Really, a $9 Computer?

Category: Hardware

If you’re in the market for the cheapest PC you can buy, head on over to Kickstarter and plunk down just $9.00 for one of the first C.H.I.P. computers from the Next Thing Co. How much computer can you get for nine bucks? Read on...

Tiny Cheap Computers

We've come to think of a computer as a collection of objects including a video monitor, a keyboard and a mouse. But really, those are all extras. The actual computer is a circuit board with a CPU, memory, some assorted chips, and input/output ports that can be used to attach external devices that make the computer usable.

That's what C.H.I.P is all about. What you get for nine bucks is a circuit board, smaller than a credit card, studded with chips and a variety of input and output ports . There’s a 1 GHz ARM-based CPU with integrated Mali-400 graphics made by Allwinner, which builds low-cost processors for HP’s $100 Android tablet, the HP 7 G2.

Other chips hold 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB of flash storage. There’s a WiFi adapter on a chip and Bluetooth 4.0 on another. The biggest component is a bulging USB 3.0 port. A mini-USB port is used to receive AC or battery power. A composite video cable is also included in the base price, enabling rudimentary connection to a TV or analog monitor. Optional adapters for HDMI or VGA video will also be available.

The operating system is a variant of Debian Linux, so C.H.I.P. can run a wealth of free, open-source software including Web browsers, email clients, productivity suites such as Libre Office, and games. And of course, it can connect to the Internet to run any web-based app.

9 Dollar CHIP Computer

Now, you’ll need to buy, borrow, or beg a keyboard (USB or Bluetooth), a mouse, and whatever other input device(s) you need. You can connect a game controller or MIDI piano keyboard if you're a gamer or musician. Extra file storage can be added in the form of a USB drive. An enclosure of sorts can be constructed of cardboard, or you can build something fancier. (I'm surprised there isn't a design file for a 3-D printable case included.)

Teaching the basics of programming is one of C.H.I.P.’s main missions. It comes loaded with Scratch, a kid-friendly tutorial that uses stories, games, and animations to teach programming in a simplified language.

The Pocket C.H.I.P. turns your bare C.H.I.P. into a mobile computing device. Just plug the basic board into the Pocket C.H.I.P. chassis and go. The Pocket C.H.I.P. includes a tactile-feedback QWERTY keyboard, 4.3” touchscreen, and a 3.7v battery with 3,000 mAH capacity that lasts 5 hours, according to Next Thing.

Who is Behind This Gadget?

9 Dollar CHIP Computer

The C.H.I.P. Kickstarter campaign had a goal of $50,000. But as of this writing, contributions have soared past $1.6 million. The campaign ends on June 6, 2015, and the C.H.I.P devices will start shipping in December, 2015.

The geeks behind Next Thing and C.H.I.P. have a track record of success with bare-bones, low-cost computers. They created the OTTO programmable digital camera, which is based upon the $35 Raspberry Pi “tiny computer.” OTTO gives users complete control over how it operates; there’s even a gallery of user-created “modes” that can be downloaded to a smartphone and implemented on one’s OTTO.

It's notable that the C.H.I.P. is completely open source, which means that the hardware design schematic, the printed circuit board layout and the bill of materials are freely available for anyone to examine, use and modify.

C.H.I.P., Raspberry Pi, Otto, and similar bare-bones devices are not for everyone. They’re tools that enable creation of solutions; like a saw or a lathe, you need to learn how to use the tool effectively. But learning is one of the joys of life, as is building things that no one ever thought of before. If you like to tinker, or know a youngster who does, you may be interested in the C.H.I.P.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Really, a $9 Computer?"

Posted by:

Mark Roy
22 May 2015

I entered the world of computing programming a Sinclair ZX80. Surprising it has taken nearly 40 years to get to this .. but glad it's here!

Posted by:

Walter T
22 May 2015

I looked into this project, and was all set to support it, but then I found out that mailing this $9 credit-card sized computer to Canada would add $20 to the cost.

Posted by:

Mac 'n' Cheese
22 May 2015

Love it! It reminds me of the "cat's whisker" AM radios we built as kids, using some wire, an empty toilet paper roll, and a pair of earphones. Shucks, they didn't even require a battery.

Good report, Bob! (So, Bob, are YOU building one? Is that YOURS in the photo, with the red arrow?)


Posted by:

Joe M
22 May 2015

I was considering a raspberry pi as a video player to play video files from my home NAS, but didn't want to spend the money. This might just fit the bill with the composite - hdmi adapter!

Posted by:

22 May 2015

I have a technical question about repairing computers. If I was going into the Computer Repair business and was going to buy some Hardware Diagnostic equipment. And I only had money to purchase one of 2 devices. Which would you choose?

1. A FixMESTIK Pro. Which removes Viruses and Malware for Customers. $289.00. 2.System Checkup Portable Toolkit. for $201.00. Not a trick question. The answer lies in what breaks down the most?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Neither! All the tools you need are free. See these links:

Posted by:

22 May 2015

Thanks for the info Bob. I'll check out possible applications in my neck of the woods. It may be very useful for those at the lowest end of the stick. And make them knowledgeable. The keyboard is mightier than the sword! Could that be the new expression?

Posted by:

23 May 2015

My first computer was a Commodore 64, which consisted of--a keyboard! (A bit more than this CHIP, but, then, I wasn't so technically advanced in those days.) This looks intriguing.

Posted by:

23 May 2015

Just ordered (I mean pledged) one about two weeks ago. I really like these inexpensive SoC computers.

I started with the original Raspberry Pi B (I say original, because, before it had 4 ports). The first thing I made was a printer server. I was so happy with it that I bought another one. Then I heard about the Arduino, so I got one as well. Turns out you need a lot more to get it working. Then the Raspberry Pi 2 B came out and bought those, replacing my original Raspberry Pis, but alas, now it is MicroSD and original was SD, so I had to get new cards. Raspbian is still slow, but way faster than the original.

On the new Pi 2, I'm teaching my son programming. The only downside is that I am a Linux/Solaris/Windows system administrator and not quite used to the GUI in Raspbian so do everything via terminal. The down side is that my son gets lost, which I just type commands in on muscle memory.

Now here is another opportunity. But in the end it is not really cheaper than a Raspberry Pi, when you have to get the HDMI to make is the same as a Pi, and shipping kills the price advantage. But I don't care, can't wait to get it.

Posted by:

Andrew Hicks
23 May 2015

This sounds great for home automation!

Just add one or two relays and sensors, create the right software, and you've got a local control station.

I'm hoping I can get it without the composite video cable - it would save on shipping to Australia.

Posted by:

27 May 2015

Sure, it will kind of do what a PC will do if all you need is a low performance browser. And have all those other parts handy. When you add all of that kit, pretty close to the nearest tablet+keyboard or Chromebook.

Bob's not clear on whether the distro and all of that software comes with, or whether you have to use your existing computer to download some or all then figure out the transfer. Probably somebody else has started to package all of this.

But if you mostly want to teach programming, and show it on a TV? Then a Commodore 64, available for literally decades for under $20 at thrift stores, had BASIC built in, available Pascal, C, Logo, Forth, and FORTRAN, and all the tutorials in the world written for its millions of adherents. Hope you weren't waiting, withholding beginning teaching your kids to hack, for the arrival of the C.H.I.P. Or use any of hundreds of "learn to program" packages out there on your no extra cost at all existing PC. (Cred given to poster mentioning Sinclair ZX!) Point is that hanging the purchase of any computer on a $9 price point is significant to very few. And still highly dependent on having someone to support the new user.

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