May 102015

Here Comes the $9 PCIf this is a computer, I’m Alexander the Great

Every few years, the tech media whips itself into a frenzy over some purportedly insanely cheap ‘computer’ that promises a utopia of capabilities – Play games, surf the web, watch videos, check e-mail, learn coding and do a gazillion other things.

In the early years of this century, the $200 Simputer was heralded as a miracle that would bring cheap PCs to every village and town in India.

Even the usually sober hacks at the New York Times fell hook, line and sinker for the Simputer yarn.

The most significant innovation in computer technology in 2001 was not Apple’s gleaming titanium PowerBook G4 or Microsoft’s Windows XP. It was the Simputer, a Net-linked, radically simple portable computer, intended to bring the computer revolution to the third world. The Simputer, officially unveiled last April and intended for mass production in India next March, is a small hand-held device designed for the rough conditions of rural India….. No training is required; there are no upgrades, no broadband and no planned obsolescence. It runs on batteries. This is computing as it would have looked if Gandhi had invented it, then used Steve Jobs for his ad campaign.

Then it was the turn of the $25 Raspberry Pi to hog the limelight.

Not too long ago, the $20 Aakash stole the thunder of the tablet world.

Despite all the publicity and low price, none of them went anywhere in terms of mass appeal.

But do we ever learn from our mistakes?

Today the $9 Linux computer CHIP is all the rage, following its wildly successful debut on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

Against a fund-raising target of $50,000, CHIP has received commitments for $556,300 from 11,062 backers (at the time of writing).

What is a PC

In the present era, when we say computer we really mean a PC.

At least, most of us average Joes think a computer means a PC.

If you accept the common-sense definition that a PC must include a display, a strong central processing unit (processor), adequate memory, reasonable amount of storage, operating system, WiFi, Bluetooth, keyboard, mouse, a browser, Ethernet slot and plays Netflix, then none of these cheap devices really qualify as PCs because they feature only some of the essential building blocks for a PC.

Once you begin adding the other building blocks, the price of a Raspberry Pie or CHIP quickly starts climbing.

These cheap Simputers, Raspberry Pi and CHIP boards are at best toys, like the old DIY gadgets from the 1970s, for hobbyists who have tons of time on their hands and love to tinker with electronic widgetry in their basements on hot Sunday afternoons.

The entrepreneurs behind CHIP tout their CHIP ‘computer’ as “Built for work, play, and everything in between!” In short, a computer for ALL purposes.

CHIP’s promoters are targeting their ‘computer’ at “students, teachers, grandparents, children, artists, makers, hackers, and inventors.” Wonder why they left infants and pets out of their target market?

Let’s consider the configuration for CHIP and see if it measures up to its bold claims.

CHIP – Configuration

* 1Ghz R8 ARM processor
* 512MB RAM
* 4GB storage
* USB port
* Bluetooth
* WiFi
* Linux OS
* Dozens (??) of applications and tools pre-installed

The good part – Linux, Bluetooth, WiFi and a USB port.

Alas, the bads are really bad.

Memory is anemic, storage is a joke and I have serious doubts about the processor’s capabilities.

Let’s get real and stop dicking around with words, shall we?

If CHIP is a computer then I’m Alexander the Great.

What you’ll get for $9 in December 2015 (delivery date) is a barebones CHIP and a composite cable.

Everything else is an add-on (VGA adapter, HDMI adapter, monitor, keyboard, mouse, battery, speakers, extra storage).

In my view, CHIP is merely a DIY thing for hobbyists like a Raspberry Pi or its clones.

To talk up this $9 toy as a computer is like hailing every kid who can spell physics as Einstein!

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