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For $50, you can build a custom Android or Linux mini-computer

A new crowdfunding-based service makes it possible to build custom-designed hardware at an extremely affordable rate.

Gumstix, a company that has been selling small system boards – about the size of a “gum stick” – for years, is now offering crowdfunding for hardware that users can design themselves. (Stick with me here, this is pretty cool.)

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A screenshot of the hardware designer tool.

Let's say you love your Raspberry Pi. It's a great, ARM-powered board that can act as your desktop, connect to your TV, etc. But what if you want it to be a bit more... specific? What if you want to add additional USB ports, temperature sensors, LED's, screens... or, heck, even make the board a different size and shape?

There are two things that stand in your way:

  1. It's hard. Source the parts. Design the board. There's a lot that goes into building a custom system board like this.
  2. It's expensive. Someone needs to build it, and that costs money. Companies that build these sorts of boards much prefer to build large batches at a time... so you're single board isn't going to be cheap.

Gumstix believes it has solved these problems.

First, they are offering an online board designing tool that they call "Geppetto" – a What You See Is What You Get way to design your own custom boards by dragging and dropping parts onto a board (that you can resize as you like).

It has features in there to make sure you remember to do things like add a power module to a board so that it has, you know, power. And there's a community section where you can publish your board designs with others, who can then clone them and modify them for their own needs. When you're board is ready you can buy it and it gets built for you relatively cheaply (with many boards that can be built for $50 or less).

The downside, of course, is that there is a cost associated with the initial production of those boards. Typically, Gumstix charges a $2,000 setup fee to cover the work that needs to be done.

Don't want to plunk down $2,000 to get your board built? They've got a solution for that.

Let's say you want to build a small ARM, CPU-based machine with an LCD screen (they have designs ready to go for this that will cost around $60 USD to build). Let's also say that you may know of some other folks who may like this too.

That's where the crowdfunding really kicks in. If you get 20 folks together who all want to buy it, the total cost is split among those 20 (making the price much more palatable).

But - and here's where things go from “Hey, that's pretty cool” to “Most excellent!” - if 50 (or more) folks commit to buy a board, the $2,000 setup cost is waived entirely. So each person only needs to pay for that $60 board (or whatever it ends up costing).

But what can you run on your custom designed little mini-computer? Oh, you know, just little things like Android and Linux (including a version of Ubuntu). Yep. Want to build your own Android box that nobody else on Earth has? Now you can, and it's cheap.

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