Design and build a device that digital artists could use as a personal sketchbook and that can be upgraded as technology progresses. Here's a render of what I'm aiming for:
I'm going for a small hand held computer with an inbuilt graphics tablet, keyboard, good screen, speaker and maybe some joysticks too for gaming. I'll get into more detailed specs later on in the build log for those of you who like that kind of thing.
Right now basically any device you can buy (smartphone, tablet, laptop) will only last a few years at best before it breaks or becomes old and slow compared other newer devices. This creates a lot of waste and makes it hard to have a device which you get attached to and can develop some sort of "connection" with. For example I have an old game boy colour which I've had for over 15 years and still works perfectly (I'll post a picture of it when I get time, it was an old yellow Pokemon one), I used that Gameboy for ages and still have fond memories of it, so I guess I want to try and recreate it in sketchbook form for my art.
I've already made two iterations of the DSB which I might post up later, the first was built inside a Gameboy DMG case and the second used a 3D printed custom case. I learnt a lot from these which I'll be able to put into practice this time around. They weren't really practical to use though, the first used the original raspberry pi b which was pretty slow and the second was all right for taking notes with but still wasn't where I needed it to be.
What is really making this version possible is the massive interest in VR. Before it wasn't possible to find small high resolution screens for something like this but because of VR many manufactures are starting to build tiny HDMI screens some with up to 4K resolution. Also the continual improvement in computer hardware means it's now possible to get a decent pc inside a portable hand held case, it's not going to be amazing but it should work for sketching and even retro gaming.
I'll be posting updates here and over on bongofish as I build this thing (maybe geekhack as well when I get to building the keyboard), if you have any ideas on how I could improve it or have any questions I'd love to hear them.
Also, if you already use another device as your sketchbook feel free to let me know what it is and why it works for you.
Finished tearing down the graphics tablet I'm planning on using. Its a XP-Pen G430 which has 2048 levels of pen sensitivity and a 3 by 4 inch active drawing area. It's also extremely thin and has a battery free stylus which is always nice. I thought about putting this behind the screen so that it would function a little like a mini Cintiq but I think because the screen is already so small having your hand constantly blocking over half of it would get irritating. I'll probably have the tablet on the opposite side to the keyboard and make it so the screen rotates around.
I'm probably going to remove the protective drawing surface on the tablet and replace it with acrylic or gorilla glass so that you can still see parts of the circuit board underneath while drawing.
Also created a 3d scale model of the tablet in blender so that when I make the actual case for the DSB later on I'll be able to make sure everything fits perfectly. Here's a rotating render of it, it's not super detailed but has all the major parts blocked out:
XP-Pen G430 PCB model
I might also make a custom shell for the pen, all that's inside it is a tiny pcb for the buttons and the nib so it would be easy to 3dprint something which I could paint later. Could be cool having an Akira
themed pen for example. Questions
I'm going to be including answers to some of the questions getting asked as I go along so people don't have to scroll through comments to find stuff.
"How big is the final product? My personal size limit is 9 inches and 1024x600 screen. Maybe because my hands are huge." RussianHacker
Good question, the screen I'm hoping to use for this will be 5.98" and 2560 x 1440 resolution. Hopefully that helps with judging the scale when looking at the original render. I don't want the base to be any larger than 17 by 11 cm (≈ 7 by 4.3 inch), and if possible I'd like to make it even smaller.
"why it only has numbers?" GonzaU
I was too lazy to model different letters for each key
, the real thing will have a more useful keyboard layout. I'm going to make the keyboard fully programmable new short cuts or key maps can be made.
"Soo why would a client want to buy this over a decent small laptop, or let's say Wacom cintiq companion?"
So right now I'm not planning on selling these unless there was a lot of interest, most of the parts I'm getting would require a fairly large bulk order for the end price to be reasonable. For example the screen costs $200 for a single sample from the manufacturer in China but $95 each for 1000 of them. For me the advantages of something like this over a laptop or Wacom Cintiq would be that it's much smaller, it's unique since I made it, it's easily customisable and should last much longer since it's very modular and easy to repair.
If you bought a nice laptop and carried around your tablet with you (this is what I've been doing for the past few years) you'd have a more powerful machine plus a larger screen to draw with. However I found this didn't really work when drawing outside, on the bus/train or in lectures. The laptop + Wacom tablet was too large and kind of overkill for just creating some sketches.
Wacom's Cintiq companion 2 solves most of these problems, it's still fairly large with a 13" screen but since you don't need to carry around a tablet as well it would work pretty nicely. It would also be more powerful than what I'm trying to make. Since it's larger it can have a bigger battery that would support a more powerful CPU. Thing is it's really expensive, even without bulk ordering parts for my device it should be a lot cheaper. Plus if I wanted to upgrade a Cintiq my only option would be to buy the next version where as in my case I should just be able to just swap out the motherboard which will be way cheaper. A new Cintiq companion is nearly £2000 were as new motherboard would be less than £200. Plus mine has a keyboard
Finished tearing down and modelling the batteries I'm planning to use, they're from a Pineng PN-999 power bank. I'm not sure where I'll mount the 3.7V to 5V converter yet but I'll work that out once I've got everything I need. The converter PCB has a micro USB connector for charging and two USB output ports, I'll probably power the screen from one and the actual pc from the other. I want to be able to turn off the screen and any peripherals independently from the actual computer so I can save power if I need to. Plus the more mechanical switches I can add the better, their so satisfying to use.
Photograph of PCB and batteries
Battery indicator light
To scale 3D model
The battery has an inbuilt LED to use as a flash light which could be useful but I really chose it because it has a massive charge capacity of 20000 mAH (most tablets have around 6000 if that) and an awesome blue backlit LED display. The PCB can also handle problems like overcharging, over-discharging and short circuits which makes things a little easier.
I've had a few questions asking what the weight of a device like this might be and it's likely to be somewhere between a small laptop and a tablet. It's not going to be something you want to hold at arms length for too long but should be fine if resting on a surface like a table or lap. I could have chosen way smaller batteries and reduced the weight massively but I prefer to have the longer battery life for now. As batteries improve in the future I can always swap them out for something lighter.
I've been looking in to what I what to use as the heart of the device for ages now and I thought I'd share where I'm at. Fist of all, my first two iterations of of the DSB both used single board computers to power them (The first a Raspberry pi 1 model b and the second a Hummingboard i-2ex), which worked pretty well and is almost definably what I'm going to do this time around too. Here's a little run down of a few of the boards that I've considered:Raspberry pi 3
When this came out I was fairly sure it was what I'd probably end up using. The RP3 is one of the cheapest options at $35 and still out performs many older more expensive boards that I've seen.
image from www.wired.co.uk/
But I think the best thing about the raspberry pi is the community behind it, because so many people have been using them for their projects there's loads of help available when stuff goes wrong (which it always does). It would also be easy to replace as new versions come out and it has on-board wifi + bluetooth which makes things so much easier. There are similar more powerful single board computers like the Orange Pi plus2, ODROID-XU4 or Banana Pi M2 which all look better than the RP3 on paper, but I know from my experience with the Hummingboard that its sometimes better to sacrifice performance for usability.
This is the most expensive and most powerful of all the boards I looked at, I was really tempted to go for it when I found out about it.
I'm not going to list off the specs (look here if your interested) but they are pretty impressive. What grabbed my attention is that it can run 4K video and has every connector you could ever want from a tiny computer. The trouble is it runs off 12V instead of 5V so I'd have had to work out a different power solution and because not many people use them I'd run into the problem of having to solve everything myself again.
I only just came across this board but I think its probably the most suited to this project of all the ones I've come across. The LattePanda
doesn't run off an ARM processor like all of the others but an Intel quad core processor, which means it can run full windows 10 like any normal laptop! It's not so much windows 10 I'm excited about but the fact that since it's the same architecture as a normal computer I'd be able to run any Adobe suit program, steam game or anything that we'd expect any normal computer to be able to run. It's not very powerful and most things might run a little slow, but I'm not planning on using it to create any massive high resolution paintings or play Crysis so it should be fine. Plus it would save so much time just having a working Win 10 system from the start instead of having to deal with all the issues that come with Linux.
When I was using the Hummingbaord I ended up having to use Arch linux (shudder) as it was the only distro that I could ever get WIFI working (somewhat) with. Arch is good because it's very lightweight but so many things would break and nothing would ever work straight away and usually I found myself having to edit the code of some random program so that I could recompile and install it. I can always install linux on the LattePanda if I find I'm missing it but I think I'll cope.
A very accurate description on how to fix your Linux machine
In the end whatever I choose wont matter too much so long as it's replaceable which all of these would be. Next year there'll probably be a whole new generation of tiny computers that will probably make most of these look like trash, and if that's the case I can always swap another one of those in if I feel like I need the extra performance. And that's Kind of the whole point of this project, instead of having to buy a whole new tablet/phone/laptop when I want to upgrade I'll just have to replace this one part of the device (so long as I future proof the case), it will be less wasteful and I'll have more control over the device I use.
Screens arrived, tested it out a bit and it looks like it will work perfectly. Here's a photograph and render.
The screen is pretty shiny which isn't great but I think there's filters which you can lay over the screen to help out with that. Also I'm going to try and find some scratch resistant glass to fit over the top, just so I know the screen has a little protection.
I'm just waiting for all the keyboard parts to arrive now, then I can finally start putting everything together. I still haven't chosen which SBC I'm going to use, new ones seem to be coming out every month each better than the last so I think I'll hold out as long as possible (This one looks interesting but doest come out till winter - UDOO x86
). Most of the high performance boards seem to run on 12V instead of 5V so I might look into ways of switching the voltage so as many boards as possible are compatible.
Also been experimenting with using some automotive clear coat lacquer to give a protective finish to the 3d printed parts. It takes 24 hours to harden though so it's going to be a few days before I know how well it works (needs multiple coats).
The microcontroller for the keyboard has arrived, it's a Teesy 3.2 and should have plenty of pins for all the buttons and lights I might want to add in the future.
I've been trying to work out if RGB backlighting for all the keys would draw too much power or not. It's kind of a useless feature but since the keyboard has so few keys I might still be able to get away with it and I could always add a switch to turn it off if I wanted to save the battery.
I've finally got all the major hardware I should need to finish this build, right now I'm just waiting on a lazer cut aluminium base plate for the keyboard and some scratch/abrasion resistant acrylic to for the screen and graphics tablet. Then I'll be able to design the actual case and get that 3d printed.
I hadn't decided on a board last time I updated but since then I've chosen to use an Intel Skull Canyon i7 NUC6I7KYK to be the motherboard for the DSB. I had come across it before when looking at other boards but at the time it wasn't yet released and there were no teardowns showing the size of the pcb inside, so I had no idea if it would be small enough. Also the price is way beyond that of anything else I considered and unlike the small ARM boards you also need to buy RAM and the SSD on top of the actual board.
It's designed to run off a 19 volt, 120 watt power adapter so I've had to completely change the battery I was planning to use. And on top of that the default heatsink is too wide so I'm going to have to hack something together so everything fits in a hand-held case.
There's also an issue with the HDMI output right now that's claimed more time than I would like to admit trying to fix. Ended up just getting a thunderbolt to HDMI adapter which solved all my problems but it's still annoying and will end up taking up a little more space in the case unless Intel comes out with a fix some time soon.
The reason I chose the NUC6I7KYK over other mini boards is that it's by far the most powerful one I've found. It's marketed as a mini gaming pc by Intel and should be able to run Adobe Photoshop fine where as other boards would have struggled or just plainly not been able to given the different architecture of ARM boards. It has an Intel Core i7-6770HQ processor, two M.2 sata bays and two 16GB RAM slots. Right now I'm just using a single 512GB SSD and one 16GB crucial DDR4 RAM stick (which gives it both more RAM and memory than my current laptop) but in the future I could go up to 32GB of RAM if I needed to. It can also run my VR display in full 2K resolution which could have been a problem with anything less powerful. In terms of IO it has plenty of USB 3 ports plus a few USB 2 ones as well, an SD card reader, an infrared sensor, HDMI out, two 3.5mm audio jacks, a mini thunderbolt display port and a USB type c connector for thunderbolt display or USB 3.1 output. Your also supposed to be able to hook it up to the external GPU's that are starting to come out, potentially making this possible of running VR games. But unless I want to use start using this as a rendering machine I doubt I'll be doing that.
Build log continues here