The open source “pocket sized” computer market has been rapidly expanding with the success of the BeagleBoard and introduction of the Raspberry Pi. With the smartphone and tablet revolution pushing laptops and PCs out of the way, development boards are growing more and more popular. Weather it’s used for educational purposes in classrooms or by tinkerers to build cool things with, these dev-boards are significantly more affordable than PC’s or tablets, and the fact that the hardware as well as software is open sourced makes them an even more attractive tool for people to learn and improve on the design.
These dev boards are being used for a multitude of applications from acting as an autopilot controller for homemade UAV’s to being the brains behind 3D printers, or just used a multimedia center for your living room, the demand for these pocket computers is high and the influx of manufacturers proves such.
A brief look into the recent history of these boards:
The BeagleBoard was developed by Texas instruments in 2008 as an open-sourced educational platform, a 3″ x 3″ ARM powered 700MhZ computer with 256mb of ram and 256mb of flash storage, capable of running a fully functional version of Linux and other variants as well as Risc OS and Windows CE. With a price tag of $125 it was an appealing board for people to tinker with.
A more powerful 1GHZ version (BeagleBoard XM) was released a couple years later for an extra $25 opening the door for bigger and better projects while keeping the price point at an affordable level for schools and Developers.
While all this was going on, a handful of companies and communities were in the process of developing their own form of open sourced pocket computers. The PandaBoard (2010)offered a dual core 1Ghz TI processor with 1 GB of ram for $175. The Raspberry Pi was in the works with plans of changing the price point of pocket computers down to around $40 and making it easier for beginners to get into the world of Linux. With that in mind, Texas Instruments decided to step their game up and start developing the BeagleBone, a comparable Dev board with slightly better specs and at $89, it was a decent price drop from the previous BeagleBoard XM at $149
Meanwhile, other Developers were more performance-oriented rather than price with computers like the PandaBoard ES and Cotton Candy introduced at around $200 but boasting over 1GHZ in processing power. with the PandaBoard’s plethora of inputs and outputs, versatility and the cotton candy being the size of a BIC lighter yet able to run Android 4.0 it stirred up a lot of attention and excitement.
Early summer 2013 a new player entered the game, the MinnowBoard community with the help of Intel’s Open Source Technology Center released a small open sourced computer packing Intel’s Atom E640 Processor utilizing x86 architecture as opposed to the ARM based Atmel and TI processors in most of the boards on the market. Offering 1GHZ of processing power with 1GB of DDR2 ram and integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator. Although not the most powerful board in it’s class, running an x86 processor was intriguing and caught on with many despite the $199 price tag.
Once Intel had it’s foot in the door with the MinnowBoard, they worked closely with open source communities to bring more products to the maker market such as the Intel Galileo.
An Arduino compatible (hardware & software) Linux based dev board featuring the new Intel Quark x1000 Dual Core SoC Processor. It runs a limited version of linux (clanton) built with Yocto. Despite not running a GUI out of the box it’s still a powerful little board that can be used for a bunch of projects. I came across a coupon to pick one up at micro center for $40 and even though my overall experience with Linux was limited, I couldn’t resist. The Galileo is very straightforward and easy to use weather you’re a beginner or veteran, right out of the box I was able to upload Arduino sketches to use with one of my shields (the headers to the right of the board are the same orientation as the Arduino Uno & others) and it performed flawlessly. Once I uploaded the larger Linux image to an SD card I was able to run an SSH client through my tablet in a few minutes and play around with a few terminal commands. The Galileo is a great addition to Intel’s open source projects and attracts the Linux as well as the Arduino community as a powerful yet low energy consumption interactive tool for learning and making, and if you don’t want to get into the linux end of it, it works as any regular Arduino, if you don’t care for the Arduino aspect, you can simply use it as a linux board and still access the GPIO pins on the board without interacting with the Arduino bootloader.
Around the same time the Galileo was revealed, Intel also announced they would be coming out with a tiny little computer, the size and shape of a standard SD card called the Edison. Not too many specs were released but they claimed it would be running the Quark SoC processor like the Galileo and that it would be marketed as a platform for wearables. Last week Intel announced that they ditched the idea of using the Quark processor for the Edison and that they will be going with the more powerful Atom and since they are going down that road, it won’t be possible to maintain the intended SD card dimensions but will still maintain it’s small demeanor and only be slightly lager than an SD card. I am excited to see where this goes as I have a few ideas for wearable and embedded projects that could definitely use the Edison for.