The Ben NanoNote from Qi Hardware

The nanonote motif is the product of Qi Hardware, a company that founded by former licensees ofย  best Linux mobile os, OpenMoko with the aim of making a device as close as possible to the OpenSource philosophy (100% copyleft).

The profiled version of the NanoNote is an ultra-compact pocket PC. Equipped with a 336MHz processor, 2GB of flash memory, a microSD slot, a headset socket, a mini-USB port and a 850mAh Li-ion battery. It comes with Linux (OpenWRT) as standard, and targets developers and geeks who want the most open hardware possible and want to create their own user experience. The objective is therefore clear : it is not a device to be put in all hands, but rather the first step of creating a 100% free hardware. Moreover, the Chinese character ึƒึƒึƒ bฤ›n represents an origin or place of the beginning; it represents what is the first version of the NanoNote: a beginning.

The device can be considered a small UMPC, PDA or a very low-end smartbook.

The Ben NanoNote is somewhat reminiscent of the electronic dictionaries of the 90s, or the Zauri or their spiritual son, the sharp Netwalker, even if it is less powerful (and 5x cheaper) than the latter. We can see it on the specs.:

  • CPU / SoC 336 MHz XBurst Jz4720 MIPS compatible ;
  • TFT screen 3.0 inches colour ;
  • Resolution: 320 x 240, 16.7 M colors ;
  • Dimensions (mm): 99 x 75 x 17.5 (closed) ;
  • Weight: 126 g (with battery) ;
  • RAM: 32mb DRAM synchronous ;
  • Headphone jack (3.5 mm) ;
  • SDHC microSD ;
  • Battery 850mAh Li-ion ;
  • 2GB NAND flash memory ;
  • Mini-USB Port: USB 2.0 (USB device only)) ;
  • Speaker and microphone ;
  • QWERTY keyboard.

All hardware diagrams are available, as well as all the technical specifications of the components used in the Ben Nanonote, which is intended to be an open development platform, both software and hardware.

The NanoNote comes with a 2.6.32 kernel, the U-boot bootloader and an opensource router distribution well-known in the world of opensource routers. It is officially supported by the project in the OpenWrt-xburst target ! So the entire OpenWRT software library is accessible on the Ben NanoNote.

One of Qi Harwdare’s original ideas was to release a device to access Wikipedia in offline mode. We all know what happened with the WikiReader, released a few months ago at OpenMoko. But the Ben is much more, since it runs linux (not the wikireader), and thus has a much larger software potential. It can be used as an offline Wikipedia player, and much more!

The system-on-Chip of the NanoNote is made by Ingenic, a Chinese company that made itself known by initially making on the market multimedia players(PMP). The Xburst processor is an unlicensed MIPS core, i.e. it has been rewritten from the specification, and no royalties are paid to MIPS Technologies. It also has SIMD instructions, which makes it possible to speed up audio and video decoding, which is very useful for multimedia players.
One PMP in particular came out of the pack, the Dingoo A320. This one is closer to a GP2X thanks to its controls of video games, and its software ends well compared to the other Chinese PMP. Thanks to the sources provided by Ingenic, Linux was quickly ported to the dingoo, and Dingux was born.

Where this gets interesting is that the Dingoo and The Ben Nanonote are so close to specification that the entire dingux software library is binary compatible with the NanoNote.
Thus the creator of Dingux announced his willingness to collaborate with Qi Hardware at the kernel level. Zear, who wore several games and software, showed that Doom and Quake could turn on the Ben (without having the hardware!).

At the multimedia level, the processor has potential, but it is relatively untapped: Ingenic, provides a version of mplayer using the SIMD instructions of the Xburst, but these instructions are not officially documented. Sources are available, and the most enterprising hackers will try to add support for multimedia instructions in ffmpeg.

On the GUI side, GTK above DirectFB and Qt run on the Ben Nanote, but we won’t be able to run Firefox in 32MB of RAM. Another interface, gmenu2x, well known to GP2X owners, has been ported to dingux and therefore runs perfectly on the Ben NanoNote.

One can regret that the Ben does not have Wifi connectivity. It can be connected to a PC in usb mode Ethernet gadget and thus enjoy a connection, but this is less interesting without mobility.

The Ben could be seen at FOSDEM, a video is available, and a photo to compare in size with other devices. More photos by a happy geek who received it and unpacked it.

You can download the latest Xburst from Qi-Hardware here.


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