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How to build a totally open computer from the CPU to the desktop

Novena – a novel piece of lab equipment

How does one build a completely open-source computer from scratch? Answer: slowly.

This week, the pair developing the Novena open laptop have provided an update on their work. The idea is to develop a usable system that is completely open to customization and scrutiny – from the electronics to the firmware to the operating system to the applications.

This is ideal for people paranoid there is malicious code hidden in closed-source drivers and firmware in their motherboards and hardware, or just fed up with insecure and broken closed-source software from manufacturers.

Andrew Huang and Sean Cross, two self-employed engineers living in Singapore, built their computer around a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9-powered Freescale system-on-chip and a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) – the specs are here. (The pair trust the system-on-chip and the FPGA behave as documented.)

Even the display bezel is hackable, with Huang explaining: "Anyone with access to an entry-level machine shop can fabricate a custom bezel to accommodate a different LCD, as well as mount additional sensors (such as a camera or a microphone) or additional buttons and knobs."

A crowdfunding round via Crowd Supply 18 months ago far exceeded its goals, even though prices ranged from $1,195 to a $5,000 wooden model.

The pair were obliged to reject RedHat and Ubuntu because they required black-box drivers for GPU acceleration to draw the pointless desktop eye candy, and opted for a fully free Debian on GNU/Linux with the Xfce4 window manager.

"We hope eventually to figure out enough of the GPU to let us do 3D graphics with acceleration sufficient to produce a user experience much like that of any mainstream laptop," the guys said.

The pair want you to think of it as a piece of lab equipment. A software-defined radio board was developed for the Novena by Myriad RF to avoid using more black-box radio hardware and firmware.

As an exercise in producing an open system from scratch, it's fascinating. The Novena board has already been used as the basis for a crypto key signing box, Cryptech.

You can read the duo's adventures at the IEEE's Spectrum, here. For what it's worth, a startup called Purism is doing similar with an x86-based laptop, but it relies on Intel's closed-source processor initialization firmware, which gives some people the heebie-jeebies. ®

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