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Ben Nanonote

Posted 06-14-2012 at 09:46 AM by drask

For fun I bought a Ben Nanonote the other day and am slowly starting to play with it as time permits. I'm listing the things I have discovered about it so far.

I purchased a small usb network dongle that was listed as linux and Windows 7 compatible and a mini-b to type a usb converter to try and get wireless networking working with this, but it looks like that's going to be more of a project than I anticipated. The USB port is a client only port (an inny, not an outy) so it can be used to connect the Ben to a computer as a device, but not to connect other devices to the Ben, which is a bit of a letdown. A fully functional USB host would be useful for connecting devices, and I had hoped to use the Ben as a robot brain. It appears that the only I/O port is the microsd card port.

Next, you can't just run any old linux distro on the Ben. Although it's a 300MHz chip (my old pentium 100 laptop just recently gave up the ghost, up until about a year ago I was using it with Zenwalk linux as a kitchen recipe lookup and internet radio, so 300 MHz seemed reasonable for me) the chipset is something called MIPS (Little Endian MIPS, or MIPSEL, to be precise) as opposed to x86 or x64 (or Alpha, which would allow Android) so you have to use MIPS distros. The Nanonote has its own distro, and there is apparently a Debian distro also, although I have not managed to get that loaded yet. There is also a nice looking distro called Jlime (jlime.com) which I haven't even attempted yet.

When I attempted the Debian distro using the instructions at pyneo.org something went wrong and bricked the device. I couldn't even get it to turn on or respond at all. Holding the 'U' key down while pressing the power button didn't do it (this is how I got the device into usb boot mode to attempt loading debian onto it), so I had to use the hardware method to boot the device into usb boot mode. I was using the cabonized rubber button to short the USB boot pins, but that didn't work. I also tried shorting the pins with paperclips and wire leads from resistors and stuff, but nothing seemed to be working and the only help kept insisting that it would work if I did it right. I was starting to panic, but eventually by bending the wire just right and holding it just so I was able to eventually boot into usb mode. Apparently you can't brick the thing by overwriting the NAND, but it was scary and frustrating and I'm in no hurry to try that again.

As I understand it, it is also possible to write the operating system to a MicroSD card and boot into that by holding the 'M' key down while turning on the device, but so far I haven't managed to get that to work either. When I hold the M key down while booting, the screen keeps flashing every second or so like it is trying continually to reboot, but never comes on until I release the 'M' key, and then it loads the OpenWRT distro loaded in the flash memory. My next attempt will be to write an automatic script for loading Debian and JLime into the flash memory.
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