Cheap. Hackable. Useful?
January 4, 2010 11:49 AM   Subscribe

What neato-burrito (but most of all cheapo) electronic gadget can satisfy my tinkering lust?

I'm a guy who likes to take a gadget and make the most of it, especially if you weren't intended to make much of it in the first place. For instance, back in my grad school days I enjoyed putting XBMC on an xbox and fiddling with its ever-expanding list of cool features. Last year someone gave me their old AT&T 8125 (HTC Wizard) smart phone and I did all sorts of firmware hackings and wackings for months on the thing and ended up with a pretty swank device. I went nuts over the C64 DTV hacks that popped up a few years ago.

Now I'm all out of stuff to play with and I come to you with hat in hand, Hive Mind. I'm looking for something that can be procured for minimal scratch and has extensive unofficial extensibility, preferably with a good community built around it. I don't mind getting my hand dirty with soldering and coding as long as it's easy enough for a dope like me. The age of the thing doesn't matter too much either if it's fun and can keep me occupied for a while!

So what do you think? Do you have an old PDA you turned into a Kindle? Is your 386 now watering your plants? Is your digital picture frame now a Gameboy? Let me know what you got!
posted by Willie0248 to Technology (15 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I'm pretty sure this is where a ton of people show up and shout "Arduino!" and then run away.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:58 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd start by subscribing to Make Magazine

I just put together a mythbuntu machine with one of these, which are designed to be a low-power CPU + HD capable graphics. I also run XBMC on it (I have an xbox running it too, but this one does HD video). It's mounted on the back of my TV and is really mighty cool stuff.

honorable mention:
posted by mcstayinskool at 12:00 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @ mcstayinschool

That Zotac thingy looks pretty darn neat! A little costly for what I'm looking to do at the moment though...

Funny you should mention Rockbox, I'm listening to audiobooks right now on my Rockboxed Sansa!
posted by Willie0248 at 12:10 PM on January 4, 2010

I've been quite happy with a DNS-323. It's a Network-Attached Storage box (basically a hard drive that plugs into the network) that can be hacked to be a media server, bit-torrent box, print server, ftp server, etc.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:12 PM on January 4, 2010

The Nintendo DS is a pretty amazing device for the price and, software wise, it can be cracked wide open for $4.

I'm not sure how much there is to be gained by actually opening the thing up but, thanks to the R4 and other similar cards, there is a really active homebrew community. I use mine as a full-featured PDA (including web browser), as an IRC client, as an e-reader, as a SNES emulator and as a nethack terminal. Not to mention occasionally actually playing DS games on it.
posted by 256 at 12:17 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't even know what all they're doing with Dreamcasts any more.
posted by cmoj at 12:20 PM on January 4, 2010

+1 for Arduino
posted by entropic at 12:38 PM on January 4, 2010

People do some neat stuff with the Chumby, and the Mattel Juice Box.

If it were me, though, I might try to find some dirt-cheap X10 home-automation stuff.
posted by box at 1:06 PM on January 4, 2010

You might want to have a look at the Neo Freerunner. I have spent the last month trying to conjure a usable phone with the perfect mix of features out of it, with moderate success.

There's still lots of stuff that needs doing software-wise, and no artificial barriers to stop you from doing it. It doesn't go too cheap (around 300 euro for a new one), but if you follow the mailing lists you will occasionally come across someone selling a used one.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:27 PM on January 4, 2010

Hardware or software tinkering? Your experience sounds like software and not anything like actually opening the device and soldering or adding components.

If you do want hardware, then the above mentioned Arduino is good. It is an open source physical computing platform, that can be plugged into a USB port and programmed using a C\C++ style syntax. You can add any kind of hardware, such as motors, LCD screens, RF adapters, even Wii controllers. It is popular for building robots and interactive art.

Chumby is good with either, as it is open source so you can buy kits to build one yourself or you can purchase an assembled one and tinker with it. Chumby is like an internet enabled clock, you can add widgets to to get all kinds of functionality.

Seconding Make, as their blog has a ton of Arduino projects, and the Maker Shed store on their site has Arduino and Chumby kits (but not assembled Chumbys).

If you are looking for software hacks, maybe you should look at the popular devices and what is being done on them. There are popular communities for hacking the , Wii, and DS. You might also look into helping some open source project like Linux.
posted by I am the Walrus at 1:36 PM on January 4, 2010

Response by poster: The Arduino thing is way out of my league; I wouldn't have the time to learn that level of electronic theory, and then full-blown OO programming just to build an automatic toaster. Plus it's expensive as all get-out once you buy components to make anything worthwhile.
posted by Willie0248 at 2:28 PM on January 4, 2010

You can probably get an old Nokia n800 (hardware seems more hackable than the n810) tablet for a reasonable price. There are many hardware/software hacks that one can do with these devices from simple stuff like using it as a bluetooth tablet/mouse input device for your PC/PS3/etc BlueMaemo; connecting it to various USB hardware (USB VGA); using it with an OBD2 Scan Tool to monitor your vehicle's performance Carman; Install other linux distributions Alternative desktop environments ; etc.

I like to tinker, and the Nokia Tablets: 770, n800, n810 have all been great devices to satisfy my urges...
posted by crenquis at 2:47 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The cheapest shitty old camera that will work with CHDK would be a good project. You can get older Canons for $20-40 and do all sorts of interesting pro stuff with it.
posted by jessamyn at 3:03 PM on January 4, 2010

Here are my sweetest hacks from 2009:

I have a Dell Mini 9 that makes a sweet Hackintosh. I just softmodded my Wii to browse the web, play DVDs, play original Nintendo and Super Nintendo games, and play backups of my games from a USB hard drive. My wifi router runs DD-WRT firmware, which is infinitely more stable and customizable than the crappy firmware it came with.

But more than all these, I'm really hoping that they develop a functional port of Android for my HTC Touch Pro. Then, my life will be complete (until the next hack comes along).
posted by jtfowl0 at 3:40 PM on January 4, 2010

Willie0248: "The Arduino thing is way out of my league; I wouldn't have the time to learn that level of electronic theory, and then full-blown OO programming just to build an automatic toaster."

Arduino is in fact not at all like this. It's designed for artists who barely know anything about programming. Most the "sketches" I've seen are a single file that can be printed on a single page. It's poor power management wise but gets the job done. Anyone who spent time in grad school can get-'er-done with Arduino.

As far as other hackable equipment, I've got a NDS Lite that can be modded. I've got a WRT54G people have written all kinds of firmware for, and a n900 that just rocks (but is in no way cheap). I picked up a hackable Network Attached Storage system thanks to MeFi.
posted by pwnguin at 4:53 PM on January 28, 2010

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