Best and the Rest: ARM Mini PCs
New shoots from an old acorn
The Raspberry Pi – if you can get your hands on one – isn't the only small, inexpensive ARM computer around these days. There are quite a few options with varying speeds and price points. So here we take up ARMs with a full review of the ARMini – uniquely British offering that is currently the fastest and the most costly player in this arena – and take a look at a range of alternatives for ARM enthusiasts.
Missing from the larder: a slice of Raspberry Pi
The ARMini is considerably quicker than the Raspberry Pi, which despite a powerful GPU has only 256MB of Ram and a 700MHz ARMv6 core – but then, a bare Rπ is less than a twentieth of the price.
ARM's family of CPU cores is complex and the nomenclature doesn't help – the Raspberry Pi's ARM11 core implements the ARMv6 instruction set, whereas the Beagleboard's Cortex-A8 is an ARMv7, which is a dual-issue, superscalar CPU, meaning about twice the instructions-per-clock.
Raspberry Pi supremo Eben Upton claims that the device is only about 20 per cent slower in actual use, but then, 256MB RAM is not much for running a modern graphical Linux desktop, either.
It's also worth noting that the most popular Linux distribution, Ubuntu, only supports ARMv7 or better, so the latest version you can run on an Rπ is the long-obsolete and unsupported Ubuntu 9.04 – but big-name alternatives available include Fedora and Debian.
Best of breed? The Beagleboard
Saying that, though, the Raspberry Pi is nearly an order of magnitude cheaper than anything else out there. As Upton puts it: "It’s not entirely clear to me why the Beagleboard is so expensive. Somebody in that Beagleboard value chain has got to be making a pile of money – I mean, $175 for a Pandaboard or $100 for a Beagleboard? Somebody’s got to be amassing a pile of cash there, because that’s a $10 chip in that device. I don’t know why they’re so expensive."
Next page: ARMini
So much possibility so far till payday :(
Re: *I think I paid around £27 with vat and shipping.
"When I give up smoking I'm guna buy Raspberries instead!"
IF you live that long !
> "It’s not entirely clear to me why the Beagleboard is so expensive ... "
We are told the Pi took 6 years to develop. I'm guessing that during the time the developers had proper jobs and regarded the Pi as a sort of altruistic hobby. It definitely wasn't going to be a source of income during those years.
Consequently all the time and resources used for the development process are a sunk cost and don't have to be recouped from the unit-price of the eventual product. That's what makes the Pi different from commercial offerings. In these cases the years (or more likely: months, for time is money) of developer time has to be paid for - in salaries, equipment and facilities.
We also know that given a large enough production run (say for a mobile phone) these costs don't add a great deal to each board when you're producing a million of them. Even less if all you have to do is add new features/power to an existing design. However for a low-sales, niche market that only produces one-hundreth the number of units, those same costs will contribute 100 times as much to the price of each board made.
Maybe the longest lasting legacy of the Pi won't be introducing children to little motherboards, but will be the creation of a low-cost, open sourced basis for future embedded hardware.
My RasPi should arrive this week...
Looking forward to it - at the very least, the Pi will make a decent cheap Linux machine to experiment with, and hopefully more. (I'm holding out for a "TV PC", though I realise this is basically a development board, often with alpha-level drivers to match, so I'm managing my expectations.)
Just wanted to mention another distro for the Pi: Arch Linux/ARM, which I understand is pretty mature as ARM Linuxes go - it's been running on machines like the SheevaPlug for some time now. I'm planning to use Arch with the Pi, as I have some experience from running Arch/x86 on my Eee 701SD netbook.
That said, I wouldn't mind giving the open RISC OS a spin :-)
>The ARMini is considerably quicker than the Raspberry Pi, which despite a powerful GPU has >only 256MB of Ram and a 700MHz ARMv6 core
Which is only a problem if you run today's software where everything has to be portable, virtualised or abstracted.
There's people doing amazing things with 20Mhz ATMega chips with 64kb flash.