Computers used to be luxury devices that only the wealthy could afford, but now you can carry a phone in your pocket that’s many times more powerful than the computers that sent men to the moon. However, even the cheapest phones are still $50-100 thanks to the cost of licensing and cellular components. Developer Brian Benchoff wanted to see just how cheap a functional computer could be. He came up with the Minimum Viable Computer, a pocket-sized Linux box that could cost as little as $15.
Depending on what you expect a computer to have in order to be “viable,” you might be pleasantly surprised or completely uninterested in the MVP. It uses a simple two-layer PCB, integrated with an Allwinner F1C100s system-on-a-chip. Its single CPU core is clocked at a mere 533MHz, but it does have support for running modern versions of Linux. Don’t expect a GUI, though. This is a purely command line affair, as envisioned by Benchoff. It can run scripts, ping remote servers, and power a variety of USB devices. Also, there’s a physical keyboard.
The device features a split five-row orthogonal keyboard with a small 2.3-inch display in the middle. The screen has a resolution of 240 x 320, and it does not support touch. Can it run Crysis? No, but it does run Doom, which is bundled with the embedded Buildroot Linux OS. This is one of the many decisions made in order to keep the Minimum Viable Computer as cheap as possible. Another necessary concession is the battery. Shipping lithium-ion cells requires you to deal with additional regulatory and logistical hurdles, so Benchoff opted to go with a AAA NiMH cell.
I designed the ‘minimum viable computer’, a full Linux computer that fits in your pocket. It costs $15.https://t.co/P7F3Re1mGw
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— VT-69 (@ViolenceWorks) January 26, 2022
The board doesn’t have any wireless radios, but there is a standard USB-A port for peripherals. You can plug in a Wi-Fi adapter, a keyboard, external storage, and anything else the lsusb utility supports. However, to charge the device, you’ll have to use a separate USB-C port (that’s power only, no data). There’s also a microSD card slot for storage.
After adding up the bill of materials, Benchoff found the MVP would cost about $14.16, with the single largest expenditure being the PCB for $2. There is one catch, though. That price assumes you’re buying at least 10,000 of each component. Bulk purchasing is the only way to get electronic components this cheap, but that won’t be a problem if people express interest. Benchoff says he intends to make this project a reality, and anyone who wants to be included should reach out on Twitter.