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Orange Pi Zero – $20 single-board computer

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The single-board computer space is getting crowded, and Orange Pi is yet another fruit-flavored Raspberry Pi clone, from China based Shenzhen Xunlong Software. The Orange Pi Zero is their smallest model, but still packs a H2 Quad-core Cortex-A7 ARM CPU; Mali 400MP2 GPU; 512 MB RAM; 100Mb/s ethernet RJ45; and 802.11 b/g/n wifi. The basic board also gives you one USB 2.0 port, while the add-on board gives two more, plus audio, IR. It also has additional GPIO pins, similar to the RPi. Both boards, and a case can be had for $20 from DealExtreme. An even smaller case, containing only the main board is also available.

Compared to the RPi, this board is almost half the size, and half the price, but still includes wifi. The only downside is that there is no HDMI, and TV composite video out is complicated. Even with a wide offering, Shenzhen Xunlong Software is far behind the Raspberry Pi Foundation when it comes to mind-share and community support. That shows in details like the OS distribution download page, where none of the links from product page where satisfactory: Most where old, and others didn’t work at all.

Instead, the Armbian based distributions worked well. Both the Ubuntu and Debian images booted without problems. They both connect to the wired network port with SSH enabled. At first login as root, the password is 1234, but you are immediately prompted to change it.

Given it’s very small footprint, and power (micro USB) as the only required cable, it could easily be hidden or even hide in plain-sight among the usual cable clutter under any office desk. It’d make an excellent spy device, and could be used to listen in on conversations or network traffic. Or conversely, watch out for inconspicuous small boxes around the house or office.

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Making an ARM Linux based computer from scratch

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Over at Henrik Forstén’s blog, he has a write-up of his very impressive project where he designed, assembled, soldered and installed an BGA (Ball Grid Arry) ARM based board from scratch.

He discusses board design challenges with a four-layered PCB, considerations with traces for DDR2 RAM, CPU, and three voltage supplies. There are many pictures showing the soldering process. His summary is: “Many people say that soldering BGAs is hard but based on this experience I can’t agree. Maybe I just got lucky but I didn’t have any problems with them.”

Once the board is all put together, he goes on to boot Linux. That also proves somewhat tricky, and he ends up with a three-phase boot using an ARM bootloader, U-boot, and finally a custom built kernel.

He says, “I don’t really care about the usefulness of the board and this whole project is more of a learning experience”. Clearly it was a great success.

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FSF on Secure Boot

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There has been a lot of heated discussion about the upcoming Restricted/Secure Boot requirement from Microsoft for its new Windows 8 OS, and how it will be implemented in the new BIOS defined by the UEFI standard. Free Software Foundation recently posted a nice write up of what this means to the FOSS movement, including Fedora’s and Ubuntu’s attempts to work with and around the issue.

Also, it’s interesting to note the distinction which has been made by Microsoft and the phone industry between the x86 PC and ARM platforms. The former has had a tradition of openness since the early IBM PC, with an environment for hardware and software makers, third part producers of all kinds, and hobbist to thrive. There is a large and healthy hardware industry offering extensions, additions, upgrades and alternatives for every main component of the PC. Likewise, there is a vast selection of applications, utilities, games for many different OSes. This is in stark contrast to the various ARM platforms, which are typically completely locked down like Apple’s devices, or very hard to change the OS like most Android devices. Microsoft is now taking this further, and creating its own “locked garden” around its new ARM based tablets. FSF takes a strong stand against this.

Here are some excerpts from the FSF paper, with my emphasis:

We have been working hard the last several months to stop Restricted Boot, a major threat to user freedom, free software ideals, and free software adoption. Under the guise of security, a computer afflicted with Restricted Boot refuses to boot any operating systems other than the ones the computer distributor has approved in advance. Restricted Boot takes control of the computer away from the user and puts it in the hands of someone else.

To respect user freedom and truly protect user security, computer makers must either provide users a way of disabling such boot restrictions, or provide a sure-fire way that allows the computer user to install a free software operating system of her choice.

Distributors of restricted systems usually appeal to security concerns. They claim that if unapproved software can be used on the machines they sell, malware will run amok. By only allowing software they approve to run, they can protect us.

This claim ignores the fact that we need protection from them. We don’t want a machine that only runs software approved by them — our computers should always run only software approved by us. We may choose to trust someone else to help us make those approval decisions, but we should never be locked into that relationship by force of technological restriction or law. Software that enforces such restrictions is malware. Companies like Microsoft that push these restrictions also have a terrible track record when it comes to security, which makes their platitudes about restricting us for our own good both hollow and deceitful.

Secure Boot, done right, embodies the free software view of security, because it puts users — whether individuals, government agencies, or organizations — in control of their machines. Our thought experiment to demonstrate this is simple: Microsoft may be worried about malware written to take over Windows machines, but we view Windows itself as malware and want to keep it away from our machines. Does Secure Boot enable us to keep Windows from booting on a machine? It does: We can remove Microsoft’s key from the boot firmware, and add our own key or other keys belonging to free software developers whose software we wish to trust.

We will fight Microsoft’s attempt at enforcing Restricted Boot on ARM devices like smartphones and tablets.Like any other computer, users must be able to install free software operating systems on these devices. We will monitor Microsoft’s behavior to make sure they do not deceive the public again by expanding these restrictions to other kinds of systems.

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Fedora on Raspberry Pi

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Chris Tyler has published a video demonstrating Fedora running on the ARM based Raspberry Pi. This looks very promising, and the Fedora project is working actively to support several ARM based systems.

Here’s general instructions on how to install Fedora from a USB stick, and here’s minimal Xfce based spins. (I am not sure if these instructions apply to Raspberry Pi).

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Raspberry Pi: A €30 Computer

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A few days ago,  Raspberry Pi announced that they had gotten Quake 3 running on their ARM computer. Furthermore, their FAQ estimates the networked model will cost $35 and be released at the end of this year. There is also an interview in the Guardian.

Provisional specification

  • 700MHz ARM11
  • 128MB or 256MB of SDRAM
  • OpenGL ES 2.0
  • 1080p30 H.264 high-profile decode
  • Composite and HDMI video output
  • USB 2.0
  • SD/MMC/SDIO memory card slot
  • General-purpose I/O
  • Optional integrated 2-port USB hub and 10/100 Ethernet controller
  • Open software (Ubuntu, Iceweasel, KOffice, Python)
  • The device is powered by an external AC adapter, and the Model A consumes around 1W at full load.
  • The device should run well off 4xAA cells.

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