We try recommending the best gadgets to our readers, especially those that offer the greatest value. Still, anyone shopping for a laptop or phone will need to be prepared to spend at least a few hundred bucks—even if that device is a Chromebook or a budget handset. What if there was another way?
Developer Brain Benchoff (who was formerly an editor at HackADay) wanted to find out how much he would need to spend to build a functional computer using the cheapest available parts. His creation, the “Linux Swiss Army Knife,” is a “minimum viable computer” that costs just $15 to make, Benchoff says.
Before you go selling your XPS 13, let me warn you that “Swiss Army Knife” is a rather generous description considering the Linux-based computer is only capable of running a command line and connecting to USB devices. It doesn’t have any radios and there is no plan to add a graphical user interface (GUI).
It, can, however, play Doom thanks to Buildroot, a tool used to create a Linux environment. And though you won’t be streaming Netflix or playing Halo Infinite on this miniature computer, some basic processing, and a functional 47-key silicone membrane keyboard open you to the endless possibilities of the Linux command line—heck, you can code it to be a crypto wallet or software-defined radio, for example.
As for the specs, the computer runs on an Allwinner F1C100s system-on-a-chip that consists of an ARM ARM926EJ-S processor running at 533MHz and 32MB of DDR memory. The IPS TFT screen is 2.3 inches with a 320 x 240-pixel resolution. There is a USB 2.0 input, a microSD card slot for 64GB of storage, two AAA NiMH batteries, and a USB-C for power and charging. All of this is housed in a two-piece plastic enclosure that snaps together without any tools.
The total bill for these components plus a few other bits comes out to just $14.16 with the most expensive part being the $2 printed circuit board. Better yet, everything needed to make this tiny computer is available despite the ongoing component shortage caused by the pandemic. There is some fine print, though: that price is only if you buy at least 10,000 of each component and get some heavy bulk pricing discounts in the process.
This first attempt was more a proof-of-concept than anything but Benchoff says there are plenty of ways it could be improved, like adding a larger screen, a bigger keyboard, and tinkering with the USB ports. He wants to make this project available to folks at some point but hasn’t specified when or how.