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Hackable ARM Linux SBC starts at $9

May 11, 2015 — by Eric Brown 14,655 views

An open source, Debian Linux based “Chip” SBC going for $9 has surpassed $740K on Kickstarter. An optional mini-tablet “PocketChip” version sells for $49.

Oakland, Calif. based Next Thing Co. is enjoying one of the most successful single board computer Kickstarter launches in history, having blown past its $50,000 goal to surpass $740,000 in only five days. There are still 26 days left to buy into the $9 Chip (or C.H.I.P.). The SBC runs Debian Linux on a new Allwinner R8 system-on-chip, a revamped version of its Cortex-A8-based A13 SoC (see farther below).

The Chip SBC is also available in a $19 version with a battery, or $19 and $24 versions with VGA or HDMI ports, respectively. There’s also a $49 PocketChip (PocketC.H.I.P.) version with a 4.3-inch touchscreen, fold-up keyboard, and a battery, and for an extra $64 you get an HDMI adapter.

Next Thing Chip front (left) and back views
(click images to enlarge)

Even with the battery or one of the video port versions, the Chip is the new price leader among ARM SBCs. However, the Chip without battery or adapters won’t ship until Jan. 2016, and the other packages won’t ship until May 2016. If you can’t wait, and are willing to beta test, there’s a $150 Kernel Hacker package with five pre-release Chip SBCs and a PocketChip that ships in Sept. 2015.

Another view of the Chip SBC, and Next Thing co-founder Dave Rauchwerk holding the PocketChip
(click images to enlarge)

So far, the $35 Raspberry Pi has managed to maintain its pricing leadership among ARM hacker boards, most recently upping the ante with a quad-core, Cortex-A7 Raspberry Pi 2. The relatively few Linux-ready boards that run cheaper than that, such as the $26 Smart Electronics Black Swift, use less powerful, MIPS-based SoCs such as the Atheros AR9331.

Chip details
(click image to enlarge)

Like the Atheros-based SBCs, the 60 x 40mm Chip looks and functions much like a computer-on-module (COM), but has just enough connectivity to qualify as an SBC. The Chip actually gives you more than the typical AR9331-based board, including a USB port, micro-USB port, headphone/mic jack, and a composite video jack. Like the Atheros-based SBCs, it offers something most entry-level ARM-boards lack: built in WiFi and Bluetooth.

Chip video adapter options
(click image to enlarge)

With its 1GHz SoC, which features a Mali-400 GPU, plus its allotment of 512MB RAM and 4GB of NAND flash, the Chip is more powerful than MIPS-based hacker boards. Combine that with an open source, Debian Linux OS that is more capable than the lightweight OpenWRT Linux found on the MIPS-based boards, as well as the wide range of software already optimized for Allwinner’s SoCs, and the Chip could emerge as a significant competitor for Internet of Things gizmos.

PocketChip details
(click image to enlarge)

The Chip can be extended with the PocketChip, which is a clamshell mini-tablet similar to the MID (Mobile Internet Device) designs of the previous decade. The PocketChip offers a 4.3-inch, 470 x 272-pixel resistive touchscreen and fold-up “Super-Clicky” QWERTY keyboard, as well as a 3000mAh battery with five hours of life. In addition to the Chip’s own wireless features and exposed ports, the PocketChip provides a GPIO breakout for I/O including MIPI-CSI.


Chip taps low-cost Allwinner chip

The low pricing was made possible in part thanks to a collaboration with Allwinner, a tablet and tablet SoC manufacturer that makes some of the most popular ARM-based SoCs used on low-end tablets. The SoCs have also appeared on a wide variety of Linux hacker boards. Allwinner is revamping its A13 SoC into a smaller, lower-priced R8 SoC that will apparently debut on the Chip.

Allwinner R8 SoC block diagram
(click image to enlarge)

Like the Allwinner A13, A10S, and A10, the R8 will be based on a 1GHz Cortex-A8 core, and will ship with a relatively open Mali-400 GPU. According to a MAKE Magazine interview with Next Thing developers, Shenzhen-based accelerator HAXLR8R worked with Next Thing to facilitate the project. HAXLR8R had previously collaborated on Next Things’s hackable, Kickstarter funded Otto camera, which runs Linux on a Raspberry Pi Compute Module.

(click image to enlarge)

Allwinner has a somewhat tarnished reputation in the open source world for releasing buggy, out-of-date Linux code for its typically Android-focused SoCs. However, Next Thing claims Allwinner has promised to release “all the necessary documentation and source code” for the SoC and its power management chips.

Debian UI
(click image to enlarge)

The Chip is preloaded with an open source Debian-based package with mainline Linux. Other packages include the Chromium browser, Scratch programming tool, LibreOffice, and many other Linux apps. The Chip will be similarly open source in its hardware, with freely downloadable design files schematic, PCB layout, and bill of materials, says Next Thing.

Specifications listed for the Chip SBC include:

  • Processor — Allwinner R8 (1x Cortex-A8 core @ 1GHz based on A13 SoC); Mali-400 GPU (OpenGL ES 2.0 and OpenVG 1.1)
  • Memory — 512MB DDR3 RAM; 4GB NAND flash
  • Display:
    • Composite AV jack
    • Optional VGA adapter
    • Optional HDMI adapter
    • Support for up to 8-inch touchscreens or full-screen non-touch displays
  • Wireless — RealTek 2-in-1 module with 802.11b/g/n (with AP mode support) and Bluetooth 4.0
  • Other I/O:
    • USB host port
    • Micro-USB OTG port with power support
    • Headphone/mic audio jack
  • Power — 5V DC input via micro-USB; supports 3.7v LiPo battery; X-Powers AXP209 PMIC chip
  • Dimensions — 60 x 40mm
  • Operating system — Debian-based Linux with fast boot and OTA

Specifications listed for the PocketChip touchscreen computer include:

  • Processor/memory/wireless/ports (via removable Chip SBC)
  • Display — 4.3-inch, 470 x 272-pixel resistive touchscreen with backlight, 16M colors
  • Other I/O — 8-pin GPIO breakout with PWM , SPI, TWI (I2C), UART, USB, MIPI-CSI, Parallel LCD out, touchpanel in, plus power rails in and out
  • Other features — fold-up “Super-Clicky” QWERTY keyboard; rugged injection molded shell; shoelace and pencil-stand holes
  • Power — 3000mAh, 3.7v LiPo battery with 5-hour life

Further information

The Chip is available for Kickstarter funding through June 6 for $9, with shipments due in January. Packages with a battery ($19), VGA adapter ($19), or HDMI adapter ($24) ship May 2016. The PocketChip is available for $49 (or $64 with battery), and $93 for a full package with video adapters. The PocketChip ships in May 2016. A Kernel Hacker version, which requires a promise to beta test, goes for $150 with five pre-release Chip SBCs and a PocketChip, and ships in Sept. 2015.

More information may be found at the Chip Kickstarter page, and more may eventually appear at the Next Thing Co. website, where you can find out about other products like the Raspberry Pi-based Otto camera.

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7 responses to “Hackable ARM Linux SBC starts at $9”

  1. Max says:

    It is somewhat unfortunate though that the project creators’ engagement with the backers is essentially zero (apparently limited to daily bite-sized press-release-flavoured sound-bytes devoid of any answers) and that the “$9 computer” is actually $29 shipped, which has already raised some speculation about much of the board’s actual price being masked into an imaginary shipping cost. If this would be a fish, it would be impossible to go anywhere near it if you know what I mean….

    • Lance DiBitetto says:

      seeing that just the hdmi board costs slightly less than a raspberry pi 3 and and is 13.00 more than a Pine64, I really don’t understand how it can compete? the only thing it has going for it is that it has on-board ram for the OS.

  2. CFWhitman says:

    That screen in the Pocket C.H.I.P. isn’t exactly conducive to running generic Linux GUI apps. The vast majority of apps expect at least 400px of vertical resolution and a lot of apps expect at least 600px. I’m not saying it won’t be fun or useful, but a lot of software will have to be specifically targeted toward a low resolution screen.

    • Nancy Drew says:

      PocketChip is a joke! This are for kids living in the village. My city kids do not even want to play these lousy games. People who bought these awful screens are pathetic because they still play games belong to the 90s.

  3. jezra says:

    Aside from the graphics, are there any other components that require a proprietary driver?

  4. Handsome Mac says:

    The backers accessories are finally ship out after waiting for almost a year. Those preorders on Nov 2015 will only be ship on next month July.
    The HDMI and VGA accessories are designed badly and too many flaws.
    I had through the drawings and informations but they were all done badly.
    There were too many empty promises in NTC Chip which is the same as other bad SBC manufacturers. At the same level with CHIP, Pi zero is way much better and a lot cheaper after adding up all the required hidden accessories costs and shipping. Pi also has far superior supports than this so young company. But all these SBC still are faraway capable compared to a slow Celeron! Why SBC? For school science projects that cost much cheaper.

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