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.
Tiny SBC Sports
NXP i.MX8M Mini SoC
Compulab’s 38 mm x 28 mm UCMiMX8M-Mini module features an i.MX8M Mini, Wi-Fi/BT and up to 4 GB RAM and 64 GB eMMC. The COM also ships on a sandwich-style SBC-iMX8M-Mini SBC. CompuLab is aiming its new module at applications including professional handheld devices, autonomous drones, portable instrumentation with HMI and wearables, including medical devices.
• Quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 CPU, 1.8 GHz
• Real-time Arm Cortex-M4 coprocessor
• Up to 4 GB LPDDR4 and 64 GB eMMC
• MIPI-DSI interface, Wi-Fi 802.11ac, BT 4.2
• GbE, PCIe, 2x USB, 4x UART, 85x GPIO
• Wide temperature range of -40°C to 85°C
• Form factor: 28 mm × 38 mm × 4 mm
Module Marries NXP i.MX6
The eSOMiMX6PLUS from e-con Systems is a high performance and low power Computer/System-on-Module based on NXP semiconductor’s i.MX6 processor with the basic peripherals in a small compact form factor. The eSOMiMX6PLUS has an i.MX6 processor running at 1/1.2 GHz with Arm Cortex-A9 and DDR3L SDRAM configurable up to 4 GB.
• 1.2 GHz i.MX6 QuadPlus/DualPLus/Quad/Dual/DualLite/Solo ArmCortex-A9
• DDR3L ranging from 2 GB to 4 GB
• eMMC NAND flash 8 GB to 64 GB
• Over-the-Air (OTA) Firmware Upgrade Solution
• Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth V4.2/BLE
• Gbit Ethernet (x1) - optional
• Form factor: 70 mm × 45 mm × 4.4 mm
Tiny Module Runs Linux on
The PicoCore MX8MM from F&S Elektronik Systeme is module that runs Linux on an up to quad-A53, 1.8 GHz i.MX8M Mini with up to 8 GB LPDDR4. The NXP i.MX8M Mini is an i.MX8M variant with lower video resolution, but a faster clock rate. The PicoCore MX8MM has the same 40 mm x 35 mm footprint as other F&S PicoCore models such as the i.MX7-based PicoCore MX7ULP.
• i.MX8M Mini with 1.6 GHz 800 MHz Arm Cortex
• Up to 8 GB LPDDR4 RAM
• 512 MB NAND flash, up to 32 GB eMMC
• Wi-Fi 802.11 ac and Bluetooth 5.0
• I/O includes USB OTG, 4x UART, 4x I2C, 4x SPI and 8x PWM
• Power consumption: 3 W typical
• Form factor: 40 mm × 35 mm
• 0 to 70°C and -40°C to 85°C options
Snapdragon 820E Card Has
Long Lifecycle Support
Intrinsyc’ Open-Q 820Pro μSOM is a pin-compatible drop-in replacement for the two-year old Open-Q 820 μSOM and offers a similar layout
and 50 mm × 25 mm footprint. The biggest difference is an upgrade from Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 to the faster, second-gen Snapdragon 820E, an embedded-focused version with long lifecycle support.
• Qualcomm Snapdragon 820E (APQ8096SG) Processor
• Adreno 530 GPU and Hexagon 680 DSP
• 4 GB LPDDR4, 32 GB UFS flash storage
• Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.2
• HDMI 2.0, 2x MIPI 4-lane DSI and touch panel
• Form factor: 50 mm × 25 mm × 4.5 mm
• 1x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0, SPI, UART, I2C
• Single GPIO, PWM, SPI and PCIe
SODIMM Module Serves Up
i.MX8M Mini or Nano
iWave’s iW-RainboW-G34M-is an SODIMM System on Module (SOM) featuring the NXP i.MX 8M. It is aimed at applications such as digital signage, industrial HMI, home automation, audio/video streaming devices and general embedded applications. The board offers support for either NXP’s i.MX8M Mini or the upcoming i.MX8M Nano.
• Cortex-A53 at up to 1.6 GHz
• Cortex-M4F at 400 MHZ
• 1080p60 VP8, 1080p60 VP9, 1080p60 Encoder
• 1080p60 Decoder VPU
• Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac and BLE v4.2
• Dual 1000/100/10 Mbps Ethernet
• 2 GB LPDDR4 memory (Expandable)
• Form factor: 67.6 mm × 37 mm
i.MX8M CPU Module Offers Multimedia Solution
MYIR’s MYC-JX8MX CPU module provides an embedded solution for scanning/imaging, building automation and smart home, HMI, machine vision and other consumer and industrial applications which require high multi-media performance. The card is based on NXP i.MX 8M quad processor featuring 1.3 GHz quad Arm Cortex-A53 cores and a real-time Arm Cortex-M4 co-processor.
• NXP i.MX 8M based on 1.3 GHz Arm Cortex-A53 and 266 MHz Cortex-M4 Cores
• 1 GB / 2 GB LPDDR4
• 8 GB eMMC flash, 256 Mbit QSPI flash
• On-board Gbit Ethernet PHY
• ROHM Power Management IC (PMIC)
• 0.5 mm pitch 314-pin MXM 3.0 Expansion Connector
• Operating temperature: -30°C to 80°C
• Form factor: 50 mm x 82 mm
SBC Sports Low-Power 900 MHz i.MX6 ULL SoC
NXElec’s Innostick 6 SBC is based on NXP/Freescale’s i.MX6ULL Arm Cortex-A7 processor with up to 900 MHz CPU clock. It is integrated with on board DDR3 memory and eMMC storage in a tiny form factor: 80 mm x 42 mm. The INNOSTICK 6 provides a variety of interfaces and connectivity options, all packaged at an optimized power, size and cost.
• NXP i.MX6 ULL; 1x Cortex-A7 at 900 MHz
• 512 MB DDR3L; 16 GB or 32 GB eMMC
• Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0
• 24-bit RGB LCD interface with resistive touch support
• 8-bit CSI Parallel input
• USB 2.0 host, Micro-USB 2.0 OTG, 16-pin and 50-pin expansion headers
• LED; reset button; boot and power jumpers
• Form factor: 80 mm x 42 mm
Tiny SBC is Based on
Rockchip RK3308 SoC
The Rock Pi S is an SBC from Radxa that runs Linux. Aimed at IoT and audio applications, the headless SBC measures only 43 mm x 43 mm. The RK3308 SoC features four low-power, 64- bit Cortex-A35 cores. The board has extensive audio interfaces that include I2S, PCM, TDM, PDM, SPDIF and HDMI ARC.
• 64-bit Rockchip quad core RK3308 processor
• USB, Ethernet, Wireless connectivity
• Voice detection engine
• 256 MB or 512 MB DDR3
• µSD card for OS and storage
• Optional on-board flash storage version
• Form factor: 43 mm x 43 mm
Compute Module Delivers i.MX8M Mini SoC
Variscite’s DART-MX8M-MINI System on Module is based on NXP’s i.MX8M Mini with up to 2 GHz Quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 plus 400MHz Cortex-M4 real-time processor, leveraging advanced low power silicon process technology to provide optimized power consumption while maintaining a high-performance bar. The module provides a pin-to-pin scalable option to the DART-MX8M.
• Up to 2 GHz Quad Cortex-A53 NXP i.MX8M Mini
• Certified Wi-Fi/Bluetooth 4.2/BLE
• Temperature range: -40°C to 85°C
• Up to 4 GB LPDDR4 and 8 GB to 64 GB eMMC
• Gbit Ethernet controller
• 1080p60 encode/decode and display, HQ audio, HD GPU
• 2x USB 3.0 OTG, 4x UARTs, 3x I2C,
3x SPI and PCIe 2.0 x1
• Form factor: 55 mm x 30 mm
Jeff served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxGizmos.com and its sister publication, Circuit Cellar magazine 6/2017—3/2022. In nearly three decades of covering the embedded electronics and computing industry, Jeff has also held senior editorial positions at EE Times, Computer Design, Electronic Design, Embedded Systems Development, and COTS Journal. His knowledge spans a broad range of electronics and computing topics, including CPUs, MCUs, memory, storage, graphics, power supplies, software development, and real-time OSes.