Since the Raspberry PI became popular there has been no shortage of Linux and Android enabled micro computers.
These devices are single-board computers and usually assume one of two forms and are either sold as HDMI Sticks or Mini PCs:
The first HDMI Stick was called Cotton Candy. It is a creation of the Norwegian FXI Technologies and it was first released in September 2011 causing quite a stir and disbelief among gadgeteers for the amount of computing power it offered at such low price and compact casing.
This new type of computer generated a lot of attention and a dozen similar devices have been released.
Roughly at the time of the release of the Cotton Candy, the Raspberry PI was already a prototype with a community of many enthusiasts anxiously waiting for its, many times delayed, public release in mid 2012.
Unlike Cotton Candy the Raspberry PI creators had much more ambitious plans. They were inspired by the success of the easy hackable computers of the 80s and wanted to create a learning platform cheap enough to attract all kinds of users to experiment and learn more about computers and programming as well as tap into potential uses in robotics, multimedia, home automation, etc.
Interest for the Raspberry PI was so huge that the first batches were sold within minutes, leaving many buyers waiting for the next batch and the sellers' websites nearly crashed by the avid shoppers insistent demand.
The development boards or Mini PCs reviewed in this article are direct competitors to the Raspberry PI and they have three features in common among themselves: low cost (under 100 USD), linux capability and freely available schematics.
At the heart of these systems lies a System-on-a-Chip (SoC) - an integrated circuit capable of all or most of the functions a complete computer does. Having a central component and a few other peripherals means the board is simple to design and implement at a low cost.
|Cubieboard||OlinuXino A13 Wifi||Beaglebone A6|
|CPU||1GHz Allwinner A10||1GHz Allwinner A13||720MHz AM3358|
|GPU||Mali 400||Mali 400||None|
|USB ports||2 (+1 USB OTG)||3 (+ 1 USB OTG)||1 (+ 1 USB OTG)|
|Price (US Dollars)||$49||+/-$72.00||$89.99(*)|
|Power||< 5 Watts||< 6 Watts||< 5 Watts|
|Dimension||10x6cm||12x12cm||8.64cm x 5.33cm|
|Other||SATA port, IR, microSD, Power socket 4mm||WiFi, Power socket 5mm, Battery adaptor||Power socket 5mm, Detected by windows as removable storage|
*The Beaglebone price includes shipping if bought at the Texas Instruments website.
Of the 3 boards the Cubieboard is the only to feature both HDMI and SATA sockets for less than $100 USD.
It is based on the AllWinner A10 SoC and unlike other cheap boards, including the Raspberry PI, the Ethernet port is not on the USB bus enabling much faster speeds.
The IR adapter is a cool addition and might be useful for those wanting a IR remote controlled Media player.
The two onboard USB adaptors are enough for most applications.
There is a 512Mb and a 1Gb Cubieboard version but only a few of the 512Mb boards were made. If you buy a new one now it most likely will be 1Gb.
Besides releasing many Linux distribution ports and other software hacks, the Cubieboard user community has also released a few hardware hacks, namely a way to add an extra microSD card reader, a JTAG header and a reset button. A LVDS compatible LCD can also be used.
A community developed extension board is also available and includes, among other features, a VGA connector and more USB ports.
Cubietech has already announced a successor to the Cubieboard based on the Allwinner A31, a ARM Cortex A7 processor with 4 cores and on the 13th or April 2013 Tom Cubie, one of the engineers behind the Cubieboard, published photos of a Cubieboard with a Dual-Core Allwinner A20 CPU installed.
The OlinuXino A13 is based on a SoC built by Allwinner and sold by the Bulgaria based Olimex.
This board stands out by having a WiFi adapter built-in on the board and 3 USB sockets.
Please note that different models of this board exist including a OlinuXino Micro with only 256Mb RAM and 1 USB adapter and no WiFi.
One of the other nice features of this board is a readily available battery adapter and led indicator to power the board using a Lithium-Polymer (LiPo) battery.
This is not strange at all as the A13 processor was designed to be used in tablet computers. In fact the processor needs a power management Integrated Circuit (IC) to operate correctly, the AXP209. Both chips are available from Olimex in small quantities.
Using this board I have been slightly annoyed by the fact that there is no visual feedback while the board is booting, so its hard to tell if the board is booting properly until the last moment when an image appears in the VGA monitor.
The system is quite capable of running both Linux and Android and booting from either the SD card or the NAND flash.
Olimex also included a UEXT socket for compatibility with additional UEXT boards and sells a plug-in LCD touchscreen module.
The Beaglebone is a small convenient board with less peripherals than the Cubieboard and OlinuXino A13 WiFi.
Unlike the other two this card already comes with a microSD card pre-installed with Angstrom Linux and Cloud9 development environment.
The Cloud9 IDE is ready to be used using a modern browser like Chrome, Opera or Firefox. Internet Explorer is not compatible at the moment.
At the moment a new version of the Beaglebone is being prepared and according to Texas Instruments it will also include an HDMI port and will cost less than the current $89.99 USD.
Expansion is made easy by the availability of plugin boards called capes.
There are other boards in the market apart from the previously presented examples:
|Cubieboard||OlinuXino A13 WiFi||Beaglebone|
|Android||Android 4.0.4/ |
|Android 4.0.3/ |
|No known port|
|Windows||No known port||No known port||Embedded CE 6.0/Compact 7|
*Beaglebone needs DVI extension to run Windows CE properly.
There is an ever increasing number of Linux and Android capable Mini PCs that are well supported by the growing and vibrant user communities.
Among the boards reviewed the Cubieboard is the cheapest and includes a very appealing set of features, including a SATA port that few other development kits carry at this price range.
Olinuxino A13 WiFi is a very interesting board if the onboard VGA or WiFi catch your interest. Being able to buy the Allwinner A13 SoC and power manager I.C. directly from Olimex at low quantities is also a great opportunity for would be system designers.
Copyright © 2013 João Vilaça