A solid device for wireless projects, but add-ons and shipping undermine its attention-grabbing price.
Next Thing Co’s CHIP computer, launched on the back of the Raspberry Pi’s success, met with scepticism when it landed on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. While the industry had praised the Raspberry Pi for being one of the first accessible single-board computers to retail for less than $30, here was a startup promising improved performance, more features and a smaller layout for only US$9.
With mass-production well under way, the sceptics have largely been silenced: Next Thing Co has produced a fully functional Raspberry Pi-like computer for $9. Sadly, you’ll have to spend more than that to get started.
The CHIP borrows from the Raspberry Pi playbook by requiring you to already own certain hardware if you want to do something like, say, switch it on. As with the Pi, you’ll need a USB keyboard, mouse, display device and a 5V micro-USB power supply. Herein lies the first issue: there’s no easily accessible video output on the CHIP. To cut costs,it uses a 3.5mm jack to provide a TRRS (tip-ring-ring-sleeve) analogue audio and composite video connection, and you’ll need to pick up an adapter cable ($5) to convert this to the more usual TV-compatible RCA.
If you want to use a monitor, the price jumps: a VGA adapter adds $10, more than the cost of the CHIP itself, while an HDMI adapter is available for $15.
Already, the $9 asking price of the CHIP has jumped to at least $14, and that’s before considering the board’s single USB 2 port. If you want to use the bundled software, a Debian Linux spin-off dubbed the CHIP OS that features a selection of pre-loaded applications, you’ll either need a single-receiver wireless keyboard and mouse set or a powered USB hub.
Although Next Thing Co is keen to point out that the CHIP can be used as a desktop-style computer – its performance proved acceptable for word processing, web browsing and simple games – the device will appeal most to hobbyists and tinkerers. Two 40-pin headers on the sides of the board provide general-purpose input/output (GPIO), double the number found on the Raspberry Pi, including digital display signals used by the optional VGA and HDMI adapters.
Coupled with the on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, something the Raspberry Pi only added in its third iteration, that should make the CHIP a powerful device for electronics projects. Sadly, the included software is unpolished. Using the GPIO pins from programming languages such as Python requires third-party libraries, and performance is patchy: toggling a single pin fluctuates from 2.3KHz to just 300Hz, far below the stable 88.5KHz even the cheapest Raspberry Pi Zero can achieve.
Raw performance isn’t everything, though, and the CHIP’s flexibility still lends itself well to hobbyist projects requiring internet connectivity. From remote sensor networks to driving a home alarm system, the CHIP’s GPIO pins are usable and couple well with the on-board JST header for an optional battery, should your project need to work entirely without wires. Projects on show in the official forums range from using a CHIP to build an Amazon Echo-style Alexa assistant to using the CHIP as a wireless NAS.
A great example of what can be achieved with a CHIP comes in the form of Next Thing Co’s PocketCHIP. Featuring a CHIP board at its heart, modified only in the software it runs, the PocketCHIP ($69, including CHIP) adds a full-colour resistive touchscreen, battery and a QWERTY keyboard to build a device that looks for all the world like it should have launched during the personal digital assistant (PDA) boom of the 1990s.
While there are things to dislike about the PocketCHIP, in particular a terrible metal-dome keyboard and the 480 x 272 resolution of its 4.25in display, there’s no denying it’s an inspirational creation. Moreover, with design files available under the same permissive licence as the CHIP itself, it’s possible to use the PocketCHIP as a jumping-off point for your own designs.
Whether the CHIP will see anything like the success of the Raspberry Pi is up in the air. The CHIP is slightly faster than a Pi Zero, but more expensive. It offers similar wireless connectivity to the Raspberry Pi 3 at a lower price, but it’s far slower. It will live or die, however, on the efforts of its community, the quality and breadth of which will only be revealed over time.