Crowdfunding Novena, the fully open/transparent laptop project

Remember Bunnie Huang's fully open laptop? Bunnie and Sean "xobs" Cross prototyped a machine he called the "Novena" in which every component, down to the BIOS, was fully documented, licensed under FLOSS licenses, and was totally modifiable by its owner.

Now, Bunnie and Xobs have teamed up with Sutajio Kosagi for a crowdfunding campaign to take the laptop into production. $500 gets you the board, $1200 gets you a desktop version, $2000 gets you a laptop and $5000 get you a "heirloom laptop" in a handmade wooden case crafted by Portland-area luthier Kurt Mottweiler.

The Novena is "not a device made for consumer home use" -- it has lots of components that are exposed during normal use, has no moisture- or static-resistance built into it, etc. It's intended as a piece of high-quality lab equipment for people interested in the long-term project of building fully open, everyday use computers where surveillance, abusive commercial practices, and other proprietary horribles are substantially harder to accomplish than in the current hardware/software ecosystem.

Noah Swartz notes, "I for one am super excited about it because it's meant specifically for hackers and tinkerers. The motherboard has a Spartan-6 CSG324-packaged FPGA built right into it, and if you opt for the conversion-tablet form factor you also get bunni's own battery controller which allows you to use cheap RC car or airplane batteries instead of expensive laptop specific ones by moving the load balancing circuits off of the battery itself. Also the internals of the case are covered in mounting holes (dubbed the peek array after Nadya Peek: which allow you to affix whatever sort of add-ons you want to the inside of the laptop."

I've put in for one of the laptops. I can't wait.

In the design shown here, you can access the internals without having to remove a single screw – in fact, the laptop opens itself for you. With the slide of a latch, the screen automatically pops open thanks to an internal gas spring. As the internals are naked when the screen is up, this is not a computer for casual home use. Another side benefit of this design is there's no fan noise – when the screen is up, the motherboard is exposed to open air and a passive heatsink is all you need to keep the CPU cool.

Another feature of this design is the LCD bezel is made out of a single, simple aluminum sheet. This allows users with access to a minimal machine shop to modify or craft their own bezels – no custom tooling required. Hopefully this makes adding knobs and connectors, or changing the LCD relatively easy. In order to encourage people to experiment, we will ship desktop and laptop devices with not one, but two LCD bezels, so you don't have to worry about having an unusable machine if you mess up one of the bezels!

The panel covering the “port farm” on the right hand side of the case is designed to be replaceable. A single screw holds it in place, so if you design your own motherboard or if you want to upgrade in the future, you're not locked into today's port layout. We take advantage of this feature between the desktop and the laptop versions, as the DC power jack is in a different location for the two configurations.

Finally, the inside of the case features a “Peek Array”. It's an array of M2.5 mounting holes (yes, they are metric) populating the extra unused space inside the case, on the right hand side in the photo above. It's named after Nadya Peek, a graduate student at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. Nadya is a consummate maker, and is a driving force behind the CBA's Fab Lab initiative. When we designed this array of mounting bosses, we imagined someone like Nadya making their own circuit boards or whatever they want, and mounting it inside the case using the Peek Array.

Novena (Thanks, Noah!)

Notable Replies

  1. That doesn't seem like something Facebook would want to buy out.

  2. Bunnie Huang is a technology badass. What I don't understand is: doesn't the RasPi already tick these boxes (apart from being a laptop)? Obviously this is a beast of a machine compared to a RasPi - but am I mistaken in my understanding that it's fully open?

    @jlargentaye Looks like he compiling or decompiling code on his imac there. No idea why it'd flash up on the large monitor but I imagine that's what it is.

  3. I think that it is the fact that it is all open source (or at least openly documented) -- not just the CPU/SOC, but also the wifi module, etc. He probably could have used a Raspi as the core, but I think that he was looking for something with a bit higher performance.

  4. You are very much mistaken - the board, the GPU, and the boot loader (which runs on the GPU) are closed.

  5. They do have a bit of open source for the video now, but it still relies on closed binary blobs.
    Raspberry Pi marks 2nd birthday with plan for open source graphics driver | Ars Technica
    Upton further noted that "there are still significant parts of the multimedia hardware on BCM2835 which are only accessible via the blob. But we’re incredibly proud that VideoCore IV is the first publicly documented mobile graphics core and hope this is the first step towards a blob-free future for Raspberry Pi: we're continuing to work on that, and we hope you'll come along with us!"

    The start up process uses the closed source GPU stuff:

    1. When the Raspberry Pi is first turned on, the ARM core is off, and the GPU core is on. At this point the SDRAM is disabled.
    2. The GPU starts executing the first stage bootloader, which is stored in ROM on the SoC. The first stage bootloader reads the SD card, and loads the second stage bootloader (bootcode.bin) into the L2 cache, and runs it.
    3. bootcode.bin enables SDRAM, and reads the third stage bootloader (loader.bin) from the SD card into RAM, and runs it.
    4. loader.bin reads the GPU firmware (start.elf).
    5. start.elf reads config.txt, cmdline.txt and kernel.img

    Edit: the third stage bootloader is no longer needed.

    RPi Software -
    GPU bootloaders
    Currently all of the GPU software and firmware is supplied in binary format.

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