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MIPS tempts hackers with Raspberry Pi-like dev board

Aug 28, 2014  |  Rick Lehrbaum
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Hard to choose between Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone Black, and MinnowBoard Max? Now there’s another choice: the open source MIPS-based “Creator CI20″ dev board.

In a bid to harness some of the energy and enthusiasm swirling around today’s open, hackable single board computers Imagination Technologies, licensor of the MIPS ISA, has unveiled the ISA’s counter to ARM’s popular Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black SBCs. These days, every processor vendor simply must have a community supported dev board in order to engage with the developer communities. (Incidentally, Intel’s is the MinnowBoard Max and AMD’s is the Gizmo.)



Creator CI20 development board
(click image to enlarge)

The core of the 90.2 mm x 95.3 mm Creator CI20 SBC is its Ingenic JZ4780 system-on-chip, which integrates a pair of MIPS32 cores clocked at 1.2GHz, a PowerVR SGX540 GPU, and an IEEE754 FPU. The Ingenic SoC is accompanied by 1GB of DDR3 DRAM and 8GB of NAND flash memory, and there’s also an one SD card slot and a set of signals for a second SD interface resides on an expansion connector.


Ingenic JZ4780 SoC block diagram
(click image to enlarge)

The board’s interfaces include an HDMI port supporting up to 2K at 60fps, an audio in/out jack, 10/100 Ethernet, both WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless, USB OTG and host ports, a CMOS camera input, multiple analog inputs and digital I/Os, and a pair of serial ports. There’s also a 14-pin MIPS JTAG header, a feature that’s sure to please the hard-core hackers among us.

The board is supported with a user’s guide, detailed hardware and software technical documentation, component specifications, full schematics, a Linux kernel, U-Boot sources, a support forum, and more. But you needn’t wait until you get your board to dive into much of that, as it appears to be freely available over at eLinux.org’s MIPS Creator CI20 wiki section.

“The Creator CI20 dev board is a multimedia powerhouse that has a OpenGL ES 2.0-capable PowerVR SGX540 GPU and dedicated video hardware for a suite of video codecs, including MPEG-4, H.264, VP8, MPEG-2, RV9 and others, making it ideal for HTPC enthusiasts,” writes technology marketing specialist Alexandru Voica in the Creator CI20 announcement on the company’s blog.

Regarding the board’s openness, Imagination states: “The MIPS Creator CI20 board is compatible with the principles and development of prpl.” Prpl, a sort of Linaro for MIPS, is described by Imagination as an “open source community for all things MIPS.”

 
Creator CI20 compared to Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black

Although it strikes us that the Creator CI20 development board is cut from very different cloth than these populist hacker boards, Imagination hastened to publish a handy quick-reference table showing how many ways its new dev board outperforms the so-called competition.



Creator CI20 vs. Raspberry Pi vs. BeagleBone Black
(click image to enlarge; source: Imagination Technologies)

Although competitive comparison tables often favor the table’s creator, we’ve scanned this one, and are comfortable that it’s fairly balanced. One point worth noting, is that the Creator CI20′s footprint is about 1.8 times the Raspberry Pi’s and 1.9 times the BeagleBone Black’s.

 
Linux and Android support

From the operating system support perspective, much OS porting work appears to be in motion. According to Voica’s blog post, the SBC can boot the desired OS either from onboard flash or from an SD card.



Creator CI20 running Debian
(click image to enlarge)

“OS images are available for Debian 7, Gentoo, Yocto, Arch, and other Linux distros — with Android v4.4 soon to arrive too,” he writes. In addition, the board’s “Linux kernel BSP (currently for 3.0.8 and 3.16) is open on github and up-streamed imminently; graphics support includes Xorg-compliant OpenGL 2.1 and OpenGL ES 1.1/2.0 drivers.”

 
A few words about MIPS

With the media fixated on the looming showdown between Intel and ARM in the mobile market, you’d hardly know MIPS exists. Actually, in recent years more than three billion MIPS-based devices have quietly shipped, according to Imagination. But the problem for MIPS, from a visibility perspective, is that its processors are often more deeply embedded, such as in carrier-grade networking and telecom equipment, consumer routers and access points, and as controllers in TV set-top boxes and game consoles. What MIPS lacks from a pizazz perspective is a presence in the red hot mobile device market.

Incidentally, despite its high profile announcement by Imagination, the Creator CI20 development board isn’t the first low cost MIPS SBC on the market. Currently ten boards are showcased on the company’s third-party MIPS SBCs page. Additionally, MIPS is the core of Qualcomm’s Atheros AR9331 SoC, which appears in numerous small SBCs and COMs (computer-on-modules) that typically run OpenWRT Linux (two interesting examples we’ve recently written about are here and here).

 
Summary of Creator CI20 specs

Creator CI20 specifications provided by Imagination include:

  • Processor — Ingenic JZ4780 system-on-chip
    • CPU — 2x 1.2GHz XBurst MIPS32 cores
    • GPU — SGX540
    • FPU — IEEE754
  • Memory:
    • RAM — 1GB (32-bit DDR3)
    • Flash — 8GB NAND
    • Expansion — 1x SD slot onboard; 1x SD card interface signals on an expansion connector
  • Networking:
    • 1x 10/100 Ethernet
    • WiFi 802.11b/g/n
    • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Graphics:
    • Hardware video decoders — MPEG-2, VC-1, VP8, MPEG-4, H.264 (1080p at 30fps), RV9 (1080p at 60fps)
    • HDMI port (up to 2k resolution)
  • Other I/O:
    • 2x USB — 1x OTG, 1x Host
    • 25x GPIOs
    • CMOS camera input (ITU.R BTU-645 connector)
    • 2x SPI
    • 1x I2C
    • 7x analng input channels
    • 1x UART
    • AC97 audio (via I/O jack and HDMI connector)
    • JTAG (14-pin MIPS EJTAG header)
    • Transport Stream Interface
  • Power — 5VDC
  • Dimensions — 90.2 x 95.3mm

 
Further information

Ordering information is available at the Imagination Technologies web store, here. Extensive technical information is already posted over at eLinux.org’s MIPS Creator CI20 wiki section, so you dive in as deep as you like.

We noted with interest that no pricing or delivery was listed on the product page, but it instead said “the Creator CI20 is supplied free of charge to certain approved projects under Imagination’s ecosystem.” Asked for clarification, Voica explained in an email to LinuxGizmos that Imagination has been stampeded with requests for free boards, and that they need to “sort through all the project proposals, select the most interesting ones and reward them with a free board.” Next, the company will “come up with a strategy to try and put more boards in the hands of people who are not necessarily developers and simply want to play with them,” he continued. At that point, pricing will be announced.
 

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PLEASE COMMENT BELOW

14 Responses to “MIPS tempts hackers with Raspberry Pi-like dev board”

  1. Gary Stewart says:

    On the chart that compares the three boards in the memory column only the Raspberry Pi says that the SDRAM is shared with the CPU when in fact on the BeagleBone Black it is also shared with the GPU and I’m 99.999% certain that it is shared with the GPU on the Creator CI20 too. In fact there are no SOCs that use PowerVR, Mali, or any other GPU IP I am aware of that doesn’t.

    After going to the Imagination Technologies web store site it does not look like this board is going to be available to the general public like the BeagleBone Black and Raspberry Pi B+ are which is a shame.

    • Alexandru Voica says:

      PowerVR GPUs keep a lot of the processing on-chip so they consume less bandwidth. Additionally, there is improved support for local memory; you can read more about the architecture here

      http://blog.imgtec.com/powervr/powervr-rogue-designing-an-optimal-architecture-for-graphics-and-gpu-compute

      This was the point of highlighting that fact for the comparison.

      • Gary Stewart says:

        All GPUs keep a lot of the processing on-chip for the exact same reason you state. The Broadcom
        GPU has local (on chip) caches for this and I suspect other GPUs do as well (hard to know for sure
        since they are all proprietary).

        Take a look at the block diagram and notice that the only “local” memory they show is a small
        dedicated 32 KB cache (Raspberry Pi uses a shared cache). Even with local memory it still
        shares main memory with the CPU as it clearly states in the link you provided and which is what
        the comparison does not state for the Creator CI20 or the BeagleBone Black, which was my point.

      • default says:

        The same is true for VideoCore IV. It is not a TBDR design like PowerVR, but uses various techniques to reduce memory bandwidth requirements. AFAICT, it uses a tiled rendering scheme similar to Qualcomm’s Adreno GPUs. The comparison is unfairly slanted here.

        It’s also simply wrong in other aspects. The ARM11 CPU in the Pi of course has floating point support. There is some SIMD support also.

  2. LinuxGizmos says:

    from the post’s conclusion…

    Asked for clarification, Voica explained in an email to LinuxGizmos that Imagination has been stampeded with requests for free boards, and that they need to “sort through all the project proposals, select the most interesting ones and reward them with a free board.” Next, the company will “come up with a strategy to try and put more boards in the hands of people who are not necessarily developers and simply want to play with them,” he continued. At that point, pricing will be announced.

    …so I think the public comes in phase 2, but that wasn’t exactly stated.

  3. Curt Wuollet says:

    Big announcement without price and availability rates a big yawn. Might be forgotten before it ships.

  4. lolo says:

    You should make a much more powerful board like the NVIDIA Jetson K1 kit ot the Odroid XU3.

  5. person123 says:

    Price?

  6. Anonymous Coward says:

    As a proof of their support to Open Source they should opensource the PowerVR GPU drivers.
    PowerVR GPUs have been a pain in the neck for years and years. Rather prevalent in the market, but complex and brittle which has hindered driver reverse-engineering.

    I have literally dozens of boards that suffer from PowerVR: Nokia N900, OpenMoko GTA04, OpenPandora, Beagleboard, Pandaboard, IGEPv2, .. N900 has one set of binary-blobs produced by Nokia. Unable to update kernel since it could break compatibility. OpenMoko GTA04 just avoids using GPU at all falling back to unaccelerated framebuffer. OpenPandora wrestles with various driver releases by TI; there’s no support for using VFP/NEON with the binary-only GPU drivers. Same goes for all other OMAP3/4/5 users. The PowerVR Plague.

    Open specifications to developers (like AMD/Intel) or hire some opensource developers to write you opensource drivers (like Intel/Broadcom). Can you do that?

  7. Eric des Courtis says:

    NAND flash is a bad choice (frequent flash corruption) they should use eMMC or boot off SD there is a reason why the others don’t use NAND.

  8. Zac says:

    Why isn’t the Hummingboard mentioned in the introduction?

  9. Andrew says:

    Misleading title, thanks.

  10. jezra says:

    Maybe they could tempt Open Source software enthusiasts if they would Open Source the driver for the PowerVR chip.

  11. Nighty says:

    (That’s not a B+ in the picture.)

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