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Hackable, cardboard Android mini-PC wins award

Jun 17, 2013  |  Eric Brown
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The Via Technologies recycled cardboard-housed Android mini-PC received a Design and Innovation award at Computex 2013 earlier this month. The hackable $99 “APC Paper” and its internal $79 “APC Rock” motherboard run a custom Android 4.0 OS on an 800MHz Via WonderMedia ARM Cortex-A9 SoC, and offer 512MB RAM and 4GB flash, along with HDMI, USB, and Ethernet connections.

The original Neo-ITX form-factor APC (Android PC) single board computer (SBC) was announced in May 2012 by long-time x86 — and increasingly ARM — chip vendor Via Technologies. The APC shipped in mid-2012 for $49. Designed to be competitive with hacker boards like the BeagleBone and Raspberry Pi, the open source APC board, which is now sold as the APC 8750, has nourished a small community of hackers, many of them in education.



APC Paper mini-PC
(click image to enlarge)

 

In January, Via’s APC initiative announced a pair of upgraded designs: a recently shipped, more powerful APC Rock SBC, along with an APC Paper mini-PC that integrates the Rock. Both products are due to arrive in the third quarter of this year. Housed in recycled pressed cardboard reinforced with high-grade aluminum, APC Paper is otherwise functionally identical to the Rock except for its lack of a VGA port.




APC Rock SBC and its rear-panel I/O
(click images to enlarge)

 

At the Computex show in Taiwan earlier this month, APC Paper won a Design and Innovation award from the Taiwan External Trade Council (TAITRA) in cooperation with the International Forum Design Hannover. The award was given for the computer’s “groundbreaking use of new types of materials and form factor,” says Via.

“This validates our vision of breaking the mold of traditional PC design using more environmentally-friendly materials and distinctive new form factors,” says Richard Brown, VP of International Marketing at Via.
 

Inside the APC Paper

The APC Paper mini-PC packages the APC Rock SBC, which is based on Via’s Neo-ITX form-factor and measures 170 x 80mm.  Like the Raspberry Pi, the Rock is equipped with an HDMI port and designed to be used with monitors, rather than touchscreens. The custom build of Android 4.0 has been optimized for keyboard and mouse input, and comes with a browser and a selection of preinstalled apps.

The Rock SBC integrates a faster Via WonderMedia ARM SoC, which although clocked at 800MHz like the APC 8750, adopts the more powerful Cortex-A9 architecture that enables video resolutions up to 1080p rather than 720p. RAM stays the same at 512MB of DDR3, but NAND flash has been doubled to 4GB, and more storage is possible on the microSD slot.



Via WonderMedia SoC block diagram
(click image to enlarge)

 

Instead of the APC 8750′s four USB 2.0 ports, the newer products offer two, but add a new microUSB port, and also add a 20-pin ARM-JTAG header for debugging. As before, you get 10/100 Ethernet, but WiFi must be added via USB.

Specifications listed for the APC Paper and APC Rock include:

  • Processor — WonderMedia ARM Cortex-A9 SoC @ 800MHz
  • Memory — 512MB RAM; 4GB NAND flash; microSD slot
  • Networking — 10/100 Ethernet
  • Other I/O:
    • HDMI
    • VGA (available on Rock SBC, only)
    • 2x USB 2.0
    • MicroUSB (OTG)
    • Audio-out, Mic-in
    • 20-pin ARM-JTAG via header
    • GPIO, SPI, and I2C via header
  • Dimensions — Rock 170 x 85mm (Neo-ITX); Paper 204 x 98 x 28mm
  • Operating system — Custom Android 4.0

Several reports, including one in Pete’s Blog and another on AgoControl have praised the APC Rock hardware, but have faulted Via for its custom Android build and support. Debian Linux has been ported to the device, but Via has yet to offer any help on compiling issues. Other reports such as one from The Deltas Blog are more positive. Still, the latter’s comparison with the Pi notes that while the APC Rock is faster, it’s also bigger, draws far more power (12W vs. 3.5W), and lacks the rich community and documentation available with the Pi.

If Via paid a bit more attention to the community approach that has made BeagleBoard.org and the Raspberry Pi Foundation so successful, they could have a winner on their hands, especially with the chic design of the APC Paper. Then again, you could say that about some of the other vendor-backed open board projects, as well.

In the YouTube video below, Richard Brown, Via’s VP of Marketing, introduces and discusses the original $49 Paper SBC.



 

APC Paper will be available early in Q3 for $99, says Via. The $79 APC Rock appears to be available now, along with the $49 APC 8750. More information, including links to open source firmware, documentation, and pin-out guides may be found at Via’s APC site.
 

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