Chewier than a slice of Pi: MIPS Creator CI20 development board

Use your Imagination

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Comparisons between the CI20 and the Pi are justified because that’s clearly what Imagination has in mind. If the try-to-beat-Pi spec wasn’t sufficient to convince you of that, how about the fact that the CI20 not only exposes its SoC’s GPIO pins and multiplexes in the usual standard buses – UART, SPI and I²C – but also arranges them in exactly the same way the original Pi does? With 3V3 and 5V0 power feeds and 3V3 logic, that puts the CI20 right in the Pi’s tin.

MIPS Creator CI20 development board

Pi format pins

Both products use HDMI for output and have tiny camera connectors. The CI20 also has a third, mini USB port for on-the-go, extra GPIO on a secondary bank of pins and a dedicated UART header. It uses a standard barrel connector for power – a USB-to-barrel cable comes bundled. That, and the 8GB of Flash pre-loaded with Debian, makes the CI20 ready run – not the case with a raw Pi, for which you need cables and a memory card.

The Pi’s strength, however, is not its out-of-box experience but its emphasis on access for non-techies. The Raspberry Pi Foundation put in a lot of work making the Pi’s hardware features, in particular the GPIO, accessible from Python. The Pi’s version of Debian, Raspbian, has all the appropriate drivers installed in the kernel and middleware in place to tie everything together.

Not so the CI20. I intended to bring over a little Python code to run the inevitable "Hello World" to flash an LED, but the CI20 has nothing like the handy *RPi.GPIO* module, so I had to hack it up using a bash script and Linux's *sysfs* interface. Imagination seems to expect we’ll all be writing CI20 applications in C, but if it hopes to get hobbyists knocking up Internet of Things gadgets based on its board, it will need to make its platform work with friendlier languages.

And more complete. I thought I’d try some I²C peripherals, but despite the bus being notionally accessible through the GPIO pins, it was unavailable. There was no kernel module to load, no */dev/i2c*. So you may be compiling new kernels if you need to get down to that kind of level.

MIPS Creator CI20 development board

Compared: Raspberry Pi 2 (left) and CI20 (right)

Unlike the Pi, there’s no real community behind the CI20 yet. I’m sure the board has its fans, and they’ll be publishing blog posts with how-tos in due course, but there’s very little there yet.

Given the CI20's early unfriendliness toward anyone who isn't among its classic evaluation board audience, I can't see the Imagination offering reaching the kind of audience the Pi enjoys for quite some time. And as has always been the case, these things feedback on themselves: the more community members, the more active the community and the more new folk – accessories and add-ons too, for that matter – are attracted to it.

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