Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Orange/Orel and they have not sponsored me by any means in writing this article. I have done my own research and spent my own money to purchase the items mentioned herein.

This article is also available in Sinhala language.
මෙම ලිපිය සිංහල භාෂාවෙන්ද කියවිය හැක.

Correction 12/06/2021: I have previously stated that the SD card is 16GB judging by the name shown when logged into the RPi. I have now taken it out and it’s 8GB. The trademark “Perspex” has been replaced with “clear acrylic”.

Recently, a friend forwarded an online brochure for the locally made OrelHome Smart RGB LED bulbs being on offer. While browsing the online storefront of OrelBuy in search of this item, I came across a curious listing for something called “C Bit Box” with very little description of what it is.

The specification tab just said “Warranty: 1 year warranty”

Checking further, I found another listing of the same item but with a bit more info written in. The selling price on both listings were Rs. 6,900/= and the 2nd one showed that it’s a discount of a whopping Rs. 34,700/= from the original price of Rs. 41,600/=! For just 7K LKR, this included a Raspberry Pi 3B+ (1GB RAM), a 10.1" LCD display with the necessary hardware, a cheap USB keyboard, generic round Orange-branded USB mouse and a nice hard plastic carrying case!

The specification tab here had much more info

So it’s essentially a complete basic computer kit. It was too good to be true as the RPi 3B+ itself costs more in Sri Lanka! I was curious to get my hands on this kit and see what it does. Now, I would like to request all of you not to purchase these if you don’t have the need and please don’t buy it and resell wholly or by parts. It’s meant to be an educational tool and let’s leave it accessible to those who really need it.

Checking their website, I found out that this is part of an initiative called Orel Makerspace Classroom with a goal to “revolutionize learning by bringing out the best of the next generation of innovators with a range of tech and IoT based educational devices, services and solutions”. Good premise, as more and more kids take up interest in technology in a fast-moving world.

(Promo image from Orel Education website)

Getting back to the kit, it’s supposed to come with four of the BBC micro:bit development boards but what I purchased didn’t have any (there are four slots with Velcro straps under the display to hold them). I’m not complaining given the price reduction, but if I had those, I may have experimented with them as well. If you want to purchase micro:bit boards, the OrelBuy website also listed them or you can find locally from other vendors.

The items I ordered from their website arrived in just a couple of days during travel restrictions in pandemic-ridden Sri Lanka. The cBits Box itself comes in a nice cardboard box with text, illustrations, and orange shading. It was a bit heavy (I think around 2kg) and the overall first impression was very good.

Topside of the box
Left and right sides of the box

Opening it up for the first time, I was surprised to see the Emblem of Sri Lanka (government) slapped on the black case as well as on a small instruction booklet (in all three official languages). This case looks and feels sturdy, has two clip locks and a carrying handle. Very much like a briefcase, reminding of the tough military-grade laptops in movies. Inside the case, you get all the hardware needed, minus a very important omission. There is no power adapter in the box! I’ll get to the temporary workaround I did for this later.

What’s in the box!
Hard plastic case, maybe HDPE
The instruction manual

In the bottom half of the case, we have the keyboard and the mouse with their cables tucked in, and the circuit boards at the top area underneath a removable clear acrylic panel. On the very left is the power distribution circuit, then the display board next to it and on the far right there’s the Raspberry Pi 3B+ board. There are connections running between these boards. The power supply distributor connects to the display board with a DC jack and it also provides an internal USB port that provides power to the RPi. The HDMI output from the RPi is fed into the display board. A sleeved cable runs from the display board to the actual display in the top half of the case.

The opened-up unit
How all the components are neatly tucked in
Various circuit boards inside the case
Close-up of the power distributor and display boards
Close-up of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

Going around the case, there are some exposed ports and the power/reset button. On the left side, there’s DC power input and two USB ports. Since these are built directly to the power distributor, they can’t transmit data (rated for 5V 140mA maximum output). On the right-hand side, it’s the ports selection of the RPi. An ethernet port and four USB 2.0 ports. The keyboard and mouse need to be connected to two of these USB ports.

Port selection on the left side
Port selection on the right side

There’s also a small circuit board and a ribbon cable placed under the keyboard which is for adjusting the display settings. It’s not connected out-of-the-box, but I connected it and you can use it to power on/off the display individually and change source and stuff like brightness. The display however, comes pre-tuned with optimal settings so you don’t need to connect this and change anything unless needed.

The display controls board after it’s connected to the display board

I mentioned earlier that the AC-DC adapter was missing. Looking at the power rating mentioned in the booklet, it’s rated for 12V 1.5A minimum. I didn’t have any adapter with the right jack and power rating suitable for this at home. The 12V adapter with the highest amperage I had was 700mA, which is not enough to power both the display and the RPi. This had a different jack to what’s exposed in the kit but luckily, the internal power jack of the display board happened to be the same as the one on the adapter.

Different jacks

So, I removed the connector between the power distributor and display boards and plugged in the AC-DC adapter directly to the display board. Now there’s no use for the power distributor circuit and it remains disconnected. Then I just connected the RPi to one of the USB ports of the extension socket I have. I don’t know the amperage of it but expected it to be around 2A (later the red LED of RPi started blinking, which means the voltage is not enough, as I read). Then I switched to a Samsung phone charger (rated 5V 2A) and now everything is properly powered up and I could see the RPi booting up and working as expected. Note that this kit can’t run on battery power by default. You can build your own battery power pack if you have the necessary skills.

How I managed to power on the unit without the proper AC-DC adapter
All booted up!

The keyboard and the mouse are a very basic affair. Both of them are products of China. Slim USB keyboard akin to the 60% layouts and the mouse with the Orange logo. This has the usual left and right click buttons, mouse wheel and surprisingly a CPI switcher button.

Basic keyboard and mouse are provided

Some buttons on the middle-left of the keyboard didn’t work (around the D key) so I took it apart and checked what’s wrong and it was the ribbon cable that wasn’t in contact with the circuit board properly. So I used some plastic adhesive tape and generous amounts of hot glue to hold it in place and the keys started to work without an issue. It’s a very basic membrane keyboard so some buttons get stuck sometimes!

The loose ribbon cable inside the keyboard that was causing some keys to not work

I won’t go deep into the software, but it looks like a customized version of the Raspberry Pi OS is running here. There are some preinstalled IDEs for micro:bit and Python programming alongside the usual selection of other software. They have also loaded some code examples and documentation, including the booklet in digital format. The SD card included was a 8GB one but when I tried “sudo apt-get full-upgrade” it complained that there isn’t even 900MB free, so I assume this is due to partitioning.

The customized Raspberry Pi OS desktop
Trying out some basic Python

Overall, it’s a very nice and useful kit for someone looking for an educational kit for their kid (adult supervision is a must) or for a grown-up who wants to experiment with RPi and other technologies. This is not however, a replacement for a Windows/macOS/Chrome OS computer. There are tons of hacking potential with the items provided. I was able to connect my phone via Samsung DeX to the inbuilt display and it worked just fine. The display board takes HDMI, VGA and composite video inputs so there are plenty of use cases for it. I might swap in for a RPi 4 as that one is more powerful and suitable for desktop usage.

Hope you learned something from this article and thanks for reading!

Coffee-to-code converter, passionate about art and music