Tiny CHIP Computer, at $9, to Challenge Raspberry Pi

The minicomputer, being developed by Next Thing, includes an ARM-based chip, runs Linux and has drawn wide support through a Kickstarter campaign.

CHIP mini-PC

Minicomputers from the likes of Intel, Dell, Google and the Raspberry Pi Foundation could see even more competition from a small California company that is looking to build a $9 tiny computer that is getting massive support through a Kickstarter funding campaign.

The Next Thing Co., which builds the hackable OTTO GIF camera, had sought $50,000 through Kickstarter to launch the CHIP computer, which is about the size of a credit card and comes with an ARM-based 1GHz processor, 512MB of memory and 4GB of storage. With 25 days left in the fundraising drive, Next Thing has raised more than $717,000, as of May 11.

According to the company, the Linux-based CHIP computer will be able to do a wide range of computing tasks, from surfing the Internet (via Google Chromium) and checking email to playing games, editing and creating documents and working on spreadsheets (through LibreOffice), and playing video files (through LC Media Player). It also will include WiFi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity built in, will come preloaded with dozens of applications and the ability to run many of the thousands of open-source free apps on the market, and—for anyone interested in programming—will come integrated with Scratch, a development language that teaches the basics of programming, according to the company.

The CHIP computer also will come with an array of accessories. For example, PocketCHIP looks similar to a calculator and is designed to make the technology portable by housing it in a form factor that includes a 4.3-inch touch screen, a QWERTY keyboard and five-hour battery capabilities. In addition, the CHIP system can be easily removed.

It also includes a built-in composite output or can come with an adapter for VGA or HDMI connectivity.

Officials with Next Thing said in a note on the company Website that they'd worked a lot with Raspberry Pi, minicomputers that have been around for several years. The foundation behind Raspberry Pi in November 2014 announced the Model A+, which is smaller and more power-efficient than the original and comes with a price tag of $20.

"At Next Thing Co, we're hardware people who love hacking and prototyping on Raspberry Pi," the officials wrote on the site. "We know how much work it can be to get a Pi set up the way you want: fast, clean, and flexible. So, when we created OTTO, a hackable camera built on Pi, we put tons of effort into building the frameworks and systems we wish we'd always had when working on Raspberry Pi: 4-second boot times. Easy, reliable WiFi. Self-contained battery power and charging. Protected user program space. Even the ability to push code changes using Git."

On the Kickstarter site, they wrote that they "built C.H.I.P. to make tiny powerful computers more accessible and easier to use. A huge part of making C.H.I.P. accessible is making sure that it can change to meet the needs of the community. That's why both C.H.I.P. and PocketC.H.I.P. are both TOTALLY OPEN SOURCE. This means all hardware design files schematic, PCB layout and bill of materials are free for you the community to download, modify and use."

A growing number of vendors are building small computers that can be easily used and moved by customers. Intel (with its Compute Stick), Google (Chromecast dongle) and Amazon (Fire Stick) all have tiny PCs that can be plugged into a display—such as a TV or monitor—with an HDMI port, turning them into a complete PC with a full user experience.

Next Thing officials said alpha prototypes of the CHIP are due out in September, while the minicomputer will ship in December to backers who pledge $9 or more. The CHIP and various accessories will ship later to backers who gave more than the $9 minimum. For example, those 10 (so far) who have given $489 or more will get 10 PocketCHiPS—enough to supply a classroom or workshop "for less than the cost of a used PC," according to officials—and 10 CHIPs by around May 2016.