Chumby Creator Designs Open Source Laptop

By Wesley Fenlon

Ever dreamed of fabricating your own laptop motherboard? Bunnie Huang's building exactly what you'll need.

Andrew "bunnie" Huang knows his hardware. He was the first person to hack the original Xbox and he wrote a book about the process; Huang eventually ended up at Chumby overseeing the innards of the open source computer alarm clocks. Now he's on to his most interesting hardware project yet: an open hardware Linux laptop.

Huang posted about the design process of the laptop, codename Novena, on his blog on Saturday, claiming that the latest generation of quad-core ARM CPUs deliver enough performance for day-to-day laptop use. Huang designed a compact motherboard, choosing all of its component parts to make the laptop as open (and speedy) as possible. Six months of work on the laptop resulted in a prototype board with most of the features you'd expect from a mid-range laptop--USB 2.0, SD card slot, gigabit Ethernet, SATA II--and a few you wouldn't, like a 3-axis accelerometer, an expansion header compatible with the Raspberry Pi and a resistive touchscreen driver.

Huang's blog details the design process of a separate battery board, which is made to work with the batteries commonly used in RC vehicles. He predicts an hour of charging will net the laptop 7-8 hours of life, though that number could be dramatically higher or lower depending on the size of the battery pack and the power draw of the other laptop parts.

Overall, the project is still far from complete--Huang has to validate all the board's components before moving on to designing the laptop enclosure. But if you're interested in building your own Linux laptop, the project is as open as can be, with schematics listed on a wiki. Of course, if you want to do more than stare at the list of components, you'll need the means to fabricate a motherboard of your own. If that's out of your reach, you might be in luck, anyway. Huang writes that he may start up a Kickstarter if other open source enthusiasts are interested in the project:

"If it seems like a few hundred folks are interested, I might be convinced to try a Kickstarter campaign in several months, once the design is stable and tested. However, I’m not looking to break any low-price records for this laptop — if you just want a cheap linux laptop you’re better off buying a netbook or EeePC. This is a low-volume, hand-crafted laptop made with uniquely open-source components, so the pricing would be consistent with such crafted goods."