Libre Computer Alta laptop case: pi-top [3] A311D upgrade

Essentially a repost of the same topic in the pi-top forum but wanted to highlight this in the Libre Computer forum to get more eyes on it, in case you all might find it useful/interesting and can help troubleshoot what needs troubleshooting.

No one else has yet come up with a laptop form factor that neatly contains within its body an SBC bay, battery, speaker, breadboard and protoboard that you can use to learn, then write and finally actually field test code! It’s such a neat configuration, I really don’t get why pi-top let it fall by the wayside…

This thread is for you if :

  • You’re fed up with the relatively slow processing speed and low amount of RAM of the Raspberry Pi 3B+ and would like to actually be able to daily drive your pi-top [3] as desktop / laptop
  • You’d like to replace the Raspberry Pi 3B+ in your pi-top [3] with minimal effort and still be able to receive good quality OEM / community support
  • You want to avoid your pi-top [3] becoming e-waste

At long last we have a suitable candidate for upgrading the pi-top [3] !
The Alta SBC from Libre Computer is the same physical form factor as the Raspberry Pi 3B+ and is thus a drop-in replacement for it in the pi-top [3] : the USB, Ethernet, HDMI and 3.5mm A / V ports all line up correctly with the pi-top’s hub and keyboard / battery USB connectors.
It’s also not outrageously priced and even performs pretty competitively with the Raspberry Pi 5 !

There are currently some teething issues, which @butonic is in the process of solving. I can’t recommend enough reading through their I2C pull request on Libre Computer’s Github or their topic here in the Libre Computer forum (and helping out with it if you can !). I dream of the day when I understand anything like enough to be able to help resolve that issue but hopefully I can at least help draw more attention to it.

Libre Computer has an upstream / mainline-first policy, which - if I’ve understood correctly - means long term you actually become less reliant on them as the OEM and enables you to benefit from the latest kernels supported on your chipset. With the open source firmware Libre Computer has contributed for their ARM-based SBCs, you should just be able to download any distro’s aarch64 image and run it on those SBCs, rather than having to rely on Libre Computer to ship their own specifically-crafted image. This should open up a wide range of distros : Fedora, NixOS, Guix SD, Debian, Arch etc. - you can even run Raspberry Pi OS !

The main things you will find missing compared with Raspberry Pi 3B+ are Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but you can deal with that by using suitable dongles (e.g. Wireless Adapters | RYF Realtek WiFi Drivers and Bluetooth Adapters | RYF).

I have been looking quite some time now for a suitable drop-in solution for upgrading the pi-top [3] and have engaged with various solutions that were less viable (see my contributions to relevant threads on the pi-top forum !) than this and am really glad that Libre Computer in particular has brought this to the table. I still like the CM4 to RPi3B+ adapter / carrier board from Waveshare because it enables testing of the latest CM4 form factor compute modules, e.g. the RISC-V based Mars CM from Milk-V, but it only has USB2.0, not USB3.0, and is quite a squeeze in the pi-top [3] chassis because the B2B connectors are on the underside of the Waveshare board.

I look forward to seeing this community’s experiences with the Alta in this thread and really hope that this proves especially useful for school IT labs.

Disclaimer : I have no connection with Libre Computer other than as the close relative of a new, paying consumer. The views expressed here are my own and I am happy to be corrected / make corrections if / where I’ve made a mistake / misunderstood.

N.B. Where I refer to “OEM” here, I am referring to Libre Computer as the OEM of the Alta SBC, not pi-top as the OEM of the pi-top [3].

As the end user, the only physical intervention you should need to make to the Alta when it arrives, is to gently tease the heatsink off the CPU and RAM (be careful as it’s stuck on quite firmly with adhesive tape), otherwise you won’t be able to connect the Cooling Bridge from the Alta’s GPIO pins to the B2B connector on the pi-top [3]'s hub.

I have not yet tried this assembly with an eMMC fitted beneath the Libre Computer so it’s possible that might change things.

So what that all translates to is: the Alta should turn your pi-top [3] into a long term, actually daily-driveable laptop, on which you can properly use general purpose Linux desktop OSes. No more OOM when opening more than 1 tab in Firefox-ESR - heck, you’ll actually be able to use full fat Firefox! Actually able to have more than one program open at a time etc. It should be a massive leap up from the RPi3B+!

Shoutout here to those who attend the Cambridge Raspberry Jam (“CamJam”) - saw you’re using quite a few pi-top CEEDs at the event so would be grateful to hear your experiences if you choose to try a Libre Computer Alta in place of a RPi in those!

Finally, it might be worth seeing what the MNT Reform community has already troubleshot with the BananaPi A311D CM they’re using: Tracking known issues and solutions with the BPi A311D upgrade - MNT Reform - MNT Research Community