Single board computers (SBCs) have been around for longer you may think. When they were first introduced they were running off the classic Intel C8080A processor. This was more than 30 years ago (late 1970s). Today these boards play a crucial role in many different areas of our lives. Many people may not know what they are or what they do, but for those who do, we have watched these boards go through a type of baby boom within the last couple years.
These boards have been so successful due to the increasingly interactive world we live in. In fact, they are part of the reason so many gadgets and devices are becoming more interactive. They have helped design teams, artists, engineers, and hobbyists all create and develop better products. This is due to their availability, low cost, large support communities, and the fact that they can be easily integrated together to work with different peripherals. The ease of use is changing how engineers approach projects. Often enough I hear my colleagues saying they used a Beaglebone or Raspberry Pi to handle small projects or test rigs. That is a far cry from ten years ago when test rigs were constructed in a painstaking, brutal, from the group up approach. The easy access of SBC features lets my associates add in options they never would have ten years ago. For example, a friend created a spring pressure test rig. He added a visual readout due to the BB Black’s HDMI availability, where before it may have been just a green “OK” LED.
Let’s take a look at what engineers can use today…
Raspberry Pi model B R1.0, surplanted by the latest revision, of course. (via Raspberry Pi foundation)
Since the introduction of the Raspberry Pi (model A) back in 2011, single-board computers have become extremely popular, not only for hobbyists but with electrical engineers as well. They have been used for a myriad of projects as well as a test-bed for manufacturing, quality control and certainly all facets of the product design phase. The reason they have become increasingly popular can be attributed to their compact stature, ease of use and adaptability, such as the ability to incorporate almost any OS (although Linux-based OS’s are the most popular) depending on the project. One of the more popular boards on the market for engineering purposes is the widely known Raspberry Pi, which has been used as a platform for everything from robotics to cost-effective satellites. It has also been an invaluable teaching tool for those interested in computer science. Professor Simon Cox from the University of Southampton used 63 of the boards (housed in a LEGO rack) to build a supercomputer, known as Iridis-Pi to teach his students about parallel computing. The fact that the Model B can be had for around $35 makes it a very attractive platform for product development and testing. Since the Pi’s release, others have jumped on the mini-pc bandwagon, which gives engineers and enthusiasts increased options for their individual needs.
BeagleBoard’s BeagleBoard Black, it is definitely gaining in popularity. (via element14)
Another well-known SBC comes from BeagleBoard with their latest platform the BeagleBoard Black, which is similar to the Pi but has its own good and bad points when compared to the aforementioned platform. On the plus side, the BeagleBoard Black is outfitted with a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor, which is a 300MHz bump over the Raspberry Pi as well as two PRU 32-bit microcontrollers for memory and power management. The Black is no slouch when it comes to the OS’s that can be installed, which include Angstrom, Android and everything Linux to name but a few. Gamers can even install a Nintendo emulator effectively turning the board into a retro-gaming console! It does have some downfalls when it comes to some other boards, such as it doesn’t ship with any cables (revision A5 is expected too), it’s prone to crashes when there is no serial cable plugged into the J1 port and the MicroSD slot can’t be accessed when booting from directly from it. Even with those minor problems, developers have used the board for use as a server, turned it into a Wi-Fi-based clock radio (complete with play lists) and incorporated into an open-sourced 3D printer (Replicape). Not too bad for a board running around $45!
OlinuXino’s iMX223-OLinuXino-MAXI. The 40 pin GPIO has potential. But, the community surrounding this board needs to expand. (via element14)
Geared more for the test-bed is OlinuXino’s iMX223-OLinuXino-MAXI single-board computer, which is outfitted with a 454MHz iMX233 ARM926J processor along with 64GB of onboard RAM. It’s interesting to note that this board features video outputs for both PAL and NTSC, making the board ideal for projects involving video. What makes this board more of a test-platform is the existence of a Quad Flat Package (QFP) integrated circuit with extended leads, making it easy for users to solder any number of PCBs directly to the microcontroller. The derivative-based hardware allows for more unique project uses as well as allowing users to modify their hardware for testing purposes, such as converting it into an LED frequency analyzer, used as a ladder-logic PLC editor for generating HEX code or even a Java Script interpreter. The board can be loaded with any number of Linux-based operating systems used in conjunction with the board’s SD-card connector. The MAXI also features two USB ports along with a UEXT connector allowing for the connection of different peripherals. If that wasn’t enough, the board also features a 40 pin GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output) for even more hardware connection options. At an average price of around $60, it does cost more than the previous boards mentioned but with the number of connection options, it’s easy to see why this board is being used as a test-platform.
PandaBoard’s PandaBoard ES, impressive stats for the price. (via Pandaboard & element14)
Not all boards are created equal, in fact a few come really close to the power found in some desktop PCs (albeit some older models). PandaBoard’s PandaBoard ES is one of those models as it features a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU clocked at 1GHz. The single-board computer is also equipped with a dedicated PowerVR SGX540 graphics processor (running @ 384MHz) that can provide a resolution of up to 1080p through an HDMI port for those needing HD video in their projects. It also houses 1GB of DDR2 RAM, SDHC storage up to 32GB, Ethernet port, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections, which makes it one of the larger boards currently on the market. Like the other boards reviewed, it supports a plethora of Linux-based OS’s as well as Android, Firefox OS, OpenBSD/FreeBSD and even RISC OS 5. While the PandaBoard ES doesn’t feature the connectivity options of some other SBCs on the market, it does come with a few headers for those looking to add hardware, including headers for general-purpose modules (I2C, GPMC, MMC, DSS, etc.), camera expansion and even a LCD expansion as well. While this board is not as versatile as it could be for testing purposes, it’s geared toward more of a hobbyist/enthusiast crowd with projects that include an RC controller (VDriveCar 2), gestural control for TVs (Smart TV) as well as a digital music synthesizer.
Embest’s Sabre Lite Development Board. A useful board for when size matters. (via Embest)
Another powerful SBC comes in the form of Embest’s Sabre Lite Development Board, which features a Freescale i.MX6 ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore quad-core processor running 1GHz per core. It also packs 1GB of DDR3 memory running at 532MHz along with three display ports (including RGB, LVDS and HDMI 1.4A) and a pair of camera ports in a much smaller package than the PandaBoard ES. The board is host to a myriad of connection ports including a pair of UART serial ports, SATA II interface, TF interface, PCE-I interface, multiple USB ports (micro, HOST Type A and HOST connector), a 10-pin JTAG interface and Android interface (plus a few more). The Sabre Lite comes with ported Linux 3.0.15 pre-installed, however future models will also support Android 4.0.4). The board doesn’t really have any integration as a test platform yet, however electrical engineers can probably modify the board to suit their needs. Actually, the Sabre Lite is being touted as ‘a large PC you can fit just about anywhere’ and rightfully so given the host of connection options. Suggested uses range anywhere from closed-circuit camera surveillance to in-vehicle entertainment. As the name suggests however, it is a development board and users can use it to prototype and test projects eliminating the need for a separate full-size PC platform.
No matter what your needs or preferences are, there is a single-board computer on the market for everyone from hobbyists to electrical engineers that won’t cost you an arm or a leg. Those are just a few reasons why some engineers find SBCs attractive as they can easily use the boards for multiple test parameters without the need of multiple machines for different specifications. Not only that, but they can, and have been, used as a control for multiple test attributes in the development cycle. As new revisions and new models come to the consumer market, the applications of their use will increase for new and interesting products. It will be interesting to see what users of SBCs will design and develop with those new boards.
Whether you are new and learning about programming, or you have a serious project that needs to be tackled, there is a perfect board for the job. For the beginners, the Pi is the best place to start. It will also help when moving on to other boards to have a handle on all the basic features an SBC. For the more advanced users, picking a board depends largely on what you are planning on doing with it. Will it have all the connectivity options you will need and will it fit in the space needed? Whatever the case may be every engineer should get their hands on an SBC. Not only are they helpful and extremely useful for keeping our projects up to date with the constantly changing world, they are fun to use!
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