The Precursor is an phone-sized device with a physical keyboard, a black and white display, and a focus on open hardware and software. Aimed at hardware hackers who want an incredibly customizable mobile development platform, the Precursor has an FPGA instead of a traditional CPU, allowing you to program the chip to emulate different types of processors for different applications.

First announced in September, the Precursor is now available for pre-order through a crowdfunding campaign at CrowdSupply.

The first 50 backers can reserve an Early Bird Precursor device for $450. After that, prices go up to $512 for a standard model or a bit more for a Limited Edition made from premium materials ($675 for early birds or $768 for regular pricing).

If everything goes according to plan, the first units should ship to backers in December 2021, about a year after the end of the crowdfunding campaign.

Developed by bunnie Huang and Sean “xobs” Cross, the Precursor designed to be a pocket-sized, mobile device that gives owners complete control. If you have the technical know-how to inspect the code or program the device, you don’t have to trust that the chip designers, OS developer, or anyone else is protecting your privacy – all code can be inspected, and you can “compile your CPU” from source using the FPGA.

That said, the Precursor probably isn’t powerful enough to use as a replacement for a modern smartphone. It has modern features like a USB Type-C port, but out of the box the FPGA will work like a 100 MHz, 32-bit RISC-V processor. It can be configured to operate like many other older chips, but with a top speed of 100 MHz, the Precursor has the computing power of a 15-year-old smartphone, PDA, or handheld game console like a Palm Treo 600, BlackBerry 8700, or Nintendo DS.

It also doesn’t have a cellular modem so it won’t make calls or connect to mobile networks out of the box. But since the Precursor is designed to be hackable, you can open up the case with a screwdriver and attach a modem or any other components you might need using the 8 accessible GPIO pins under the hood.

Unlike most (but not all), modern phones, the screen, keyboard, bezel, and other internal components are all easy to replace using nothing but a screwdriver.

Here’s an overview of the Precursor hardware:

  • 536 x 336 pixel black and white display (200 pixels per inch)
  • Xilinx XC7S50 primary System on Chip (SoC) FPGA
  • iCE40UP5K secondary Embedded Controller (EC) FPGA
  • 16 MB external SRAM memory
  • 128 MB OPI SPI FLASH storage
  • SiliconLabs WF200C WiFi chipset (hardware sandboxed)
  • USB 2.0 Type-C port
  • Physical keyboard with changeable layout overlays (backlit)
  • 0.7 W mono speaker
  • 3.5mm headphone jack (but no integrated microphone)
  • 1,100 mAh battery
  • Vibration motor
  • Anti-tamper features
  • 8x GPIO + I²C internal hack port

The Precursor has an aluminum case that measures 138mm x 69mm x 7.2mm, making it the size of a fairly small modern smartphone, and it weighs about 96 grams, making it lighter than most (a Google Pixel 5 weighs 151 grams, and an iPhone 12 is 164 grams).

The device should get 5 to 6 hours of battery life with the screen on, or 2-3 days of standby time, and in addition to the Precursor itself, backers will receive a debug board, a QWERTY keyboard, and three alternate keyboard overlays for folks who’d prefer to use QWERTZ, AZERTY, or Dvorak keyboards.

You can find more details about the components, design, features, and philosophy behind the Precursor project at the Precursor crowdfunding campaign page at Crowd Supply.

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