Novena open laptop: First impressions

The Novena has been mentioned a few times here before:

Novena is a 1.2GHz, Freescale quad-core ARM architecture computer closely coupled with a Xilinx FPGA. It’s designed for users who care about Free Software and open source, and/or want to modify and extend their hardware: all the documentation for the PCBs is open and free to download, the entire OS is buildable from source, and it comes with a variety of features that facilitate rapid prototyping.

As it happens, I backed the “Just the Board” option back in April, and it came in late December. I just got around to setting it up a few days ago.


First impressions:

  • There’s useful stuff on the wiki and in the forums, but it’s not super organized.
  • The documentation on has probably been most helpful, especially this quickstart.
  • I partially got this board because of the FPGA and this critter. FPGAs are way over my head right now, but I’m hoping they eventually won’t be. The little blinkenlight demo is easy to run through.
  • This is designed as a laptop board, but what I’m putting together is going to be something more like an esoteric all-in-one / server.  It’s compact, so my chosen enclosure should have plenty of room for drives, little displays, and other addons.
  • I don’t have a working monitor for this system yet; searching around hints that the HDMI-to-DVI cable setup I was using might just not work.

That last point proved a little bit frustrating, since the machine was visible on the network and responding to ping but not SSH. I was able to get a console using this USB to TTL serial cable and run through the initial setup script, after which it’s been working fine as a headless system. If I’d paid closer attention to the docs the first time through, this would have gone faster.


Startup notes:

  • Make sure system’s off / unplugged.
  • Make sure monitor and keyboard are disconnected.
  • Plug in an FTDI cable as shown in the quickstart. If you’re lacking an FTDI cable but have the aforementioned USB to TTL one (purchased, perhaps, for a Raspberry Pi or Beaglebone), then you can match the pins. (Black to pin 1, red to pin 3, green to 4, white to 5.)
  • Plug in USB, connect to your local equivalent of /dev/ttyUSB0 with a terminal at 115200 8-N-1 (I used PuTTY).
  • Power up the Novena board and watch your terminal.

The system’s overall pretty responsive, except where file IO is concerned. The SD card as main storage is definitely a limiter. It looks like SATA is supported, so I’ll probably be adding an SSD. Display headaches and a few configuration speedbumps aside, this is a cool device that offers tons of possibilities and I’m expecting to make it a centerpiece of my home development environment. More notes to come…

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