May 192018
 

Recently, a new project sprang up on the Hackaday.io site; it was for the KiteBoard, an open-source cellular development platform.  In a nutshell, this is a single-board-computer that embeds a full mobile system-on-chip and runs the Android operating system.  The project is seeking crowd funding for the second version of this platform.

With it, you can build smartphones (of course), tablets, tele-presence robots, or really, any project which can benefit from a beefy CPU with a built-in cellular modem.  It comes as a kit, which you then assemble yourself.  The level of difficulty in assembly is no greater than that of assembling a desktop PC: the circuit boards are pre-populated, you just need to connect them together.  In this version, some soldering of pushbuttons and wires is needed: all through-hole components.  No reflow ovens or solder paste is necessary here, an 8-year-old could do it.

The break-out board for the CPU card features in addition to connections for all the usual cellular phone signals (e.g. earpiece, microphone, button inputs) a GPIO header that follows the de-facto standard “Raspberry Pi” interface, allowing many Raspberry Pi “hats” to plug directly into this board.

That lends itself greatly to expandability.  Want a eInk or OLED notification display on the back?  A scrolling LED display?  A piano?  A games console?  Knock yourself out!  You, are the designer, you decide.  There are lots of options.

I for one, would consider an amateur radio transceiver, an external antenna socket and a beefier battery.  Presently, I get around with the ZTE T83 (“Telstra Dave”), which works okay, but as it runs an old version of Android (4.1), running newer applications on it is a problem.  I believe it could run something newer, but ZTE believe that their job was finished in 2013 when the first one rolled off the production line.

The box did not include a copy of the kernel sources or any link to where that could be obtained.  (GNU GPL v2 section 2b?  What’s that?)

The successor, the T84 is a little better, in fact it has pretty much the same hardware that’s in Kite, but it struggles in rural areas.  On a recent trip into the Snowy Mountains, my phone would be working fine, when my father’s T84 would report “no service available”.  Clearly, someone at Telstra/ZTE screwed up the firmware on it, and so it fails to switch networks correctly.  Without the sources, we are unable to fix that.  Even something as simple as replacing a battery is neigh on impossible, they’re built like bombs: not designed to be taken apart.

I have no desire to spend money on a company that puts out poorly supported rubbish running pirated operating system kernels.  The story is similar elsewhere, and most devices while better in specs and operating system, lack the external antenna connection that I desire in a phone.

Kite represents a breath of fresh air in that regard.  It is to smart phones, what the Raspberry Pi is to single board computers in general.  It’s not only designed to be taken apart, it’s shipped to you as parts.  Apparently with Kite v2, there’ll be schematics available, so you’ll be able to look-up the datasheets of respective components and be able to make informed decisions about part substitutions.  All antenna connections are socketed, so you can substitute at will.

While the OS isn’t going to be as open as one might like (mobile chipset manufacturers like their black boxes), it’s a BIG step in the right direction.  There’s more scope for supporting this platform long-term, than contemporary ones.

As far as actually using Kite, Shree Kumar was generous enough to organise the loan of a Kite for me to test with the Australian networks.  The phone takes up to two micro-SIMs (about 15mm×12mm); one on the daughter card (this is SIM 1) and one on the CPU card (SIM 2).

For the sake of testing, I figured I’d try it out with the two major networks, Telstra and Optus.  As it happens, my Telstra SIM is too big (they call it a “full-size” SIM now; I remember full-size SIMs being credit-card sized), so rather than chopping up my existing SIM or getting it transferred, I bought and activated a prepaid service.  I also bought a SIM for Optus.  I bought $10 credit for each.

As it happens, the Optus one came with data, the Telstra did not.  No big deal in this case.  The phone does have a limitation in that it will talk to one 3G/4G network and one GSM (2G) network at a time.  Given both networks I chose have abandoned 2G, that pretty much means the dual-SIM functionality on this model is severely hobbled.  That said, either SIM can operate in 3G mode, and so it’s simple enough to switch one SIM into 2G mode then activate the other in 3G/4G mode.  So far, the Kite has spent most of its time on Optus.

Evidently Vodaphone still have a 2G network… at least the Kite does see one 2G cell operated by them.  Long term, this is a problem that all dual-SIM phone chipset makers will have to deal with, a future Kite may well be able to do 3G simultaneously on both SIMs, but for me, this is not a show-stopper.

I’ve put together this review of the Kite.  It’s rare for me to be in front of a camera instead of behind it, and yes, the editing is very rough.  If there is time (there won’t be this weekend) I hope to take the phone out to a rural area and try it out with the more distant networks, but so far it seems happy enough to switch to 3G when I get home, and use 4G when I’m at work, so this I see as a promising sign.

The KickStarter is lagging behind quite a way in the funding goal, but alternate options are being considered for getting this project off-the-ground.  Here’s hoping that the project does get up, and that we get to see Kite v2 being developed and made for real, as I think the mobile phone industry really does need a viable open competitor.