Novena whips up an open source laptop from scratch

Novena Project aims to create an entirely open source laptop, from the iron down to the bits, and a prototype already exists

How hard is it to make your own laptop from scratch? That's what Bunnie Huang and Sean Cross decided to find out.

This week in Make magazine, Huang and Cross displayed the results of the first 18 months of their research: the Novena Project, an attempt to create a notebook computer using nothing but open source hardware and software. Cost wasn't a concern; making it thin and light weren't important either. What did matter was making something that was open, hackable, and reasonably useful.

The current iteration of the Novena uses a Freescale iMX6 CPU, an ARM Cortex A9 processor whose datasheet and programming manual require no NDA. For the display, Huang and Cross used a 13-inch, 2,560-by-1,700 (239 ppi) LED-backlit panel, along with 3D printing to help manufacture certain pieces of the chassis. Since one of the demands for the device was that no closed source binaries are used, that limited their choices of network card or graphics, but Huang claims they were able to give a talk at the 30C3 conference with only their Novenas.

Huang had garnered many hardware-hacking experiences as the lead engineer for the now-discontinued Chumby, but he wanted to experiment with a different range of devices. For him, a notebook seemed like a good place to start since he did a good deal of his daily work on one. He also wanted to implement unconventional things not found in most notebooks, like FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays), all with designs out in the open.

"I'm a big fan of opening up the blueprints for the hardware you run," Huang wrote. To him, at least part of this was driven by thinking that seems doubly-vindicated in the post-Snowden era: "If you can't hack it, you don't own it."

Most open source hardware falls into a few basic buckets. One is hardware created as part of an open reference design initiative, like the next-generation data center devices created for Facebook's Open Compute Project, which range from open rack designs all the way to switching hardware.

Second is hardware created as part of a hobbyist's initiative, which is roughly where the Novena falls. Within this category, though, there's a lot of variation on what's "open" and what's not. Just because a given hobbyist project has its blueprints published somewhere doesn't mean the components used for it are themselves open.

Case in point: The hugely successful hobbyist mini-PC Raspberry Pi uses commonly available commercial hardware components, such as the Broadcom BCM2835 system-on-chip. But many of those components are not themselves open. By contrast, the Arduino and the BeagleBone -- two other major hobbyist computers -- use nothing but open hardware. The Arduino has all of its designs, from the processor on up, released under a Creative Commons license. The Novena is intended to be equally open.

The next step for the Novena, Huang says, is to kick off a crowdfunding campaign of some kind to manufacture the Novena on a bigger scale -- and with a less clunky-looking case.

This story, "Novena whips up an open source laptop from scratch," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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