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$199 open Intel Atom SBC ships, runs Angstrom

Jul 31, 2013  |  Eric Brown
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The Intel-backed MinnowBoard.org project has shipped its first open source SBC for $199. The MinnowBoard runs a Yocto-compatible Angstrom Linux build on a 1GHz Intel Atom E640 with 1GB of DDR2 RAM, and provides SATA, gigabit Ethernet, USB, HDMI, and PCI Express interfaces, as well as stackable expansion boards called Lures.

Linux hackers and hobbyists have been customizing Intel Atom-based Mini-ITX boards and other single-board computers (SBCs) and mini-PCs for years, but it’s been a largely solitary affair, and beset with proprietary obstacles to a true open source design. The Intel-sponsored MinnowBoard.org and MinnowBoard are the first major, commercially available open hardware project and SBC to arrive for x86 processors. Announced back in April, the MinnowBoard is intended to replicate the viral success of ARM-based open board projects like the Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone.



MinnowBoard top and bottom
(click images to enlarge)

 

It’s somewhat surprising that Intel has waited so long to launch an open board project, especially considering its long-time involvement in open source distribution projects like Moblin, MeeGo, Tizen, and Yocto. Yet, perhaps it is only with the recent emergence of the Linux Foundation’s Yocto Project that such a project could really have a chance of succeeding. Yocto offers a common framework to support numerous embedded distributions, with standardized open source templates and tools for embedded Linux development on multiple architectures. Indeed, as explained in our earlier interview with MinnowBoard project technology evangelist Scott Garman, who works at Intel’s Open Source Technology Center, the idea for the project came from the Yocto Project itself.

As far as we can see, the final MinnowBoard specs are the same as the lineup announced in April (see full specs list farther below). The only disappointment was that the final price, which was promised to be under $200, was just $1 less. While it’s true that an x86 board like the MinnowBoard, which includes components not found on ARM boards — like PCI Express expansion lanes, SATA ports, and a gig-Ethernet interface — could be expected to be costlier, the gap between $199 and the $45 BeagleBone or $35 Raspberry Pi yawns wide. However, in addition to its obvious appeal to hobbyists and hackers, the MinnowBoard is meant to serve as an open source reference design for companies developing customized embedded SBCs based on Intel’s Atom E6xx processors.

The 4.2 x 4.2-inch MinnowBoard is based on Intel’s Queens Bay reference platform for the Intel Atom, but was designed and built by CircuitCo with input from Intel and the Yocto Project. CircuitCo also builds the ARM Cortex-A8-based BeagleBone Black, which similarly ships with a Yocto-ready Angstrom build.

The MinnowBoard is equipped with a 1GHz Intel Atom E640 processor with integrated Intel GMA 600 graphics and an EG20T controller hub, and supports Intel hyperthreading and VT virtualization technology. The SBC ships with 1GB of DDR2 RAM and 4MB of SPI flash. A microSD/SDIO slot and a SATA 2 port provide user-supplied storage, along with any storage devices one might attach to the dual USB host ports. A micro-USB-B device port is also available, as well as a serial debug with UART-to-USB conversion.

Whereas most ARM hacker boards have 10/100 Ethernet, if they have any Ethernet at all, the MinnowBoard supplies a 10/100/1000Mbps gigabit Ethernet port. It also sports the PCI Express expansion lanes (2x) typical of an x86 SBC.



MinnowBoard block diagram
(click image to enlarge)

 

Additional I/O includes analog audio I/O, eight GPIO lanes, and several GPIO-controlled LEDs and switches. A firmware flash programming header is also said to be available. (For a spec list, see our earlier coverage, as well as the MinnowBoard.org link farther below.)

Just as the Arduino has its Shields and the BeagleBone has its “capes,” the MinnowBoard offers stackable expansion via add-on boards called Lures. The Lures are available in Type A (4.2 x 4.2 in.), Type B (4.2 x 2.45 in.), and Type C (2.45 x 2.45 in.) sizes.

A number of Lures are in development now, including a Beacon Lure (GPIO accessory breakout); an Arduino-compatible Trainer Lure; an LVDS display Lure;, a Mini-PCIe/mSATA Lure; a Break-Out-Board (“BOB”) Lure with I2C, SPI, GPIO, UART, and USB host interfaces; an I/O Pad Lure with buttons, LEDs, EEPROM, and a 2×10-character LCD; and an Automotive Lure with a CAN bus and 12V power input and rails. Of these, the Trainer, Beacon, and Breakout lures are expected to start shipping in August, according to CircuitCo’s David Anders.
 

MinnowBoard features and specs

Key features and specs of the MinnowBoard, as listed by the project, include:

  • Core logic:
    • 1GHz 32-bit Intel Atom E640 CPU
    • EG20T Intel Platform Controller Hub
    • Integrated Intel GMA 600 graphics accelerator
  • Memory:
    • 1GB DDR2 RAM
    • 4MB SPI flash
  • I/O ports:
    • SDVO to DVI (over HDMI connector)
    • Analog audio in/out
    • MicroSD/SDIO
    • 1x SATA2 3Gb/sec
    • 2x USB host; 1x USB device port
    • 1x serial debug port with serial-to-USB conversion
    • Gigabit Ethernet
    • 8x Buffered GPIO lines
    • 2x GPIO-controlled LEDs
    • 4x GPIO-connected switches
  • 2x PCI Express lanes
  • Firmware flash programming header
  • Dimensions — 4.2 x 4.2 in.
  • Power — 5VDC

The MinnowBoard ships with Angstrom Linux, said to be compatible with Yocto Project v1.3, and other Linux distros are expected to offer support soon. It also supplies an open source UEFI firmware implementation for fast boot capability.

MinnowBoard.org community features include a wiki, IRC live chat, and a Google Group email discussion page. Schematics and design files are available, and can be replicated under a Creative Commons license. The group has posted several guides for MinnowBoard development and promises many more.

The MinnowBoard, which is built by CircuitCo, is now available for $199 at online retailers including Digi-Key, Farnell, Mouser Electronics, and Newark. More information and links to retailers may be found at MinnowBoard.org. Trainer, Beacon, and Breakout Lures are expected to ship next month.
 

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PLEASE COMMENT BELOW

6 Responses to “$199 open Intel Atom SBC ships, runs Angstrom”

  1. Darren Hart says:

    Regarding the board’s “UART-to-USB conversion”, the serial console is a real UART for the device (so it works well for early debug) and appears like a USB serial adapter on the host PC.

  2. Luke McCarthy says:

    I don’t see what the point of this board is, when mini-ITX Atom motherboards are already available and significantly cheaper than this “MinnowBoard”. What am I missing?

    • Scott Garman says:

      Hi Luke, MinnowBoard project member here. The Mini-ITX Atom motherboards you refer to are PCs, and the MinnowBoard is focused on embedded applications. While in theory you could use a MinnowBoard to run a small form factor PC, that’s not what it is intended for.

      MinnowBoard is an open hardware platform, and our intention is that companies can create re-spins of the board to customize it and embed it in commercial products. Likewise our expansion connector allows you to access embedded I/O such as GPIO, I2C, SPI, etc that are not available on those Mini-ITX motherboards. MinnowBoard allows you to interface with custom electronic hardware, a key aspect of embedded computing. The way MinnowBoard makes PCIexpress available to embedded applications will be a boon to people who wish to pair MinnowBoard with high-speed I/O applications such as FPGAs, for example.

      It’s true that some of these Mini-ITX boards are less expensive than MinnowBoard, but that’s largely due to volume economics. MinnowBoard is focusing on certain niches, and provides value to those niches for some of the reasons I mention above.

      As for the choice of a Tunnel Creek CPU. The MinnowBoard is based on Intel’s “Queens Bay” reference platform, which is being used in IVI (In-Vehicle-Infotainment) devices, and as such has a long-term availability plan. Speaking as someone with embedded product development experience, nothing is more frustrating than developing a successful commercial product and then hearing the SBC manufacturer is end of life-ing the board or some of its key components. Also, we wanted to bring MinnowBoard to market as soon as possible, and this put some constraints on what platforms we could use – basically what was currently available when the project was started.

      Finally, MinnowBoard is not a direct competitor to RasberryPi and BeagleBone. While there is some overlap in the kinds of applications you can do with these boards, MinnowBoard is part of an ecosystem of boards that provide different feature sets and performance at different price points. People are free to choose the board that meets their project requirements best, and more choices benefit everyone.

      Scott Garman
      Intel Open Source Technology Center
      Technical Evangelist, MinnowBoard.org and Yocto Project

  3. Luke McCarthy says:

    Why did they use a 3 year old Atom processor? They really needed to make this board cost no more than $99 for it to be successful as RasPi or BeagleBone. In the hobbyist market it’s all about low-cost.

  4. iso9660 says:

    The board is very complex comparing to any ARM board. I’d like to know the power consumption and some benchmarks. Regarding to the customers I know many people that would like to build windows 8 surface like systems, but it proved to be a total failure, and the competitiveness from ARM-Android is simply brutal. It would be a device to take into acount some years ago when BeagleBoard was arriving to the market, but now things are different.

  5. user says:

    Good luck with that.

    90nm, 1.55W PCH; 40nm, 3.6W CPU and so on.
    Do you think we’re stupid?

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