A brief history of the DIY smartphone


Every year, smartphones become more sophisticated. But no matter this level of sophistication, a smartphone is still a small computer (a “ordiphone”) with an antenna to connect to networks. And if you’re brave, you can make your own “smartphone” using off-the-shelf components like Raspberry Pi microcomputers. Here are a few examples.

The DIY smartphone already existed in 2014

In 2014, developer David Hunt made tech headlines when he created the PiPhone, a smartphone based on Raspberry Pi microcomputers.

A year later, another developer, Tyler Spadgenske, designed a new version. The project was even relayed by the Raspberry news site (a form of validation) and according to it, among the new features offered by this new version, the TyTelli, there was the possibility of sending text messages or to make calls (indeed, the SIM card was supported), or the possibility of taking photos and then sending them to another device via the cloud (like Dropbox).

Additionally, Tyler Spadgenske developed his own operating system using the Python language. He also created a 3D printable plastic case.

Regarding the realization, this one has published a very detailed tutorial. And according to the developer, the skills required are soldering as well as a familiarity with the Raspberry Pi, or “a lot of patience”.

In other words, Tyler Spadgenske therefore felt that his tutorial was relatively accessible. But read on first.

Smartphone DIY: a new project for the “modern era”?

Tyler Spadgenske’s project did not compete with devices from Samsung or Apple. But this one was quite successful, and it provided the essential functions that we expected from a smartphone.

Unfortunately, this is now an old and obsolete project. But this project and the one that preceded it can serve as a basis for developing new DIY smartphones.

In a recent article published on its news site, the Hackaday platform (one of the reference platforms for projects of this type) relays a new initiative aimed at this. Titled “A Raspberry Pi phone for the modern era”, the article mentions the work of another developer, “asherdundas”. The latter believes that the old code no longer works and has decided to make changes.

And by the way, “asherdundas” also upgrades the processor. Indeed, while the old model used the Raspberry Pi A+ released in 2014, asherdundas’ project uses the Raspberry Pi 3 b+, a more recent microcomputer.

On the other hand, the DIY smartphone released by “asherdundas” has some flaws. For example, this one only has Wifi and does not support SIM cards (calls and texts are made through online services using Wifi). In addition, the instructions are less detailed (and there is, for the moment, no video), which poses a problem for novices.

Does this tempt you? In my opinion, it would be best to wait for feedback on this project, or even wait for someone to come up with an improved version. Indeed, it is possible that the publication of the Hackaday article will inspire other developers.

ZeroPhone: a very basic “smartphone”

Otherwise, among the most interesting ideas, there is the ZeroPhone. This one made a lot of noise in 2017 and is based on another Raspberry component: the Raspberry Pi Zero.

The developer has released very detailed documentation, and the cost of components is quite affordable. But the ZeroPhone is closer to the basic telephone than to the modern smartphone. But like the TyTelli, the ZeroPhone is an old project (which may be a problem when it comes to software).

In any case, all these examples show that to own a smartphone, it is not mandatory to go through the manufacturers (but there will always be compromises).

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