This is a subject I’ve touched on before in this column, but it warrants more discussion. Embedded board-level computers play an important role in today’s embedded system design. Thanks to board—level products— whether in the form of compute modules or full single-board computers (SBCs)—we don’t all have to be computer design experts. Just as most cooks don’t make everything from scratch, embedded computer boards integrate a key set of electronic ingredients, allowing you to focus on the application-specific parts of your system design.
Even among the vast available market of embedded computer boards, there are some key dividing lines that sometimes may not appear obvious. That dividing line is especially important to readers of Circuit Cellar because this magazine spans the interests of both professional embedded systems engineers and electronics hobbyists. We also enjoy the readership of professional engineers that keep a keen eye on products aimed at hobbyists knowing the value of using such technologies for prototyping and development.
We live in an exciting era for embedded systems hobbyists. You can purchase all sorts of electronics inexpensively and use numerous free open-source resources, including software, to get your project up and running. SBCs are a part of this mix, with quite powerful SBCs like a Raspberry Pi for around $35. There are countless SBCs that can be purchased in low quantities in all shapes, sizes and feature sets. That trend has unlocked huge potential for embedded hobbyists to craft cool projects.
All that said, it’s important to keep in mind that not all embedded SBCs are the same and likewise not all embedded SBC manufacturers have the same business model. When you’re a professional engineer deciding on an SBC product to design into your system, your choices in product and in vendor have very high stakes. It comes down to whether you’re just out to make a purchase or interested in forging a partnership. That’s not to say that hobbyist SBC vendors don’t have good support. I’ve heard very good things about Raspberry Pi’s support, for example.
If you need an SBC for your hobbyist project, it could not be easier these days to go online, shop for what you need and purchase your SBC. If it’s in stock, you can get it quickly. But there’s a lot more to think about when you’re selecting—for example—an SBC to be the control board for your new product line of industrial robotic systems. When your product is done and ready to ship, that embedded SBC is a critical piece of your design. What happens of the processors and DRAMs on that SBC go end-of-life within the next couple years?
Fortunately, there’s a whole industry of SBC vendors that have long experience in selling products for professional designs. Many of them will guarantee a fairly long shelf life for their SBC products, and they take care of the obsolescence issues of microprocessors, memories and other ICs that are at the mercy of the fast changing consumer market. On top of that, many board-level manufacturers in that space make products that are standards-based. They have large selections of standards-based embedded computer products in form factors such as COM Express, Mini-ITX, Pico-ITX, SMARC and others.
By designing in a standards-based SBC, you have the freedom to select amongst products from several vendors that make SBCs in that standard form factor. When you acquire such boards, you’re essentially making a long-term partnership with your vendor. Granted you’ll need to buy their boards at a certain quantity in order to make the partnership worthwhile on the vendor’s side, but such quantities need only be in the hundreds in most cases.
Whether you’re building a hobbyist project or involved in a professional design, there lots of choices of SBCs— and SBC vendors—to meet your needs. But, make sure to be conscience of whether you just need a purchase or whether your requirements call for a partnership.
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• APRIL 2021 #369 – Get a PDF of the issue
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.