CHIP: The $9 Computer

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CHIP Desktop computer
The CHIP computer from NextThing Co. provides a fully-powered desktop at an amazingly low price: Photo courtesy NextThing Co.

A new entry into the Ultra-Compact computer market squeezes a fully-capable Linux computer into your pocket for just pocket change. At $9, the CHIP from Next Thing Co. uses purchasing volume and lessons learned from the first generation of Ultra-Compact computers to reduce the cost of this newest addition to the ultra-compact computer landscape. The Kickstarter hit its goal quickly and is still skyrocketing as it sits over ten times that goal after just a few days. While no heavyweight, it can manage a surprising number of desktop tasks including HD video and 3D gaming.

As desktop processors get faster that power needs to fit in a smaller space. The same technology can be applied to making computers of the same power but just much smaller. Not every application needs a full-sized, brawny CPU. Scaling down hardware requirements means that a suitably powerful computer with a fraction of the processing power can fit in a fraction of the space. This lead to the Ultra-compact computer and the first successful product was the Raspberry Pi.

When the Raspberry Pi debuted three years ago, it traded off features like high-end 3D performance and multi-threaded processing for very low power requirements and very, very low price. The standard $35 Model B can be powered by a single USB adapter, yet runs a full Linux operating system on its 700 MHz core. While most Makers preferred the more versatile Arduino micro-controller platform, many innovators were attracted to the ease with which one could get a fully-powered computer up and running with a minimum of hardware. Raspberry Pi expanded the I/O ports on its Model B+ late last year, and ramped up the power for the new Raspberry Pi 2 released this year. However, neither model takes advantage of applications where the power of the first generation board would be of use, but in an even smaller form factor.

Basic CHIP board with composite cable
The basic kit for $9 includes the board and a composite cable video output: Image courtesy NextThing Co.

A few years later, technology has shrunk even more and provided even more power. With a form factor about the size of an Arduino Uno, and processing power that surpasses the first generation of Raspberry Pis, the CHIP stands to be a benchmark for the 2nd generation of Ultra-Compact computing. Sporting a 1 GHz A13 processor, 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB of onboard storage, the device works out-of-the-box with a standard composite video output. With built-in WiFi (802.11 a/b/g/n)  and Bluetooth 4.0, you don’t need a wealth of cables or add-on boards to get it running. Linux is pre-installed, but Ubuntu currently isn’t supported. Crediting the open-source hardware and software platform, the developers expect there will be full support shortly after launch.

CHIP VGA and HDMI adaptors
For pledging a few dollars more, you’ll get an adapter that can output VGA or one that outputs HDMI signal: Image courtesy NextThing Co.

Already funded, the board continues to sell well at $9. For an additional $10 you receive an adapter board that enables VGA out, or HDMI with the $15 addition. Add on a USB power supply and Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and you have a powerful computer that supports OpenGL 1.1/2.0 3D gaming. It should hold its own as an HDTV since the AllWinner A13 SoC supports hardware h.264 encoding and decoding. Since the chip is 3-year-old technology (which assists the low price) it doesn’t have on-board support for newer codecs like h.265, but if you’re looking for 4K playback you should probably be looking at something more than a $9 computer.

A kit is also available that gives you all the input/output you need for a portable pocket computer. The PocketC.H.I.P. option for a $49 pledge includes a 4.3″ touchscreen case that includes a QWERTY keyboard, 5-hour battery, and is similar in shape and size to a Blackberry Classic.

PocketCHIP
An accessory for the CHIP board turns it into a portable computer: Image courtesy NextThing Co.

The Kickstarter reached its funding goal of $50,000 quickly and after only four days has more than ten times what they needed for volume purchasing. While the CHIP won’t be completed and delivered for another year (due to ship May 2016, and this July for alpha testers) it’s set to shake up the Ultra-Compact computer market.

What would you do with a $9 computer? Let us know in the comments below.

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