The future of tiny, powerful computers is here

The powerful, hand-held computers I always dreamed of are now available in many variations.

Raspberry Pin Zero

When I first started my adventures with Linux – back in the late 1990s with SuSE (the "u" was lowercase back then) version 6.SomethingOrOther – my computer was a large, heavy, loud, metal rectangle.

It was beige. And it was expensive. I probably spent more on that beast of a computer than I probably should have.

Flash forward to today – some 15-odd years later – and my life is filled with reasonably priced, astoundingly portable computers capable of running Linux far better than that old monolith on my desk could ever dream of. Literally. Sub-$10 computers are not only performing better than that old 1990's relic of mine, they're also performing better than my laptops from barely more than five years ago.

The Raspberry Pi Zero and the C.H.I.P. are, at this very moment, blowing my mind.

I, like so many nerds in the 90's, dreamed of building my own portable and pocket computers. Running Linux, if possible. Due to limitations at the time (both in technology and cost) this usually meant, at best, taking something like an existing PDA (Palm Pilot, PocketPC, etc.) and trying to get a different operating system to run on it. An endeavor that proved challenging, enjoyable, enlightening… and, ultimately, fruitless. In this quest, I managed to brick more PDAs (a term people don't even really use anymore) than I care to admit.

Things have changed so dramatically since then. It's now possible to pick up a fully functional computer – one capable of playing a wide assortment of games – cobble it together with off-the-shelf parts and build a complete hand-held game console. Or a tablet. Or a laptop. Or a set top box for your TV. All for less money than I spent on a 28.8 modem back in the late 90's.

And, if I don't feel like building something myself, there's the Pocket CHIP (which is the $8 C.H.I.P. computer plugged into a little thumb keyboard, display, and battery) for $48. Which is, for all intents and purposes, pretty gosh-darned similar to the PDAs of the 1990's. Only faster. And cheaper. And running Linux right out of the gate. Plus, it sort of looks home-made. Which only adds to the nerd-factor in a majorly good way.

There's so many more devices I could mention. High-performance boards from the likes of Nvidia (like the TX-1, with performance only dreamed of a few years ago – albeit with a bit of a higher price tag), BeagleBoard, and plenty others. It is nothing short of absolutely amazing how far things have come in the last decade and a half. (Side note: I have an Nvidia Jetson TX-1 board here that I'm currently reviewing. If anyone has any questions about it, let me know in the comments.)

I'm not saying all of this to try to convince all of you to run out and buy any of these boards. If we're all being honest… you probably already have your eye on at least one of them. I simply wanted to take a moment to express how thrilled I am that a future that I dreamed of for so many years – where we could assemble portable, high-powered computers running our own choice of hardware and software – is finally here.

It's the freaking future, man.

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