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The 15 Quid USB PC
May 6, 2011 6:26 AM   Subscribe

David Braben, developer of games such as Rollercoaster Tycoon and Kinectimals has turned his sights to hardware, to develop a £10-£15 PC in a USB stick form factor, to make computers universally accessible to children wanting to learn computing and programming.
posted by benzo8 (41 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Imagine how much more efficiently MI5 will be able to leave THESE on trains compared to heavy old laptops!
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 6:37 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's amazing. What a dude. I hope they manage to pull it off. I do wonder how many people have a TV with an HDMI input, but I guess it'll increase over time.

On a more selfish note, I guess this means that Frontier 4 is even more unlikely.
posted by Magnakai at 6:37 AM on May 6, 2011


As much as I'd like this to be true...the Beagle Board has similar hardware specs and is in the $150 range manufactured in medium quantities. I doubt it will cost less than $75 unless he can get firm orders for millions of the things (which is unlikely).
posted by miyabo at 6:44 AM on May 6, 2011


He did not develop Rollercoaster Tycoon.
posted by Pendragon at 6:44 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Elite and Zarch are good examples of doing amazing things with very limited resources
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:44 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Pays to be slightly skeptical of this. There are tons of ARM development platforms out there, from the Gumstix to the Beagleboard to the FriendlyARM. And there are dozens of very terrible less than $100 tablets based on this same chipset, all produced and sold out of China. The dev boards are always more than $100 because they are not in the same class of production scale as the chinese tablets.

Anything built with love and care like David's board is likely due to market pressures not able to get its cost down in a reasonable time frame. Note that the $25 is "within a year", which may be possible but I will remain skeptical (but excited.)

Short term, go on Dealextreme and buy a dozen of of the cheap tablets, you'll get a screen too!
posted by neustile at 6:46 AM on May 6, 2011


The problem isn't the cost of hardware, but the scarcity of teachers who can do more than read out of a book.
posted by geoff. at 6:47 AM on May 6, 2011 [5 favorites]


(Another great low-power option is the Apple TV, surprisingly. It's $99, a much better chip than this with more RAM, wifi, and a pretty good OS already installed. You can get SSH into that without much hassle.)
posted by neustile at 6:48 AM on May 6, 2011


At that price, I could see this working as an better-value alternative to the Arduino. Given that it comes with video, USB, and the ability to read and write to an SD card, it's a much more attractive option than the stacks of expensive shields you'd need to pile onto the Arduino to get comparable features.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 6:50 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pendragon: "He did not develop Rollercoaster Tycoon"

You're right - his studio Frontier Developments developed Rollercoaster Tycoon 3. My cherry-picking of titles for the front-page post was flawed. Apologies to all.
posted by benzo8 at 6:51 AM on May 6, 2011


Apple TV, surprisingly. It's $99, a much better chip than this with more RAM, wifi, and a pretty good OS already installed

But unlikely to be hacker friendly.
posted by DU at 6:54 AM on May 6, 2011


I do wonder how many people have a TV with an HDMI input

I'm pretty sure that every TV sold in the last five or six years has at least one.
posted by octothorpe at 7:01 AM on May 6, 2011


Interesting, but frankly a USB stick preloaded with a simple game oriented development environment might accomplish more. You could offer a simple well documented library for building games in Python, or better yet Erlang or Haskell.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:07 AM on May 6, 2011


Apple TV, surprisingly. It's $99, a much better chip than this with more RAM, wifi, and a pretty good OS already installed

But unlikely to be hacker friendly.


apparently not: linux on apple tv

but the solution to education being captured by business skills training isn't more hardware. it's a political problem and I bet a rich software developer could do a lot more in politics than he can building yet another computer (of course it's probably more fun to build a small/cheap computer)

in fact, you could argue that the logic of computers becoming a commodity item almost dictates that computer education should be consumer focused.

(also, if he's really looking towards cheap he should have vga out)
posted by ennui.bz at 7:08 AM on May 6, 2011


The original apple tv was pretty hacker friendly. I have mame and a boxxee and xbmc on mine, and the install process was just sticking a USB stick in the back. I don't know how hacker friendly the new one is.
posted by empath at 7:12 AM on May 6, 2011


(also, if he's really looking towards cheap he should have vga out)

You'd be hard pressed to find a television that even bothers to include a VGA out these days. If you want people to run this on a television, the cheap route would be via component "RCA" video.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:16 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


to make computers universally accessible to children wanting to learn computing and programming.

The best way to do this is to make the devices widely available to the general public (in the checkout aisles at Walmart, etc). The worst thing they could do would be to funnel them into the educational system and expect lower-school teachers to inspire kids to take up programming.

As soon as kids start seeing the stuff you can do with this kind of device, they'll all want one. Of course, the first apps will probably be fart noise generators.
posted by TwoToneRow at 7:17 AM on May 6, 2011


I don't know how hacker friendly the new one is.

yeah, whoops, it looks like there isn't much for the new apple tv...
posted by ennui.bz at 7:18 AM on May 6, 2011


But unlikely to be hacker friendly.

apparently not: linux on apple tv


Well yes, exactly. You can't say "here's some good hardware with a good OS but you have to replace the OS to make it good".
posted by DU at 7:28 AM on May 6, 2011


I lost all respect for David Braben when I learned that he shut down a remake of Elite.
posted by ymgve at 7:29 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


As soon as kids start seeing the stuff you can do with this kind of device, they'll all want one. Of course, the first apps will probably be fart noise generators.

but that's not true at all. what you can do on a psp or nintendo ds is going to be way more exciting than anything you can do yourself. trying to recreate the initial pc revolution doesn't really make sense to me.

computers are already vastly cheaper and more ubiquitous than when kids first starting messing around with them.

(re: hdmi but then your $25 computer only runs on a tv you have sole access to)
posted by ennui.bz at 7:37 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


No wireless, less space than a NOMAD. Lame.

Also, not available for at least 12 months, and how do you power it?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:41 AM on May 6, 2011


Well yes, exactly. You can't say "here's some good hardware with a good OS but you have to replace the OS to make it good".

But keep in mind, nearly every PC is sold with Windows on it, and to make it good you, have to install Linux, FreeBSD, or hack OSX onto it.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:59 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


ennui.bz: yeah, whoops, it looks like there isn't much for the new apple tv...

I'm not really very technical so I don't know if this constitutes "hacking", but aTV Flash has a product for the new Apple TV. Since the new one has no hard drive, the programs which came with the old one were much more substantial.
posted by gman at 8:00 AM on May 6, 2011




blue_beetle, I see what you did there.
posted by seasparrow at 8:13 AM on May 6, 2011


I want one!
posted by brundlefly at 8:15 AM on May 6, 2011


But keep in mind, nearly every PC is sold with Windows on it, and to make it good you, have to install Linux, FreeBSD, or hack OSX onto it.

This is both untrue and irrelevant.

The question is whether an Apple computer is a good hacking device. "It is theoretically possible, using an long list of obscure instructions and hacks that have to be updated for every release, to get an operating system that does what you want, assuming you can get the box open in the first place" is not a good hacking device.

It needs to be open, not merely openable.
posted by DU at 8:19 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seems kind of pointless to me if it requires a hub to interact with. Not much point in being able to carry it on your keychain if you also need to find a USB hub wherever you're going. Plus a USB network adapter, presumably. With all those peripherals it's quickly losing its portability.
posted by chundo at 8:32 AM on May 6, 2011


The question is whether an Apple computer is a good hacking device. "It is theoretically possible, using an long list of obscure instructions and hacks that have to be updated for every release, to get an operating system that does what you want, assuming you can get the box open in the first place" is not a good hacking device.

It needs to be open, not merely openable.


What you're missing is the replicable-ness of the hack. If you want others to use the thing you made, and step one is SMT soldering or buying parts on digikey, you've limited your audience. If the steps are "buy a $99 box at any store and then run this software", your audience is a lot bigger.

As of right now, there is no low cost ARM-ish platform that is cheap enough that also doesn't require either slight software or hardware hacks to be a general platform. You've got beagleboards & gumstixs on one end (over 100 or 200 dollars, base) and chinese tablets and apple TV2s on the other (100 or less, but requires jailbreaking/modifications.)
posted by neustile at 8:44 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you want others to use the thing you made, and step one is SMT soldering or buying parts on digikey, you've limited your audience.

From the site: We plan to develop, manufacture and distribute an ultra-low-cost computer...
posted by DU at 9:07 AM on May 6, 2011


Yes, DU, once they make this and it's available for $25 it will be wonderful. I was speaking about right now, not (potentially) a year from now.
posted by neustile at 9:31 AM on May 6, 2011


You could offer a simple well documented library for building games in Python, or better yet Erlang or Haskell

I need to start drinking vodka in the morning before I read metafilter.
posted by felix at 9:35 AM on May 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


The beagleboard also doesn't require soldering.

I'm trying to figure out what's better about the Apple solution. Slightly lower cost in dollars, much higher cost in trouble and frustration.
posted by DU at 9:38 AM on May 6, 2011


computers are already vastly cheaper and more ubiquitous than when kids first starting messing around with them

True, but back when kids started messing around with Vic-20s, Apple IIs, TRS-80s, etc, (I'm thinking early 1980s), lots of computers booted up with into a Basic prompt instead of a GUI interface. You couldn't use one for anything unless you at least learned the fundamentals of operating systems, and to do anything really interesting, you needed to learn to program them yourself. Today's machines are certainly more nifty in all kind of ways, but they don't tend to be as friendly for programming newbies.

It was a possible to program directly to hardware with those machines, which is a great way to learn how it all works. I learned a lot about programming by writing code to put graphics on the screen by manipulating screen RAM and make sounds by writing byte values directly to the audio output port. Try doing that in Windows 7 (you could start here) .

Once upon a time, if you knew Z-80 assembler, and had a copy of Peter Norton's Programmers Guide to all of the BIOS calls, you could make a PC do just about anything. Ever delve into the .NET framework? We're talking orders of magnitude in complexity.

That had to change, of course, as software and hardware got more complex and users demanded more out of their machines. Still, as tools for learning programming, I think we've lost something that maybe a device like this would be useful.

You can put me down for a half-dozen or so.
posted by TwoToneRow at 10:19 AM on May 6, 2011


Seems kind of pointless to me if it requires a hub to interact with.

Hubs are dirt cheap. It is tidier to give it one usb port and expect a hub than to give it three usb ports.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:48 AM on May 6, 2011


TwoToneRow: s/Z-80/8086/, but sure.

The target market for this hardware seems weird: it's useful for people who do have access to a modern TV (and USB keyboard), but not access to a computer? Twenty-five years ago, that was a huge educational segment, and a generation learned to love programming on ZX81s and Apple-][s. But now? Wouldn't it be more effective to package and sell a CDROM containing a fun development environment (PyGame, say)? Possibly containing both a cygwin environment and a linux livecd? Sell it for $1, and there you go. Maybe I'm missing the point.
posted by hattifattener at 11:34 AM on May 6, 2011


I'd buy one. I have wanted a dirt cheap tiny computer for a while now. This could easily be turned into a single-use computing device by someone with even my limited hacking skills (read: I can google the directions if I get stuck but would be screwed if I needed to figure it all out on my own).

The advantage to something like this for instructional use is obvious to me - you could easily order a dozen for a roomful of kids, let them hack away, and not risk hurting the equipment. Take a room full of computers in any school, unplug the monitors and keyboards and plug these in for the duration of the class, the systems used for other instructional purposes are untouched while these take the abuse of kids poking around in the OS. A handful of cheap HDMI to DVI converters ought to make it simple to plug in the average monitor sold today.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:15 PM on May 6, 2011


Hubs are dirt cheap. It is tidier to give it one usb port and expect a hub than to give it three usb ports.

I disagree. You haven't made a keychain computer if it requires a USB hub whenever you want to use it. I've never used one in my life, so I'd guess you're not likely to find one in random locations unless you're carrying it with you.

Two USB ports + WiFi may make it bigger, but it would actually be more portable since it has no peripheral requirements besides a normal keyboard and mouse. Of course this all assumes it's getting its power from HDMI and not the hub in the first place. If not, then it seems extra useless to me.
posted by chundo at 3:15 PM on May 6, 2011


USB stick CPU? That's awesome, you can plug it right into the USB port on a real computer. But it doesn't have a serial port, so you can't hook it up to a Teletype ASR-33.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:14 PM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Seems kind of pointless to me if it requires a hub to interact with. Not much point in being able to carry it on your keychain if you also need to find a USB hub wherever you're going. Plus a USB network adapter, presumably. With all those peripherals it's quickly losing its portability.

Looking at the setup on the Raspberry Pi page, I'd guess that it can take a mouse or have an Internet connection, but it doesn't need to. The way the reportage talks about plugging a keyboard in rather than plugging a keyboard and mouse in suggests that the basic use case will be keyboard input. So, rather than this being equivalent to the live Linux distro on a USB stick, it's more like a basic programming environment that can then be customized for other peripherals.

This looks super hackable, which is nice, but in terms of its core use it looks like the intention is to have something totally separate from the central computer in a family home, which kids can plug into a TV and play with without anyone having to worry about them breaking a $1000 laptop. Or, one could add a cheap USB-connected touchscreen monitor, like these, to make a robust and inexpensive baby's first tablet...

"Baby's first tablet". What an amazing world.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:08 AM on May 7, 2011


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