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Homebrew Microcontroller Laptop, Made of Wood 159

Posted by timothy
from the logically-if-she's-made-of-wood dept.
Brietech writes "This is a homebrew laptop project based on a Picaxe microcontroller. It has 16kb of RAM, 256kb of storage, sound and a self-hosted development environment! It has a simple CLI, file-system, 'EMAXE' text editor and a programming language called 'Chris#.' Oh, and yes, it runs Linaxe."
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Homebrew Microcontroller Laptop, Made of Wood

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  • Pretty fast! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CannonballHead (842625) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:36PM (#27227035)

    CPU: Picaxe 28X-1 Microcontrollers. The main CPU runs at a blistering 16 Mhz, and has a whopping 4 kilobytes of onboard storage for the processorâ(TM)s firmware/OS.

    That's faster than my 11 or 12 MHz 286... of course, that was 17 years ago.

    • Re:Pretty fast! (Score:5, Informative)

      by evanbd (210358) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:58PM (#27227441)

      Actually, it probably isn't. It's probably not even close. The site is slashdotted badly, but I'm guessing this is an 8-bit CPU. Most microcontrollers of this sort take several clocks per instruction. And the instruction set is probably more limited in capability than x86.

      Also, I have to wonder why use an obscure part rather than the Atmel chips that are wildly popular with open source enthusiasts, or even the Microchip PICs (not quite as popular as the Atmels, but still has a strong hobbyist following). Having a development community and existing software base is useful.

      • Re:Pretty fast! (Score:5, Informative)

        by MightyYar (622222) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @01:13PM (#27227713)

        If you check out the Coral Cached version of the site [nyud.net], you can see that the guy is not after something with an existing development community or software base. He's written his own everything, and seems to have a sense of humor about it. He even implemented Pong, and says that he someday hopes to achieve parity with an early 80s computer :)

        • If I were him, I'd create a laptop based on the C=64, or an Amiga 500 laptop. Something that has existing software and can be semi-productive.

      • Re:Pretty fast! (Score:4, Informative)

        by frieko (855745) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @01:14PM (#27227731)
        Agreed, you can get a 16 bit, 40 MIPS PIC [microchip.com] in a through hole package.
      • Actually, it probably isn't. It's probably not even close. The site is slashdotted badly, but I'm guessing this is an 8-bit CPU. Most microcontrollers of this sort take several clocks per instruction. And the instruction set is probably more limited in capability than x86.

        Well, the site is woefully uninformative, and this "manufacturer" looks just as a repackager who has burnt a specific microcode on a PIC microcontroller .... OR an Atmel AVR. Now, what you said above is true for PIC microcontrollers, as well as the older Intel 8051 and Motorola 68HC11. But it's not true for Atmel's AVR, which are 8 bit, but with a RISC core, so each instruction is executed in one cpu clock. And AVRs are indeed pretty fast beasts. The PICs are more popular among some hobbists, but not in the industry.

      • Except for the built in BASIC on the Picaxe the AVRs have a lot going for em. I have also pondered the idea of building a low tech computer just to see how much could be done on something that would bring the term 'low power' back down to Model 100 levels and perhaps even finally surpass 1980's tech.

        You can get MRAM in the same package as the old school SRAM and some of the AVRs have an external memory interface that appears compatible. So that would allow some really deep sleeping, just push everything o

        • by vlm (69642)

          I have also pondered the idea of building a low tech computer just to see how much could be done on something that would bring the term 'low power' back down to Model 100 levels and perhaps even finally surpass 1980's tech.

          Check out TI's MSP430 series... About a quarter milliamp per MIP... the fastest one they sell should then draw about 6 mA, probably less than the power indicator will draw.

          http://focus.ti.com/mcu/docs/mcuprodoverview.tsp?sectionId=95&tabId=140&familyId=342 [ti.com]

          There are PICs and others that are about as good.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by atrus (73476)
            Second the msp430 suggestion. Well worth looking into for micropower embedded applications. The GCC port (based on 3.2.3) isn't all that great, but it does do the job.
          • by mrmeval (662166)

            I have one of there 20 dollar dev kits. It fits on a USB stick. The processor is insanely small.

            http://focus.ti.com/docs/toolsw/folders/print/ez430-f2013.html [ti.com]

            Unfortunately the tiny add on boards that you can buy extra have a dumbed down version of the one included with the stick.

            Unfortunately it does not play at all well with linux.

        • by evanbd (210358)
          I use PICs rather than AVRs myself, so I can only speak to the PICs. Many of the PICs have a deep sleep mode that keeps the RTCC running. The main clock can use one high speed crystal and the RTCC a secondary 32.768kHz crystal. In this mode it draws about 1uA. I assume there are Atmel parts available with a similar feature. A dedicated chip will be noticeably lower power -- about 250nA -- but that adds an extra part. 1 uA is a low enough draw that a CR2032 won't run down before its shelf life expires.
        • Atmel is SO much better than any PIC. Atmel AVR microcontrollers are individually cheaper. They run at least four times faster for the same clock speed (one instruction per clock cycle instead of one instruction per four clocks for the PIC). They have a vastly more versatile and flexible instruction set. The AVRs are designed to be used with high level languages like Open Source GCC, not kluged BASIC for high school kids that the PICs use in their absurdly overpriced 'training' packages. Most AVRs now

      • "Most microcontrollers of this sort take several clocks per instruction."

        Isn't that the most common scenario on modern processors as well? The difference is that with an 8 bit microcontroller you can easily determine the number of clock cycles per instruction, on most of today's microprocessors you usually can't.

        • by evanbd (210358)

          Most modern CPUs have a lot of instructions in flight, though; the result is an average of more than one instruction per clock (unless it's stalling badly on cache misses). The PICs, for example, execute one instruction every four clocks, with very little variation (branches and a couple other instructions take 8 clocks, but there's never any variation).

          Anyway, some Wikipedia reading says I was wrong in part -- the 286 averaged about 0.21 instructions per clock. But it's still faster than a comparably clo

      • I got a kick out of reading his blog. Seems like a really neat project to learn how computers work at the lowest level.

        I agree with you about the choice of microcontroller, though. Atmel AVRs are very popular, and are available in significantly more powerful varieties. Check out this one [atmel.com]; it has 16KiB of S-RAM on the CPU, so you can save yourself the 2x8KiB chips he used, which means reduced cost.

        Another one to consider is the Parallax Propeller [parallax.com]. They aren't too popular, but have impressive capabilities, ig

      • by eh2o (471262)

        The new Microchip PIC32 series has a 32-bit RISC core, single instruction per cycle at 80 Mhz and its nominally the same price as the older 8-bit micros (i.e. within a dollar or two). Moore's law applies to microprocessors, and 8-bit is on the way out.

        • by inflex (123318)

          8 bit will never be on the 'way out'. It's just too convenient for most tasks and all that happens is that the price just keeps getting pushed down. If there's spare die space due to process shrinkage (hah!) they can always cram in another timer or such to make the whole device more appealing.

  • by XPeter (1429763) * on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:36PM (#27227053) Homepage
    Does it run Lin-...You know what? It's time to start a new meme. How about "Does it run Vista?"
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by AlterRNow (1215236)
      Which version?
    • Could be a while before anybody says 'yes'...
    • How about "Does it run Vista?

      I'll have to get back with you on that...in a few years.

      I started the Vista Ultimate install on one of these in November of '08, so far the install has made it up to 6%.
      The biggest problem is deleting most of the so far installed files to make room for the other 94% of the remaining install; damn all of those 'out of memory' and 'out of drive space' error messages.
      Plus, Vista throws a major hissy fit when you do try to delete some of the install files!

      Ask me about it in, oh...ma

  • by jtownatpunk.net (245670) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:38PM (#27227079)

    I thought it was a beer thing.

  • This is basically a rework of a TRS-80 but in another packaging and different chip. Not very useful these days.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by pete-classic (75983)

      I saw a video of Joe Rogan doing standup. The guy is a total loon, but he made a really interesting point about our technological society, and how smart we tend to think we are.

      He posed the question, if you were in the woods with nothing but a hatchet, how long before you could send an email?

      This device may not compare favorably with commercially available computing platforms, but having people in our society with curious minds and an ability to make things is invaluable.

      I'd rather be a Morlock than an Elo

      • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @01:17PM (#27227791)
        ...if you were in the woods with nothing but a hatchet, how long before you could send an email?

        Depends, how many people do I have to kill to get to the PC?
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Panaflex (13191)

        if you were in the woods with nothing but a hatchet, how long before you could send an email?

        Even if you knew everything - it would literally take decades to do it "right." It took the entire human race with practically unlimited resources about 132 years once we had the most basic understanding of electronics (telephone). Even knowing every concept doesn't put you ahead by much without an existing manufacturing base.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by LandDolphin (1202876)
          Apparently you never watch Gilligan's Island. The Prof. would have had email within a week.

          Unfortunately, it would have only been able to send messages to Princes in Nigeria, thus not being able to render them help in getting of the island.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by hal2814 (725639)

            "Unfortunately, it would have only been able to send messages to Princes in Nigeria, thus not being able to render them help in getting of the island."

            Give the guy a break! He was already to the point of sending to SOMEONE. In a few days he probably could've sent an email to anyone. Too bad that idiot Gilligan knocked over and broke the Professor's coconut e-mailer. Funny how the idea was workable expect for one flaw not associated with the actual plan and instead of trying again they just abandoned it

      • by maxume (22995)

        What if you are in the woods without even a hatchet? How long until you have a simple hatchet?

        Probably not all that long until most people have some sort of edge to work with (find 2 stones, smash, presto!). But how long until you come up with something that is reasonably light and has a handle?

      • by mmontour (2208)

        He posed the question, if you were in the woods with nothing but a hatchet, how long before you could send an email?

        As long as it takes for some hiker with a smartphone to come by, plus a few minutes to clean the blood off the hatchet.

        This device may not compare favorably with commercially available computing platforms, but having people in our society with curious minds and an ability to make things is invaluable.

        Agreed - this is a very cool project.

        I have recently been working with amateur packet radio, which is somewhere in between the linked project and modern technology. In addition to a computer you only need a radio transceiver and some simple circuitry connecting it to the audio in/out ports, and you can send email to a similarly-equipped station within the range of your radio (at speeds betw

        • by Hatta (162192)

          And if you find sulfur, salt peter, and charcoal while you're out there in the woods, you can use it with a piece of bamboo to fire crystals at the lizard man trying to kill you.

      • by vadim_t (324782) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @02:25PM (#27229219) Homepage

        Oh, that would be doable fairly quickly.

        First, you need to find some pigeons or some other suitable birds. You will also figure out how to make something resembling paper (shouldn't be too difficult with all the wood in the woods), and some means to write (something suitable should be available as well)

        Once you managed to train some of them to deliver messages, you send one asking for RFC791 and RFC793, unless you're a networking expert and know them from memory. RFC 792 would be also recommended. You will also need RFC 1149, but that one is short and is best memorized before you get lost in the woods. Optionally, RFC 2549 could provide better service.

        The next thing to do is to implement RFC 1149, and use that to talk to a mail server. Anybody with some mail experience should know how to use mail over a telnet session. Just make sure to memorize the IP addresses of a SMTP and a POP3 server (no problem if you run your own server and remember the address). Then just connect and send something like:

        HELO thewoods.org
        MAIL FROM: vadimt@thewoods.org
        RCPT TO: somebody@gmail.com
        DATA
        Subject: I'm the woods
         
        What's up?
        .

        Then to read email:

        USER vadimt
        PASS bears34
        LIST
        RETR 1
        QUIT

        Latency could be a bit annoying with having to send all those pigeons back and forth, and a good spam filter would be needed server-side if you don't want to spend weeks getting rid of it before you get anything useful, but in a couple of weeks it could be done.

        Once this is going, the next step would be starting an open source project to implement IP over smoke signals, or optical telegraph, in case something happens to the pigeons, and to reduce latency. Also implementing DNS would help with talking to the rest of the net.

        Once all this is working you can start really improving your tech, by requesting pages from wikipedia on anything you don't know enough about.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Molochi (555357)

        Step by step.

        The hatchet would make constructing the iron smelting furnace easier. I could use heel of the hatchet as a hammer at first.

        Then I could build a waterwheel powered sawmill and lathe.

        With the sawmill and lathe I could fashion a crude, steam engine powered, carriage.

        With the carriage I could drive to Fry's and buy a laptop.

    • by zap345 (693913)
      Gee! this ones 4 times better than my TRS-80! Mine is a 4MHz 64KB, (48KB addressable.) I did put a lowercase kit in it though, for word processing. Sigh, those were the days.
  • Anyone got a mirror?
  • So... (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:42PM (#27227123)
    So...it weighs less than a duck?
  • by Mishotaki (957104) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:42PM (#27227127)
    At least, if this laptop catches fire, it won't burn black, toxic, smoke like most laptops do.
  • A nicely finished wooden case for a laptop would be nice. I f we could get around the microwave radiation issues and the heat issue.

    He says he's going to get it up to roughly the same power that an early 80's home computer had. It looks like he's not far off.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by MightyYar (622222)

      I f we could get around the microwave radiation issues and the heat issue.

      I may be way off, but aren't most cheap laptops made of plastic? Plastic is a terrible conductor of heat or electricity.

  • Whoops! (Score:5, Funny)

    by SkOink (212592) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:43PM (#27227151) Homepage

    It looks like he tried to host the link from his laptop :(

  • This kind of articles, really really cool. But why the laptop casing, why not make it into a wearable? LED display mounted on left lower arm, chorded keypad on the right lower arm.
  • Good for kids... but nothing serious...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by cnlohfin3109 (758597)
      Good for adults, who build it. I don't think you get the idea behind doing most projects like this. It isn't to have some amazingly practical tool or to make money but to learn, explore, and prove you can do it yourself. This is the same type of comments people posted when the article about the non-von1 was on here. Give credit to the DIYers for doing these amazing things themselves with limited budgets.
  • TG (Score:4, Funny)

    by blueg3 (192743) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:52PM (#27227317)

    I should switch to Chris# solely for the TG instruction: play "Eye of the Tiger".

    • by Applekid (993327)

      I should switch to Chris# solely for the TG instruction: play "Eye of the Tiger".

      I agree in that it's the "best ... opcode ... ever."

  • by Mr Z (6791) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @12:53PM (#27227321) Homepage Journal

    I don't know much about the PICaxe, but for $8 (single unit qtys) you can buy an 80MHz MIPS microcontroller [microchip.com] with a lot going for it. [microchip.com] This one has 32KB of onboard RAM and 512K of flash. [microchip.com]

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by vu2lid (126111)

      Probably because PICAXE Microcontrollers can be programmed in a simple subset of BASIC.

      It is very easy to write code, program and debug (they don't require a special programming interface). They are **really simple** to use, very powerful and versatile.

      • by Mr Z (6791)

        Ah, I see. I guess I'm accustomed to writing for microcontrollers, so I never saw that as a barrier. I've even done a design [spatula-city.org] with a related PIC part (PIC16 instead of PIC32), which is why I wondered about the specs on this PICaxe.

        If it were me making this sort of laptop, I'd just write my "OS" in C and compile with GCC and be on my merry way. :-) I guess to get to the "self-hosting development" level, though, I'd be wise to get some sort of interpreted language on there, a'la the old BASIC computers of t

        • by Mr Z (6791)
          Errr, I misspoke. My recent PIC projects have been PIC24 (a 16-bit PIC) and the related dsPIC33 (also a 16-bit PIC that happens to have some add'l instructions), not PIC16. Urgl.
      • by adolf (21054)

        Are you to tell me that it's impossible to run a BASIC interpreter on an 80MHz MIPS core with 32k of RAM?

        I mean, honestly: I remember the VIC-20 and the TRS-80 model 1. This whole modern concept of "it can't run BASIC" seems positively absurd on so many levels. But if that's really how things are...

        • by Mr Z (6791)

          I think it's more of an "end-to-end simplicity" thing vs. raw power.

          If you buy the PIC32 I mentioned, it's a powerful low-cost machine, but it's a bit like buying a crate engine, tranny and chassis to build a race car. You better be, or have access to, a competent mechanic to put it together, and you'll have your purpose-built race car.

          It sounds like the PICaxe is more like buying a Camry off the lot. It's got all the accoutrements and is ready to go. Turn the key, put it in gear, and you're on the road.

    • Yea, I am a long time customer of MicroChip. I have had nothing but great experiences with them. And for what it's worth, you can get C, Pascal, and Basic compiler IDEs from mikroe.com optimized for all their microcontrollers.

      • by Mr Z (6791)

        I have one of MikroElektronika's boards. It hasn't been a perfect experience, but it got me started quickly. You can see some of my Mad Scientist stuff here [spatula-city.org]. I used the dsPIC33 to emulate video game cartridges in software. :-)

    • by nametaken (610866)

      Picaxe chips are good fun. I didnt know a damned thing about electronics until i started playing with these, which get you impressive results for CHEAP.

      basic stamp kit is ridiculously expensive next to these.

    • Of course you can buy a 486 [ebay.com] at comparable prices. But I don't think that was the point. He built the circuits, the laptop case, OS, interpreter and applications all from scratch. I think the point is to be a hardhack similar to ones from the Homebrew computer clubs of the past.
    • by hey! (33014)

      Well, ease of integration would be the dominant concern for most hardware hackers. Provided that the software CAN do what is needed, you'd look at part count and complexity.

      The PICAxe is available assembled to a board with motor drivers on it, which would be a big plus for some. The iButton interface is intriguing as well.

      The Microchip controller's power management and A/D capabilities make it an interesting choice for field instruments.

      I bet this guy chose the PICAxe because kits were available to conne

  • Haha, oh man. Linaxe carries with it an implementation of Pong at the bottom of the source code. So this wooden laptop runs pong.

    I think we're somehow coming full-circle, here.

  • Damn. Kinda goes against the ethos, doesn't it? Or are they trying to replicate Budweiser?

  • will be made of stone, and use a small bird with a stone tablet as a processor.
  • what's all this then (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Eil (82413) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @01:01PM (#27227489) Homepage Journal

    Is Slashdot turning into Hack a Day [hackaday.com] today, or what?

  • Too bad he also tried to run his server off of it.

  • by ProteusQ (665382)

    So, it weighs the same as a duck?

  • ... running the site on the laptop - with this much load now, it's a fire hazard.
  • That's awesome. That's all I really have to say. A portable pong and text editing machine.
  • by blind biker (1066130) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @01:32PM (#27228149) Journal

    I just found out that, as the name clearly suggests, it's a preprogrammed PIC microcontroller.

    See for yourself at http://www.rev-ed.co.uk/picaxe/ [rev-ed.co.uk] in the Technical Frequently Asked Questions PDF file:

    What is a PICAXE microcontroller?

    A PICAXE microcontroller is a Microchip PIC microcontroller that has been pre-
    programmed with the PICAXE bootstrap code. The bootstrap code enables the
    microcontroller to be reprogrammed without the need for an (expensive)
    conventional programmer, making the whole download system a very low-cost
    simple serial cable!
    The bootstrap code also contains common routines (such as how to generate a
    pause delay or a sound output), so that each download does not have to waste time
    downloading this commonly required data. This makes the download time much
    quicker.

    I'm sure this "laptop" would have been much faster if based around an AVR. But that would have required more work.

    • yes, building a board to program a picaxe chip requires little more than a 7805 and a single 2.2K resistor.

      it runs a lot slower than a conventional pic chip, (but how often do you really need full speed for a microcontroller?)
      Best of all, you can write your code entirely in BASIC, no need for messy assembly. (my sig should make it clear why this is a plus for me)

      and, if you do need the extra speed, and you are all out of pic chips, you can put a picaxe chip in a standard pic programmer, and it will over-wr

      • it runs a lot slower than a conventional pic chip, (but how often do you really need full speed for a microcontroller?)
        Best of all, you can write your code entirely in BASIC, no need for messy assembly. (my sig should make it clear why this is a plus for me)

        Since you don't even have a .sig, I am confused whether you're trying to be hilarious or are actually even more forgetful than I am - which is not good.

  • The idea of running Linux on a PicAxe microcontroller must excite a lot of people... Every link to a project or explanation of "linaxe" results in 404 errors [chrisfenton.com] and more 404 errors [sourceforge.net].
  • I can't read the article because it's slashdotted, but this 2-year old slashdot story links to the same site.
    http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/03/05/1220220 [slashdot.org]
  • by Timberwolf0122 (872207) on Tuesday March 17, 2009 @02:03PM (#27228767) Journal
    I tried to install Vista on it and what do you know it wooden go.

    I'll just be going then <shame>
  • My Sharp PC 1403H [thimet.de] has 200+ hrs uptime on two buttoncells under full load. It's predecessor (my very first computer, bought back in 1986) has the same specs but only 4KB RAM instead of 32. I have yet to find a portable computer that can beat it's uptime off the grid. The Palm m105 with folding keyboard came the closest, but still was 160+ hrs short with it's mere 40 hrs battery time under load.

    Does this baby have that potential? That would actually make it interesting, even today.

  • as a virtual machine under EMAXE?

  • It is still better than bluehost. At least dreamhost is more upfront about what you can and cannot do and they specifically say that your if your website is just a normal website such as a blog that it will not be taken down due to being slashdotted, dugg, etc.

    But on another note....I want that laptop. Its so awesome. That one of those things that you do just to say you did it and to show off your 1337ness.

    Christ I must say..you have done quite a good job proving your 1337ness and I commend you ^_^

  • Meh. (Score:2, Funny)

    by DerekLyons (302214)

    From a woodworking point of view, it's not all that impressive. It's not well finished, and if you look at the picture of it closed you can plainly see the marks from running through a planer.

  • Oh please, try to bring this laptop on your next flight and tell us what happen at airport security... That should be fun.

  • ...a cigar humidor, except for the cheesy brass bits on the corners. In fact, if it ever goes balls up, rip out the guts and give it to me. I've got a handful of La Gloria Cubanas and a few Camacho El-Legendarios that would fit in there very nicely.
  • "Think your pathetic EEE will make it on that flight to Japan? "

    Good luck getting that thing on a plane.

    While it may be possible, the lingering taste of latex gloves at the back of your throat will get tiresome.

    Personally, if you opened that thing next to me on an international flight, I'd be inclined to smash your head in with it. ...but pretty cool, though!

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