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The open source laptop

Project Novena—an open source laptop

About a year and a half ago, I engaged on an admittedly quixotic project to build my own laptop. By I, I mean we, namely Sean “xobs” Cross and me, bunnie. Building your own laptop makes about as much sense as retrofitting a Honda Civic with a 1000hp motor, but the lack of practicality never stopped the latter activity, nor ours.

My primary goal in building a laptop was to build something I would use every day. I had previously spent several years at Chumby building hardware platforms that I’m ashamed to admit I rarely used. My parents and siblings loved those little boxes, but they weren’t powerful enough for a geek like me.

I try to allocate my discretionary funds towards things based on how often I use them. Hence, I have a nice bed, as I spend a third of my life in it. The other two thirds of my life is spent tapping at a laptop (I refuse to downgrade to a phone or tablet as my primary platform), and so when picking a thing to build that I can use every day, a laptop is a good candidate.

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I’m always behind a keyboard!

The project was also motivated by my desire to learn all things hardware. Before this project, I had never designed with Gigabit Ethernet (RGMII), SATA, PCI-express, DDR3, gas gauges, eDP, or even a power converter capable of handling 35 watts – my typical power envelope is under 10 watts, so I was always able to get away with converters that had integrated switches. Building my own laptop would be a great way for me to stretch my legs a bit without the cost and schedule constraints normally associated with commercial projects.

The final bit of motivation is my passion for open hardware. I’m a big fan of opening up the blueprints for the hardware you run – if you can’t hack it, you don’t own it. Here are the blueprints.

Back when I started the project, it was me and a few hard core open ecosystem enthusiasts pushing this point, but Edward Snowden changed the world with revelations that the NSA has in fact taken advantage of the black-box nature of the closed hardware ecosystem to implement spying measures—“good news, we weren’t crazy paranoids after all”.

Our Novena Project is of course still vulnerable to techniques such as silicon poisoning, but at least it pushes openness and disclosure down a layer, which is tangible progress in the right direction. While these heady principles are great for motivating the journey, actual execution needs a set of focused requirements.

And so, the above principles boiled down to the following requirements for the design:

  • All the components should have a reasonably complete set of NDA-free documentation. This single requirement alone culled many choices. For example, Freescale is the only SoC vendor in this performance class where you can simply go to their website, click a link, and download a mostly complete 6,000-page programming manual. It’s a ballsy move on their part and I commend them for the effort.
  • Low cost is not an objective. I’m not looking to build a crippled platform based on some entry-level single-core SoC just so I can compete price-wise with the likes of Broadcom’s non-profit Raspberry Pi platform.
  • On the other hand, I can’t spec in unicorn hair, although I come close to that by making the outer case from genuine leather (I love that my laptop smells of leather when it runs). All the chips are ideally available off the shelf from distributors like Digi-Key and have at least a five year production lifetime.
  • Batteries are based off of cheap and commonly available packs used in RC hobby circles, enabling users to make the choice between battery pack size, runtime, and mass. This makes answering the question of “what’s the battery life” a bit hard to answer – it’s really up to you – although one planned scenario is the trans-Siberian railroad trek, which is a week-long trip with no power outlets.
  • The display should also be user-configurable. The US supply chain is weak when it comes to raw high-end LCD panels, and also to address the aforementioned trans-Siberian scenario, we’d need the ability to drive a low-power display like a Pixel Qi, but not make it a permanent choice. So, I designed the main board to work with a cheap LCD adapter board for maximum flexibility.
  • No binary blobs should be required to boot and operate the system for the scenarios I care about. This one is a bit tricky, as it heavily limits the wifi card selection, I don’t use the GPU, and I rely on software-only decoders for video. But overall, the bet paid off; the laptop is still very usable in a binary-blob free state. We prepared and gave a talk recently at 30C3 using only the laptops.
  • The physical design should be accessible – no need to remove a dozen screws just to pull off the keyboard. This design requires removing just two screws.
  • The design doesn’t have to be particularly thin or light; I’d be happy if it was on par with the 3cm-thick Thinkpads or Inspirons I would use back in the mid 2000′s.
  • The machine must be useful as a hardware hacking platform. This drives the rather unique inclusion of an FPGA into the mainboard.
  • The machine must be useful as a security hacking platform. This drives the other unusual inclusion of two Ethernet interfaces, a USB OTG port, and the addition of 256 MiB DDR3 RAM and a high-speed expansion connector off of the FPGA.
  • The machine must be able to build its own firmware from source. This drives certain minimum performance specs and mandates the inclusion of a SATA interface for running off of an SSD.

After over a year and a half of hard work, I’m happy to say our machines are in a usable form. The motherboards are very reliable, the display is a 13-inch 2560×1700 (239 ppi) LED-backlit panel, and the cases have an endoskeleton made of 5052 and 7075 aluminium alloys, an exterior wrapping of genuine leather, an interior laminate of paper (I also love books and papercraft), and cosmetic panels 3D printed on a Form 1. The design is no Thinkpad Carbon X1, but they’ve held together through a couple of rough international trips, and we use our machines almost every day.

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Laptop parked in front of the Form1 3D printer used to make its body panels.

I was surprised to find the laptop was well-received by hackers, given its home brew appearance, relatively meagre specs and high price. The positive response has encouraged us to plan a crowd funding campaign around a substantially simplified (think “all in one PC” with a battery) case design: that’s right, the final design will not look like these early, hand-built prototype cases.

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The first two prototypes are wrapped in red sheepskin leather, and green pig suede leather.

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Detail view of the business half of the laptop.

We think it may be reasonable to kick off the campaign shortly after Chinese New Year, maybe late February or March. Follow @novenakosagi for updates on our progress!

Related

Comments

  1. […] Building an Open Source Laptop. Bunnie writes- […]

  2. darkrose says:

    This is really cool, but since you’re claiming it’s an “open source” laptop where’s the spec’s so I can have a play?

    1. bunnie says:

      Sorry, forgot to include the link in the article to the specs and files:

      http://www.kosagi.com/w/index.php?title=Novena_Main_Page

      Source files are near the bottom of the page, git repo links are all over the place.

      1. lionxl says:

        Gotta love Bunnie, he just has a way of answering the most ‘snarkiest’ of comments ,with the politeness and professionalism you’d expect from a professional. you would think that a person who is asking to ‘have a play’ with the work someone spent many months (years?) creating.

        Even if it is ‘claimed’ to be open source, it doesn’t grant you entitlement. That’s the one of the many reasons why open source projects fail….

        1. jamison2000e says:

          Cool project!

          Lionxl get a clue. Troll much? Irony… :)

          1. lionxl says:

            Jamison get a clue…whats the matter pampers too tight? …was praising Bunnie and commenting on the poorly worded request for the spec… so for you jump in, guess who is the troll?

  3. Me says:

    ” Building your own laptop makes about as much sense as retrofitting a Honda Civic with a 1000hp motor,”

    Really? Why do you say that?

    Deskops seem to be shrinking in popularity compared to laptops and smaller than laptop devices.

    Laptops have never been all that customizable or upgradable compared to desktops but it seems to be getting worse. At least they used to have PCMCIA slots! And then there is the thinness craze. I have a coworker with a Mac book that has half a dozen external devices hanging from it because Apple couldn’t even fit, among other things an Ethernet port and still make it as thin as they wanted.

    How about life expectancy. If you are a software geek and like to customize things a lot what is the point on a laptop? By the time you get everything the way you want it dies! In this society you are ‘supposed’ to buy it, use it as it came and quickly throw it away so you can buy the next model plus repeat.

    I think we are rapidly aproaching the point where makers/hackers/geeks will HAVE to resort to DIY to get what we want. (at least that’s the case to get what I want!)

  4. andrea says:

    i suppose the FPGA (IIRC a SP6LX45T) still need the Xilinx ISE enviroment for programming the firmware, right?

    so still nothing that would work on a not-x86 platform, sadly.. or you do have some news about it?

    what about the expected cost?

  5. tonyv says:

    This is so cool. I had high hopes that the One-Laptop-per-Child project would result in an open source / hackable laptop, but the thing was so pathetically underpowered that I quickly lost interest after getting one. I hope your project is more capable.

  6. mbilker says:

    I am guessing you built the first iBook?

  7. Kettu says:

    Cool project! I hope you get these generally available some day.

  8. Roger Dodger says:

    “The final bit of motivation is my passion for open hardware….Back when I started the project, it was me and a few hard core open ecosystem enthusiasts pushing this point,”

    I don’t get this comment. Did you start this project in 1995? Because people have been pushing for open hardware literally as long as I can remember. It’s just now becoming feasible for people to build projects like this one.

  9. jke says:

    Are these Chumby speakers?

    I also like the design of the stiff hinges. Very unique!

    (@manufacturers: since you’re probably reading this article – how about decent 14.1″ led panels so that we T4xx, E64xx, 84xx affectionados can refocus on GTD? thx)

    1. bunnie says:

      Those speakers are in fact *recycled* chumby One speakers — extracted from returned units that were once upon a time used by a customer.

      This is what happens when you have a 3D printer and lots of old hardware around. :-P

      The speakers still sound great, fwiw!

      1. niceone says:

        Shame you haven’t grasped the concept of stereo, but I am being picky.

        Damn fine effort, otherwise. :-)

  10. Jon Nettleton says:

    bunny that is a lot of progress since the last update I saw. I just wanted to drop you a note that the community surrounding the cubox-i, http://cubox-i.com is really flourishing. We use the same iMX6 chipset and have a group of core developers really working hard to make the AV experience under linux top notch. Feel free to drop by #cubox on freenode or join our Google+ community page.

  11. rcmansid says:

    Very Impressive, I was wondering when someone would build an open hardware/software laptop. I am very frustrated with short lives of commercial laptops that have crappy motherboards that last about 2 years and require expensive repairs. Cramming heat sensitive components on one large 5 layer PC board that is next to impossible to fix. Toshiba has a max operational temperature of just 95 deg F. No wonder they fail so much. Kudos to the designer !

  12. Alejandro Boye says:

    Grate, grate, grate!! Que genial – Wow! People must become self-suficient in technical things

  13. democrix says:

    This is very interesting. Bravo !

  14. Awesome to see how well this turned out! It’s a shame that Freescale stopped development on the i.MX7 – even though the Vivante drivers are binary blobs, they were pretty much the only ones even bothering to support Linux drivers (vs Android). I wonder if anyone will pick up the torch for hacker-friendly ARMv8 boards.

  15. Artlace says:

    You Sir are awesome. Period.

  16. k says:

    I am not into hacking, actually, besides some fiddling with linux on old machines, to keep them working. But the open source aspect of such a laptop would keep me interested – and I would love to skip Apple, HP, Dell et al… So, please keep people like me in mind… ;)

  17. Witth some more love you might be able to get open source drivers for your GPU https://github.com/laanwj/etna_viv

  18. RON says:

    Thats geek and awesomeness reloaded

  19. jared779 says:

    Two NICs!

  20. […] Cómo construir un portátil realmente ‘open source’. En Make […]

  21. kamiwolf says:

    i am eagerly waiting for this. i was at hamburg too. i dare say that the hacker community is waiting for your project. move on. i will donate too. good luck.

  22. arianna143 says:

    Thanks for the wonderful share. It looks difficult to make a laptop but I will follow your tips to make home made laptop.
    It will be a fun of making laptop
    Thanks
    http://companyforbestwebsitedesigns.wordpress.com/

  23. […] This laptop cost me plenty, but like Bunnie said: […]

  24. […] Makezine-Artikel: Building an Open Source Laptop […]

  25. […] News – se construire un ordinateur portable OpenSource – Le sénat adopte la loi pour des livres plus chers sur Internet – comment transformer sa machine […]

  26. […] Wikipedia – Andrew Huang Makezine.com – Building an open source laptop Strona domowa projektu Novena (opis, plany, kod […]

  27. […] la construcción del portátil open source la han denominado Novena Project. La historia que relata Bunnie Huang acerca de cómo surgió la idea tiene su origen en su anterior trabajo, en la empresa Chumby, donde […]

  28. […] Bunnie Huang builds her own computer, but not your typical desktop tower but an open source laptop. […]

  29. […] Now Huang and Cross have managed to create a few fully functional prototypes of the Novena laptop and they’ve shared the details in an article on Make. […]

  30. ganeshbhat3 says:

    This is really awesome laptop and a great amount of hard work.

    I would request to replace the actual leather with artificial leather to keep the laptop environment friendly as well…. :)

  31. Link roundup says:

    […] Building an Open Source Laptop | MAKE […]

  32. […] Twórcy nie podali ceny swojego projektu, jest jednak szacowana na 1500$. Sporo, ale autorzy zaznaczyli, że ich celem nie jest tworzenie kalekiej […]

  33. […] Building an Open Source Laptop – jak się zabrać do samodzielnej budowy laptopa, wykorzystując Otwarte Źródła. […]

  34. […] project to build an open-source laptop has been dubbed the Novena Project. The story told byBunnie Huang about how the idea came up starts at his former job, at the company Chumby, where they manufactured […]

  35. […] Bunnie Huang builds her own computer, but not your typical desktop tower but an open source laptop. […]

  36. […] 在美国知名华裔硬件黑客Bunnie Huang的博客上看到他使用开源硬件,跟合作伙伴打造出了一台笔记本电脑。该笔记本主要硬件的各项参数都在网络上公开了。这个项目叫Novena,在Make 杂志上有刊登,标题是《制作一台开源笔记本电脑》。 […]

  37. […] soruce' laptop which probably comes closer to a 'linux laptop' than anythign else around now- http://makezine.com/magazine/make-38…source-laptop/ […]

  38. […] portable Novena computers to backers on the Crowd Supply crowfunding platform. bunnie’s post about the project on MAKE generated a lot of buzz. Here’s how they describe […]

  39. […] have been selected so that the datasheets can be downloaded without NDA. Design has now been completed, and a crowdfunding campaign has now been launched on Crowd Supply, but since finding low cost part […]

  40. […] hackable, portable Novena computers to backers on the Crowd Supply crowfunding platform. bunnie’s post about the project on MAKE generated a lot of buzz. Here’s how they describe […]

  41. […] Novena, ein Open Hardware-Computer, jetzt mit Crowdfunding (Via) Hier sieht man den Laptop (und den/die Erfinder) im Einsatz mit einem gruseligen Vortrag über Microcontroller in SD-Cards auf dem 30c3 (Via) […]

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