Top Open-source PCs

Open-source PCs like the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBoard are finding interesting uses

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Thu, August 08, 2013

IDG News Service (New York Bureau) — Single board or "open-source" PCs have become a hot market, with the Raspberry Pi selling in the millions and competitors getting in on the act, including Intel's recently announced MinnowBoard. These PCs have open designs that can be replicated by other hardware companies, are inexpensive to manufacture as components get smaller and can run Android, Ubuntu and other flavors of Linux.

Here's a look at the open-source PCs that are available and finding a number of uses, including as media servers.

Raspberry Pi

The Pi has caught the imagination of hackers, programmers and 13-year-old Henry Budden, who wrote a tutorial on how to take advantage of the open-source PC. The PC has been widely used as a Web server and a media server with the XBMC program, which serves multimedia files to TV sets. The Pi is compatible with Android, and has been used by programmers to write and test smartphone and tablet applications. Other interesting projects involve jukeboxes, an autonomous underwater vehicle and a coffee machine.

The Pi comes in two models, the Model A for US$25 and Model B for $35. The base hardware includes a Broadcom chip with 700MHz CPU based on an old ARM11 processor design. The video processor is able to handle full 1080p multimedia and, combined with an HDMI port, the PC makes for a popular media server. The boards come with Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard slots. The Model A has 256MB of RAM and one USB port, while Model B has an 512MB of RAM, an Ethernet port, and two USB ports. The front page of Raspberry Pi's website lists stores from where the board could be purchased.

BeagleBoard

BeagleBoard offers a range of boards starting at $45 and the hardware is slightly more advanced than the Raspberry Pi. In addition to Android, the BeagleBoard and BeagleBone boards run the Linux variants Ubuntu, ArchMobile, Gentoo and Angstrom. BeagleBoards are being used for interesting projects including a Wi-Fi radio alarm clock, a solar-powered car controller, an in-car computer and a retro game computer. A list of projects is on BeagleBoard's website, though many have been discontinued.

BeagleBoard's $45 BeagleBone Black has a Texas Instruments ARM Cortex-A8 processor, a 3D graphics accelerator and a USB port. Other hardware includes 512MB of DDR3 RAM and 2GB of on-board storage, and HDMI and Ethernet ports. The most expensive $149 BeagleBoard-XM packs in more power with its 1GHz Cortex-A8 processor and also has more connectivity options with four USB ports, an Ethernet port and an MMC/SD slot.

PandaBoard

The fastest open-source PC on the market could be the PandaBoard ES, which runs on Texas Instrument's dual-core OMAP4460 chip with a 1.2GHz ARM Cortex-A9 CPU. At $182, the board costs more than other open-source PCs, but it provides a variety of features not found on other boards. An outstanding feature is Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX540 graphics processor, which until recently was used in smartphones and tablets to render 1080p graphics. It also has wireless connectivity with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Other features include 1GB of DDR2 DRAM, camera attachment components, and SD, USB and HDMI ports.

The $222 PandaBoard has similar features and supports the Android, Chrome and Ubuntu operating systems. The lighter PC runs on the OMAP4430 1GHz processor, which is also based on the Cortex-A9 design.

MinnowBoard

MinnowBoard is the first open-source PC with Intel's x86 processor. At $200, it is expensive compared to ARM-based boards. The x86 board was developed jointly by CircuitCo and Intel. The target audience for the board is developers writing embedded applications for products such as home automation systems, set-top boxes, robots and in-car entertainment systems. Intel also hopes to expand the x86 development platform, said Scott Garman, a MinnowBoard evangelist at Intel. He doesn't know what the developer community will conjure up with the PC, but is expecting the unexpected.

Garman also pointed out that boards like Raspberry Pi are subsidized and that $200 is the actual development price of the MinnowBoard. Open-source PC makers will be unable to replicate the Pi for $25, but will be able to make a MinnowBoard within a $200 budget.

MinnowBoard's 1GHz Intel Atom E640 processor provides more processing power than ARM processors, Garman claimed.

But with a processor released in 2010 and older DDR2 memory, the hardware is mildly disappointing. There are, however, some highlights: It has a Gigabit Ethernet port and SATA support for high-speed storage. Open-source UEFI firmware gives developers the opportunity to write custom secure boot environments. It also has an HDMI port and a micro-SD slot for expandable storage.

The MinnowBoard is available through Digi-Key, Farnell, Mouser Electronics and Newark.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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