Building a fully open, transparent laptop


Bunnie Huang is a virtuoso in hardware engineering, and a hero of the open source hardware movement. In this Make post, he documents how he and Sean "xobs" Cross prototyped a laptop that was open and transparent to a very great degree, secure against all attacks short of dopant-level hardware trojans. The post -- and the photos of the gloriously fuggly laptop, which they dubbed "the Novena Project" -- is part requirements document, part philosophical statement, and part engineering text. I love Bunnie's reasoning for wanting an amazing, open laptop: he spends the majority of his waking hours with it, so he wants it to be as amazing as possible, and it's worth him spending the time and money to get there. I also love the requirements he sets out for genuine "openness" (I put some of these after the jump, below). Most of all, I love how this thing looks: rough-hewn, gloriously unfinished with its 3D printed panels, and as bursting with potential as the Colossus.


All the components should have a reasonably complete set of NDA-free documentation. This single requirement alone culled many choices. For example, Freescale is the only SoC vendor in this performance class where you can simply go to their website, click a link, and download a mostly complete 6,000-page programming manual. It’s a ballsy move on their part and I commend them for the effort.

Low cost is not an objective. I’m not looking to build a crippled platform based on some entry-level single-core SoC just so I can compete price-wise with the likes of Broadcom’s non-profit Raspberry Pi platform.

On the other hand, I can’t spec in unicorn hair, although I come close to that by making the outer case from genuine leather (I love that my laptop smells of leather when it runs). All the chips are ideally available off the shelf from distributors like Digi-Key and have at least a five year production lifetime.

Batteries are based off of cheap and commonly available packs used in RC hobby circles, enabling users to make the choice between battery pack size, runtime, and mass. This makes answering the question of “what’s the battery life” a bit hard to answer – it’s really up to you – although one planned scenario is the trans-Siberian railroad trek, which is a week-long trip with no power outlets.

Building an Open Source Laptop (Thanks, Ola!)

Notable Replies

  1. This is a transparent laptop:

    Edit to add that this (Bunnie's box) is a project that I would love to dive into.

  2. It looks like it would be easier to add to or mess with the hardware if everything's open like that. It would also be extremely vulnerable to coffee-based attacks.

  3. Also potentially vulnerable to bugs... (the crunchy/squishy kind of bugs)

  4. I love the fact they got an IBM/Lenovo keyboard in there... the IBM mini-joystick is the sole reason i can only buy their laptops now, it's orders of magnitude better than the standard laptop touchpad mouse

  5. heng says:

    yes yes yes! I totally agree. For most of the time, being able to keep my hands in the same position to type and move the pointer overwhelmingly trumps any slight reduction in pointer dexterity.

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