Petite but Powerful
Feeding the needs of embedded systems where small size is the priority, tiny embedded computer boards offer rich sets of functionality and impressive processing muscle. With some form factors smaller than a credit cards, these boards pack a powerful punch.
Long gone now are the days when crafting a full-blown embedded computer meant a PC motherboard-sized PCB with processor, memory modules and I/O cards. Thanks to the magic of semiconductor integration, ever more processing and functionality can be squeezed onto a board-level computer. With today’s level of technology, such compute modules can be based on just a handful of chips. With that in mind, makers of board-level embedded computers are now able to design computing modules that now occupy extremely tiny form factors. Many of these are non-standard form factors. Even the relatively small COM Express standard computer module is 55mm × 84mm in its smallest version (COM Express Mini), which is larger than any of the boards included here.
For this product round-up, we’ve focused on representative products that are at least under 57mm for one of their dimensions and going as tiny as 28mm × 38mm. These are not the smallest boards available on the market, but rather the smallest set of representative tiny boards that are new within the past 12 months. Keep in mind that 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). These tiny form factor boards seem to be targeting very different applications areas—areas where a COM Express board, a slot-card backplane or PC/104 stacks take up too much space. Many boards in this article’s product gallery are based on processors like NXP’s i.MX8M Mini processor, but the Allwinner family of processors are also making a presence.
Embedded systems applications that require these tiny boards included wide variety of systems. Included are systems such as professional handheld devices, automation and audio/video streaming devices, scanning/imaging, building automation, smart home, machine vision, drones (Figure 1), portable instrumentation with HMI and medical devices
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • DECEMBER 2021 #367 – Get a PDF of the issue
MEMS Humidity Sensor Boasts Small Footprint
The i.MX8M Mini System on Module (SoM) from Beacon EmbeddedWorks boasts speeds of up to 1.8GHz and contains both on-board Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac) and Bluetooth 4.2. With a low stack height and compact footprint, the i.MX 8M Mini SoM is well suited for next generation medical, military, aerospace and industrial applications where space is at a premium.
• NXP i.MX8M Mini processor
• Up to 8GB of LPDDR4 DRAM, eMMC, Quad SPI NOR flash
• Bluetooth 4.2, BLE support
• Ethernet 10/100/1000 MAC+PHY
• Integrated secure element
• 2x USB 2.0, 3x UART, up to 3x I2C
• Up to 2x SPI, up to 87x multiplexed GPIOs.
• Form factor: 28mm × 38mm
Raspberry Pi CM4 Carrier Has Dual GbE Ports
DFRobot’s CM4 IoT Router Carrier Board Mini is an Internet expansion board based on the Raspberry Pi Compute Module 4 (CM4). When connecting with a Gbit network card via PCle, it brings out Raspberry Pi CM4's two full-speed Gbit network ports and offers better performance, lower CPU usage and higher stability for long-time work compared with a USB network card, says the company.
• Raspberry Pi CM4 series
• Ethernet built-in on CM4
• Ethernet via PCI Express 1000BASE-T NIC
• 1x USB-C: power only, 1x USB-C: USB 2.0
• microSD slot, 26-pin GPIO compatible with RPi
• Power supply: USB-C 5V/3A
• Operating temperature: 0°C to 80°C
• Form factor: 55mm × 62mm
i.MX8X-based Card Supports Digi XBee Modules
The Digi ConnectCore 8M Mini from Digi International, based on the NXP i.MX8M Mini processor, is a secure integrated SoM platform. It features four power-efficient Arm Cortex-A53 cores, one Cortex-M4 core, and the Digi Microcontroller Assist Cortex-M0. It provides support for Digi XBee modules including cellular add-ons.
• NXP i.MX8 Mini application processor
• Up to 8 GB eMMC, up to 2GB of LPDDR4 DRAM
• Display and camera capabilities
• Video capabilities with built-in VPU
• Dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 5
• Cellular modem and Digi XBee wireless integration
• Digi TrustFence and hardware Secure Element
• Remote monitoring and management
• Form factor: 40mm × 45mm
Tiny Module Blends i.MX8M Mini and Rich I/O
The NX8MM-D168 from ICOP Technology is equipped with the NXP I.MX8M Mini Quad Core Cortex-A53 1.6GHz Arm CPU with 3D GPU and includes advanced 14LPC FinFET process technology, which provides more speed and improved power efficiency. At slightly less than half the size of a credit card at 35m × 55mm, the NX8MM-D168 can be utilized and implemented into many space-limited applications.
• NXP i.MX8M Mini, Quad-core 1.6GHz Arm Cortex-A53
• Onboard LPDDR4 1GB/2GB/4GB DRAM
• GbE, USB. UART, SPI, I²C
• PWM, GPIO, mPCIe, audio
• Supports MIPI-DSI / MIPI-CSI
• 168 pins of configurable I/O
• eMMC 4GB to 64GB onboard
• Operation temperature: -20°C to +70°C / -40°C to +85°C (optional)
• Form factor: 55mm × 35mm
Tiny SBC Sports Allwinner RISC-V SoC
MangoPi project’s MangoPi-MQ1 (“Sparrow”) SBC is an open-source board based on the 1GHz Allwinner F133-A, which provides RISC-V RV64 vector extensions for potential AI applications. 64MB DDR2 DRAM is integrated on the Allwinner F133-A. The SBC is equipped with a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth 4.0 radio and MIPI-DSI, MIPI-CSI and LCD connectors. It also has a pair of USB Type-C ports, a microSD slot and numerous I/O pin-headers.
• Allwinner F133-A SoC (scaled down version of D1)
• Built-in 64MB DRAM on F133-A
• USB-OTG Type-C, USB-Host Type-C
• microSD card slot, onboard Wi-Fi/BT
• 15-pin universal Raspberry Pi DSI FPC
• Universal RGB FPC row seat
• Universal capacitive touch FPC
• Boot button, reset button
• Form factor: 40mm × 40mm
Tiny Compute Module Embeds STM32MP1 SoCs
MYIR’s MYC-YA15XC-T CPU is a SoM based on STMicroelectronics’ (ST) STM32MP1 series processor. It also integrates a dedicated PMIC, the STPMIC1, also from ST. It has onboard DDR3L, NAND flash or eMMC and 32KB EEPROM. A number of peripherals and IO signals are brought out through a 1.0mm pitch 148-pin stamp-hole expansion interface.
• ST STM32MP1 MPU based on 650MHz single or dual Arm Cortex-A7 and 209MHz Cortex-M4 cores
• 256MB/512MB DDR3L DRAM
• 256MB NAND flash/4GB eMMC flash, 32KB EEPROM
• STPMIC1 power management IC (PMIC)
• 1.0mm pitch 148-pin stamp hole expansion interface
• Supports Linux with provided 5.4.31 kernel
• Form factor: 39mm × 37mm
RK3328-Based Router Board Offers Dual GbE
The Orange Pi R1 Plus router board from Shenzhen Xunlong is an update to its circa-2017 Orange Pi R1 mini-router SBC. The Orange Pi R1 Plus advances from a 1.2GHz, quad-core, Cortex-A7 Allwinner H2 (and later H2+) to a 1.5GHz, quad -A53 Rockchip RK3328. The dimensions have grown slightly to 57mm × 56mm. The micro-USB OTG port has switched to a USB Type-C port.
• Rockchip RK3328 (4x Cortex-A53 at 1.5GHz)
• Arm Mali-450 MP2 GPU
• 1GB DDR4 (dual 512MB); 16MB SPI flash; microSD slot
• 2x Gbit Ethernet ports,
USB 2.0 host port,
• USB Type-C port for 5V/2A power input and optional cable
• Serial debug interface,
Fan interface (5V)
• 13-pin GPIO header with optional expansion board
• 2x LEDs; optional heatsink; 5V power via Type-C or 2-pin header
• Form factor: 57mm × 56mm
Tiny SBC Sports Amlogic S905Y2 Processor
Radxa’s Raspberry Pi Zero-like “Radxa Zero” SBC runs on Amlogic’s quad -A53 S905Y2. The first Radxa Zero models are available in four configurations and sell for $15 (512MB LPDDR4) to $45 (4GB with 16GB eMMC). Features include Wi-Fi/BT, 4K-ready micro-HDMI, 40-pin GPIO. Radxa Zero supports USB 2.0 OTG/power via one USB C port.
• Amlogic’s quad -A53 S905Y2 processor
• 512MB to 4GB LPDDR4 DRAM
• 8GB or 16GB eMMC
• Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n or Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac)
• Bluetooth 4 or Bluetooth 5
• micro-HDMI 2.1 with 4K at 60 HDR and 4K×2K at 60 H265/VP9 decode
• 40-pin GPIO and 2x USB Type-C
• Form factor: 66mm × 30.5mm
Relative Humidity Sensors Deliver High Reliability
Seeed’s Quantum Mini development kit features an M.2 form-factor “Quark-N” module that runs Ubuntu Core on an Allwinner H3 plus a “Atom-N” carrier with 3x USB ports and Wi-Fi/Bluetooth. The Quark-N runs Ubuntu Core Linux on a 1GHz quad-core, Arm Cortex-A7 Allwinner H3 SoC. The Quantum Mini is a sandwich-style kit with a 31mm × 22mm Quark-N module and 40mm × 35mm Atom-N carrier board.
• Allwinner H3 (4x Cortex-A7 at 1.0GHz); Mali-400 MP2 GPU at 600MHz; 256KB L1, 1MB L2 cache
• 512MB DDR3 SDRAM (via Quark-N)
• 16GB eMMC (via Quark-N), expandable to 64GB
• microSD slot
• 2.4GHz 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
• TFT display, microphone
• 2x USB 2.0 host, USB Type-C with power
• SPI, I2C, UART, GPIO, ADC, speaker
• Operating temperature: 0 to 80°C
• Form factor: 40mm × 35mm
(31mm × 22mm for Quark-N)
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.