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The AnyTop

The laptop that *anyone* can build!

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The AnyTop is a portable computer that almost anyone can build.

Strictly speaking, the name is a bit misleading. It is not /technically/ a laptop, at least in the conventional sense, because laptops-in-the-conventional-sense always come with a battery (whether or not the battery actually works is another matter entirely!), which the AnyTop lacks for rather ugly technical reasons... on the other hand, the last portable computers commonly available without batteries were called "luggables" and were basically desktop cases with integrated monitors and a carrying handle... strong muscles, like the battery, were not included...

Assembly of the AnyTop requires exactly /one/ tool -- a reasonably sharp blade of some sort -- ideally an "exacto" style hobby knife, or a pair of wire strippers that has a cutting feature -- but anything from a straight razor to first-world-grade-school-don't-run-down-the-hall-with-them-Danny kid scissors will work.

The AnyTop is a minimal portable computer for anyone and everyone. If you are old enough to be trusted with a pair of scissors, you are old enough to build an AnyTop. Anyone in the world can build it, as long as they can receive electronic components through some sort of shipping company. There is only one tool absolutely required -- a sharp blade for cutting and stripping wire, and for cutting double-sided foam tape. Strictly speaking, it can be built almost entirely without the use of even a blade (I still strip wires with my teeth... don't do it, kids, my mouth's a mess), although one's dental condition will suffer gratuitously. Almost any blade will do, from kid scissors to a straight razor to an "exacto" hobby knife to a switchblade or survival knife. Pinking shears and hand saws will not work... but almost anything else will. If you're lucky enough to have a Swiss Army Knife somewhere, you're all set and then some -- especially if it's one of the multi-tool ones.

Additional tools which help but are most certainly not required are a set of screwdrivers or a bit set and driver (a long flathead, for prying, and a short Phillips, in the event that the screen comes with a case kit, would be the most that's needed), a soldering iron and the skills to use it (for joining wires), and a drill of some sort (for taking the rivets out of a three-ring binder).

This project is really two parts -- a set of instructions that anyone in the world can follow to buy and build an AnyTop from its constituent components, and a proof-of-concept build of the computer itself to demonstrate that such a machine can be constructed and turn out functional.

The instructions are the essential core of the project, and -- given sufficient time and potential resources -- I will look at various ways of making them available worldwide in some manner, such that anyone, anywhere in the world, with access to either a printer and the Internet or a mailing service of some sort, can receive a hardcopy version of the instructions. If they are resourceful enough, even someone in whatever's left of downtown Damascus ought to be able to build one of these things. (Note that, at least currently, a destination of downtown Damascus will require some serious international networking skills on the part of the builder, unfortunately -- and I can't really help that -- but it /is/ theoretically doable, if they can get together enough people to accomplish smuggling the parts across certain international borders and into the city.)

There are really two important parts of "good instructions" here -- only one of which is availability. The other is interpretability. I cannot guarantee that everyone who receives these has any idea what English even is... they may only be literate in their own local language. (Obviously, a computer is not very useful to someone who is entirely illiterate.) Yet, they still need to be able to read and understand the instructions. This can be accomplished basically two different ways -- written instructions that are then hand- or machine-translated into multiple languages (which is limited by the languages available to translate into), or by not using language at all. I think I can do it the second way, which is also simpler and easier in one sense -- I don't have to even think about maintaining multiple instruction sets. If I can construct a set of diagram-based instructions that are universally understandable, I'm all set...

...and that is, in fact, the ultimate goal. A set of universally-comprehensible instructions, which nearly anyone can follow, to produce their own portable computer.

  • 1 × Sharp-edged cutting tool Don't poke your eyes out, though.
  • 1 × 3-Ring Binder Rip out the rings
  • 1 × Computer system unit or small thin client adapted to desktop use, or bare motherboard with CPU and RAM... anything from a smallish MicroATX board on down will do.
  • 1 × Small LCD (7-10" diagonal) and controller, compatible with system unit For a MiniPC or "Compute Stick"/clone, a RasPi 7" HDMI display works nicely. Otherwise, netbook screen with controller board from eBay is probably cheapest.
  • 1 × Compact keyboard, compatible with system unit Should match your local language's standard keyboard layout, or the nearest such layout

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  • Just a quick update...

    Starhawka day ago 0 comments

    ...to say that not much happened today. I slept especially poorly last night (again) and while I tried to work a little on instructions, I didn't get very far.

    All the parts have arrived for the prototype, though. I'll be putting that together in the next few days, maybe... I'm kind of torn, because I want to test out the directions that way -- but I can't test them out with all the permutations I want to. I don't have enough parts... I guess I could do a mock build for all but one. They don't have to work properly once assembled, to prove that assembly works -- and (lucky me) I'm friends with the owner of a local tech shop, so I can get some busted parts if I need to.

    I might just do that...

  • Talking Parts: Chassis

    Starhawk2 days ago 0 comments

    Let's start the componentry discussion. I'm sure both of you dudes/dudettes following the project want to know about the intricate variations in every possible way of how this thing can go together, and in positively excruciatingly fine detail at that.

    ...yeah, right. [insert "rolleyes" smiley here]

    More seriously, though, it's worth expounding on the parts at least a /little/. There are design considerations here. For now, let's look at the chassis, since that's the most important and basic part, at least in a sense -- everything attaches to the chassis.

    The object I chose for the chassis was inspired by a photoset I found on Google Images, posted to Imgur here --> https://imgur.com/gallery/mOyf8

    (Full Disclosure: as I am a member of the Imgur community, I posted a comment to that album -- mine is the comment about cooling.)

    Strangely, until then, the idea of placing the guts of a computer in or on a three-ring binder somehow had not occurred to me. This is very strange, since it's almost perfect for what I want to achieve here. The hinge is already in place and (as long as one doesn't spring for the ultra-cheap ones made of thin awful bendy plastic sheets) the rest is fairly sturdy. The only thing is that you need to toss the three-ring mechanism, which, as it turns out, is extremely easy. Give it a solid yank and it will come right out, rivets and all!

    Suitable binders (the kind with thin PVC or whatever over cardboard) are also incredibly easy to find... Dollar Tree has them (I can't speak to Poundland in the UK, or equivalents in Europe, sorry), Wal-Mart has them, nearly everyone but the grocery store has them. A one-inch model will do fine in most cases.

    The key, again, is that the sides have to be sturdy and rigid. If you get one with floppy, saggy sides -- congratulations, you just wasted 88¢ or so on a piece of $#!* that won't work here.

    The other thing is that the hinges don't have a travel limit. This is easy to fix -- a simple folding flap of cardboard on the back of the binder props it up just fine. It's not like this thing is water-resistant anyhow...

  • An update, in the miscellaneous sense...

    Starhawk09/17/2017 at 18:20 0 comments

    I was going to start delving into the various factors and considerations for part selections, one at a time, but I haven't been sleeping well lately (well, okay, I haven't had a genuine good night's sleep in probably a couple decades -- but lately it's been particularly bad) and my caffeination levels are not sufficiently high enough to compensate right now...

    ...so you get this update instead.

    I've put up a list of parts... it's purposely vague because of all the variations that can go into this thing and yet have it still come out just fine.

    System units can go all the way from a hipster-chic Mac Mini (old or new) through to a RasPi (not recommended for horsepower reasons) or a bare MicroATX or smaller motherboard with CPU and RAM (not recommended for durability reasons) -- heck, one could strip down an old netbook or small laptop and use the guts of that for the thing, if one wanted to do so. Seriously.

    Screens can be an old laptop/netbook screen with an eBay controller, or (if the cable's long enough) even driven by the original old laptop or netbook. In the proof-of-concept build, I'm using a screen module intended for a RasPi. It's got touch capability (capacitive) which I'm not using because I neither need it nor care about it.

    The whole setup is like this, down to the power supply -- while the proof-of-concept uses a single-voltage supply (five volts output, and it pulls probably around four amps of the six that the supply can supply) -- a LaCie "Bigger Disk" brick is great if you've got a repurposed thin client or super-low-spec box on there, such that some things need 12v and some need 5v. Or, if you need some beef to your supply, weird-$#!* Dell small-form-factor supplies are good for that... just watch your cable lengths.

    ...and I'm really only touching on the highlights of each of those items, here. There's plenty more to say on each -- and those aren't the only components in the list, either...

    But that's for later.

    In the meantime, I got another part in. I ordered two special MicroUSB cables; they're supposedly two-conductor 18awg inside (the data lines are unconnected, as I understand it) and intended for 2a fast-charge purposes. Time will tell as to how much of a ripoff (or not) they were. I'll be using one for the power cable to the LCD. Why I ordered /two/ I'm really not sure of -- for now I'm chalking it up to a brain fart -- I really do only need one. Oh well. No photo this time, since the cables don't look any different from your average round-cable MicroUSB cable...

    Oh, and I've kind of hit a stumbling block with the instructions... I think I have it figured, but it /could/ present a problem. I need to convey color information, but I can't rely on people having access to a color printer... and, as stated earlier, I really don't want to use language in the instructions. I have two ideas -- one, point to parts of a rainbow, and two, include instructions that basically indicate to write the names of the colors down next to the places where such colors are indicated. Both ideas are sort of questionable, though, in terms of utility -- can anyone suggest anything better...?

  • Mailbag Time...

    Starhawk09/13/2017 at 20:16 0 comments

    Here's what's arrived in the mail so far... not pictured, a pair of three-ring binders I got (one at Dollar Tree, one at Wal-Mart) and a roll of 3M Scotch double stick foam tape. What *is* pictured is... the power brick, a powered USB hub and its 'wall wart' power supply, the keyboard, and the display and its associated accessories (cables, a microfiber cloth, and a CD and some mounting hardware that will not be necessary for this project).

    Hub in box...

    Hub not in box...LCD and peripherals (shiny!)...

    LCD upside-down and peripherals...


    Power brick with cloverleaf-style cord, and keyboard...


    That's it for now, but I'll keep everyone posted... next up (later!) will be some yammering about component selection -- /what/ to buy, rather than where and how to buy it.

  • On ordering and receiving things from various places through the questionable magic of eBay

    Starhawk09/13/2017 at 20:08 0 comments

    I confess to ordering all the parts I needed for the AnyTop proof-of-concept build before creating the project formally on Hackaday[dot]io. Several components had to come from China for economical reasons (I have been rather unsuccessful in my attempts to grow a literal dollar tree from coins in the ground... just kidding, I'm not that stupid).

    Let's talk about that -- ordering from Far Far Away on eBay -- for a minute, actually, because there's something of an art to it.

    Upon perusing eBay, if you're good enough with the keywords (or bad enough, depending on one's perspective and goals), you'll see a lot of cheap trinkets come up that are shipped from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, or Malaysia. My first piece of advice: ignore anything from the last three places. Only purchase from China or Hong Kong, if you're going to purchase directly from Asia to begin with. There's a reason for this, and it has to do with shipping.

    There are essentially three shipping services available from China and Hong Kong, and only really one from Taiwan/Singapore/Malaysia/etc. Unfortunately, the one common to all five countries is the /worst/ of the services -- I call it the "someday maybe" service.

    Let's go over /that/ service first. It's typically labeled simply as "Economy Shipping" on eBay, although sometimes it pops up as "Economy Shipping from China/Japan/Hong Kong". If you see the word "economy" in the shipping category, you're getting the "someday maybe" service, and you're in for a real trip. This shipping option takes one to three /months/ for your gadget or trinket or whatever to wend its way from Asia to America... /if/ it arrives at all! There is neither tracking nor any official guarantee that what you ordered will ever actually show up. After forty-five days of tapping your foot for a package that will never show, you can go back to the eBay seller, and if they're nice, they'll send you a replacement... but they'll send it the exact same way, because eBay sellers in Asia make Uncle Scrooge look positively generous with his money...

    On the other end of the scale is "EMS" -- which is usually labeled as "Expedited Shipping" for somewhere between us$20 and us$35... tending towards the higher end of the scale. I've never used this service, given the truly exorbitant expenditure it requires, but my understanding is that it's something like USPS' Priority Mail Express (formerly known as Express Mail) where they get it to you pretty much as fast as they can without flying over your house and dropping it out the back of the plane on their way by.

    If neither of these services sound terribly awesome to you -- you'll be fine, because China Post has one trick up its sleeve that no other postal service in the world seems to have -- yet. (The rest of the world -- especially here in the US -- ought to get on that, you're getting your butts all collectively kicked by China here, badly...) It's called ePacket, and it's /fantastic/. Most sellers, even if they don't offer it in the listing, will send you your trinket ePacket if you "Contact Seller" and ask nicely. Some will refuse unless the merch is worth a certain amount (usually us$5) and all will tack on the extra charge (usually us$2) -- but /most/ sellers will do this without too much haggling.

    ePacket is cheap as dirt (as I said, it runs about us$2 an item, sometimes less) and it has both tracking and a guarantee that your item will show up in usually somewhere around ten to fourteen calendar days. Sometimes sellers will drag their feet (I can't count how many times I've had to bug a seller for printing the shipping label and then not actually shipping the package, multiple days after I've paid up...) but that's largely a cost of doing business, and if you're paying...

    Read more »

  • ...and so it begins.

    Starhawk09/12/2017 at 22:39 0 comments


    I will upload a concept image and flesh out the remaining details later. I've already ordered the parts for the proof-of-concept build; a couple have even arrived. I will take photos of those and upload that later as well.

    Wish me luck, everybody. I think I might need it.

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Martian wrote 6 days ago point

Nice. Reminds me of something similar I saw with a Raspberry Pi:

http://www.geeky-gadgets.com/dragonfruit-raspberry-pi-2-04-12-2015/

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Starhawk wrote 6 days ago point

The original inspiration was the DIY laptop I made, which got featured on the blog side of HaD, in its original (Pi-based) configuration. Right now it's rocking a MiniPC that's the same sort I'll be using for the proof-of-concept build here -- a Sunchip Tech WinTel CX-W8.

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Richard Hogben wrote 6 days ago point

Nice sketch, is it going to run windows 10?

  Are you sure? yes | no

Starhawk wrote 6 days ago point

Replying on phone, plz excuse brevity & typos.

The unfortunate thing about those MiniPCs and "Compute Stick" clones, is that if you drop Linux on them, you lose audio, WiFi, and BT. Ubuntu 17.10 I hear will have a kernel that supposedly fixes all that - but to top it all off, the systems have 32bit UEFI even tho they're 64bit everywhere else. So installing the OS itself is a major pain in the ***, even before you get to driver support. Not to mention that Ubuntu 17.10 has a release date just days after the end of this part of the contest...

So, since Win10 is what these boxes come with - that's what one gets... much to my disgust.

  Are you sure? yes | no

Richard Hogben wrote 6 days ago point

Heh not trying to give you a hard time about windows :) The sketch just surprised me. Seems like projects jump straight to Linux, which you pointed out can sometimes become more of a hinderance than a help.

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Starhawk wrote 6 days ago point

Very true!

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