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Where Can You Buy Cheap, Tiny Motherboards? 60

Posted by Cliff
from the smaller-the-better dept.
Adam Ernst asks: "I'm trying to build a low-end tablet PC type device for giving tests to students in a classroom. The touch screen TFT wasn't hard to get and the WiFi shouldn't be too hard either, but the most difficult part has been finding a motherboard! I tried Via's Mini-ITX, but it was too tall at about 1.5 inches. The motherboard needs to be just three quarters of an inch tall; the length and width can't exceed 8 inches each, but the smaller the better. No fans allowed--this has to be silent. The -only- requirements feature-wise are that it is able to connect to a TFT-LCD, has either USB, CompactFlash, or PCMCIA for WiFi, and has enough power to run Red Hat or SuSE (the only Linuxes my IDE supports). No ports, no ethernet, not even sound. Preferably it would take straight power (just one wire in and one out, at some set voltage) so I don't have to mess with power circuits. Of course, the most important factor of all is cost, since it's for schools (preferably less than $100 in small quantities ~90 units)."
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Where Can You Buy Cheap, Tiny Motherboards?

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  • Soekris Engineering? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Check out this site:

    http://www.soekris.com/

    They could probably build you a board, though it will not be less than $100.

    Good luck.. I am looking for a similar board though I need 4 serial ports on mine.
  • What after after you add in RAM? You will have to find something that will hold memory parallel with motherboard. Good luck brother...

    I think your only hope is motherboards for laptops.
    • Yep. Know where I can get laptop motherboards, in quantity, for cheap?
      • RMA.......look for a used laptop distributor, might have a problem with finding consistency of model. I work for a used pc distributor and our focus isn't laptops, but even still we've got plenty of salvageable odds and ends...if you're willing to pay for them, I'm sure a big enough distibutor would be able to come up with something.

        Also, there's companies out there making custom laptops these days. Surely you'd be able to buy parts from them at the right price.
    • What after after you add in RAM? You will have to find something that will hold memory parallel with motherboard.

      The only memory modules I've ever seen that fit this description are SO-DIMMs. As far as I know, these are only used in laptops and embedded systems. Definitely not in a generic motherboard that you'll be able to use for building a cheap homebrew system.

      I'll have to agree here that a laptop motherboard is your only viable alternative for getting something down to a 3/4" profile.

      Assuming

  • PC104 (Score:5, Informative)

    by bpb213 (561569) <bpbyrne AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday August 12, 2003 @06:54PM (#6680630)
    The smallest motherboards I know about are the PC104 solutions.

    Ive actually been compiling a small start off list, as I was researching them for robots.

    http://www.advantech.com/products/sub_category.a sp ?Category_ID=1-D6LBY
    http://www.bwi.com/

    Also, I have various manufacturers of small form factor PCs that might be worth looking into (last ditch effort, ask where they get parts, or glue the lcd to one of them):

    http://www.iwillusa.com/products/ProductDetail.a sp ?vID=179
    http://www.norhtec.com/products/index.ht ml
    http://www.openbrick.org/
    http://www.littlepc .com/

  • Two options (Score:3, Informative)

    by pyrofenix (586285) on Tuesday August 12, 2003 @06:56PM (#6680660) Homepage
    You can either find yourself a damaged laptop off ebay and strip the parts out of it that you need or you can get yourself a soekris board [soekris.com] - downside of those are that it's going to cost about $150 each... Good luck.
  • Ummm... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Tyrdium (670229) on Tuesday August 12, 2003 @06:59PM (#6680679) Homepage
    Hold on... You'll be giving tests to kids on these and you're equipping them with Wi-Fi? That's just asking for cheating... What kind of test are you giving? Chances are, you could give it without the need for Wi-Fi, and probably without the need for a computer (also the cheapest solution)...
    • Re:Ummm... (Score:2, Informative)

      by adam1234 (696497)
      Yes, I know that cheating is a problem. This motherboard is to be used with a proprietary testing solution that randomizes the order of the questions, the order of the choices, and locks down the computer to prevent use of messaging etc.

      Adam Ernst
      • Ah... I didn't know what the test setup would be... I seem to recall stackable modules that were about two inches square, but I don't remember what they were called... Sorry!
      • What is the IDE you are using? If you gave that up, would you be capable of writing the testing system to a CUI screen? Ncurses might be good enough for your purposes if graphics are not absolutely required. After all even a 386 makes a decent text terminal.I think that might open up your choices a bit with lower power but also smaller and lower cost embedded devices.
    • If he is using a touchscreen for input it may make the cheating a bit more difficult - I doubt there would be much typing involved with the touchscreen, more likely just a multiple choice selection, so the immediate problem would be finding a method for getting input into the system. Not impossible of course, just more difficult.

      Although the encryption on the Wi-Fi would have to be fairly strong otherwise the next class period's students would have a good time trying to intercept all the exam questions and
    • I realize it's cool, and probably convenient, but why not just go for something with a flash card, or a small memory buffer and interface port where the student can sign out the device in his/her name (and get a small upload of the test) - do the test - and re-dock+upload the answers?
  • by KurdtX (207196) on Tuesday August 12, 2003 @07:13PM (#6680771)

    Sorry, I don't have a web address for them, but I know they have exactly what you're looking for - cheap, thin, low power, no ports, and is very flexible in terms of what you can do with it. I think they called it "Paper".
    • seriously, i'm all out of mod points at the moment. but this guy should be under funny and insightful.
    • Unfortunately the original paper inventors were much more technically advanced than us; just have a look at the wonders they have built. During that time the people that used paper had legible handwriting......

      Nowdays with the advent of keyboards and printers, modern students are forgetting what it means to write. After years and years of typing on keyboards, I wonder how many of you fellow slashdotters have legible handwriting.

      Back then you needed just a quill and paper to rig up a test..... now you
  • What about... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by *xpenguin* (306001) on Tuesday August 12, 2003 @07:38PM (#6680965)
    Just using using a scantron?
    • Re:What about... (Score:2, Insightful)

      by revmoo (652952)
      Yes, because heaven forbid someone try to push the limits and advance technology.

      Cars cost soooo much money! Why not ride horses?

      You'd think that a nerd-centered site like slashdot wouldn't have so many of these attitudes...
      • by ahknight (128958) *
        Cars cost soooo much money! Why not ride horses?

        Oh, yeah, that's all we need: to be late to work because your mode of transportation:

        1. Stopped to refuel without provocation.
        2. Attempted to make another vehicle during a traffic jam.
        3. Ejected you into the exhaust of another vehicle.
        That said, mechanics would be a lot cheaper.
      • This is what passes for insightful these days? I bet it would be prohibitively expensive to ride a horse instead of a car. A car would end up being cheaper after all the costs are added up. No matter how you slice it, these devices will cost more than scantrons. Especially once the kids start breaking them.

        It IS worth considering if the application is worthy and practical before proceeding. I mean, lets just say I'm the type that will do anything to get out of a test I'm not prepared for. One moderat
    • This comment [slashdot.org] suggests that randomization to prevent cheating is a possibility. Scantron randomization would be labor intensive.

      • Scantron randomization would be labor intensive.

        I'm not sure on how scantrons work but i would imagine that you would have to make a key for each distinct copy of the test so yeah it would be labor intensize. However, there is software that exists that allows teachers to randomize the question and multiple choice answers (my dad is a high school science teacher) but I don't know exactly what it is called. This poses the problem of having to hand grade each test though. Most of my high school teachers crea
  • Some choices... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by YourPreferredNicknam (168221) on Tuesday August 12, 2003 @08:23PM (#6681258)
    The only computing device less than $100 today with a screen is a used Palm.

    Google has some interesting summary of educational computers:
    http://members.aol.com/KMyersPsion/edc om.html
  • by olof_j (129000)
    Netpliance used to have a product called iopener, which was essentially a small PC with an LCD display and a flash disk. CPU is usually an IDT Pentium clone at around 180-200MHz. It comes with USB ports and uses an external DC power supply. It sounds like it could fit the bill fairly well.

    If you're lucky you might be able to find enough of these used to build your project around them, at least if it's a limited batch of 20-30 units. They usually sell in the $50-$80 range on eBay and surplus stores.
    • Or Virgin Webplayers.

      But these use trackballs built into keyboards.
      If you're dead-set on touch-screen, you've
      got some problems to solve.

      As I understand it, LCD interfaces are not
      well-standardized, and you need to match the
      video hardware to the LCD. Perhaps a mini-PCI
      card? But then you've just lost your network
      solution -- unless you want to use the
      serial port.
  • by uradu (10768) on Tuesday August 12, 2003 @10:41PM (#6682032)
    You could consider the Zenith Cruisepad, which is a pen-based thin-client tablet from 1995. You can buy them individually for $27 [computersu...outlet.com] or 100 at a time for $1500 [computersu...outlet.com]. They use Citrix metaframe technology to display a remote computer's screen on the LCD. It works just like remote desktop because it IS remote desktop. I believe they can be made to work with Windows Terminal Services in W2K Server. Alternatively, since you're talking hardware anyway, you could hack them and add your own software into the flash, using the wireless network just for lightweight communications. They use Proxim RangeLAN 2 wireless technology. I've even managed to get them talking to my Proxim HRF card with the (original ancient DOS-based) terminal server running inside Windows XP Pro on a Dell notebook. Only happened once and after a lot of fiddling, and I never had the patience to find out again what exactly I did that time, but it obviously DOES work.

    Anyway, just another (cheap) choice. I've got two of these and find them quite interesting.
  • by omega9 (138280) on Tuesday August 12, 2003 @11:40PM (#6682440) Homepage
    There are a few options, but you're not going to find anything for as little as you want to pay.
    • MZ104 [emjembedded.com]: One of the most popular SBCs around. Small size and many uses. If you follow the pricing on that page you'll find you'll be paying at least $300/unit for the setup you need.
    • PPC-E5 [emacinc.com]: Looks to have almost everything you need, and then some. Unit comes with processor, RAM, disk-on-chip, and even a bundled touchscreeen LCD that fits nicely to the whole thing. It doesn't have USB/CompactFlash/etc.. and it also costs ~$1,000/unit.
    • PCM-3350 [emacinc.com]: Made by the same company as the PPC-E5 and actually a better option. 300MHz proc, CompactFlash, onboard VGA @ 1024x768, USB. Slap a screen on this thing and away you go. But, alas, it's still $348/unit and it doesn't come with a screen.
    • ViewPad [ebay.com]: From ViewSonic. Another all-in-one unit that could probably also work for you. At the time of posting, this unit is going for $200 (a decent deal). But it's only one unit, and it's still twice as much as your mentioned target price.

    Like a previous poster mentioned, the only way you're going to find a device for around $100 is by buying bulk, used PDAs from eBay and they're still not going to do what you want them to. Hell, the PJRC [pjrc.com] costs $150 alone, and it's only an MP3 board.
  • by gooru (592512)
    I would start looking into (single board computers) SBCs or PC104 solutions. Some of the most common and easily available are made by Advantech [advantech.com].

    I would also start checking out wearable computing sites and lists. The list to read is wear-hard [blu.org].
  • AMD makes the MIPS32-compatible Au1500 [amd.com] chip and development boards. Another company which I can't find right now uses these chips to build a credit-card sized board that just takes 5V input IIRC.
  • Their system is based on someone else's work. I forget who. It's called a CardEngine. The CPU card is bit larger than a credit card. There's ethernet, CF slot, audio, and it supports TFT. The board is about $250.
  • Bitsy and friends (Score:2, Informative)

    by Meowing (241289)
    These are basically iPAQs with no case or display. I've no idea if they'll be able to meet your price range, but it can't hurt to ask: http://www.applieddata.net [applieddata.net]
  • by mnmn (145599) on Wednesday August 13, 2003 @10:40AM (#6685574) Homepage
    Ive been researching on these for a while, to build small embedded-sized PC systems for schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. My aim was actually lower, to use 320x200 2-bit LCD screens ($20 or $10), cheap keyboards from chinese companies and one ethernet, while booting and running off compactflash with 32 MB ram using either Windows CE or qtopia on Linux.

    Check out the SOC that is SiS 550. Its one chip that has the whole mobo on it and you only need to add IDE, TFT and RAM. In alrge quantities it was around $50, so you can do that under $100 but not in ~90 quantities.

    Dont even consider PC104. Gathering used PCs is a lot cheaper, even basic taiwanese ECS-type mobos are cheaper there. Dont worry too much about fan and size for schools, else the price shoots up.

    If youre into building embedded systems that can run Linux and uses tiny-X, you're in my league. I'm aiming for ~$50 for large quantities in low res LCDs using ARM MCUs. The cheapest Ive come across are ARM7TDMI MCUs designed for printers by samsung (~$7 each) but the ideal was cirrus logic (~$20) and includes ethernet and is quite fast.

    For flash use Intel boot block. Others are expensive and low performance. Should really use compactflash since that will help change programs/OSes in the final product. Currently I'm seeking lowcost keyboard and mouse manufacturers in eastern countries and their quotes in ~1000 quantities. It should be possible they could use my autocad designs in which case I could really build a customized system.
  • by Andy Dodd (701) <atd7@nOspaM.cornell.edu> on Wednesday August 13, 2003 @01:00PM (#6687315) Homepage
    Mini-ITX motherboards are small and quite decent. Not as small as some of the PC104 solutions, but pretty small.

    I believe the low-end ones are a little above $100 including CPU. A small Flex-ATX power supply runs $40. Smaller solutions (DC/DC power supplies plus 12V wallwart) run $70ish.

    http://www.mini-itx.com/ has lots of Mini-ITX projects and info.

    http://www.idot.com/ is a good place to get Mini-ITX goodies in the U.S.
  • I know exactly what you are going through. I hit the same patch of desert when I started the Open Slate project. [sourceforge.net] It seems to me it should be simple enough to make a slate mobo, but I just can't find what I'm looking for. Several hardware nuts have suggested that the project begin there, but I'm no hardware geek; making a student-buildable slate is already enough of a reach for my creative insanity. But I can feel it in my bones, how great this world would be if only such a product existed. Open Slate could
  • I can't think of any test that would absolutely require this design. Why not just rent some tablet PCs? Or use desktop computers?

    If the students are encountering the technology for the first time when you administer a test, you are asking for trouble. Stick to computers that they already know and use.
  • I just bought 15 old compaqs at $100 each. Comes with 17" monitor, ethernet, 133 MHz, 128 MB RAM, 3GB Hdd. I'm taking out the hdd and using them as diskless thin clients. Not the smallest for formfactor, but the school I'm building the network for is going completely paperless.

    KJ
  • 3.8x2.5 board, free (Windows) software, three boards for $62 (ready to drop chips on).
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