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Hardware Hacking Build

Dual-Core Allwinner A20 Powered EOMA-68 Engineering Card Available 98

A year after the first schematics were completed and a few months after the first prototype board shipped, Make Play Live has released Improv, the first engineering card for EOMA-68 (EOMA-68 is a specification for modular systems that splits the cpu board from the rest of the system, allowing the end user to use the same core with several devices or upgrade e.g. a tablet without having to pay for a new screen shell). From Aaron Seigo's weblog post: "The hardware of Improv is extremely capable: a dual-core ARM® Cortex-A7 System on Chip (SoC) running at 1Ghz, 1 GB of RAM, 4 GB of on-board NAND flash and a powerful OpenGL ES GPU. To access all of this hardware goodness there are a variety of ports: 2 USB2 ports (one fullsize host, one micro OTG), SD card reader, HDMI, ethernet (10/100, though the feature card has a Gigabit connector; more on that below), SATA, i2c, VGA/TTL and 8 GPIO pins. The entire device weighs less than 100 grams, is passively cooled and fits in your hand. Improv comes pre-installed with Mer OS, sporting a recent Linux kernel, systemd, and a wide variety of software tools. By default it boots into console, so if you are making a headless device you needn't worry about extra overhead running that you don't need. If you are going to hook it up to a screen (or two), then you have an amazing starting point with choices such as X.org, Wayland, Qt4, Qt5 and a full complement of KDE libraries and Plasma Workspaces. Improv takes advantage of the open EOMA68 standard to deliver a unique design: the SoC, RAM and storage live on one card (the 'CPU card'), the feature ports are on a PCB it docks with (the 'feature board'). The two dock securely together with the CPU card sitting under the feature board nestled in a pair of rails; they are undocked from each other by pushing a mechanical ejector button." Check out the specs and pictures. The card is available now for $75. Improv is open hardware, with the schematics licensed under the GPL and available soon.
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Dual-Core Allwinner A20 Powered EOMA-68 Engineering Card Available

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  • Even the GPU is open? That seems to be the current problem child for being completely open. I can't tell from the summary and the site doesn't work without javascript. Anyone know?
    • by weilawei (897823)
      If this were really, well and truly open, I should be able to get the VHDL, masks, you name it, for an A7 (without paying a dime), and every other supporting piece of hardware, and manufacture it from scratch, myself, if I were so inclined to invest that level of time, effort, and money. What these boards offer is a less-limited, but still ultimately closed approach to the core components.
    • by Narishma (822073)

      It's not an Intel or AMD GPU, therefore it's not open.

    • by citizenr (871508)

      over >half of devices on the SoC are closed
      mali - closed
      h.264 enc/dec - closed
      TV-in - closed

      no documentation in english, but somehow Chinese fly by night shitty tablet manufacturers are able to get full SDK and documentation from Allwinter.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 26, 2013 @05:19AM (#45524191)

      Hey all,

      I'm oliver, from http://linux-sunxi.org, the community revolving around the kernel development around this SoC.

      First off, the BOARD is OSWH, not the SoC. Now, for those who'd only call it OSHW if the VHDL code would be available, while utopian, that's just plain silly. OpenCores is for that ;) So yeah, this is all OSHW goodness.

      Then, documentation wise, yes we lack a lot. Allwinner hasn't released everything to anybody yet, some pieces haven't received any docs at all yet, most likely because it hasn't been written yet, some pieces they can't share the docs as they are under NDA themselves. But for most bits that's not important as we do have code for pretty much everything. The docs we do have, are the 'standard' usermanual, in english, with a lot (but as said before not all) register information. You can download and view them over at http://dl.linux-sunxi.org/ in the various subdirectories. The only closed blobs right now are GPS, GPU and VPU.

      Now, the GPS isn't really that important and it hasn't been reverse engineered yet, is because there's no hardware using the GPS. Most platforms use UART or USB for GPS so this hasn't been on anybody's radar. We do have a gps.ko with debugging symbols so once the need arises, it's doable, nobody really just had a need for this.

      The GPU, talented Luc Verhagen has been working for the past 1 - 2 years on the LIMA project. This allows a fully opensource stack to be used with the MALI GPU. Luc actually uses the A10/A20 as main development platform (amongst another one). While this is still very much WiP I'm sure we all seen the quake timedemo Luc did last year at fosdem where he actually beat the ARM binary mali blob. Here is his latest mesa work. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WOILEYAxWE but we have to be honest, it's not done yet, so for now we are still stuck with the mali blobs. But yeah, hold your breath for that one.

      The VPU is also being reverse engineerd. This is much further behind of LIMA so I shouldn't talk too much about it and get people excited yet, but here's a decoding demo: http://linux-sunxi.org/Reverse_Engineering/Cedar_Status where you can see we can decode h264 video without using any proprietary blobs (mali isn't needed for this).

      Then finally, compared to all other SoC's out there that do have some form of Linux support, the Allwinner chip is one of the limited ones, that actually have u-boot support. I'd almost say full u-boot, but MTD support is still WiP.

      So to compare this to the Raspberry Pi, It's much faster (armv7 vs armv6, hard-float available, dual core CPU and dual core GPU, up to 2 GiB ram possible to name just a few).

      Finally, is everything open? No, the BROM isn't open source, the BOOT-ROM, a 32k block embedded (unchangable) in the chip that performs initial boot. What it does is check the supported media (SPI, NAND, SD) for a valid signature and boots it. I'm quite sure the same blob is in any CPU on the market right now. Your AMD or Intel CPU also has a bootrom, that tells it to load the bios from SPI into ram and start executing it. So this is moot, but I do think it's fair mentioning it.

      So hopefully I've put some things to rest here, if not I'll try to check back at a later date and reply appropriately.

      If you want more info, I'm planning to hold a talk at FOSDEM 2014 so stay tuned over at http://fosdem.org

      • by hattig (47930)

        You should get an account, so your comment started out at +1, not 0 - your useful reply may be missed. Someone with moderator points please mod the parent up.

      • by hattig (47930)

        I thought the RPi had hard float. In addition the Broadcom GPU on the RPi is going to significantly outperform a Mali-400 MP2 - the GPU on the RPi is a beast, the poor little ARM11 is just a controller for it (except in the RPi where it's the main CPU!). But yes, the A20 is otherwise a far better SoC for a computer system - if only because the RPi is a two year old design now.

        Was there any real reason for choosing the form factor you did, apart from it being quite neat? I know this was also asked over at

        • by david.given (6740) <dg&cowlark,com> on Tuesday November 26, 2013 @08:31AM (#45525019) Homepage Journal

          The RPi is an ARMv6, while this (along with pretty much every other modern ARM device) is an ARMv7. The ARMv6 has hardfloat but implements a slightly different version of the spec. Most OSes have standardised on the ARMv7 version which means that their code won't run on the ARMv6. So Debian armhf will run on this but will not run on the RPi: you have to use Raspbian instead, which is a version of Debian specifically compiled for the ARMv6. (Of course, Debian armel will run on both, but then you don't get any hardware floating point support.)

          The Broadcom GPU is significantly awesome. It is, however, almost totally undocumented. There's a reverse engineering project [github.com] which has mostly nailed down the instruction set, and there are even some C compilers for it (one of them is mine!) even though there's no gcc or LLVM support for it. You can write programs in C and run them on the bare metal. Unfortunately the GPU doesn't support double-precision float and the MMU is kinda weird, and it's probably going to be slower than the ARM for non-DSP-heavy code anyway, so it's unlikely you'll see Linux for it any time soon. But it's a beautiful, beautiful architecture to write code for. (And it's dual core! Not very many people know that...)

          • by hattig (47930)

            Luckily there are enough RPis out there to warrant maintaining RPi specific Linux distributions.

            I'm rather hoping that Broadcom will be releasing a new SoC that will be used in a new RPi that will take the best aspects of the current SoC such as the GPU, and weld on a better CPU - even if it's only a dual-core A7 like the A20 in order to meet the price point.

  • To what extent is this Cortex A7 open source??

    • by exomondo (1725132)
      Their blog links to this page [oshwa.org] of the Open Source Hardware Association providing a definition.
    • It can run open source software like Linux so it's practically Paul Revere. It today's Misinformation Economy, that means it's a hot start-up in the trillion-dollar emerging-market of overpriced-yet-cheaply-manufactured-junk-of-dubious-value-with-tons-of-positive-press set to emerge as the chief export of 1st world nations everywhere.

      • by weilawei (897823)
        This is closed. You need to pay ARM a big bundle of money to license the A7 core. Unless I can get the source (VHDL, masks, what have you) for FREE, and then manufacture, modify, and redistribute it (for free) myself, then there's no way this can even vaguely qualify as open.

        I won't dignify linking to their definition, because this is more false advertising. Hardware is not open simply because you provide a pinout for attaching stuff to it. Otherwise, you might as well consider Windows open-source, since
    • by stilborne (85590)

      The announcement and website clearly state that the feature board which the EOMA68 docks to is open hardware; yes the A20 is not open hardware, and that was never stated otherwise.

      • by lkcl (517947)

        The announcement and website clearly state that the feature board which the EOMA68 docks to is open hardware; yes the A20 is not open hardware, and that was never stated otherwise.

        there's nothing to stop anyone from creating OSHW EOMA68-compliant CPU Cards. a good starting point for anyone wishing to do so would be Dr Ajith Kumar's work on a GPL-compliant KiCAD board, or any one of the boards from TI or Freescale which have full schematics and even CAD/CAM PCB files - complete - available.

    • by fatphil (181876)
      "The documentation for the hardware must clearly specify what portion of the design, if not all, is being released under the license."

      I somehow doubt the entire ARM core is open source hardware, for example. It might be almost nothing, it's a rather meaningless designation.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      To what extent is this Cortex A7 open source??

      Why should Cotrex-A7 processor be open source?
      This is open source hardware (board) which you can study, modify, re-create, if CAD files are available all this is possible -> the board is open source hardware.

      That it uses closed source components like EOMA68 which have no CAD files is not problem. EOMA68 is not OSHW, just the base board which plugs is OSHW.

      The demand to call something open source if every bit of it is open source is ridiculous, in this case Arduino is not Open Source Hardware as well, bec

  • How is this thing compared (hardware wise) to Raspberry Pi ?

    I do know that the ecosystem of Rasp Pi is very developed, and there is none on this new kid in town, but I'm still interested to know how well (or otherwise) it compares to the well established Rasp Pi.

    Thanks !

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Do you ask if there's a software ecosystem for a particular model of PC before you buy one? These ARM devices run Linux. You can run anything that can be compiled for Linux on ARM. The biggest obstacle for users of plug computers was that there was no way to attach a display, which can be a bit daunting if you've never worked with a headless system. But the latest round of ARM systems all come with HDMI, so they're really just small PCs with a different CPU. You'll feel right at home if you've ever run Linu

    • by stilborne (85590) on Tuesday November 26, 2013 @01:11AM (#45523125) Homepage

      > How is this thing compared (hardware wise) to Raspberry Pi ?

      RPi is a single core 7o0 MHz ARM11 with 512 MB RAM and no on-board storage; Improv is a dual core 1Ghz Cortex-A7 with 1GB RAM, 4GB NAND flash and a more powerful GPU. Improv is also modular so you can swap out the CPU card as well get feature boards with additional features in future. So Improv is several times more powerful and quite a bit more flexible. You also get things like SATA with the Improv.

      As for software, anything that runs on the RPi run on Improv, while the reverse is not true. Some ARM Linux OSes require hard float, such as Ubuntu, which RPi does not provide but Improv does

      • by Narishma (822073) on Tuesday November 26, 2013 @06:07AM (#45524391)

        As others have said, the Pi has an FPU and supports hard float. The issue with running Ubuntu on the Pi is that they only support ARMv7 while the Pi is ARMv6. I also don't think the Mali 400 MP2 in this thing is more powerful than the Videocore IV in the Pi.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Two things about RPi:
        1) It only uses an SD card for storage.
        2) It has an extremely powerful GPU.

        The advantage of using the SD card only is that you can't brick it. If something goes terribly wrong, just remove the card, put in another and reboot the device. It comes up completely from ROM. Trust me - building unbrickable designs is difficult; they've solved it mechanically with a SDcard.

        The GPU is really excellent on the RPi, and it is a shame t

        • by libv (2845927)

          Allwinner SoCs are also absolutely unbrickable. This with or without an SD card. You can always get it to show up over USB by holding a device specific button at boot, and then you can get it to boot whatever you want.

          The big advantage of the Allwinner chips (especially the mali based ones) is their very high degree of freedom. The GPU and VPU are the two bits which require work still, but progress is good. There is full u-boot source, there is full linux kernel source, and parts are making it upstream. All

    • by hattig (47930)

      Faster CPU, and two of them. Note that the A7 is not amazingly faster (maybe 2x) than the ARM11 in the RPi, but it's more up to date (ARMv7 instead of the very old ARMv6) - and two of them does help a lot.

      Slower GPU. The RPi uses a very advanced SoC in terms of GPU. The ARM11 is actually just a microcontroller for the GPU. The SoC was aimed at video applications, and is pretty darned amazing, for the price.

      1GB RAM instead of 512MB.

      4GB of flash storage, instead of none. Not to be sniffed at, but most people

  • I'ld rather have a Cubietruck [cubietruck.com] to have with (or even a Cubieboard V2, which is the same price point).

    Being able to replace the core of your tablet doesn't fix sctrached screens, aged batteries, and general wear... and any tablet that you can replace something on is going to be thicker and less "tablet like" than a 'nice' current tablet.

    • by stilborne (85590)

      What makes you think this is a tablet? It isn't. It's an engineering board.

    • by fatphil (181876)
      > which is the same price point

      But is it the same price?
    • by lkcl (517947)

      Being able to replace the core of your tablet doesn't fix sctrached screens, aged batteries, and general wear...

      ... but with a modular tablet you'd be able to transfer - in seconds - the entire applications and data over to a replacement unscratched tablet chassis with a new battery which would cost you *less* money than the equivalent monolithic product.

      you need to remember to view this from both sides. it's possible to replace *either* the CPU Card *or* the chassis, and in each case you have significant advantages and lower costs.

      when did you ever buy a hermetically-sealed product that you could upgrade? the clu

  • It's a dual core Cortex A7, the thing is less capable than a three year old smatphone. It's not clear from the summary or the article what the point of this thing is.

    • Extremely capable of selling ARM Cortex chips to misinformed hobbyists.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      It's a dual core Cortex A7, the thing is less capable than a three year old smatphone. It's not clear from the summary or the article what the point of this thing is.

      You are really ignorant about the capabilities of a Cortex A7. Go back to your basement closet.

      • by Guspaz (556486)

        The A7 is a lower power and more performant derivative of the A8, which performs worse than the A9. I understand well enough. There are more powerful dev platforms available for this price.

    • by stilborne (85590) on Tuesday November 26, 2013 @01:16AM (#45523163) Homepage

      This is an engineering board, not a smartphone. If you look around what is available for prototyping and developing projects, you'll find that single core ARM is actually the common case. This is a significant amount of hardware for the market category. This is also considerably more powerful than what smartphones were shipping with 3 years ago, though today's high end phones do come with more cores.

  • I've had a number of laptops where the CPU was doing just fine but the monitor died due to fluorescent lamp end-of-life.

    • by adolf (21054)

      I've had a number of laptops where the CPU was doing just fine but the monitor died due to fluorescent lamp end-of-life.

      So, um. Why didn't you just, uh, you know, fix them?

      Replacing a fluorescent tube in a laptop is not exactly rocket surgery. It just takes a bit of time, and surprisingly few dollars.

      • I've had a number of laptops where the CPU was doing just fine but the monitor died due to fluorescent lamp end-of-life.

        So, um. Why didn't you just, uh, you know, fix them?

        Because they belonged to my, um, employer, who by then had handed me a later model for my primary machine.

        I've only had one of my own die so far, and it wasn't the screen backlight that failed.

        I intend to pop that one open and see if it is something simple, like a loose connection. But it was one of two identical ones I bought used for l

    • by foobar bazbot (3352433) on Tuesday November 26, 2013 @01:22AM (#45523195)

      The whole idea of the EOMA concept should (if/when it takes off big) mean that you won't have to "hope the laptop shell's $ATTRIBUTE is $VALUE". There's two reasons for this.

      First, you can build your own laptop, because a lot of the complexity that makes designing your own laptop mainboard a ridiculous proposition for almost every hobbyist is now inside the CPU card -- some professionals designed, built, and tested that 6-layer PCB, and then millions (eventually, in the big picture) were run off. For your special laptop, you could if you put your mind to it do most, if not everything, with a 2-side PCB and old-school through-hole components, the main obstacles being not that you can't fit it in a full-size laptop without SMT, but that you can't find some components in through-hole versions. You can pick whatever display you want, slightly tweak the PCB design from some other EOMA-68-based laptop to suit, and have one made. And all this is much more practical than it sounds because you invest the effort once, then keep that laptop for life (ok, realistically for a decade or more) and just swap CPU cards when you need more performance.

      The other, and even bigger, reason, is because some manufacturer, somewhere, will make a shell with the characteristics you want. Sure, your concern might only occur in a fraction of a percent of consumer (actually, your concern about the backlight is IMO a horrible example, because the whole industry is moving from CCFL to LED for a number of reasons), but when some small Chinese factory is looking for a profitable niche to exploit, that fraction of a percent is a prime target. Because of EOMA, they
      (1) have less design work to do to make a new model (just like the hobbyist)
      (2) can keep selling that model without investing in a periodic redesign, and without it becoming obsolete and unsellable due to last year's CPU -- just every year buy a load of the hot new CPU cards and receive a magic spec bump, or ship it without a CPU card and let the user slot their new or old card
      (3) even if/when they go out of business (or just abandon your market segment) and stop selling new shells, all the used ones keep going (until they break/wear out) without obsolescence.
      (1) and (2) mean less cost to pick up tiny market segments, which means niches will be more profitable and thus better served; (3) means that even if you're part of a niche market that looked big enough to make a good profit, but turned out not to be, you get to reap the benefits of some company's "mistake" in pursuing that niche long after the company's learned and moved on.

      Regarding the last point particularly, contrast that to the Fujitsu U820 I bought a few years ago, because I really loved the form-factor and the high-PPI screen. At the time, the 1.6GHz Atom processor was slowish and the soldered-on RAM was cramped; it's flat-out obsolete now. The "successor" UH900 is a straight clamshell, lacking the flip-screen which lets the U820 become a paperback-sized tablet, and I'm left casting about amongst gadgets like the Asus Transformer series looking for a near-enough equivalent. If the U820 had been EOMA-based, then Fujitsu could go their way, selling UH900s with better mass-market appeal, but I could keep going mine, swapping up to (say) a quad-core 1.8GHz ARM card in that same delightful chassis.

      • by lkcl (517947)

        The whole idea of the EOMA concept should (if/when it takes off big) mean that you won't have to "hope the laptop shell's $ATTRIBUTE is $VALUE".

        you know what? whoever you are, foobar bazbot, i'm amazed and delighted to see that you clearly Get this concept. there are a couple of things that you left out:

        1) from a CPU Card manufacturer's perspective, they love the fact that a short-lived SoC in a ready-to-go pre-packaged product can be sold in much bigger volume because it's shared - for the relatively short duration that the SoC has its day - across potentially dozens of mass-volume products.

        2) from your perspective (1) translates into cost savin

  • and a powerful OpenGL ES GPU.

    Which OpenGL ES version?

    • by Narishma (822073)

      Since it's a Mali 400, I would say 1.1 and 2.0.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      From the article:

      Mali400MP2 with OpenGL ES 2.0/1.1

  • You seem to be pushing an awful lot of signals across the PCMCIA connector, with hardly any ground pins. Is signal integrity okay?

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