Developer (and former HackADay editor) Brian Benchoff has designed what he’s calling a “minimum viable computer.” It’s a Linux-ready computer that’s small enough to slide into your pocket, and which could be made from about $15 worth of parts… theoretically.

In practice, that price doesn’t reflect assembly and shipping costs and you’d need to order enough parts for around 10,000 units in order to bring the costs that low. But Benchoff says he does eventually “plan to make this thing available.”

That could mean that a crowdfunding campaign is on the way, or some other effort to actually make it possible to make the economies of scale work so that this little computer could actually be sold for less than the price of a crappy pre-paid phone.

For now, you can find more details about the design and parts list at Benchoff’s GitHub page. Specs for the latest design include:

  • 2.3 inch, 320 x 240 pixel non-touch display
  • 533 MHz Allwinner F1C100s ARM9 processor
  • 32MB DDR memory
  • microSD card reader & 64GB card for storage
  • 48-key keyboard with TV remote-like silicone membrane
  • USB 2.0 Type-A port (data)
  • USB Type-C port (for 500 mA charging only)
  • 2 x AAA NiMH rechargable batteries

There’s also a custom printed circuit board, enclosure, and some other odds and ends which bring the total cost for materials to $14.16 at current prices when you order 1,000 units of each part. Benchoff notes that even with supply chain shortages, every component in the bill of materials is currently available.

With pretty barebones specs, no touch or mouse input, and no wireless capabilities, the little computer isn’t exactly designed as a modern smartphone or laptop replacement. Benchoff doesn’t even plan to code a graphical user interface for the little computer. But it can run DOOM, like most things. And you could program it to perform a variety of functions – it could be used as a multi-factor authentication device or a crypto wallet, for example.

It’s also possible some specs could change before the computer is produced – a larger display and bigger keyboard would go a long way toward improving usability, for example. But since the schematics, design files, and software will all be open source, folks who want to customize their own may also have the opportunity.

via Hacker News and @ViolenceWorks

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15 replies on “This “minimum viable computer” is a pocket-sized PC that could cost $15 to make”

  1. This is basically the specs of the OG Bittboy from ~2018, so this could emulate PS1 games reasonably well. I feel a 2DS-style design would be better though with a full keyboard down and a screen up. Also if we are trying to make a “viable computer” but not necessarily a pocket computer, then just put a VGA/HDMI output, save the money on the screen and put it in a RasPi400-style case within a cheap but proper keyboard. Maybe for $20 it could use something like a RK3288 and a WiFi, with that it can be used as a real minimal linux PC in a home micro fashion on an old screen in a developing country if that was the pitch with the $15 price tag.

  2. My first computer was a 486DX-33 with 16 MB of RAM. It could also run DOOM. I wonder how this would compare to the processing power of that machine.

  3. Specs are too low for me. I need a minimum fanless dual core 1.6ghz processor with 4gb RAM and 64gb NVMe storage and 800×600 minimum display resolution. And the wifi needs to work right the first rime with no hassels, or I’ll return it after the first day.

  4. I’m a simple man. I see a computer that runs on two AAA batteries, I like it.

    Actually, it reminds me of the Ben Nanonote, a very pocketable Linux computer with very low specs that unfortunately had a terrible keyboard.

    1. i no need wifi (usb can use network too)
      question is how long this device work

  5. great ! why not bouing on aliexpress?
    but I need altgr and pgup down home end keys and separately 2*18650 for power

    1. I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to make your own keyboard firmware, or configure the keys yourself.

      There’s 6 unlabelled keys on the bottom row, looks like enough space for Control, Alt, Super, FN, AltGr, and maybe an FN2?

  6. First I thought “why not just build it around a Raspberry Pi Zero W”, then I saw it was designed to run off of two AAA batteries, which would last a few minutes on the Pi Zero.

    Still, I’d be inclined to make something like this that uses a LiPo pouch battery and the Pi Zero, both for the extra memory (512MB isn’t much but it’s still 16x as much as this device) and the WiFi/BT connectivity options (what good is a pocketable terminal if you can’t use it to SSH into remote servers?)

    For reference, the CPU in this project is at the heart of a few low-power handheld emulators (think knockoffs of the new Nintendo Game+Watch):

  7. Companies I heard are tossing out 32GB memory computers as outdated, this one is 32MB!

  8. Cool for a hobby project but I wouldn’t buy it pre-assembled as a consumer even for less than $15.

  9. My gosh but this reminds me of the “One Laptop Per Child” OLPC project. In 2005, a minimal device was target priced at $100 (U.S.) That hardware prices have dropped to around 1/5th that is amazing!

    1. This comparison is flawed. The OLPC hardware was designed for usefulness, not cheapness, and thus would be significantly better than this device. That computer had a screen that you could really read on and a keyboard that didn’t entail the contortions this would undoubtedly require. It had eight times as much memory (over a decade ago), so it could run graphical software. It had communication abilities. It supported peripherals.
      That machine, while not great from a technical standpoint, could be used as a serious general purpose tool. It could be used for education as was its goal, but it could also be used for entertainment, for work, or anywhere else a computer is useful. This device could theoretically be put to use, but only in a situation where the restrictive hardware can be accommodated, likely with custom software written for it, and likely in a situation where a microcontroller can serve just as well (maybe better if you use the ever-popular ESP32 which can do WiFi and Bluetooth). You wouldn’t dream of giving this to a student so they have a computer to work on.

  10. I don’t think getting to low price points is important any more… unless you are making your own kickstarter museum.

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