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Mini-ITX and Pico-ITX SBCs Pack in Performance

Written by Jeff Child

Single-Board Sensations

Products based on small-sized versions of the ITX form factor—Mini-ITX and Pico-ITX—continue to capture embedded market share and mindshare. They provide system developers with complete PC-functionality and advanced graphics.

Long gone now are the days when large slot-card based form factors were the only choices for embedded systems. Today, a complete computing solution can be designed into a small form factor embedded motherboard, instead of using a backplane-based system with bus interconnects. Among these so-called bus-less embedded form factors are the various versions of ITX. They offer a more complete SBC approach, integrating most or all of the typical desktop PC kinds of functions. Applications where graphics are a priority are particularly suited to these types of board-level products.

Although the ITX form factor is based on the ATX PC motherboard standard, what’s more popular in recent years are its spinoffs Mini-ITX and Pico-ITX. Mini-ITX is a 170 mm x 170 mm (or 6.7″ x 6.7″) low-power motherboard form factor developed by VIA Technologies in 2001. They are commonly used in small form factor computer systems.

Mini-ITX boards can be passively cooled due to their low power consumption architecture. The four mounting holes in a Mini-ITX board line up with four of the holes in ATX-specification motherboards. A more recent variant is Thin Mini-ITX, a version of Mini-ITX that is only 22 mm in height and has a thinner port cluster and horizontally stacked SO- DIMM memory slots. Pico-ITX, meanwhile, is a PC motherboard form factor announced by VIA Technologies in January 2007. The form factor was transferred over to SFF-SIG in 2008. The Pico-ITX form factor specifications call for the board to be 100 mm x 72 mm (3.9″ × 2.8″), 75% smaller than the Mini-ITX form factor.

Over the past 12 months, board vendors have released a number of Mini-ITX and Pico-ITX SBCs, supporting a variety of Intel processors. There are at least double as many vendors of such boards than are mentioned here—this article is focused on products released within the last 12 months.

SKYLAKE-BASED SOLUTION
The most recent Mini-ITX product on our radar is WIN Enterprises’ WIN MB-65040 Mini-ITX announced in late July. Designed for IoT gateways, robotics, industrial control, and casino gaming applications, the MB-65040 supports the Intel Skylake-S CPU and Intel H110 chipset (Figure 1). The device features 6 COM ports and other robust I/O, making it an especially well suited in IoT gateways.

FIGURE 1 – Designed for gateways, robotics, industrial control and casino gaming applications, the MB-65040 supports the Intel Skylake-S CPU and Intel H110 chipset. The device features 6 COM ports and other robust I/O, making it an especially well suited in IoT gateways.

The S-series 6th generation Intel Core processor family with the Intel H110 express chipset delivers high performance and features Ultra HD 4K display resolution capability and enhanced security.

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The MB-64050 is designed to support a variety of mobile and remote environments such as thin-client, wireless network devices, digital media appliances, set-top boxes and more. Onboard display capabilities include HDMI, DVI-D, VG, and 24-bit dual-channel LVDS. System memory includes two DDR3 SO-DIMM that support a maximum of 16 GB DDR3 1600.

The unit offers optional TPM capability via LPC pin header to secure the application and overall network by allowing communications between only trusted entities. Interconnect is provided via 2x Intel GbE LAN interfaces and Mini-PCIe. I/O includes 6x COM, 4x USB3.0, 4x USB 2.0, LPC and SMBus. For storage there are 4x SATA with RAID.

8th GEN INTEL PROCESSORS
A number of the Mini-ITX rollouts over the past 12 months have been based on Intel 8th generation embedded processor technology. An example along those lines, in February Kontron introduced its mITX-CFL-S product, an industrial motherboard in the Mini-ITX form factor based on the latest eighth generation Intel processors. It is available with either Intel Core i or Intel Xeon E3 processors (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2 – The mITX-CFL-S is an industrial motherboard in the Mini-ITX form factor based on the latest 8th generation Intel processors. It is available with either Intel Core i or Intel Xeon E3 processors.

This makes the board suitable for extended embedded applications, including infotainment, industrial automation, process control, storage server for small businesses, entry-level workstations for mobile or cloud applications and media transcoding or edge computing in the IoT environment. In addition to a large number of peripheral interfaces, the mITX-CFL-S has many storage and expansion options, including two SATA slots, one PCIe x16 slot, three M.2 slots each with one Key M, Key A and Key B.

The mITX-CFL-S also features the Intel C246/C242/Q370 chipset. For memory the board provides 2x DDR4 U-DIMM sockets and supports ECC. It also offers various interfaces, such as 1x eDP, 1x HDMI, 2x DP for video output, 3x GbE LAN for Ethernet, up to 6x USB 3.1 and up to 4x USB 3.0, 4x USB 2.0 for USB Device Connection, 2x RS232/422/485, 2x RS232 for Serial Device Connection and 1x 8-bit DIO for Device/Signal Control. The slots 1x PCIe x16, 1x M.2 Key M, 1x M.2 Key A, 1x M.2 Key B allow a multitude of expansion possibilities. In addition, the mITX-CFL-S industrial motherboard supports TPM 2.0.

Intel UHD Graphics P630 (Intel Xeon CPU) or Intel UHD Graphics 630 (Intel Core CPU) provide an increase in graphics performance. To connect up to three displays simultaneously, the mITX-CFL-S has the following display interfaces: 1x eDP 1.4 (4096 x 2304 at 60 Hz), 1x HDMI 1.4 (rear, 4096 x 2160 at 24 Hz / 2560 x 1600 at 60 Hz), 2x DP (rear, 4096 x 2304 at 60 Hz). Audio output is possible via Codec Realtek ALC662 and 1x line-out (by header), 1x mic-in (by header), 1x S/PDIF (by header).

FIRMWARE AND COOLING
Kontron’s industrial motherboard contains a variety of firmware including BIOS (AMI uEFI BIOS w/ 128 Mb SPI Flash), Watchdog (programmable WDT to generate a system reset event), H/W monitor (input and core voltage, CPU & system temperatures), Real Time Clock (chipset integrated RTC), TPM support (Infineon SLB9665 TPM 2.0).

Cooling is provided by two fan connections, which allow use at ambient temperatures from 0°C to approximately 60°C. Security is provided by Infineon’s TPM 2.0 chip, which is standard on all Kontron motherboards, and the optional Kontron APPROTECT security solution. The security chip from Wibu-Systems in combination with a suitable software framework guarantees protection of IP rights as well as copy and reverse engineering protection. Kontron APPROTECT Licensing also enables new business models such as “pay per use,” time-limited demo versions or activation/deactivation functions.

THIN Mini-ITX
Another example of a Thin Mini-ITX offering is Congatec’s Conga-IC370 introduced in March based on Intel’s 8th Gen “Whiskey Lake” U-series processors. Like the similar, 8th Gen Coffee Lake-U they offer quad- as well as dual-core models (Figure 3). The 170 mm x 170 mm x 20 mm Conga-IC370 follows earlier Congatec Thin Mini-ITX boards including the 6th Gen Skylake based Conga-IC17.

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FIGURE 3 – Based on Intel’s “Whiskey Lake” U-series processors, the Conga-IC370 offers 2x GbE ports and USB 3.1 Gen.2 host ports, as well as 0 to 60°C temperature range, wide-range power input and the Congatec Board Controller.

The Conga-IC370 offers 2x GbE ports and USB 3.1 Gen.2 host ports, as well as 0 to 60°C temperature range, wide-range power input and the Congatec Board Controller. Expansion features include 2x SATA III ports and a PCIe x4 slot. Although the board provides no Type-C port, you get dual DP++ ports, LVDS and eDP. For audio, there’s SPDIF in addition to dual audio jacks. The dual USB 2.0 interfaces have been expressed as coastline ports. There’s no coastline serial port, but there are plenty of serial and other I/O, as shown in the detail view and block diagram.

Also providing a Thin Mini-ITX solution with the latest Intel processing is ASRock Industrial Computer’s IMB-1216, announced in April. Based on the 8th gen Intel Core Processor Whiskey Lake-U i5-8365U, the IMB-1216 comes in the Thin Mini-ITX form factor and has multiple expansion options (Figure 4). It supports industrial applications with a semi-extended 0 to 60°C range and offers a choice of 12 V or 19-28 VDC inputs with an AT/ATX switch.

FIGURE 4 – The IMB-1216 sports Intel Core Processor Whiskey Lake-U i5-8365U. This Thin Mini-ITX form factor board supports industrial applications with a semi-extended 0 to 60°C temperature range and offers a choice of 12 V or 19-28 VDC inputs with an AT/ATX switch.

The IMB-1216 is equipped with 2x Gbit Ethernet ports (Intel and Realtek) and 2x SATA III ports, as well as a SATA power output. Unlike the iBox-8365U, it leverages the Whiskey Lake support for USB 3.1—it offers 4x USB 3.1 host ports and a fifth internal 3.1 interface. Three USB 2.0 headers are also available along with 2x RS232/422/485, 3x RS-232 and 8x GPIO interfaces.

Triple M.2 slots are available. There’s a Key-M (2242/2260/2280) socket with PCIe x4 or SATA III, as well as a Key-E (2230) with PCIe x1, CNVI and USB 2.0 support, which is primarily designed to run a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card. You also get a Key-B (3042) with USB 2.0 for 4G, which is accompanied by a SIM slot. Triple displays are supported via 4K-ready HDMI and DP++ 1.2 ports and internal VGA and LVDS (or eDP) headers. Other features include dual audio jacks and a speaker header. You also get a watchdog and TPM security.

FANLESS SBC
Because Mini-ITX boards often find themselves in rugged environments, cooling is an issue. Serving such needs, another Thin Mini-ITX, also released in April, comes from Avalue Technology with its EMX-KBLU2P board. This Thin Mini-ITX board for is designed for signage, PoS, kiosk, AiO PCs and industrial applications. Like the company’s EMX-SKLUP thin Mini-ITX board, the new EMX-KBLU2P supports Intel’s 6th Gen Skylake Core and Celeron processors, and it can also load 7th Gen Kaby Lake models.

The 170 mm x 170 mm EMX-KBLU2P is equipped with a heatsink and can work without a fan, assuming 0.5 m/s air flow (Figure 5). The system supports a -20°C to 70°C temperature range and 0-90% relative humidity, and ships with a wide-range, 12-24 VDC input. The EMX-KBLU2P supports up to 32 GB DDR4 RAM via dual sockets and offers 2x SATA III with 2x SATA power interfaces for storage. There’s also an M.2 Key-B 3042/2242/2260/2280 socket with 2x PCIe x1 or 1x PCIe x2 support for various USB 2.0, SATA, or wireless options. An M.2 Key-A socket supports Wi-Fi, and there’s also a SIM card slot and a standalone PCIe interface.

FIGURE 5 – The Thin Mini-ITX EMX-KBLU2P is equipped with a heatsink and can work without a fan, assuming 0.5 m/s air flow. The system supports a -20°C to 70°C temperature range and 0-90% relative humidity, and ships with a wide-range, 12-24 VDC input.

Triple simultaneous displays are available with 4K-ready HDMI 1.4b and 2x DisplayPort 1.2a connections—one with HDMI support and the other with DP++. You also get dual-channel, 18/24-bit LVDS with HD resolution, which can be swapped out for an eDP port. Dual audio jacks are supported with a Realtek ALC892 codec, and you also get dual 6 W amplifiers and an S/PDIF audio interface. The EMX-KBLU2P is equipped with 2x GbE (Intel I219LM and I211AT) and 4x USB 3.0 ports. Internal I/O includes 4x USB 2.0, 4 x RS232, 2 x RS232/422/485, and 16-bit GPIO. The board ships with a watchdog timer, hardware monitoring, and optional TPM 2.0.

QUAD-CORE ATOM Pico-ITX
For its part, Axiomtek in July released a Pico-ITX board called the PICO319 SBC, built around a quad-core Atom x5-E3940 SoC (Apollo Lake) The PICO319 is a low power fanless Pico-ITX SBC that offers combinations of ruggedness, high computing capabilities and enhanced graphics capability in an extremely compact size of only 100 mm x 72 mm.

Moreover, the board features 12 VDC power supply input with AT Auto Power On function. It is well suited for industrial automation, transportation and retail applications. The tiny embedded board comes with one 204-pin DDR3L-1867 SO-DIMM socket for up to 8 GB of system memory. A dual-display capability is available through DisplayPort and 18/24-bit single/dual channel LVDS ports. For extensive storage needs, this compact embedded motherboard has one M.2 Key B slot (22 mm x 42 mm or 30 mm x 42 mm) for SATA or PCIe x2 SSD card and one half-size PCI Express Mini Card slot in support of mSATA.

The Intel Atom-based Pico-ITX board comes with rich I/O connectors, including two USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 (USB 3.1 Gen1) ports, one RS-232/422/485 port, one RS-232 port, one HD Codec audio and 4-channel digital I/O. It also supports SMBus that is compatible with I2C for smart battery support. The PICO319 offers watchdog timer and hardware monitoring function for reliable operation.

SBC WITH DUAL-DSP AUDIO
While graphics tend to be the emphasis of ITX technologies, audio is also key. Along just such lines, in February Estone Technology launched its Pico-ITX EMB-2238 board that builds on the audio strengths of NXP’s i.MX8M SoC with the help of high-end audio circuitry from Cirrus Logic (Figure 6). The EMB-2238 uses the quad-core version of the 1.5 GHz, Cortex-A53 equipped i.MX8M, which also includes a GPU and 266 MHz Cortex-M4 chip. Estone provides a Yocto Project stack based on Linux kernel 4.9, Qt, and Wayland. It also supports Android 8.1.0.

FIGURE 6 – The Pico-ITX EMB-2238 board builds on the audio strengths of NXP’s i.MX8M SoC with the help of high-end audio circuitry from Cirrus Logic. The EMB-2238 uses the quad-core version of the 1.5 GHz, Cortex-A53 equipped i.MX8M, which also includes a GPU and 266 MHz Cortex-M4 chip.

While many embedded boards tap the i.MX8M’s extensive digital audio skills to varying degrees, the EMB-2238 is even more focused on audio and voice control applications. It adds a Cirrus Logic CS47L24 smart codec module with a dual-core, 300 MIPS DSP and audio hub. The triple-DAC device offers a 115 dB dynamic range, an 8-192 kHz sample rate, and Enhanced DRE processing (eDRE) for 121 dB SNR.

The CS47L24 drives the EMB-2238’s dual digital MEMS microphone header, which features multi-mic noise suppression and acoustic echo cancellation (AEC). A 40-pin expansion header provides omni-directional, spatial 8-channel digital audio/DMIC inputs (SAI5) for the mic array, among other I/O including PCIe. Additional audio features on the SBC include a Class D, 2 W mono speaker, an 8-channel digital input and output (SAI1), and SPDIF and QSPI audio interfaces.

The EMB-2238 ships with the Amazon AVS (Alexa Voice Service) Device SDK, as well as Sensory’s TrulyHandsfree wake word engine. It also supports the Snips AI voice control assistant, including support for off-line operation. You can purchase the SBC with 2 GB to 4 GB LPDDR4, and a microSD slot and 8 GB iNAND are also available. For communications there’s a Wi-Fi/BT module and a GbE port with optional a Power-over-Ethernet (IEEE 802.3af) or PoE+ (802.3at) module that can also power an attached LCD panel. A separate option provides a second GbE port via a PCIe add-on card that also integrates a 9-36 VDC input, GPIO, an ambient sensor, and an LED control for light bars.

ADVANCED CAMERA SUPPORT
The Pico-ITX form factor is well-suited for applications that involve cameras. Supporting just such demands, in February Inforce Computing’s launched its Pico-ITX Inforce 6560 SBC that taps Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 660 SoC for applications including stereoscopic depth sensing and deep learning (Figure 7). The only other Snapdragon 660 based SBC we’ve seen is Intrinsyc’s Mini-ITX form factor Open-Q 660 HDK, which was announced in October 2017 and is focused more on mobile device development.

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FIGURE 7 – The Pico-ITX Inforce 6560 SBC taps Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 660 SoC for applications including stereoscopic depth sensing and deep learning.

The SBC taps the Snapdragon 660’s dual Spectra 160 ISPs and Hexagon 680 DSP with Hexagon Vector eXtensions (HVX) for devices that require simultaneous dual streaming capabilities with depth perception and vision processing. Applications include proximity detection, semantic segmentation, autonomous driving and facial recognition. Specific target devices included IoT edge devices in healthcare and telepresence, smart city applications including digital signage, and connected cameras such as 360/VR, sports, bodycam and IP security cameras.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 660 is claimed to offer up to 20% higher CPU performance and 30% higher graphics performance compared to the prior generation. According to a 2017 AndroidCentral report, the comparison refers to the similarly octa-core Snapdragon 653, which has 4x Cortex-A72 and 4x Cortex-A53 cores. The Snapdragon 660 SoC is also faster than the octa-core Snapdragon 625 and almost identical Snapdragon 626 thanks to its use of Cortex-A73-like “Kryo” cores, which are found on the higher end Snapdragon 820 and Snapdragon 835.

The Inforce 6560 offers 3 GB LPDDR4, 32 GB eMMC, and a microSD slot. I/O includes dual USB 2.0 ports and a USB 3.1 Type-C port with 4K DisplayPort/USB support. The port supports a Gbit Ethernet module with support for up to 2x ports.

A separate PoE header supports an optional ACC-1S70 add-on card with a Power-over-Ethernet enabled GbE, as well as a RS-485 transceiver port. The SBC provides an HD-ready HDMI port and MIPI-DSI interface. You also get dual MIPI-CSI connections with an option for a third. The CSI connections provide options for an HDMI input module and a 21-megapixel ACC-1H70 camera module.

RUGGED NANO-ITX BOARD
Compared to Mini-ITX and Pico-ITX, there’s been few products announced over the past 12 months based on the Nano-ITX form factor—even though Nano-ITX remains popular for long-life cycle embedded applications. An exception has ben WinSystems, who rolled out a couple Nano-ITX products in the Fall of last year.

One among these are is its ITX-N-3900 board. It provides a complete system that can be readily expanded and configured for diverse applications requiring an extended product life and high reliability under extreme operating temperatures. The 4.27 in2 (120 mm2) footprint features an onboard Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0-compliant chipset and four USB 3.1 host ports, along with a robust I/O set (Figure 8).

FIGURE 8 – The ITX-N-3900 board is a Nano-ITX SBC based on the Intel Atom E3900 Apollo Lake processor family. It features an onboard Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2.0-compliant chipset and four USB 3.1 host ports, along with a robust I/O set.

The ITX-N-3900 is SBC based on the Intel Atom E3900 Apollo Lake processor family. It uses less than 12 W for fanless applications and performs reliably in industrial operating temperatures ranging from -40ºC to +85ºC. The board is well suited for industrial IoT, energy management, medical, digital signage and other industrial embedded system applications.

The board includes a SODIMM socket supporting up to 8 GB of DDR3L system memory, one high-speed SATA storage interface, microSD storage and one mSATA storage interface. It includes dual Ethernet, DisplayPort, an RS-232/485/422 serial channel and expansion options via Mini-PCle and M.2 connectors. The ITX-N-3900 supports Linux, Windows 10 desktop, Windows 10 IoT and other x86-compatible RTOSes. 

RESOURCES
ASRock Industrial Computer | www.asrockind.com
Avalue Technology | www.avalue.com.tw
Axiomtek | www.axiomtek.com
Congatec | www.congatec.com
Estone Technology | www.estonetech.com
Inforce Computing | www.inforcecomputing.com
Kontron | www.kontron.com
Win Enterprises | www.win-ent.com
WinSystems | www.asrockind.com

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • SEPTEMBER 2019 #350 – Get a PDF of the issue


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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.