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Open Source Hardware

The MinnowBoard is a Low-Cost, Open Hardware Single-Board Computer (Video) 84

Posted by Roblimo
from the open-source-software-is-followed-by-open-source-hardware-like-summer-follows-spring dept.
Out in the Northeast Texas town of Ft. Worth, a company called CircuitCo started making something they called the BeagleBoard -- an open source hardware single-board computer for educators and experimenters. Now, with help and support from Intel, they're making and supporting the Atom-based MinnowBoard, which is also open source, and comes with Angstrom Linux to help experimenters get started with it. David Anders is the Senior Embedded Systems Engineer at CircuitCo. Slashdot's Timothy Lord met David at LinuxCon North America 2013 in New Orleans and made this video of him talking about the recently-released MinnowBoard and the more mature BeagleBoard.

David Anders: My name is David Anders. I am the senior engineer at Circuitco. Circuitco was founded in 2006 as a contract manufacturing company. We were approached by some individuals within TI to help them assist in creating a low cost platform for development. And that gave birth to the BeagleBoard.org product line. That became our niche market as far as open hardware designs, and that’s what we have been doing for years. Last year, we were approached by Intel to work with them on creating a low cost platform to basically demonstrate the capabilities of Intel architecture devices.

Tim: Now let’s hear a little bit more about that platform -- what is that?

David: That is the MinnowBoard. We created the MinnowBoard based on the Intel Atom E600 series. It is a 32-bit processor. It is running at 1 Gigahertz. It has a wide range of IO and features on board that give it a very unique platform to work on. The best part of it is it is 100 percent open. We provide the design files, the schematic, gerbers, bill of material all released under Creative Common License.

Tim: Now what else does open mean here? Talk about what does that let you do?

David: Open basically means that you can purchase every single one of the components used on this board in quantity of one, and you can create this board yourself if you so choose to. Whether you want to create one, ten, or 10,000, that is free for you to do, and it also gives you the capability of manufacturing variations for OEM designs.

Tim:

David: Basically, if you look back in 2006, if you wanted to purchase an ARM development platform, you w ere looking at anywhere from $1000 to $3000 and most of them were closed. That’s when BeagleBoard.org came out with the BeagleBoard products and they were sold in the $200 range. If you take that into mind now with the lower cost ARM boards that are being sold for $45 or even down to $25, that market pressure has pushed that cost down very low. We are trying to do the same thing with the x86 platform. If you look right now, in the industrial x86 market, most of the boards are going to be anywhere from $1000 to $3000, and they are closed platforms. By us releasing this board as it is right now, we’ve kind of thrown the first punch trying to make it a more competitive market for open platforms. We hope to see the prices for these things be driven down by more competition.

Tim: Being an x86 board in this market is a mark of some distinction in this market right now; what does that let you do?

David: Basically, this is the first open x86 platform in which all the design files meet the Open Hardware Association’s guidelines to be classified as an open hardware platform. This also allows you to use most applications and design software that is already written for x86 without having to cross compile it. So it gives you a fairly large selection of software that is already existing.

Tim:

David: Sure. This is the main board itself. It basically comes with a power cord and the board itself, but on this particular version I am demonstrating our accessory board. This is a breakout board that basically gives you access to some of the large speed connections such as I2 C, SPI, GPIO, and UART. This gives you a capability of working with it as an embedded platform.

Tim: Now, that add-on board: how open would you describe that as being?

David: The accessory boards are intended to be open as well. We actually provide an Eagle library file so that you c an design your own, the e-boards that we produced for this will also be released under Creative Common, so that you can manufacture it or anyone else.

Tim: With that kind of accessory, it seems like it’s getting to be crowded right now -- it seems to have some things in common with the Arduino.

David: Yeah, it basically gives you the capability of treating it as a generic Linux platform and work with low level interfaces, and once you learn how to use those, whether it is this platform or another, the interfaces under Linux are exactly the same.

Tim: Now speaking of Linux, as where the Linux platform is right now, talk about what sort of ____4:47 runs with and could run with ____4:50

David: Intel worked with us mainly to demonstrate one of their primary projects which is the Yocto project. The distribution that we shipped with the device is Angstrom Linux and it is build using the Yocto project along with open embedded.

Tim: Would any 32-bit Linux run on this?

David: Any 32 bit Linux that has a 32 bit UEFI support will work with it.

Tim:

David: There was a lot of pushback that we got after we released the board and the fact that why was It a 32-bit in this day and age when some of the other 64-bit processors were out there. The 32-bit processor we chose had been on the market for quite some time, and so a lot of the issues, bugs, features was well known on this. And really because it was the very first x86 open hardware platform, there were a lot of things that we needed to learn doing this particular design. And using this particular processor made that easy. Now that we understand some of the challenges for doing x86 design, other processor designs may be in the works for the future.

Tim: Now, you’ve been available now for single digits of weeks, I think. How is manufacturing? Has that brought you new knowledge of how things should work?

David: Absolutely. We produced a small batch of these that we sent out to all the major distributors and they’ve sold out extremely quickly. And as of this morning, we began a production line of another 5000 pieces that would be run out to distributors shortly.

Tim: Do you have any idea what kind of people are buying this?

David: We are seeing a wide range of folks that are buying it, anywhere from hobbyists that want to develop something as an automated cap feeder but we are also beginning to see a lot of companies who would normally buy an industrial closed source design to develop a product around, are beginning to buy these as well. Because all of the resources are there for them to review.

Tim: We’ve gotten a glance just now at the board itself and the attachments; we have over here some boards that are connected. Explain how these are different.

David: Well, on the display here we have the BeagleBone Black which is a low cost ARM platform that sells for $45. And on the left here, we have the MinnowBoard. Now, the MinnowBoard sells for $199, and this is definitely not comparing apples-to-apples on the design, but the x86 platform is much more robust in the long term as far as x86 compatibility - you don’t have to cross compile things, but there are tradeoffs in the aspect but it does require more power to operate. The design itself is very robust and stable. So one of the things that we will also see in the future, is these boards will begin to shrink because as we get lower cost platforms, the size of the design will also decrease as well.

Tim: And if someone decides they want to build one of these, and make a working system out of it, this monitor you’ve got hooked up, is that a standard VGA? What sort of outputs can you use on this?

David: This is an off-the-shelf display; we can buy them on eBay. It is basically a miniature HDMI DVI display, but it will work with anything such as a standard 1080p television or if you’ve got an off-the-shelf DVI display that you have previously used with your computer system, it works perfectly fine with that.

Tim: What about things like SATA drives, Ethernet?

David: The board itself comes with a wide variety of peripherals including Gigabit Ethernet, two SATA ports that are available to you, and it has got dual channel PCI on the expansion header. It also contains a macro USB port. It also has inputs for microphone and headphone. So it is a very robust platform to begin working with.

Tim: David, let me ask you just 2 more questions: First, we talked before, you mentioned something about the graphics hardware. You mentioned the difficulty of getting a fully open graphics stack. Talk about that for a little bit.

David: Well, we started off with the definition from the Open Hardware Association, and that lets the qualifications to use the term open hardware. One of the things that many people disagree on that particular qualification is, the processor we are using has a closed GPU, meaning we don’t have documentation and only binary support for it. And for a lot of people that basically says it is not open. The difference here is Intel has recognized that open hardware platforms are important and valuable, and as long as we continue to show them that we want those parts of the processor to be open and show that those are valuable for us to have and work with, more companies like Intel, Texas Instruments, Freescale, all these companies will start seeing daylight and start trying to make those available to us. But we have to continue pushing the term open even to the GPU.

Tim: And my last question to you. You hinted at, and I don’t know how much you can say, but what’s the future of this sort of x86 embedded board?

David: Well, we can look at the history of BeagleBone Black, and in the aspect that the original BeagleBoard sold for $200, but BeagleBone Black sells for $45, it is smaller, more robust, and that happened in a relatively short time. Because we have thrown out the first volley on the open hardware x86 platforms, I suspect within a very short time, we are going to be in the same type of ballpark.

Tim: Let me press my luck -- one more thing. Talk about the organization that goes behind BeagleBoard and the MinnowBoard.

David: Sure. BeagleBoard.org was created as a 501c nonprofit organization, and we have the board, and we basically administer it, and we are doing the same thing with MinnowBoard.org, it will become a nonprofit organization to administer to the design files, in the right spirit and everything to make sure that it is properly administered.

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The MinnowBoard is a Low-Cost, Open Hardware Single-Board Computer (Video)

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  • Deja Vu (Score:5, Informative)

    by khellendros1984 (792761) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:07PM (#44963447) Journal
    A little deja vu [slashdot.org].
  • Pricing! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:07PM (#44963451)
    • by Sarten-X (1102295)

      Thank you. That is exactly what I wanted to know.

    • That's not what we wanted. We wanted to know its cost was $80, tops.

      • by symbolset (646467) *
        Also we wanted to know it was the newest Atom chip that's actually good, not one from last decade.
    • by petes_PoV (912422)

      the board costs $200 or £135

      So it's really just an expensive Mini-ITX board?

      For an end-user, being open source is irrelevant. Having a few programmable I-O's won't help it. If that was all you needed, you'd buy an Arduino and save £100 on your design (plus the space and power savings, and no messy O/S to worry about).

      The BeagleBoard is sort-of OK (I have one), but there are better boards arouns at similar prices and sizes. The same goes for this one: it's about 10 years too late into the small PC market.

      • Re:Pricing! (Score:4, Informative)

        by arglebargle_xiv (2212710) on Friday September 27, 2013 @04:47AM (#44968699)

        the board costs $200 or £135

        So it's really just an expensive Mini-ITX board? For an end-user, being open source is irrelevant. Having a few programmable I-O's won't help it. If that was all you needed, you'd buy an Arduino and save £100 on your design (plus the space and power savings, and no messy O/S to worry about).

        Or, if you want a modern x86-based mini system, buy something like a Zotac barebones for a little over half the price. I realise it's cool and tree-huggy to have an open-source board like this, but in practice if I want an embedded real-world interface device I'll get an Arduino, if I want a compact x86 I'll get any one of a range of SFF x86's, and if I want something about halfway I'll get a PCEngines Alix, also at half the price.

      • A couple of years ago there were a couple brands of computers available at Fry's for about $250 that had a slightly earlier Atom chip, 1 GB RAM, a small but adequate disk drive, power supply and case. They were small fanless boxes, maybe an inch thick and 6x6 square, enough to be a good low-end desktop PC. 1GB RAM wasn't big enough back then, and it's way too small today.

        Yeah, having a few GPIO pins is nice, but you can hang an Arduino off a USB port and get that for $35 today.

    • by harrkev (623093)

      So, how is this progress? The cool thing about the Raspberry Pi is that it was extremely low cost. Newegg could sell me a mini-ITX mobo with an atom for $75. Add in a few bucks for RAM, power supply, and hard drive, and you are still below $200. Yes, the Minnow is smaller and uses less power, but you pay a pretty penny for that option.

      So, somebody explain why the Minnowboard is significant....

  • Price? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    "Low cost" needs substance. It costs $200.

  • We have already raspberry pi and others. What I would like was a more potent cheap "appliance" with VT instructions to run XEN and 3-4 virtual machines with low requirements, like DNS and DHCP servers.
    • by ilikenwf (1139495)
      This + hardware RAID.
      • by dbIII (701233)
        After using ZFS for a bit I'm no longer impressed with hardware RAID. Lots of bare SATA or SAS sounds better to me.
  • by FullCircle (643323) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:12PM (#44963511)

    I do not think it means what you think it means.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Well, if you compare it to the price of a EVM or other type of evaluation board, then BeagleBoard, BeagleBone, MinnowBoard, etc. are DIRT cheap.

      • by Guspaz (556486)

        And if you compare the MinnowBoard to the cost of a far more powerful NUC, it's not so cheap (the bare minnowboard costs more than an NUC with RAM and case and PSU).

    • $200 is low cost. For appropriately large values of "low."

    • It's an advertising term that has no legal meaning at all, typically used by gigantic marketing firms hired by hypergigantic corporations.

  • by NoImNotNineVolt (832851) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:21PM (#44963597) Homepage
    The GizmoBoard is also an open source single board computer that you can purchase for $200.

    But it's a 64-bit dual-core AMD APU with an integrated Radeon HD 6250. Considerably more powerful than the Minnowboard, but still runs on 10W.

    Even an article about the MinnowBoard can't help shouting out the GizmoBoard:

    At the heart of the MinnowBoard is one of Intel’s less powerful processors: the Atom E640T. Running at 1GHz, the single-core chip offers a 32-bit x86 implementation – already putting it on the back foot compared to the dual-core 64-bit APU found on rival AMD’s Gizmo, the closest device for comparison – while generating a surprisingly small amount of heat, allowing for passive cooling through a compact heat sink.

    Source [linuxuser.co.uk]

    Basically, MinnowBoard has been outdated for some time now. Not sure why this spam is on the front page.

    Full disclosure: I almost got the GizmoBoard as an HTPC, but the 2GB RAM and lack of HDMI really turned me off. HDMI can be cobbled together (there's a high-speed connector that actually exposes HDMI lines, but you'd have to wire it to a female connector yourself), but swapping out four 96-FBGA surface-mount packages to upgrade the RAM to 4GB just seemed like more rework than I wanted to sign up for.

    • by ilikenwf (1139495)
      Does the Gizmo support using both SATA drives on a port multiplier? I'd like to setup a RAID-1.
      • I have no idea! But here's a link to their site [gizmosphere.org].

        There's plenty of low-level documentation, including a full bill-of-materials, so you can see for yourself if their chipset supports that configuration.

        Additionally, the people keeping an eye on their forums are actually rather responsive, so you could just try asking them yourself.

        That being said, the new AMD G-Series SoC is even nicer than their G-Series APU. You can go quad-core, with faster clock speeds, and the GPU is bumped up to the HD 8400E. Unfo
    • Just curious: what did you end up buying?
      • Gateway NE72206u 17.3" Laptop [amazon.com]

        I ordered it yesterday for $450. Thanks for making me look it up again; today it's selling for $370. Story of my life.

        Anyway, it's a 2GHz quad core (A6) with 6GB DDR3 and Radeon 8400 GPU. Googling around suggested that it would run a bit hotter than the embedded kits I was looking at, but it should still work.

        I was also thinking about waiting for the xi3 Z3RO PRO [xi3.com], but it doesn't ship until November (I'll believe it when I see it) and it's a whopping $550. I figured, why w
        • by odie5533 (989896)
          I thought I was weird for using a laptop as an HTPC, but I guess others do it too.
          • Well, I have an odd setup in my living room. I'm stuck in a crappy apartment that has baseboard heaters on both "long walls" of the living room, preventing furniture from being pushed up flush against the wall. With the couch on one side, it's not a big deal. On the other side, however, I didn't want to have a 4" gap behind my wall unit, mainly because the living room isn't big enough to waste space like that. I ended up wall-mounting these guys [ikea.com] just above the baseboard heater, which looks pretty nice. TV w
    • by jonwil (467024)

      Much better choice than this Intel thing, its got Coreboot support AND an open ATI GPU (as compared to a closed-source Intel BIOS and a closed-source PowerVR GPU on the MinnowBoard)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Why would I buy this when I can get dual core atom boards with more accessories in a case with an SSD included for good measure for $150 in single units from AliExpress?

    I wouldn't.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    For $200 you can just about build a full Mini-ITX atom-based machine from commodity hardware. I don't exactly see the point of this.

  • by ilikenwf (1139495) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:23PM (#44963625)
    If I wanted a freaking atom board, I'd buy one for $100 and load it up with another $100 worth of RAM.

    I'm going to keep complaining about the fact that there's not a low power, low cost ARM platform out there ($200 or less) with hardware SATA RAID support. While the cubieboard is the best ATM and supports port multipliers, it's really too bad that the thing can't use both devices attached to the multiplier at the same time. All I want is a hybrid NAS and home server that has 2-4 cores and 2-4gb RAM. Size isn't really a factor but power usage is...

    Anyone know of a platform I've not looked at?
    • by nnnnnnn (1611817)

      For $160, you can buy a Lenovo 7" tablet that comes with a display, battery, storage, wifi, bluetooth, etc. You can then interface with anything you like via wifi/bluetooth or a usb breakout board.

      http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/tablets/ideatab/a-series/a2107/ [lenovo.com]

    • Hardware RAID is complete crap unless you're throwing $500+ at Adaptec or LSI, and then it's still proprietary crap. Just get a board with multiple SATA connectors and do software RAID at the OS level (hopefully unix if you're targetting ARM), save a few hundred bucks, and save yourself a lot of headache when the board fries and the manufacturer has EOLed the hardware and you can't find a replacement.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Does that other board provide:
      full hardware documentation?
      easy access to many buses and signals?
      easily reflashable bios, if necessary even through provided external pins?
      is it open source hardware?

      Some people do care about those things, if you don't, then you're not in the target group and yes, you should buy that el cheapo pc instead then.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It appears this toycomputer is being sold for 135 euros plus shipping. You can purchase 4 raspberry pis or nearly 3 beaglebone black for that kind of money. Plus, it shoves UEFI down everyone's throat.

    In a world where a netbook with the same featureset plus keyboard, monitor, battery, HD and case goes for around 180 euros... why bother?

  • by sl4shd0rk (755837) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:30PM (#44963691)

    They should have called it the Sushi Board

  • by frooddude (148993) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:32PM (#44963717)

    http://www.pcper.com/news/General-Tech/Bay-Trail-M-Powered-Intel-NUC-Coming-Q1-2014-140 [pcper.com]

    You have to wait, but compared to this it's worth it.

  • Go to hell, Intel (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    PowerVR-based GMA 600? Not even once.

  • Not Fort Worth (Score:4, Informative)

    by metallurge (693631) <metallurge@@@gmail...com> on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:35PM (#44963755)
    Richardson, a city of about 100,000 people where CircuitCo is located, is part of exurban Dallas, not exurban Fort Worth. The summary is incorrect.
    • by davidwr (791652)

      Besides, "Northeast Texas town of Ft. Worth" is one county over from the "Northeast Texas hamlet of Dallas" (emphasis added), with the "small sporting venue" where the Dallas Cowboys play in between.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      and Ft. Worth is not part of Northeast Texas.

      • by Hillgiant (916436)

        By inspection, Ft. Worth is above and to the left of the centroid of the state. Therefore Northeast Texas.

  • with that.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:50PM (#44963925)

    These [hardkernel.com] are really, really nice.

    Cheap. Small. Good community. About the only bad thing I have to say about it is that I had to go to Radio Shack to get a converter for the power.

  • Too Pricey (Score:4, Insightful)

    by GeorgeHahn (3287255) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @02:56PM (#44963985)
    Too expensive to matter. It isn't just uncompetitive, it's priced completely out of it's market.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Northeast Texas town? Ft. Worth is actually in West Texas. Have you not heard the expression: Ft. Worth is where the West begins. Maybe you have to be a Texan to know that.

  • Why would I spend 3x the price of an Intel D2550 board, which has a newer (from 2011, not 2010), faster (1.85G 64bit dual core, not 1.0G 32bit single core) CPU?

    $332.33NZ at mouser. The D2550MUD2 is $110.87NZ. The DN2800 board is only $20 more and has hyper threading as well.

  • by LoRdTAW (99712) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @04:49PM (#44965171)

    What I would rather see in an embedded Linux board is more I/O. I am not talking about USB, HDMI or Ethernet but honest to goodness digital I/O's and serial busses like I2C or SPI. The minnowboard has a measly 8 GPIO's and two more hardwired to LED's. That isn't worth $200 when I can get the same thing by purchasing a cheap Atom ITX board and then adding an FPGA PCI I/O card from Mesa Electronics for slightly more.

    If you want to impress me and make it worth $200 then how about using the Intel Atom Processor E6x5C [altera.com] featuring an embedded Altera FPGA which is connected to the CPU by a friggen PCIe Gen2 x1 link. Then include a default bitfile for the FPGA which gives you a bunch of GPIO, PWM and UARTS for serial ports like RS232, SPI and I2C. Also breakout the remaining PCIe link for further expansion. A kernel driver will then expose the various I/O devices inside the FPGA to a standard API. Then port the Wiring libs which is used by the Arduino to the new API for the FPGA and you will now have a development board that will blow the competition away. Even the Arduino IDE can be modified to build Linux binaries for the new API. Bonus points of you throw a nice 8 channel 16 bit high speed ADC on there. No re-learning new libraries or languages. Arduino libs could be added without code modification provided they don't make low level calls. Even then simple modifications could be made to port them. The API could also be called from any other language like C++, Go, Ada, D or whatever you fancy so you can write code in your language of choice. Newbies could plug in the board wait for it to boot and configure the FPGA and start writing code and wiring it into their projects, they already know Arduino libs so let them use those. If you really want to be fancy use the RT PREEMPT patch and let more advanced users write code for real time stuff guaranteeing determinism.

    Imagine then if the internal FPGA bits could then be added to or modified to include new I/O devices. Establish a standard bus and I/O address space for the FPGA and make a template for writing new modules. Write a GUI editor which lets you snap modules onto the bus like Legos and set the address space and their I/O pins. Call Quartus using scripts in the background and generate the new bitfile which can be uploaded on the fly to the FPGA from the host OS. Then the standard API for the kernel driver would simplify writing libraries for talking to the new modules. Want to make a CNC? Add quadrature encoder interfaces and H bridge controllers and directly drive servo motors. Software radio, DSP, video processing, audio processing, the possibilities are endless. Then the community can release HDL modules which the user can snap into their designs and then do the wiring. This way people don't have to learn complex HDL programming, they use what the community provides. Don't like the default bitfile layout or standard templates? Write your own HDL code and do what you please. Open hardware means you have all the specs and source.

    If that were available for 200-300 then I would gleefully say shut up and take my money.

  • by Virtucon (127420) on Thursday September 26, 2013 @05:46PM (#44965651)

    Folks around here say North Texas. Northeast Texas would be Texarkana.
    Either that or North Central Texas [wikipedia.org] would have sufficed.

    Getting back to the Minnow board, it's a little pricey but I'm sure third parties will start embracing it like the hardware vendors around Raspberry PI.

  • It has an Intel GMA600 GPU (which has a closed-source PowerVR SGX GPU core at its heart)

  • by Anonymous Coward

    This is the same company that let 1000 OpenPandora boards oxidize, and then populated them, resulting in massive losses that effectively bankrupted the project.

    CAPTCHA: fellatio

  • I keep seeing this thing pop up in various "news story" postings online all at once. Looks like an astroturf/marketing campaign to me.

    As many other people have been posting - "Low cost"? Really?

    It "only" costs 6 RaspberryPi's or 4 BeagleBoards. I think the marketing people have badly failed to understand why most people are buying the $35-50 ARM boards ("It's only $35 - I can afford to [try to power it by induction by putting it in my microwave|use it to make an outdoor webcam in areas where bears are kno

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