I’ve written before in this column about how box-level embedded computers have emerged as a vital technology for today’s mid- to high-end embedded system designs. Working on this month’s Datasheet piece on Embedded PCs (p.46) inspired me to revisit the topic here. On the previous publication that I was Chief Editor of, we saw the transition of box-level computers move from being a custom designed sort of product—typically designed and built for a specific customer—to what they are today: a vast catalog product category with many subsets and many manufacturers.
At the time, these box-level computers had no official name in the industry, so in the previous job I coined the term “stand-alone rugged box.” That was a good ten years ago, and today the term has become obsolete. Moreover, today there are many different types of subcategories of these embedded computers. For example, in-vehicle computers are types of systems with their own unique industry-specific specs and features. And there are even products designed specifically for railway systems. There are also box-level systems marketed as vision systems, AI/IoT processing systems, digital signage boxes and more. Meanwhile, another huge percentage of box-level systems are designed for generic use, suited for wide areas of applications, much the same way a single board computer (SBC) is used.
There’s a lot of parallels between the evolution of SBCs and box-level systems. The demand for SBCs in embedded systems was driven by the idea that it’s very difficult to do computer design on your own. Aside from the mere technical challenges, there’s the procurement issues of dealing with microprocessors, DRAMs and other chips that went end-of-life when the next generation of a PC hit the market. By the way, that obsolescence problem has only grown more challenging over the years as consumer electronics replaced the PC as the leading influencer of semiconductor market demands.
Buying, rather than building, an SBC for your embedded system design quickly became the smart choice. That same idea is true for box-level embedded computers today. And now there’s a whole range of new technical challenges as processor speeds have raised whole new levels of power dissipation problems—which means heat dissipation problems. Manufacturers of box level systems take on the burden of managing those kinds of issues with clever fan cooling or even fanless systems designed to dissipate heat through mechanical design innovations.
The companies that sell today’s box-level systems are an interesting mix. About half of them are longtime veterans of the SBC business. And, indeed, such companies now tend to be leaders in both SBCs and box-level systems. The other half are vendors that play in the box-level system market exclusively and tend to have extensive product lines of box-level systems.
Today’s crop of box-level embedded computers now include a variety of products that embrace and integrate all the newest trends and technologies of embedded electronics. These technologies include IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning, GPU computing and more. Implementing those in box-level systems requires high-performance processing—and the cooling that goes along with that—and wireless connectivity support, often including antenna systems geared for embedded use. The advantages of “buying” these capabilities in the form a box-level system rather them building them yourself are many. You can concentrate on the software and application side of an AI or IoT system instead of having to design and integrate the hardware yourself.
Readers that have been with Circuit Cellar from the beginning may recall founder Steve Ciarcia’s words on the cover of Circuit Cellar issue #1: “Inside the Box Still Counts.” Yes. Certainly Circuit Cellar has evolved and grown over the years into the premiere technology magazine for embedded system developers that it is today. And the “box” has changed and changed and changed again. But, yes, it absolutely still does.
PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• JULY 2021 #372 – 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.