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Tiny computers

This summer I discovered the Arduino and was completely fascinated by how simple it was to rig up things like circuits, sensors, motors, servos, whatever and make it do real things. And it was cheap! I never have really tried my hand at microcontrollers or hardware hacking despite having a bit of the ham radio bug. I guess my programmer friends always made it seem very hard; maybe it was and its gotten to the point where it’s accessible to more people. Anyways, it’s awesome and I realized that with all the dodads you can connect to it and write scripts for, imagination is the limit of what you could do. It got me back into fiddling with electronics and learning building projects is way easier and more forgiving than I expected.

Then I learned about the Raspberry Pi. It’s a little board intended as an educational device for children, to be an extremely low cost ($35!) yet fully functional Linux computer that can actually “do” things other than blink lights. It straddles both worlds, you can ignore the hardware aspects of it and use it to learn Linux, or you can ignore Linux and go build a autonomous rover with it.

Like the Arduino it can be connected to all manner of electronic devices, but it has a modern treatment with 512MB RAM, SD storage, HDMI video output, graphics support, and network. It’s a “real” computer in its own right, running its own copy of Linux (albeit compiled for ARM) and can run graphical applications. And it’s smaller than an iPhone. If you ever wanted a computer to teach somebody the basics of electronics/programming/robotics/hacking, it doesn’t get better than this.┬áThis thing is brilliant and I want to see it succeed as a concept!

If your kid is building a project and accidentally shorts out the 5V rail and destroys the board, so what! It’s cheap enough to buy the kid a new one, help them learn from his/her mistake and move on. That’s just not possible with more expensive gear; this removes that fear. One of the downsides of this board is that it’s capable of a lot of things so it feels like a complete waste to make it “only” do something simple like watering the plants and opening the drapes.

[Un]fortunately the RPi has caught like wildfire the imagination of adult tinkerers everywhere. They’re making them as fast as they can now, but there are still long order lead times. It’s worth it, go buy some! My first project was to hook up a Garmin GPS and try to build my own stratum 1 NTP server. You know, in case I want my clocks on my computers to be within microsecond accuracy. The setup sort of works but the accuracy is way off even with a PPS signal, so I’m still figuring that one out.

Next comes the Cubieboard. Of course the first thing I wanted to do with the Raspberry Pi was buy a bunch of them, shove them into a shoebox and have a little ARM cluster that could serve up “Hello World” with nginx. The problem is, the RPi doesn’t really support hard drives, it’s not intended to. You *can* plug in something to the USB ports which is perfectly fine. Cubieboard is the next logical progression, another tiny ARM system that includes SATA and more memory. It has even more pins for wiring up gizmos than the Arduino or Raspberry Pi. They target price is $49, they just ended a crowdfunding thing for a new production run. Of course now I want to make a little server farm out of them.

And yet another really interesting thing is the Parallela system from Adapteva. This thing is sick and is designed for sheer power with low power consumption. Lots of tiny cores on the die. This isn’t designed for hardware tinkering, more intended to produce very powerful embedded applications. They got their Kickstarter funding and should be sending out units in 2013. I like what they’re doing and hope they succeed, I kicked in and bought two 16-core boards.

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