Developing free hardware using Vivaldi and Improv as examples

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Modular Design

After further failed negotiations, the project team decided that they would design the motherboard themselves to ensure that the product met their specifications. This decision meant plenty of extra work but also a significant increase in freedom. It meant that the board components would be defined by them and that the component layout of the mainboard would be freely available.

One outcome that should not be underestimated is the mainboard's modular design. In the Improv, memory and CPU sit piggybacked under the board and can thus be easily replaced. Meanwhile, Seigo, as he describes in his blog [9], also learned to ask the right questions to the manufacturers. The new mainboard design was created together with the Rhombus Tech [10] company and is manufactured by QiMod Technology [11].

After the first mainboard prototype appeared in the spring of 2013, Seigo declared that Vivaldi would be a vastly better tablet than the Spark of the previous year. The PCB design is built around the EOMA-68 [12] (Embedded Open Modular Architecture) CPU card. It measures about 8x5 centimeters, is reminiscent of the 68-pin terminal block of a PCMCIA card (Figure 4), and corresponds to its form factor in many other ways.

Figure 4: The EOMA68-68 is very similar in shape and connections to a PCMCIA card. (Photo: MPL)

Meanwhile, sitting on the EOMA-68 board as a CPU is a 1.2 GHz-clocked Allwinner A10 System on Chip (SoC). Also, the piggyback board houses the RAM, the 8G integrated storage unit, Ethernet chips and the SD card. The sole closed-source component of the CPU is the OpenGL stack – until the Lima driver [14] becomes suitable for production use.

A Step Forward

Early last summer, the team prepared a YouTube video showing the EOMA-68 card running Debian "Wheezy" [15]. At the end of November, Seigo presented the Improv motherboard that MPL was to deliver in January of this year (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Improv board with DIL connectors. (Photo: MPL)

Improv is a developer board with an Allwinner A20 SoC [16] and Mer preinstalled with a KDE Plasma desktop. The whole thing is based on the very EOMA-68 design that was supposed to form the heart of the Vivaldi tablet. The idea behind Improv is that the kit should provide a tool for the makers' scene, whereby new hardware projects could be launched and developers could be helped with professional planning, implementation, and marketing.

Improv includes, apart from the actual CPU board with a 1-GHz ARM dual-core processor, 1GB RAM, 4GB internal memory and a MicroSD card reader. The CPU board sits on a motherboard that provides I/O interfaces for USB, HDMI, SATA, and VGA as well as a dual inline package (DIL) plug connector with 44 pin connectors.

Unfortunately, to date, the boards have not been delivered to first adopters; the orders were considerably fewer than anticipated, whereupon the private investments of the MPL team ran out. The KDE community is running a fundraiser [17] to recoup the costs of producing the board. A KDE webpage [18] also informs the community about the need for open hardware standards and asks for support. Donations above the needed US$ 125,000 will be invested in Improv boards for use in education.

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