Tiny Computers Take Center Stage

by George Lawton

Mini-notebook. Laptop. Desktop. Server. When most people think of computers, they think of an object that has some heft to it.

However, a market is starting to emerge for tiny computers, some as small as a flash drive.

These mini-machines use small, low-power systems on chip (SoCs) on tiny circuit boards yet still offer surprisingly good performance.

The benefits of these machines include their low cost and many potential uses, said Luke Leighton, chief technology officer of tiny-computer vendor Rhombus Tech.

For example, the devices offer a small, inexpensive platform for playing low-end games and running other applications that don't consume much energy or require high performance levels.

They can also be used as part of bigger systems, such as routers.

Because of their size and design, tiny computers could reduce overall energy consumption, offer lower design and production costs, and use less landfill space when discarded, noted Leighton.

However, he noted, they are not suitable for all computer-related uses.

Tiny Trends

tiny computer held in human hand

Rhombus' Leighton said the market for tiny computers has been relatively small until recently. However, he noted, user acceptance of Android, Linux, and open source software — which holds down OS and application costs — is driving demand for the machines.

Driving Forces

Tiny computers were not practical in the past because the necessary components were too big, too expensive, or didn't offer enough performance, explained Richard Brown, vice president of international marketing for chip maker VIA Technologies.

Now, though, Rhombus' Leighton said, small, off-the-shelf chips with feature sizes below 40 nanometers have enabled tiny computers to have highly functional processors.

"This simply could not happen until the power consumption dropped below 3 watts, the level of integration on the processors became as high as it has, and the prices dropped to consumer-affordable levels," he noted.

If power consumption is more than 3 watts, he explained, computers need fans, special cases, or other thermal-dissipation technologies, which aren't practical for tiny, cheap machines.

Additional factors contributing to the rise of tiny computers include both the increased popularity of free or low-cost open source software and the availability of inexpensive mobile processors designed by ARM Ltd. Also important has been the rise of the Android operating system, which provides tiny computers with a standardized, simple, economical interface.

Tiny computers' increasing popularity has also been enabled by cloud computing, which lets the machines connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or cellular networking and offload to servers compute-intensive tasks such as speech or graphics processing.

People are also becoming accustomed to using small devices because of the proliferation of smartphones.

Uses

Tiny computers can support 80 percent of traditional machines' functionality at a fraction of the price, noted Michelle Ding, vice general manager of minicomputer vendor Rikomagic.

And using OSs such as Android offers relatively simple installation, setup, and management, as well as lower energy use.

In addition, the devices are less obtrusive and thus can blend into surrounding environments better than standard PCs.

Home uses include space-saving desktops and home-theater PCs. Users could just attach screens, keyboards, and mice and in some cases, could plug the tiny computer directly into a newer TV's mobile high-definition link (MHL) port.

For corporations, the mini-machines are easy to set up as dumb terminals for virtual desktops, and their small size and cost make them easy to replace.

Under the Hood

"Tiny computers typically [contain] three major components in a highly compact space of between 3 to 6 square inches: a system on chip, RAM, and NAND flash memory," said Leighton. NAND flash needs power only to read and write and thus is good for storing data when the device is powered down.

The devices typically include peripheral support for features such as 2D and 3D graphics, Ethernet, USB, serial ATA (SATA), high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI), and Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard memory cards.

Connecting the various elements can be a challenge, particularly if they are made by different vendors.

And each SoC needs a custom kernel — which requires time and money to develop — to translate between the OS and the underlying barebones hardware.

Therefore, Leighton said, tiny-computer vendors are backing a de facto industry standard called the embedded open modular architecture.

EOMA provides a common specification to which developers can build when using components from different vendors.

The technology makes connecting different chips and peripheral ports easier than performing custom engineering for each vendor or platform.

Integrating SoCs into finished products such as tiny computers requires significant hardware and software expertise. Thus, development platforms are emerging to make this process easier, said Geoff Bigg, chair of QiMod Technology, a developer of low-cost, low-power consumer-electronics and computing products.

A Close Look

A number of tiny computers are currently on the market, while some are still under development.

Some of the products serve as development platforms for use in larger systems such as routers or gaming consoles. Others can work as computers when connected to input and output devices.

Still others can plug into a TV and augment its capabilities.

Mele A1000

The Melee A1000 comes in a case with a 1-GHz Allwinner A10 ARM-based Cortex-A8 processor, 512 megabytes of RAM, and 4 Gbytes of NAND flash memory.

The Android-based machine supports 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, as well as the 802.11b, g, and n flavors of Wi-Fi. Commercially available for about $70, it measures 17.5 cm × 11 cm × 4.7 cm and weighs 406 grams.

VIA's APC 8750

VIA Technologies' Via APC 8750 comes with a VIA 800-MHz processor, 512 Mbytes of RAM, 2 Gbytes of NAND flash memory, and built-in graphics. It costs about $50 and runs the Android OS.

The machine supports HDMI, USB, audio, and 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, and comes on a 170 × 85 mm board.

FXI Tech's Cotton Candy

The $199 FXI Tech Cotton Candy includes a 1.2-GHz ARM-based Cortex-A9 Quad Core CPU by Samsung, an ARM Mali-400MP GPU, 1 Gbyte of RAM, and up to 64 Gbytes of local storage.

The Android-based computer supports IEEE 802.11 b, g, and n, as well as Bluetooth. It has one USB and one HDMI port, comes in a flash-drive-shaped case measuring 80 × 25 mm, and weighs 23 grams.

Rhombus Tech's EOMA-68

Rhombus Tech is developing the EOMA-68, a $15 modular computer that will come as a CPU card without a case.

The 56mm × 90mm machine will include an Allwinner A10 CPU and 1 Gbyte of RAM. It will support USB, 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, and HDMI.

Infinitec's PocketTV

Infinitec's $160 Android-based PocketTV is an 86 × 31 × 14 mm dongle that plugs into a television or monitor.

When released, the computer will come with a 1-GHz ARM Cortex A9, a Mali-400MP GPU, 1 Gbyte of RAM, and 4 Gbytes of flash memory. It will support USB, HDMI, and Bluetooth.

Rikomagic Tech's Model MK802

Rikomagic Tech's Model MK802 comes with an Allwinner 1-GHz A10 CPU, 1 Gbyte of RAM, and 4 Gbytes of flash memory. It generally costs about $50.

The 97 × 28 × 1.2 mm, 200-gram machine — which is about the size of a flash drive — runs Android and supports IEEE 802.11b, g, and n; USB; and HDMI.

Intel's NUC

Intel plans to release its Next Unit of Computing (NUC) platform in the near future. The first version is slated to cost $400 and will come with an Intel Core i3-3217U CPU and up to 16 Gbytes of RAM.

The 101.6 mm × 101.6 mm device will come in a case and support PCI Express, USB, HDMI, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Ethernet.

Raspberry Pi

raspberry pi tiny computer

The Raspberry Pi is built on a Broadcom BCM2835 platform and comes with a 700-MHz ARM-based 1176JZFS CPU, a VideoCore IV GPU, 256 Mbytes of RAM, and a USB port. It measures 85.6mm × 53.98 mm × 17mm.

The Raspberry Pi Foundation's goal was to design a low-cost device for helping schools teach basic computer science, including hardware and software development.

Valueplus' Tizzbird Stick N1

The Tizzbird Stick is a prototype, flash-drive-sized audio and video player that comes with an 800-MHZ ARM-based Cortex A5 CPU, 1 Gbyte of RAM, and 4 Gbytes of NAND flash.

It will run Android and support HDMI, USB, and IEEE 802.11n. The device — which will measure 75 × 23 × 14mm — will have an infrared sensor for use with a remote control.

Valueplus expects the Tizzbird Stick will cost $70 when released.

Hardkernel's Odroid-X

Hardkernel's Odroid-X features a 1.4-GHz ARM-based Cortex-A9 processor by Samsung and runs Android.

The $129 device comes as a board without a case. It measures 90 × 94 mm and supports USB, HDMI, and 10/100Mbps Ethernet.

PandaBoard ES

The PandaBoard ES features a Texas Instruments OMAP4460 1.2-GHz, dual-core, ARM-based Cortex-A9 MPCore processor.

The computer has 1 Gbyte of RAM, measures 114.3 × 101.6 mm, and weighs 81.5 grams. It supports USB, HDMI and Ethernet.

The $180 machine comes as a board with no case.

Object Lesson

Tiny computers have shortcomings and are not good for all uses. VIA's Brown said they generally don't have enough performance for multimedia applications with high graphics demands, such as 3D product design and complex gaming.

In addition, developers keep minicomputers small by reducing the expansion and connectivity options, which makes it more difficult to add high-power graphics cards.

However, Bigg said, tiny PCs' CPU and graphics performance will improve gradually over time.

In the next five to 10 years, Brown predicted, tiny computers will be integrated into TVs, wearable devices, and appliances such as refrigerators to add functionality at low cost.

For the devices to succeed in the marketplace, he said, "The key challenge will be in defining the positioning of these new types of devices and the content, applications, and services that will be delivered to them through the cloud. This will require a deep understanding not just of the technical possibilities but also of the real needs of customers in the segment that the device targets."

Regardless, said Ding, tiny computers won't affect the traditional-PC market because they address different needs and different types of users.

However, the mini-machines give developers practical, low-cost options for testing and building various types of customized computing systems.