The rise of the bare-board computer

Bare-board computers are not new – they’ve existed almost as long as microprocessors and until recently were a geek specialism and fairly expensive. But things are changing. Hobbyists have been using Arduino, based on the 8-bit AVR microcontroller from Atmel for some time. It combines low cost, a rich range of hardware interfaces and most important of all, a simple programming environment. Something within the capabilities of the average school child, and more importantly their teachers. What Arduino means is that the user can have programmable control without having to be an expert in electronic and software, leaving them to concentrate on the actual project they are designing.

In industry, boards such as the ARM/NXP mbed have had a similar impact, making programmable control available to the average designer, whatever their discipline. Other manufacturers have their own offerings, such as the Discovery board from ST and BeagleBone from TI. All boards characterized by low cost, rich hardware interfaces and a simple programming environment. And the success of these in the market place has shown that it is the ease of programming that is the key differentiator.

But it is Raspberry Pi that has moved these products into the mainstream. There has been some gifted social marketing and political positioning by the Raspberry Pi foundation, but it has benefited from a happy coincidence of circumstances in its home country. A highly successful industry waking up to the shortage of new embedded engineers coming into the profession. Academic and professional bodies speaking out at last about the disastrous state of school computing education. Business leaders (notably Eric Schmidt of Google) decrying the lost of national leadership in the field. And most important a new government, bent on shaking up the education system, and in particular throwing out the old IT curriculum that has served so badly.

Which is not to play down the remarkable nature of the product. None of this would have been possible without building a credit card sized computer capable of plugging into keyboard, mouse and monitor and running a full windowing operating system for under $50. Now everyone is offering their chip on a bare-board at low cost. They range from the Shrimp Computer (a cut down Arduino – $3 for the components) through to projects like Parallella with which Embecosm is involved (dual-core ARM processor and 16-core FP multiprocessor giving 26GFlops for $99).

Which brings me to our latest addition, a TI PandaBoard. This is at the top end of the bare board range, offering a pair of ARM Cortex A8 processors, 1GB of RAM and just about every I/O port you could imagine for well under $200. It is conceived as a prototyping board for the mobile phone world, but we’ll be using it to boost our compiler regression testing capacity. In the meantime, have a look at this photo sequence of us unpacking and bringing up the system for the first time.