Fact 1: Easy-to-use, full-featured SBCs are popping up everywhere. Fact 2: Open-source software is becoming more commonplace each day. (Even Microsoft Corp. has begun taking open source seriously.) Conclusion: It’s an opportune time to be an electronics innovator.
While last month I may have implied that 8 bits is enough to control the world, there are significant things happening in high-end, 32-bit embedded processors that might really produce that inevitability. There are quite a few new system-on-chip-based, low-cost, single-board computers (SBCs) specifically designed to compete with or augment the smartphone and pad computer market. These and other full-feature budget SBCs are something you should definitely keep on your radar.
These devices typically have a high-end, 32-bit processor, such as ARM Cortex-A8, running 400 MHz to 1,000 MHz, coupled with a GPU core (and sometimes a separate DSP core) along with 128 MB to 512 MB of DDR SDRAM. These boards typically boot a full-up desktop operating system (OS)—such as Linux or Android (and soon Windows 8)—and often contain enough graphics horsepower for full-frame rate HD video and gaming.
Texas Instruments made a significant splash a few years ago with the introduction of the BeagleBoard SBC (beagleboard.org, $149 at the time) with their OMAP3530 chip along with 256-MB of flash memory and 128 MB of SDRAM running Angstrom Linux on a high-resolution HDMI monitor. That board has since been superseded by the BeagleBoard-xM (1,000 MHz and 512 MB) at the same price and supplemented by the BeagleBone board. Selling for just $89, BeagleBone includes a 600-MHz AM3517 processor, 256-MB SDRAM, a 2-GB microSD card, and Ethernet (something the original BeagleBoard lacked).
All of the software for these boards is open source, and a significant community of developers has grown up around them. In particular, a lot of effort has been put into software infrastructure, with a number of OSes now ported to many of these boards, along with languages (both compiled and interpreted) and application frameworks, such as XBMC for multimedia and home-theater applications.
Another SBC that has been generating a lot of buzz lately is the Raspberry Pi board (raspberrypi.org), mainly because the “B” version is priced at just $35. Raspberry Pi is based on a Broadcom chip, which is unexpected. Broadcom traditionally only gave hardware documentation and software drivers to major customers, like set-top box manufacturers, not to an open-source marketplace. Apparently, the only proprietary piece of software for the Raspberry Pi board will be the driver/firmware for the GPU core. Unfortunately, as I write this, there are a few lingering manufacturing issues, and Raspberry Pi still awaits shipping.
Both the concept and size of an “SBC” are evolving as well. In addition to the bare development boards, a number of interesting second-level products based on these chips has begun to appear. Take a look at designsomething.org. A couple of projects in particular are Pandora’s Pandora Handheld and Always Innovating’s HDMI Dongle. The former is a pocket-sized computer that flips open to reveal an 800 × 480 touchscreen and an alphanumeric keypad with gaming controls. Besides the obvious applications as a video viewer, gaming platform, and “super PDA,” I see huge opportunities for this box as a user interface for things like USB-based test instruments.
The Always Innovating HDMI Dongle is amazing for how much functionality they’ve crammed into a small package: it’s no bigger than a USB thumb drive (it also needs a USB socket for power), but it can turn any TV with an HDMI input jack and USB socket into a fully functional, Android-based computer with 1080p HD video playback, games, and Wi-Fi-based Internet access. These dongles might easily become distributed home theater nodes, delivering high-quality video and audio to multiple rooms from a common file server; or, one of the other low-cost SBCs might become the brain of a robot that can see and understand the world around it using open-source computer vision (OpenCV).
While it makes an old hardware guy like me feel less useful, it’s clear that the hardware—or, more specifically, the necessity to always design unique hardware—is no longer the bottleneck when it comes to powerful embedded applications. In a turnaround from decades ago, the ball is now clearly in the court of the software developers.
The applications for these boards and “thumb-thingies” are endless. Basically, they have the hardware muscle to handle anything that a smartphone or pad computer can do for much less. A lot of work has already been done on the OS and middleware layers. We just need to dive in and create the applications! Then it basically becomes a simple matter of programming. Of course, you know how much I personally look forward to that.