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Open Source Hardware

The Open Source Laptop and the Golden Age of Open Hardware 93

An anonymous reader writes to this short feature featuring "Andrew 'Bunnie' Huang on why he decided to build an open source laptop, how the slowing of Moore's Law is making it easier for individuals and small outfits to compete against major corporations in the computer hardware market and what hobbyist hardware makers in the U.S. could learn from China's Shanzhai, famed for their cheap clones of the iPhone and other popular handsets."
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The Open Source Laptop and the Golden Age of Open Hardware

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @09:35AM (#44485561)

    Companies should sell laptop shells and let us buy the parts individually, just like a desktop computer.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      No, they shouldn't –and they can't. Not all parts have the same size, shape and cooling requirements. The only possible approach here would be to make a standard specifying a large maximum size, and then force all laptops to allow that much space. But that would then result in all laptops being giant bulky things with excess cooling and hence weight hanging about. The result is that they would all suck.

      Laptops intrinsically have design constraints that mean this can not be done reasonably.

      • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

        Or more reasonably, laptops could be sold with motherboards and little else. Almost everything else is already separate parts.

        • by MightyYar ( 622222 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @10:05AM (#44485821)

          Those do exist. So-called "white box" laptops. My very limited experience with them is that getting your Windows install to play nice is a very similar experience to getting Linux to play nice with an off-brand laptop... it can be very time consuming, so if you value your time you just pay for some company to do it for you. And at the low end, you don't save any money because the components are largely part of the mainboard on crappy laptops. Thin-n-light like the Air is not possible at all.

          • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

            I have not had trouble with a linux install in a long time. No idea about windows, I have no use for it.

            Yeah this would preclude an air like device. I wish one of the smaller vendors like system76 would have such a device, but better. I want something in the 12" size range with at least a 2560x1440 display. Higher would be even better.

            • by Mashdar ( 876825 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @10:20AM (#44485933)

              I even tell people these days that Linux is easier to install than Windows. While very new hardware can still be problematic (Llano drivers a few years ago come to mind), in general the installation process is:
              1) Hit next several times.
              2) Enter a user name and password.
              3) Everything works.

              Hunting for drivers on Windows, especially for legacy devices, hurts my brain. When I plug my 15 year old webcam into a Mint box it just works. So in that respect I agree with GP :)

              • you forgot to select encrypt harddrive

                • > you forgot to select encrypt harddrive

                  Naw, if somebody steals my laptop, I *want* them to be able to casually log in and use it, so I can ssh into the box and remotely pwn them in every conceivable way, getting way more fun and value out of the laptop than I probably would have gotten from using it myself. Drive encryption keeps your data more secure, but maximizes the likelihood that you'll never see the laptop again or get any post-theft entertainment value from it. When life gives you lemons, make a

            • I had problems with things like sleep and power management on a no-name laptop, but I'll fully admit my inexperience was at play. I have not had problems with Linux on Thinkpads or Dells and the like. I had similar problems with Windows, as the drivers were tough to track down.

            • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

              It's actually harder to install windows on a machine than linux. Because you have to go looking for and download drivers. Last Ubuntu installed everything automatically.

              this was on a current Dell business class laptop. Windows is a day long painfest to get installed and 100% on a laptop, Linix is 2 hours and mostly watching TV or playing Xbox while it does it's thing.

      • I'm not convinced that a standard would force everything to one size. Consider the ATX hierarchy: Mini-ITX

        It would be harder, but I don't buy that it would be impossible, or even unreasonable.

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        More correctly, it would create a class of laptop that was more versitile and flexible at the cost of being bulkier. Nothing says the other models couldn't coexist.

        But note that things like DVD drives are interchangeable now except for the fancy bezels and it doesn't seem to have harmed anything. HDs as well.

        Come to think of it, a LOT of parts could be made interchangeable without sacrificing size.

    • Imagine if there were this process where we could actually print them out ourselves.....oh, wait.
    • While I'd love for that to happen, it's not especially realistic. Laptops are currently designed with the various components wrapped very tightly around each other. To make them modular in the same kind of way a desktop computer is would make them considerably more bulky. While that might not bother some people if it means being able to buy the bits of their choice and putting them together, for others it'll be a deal-breaker.

      And it's rather doubtful that enough hardware manufacturers would get on board tha

      • by Anonymous Coward

        BS. The only standard that would need to be agreed upon would be the design of the shell. Many laptops already have replaceable CPUs, GPUs, RAM, hard drives, optical drives, networking cards and batteries. That's pretty much all anyone would upgrade in a desktop form factor anyways.

        • The only standard that would need to be agreed upon would be the design of the shell.

          Not really, as others have mentioned, 3D printing could solve that problem pretty easily.
          Though the 3D printer still costs more then the laptop would cost... Not sure where the break-even point would be at this time.

          • by sjames ( 1099 )

            And the chip fab costs more than the CPU.

            You shouldn't buy a 3D printer to do a one-off. For that borrow a 3D printer or pay a service to do it.

    • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @10:15AM (#44485907)

      Oh but they do sell the individual parts. Of course they are "replacement" parts and they are extremely expensive compared to just buying a whole new laptop. This doesn't stop you from making modifications though. Changing the memory and hard drive is easy and I've changed CPU's and altered wireless adapters too. Laptops are somewhat upgradeable, sometimes anyway.

      What you *really* want is a standard "form factor" for the parts that fit in standard laptop cases. Then you could buy a gutless case and buy parts to build a full machine from there. However, don't hold your breath. The problem for manufacturers is that they are trying to cram as much stuff into your latest laptop as cheaply as possible, which leads to a single "mother" board that has the CPU and display adapter components built on. It needs to all survive at least some rough handling. All this requires complex engineering and integration testing and many manufacturers don't like to share.

      So, where I would applaud an effort to make laptops more generic, I don't think you are going to get a major manufacture to offer up their designs or sell parts for this. What you are going to need is a base platform design for the case, while at the same time providing a set of "guts" (Processing, display, Keyboard, wireless) which are all available and free, pretty much all ready at the same time. Until then, keep wishing..

  • Laptop shops (Score:1, Offtopic)

    Laptop shops
    And shaving stops
    Could yet save us all
    Until the day that
    Some bureaucrat
    Pours cologne on the stall.
    Burma Shave
  • by SigmundFloyd ( 994648 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @09:47AM (#44485661)

    What's with this "slowing of Moore's law" nonsense?

    That supposed "law" is either true or false, there's no speed change about it.

    • Re:Slowing?! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @09:53AM (#44485707)

      I snicker at the term "Moor's law" myself....

      It's really more of a guideline and an old adage which is generally true but it is far from a "law".

      • by Doug Otto ( 2821601 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @09:55AM (#44485723)
        Sort of like the pirate code.
      • I snicker at the term "Moor's law" myself....

        It's really more of a guideline and an old adage which is generally true but it is far from a "law".

        Moore's "Law" is actually more of a graph in the general shape of a parabola (doubling of capability every few years). The "slowing" is an indication that the graph is not a pure parabola extending to infinity (which no sensible person could have ever believed) and we are entering a point where the acceleration of capabilty on schedule slows or stops.

        "Slowing" of Moore's law is either a shorthand way of saying "slowing of the acceleration rate asserted by Moore's Law" or just plain sloppy expression. Pedant

      • I snicker at the term "Moor's law" myself....

        I don't think the 8th century Spanish found them chuckle-worthy.

    • There's no "law" in Moore's Law, it's a practical observation of a manufacturing trend. Technically it has nothing to do with processor speed either, just the number of transistors.

      Nonetheless it has been broadly colloquially understood to refer to an exponential CPU performance curve, a doubling of CPU speed every 18 months. As such a slowing of the "law" is a readily understandable phrase to refer to the fact that performance is no longer growing nearly as fast as it once did. That is the nature of a

      • Taking a lazy shortcut to say in three words what would require ten words to say accurately and unambiguously is not a mark of a living language. It's a mark of an incompetent writer.

  • Shanzhai? No (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @10:09AM (#44485851) Homepage

    What does "could learn from China's Shanzhai" mean? Shanzhai electronics is crap. No, really, it is. Does it mean "use cheap garbage components that will fail 0-6 months after sale, and close up the company so we don't have to provide refunds"? Not that China's consumer protection laws mean a damn, anyway.

    The whole article stinks of "d00d this is totally kewl, we should totally make, you know, a laptop. Then add shanzhai, then add bookbinding, then add "guerrilla hardware". WTF does guerrilla hardware even mean? This has more nonsense buzzwords than the latest corporate marketing press release.

  • Cortex A9 (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Performance increases have indeed been quite slow in the x86 space for the past few years, but this is ARM based and there are still dramatic performance increases showing up regularly in that space. This is based on a quad Cortex A9 design (similar to the first-gen Nexus 7), and the current Cortex A15 core is roughly twice as fast. Whereas in the same timeframe Intel has managed only a ~20% performance increase, though they have been focusing more on power consumption than performance.

    • Either that, or there is RMS' own endorsed platform - the Lemote Yeedong. That one is based on the Loongson, and everything about it is liberated, as per the bearded one himself. So why not try that - take that platform, fire it up w/ gNewSense or even a different distro, such as Mint, and be off to the races?
      • MIPS flavored RISC goodness. Shame they're basically unavailable in the UK, even if you go hunting for one.

  • by poity ( 465672 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @11:09AM (#44486499)

    Go ahead and make a 14" form factor laptop, and put in a 12" 800x600 screen (blacken the surrounding bezel so it doesn't look like ass), install a VIA board and cpu and modify the BIOS so that it reports an i5, while you're in there also make it report 8GB RAM instead of the 2GB that's actually in there, then solder a 64GB USB drive inside because, face it, no customer who cheaps out this much actually uses the 500GB advertised capacity anyway. And if the entire thing feels too good in your hand, put in some metal weights in the extra space you have in there to make it more realistic, because quality things have a certain density, and you also don't want to draw suspicions for being the lightest 14" i5 laptop in the world. Well, at least not until that injection mold for the Sony replica is finished. And of course never sign contracts or NDAs, who leaves paper trails for these things?

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @12:06PM (#44487201) Homepage

    So this open source laptop has the specs of a very low end Chromebook. Making it useful to who? also it had better sell for $99.00 because the $199 chomebooks out there are already faster and far better built.

    Honestly, what is their point? Making an open source very very low quality laptop is a waste of time.

    • Making an open source very very low quality laptop is a waste of time.

      Might I add... It's a waste of money too..

    • Honestly, what is their point?

      What is it with the slashdotters who produce nothing yet live to shit on everyone's parade.

      It's useful for people who want a fully open source laptop.

      Why is that useful?

      Well, for a start the designs are online. You can buy the reference build and start hacking on the software while at the same time making a modified design to suit your own needs.

      Oh and you don't have to worry about venduh support for drivers.

      If you want a laptop with better sensors (GPS, full 6DOF, IMU, etc) y

      • by Damek ( 515688 )

        Some people get caught up in designing their own parade, and then on feedback from those who shit on it, realize they might prefer to spend their time elsewhere because they hadn't thought of the critiques that others provided them.

        "Shitting on people's parades" is part of the corrective, stabilizing force of sociality. People who never talk to other people often think they've figured out all the answers, and then they go tell everyone else (as in this case) that everyone else should follow their solutions.

    • by Sesostris III ( 730910 ) on Tuesday August 06, 2013 @01:35PM (#44488355)

      Honestly, what is their point? Making an open source very very low quality laptop is a waste of time.

      Many things are a waste of time. Watching TV is a waste of time. Going to the theatre is a waste of time. Reading a book is a waste of time. Good heavens, reading Slashdot is a waste of time!

      Or perhaps not. If it's what you want to do, then, as far as you are concerned, it's not a waste of time. Building an "open source" laptop is no more a waste of time than Linus's initial interest in producing a new (open source) kernel.

      I'm not an engineer, but I (for one) am interested in how this project/hobby works out. Certainly I think "open source" hardware is something to be encouraged (like "open source" or "free" (libre) software).

      As to usefulness, who, in 1991, thought a new "open source" kernel would be of any use? Who thinks so now? (Answer - me, for one! I'm typing this in Firefox running under LMDE XFCE!)

      I'll consider buying one if it becomes commercially available.

    • Bunnie has described this project as a "bespoke oscilloscope", so it's probably going to cost thousands of dollars. If that horrifies you even more, you're probably not the target audience.

      All this hype about "the golden age of OSHW" is nonsense though.

  • This part of the specs caught my attention (http://www.kosagi.com/w/index.php?title=Novena_Main_Page#Features):

    "Vivante GC2000 OpenGL ES2.0 GPU, 200Mtri/s, 1Gpix/s (*)"

    According to a note, the asterisk indicates that it requires "a closed-source firmware blob, but the system is functional and bootable without the blob."

    Why the choice of Vivante over the more popular Mali architecture, which among the ARM-based GPUs has the most mature third-party FOSS support in the Lima driver project (http://limadriver.or

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