Highly hackable, open source laptop smashes crowdfunding goal

The Novena open source computer is expected to start shipping in November after raising just over $700,000, more than double its crowd funding target.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor
The Novena board. Image: Novena

A project to build a highly hackable, open source computer has raised $700,000 through crowd funding, more than twice its original goal.

The Novena is designed for modders who want to tinker with both the software and hardware inside their machine.

The device ships with a 1.2GHz Freescale quad-core iMX6 Arm-based CPU coupled with a Xilinx Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) and a high speed I/O expansion header.

All the documentation for the printed circuit boards is open and free to download, the entire OS is buildable from source, and it comes with a variety of features that facilitate rapid prototyping.

A Crowd Supply campaign to fund the building of the laptop closed on Sunday, with backers pledging $702,445.

The Novena was devised by xobs and Andrew 'bunnie' Huang, former hardware lead on the open source Chumby internet appliance, who last year described building a laptop as a "geek fantasy".

Four varieties of Novena are available: just the board for $500; an all-in-one desktop for $1,195; a laptop for $1,195; and an heirloom laptop with a hand-crafted wood and aluminium case for $5,000.

Boards are expected to ship from November this year, with the other SKUs becoming available over the following six months. The laptop and desktop machines will be designed to allow easy access to the motherboard, as it will not be blocked by the keyboard mounting plate.

Because the project broke through its stretch goals, the team behind Novena is working on a number of additional features including: free software 2D/3D graphics drivers for the machine, a ROMulator breakout board and a MyriadRF software defined radio. The team will also offer a general-purpose breakout board able to buffer 16 FPGA outputs and eight FPGA inputs and provide six 10-bit analog inputs (up to 200ksps sample rate) and two 10bit analog outputs (with about 100ksps max rate).

The specs:

The board

  • Freescale iMX6 CPU

    • Quad-core Cortex A9 CPU with NEON FPU @ 1.2GHz
    • NDA-free datasheet and programming manual
  • Internal memory:

    • Boot from microSD firmware
    • 64-bit, DDR3-1066 SO-DIMM slot
    • SATA-II (3Gbps)
  • Internal ports & sensors:

    • mini PCI-express slot
    • UIM slot for mPCIx mobile data card support
    • Dual-channel LVDS LCD connector with USB2.0 side-channel for a display-side camera
    • Resistive touchscreen controller
    • Stereo 1.1W, 8-ohm internal speaker connectors
    • 2x USB2.0 internal connectors for keyboard and mouse/trackpad
    • Digital microphone (optional, not populated by default)
    • 3-axis accelerometer
    • 3x internal UART ports
  • External ports:

    • HDMI
    • SD card reader
    • headphone + mic port (compatible with most mobile phone headsets, supports sensing in-line cable buttons)
    • 2x USB 2.0 ports, supporting high-current (1.5A) device charging
    • 1Gbit ethernet
  • Fun features:

    • 100Mbit ethernet — dual Ethernet capability allows laptop to be used as an in-line packet filter or router
    • USB OTG — enables laptop to spoof/fuzz ethernet, serial, etc. over USB via gadget interface to other USB hosts
    • Utility serial EEPROM — for storing crash logs and other bits of handy data
    • Spartan-6 CSG324-packaged FPGA — has several interfaces to the CPU, including a 2Gbit/s (peak) RAM-like bus — for your bitcoin mining needs. Or whatever else you might want to toss in an FPGA.
    • High-speed I/O expansion header — useful for implementing a wide variety of functions, from simple GPIO breakouts to high-performance analog data sampling front-ends

 All-in-one desktop

Includes the motherboard, with the following case and accessories:

  • Gen-2 hacker case — not for casual home users

    • Injection molded ABS bottom shell
    • Injection molded ABS port farm cover
    • 2x anodised aluminium bezels (one blue in colour, other colour TBD)
    • Unique air spring actuator and latch mechanism
    • Speaker box kit (speaker box + gaskets + 2x speakers + cables + screws)
    • LCD mounting kit
    • SSD mounting kit
    • Rubber non-slip feet
    • Peek Array (array of M2.5 bosses covering the empty space, for mounting your extensions and projects)
    • A selection of metric screws
    • An Allen key and/or screwdriver as required for assembly
  • 13.3-inch amorphous silicon TFT active matrix LCD

    • 1920 x 1080 (Full HD)
    • 166 ppi
    • IPS
    • 350 cd/m2 luminance (max brightness)
    • 700:1 contrast ratio (typ)
    • 14ms Tr, 11 ms Tf (typ)
    • Wide viewing angle: +/- 89 degrees V/H (typ)
  • LVDS to eDP adapter board

    • IT6251 chipset
    • Includes 56-pin flexible PCBA for connecting to main board
    • Includes 30-pin, 250mm long IPEX cable for connecting to LCD
    • Breakouts for USB and 4-wire resistive touchscreen upgrade options
  • Internal accessory connectors

    • 2x USB and power switch PCBA + cables
    • Lid closed detector PCBA

Most components are pre-assembled in the case, including the internal accessory connectors, the motherboard, and eDP adapter board. User assembly required for LCD bezel selection, and for speaker box.

The laptop

All of the components from the desktop version above, plus:

Intelligent Battery controller board:

  • SATA-style connector to route power and control signals to the main board

  • Works with battery packs used by most RC enthusiasts

    • Pre-populated with 3S1P balancing tap connector
    • Cheap and easy to buy
    • User can "pick their capacity" — the battery life isn't fixed by design, it's up to the user
  • Classic Molex disk connector for battery connector

    • Requires adapter cable to the RC battery pack
  • Fast-charge capability

    • Rates in excess of 4A
    • Charge a 45Wh 3S1P pack in ~1 hour
    • Active cell balancing
  • Learns your battery pack

    • Over a few charge/discharge cycles, the controller determines the actual capacity of the pack
    • Tracks capacity degradation over time
    • Optimises charging to reduce wear and tear on packs
    • Computes an accurate estimate of remaining battery capacity
  • Statistics reporting

    • SMBus standard power interface
    • Stats such as remaining capacity, charging rate, current discharge rate, voltage, etc. available
  • STM32 master controller

    • Runs ChibiOS
    • Enables autonomous operation when CPU board is powered off
    • Reprogrammable by host CPU, but requires a physical button press to enable programming, as a guard against surreptitious malware insertion
    • Has DAC output to drive an analog panel meter

240 GiB SSD:

  • SATA-II interface (3Gbps)

  • Intel 530 series or equivalent (SanDisk drive in the photos is a throw-away for our dev purposes only, we would not subject end users to such a drive)

  • Full desktop Debian firmware load

Battery pack:

  • 3000mAh 3-cell lithium battery pack

    • 3-4 hours battery life depending on backlight level
    • May improve with firmware tuning of power management functions (measurements done with no CPU throttling, all peripherals powered on even if unused)
  • Manufactured by Turnigy and shipped separately, installed by user

  • User can swap in their own battery pack

  • Cable adapter from Molex to in-line 4mm bullet connector provided

Mechanical dimensions:

  • 330 mm x 225 mm x 27mm to bezel surface (30mm with socket cap screws)

  • 1.36kg (3 pounds) in configuration as pictured

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