This ‘minimum viable computer’ might cost just $15

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Computers were once luxury devices only the wealthy could afford, but now you can carry a phone in your pocket far more powerful than the computers that put men on the moon. However, even the cheapest phones still cost between $50 and $100 thanks to the cost of licenses and cellular components. Developer Brian Benchoff wanted to see how cheap a working computer could be. It came with the Minimum Viable Computer, a pocket Linux box it could cost as little as $15.

Depending on what you expect a computer to be “viable”, you might be pleasantly surprised or completely disinterested in the MVP. It uses a simple two-layer circuit board, integrated with an Allwinner F1C100s system-on-chip. Its single CPU core is clocked at just 533 MHz, yet it supports modern versions of Linux. Don’t expect a GUI, though. This is a purely command-line affair, as Benchoff envisions. It can run scripts, ping remote servers, and power a variety of USB devices. Additionally, there is a physical keyboard.

The device has a five-row split orthogonal keyboard with a small 2.3-inch screen in the middle. The screen has a resolution of 240 x 320 and does not support touch. Can it run Crysis? No, but that Is it that run Doom, which comes with the built-in Linux Buildroot operating system. This is one of 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, which is why Benchoff opted for an AAA NiMH cell.

The board has no wireless radios, but there is a standard USB-A port for peripherals. You can plug in a Wi-Fi adapter, keyboard, external storage, and anything the lsusb utility supports. However, to charge the device, you’ll need to use a separate USB-C port (it’s power only, no data). There is also a microSD card slot for storage.

After adding the BOM, Benchoff discovered that the MVP would cost around $14.16, with the biggest expense being the PCB for $2. There is however a catch. This price assumes you purchase at least 10,000 of each component. Buying in bulk is the only way to get such cheap electronic components, but it won’t be a problem if people express their interest. Benchoff says he intends to make this project a reality, and anyone who wants to be included should reach out on Twitter.

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