Saturday, March 3, 2012

5 tiny computers that entertain, educate and hack

Small little computers are all the rage nowadays. In the past few days, we've had a bunch of news and product announcements in this area. Here's a roundup of 5 tiny computers that have the ability to entertain, educate or hack their way into your lives.

1. Always Innovating HDMI Android Dongle ($50-$99)

Recently, Engadget has brought our attention to a little computer-in-a-dongle by Always Innovating, which puts a TI OMAP4 1GHz processor into a USB dongle with HDMI output that turns any HDMI-capable TV into a "Smart TV". The highlight is that it runs Android 4.0 - Ice Cream Sandwich on a stick indeed. With a communications suite including Wifi and Bluetooth, most Android apps should be able to run as is. You get web browsing, video streaming and playback, games, and whatever else Android aps do, though navigating with Google Maps might be a little difficult if you're pairing this tiny computer with a giant 65" TV :)

2. Raspberry Pi ($25-$35)

CNet tells us that the launch of the oh-so-cheap Raspberry Pi has led to the crash of all the websites involved from the Raspberry Pi Foundation to the 2 retailers element14 (Farnell) and RS Components that are actually doing the distribution and selling of the devices. Yeah I should know, I was dropping by a friend's company this Wednesday where they were all trying to order a bunch of these to play with. The Rasberry Pi is available in 2 editions (both running on 700MHz ARM11 processors), the $25 Model A and the $35 Model B, the latter of which adds an Ethernet port and 2x USB 2.0 ports, though the Wifi module is not out yet. This is basically a cheap single-board computer (SBC) meant for the educational and hobbyist markets, so you can order one and hack something up with it. That is, when stocks become available after the initial launch-date crush that sold out all the (reportedly) 10,000 units.

3. FXI Technologies Cotton Candy ($199)

CNet has separately noted that a company called FXI Technologies is launching what might be termed mid-range for this class of computers, the saccharinely-named Cotton Candy, which like the one by Always Innovating, comes with a USB plug on one end and a HDMI output on the other, plus Wifi and Bluetooth thrown in. This costs a little more than the prior two but by golly, check out the specs, you are getting pretty close to Samsung Galaxy S2 territory here, minus the glorious Super AMOLED+ display of course. The specs include an ARM Cortex-A9 1.2GHz processor, 1GB RAM and a Mali 400 GPU. You get to choose your operating system : Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich or Ubuntu Linux. Sweet.

4. Malice Afterthought F-BOMB ($50)

Related to a similar DARPA project, this is perhaps the first actual implementation of a new class of "network munitions" as mentioned by Vernor Vinge in his sci-fi work Rainbows End. The acronym being "Falling or Ballistically-launched Object that Makes Backdoors", this is a $50 computer that is crammed with 8GB flash, Wifi, Linux, a battery and an optional GPS module, this lilliputian hacker is small enough to be launched, air-dropped, "accidentally" dropped, or stealthily installed in say a smoke detector, where the onboard software can run cracking software to hack into whatever wifi network it detects. Cheap and expendable, this brings a whole new dimension to the term "smart ammo".

5. Pwnie Express Pwn Plug ($480-$630)

This came in via Wired. You gotta love the name - if you know anything about computer security at all, you know that "pwned" means "owned" - which is what this professionally-developed device does. Its motto being "Plug and Pwn", this allows a perpetrator, whether by social engineering or some other means, to plug in a mains-powered Linux computer that quickly sets up a covert, encrypted backdoor *from behind* a corporate network where people from the outside can quickly tunnel in and ... do whatever it is they wish to do, whether it is to conduct a legit system penetration test (if they are the good guys), or all-out cyber mayhem (if they are the bad guys). Prices range from $480 for a basic no-frills version, all the way up to $500 to $600 for 3G or Wifi versions, which enable *wireless* tunnelling. Imagine that.


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