The Music in Noise

ARM Boards and User Control - 2020-04-17

In the past I've mentioned both ARM and even the ARM-based laptop currently in development, the MNT Reform. Since they do not use any kind of microcode for system instructions, it is a very appealing alternative to x86 architectures (be it Intel or AMD). No more malware running in the background possibly reading your memory and sending it off to Intel/AMD headquarters. What's more, these boards tend to be cheaper and consume less energy than x86.

Even so, something that is problematic about ARM is that many of the boards are for more restrictive devices. What I mean by this is that generally the smaller the device, the more restrictive it is. We start with workstations where you can easily replace practically any piece of it with another; from something as general as the GPU to something as essential as the CPU itself. But as the device gets smaller, it becomes less modular. It then becomes impossible to replace certain parts. In the case of ARM boards this is a very common problem, as generally they are made for embedded devices, mobile phones, and more recently netbooks and servers. As such, it is common with these boards for the components to be directly attached and impossible to replace. Although, luckily ARM seems to be catching up in this regard as companies start considering using ARM for different use-cases, such as personal computers, servers, and even super-computers.

None of this, however, detracts from the fact that some of the most free options we have today are ARM-based, when it comes to software freedom. And it may even begin to make complete software freedom more accessible to folk since these options can be cheap, and yet powerful. A good example of this would be the computer from which I am currently writing this post, an ASUS C201P. It's a really cheap chromebook with 4 GiB of RAM and a four core CPU. It uses a rockchip board underneath, and one can easily flash libreboot on it. It's even possible to make use of graphics acceleration without non-free Mali drivers by using Panfrost - which comes included in the latest kernel versions, since 5.2 I believe. The only components you won't be able to use because of their non-free firmware/drivers would be the webcam and the WiFi card.

Overall, it would seem that ARM continues to make complete user control over their software more and more accessible. And as their production diversifies we will likely see boards that allow us to customize more components, such as the Marvell MACCHIATObin. It will be exciting to see what ARM has in store for us and the free software movement.

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