The beautiful laptop that you see before you, called Project Novena, was built from scratch. Because its creators have open-sourced the laptop’s blueprints, you can even build a Novena yourself — if you had a lot of time, money, and technical expertise, anyway. In keeping with the laptop’s open computing roots, even the motherboard was designed and created from scratch. Inside the laptop, which was created specifically for hardware hacking, there’s a whole range of goodies: an FPGA on the motherboard, dual Ethernet sockets, a USB OTG port — and again, due to the open-source requirement, a Freescale iMX6 quad-core ARM CPU. The build took more than a year and a half to complete.
Built by Sean “xobs” Cross and Bunnie Huang, Project Novena is truly a wonder to behold. We’ve seen a lot of DIY desktops and case mods, but laptops — because of their smaller form factor and non-standard parts — are very rare indeed. Open source DIY laptops are almost unheard of. In this case, “open source” means two things: The blueprints for the custom circuit boards (the motherboard and battery board) are available on the Project Novena wiki, and where possible Xobs and Bunnie tried to use components that had complete and NDA-free documentation. That’s why they chose the Freescale iMX6 CPU — unlike most CPUs, you can simply hit up the Freescale website and download an almost-complete 6,000-page programming manual. If you wanted to get your hands on Intel’s internal documentation, you would need to sign a lot of paperwork. (Read: GoFlow: a DIY tDCS brain-boosting kit.)
Here’s how Novena’s hardware specs break down: A quad-core Freescale iMX6 (Cortex-A9) ARM CPU, Vivante GC2000 GPU (one of the few parts requiring a non-open-source binary), a Micro SD slot that the system boots from, one DDR3 SODIMM RAM slot, a mini-PCIe slot, and an mPCIx slot for mobile data cards. Because this laptop was created specifically for hardware hacking, there are more ports and connectors and controllers than you can ever imagine. On the motherboard there are: Internal speaker connectors, a built-in microphone, a three-axis accelerometer, a header for a WiFi module, a HDMI socket, SD card reader, USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet and standard 100Mbps Ethernet, USB OTG (on-the-go), and a Xilinx Spartan-6 CSG324 FPGA with high-speed I/O expansion header for doing… well, just about anything.
Battery-wise, a separate daughtercard is used, allowing for standard RC-enthusiast lithium-polymer battery packs to be plugged in. These batteries are designed to be quick-charging (no one likes waiting hours for their RC car or quadcopter to recharge), allowing for 7-8 hours of run-time from a 1-hour charge on a 45 watt-hour battery. Due to the flexible interface, though, you could happily swap-in a 100 watt-hour battery if you so wished (and keep spare batteries in your bag, ready to go). [See: Facebook, ARM, x86, and the future of open computing.]
Finally, there’s a 13-inch 2560×1700 (239 ppi) display (which can be switched out for something else if you prefer), a standard laptop keyboard (with a nipple; no touchpad), an aluminium alloy frame (light and strong), paper laminate for interior structure, and — the best bit — the outside of the laptop is wrapped in genuine leather. “I love that my laptop smells of leather when it runs,” says Bunnie. The laptop, of course, runs Linux.
Bunnie and Xobs don’t give an exact cost for their prototype laptops, but I’d estimate that they cost at least $ 1,500 each — probably more, once you factor in the FPGA, and the cost of having the logic boards manufactured. Consider that it cost over a year and a half of their time, too (though, now that they’ve done the hard work and open-sourced the blueprints, it would take you a lot less time to make your own). You may also be interested to hear that, following a lot of praise from hackers, Bunnie and Xobs are planning to build and sell a simplified version of Novena via a crowdfunding campaign. We’ll keep you updated.