The Spark tablet will be the first 7 inch tablet to ship with Mer Linux and KDE Plasma Active software when it launches in May.

It’s already available for pre-order in Europe for €200, and developer Aaron Seigo who started the project says when it goes on sale in the US the Spark tablet will likely be even cheaper due to lower taxes in the States.

Seigo and KDE developer Zack Rusin stopped by Liliputing HQ recently to talk about the project. Unfortunately they didn’t have a prototype handy, but Seigo was in Philadelphia for a round of business meetings, so we took the opportunity to talk about free software, tablets, and how people use them.

One of the big ideas behind the project was to create an open tablet using free software. The Spark tablet will ship with Linux software, but it also has an unlocked bootloader which allows anyone to load just about any operating system they like on the hardware.

But another goal was to make the Spark tablet affordable and accessible — which is why the first tablet the group will offer doesn’t exactly have state-of-the-art specs. It features a 7 inch, 800 x 480 pixel display, a 1 GHz Amlogic ARM Cortex-A9 single core processor with Mali 400 graphics, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, and 802.11b/g WiFi.

Right now there are also two items that aren’t based on free software: the WiFi and graphics drivers. That’s because there currently aren’t open source options available for the hardware used in the first Spark tablet, but an open source driver for Mali 400 graphics is in the works and will be added to the software stack when it’s available.

While it’s likely that the first customers for the Spark will be open source enthusiasts and developers, the project isn’t just aimed at that crowd. Out of the box, the tablet will include a web browser, eBook reader, office software, and a video player. There’s also an add-on store where users will be able to find additional software, thousands of free eBooks from Project Gutenberg, and other content.

It’s not just the open source licensing that sets the Spark apart from other tablets. The user interface is also designed around “activities” rather than apps and widgets. The idea is that you can create as many desktop spaces as you’d like for different activities and then you can customize that screen with the items you need so you can quickly access relevant apps, documents, photos, and other materials.

For instance you could create an activity for gaming, one for planning a party, another for reading, and so on. This video from a few weeks ago provides a quick overview of how activities work:

The tablet will also be able to run desktop Linux applications — although many will require some modifications to run properly on a device with a 800 x 480 pixel display and touch-based controls. But the tablet has 2 USB ports and an HDMI port which you can use to plug in a keyboard, mouse, and external display if you want to use it like a desktop PC.

Seigo says the 7 inch tablet is also just the beginning — the group wants to release other devices in other form factors using the KDE Plasma Active environment. That could include 10 inch tablets with higher resolution displays, set-top TV boxes and more.

Part of the reason Seigo wanted to get into the hardware business at all is because he didn’t want to wait for another company to pick up the software and run with it. But he’d love for the Spark to be just one of many tablets running Plasma Active software.

If the folks behind the Spark tablet can sell thousands of devices directly to consumers through the Make Play Live website, they can demonstrate that there’s a demand for this type of solution, and if that happens it’s possible that the Spark could become just one of several tablets using Plasma Active software.

Seigo says demand has already proven pretty strong during the pre-order period. We’re not talking Apple iPad strong here, but as an open source, community-driven project, the group doesn’t exactly have to sell millions of tablets to consider the Spark a success.

The first Spark tablet is based on the Zenithink C71 tablet from China. That’s prompted some people to wonder why the Spark is selling for €200 when you can just buy your own C71 with Linux for $126 and install KDE Plasma Active yourself.

Seigo says the extra money in the Spark price pays for a few things. Some of it goes to shipping and distribution fees. Some goes to the group’s retail partners. But some of the money will also go back into the KDE Plasma Active and Mer Linux communities to spur further software development and possibly to pave the way for additional hardware devices.

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7 replies on “Talking Spark tablets with KDE developer Aaron Seigo (video)”

  1. This was at a price that was shockingly high when I first looked at it (with an 800×480 or so BS screen). Screen should be at least 1024×768 out of the box.  And, Gorilla Glass too.  Then, be able to use Xrandr to scale it to 1280×800 (but the mouse cursor has to work full screen vs part screen due to a bug that has not been fixed for about half a year or so).    This works with 1024×600 netbooks to scale screen to 1280×800.   But, again to get it to work today, need to be able to patch per this article.
    see: is that must have along with scaling to be able to use Pinch to Zoom feature (and run many distros on it).  I personally like LXDE because of the speed.   KDE is a memory hog, slow to boot, etc… But, with Lubuntu can run KDE applications, etc !  Lubuntu has a netbook “button” GUI too.

    1. Does it have an “onscreen keyboard” or better yet, can it use USB Keyboard?    One reason why I ask is that we would be looking for ability to have a “stand” and have the user be able to use it for email, using a USB or bluetooth keyboard, and not have to bother then with any “screen keyboard”.  

    2. Also – with KDE, is Akonadi fixed and fully working bug free yet?  Meaning, can someone build a “Thunderbird email client GUI” for Akondai, instead of the less desirable KDE email client?  AND, be able to use something like SyncKolab for thunderbird (to sync Contact and Calendar up to IMAP server) – with KDE email client or Akonadi to do all this instead to IMAP email account storage (hopefully encrypted)?   And/or, then use one’s UbuntuOne account, or the Mozilla browser storage for bookmark storage in the cloud.  Of course, all this has to be 100% encrypted to store in the cloud.  AND, it needs to be compatible with EVO (world-wide collaboration network software), and RetroShare (the newest private social networking and file sharing download that is at sourceforge).  Of course, Skype too?

  2. This is an awesome project. While I think this initial tablet is not going to be good, it is good to have a vehicle to get things off the ground.  I will be buying one!

  3. “The first Spark tablet is based on the Zenithink C71 tablet from China.
    That’s prompted some people to wonder why the Spark is selling for €200
    when you can just buy your own C71 with Linux for $126 and install KDE Plasma Active yourself.”

    So… does the C71 have a locked down boot loader? How would one install Plasma Active on this device?

    Can you install Plasma Active on other devices?

    1.  1. I’m pretty sure it’s unlocked. I’ve seen other custom Android ROMs for the C71.

      2. You might need to get support from the Mer/Plasma Active community for that one. You can get started here:

      3. Yep. In fact, installing it on a PC with an x86 processor should be pretty similar to installing any Linux distribution. ARM-based hardware is a bit trickier since there’s so much variation from device to device, which is part of why the Spark tablet is an attractive proposition to those interested in this sort of thing — you don’t need to install and configure anything yourself. You can just start using it.

      1.  I believe you can install the Plasma Active environment on OpenSUSE actually.

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