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Tiny Embedded Boards (2019)

Written by Jeff Child

Petite Processing

With today’s level of integrated chip technology, board-level embedded computers can now literally fit in the palm of your hand. This “tiny” category of board-level computing products meets the needs of applications where extremely low SWaP (size, weight and power) is a priority over other requirements.

Long gone are the days when a complete embedded computer required a PC motherboard-sized PCB with processor, memory modules and I/O cards. The magic of semiconductor integration has brought powerful levels of functionality down to one or a handful of chips. Makers of board-level embedded computers have leveraged that trend to achieve board-level computers that now occupy extremely small form factors. Many of these are non-standard form factors. Non-standard form factors free designers from the size and cost overheads associated with including a standard bus or interconnect architecture. That said, standard form factors such as SMARC, SODIMM and COM Express Type 10 Mini are within the size range of this “tiny” category of embedded processor boards.

For purposes of this product round-up, we’ve selected representative products that are the smallest available on the market—most under 50 mm × 80 mm, and going as tiny as 28 mm × 38 mm. Side by side comparisons should take into account that some of these products are meant to be used as compute modules attached to an I/O baseboard, while some are true complete single board computers (SBCs).

For embedded applications where small size is critical, often the size and volume of the board takes precedence over the need for standards. Instead the priority is on cramming as much functionality and compute density onto a single board solution. Some, but not all, of these modules are true SBCs solutions, so there’s no need to be compatible with multiple companion I/O boards. These tiny form factor boards seem to be targeting applications where slot-card backplane or PC/104 stacks wouldn’t be practical. Many boards in this article’s product gallery are based on processors like NXP’s i.MX6, i.MX7 and i.MX8M SoC, as well as the newer i.MX8M Mini. The Rockchip RK3308 SoC gets some representation as well.

The list of applications targeted by these tiny embedded boards is long and varied. Included are systems such as professional handheld devices, autonomous drones (Feature image), portable instrumentation with HMI, wearables, medical devices, digital signage, industrial HMI, home automation and audio/video streaming devices, scanning/imaging, building automation, smart homes and machine vision.

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Editor-in-Chief at Circuit Cellar | Website | + posts

Jeff Child has more than 28 years of experience in the technology magazine business—including editing and writing technical content, and engaging in all aspects of magazine leadership and production. He joined the Circuit Cellar after serving as Editor-in-Chief of COTS Journal for over 10 years. Over his career Jeff held senior editorial positions at several of leading electronic engineering publications, including EE Times and Electronic Design and RTC Magazine. Before entering the world of technology journalism, Jeff worked as a design engineer in the data acquisition market.

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Tiny Embedded Boards (2019)

by Jeff Child time to read: 2 min