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Mini-PCs gain customized I/O and a headless hack

Sep 24, 2013  |  Eric Brown
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CompuLab announced four customized versions of its fanless, Linux-ready mini-PCs based on plug-in LAN, serial/CAN, USB/mSATA, and mini-PCIe personality modules. The company also introduced a signage and communication oriented mini-PC, as well as a $15 HDMI dongle that enables high-res VNC-based remote display from headless PCs by tricking proprietary video drivers into thinking an HDMI display is attached locally.

CompuLab’s four new Fit-Multi computers offer pre-integrated peripheral mixes using the proprietary FACE module expansion system available on its Fit-PC, Intense PC, and uSVR mini-PCs. The Israeli company already sells its flagship Fit-PC2 and newer Fit-PC3 models — both based on AMD G-Series processors — as well as eight versions of its Intel Core (“Ivy Bridge”) based Intense PC. The Intense PC also forms the basis for a recently shipping MintBox 2 model, jointly offered with the Linux Mint project. The Intense PC models differ in their processors, RAM, storage, and OS.





Front and back, top to bottom: Fit-PC3, Intense PC, uSVR
(click images to enlarge)

 

Earlier this year, CompuLab also introduced a rugged, fanless, microserver based on the same Intel Core processors called the uSVR. This higher-end model offers features such as a DisplayPort, and up to 6x gigabit Ethernet (GbE) ports and up to 4x hard disk drives (HDDs).

All these systems run both Linux and Windows, and they all share the FACE (Function And Connectivity Extension) mezzanine module expansion socket. The expansion interface uses high-speed, low-pitch, high-pin count board-to-board connectors (B2B), as shown in the diagram below. FACE modules offer various mixes of additional USB, serial, CAN, GPIO, and Ethernet ports, as well as PCI-Express (PCIe) sockets.



Modular FACE expansion architecture
(click images to enlarge)

 

Each FACE module comprises a PCB with a sheet-metal panel that “fits seamlessly in the casing,” according to CompuLab. The FACE modules are designed to enable feasible customization projects of under 100 units, as well as customer and third-party designed peripheral mixes, says the company.

Now, users can purchase preconfigured Fit-Multi systems with similar port expansions. Each of the Fit-Multi models can be purchased as customizations for the Fit-PC, Intense PC, or uSVR computers. The following port counts are listed as “up to,” reflecting differences in standard port allotments between the base systems. For example, while the Fit-PCs have a single GbE port, the Intense PC and uSVR already have two.

The first four Fit-Multi models include:

  • Fit-MultiLAN — Aimed at networking devices including routers and security appliances, the Fit-MultiLAN provides up to 6x GbE ports, each riding on a dedicated PCIe lane.


    FACE LAN expansion modules
    (click images to enlarge)

  • Fit-MultiSer — This serial-oriented system supplies up to 7x RS232 ports and 2x CAN bus ports. Applications are said to include control, instrumentation, data acquisition, and in-vehicle devices.


    FACE Serial expansion module
    (click images to enlarge)

  • Fit-MultiPCIe — Whereas Fit-PC3, Intense PC, and uSVR computers all ship standard with dual mini-PCIe sockets, the Fit-MultiPCIe offers four. The design is ideal for “diverse data-communication devices are required within a single ruggedized chassis,” says CompuLab.


    FACE PCIe expansion module
    (click image to enlarge)

  • Fit-MultiUSB3 — Whereas the Intense PC, for example, offers four external USB 2.0 ports, with two more internal, plus two external USB 3.0 ports, the Fit-MultiUSB3 brings out 4x USB 3.0 ports and 4x USB 2.0 ports as real-world ports, and also tosses in a second mSATA socket. The Fit-MultiUSB3 is a good “fit” for a “miniature ruggedized hub for multiple high-speed devices,” says the company.


    FACE USB expansion module
    (click image to enlarge)

     

    CompuLab says the above designs can be integrated into both SBCs and mini-PC systems. The company also appears to be willing to offer the same customer collaboration services in designing new Fit-Multi systems, as it does with FACE modules.
     

    Fit-PC3i

    CompuLab’s Fit-PC2 and Fit-PC3 have been aimed at a wide range of low-power applications, ranging from desktop computers to digital signage. Now, with the Fit-PC3i, CompuLab has spun a custom version aimed at signage, surveillance, and telecommunications applications. Unlike with the Fit-Multi systems, the customizations are internal rather than depending on FACE expansion.


    Fit-PC3i front and back
    (click image to enlarge)


     

    The Fit-PC3i adds a second gigabit Ethernet port and a second HDMI port compared to the Fit-PC3. In addition, it offers CEC support for display control in signage applications, as well as a micro-SIM socket for cellular communications. Also provided is CompuLab’s new Fit-Headless, a separately available integrated display emulator for hi-res VNC-based remote display during headless operation (see farther below).

    The Fit-PC3i is available in LP and Pro versions. The latter moves up from a 1GHz, dual-core AMD G-T40E G-Series processor to a 1.6GHz, dual-core AMD G-T56N with faster Radeon 6320 graphics. However, it also expands the TDP from 6.4 Watts to 18 Watts, resulting in overall power consumption on the Pro of 8-24 Watts compared to 7-15W on the LP. The Pro enclosure is also slightly taller.

    Specifications listed for the Fit-PC3i include:

    • Processor:
      • Fit-PC3i LP — AMD G-T40E (2x 64bit cores @1.0GHz with Radeon 6250 GPU); 6.4W TDP
      • Fit-PC3i Pro — AMD G-T56N (2x 64-bit cores @1.65GHz with Radeon 6320 GPU)’ 18W TDP
    • Memory — up to 16GB DDR3
    • Storage:
      • 2.5-inch SATA HDD/SSD slot
      • mSATA port
      • mSATA via mini-PCIe
    • Wireless:
      • 802.11b/g/n up to 150Mbps
      • Bluetooth 4.0
      • Micro-SIM slot via mini-PCIe
      • Dual antenna (in some models)
    • Networking – 2 x gigabit Ethernet
    • Other I/O:
      • 2x HDMI 1.4a up to 1920 x 1200 w/ CEC and Fit-Headless
      • S/PDIF 7.1 audio I/O
      • Stereo audio line-out, mic-in
      • 4x USB 2.0
    • Expansion:
      • Half-size mini-PCIe slot
      • Full-size mini-PCIe slot dedicated to mSATA and SIM
      • FACE module interface
    • Power consumption:
      • Fit-PC3i LP — 7W – 15W

      • Fit-PC3i Pro — 9W – 24W
    • Dimensions/enclosure:
      • Fit-PC3i LP – 16 x 16 x 2.5cm

      • fit-PC3i Pro – 16 x 19 x 3.7cm
      • Passively cooled die-cast aluminum
    • Operating system – Linux; Windows 7; diskless barebones

     

    Fit-Headless

    The new Fit-Headless display emulator for hi-resolution headless remote access is available with the Fit-PC3i, but can also be used on any headless computer system, says CompuLab. The $15 HDMI dongle emulates a connected display, thereby simplifying remote desktop access regardless of GPU, OS, or display driver.

    In many cases when compositing a headless-system desktop for remote display in high resolution the computer must first detect a connected display. Fit-Headless emulates an HD display, tricking the GPU into enabling remote desktop compositing at HD. The Fit-Headless works with any HDMI capable PC running any OS, and requires no software installation, configuration, or external power, says the company.

    We asked CompuLab Chief Product Officer Irad Stavi how the product came about, and he explained that when Intel’s display driver sees that no display is connected, it turns off the GPU to save power, which typically leaves the display resolution stuck at 640 x 480. The Fit-Headless device tricks it into keeping the GPU on, using a DDC interface.

    “We did not plan on making Fit-Headless, but with every new generation of GPU or OS we start receiving support cases all over again,” said Stavi. “It’s like Whac-A-Mole — we solved it in XP on fit-PC2 and it reappeared on Win7. We researched it on ATI in Windows, but couldn’t solve in Linux. Then it appeared on Intense PC to be solved in BIOS except in Win8… At that point we said enough is enough. With fit-Headless we believe this issue is solved for the foreseeable future!”
     

    Availability

    The Fit-Multi products are available now starting from $449, says CompuLab. The Fit-PC3i will be available in the fourth quarter starting at $275. The Fit-Headless accessory is available now for $15. A bit more information on the Fit-PC3i may be found on the Fit-PC3i product page. It’s unclear whether more specs on these or the Fit-Multi systems will be posted. For more information in general, visit CompuLab’s Fit-PC website.
     

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