My DevTerm adventure – Part 1

I don’t remember when I first read about the DevTerm. It might have been on one of the tech news sites I read regularly or I watched a review about it on YouTube. I definitely can’t remember BUT what I remember is that I immediately fell in love with it. Heck, I was pretty much obsessed at that point.

What attracted me the most was the interesting form factor, the quirky display, the idea of owning a small, portable ARM-based Linux machine which I can use at home, at work, on the commute. When it comes to Linux I am pretty much a newbie. I know Windows in its various versions well enough to fix most issues I run into, but I usually feel totally lost when dealing with Linux-related stuff.

I have tried running Linux on my main PC but this always proved problematic. I expected mostly issues with getting games to run, but to my surprise this was almost a non-issue. Most games ran fine, some even better than under Windows. Unfortunately I was struggling with everything else. The printer I owned at the time just refused to cooperate. Application software I relied on wasn’t available under Linux or didn’t run using Wine. NTFS support was not great and with all these issues I wasn’t prepared to get rid of my Windows partition. In the end I ended my Linux experiment in defeat.

For me something like the DevTerm is perfect to learning the ropes. It’s not the main PC I rely on for daily tasks. It’s a device I use to try out things, learn new stuff, break things. As many similar devices it uses a MicroSD card for storage. If I mess up, I can simply flash the card with a fresh OS and start anew.

So what is this DevTerm thingie anyway?

The DevTerm by Clockwork is a portable computer with interchangeable cores (I use a Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 Lite), a custom case and keyboard with a ultra-widescreen monitor (1280×480). It runs on two 18650 batteries or can be powered by a USB-C power adaptor. It also comes with a small thermal printer with a removable paper drum. The CM3 and CM4-based DevTerms run on Raspbian and basically all software compatible with the Raspberry Pi should run fine on the DevTerm. There are also other cores using other ARM-based processors, but I decided to use the CM4, since I was hoping for better software support. Perhaps I should also mention that the DevTerm comes as a kit. You have to assemble the whole thing before you can use it. Fortunately no soldering is needed and the assembly is as easy as building a LEGO model or a GunPla. The version of DevTerm I bought set me back about 280 dollars plus shipping and taxes. Batteries are not included so you have to buy them separately.

Waiting Game

The DevTerm is only available directly from Clockwork and since they only produce as many kits as ordered it may take a while before your order can be shipped. I think I ordered back in October 2022 and it finally arrived in late March 2023. So if you want to buy your own DevTerm, prepare yourself to waiting for a long time. Shipping via FedEx took about three days from Hongkong to my home in Germany. FedEx also took care of customs and sent me a bill a couple of days later which I could easily pay online. At this point I also want to thank Alex from Clockwork for his support. He always replied quickly when I regularly bothered him with questions regarding the status of my order.

Frustration and Joy

When my DevTerm arrived I was overjoyed and I immediately assembled the kit. I think it took me about one to two hours and went pretty smoothly for the most part even though I had to keep my cats from playing with the various parts rolling around on my dinner table. I held my breath when first powering on the device. Anticipation was at its peak while I watched the screen, hoping for it to turn on. But unfortunately it didn’t. So I disassembled the device, double-checked the SD card was installed correctly, and eventually tried to start it again. No dice. Slowly frustration crept in. I checked the forums, chatted with a couple of fellow DevTerm owners and together we tried to identify the problem.

This is actually the correct way to install the CM4 on the adaptor.

Then I discovered an assembly error. The instruction manual shipped with the kit wasn’t written for the CM4 version of the DevTerm which needs you to connect the CM4 to an adaptor which is then inserted into the DevTerm board. Unfortunately this step is never explained. So I installed the CM4 so that the text printed on the CM4 aligned with the text on the adaptor. Unfortunately this was wrong. When this realisation struck me I immediately feared I might have destroyed the CM4. Luckily this was not the case.

An almost fully assembled DevTerm

But even after connecting the CM4 correctly the damn thing wouldn’t boot! Someone gave me the advice to try to boot with full batteries inserted and USB power connected since the DevTerm sometimes needs a lot of power during its first boot. This didn’t help. I then connected the DevTerm to an external monitor and booted again. Lo and behold the screen lit up and showed me the Raspberry logo and various error messages. So the hardware (aside from the screen) seemed to work. Perhaps there was an issue with the software. After some trial and error I realised that only the 64-bit OS available from Clockwork actually works on the CM4-based DevTerm. When I flashed the correct OS the device booted on its first try and this time the internal screen worked perfectly fine. As I understand this, the internal monitor is actually initialised during the boot process. That’s why it stayed dark in my previous attempts. I believe my cries of joy could be heard all over my home town!

To be continued …