Hello world, and welcome to Monthly Tech Picks! This is a new series of blog posts where I take a look at some of the coolest, freshest, and most interesting DIY and consumer electronics that I just so happened to come across in the past month.
I’ve decided to keep it simple for the first edition of Monthly Tech Picks, so I’ve chosen only 5 entries to include in this post.
If you want to learn more about any of projects listed in this post, I’ve included plenty of links to additional resources, including reviews, blog posts, online shops, and more. Enjoy!
If you’ve been following any tech news at all lately, then chances are you’ve heard about the Framework Laptop.
Framework, a hardware startup from Burlingame, California, has been making headlines recently for the long-antipicated release of the Framework Laptop, a one-of-a-kind laptop that prioritizes users’ freedom to dissassemble, repair, customize and upgrade their machine as they see fit.
Our philosophy is that by making well-considered design tradeoffs and trusting customers and repair shops with the access and information they need, we can make fantastic devices that are still easy to repair. Even better, what we’ve done to enable repair also opens up upgradeability and customization. This lets you get exactly the product you need and extends usable lifetime too.
- About page, Framework Computer Inc.
Framework promises to manufacture and ship portable machines with unmatched repairability and upgradeability without compromising design, weight or performance. And so far, they’ve managed to deliver: the Framework Laptop has proven to be a performant and dependable machine, capable of taking near full advantage of the latest generation Intel Core i5 and i7 processors and managing to stay on par with similarly spec’d laptops.
One thing remains to be seen, however - the future availability of mainboard upgrade options. Framework has promised to manufacture new mainboards regularly with new Intel chipset options as they become available, claiming that users will be able to purchase a replacement board with a more powerful CPU (and maybe even dedicated GPUs) down the line, should they wish to upgrade their machines. Only time will tell if they will be able to meet their claims.
Promises aside, though, I think it’s fair to say that Framework has succeded in building a very unique and promising laptop.
- CPU - 11th generation Intel Core i5-1135G7 or i7-1185G7 (both are quad-core models)
- GPU - Intel Iris XE G7 Graphics (integrated)
- Memory - up to 32GB of DDR4 RAM by Crucial
- Storage - up to 4TB of WD Black NVMe SSD storage by Western Digital
- Display - 13.5”, 2256 x 1504 IPS monitor by BOE
- Wireless - Intel Wi-Fi 6E AX210 (optional vPro model available)
- Battery - 55 Wh Lithium-Ion battery
- Charger - 60 Watt USB-C Power Delivery power supply (optional)
- OS - Windows 10 Home, Pro or bring your own
If you want to check out a more detailed and in-depth review of this machine, then I highly suggest that you check out Notebookcheck’s review. In my opinion, they’re by far the most thorough tech reviewers on the Internet. I can’t recommend them enough.
Of course, also you might also be interested in checking out Linus Tech Tips’ great review on YouTube.
Where to Buy
The Framework Laptop is available for pre-order on Framework’s offical website, starting at $999 for a prebuilt model, or $749 if you choose the DIY edition, which comes with tons of options for configuring your machine. As of writing this, the next batch of laptops will be shipping in September 2021. You’ll also need to pay a refundable $100 deposit to secure your pre-order.
But wait, there’s more!
It’s definitely worth noting that the Framework Laptop’s Expansion Cards are open-source (!), meaning that you can freely design your own hardware to make your laptop even more capable and flexible. Check out the official GitHub repo here.
Look, it’s a retro-futuristic cyberdeck! No, it’s a Tandy TRS-80! It’s… neither, and both at the same time…?
Meet the DevTerm by Clockwork Pi. It’s an open hardware ARM-powered portable computer that looks like it came straight out of a Radio Shack catalog from 1980’s. The official website describes it as a “portable terminal for every dev”, but it’s actually a fully-fledged computer perfectly capable of running Debian-based Linux distros, such as Raspberry Pi OS, Ubuntu and Clockwork’s own flavor of Linux, clockworkOS (which apparently is still in development).
The DevTerm clearly takes a lot of inspiration from old-school portables from the 80’s and early 90’s like the NEC PC-8200 and the infamous Tandy TRS-80 Model 100. Folks craving some nostalgic retrocomputing vibes will definitely find a lot to love with this device - the DevTerm really manages to capture the core aesthetics of machines from the past while still maintaining a clean and very fascinating design.
Personally, I think the hardware is where the DevTerm shines the most. The external shell comes disassembled and it’s made to be put together like some sort of Gundam/Gunpla mecha kit, by snapping off the individual components and building the device piece by piece with the included assembly manual.
For input, you’ve got a (very!) tiny QWERTY keyboard, a really small trackball and a gamepad with D-pad and ABXY buttons. From what I’ve seen, the keyboard is just large enough to barely fit your hands on the home row but small emough to make handheld gaming and thumb typing possible. (Image credits: ksbex#7267 on Discord)
ClockworkPi’s not-a-retrocomputer can be powered either by a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3+ Lite or a range of pinout-compatible System-on-Modules developed by ClockworkPi, nicknamed “Cores”. They use ARM-based CPUs (Rockchip RK3399 or Allwinner H6) with varying amounts of processing/graphical power and RAM (up to 4GB LPDDR3).
As for the rest, the device comes with an “ultrawide” 6.8-inch 16:6 display - the wide aspect ratio (which apparently is exactly 2xVGA) is kind of wonky, but might work well enough with most software and some games. The DevTerm’s mainboard also has a wireless module with support for WiFi and Bluetooth 5. The machine is powered by two Li-Ion 18650 cells (not included due to shipping restrictions) and has built-in power management circuitry for charging over USB-C.
There’s also a good number of ports on the mini-computer, including USB-C with charging, Micro HDMI, an SD card reader (which is where the device boots from), a headphone jack (it comes with stereo speakers too) and three USB-As. Oh, and it comes with a thermal printer (!) which can be attached to an expansion port.
Who the heck is ClockWorkPi?
If you’ve been paying attention to the retro handheld scene for the last couple of years, then you might have heard of the GameShell, an open-source portable game console that first popped into the retro gaming community over 2 years ago. That thing as also made by ClockworkPi!
Curiously though, I wasn’t able to find a whole lot about the company - I’ve spent quite some time searching the web for official information about them, but honestly, I’m still not 100% sure. After doing some digging, it appears ClockworkPi is based somewhere in China, possibly in Guangzhou, with some of their team members working in Europe or maybe North America. They certainly manufacture their hardware in China, though, as mentioned in this post by one of their team members.
At the time of writing this, Clockwork Pi’s official online storefront is temporarily closed as the team is working to get the first batches of DevTerms out to the folks who pre-ordered the device earlier this year. After checking the ClockworkPi forums today, it appears that some people are already receiving their DevTerms in the mail.
Aug. 29th Update - one of the CPi’s forum and Discord moderators, who goes by the handle Godzil, has posted an unboxing and assembly video of their very own DevTerm, which can be viewed viewed on YouTube.
Once the shop reopens, though, you should be able to purchase a DevTerm from anywhere between $219 USD for the base RPi CM3 version and $319 USD for the Rockchip RK3399 model. Pricey indeed.
This device has got to be the most L33T H4X0R of DIY projects that I’ve ever seen, bar none. Meet the WiFiWart by Ryan Walker - it’s your standard, run-of-the-mill wall wart charger that just so happens to hide a fully-fledged Linux single board computer with wireless networking.
Its purpose? To do all sorts of
nasty network exploits important penetration testing and security research work, including sniffing local connections, launching man-in-middle attacks, password sniffing, and much more, all while looking like an innocent little phone charger that someone just probably forgot.
Oh, and did I mention that it’s all open-source hardware and software?
Drop one of these in a McDonald’s, and nobody’s going to expect a thing. You can leave it for days, while it collects data and marshals it back to your home network.
- Ryan Walker, owner of Interrupt Labs
It’s a scary device, for sure, but in a good way, I guess. What I like so much about this tiny computer is that it showcases just how far you can get by using hobbyist tools for electronics design and manufacturing. The fact that someone can build a powerful Linux-capable single board computer nowadays from their home, using open source CAD software is, honestly, just mind-blowing.
There’s a lot of really interesting hardware being used in this tiny machine, some of which is hilariously overpowered. At the heart of the WiFiWart, you’ll find an Allwinner A33 SoC with a quad-core 1.2Ghz ARM A7 CPU, a Mali400MP2 GPU and tons of peripheral interfaces. There’s also a DDR3 memory chip with 1GB of RAM (why so much ram r u ok), some fairly complex power regulation circuitry to power the whole system, and USB ports to interface with the Realtek wireless modules.
The PCBs were designed with KiCad and the mechanical parts were designed with FreeCad. All sources are available here.
A promising WIP project!
As of writing this, the WiFiWart is still a work-in-progress. The creator has a Medium page where he shares a lot of details behind the design and testing process. They’re a must read if you’re looking to learn how to design hardware for embedded Linux machines, and personally, I’ve really enjoyed reading them. I’ll definetely be taking some notes from Ryan’s work for when I start learning some PCB and electronics hardware design myself.
A novelty handheld game console. It’s cute. It’s pretty tiny as far as handhelds go. It’s yellow, like, REALLY yellow. And it’s got a spinny crank thingy to the side. What more could you want?
The Playdate by Panic has been making the rounds over the last couple of months. Notably, pre-orders for this quirky device sold out really freaking quick. And people can’t seem to get enough of its retro-inspired aesthetics and intriguing design, courtesy of the talented swedes over at Teenage Engineering.
Another interesting aspect of this tiny gaming machine are the seasonal game launches. Essentially, over the course of twelve weeks, users will be surprisesd two new titles every week, which will be automatically be downloaded to Playdate over Wi-Fi. Some of the games will be produced at Panic (who might know a thing or to about making some cool games), but the system is relying heavily on indie developers to propel the Playdate into a broader audience.
Following the official release of the Playdate, Panic will be releasing a free SDK (software development kit) for making games with APIs in C and Lua. The SDK will run on Mac, Windows and Linux machines and should come with ample reference documentation as well as a Playdate simulator.
Where to buy
You preorder the Playdate here for an exorbitant $179 USD, with an additional $29 USD for a purple magnetic case. Ouch.
Not a bad selection, eh? Certinaly lots of new and interesting technology here.
That’s all I have for now. See you later!