Curious as I am, I tried to find out what a kind of computer that was. In short, it's a Linux computer the size of a pack of cigarettes. It looks like a toy laptop, but it isn't. It's fully functional. And best of all, it was only $99. I decided I had to have one.
Unpacking and installing
It took me a while to find a Dutch dealer, but I found one. I ordered one online and a week later I found a small package in the mail. I opened it and found:
- The Nanonote itself;
- A USB cable;
- A battery;
- A manual;
- An odd rubber thingy.
First thing you have to consider is that the USB cable is of special quality. Unless you're sure you've bought a state of the art cable, don't use another cable in connection with the Ben Nanonote. Second thing, reserve a USB port for the Nanonote. Don't use a USB hub! This is very important.
Ok, now we got that settled, hook it up to your Linux machine and boot it. Now type:
And enter the password for root on your Ben Nanonote. Then open a console on your Linux machine and type:
ifconfig usb0 192.168.254.100
Now accept the defaults and enter the password you've just given. Hurray, you're connected with your Ben Nanonote! First, find out what version you're using:
dmesg | less
If the first line doesn't say:
[ 0.000000] Linux version 126.96.36.199 (mvogt@buildhost) (gcc version 4.3.3 (GCC) ) #1 PREEMPT Tue Jun 15 17:53:33 CEST 2010
You're in for a treat: updating the firmware. It's no walk in the park, but it can be done. The documentation lists three methods:
- Using a shell script and the USB cable;
- Using the prompt and USB cable;
- Using the prompt and a mini-SD card.
Now the trick is to get the Ben Nanonote into USB mode. Fortunately, pressing the power button in conjunction with "U" worked for me. If not, you have to short a few pins (!) in the interior of the tiny machine. That's what this strange, rubbery thingy is for!
I followed the instruction to the letter (even copy and pasted them at the prompt), but for one odd reason it wouldn't take:
nprog 2048 openwrt-xburst-qi_lb60-root.ubi 0 0 -n
I still don't know what caused that - it may have been a user error, but fortunately this worked:
usbboot -c "nprog 2048 openwrt-xburst-qi_lb60-root.ubi 0 0 -n"
This firmware makes a world of difference. Sound works and with it, a lot of applications that are just plain fun like "Doom" and "Gmu". Note that for patent reasons "Gmu" only works with Ogg-Vorbis files. If you got a large MP3 collection, this is a quick fix:
sox mp3file.mp3 oggfile.ogg
Copying files to you Ben Nanonote is very straight forward. If you don't want to swap mini-SD cards, simply enter:
scp [myfile] email@example.com:[directory]
Another indispensable program is "Nupdf". It does quite a decent job of rendering PDF files on the tiny machine. Just don't press [enter] because that gets you in a menu that is very volatile. If that happens, leave it as soon as you can before the thing hangs.
Therefore it is good to know that you can shut the Ben Nanonote down by simply pressing the power button for a few seconds. If that fails, you have to reset it much like the EeePC 701, i.e. by putting a toothpick in a hole. Of course, issuing:
Is so much more elegant and professional.
Programming is not bad at all as well. Python and Lua are included by default. 4tH is another obvious choice, more so because it is adapted to the tiny 320x240 pixel screen. Office applications are a bit rarer, but if you are determined to type away on this calculator style keyboard, try "sc". It is a console based, vi like spreadsheet. Wordprocessing is a bit harder, but I found the tandem of "nano" and "txt2tags" quite usable.
Finally, I'd love to have a ZX Spectrum emulator for this machine! It's perfectly suited for this kind of keyboard and screen size. Unfortunately, although it is stated that Dingoo binaries are compatible, I wasn't able to make one single ZX Spectrum emulator run.
However, there is a DOSBox emulator for the Ben Nanonote, so I brushed off my Z80 emulator and installed it. After some tinkering, it ran!
But there are some serious drawbacks. First, there is no sound. Second, you can't type any numbers. Third, a lot of keys are missing from the Ben Nanonote, so you can't quit the Spectrum emulator once you've started it. Finally, it is SLOW. The ZX Spectrum emulator says it's running at 112%, but believe me: it is much slower.
Also, DOSBox still emulates a 80x25 screen which pretty much means everything is illegible. E.g. Wordperfect 5.1 runs perfectly. You just can't read anything..
Finally, I really advise you to disable "gmenu2x". It uses a lot of memory and is hardly useful. My Ben Nanonote really was sluggish while it was loaded, up to the point where the kernel killed it - and "hotplug" along with it. A full list of packages can be obtained here.
There is a nice page about setting up cross compilation. I really have to advise you to use this one and not some others you may find on the web. Except for one thing. Don't issue this command:
scripts/feeds update -a && scripts/feeds install -a
It will take much longer before you have a working environment and it bombed out while building Qt4 with me. You can always add additional packages by marking them <*> and issuing:
Still, I wasn't able to make 4tH pop up in the menu of "menuconfig". Fortunately, there is an alternative way to cross compile for the Ben Nanonote. It worked for 4tH, but I must admit I haven't been able to cross compile much more.
I must admit I've been very frustrated at times. And sometimes, I still am. But there is something about this tiny machine that makes you love it, no matter what. It's very sturdy, although a foot has fallen off and I reconnected the rubber USB protection several times. I reset it, yanked the battery out of it, reinserted the mini-SD card time and time again, but it kept on working. The power button has been abused a zillion times, but it doesn't give up. It's really a brave little machine.
But all in all, it's not a consumer device. If you expect the thing to "just work", don't buy one. If you expect it to be useful out of the box, don't buy one. If you expect perfect end user documentation, don't buy one. E.g. documentation said I could mount the mini-SD card line this:
mount /dev/mmcblk0 /card
But it actually is:
mount /dev/mmcblk0p1 /card
That's typical. But if you want the tiniest webserver you've ever seen (it supports Apache and PHP), do buy one. If you have no fear of trying things - and failing while you're at it, do buy one. If you want a piece of hardware that will really touch your friends, do buy one. They will be amazed, laugh, because there's nothing similar on the market.
Support is there, you can't get any closer to the developers than here. And they'll help you. But this device will require some effort from your side. And if you give it that little bit of effort, I don't believe it lets you down. It's much too cute for that..!
Update: Yes, you can use it as an MP3 player. You can connect a 3.5 mm jack headphone and it easily slips into your pocket. The sound is plain beautiful and it will easily play for 10+ hours. And in the meanwhile it is open to other tasks.
No, you don't need to do any soldering unless you want to use the RS232 interface. Shorting the pins for usbboot is temporary. And unless you've blasted the bootloader, you won't need to do that.
Update: You can switch between consoles by pressing [CTRL]-[ALT]-[F1], [CTRL]-[ALT]-[F2], [CTRL]-[ALT]-[F3], etc. Even when you're using a graphics application.
Update: Jirka correctly stated that running two graphics applications at the time is possible. However, any console switch in combination with "gmu" gave rise to erratic behavior, including a spontaneous shutdown of the Nanonote. Two concurrent "Nupdf" sessions gave no problems whatsoever. So while a console switch is possible while in graphics mode, "caveat lector" remains sound advice.
Update: My Ben Nanonote scared the hell out of me today. I left it open all day, including a graphic screen. When I went home, the screen turned milky-white within about a second and stayed that way. Pressing the "off" button didn't work. Resetting it didn't work. Jerking out the battery didn't work. The screen stayed milky-white. At that moment I wondered whether the screen had given up, but may be I was still able to hook it up to USB.
When I got home, it didn't react to nothing anymore. I was prepared to send it back. When I hooked it up to my main computer, I wasn't able to connect it to USB Ethernet, but it booted at least. A Nanonote reboot fixed that, however. It turned out, it was just out of juice. After a few hours of recharging it worked perfectly. Had the screen simply turned black, I wouldn't have worried.
All in all, it simply confirmed its reputation: it may not work the way you expect it to, but it will survive. Keep up these quality requirements where the battery, ON/OFF button and reset button are concerned.