considering how difficult it is to source a cellular modem in small quantities and the desire for a cell phone that respects your Right to Repair, we’ve got to hand it to the WiPhone for creating something people want. It gets even better when you consider this looks more like a product than the 3D printed pieces of electronic cruft we usually see, and we’re happy to see this crowdfunding campaign just passed its goal and is completely funded.
Phones are getting increasingly more complex, more difficult to repair, and phone manufacturers don’t like you tinkering with their stuff. It’s a portable version of a John Deere tractor in your pocket, and Apple doesn’t want you replacing a battery by yourself. What if there was a phone that respected your freedom? That’s the idea behind the WiPhone, and soon it’s going to be be a crowdfunding campaign. Yes, you will soon be able to buy a phone that respects your freedom.
We took a look at the WiPhone a few months ago, and the idea was solid: make a simple, cheap, handheld device based on the ESP32 WiFi/Bluetooth wonder microcontroller. There are a few other various bits of electronic ephemera for scanning the buttons, an audio codec, and a speaker driver, but the basics of the build are just an LCD and ESP32. The entire idea of this phone is to make calls through WiFi, and given the state of VoIP, it’s a marketable product.
Astute readers may notice that the WiPhone doesn’t have a cellular modem. Yes, this is true, but putting a baseband in a small, low-volume project is incredibly hard. You’re limited to 2G if you don’t want to deal with Broadcom or Qualcomm, and they’re not going to be interested in you if you’re not moving a hundred thousand units, anyway. Also, you’ve got service plans to deal with, multi-country radios, and you’re probably next to a trusted WiFi network right now, anyway.
The WiPhone is designed to be hackable, with daughter boards that turn it into a rainbow or RC car, and easy to assemble. It’s also going to be a crowdfunding campaign at the end of the month. If you want a phone that respects your right to repair, this is the project to look at, even if you don’t need a cellular modem all the time.
Over the years, we’ve seen dozens of projects that sell themselves as an ‘Open Source’ cellphone, a hackable cellphone, or some other confabulation of a microcontroller, screen, and a cellular module. The WiPhone is not one of these projects. That’s not to say it’s not an Open Source phone that’s intended to be hackable. No, this is a DIY phone that doesn’t make cellular calls, because this is a phone that only works with SIP and VoIP apps. It’s a WiPhone, and something a lot of us have been waiting for.
The hardware for this WiFi enabled phone is extremely minimal, but there are some interesting tricks up its sleeve. Instead of letting the main microcontroller handle capturing all the button presses, the team behind the WiPhone are using a SN7326 key-scan controller. This cheap part is able to scan 64 buttons, although there are only 25 buttons on the phone. The audio board is a WM8750BL, a cheap codec with a stereo microphone interface and a 400 mW speaker driver. The display is a simple SPI TFT, and apart from the microcontroller, that’s about it.
But it’s the microcontroller that makes it, and for that we turn to the incredible ESP-32. This chip has enough power to play Doom, be a Game Boy, and in this case, make and receive calls from a VoIP provider, scan and connect to WiFi networks, and yes, it can even play snake.
While this is just about the simplest phone you can imagine, and it only works where there’s a WiFi network, a device like this could be invaluable. And really, these days how far are you from a WiFi network you’re already connected to anyway?