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May
29

BeagleBone Black Review

by Gareth Halfacree

Can the BeagleBoard’s project latest open-source creation offer competition to the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi?

Specifications

Price: $45/£37
Operating system: Angstrom Linux 3.8.6 (Pre-Loaded)
Processor: 1GHz Texas Instruments Sitara AM3359 Cortex-A8 SoC
Graphics: Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX530 (Embedded)
Memory: 512MB DDR3
Storage: 2GB eMMC NAND Flash (Expandable via Micro-SD)
Network: 10/100 Ethernet
GPIO: 65 User-Accessible Pins, McASP, SPI, I2C, LCD, GPMC, MMC, AIN, CAN,
PWM, 4x Timers, 3x Serial Ports
Other: Micro-HDMI, USB 2.0, Optional JTAG Header
Dimensions: 88.4mm x 55.2mm x 19mm
Weight: 40g (excluding cables)

Beagleboard Rasberry Pi
The TI Sitara AM3359 is a powerful Cortex-A8 processor, offering remarkable performance for its power draw.

Review

When the Raspberry Pi launched at its headline-grabbing price of less than £30 for a fully-fledged single-board computer, the SBC market was forced to sit up and take notice. For buyers, it’s proven a bonanza: companies as diverse as VIA and Olimex have rushed to bring their own Pi-alike to market for a similar price tag, and now it’s the turn of the open-hardware BeagleBoard project.

The original BeagleBoard was a typical SBC of its time – and came with a hefty price-tag attached. Its cut-down variant, the BeagleBone, offered a design more suited to permanent installation in projects – but still sold at a cost that made it a hard sell compared to the Pi.

The BeagleBone Black looks to fix that. Selling for under £40, the Black variant costs around half as much as the original BeagleBone and yet is significantly improved. The processor has been upgraded to a Sitara AM3359 running at 1GHz, a Cortex-A8 CPU that churns through the SysBench CPU test with a 95th percentile time of 25.69ms – twice as fast as the Pi at 51.45ms – along with double the memory at 512MB.

The board also includes 2GB of on-board eMMC storage, which comes pre-loaded with a version of Angstrom Linux and the same twin-48-pin general purpose IO (GPIO) connectivity of its predecessor – making it compatible with most existing add-on boards, known in the BeagleBone world as ‘capes.’

The biggest change over its predecessor, however, is in video output: while the original BeagleBone needed a £50 HDMI cape to enable video output, the Black comes with a micro-HDMI connector on-board – driven by a ‘virtual cape,’ making it compatible with existing HDMI-based code written for the BeagleBone.

Sadly, the HDMI output can’t compete with the Pi: video output is limited to 1,440×900 resolution at best, or 1,280×720 with audio. Compatibility, too, is poor: the official support channels show complaints that the HDMI output simply doesn’t work with some TVs and monitors, an issue we ran in to during testing of our review unit.

Worse still is an issue of quality control: the tiny micro-HDMI connector is located on the edge of the board, and is easily damaged – even at the factory. With UK supplies selling out quickly, there can be a considerable wait for a replacement.

Assuming you’re lucky enough to get one of the good ones, the BeagleBone Black is a remarkable device. Using the device as a stand-alone computer is a surprisingly pleasurable experience: browsing even complex pages using Chromium is smooth. For tethered use as an electronics prototyping platform, the Black can be powered by a PC’s USB port – over which it will also mount its internal storage as a removeable drive.

Here’s where the Black shines: the pre-installed packages that come with its port of Angstrom Linux, introduced through a handy HTML quick-start guide, allow the GPIO hardware to be programmed directly in the browser of a host system using the Cloud9 IDE. For tweaking Linux itself, an in-browser SSH client is included.

Unfortunately, there are a few bugs still to be ironed out. Some kernel modules are missing, and the way the system is configured means it’s near-impossible to use the micro-SD card slot as additional storage – rather than a boot device for an alternative OS – without considerable effort.

Over time, however, these bugs – and initial production hiccoughs surrounding the HDMI port – will be resolved, and the capabilities of the Black exceed anything else at this end of the market. Add in support for alternative operating systems – including Canonical’s Ubuntu and Google’s Android – and it’s clear the Black is a BeagleBone for the masses.

Verdict

4/5

Despite its HDMI connectivity, the BeagleBone Black isn’t a multimedia heavyweight like the Pi. Its impressively powerful processor and incredible array of general purpose input-output (GPIO) capabilities combined with clever pre-loaded software make it an excellent way to get started with embedded programming, however, while offering broader out-of-box capabilities than those of the Pi.

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    • wb666greene

      The SPI should not be listed in the feature set. It doesn’t work out of the box and if you go through all the hassle of recompiling a kernel you end up with something only usable if you can tolerate random 5-15 mS latencies in the SPI write :(

    • Leonard Samuelson

      I’ve been running the BeagleBone Black for about two weeks, and have some observations about it too.

      Background: We develop embedded systems for transport industry, mostly using Linux workstations.

      The BBB Ethernet interface is built into the AM3359 SOC rather than USB, which I assume (yet to verify) reduces Ethernet latency. Also, being a Cortex-A8, the processor has full floating-point including VFPv3 and NEON.

      The BBB developers use the USB device connection (based on the kernel’s USB gadget drivers) to great effect.

      2 minutes after unboxing the unit, I was reading documentation stored in a flash partition hosted by the BBB (usb-storage). The BBB provides a usbnet virtual-Ethernet interface, with a DHCP server. My workstation automatically received a network address, so SSH and the BBB web server were both available immediately. Finally, one can connect to the BBB through a USB gadget serial interface, usually named “/dev/ttyACM0″ on the workstation.

      There are plenty of BeagleBone capes available, but watch out for compatibility with the peripherals built into the BBB, specifically the HDMI and eMMC. The HDMI interface is a bit weak, only supporting resolutions up to 1280×1024.

      The default Angstrom image has compilers and basic scripting tools (GCC, Python, perl, Javascript and lots of networking tools), so development can begin quickly. The cloud9 IDE, bsed on Google V8 and jode.js, provides convenient access to the system for Javascript-fluent developers.

      The bottom line is that the BBB stands out for its accessibility and ease of integration into the development process, with great networking, USB and hardware facilities.

    • dfjkbvdjkf

      I received my BBB a couple of days ago. These are my first impressions.

      I bought the board with an additional 8GB micro-SD card. With taxes and shipping (from Austria to Spain) the total cost was just under €75. In addition I had to buy a micro-HDMI to “ordinary” HDMI cable and a high-power +5V @ 1.5A supply, so my total cost was about €90.

      However, I found that the plastic surround to the uHDMI connector prevented the USB socket from being used, so I had to cut a lot of it away. It also blocked the uSD card (more on that later) from being inserted when the uHDMI was plugged in.

      The BBB only has 1 USB socket and I found that the first 2 USB hubs I tried (to get a keyboard and mouse attached) simply weren’t recognised. A third, powered hub worked fine – but that means I need 2 mains power supplies to use this device!

      The BBB has a 2GB on-board flash that comes shipped with the supplied Angstrom Linux release. This Linux is incredibly buggy: even trying to change the setup on the clock app causes it (the app, not Angstrom) to crash. The browser can load “basic” pages, like google but got terribly confused with bbc.co.uk. On the good side, it can display webcam video – though it croaks with my webcam set to 640×480@30fps.

      There are also some other factors that should be taken seriously before you commit to buy. First, if you’re using the HDMI, a number of the I/O pins are reserved – a lot of them. Also, while the documentation says the board _can_ be run from a 500mA supply, in practice you should run it from well over a 1A source. But the worst problem is that if you boot from the on-board flash, the O/S can’t see the uSD card – it simply isn’t detected. While the BBB people have known this for a month, that information is not publicised as much as it could be – they “hope” for a fix in Q4. But that comes from an external supplier: TI abd depends on them coming up with the goods.

      You can get versions of Ubuntu and Debian that will install onto the uSD card and you can get the BBB to boot from this. I’ve installed Ubuntu 13.04 and the LXDE desktop. With this I can get 1920×1080@24fps resolution on my TV, but the uSD card is much slower than the on-board flash.

    • Pondering_It_All

      Sounds like you should write a PRU version of an SPI driver: Each of them run without any interrupts at 200 MIPS, have 28 bit shift registers running at 200 MHz and can bitbang up to 17 GPIO pins between them. You should be able to write a PRU software version of SPI that runs at any integer divide of 100 MHz or so. Way faster than any SPI device I have ever used.

    • Ulf Samuelsson

      The problem is likely in the USB Host driver which does not support USB hotplugging.You probably rebooted with the hub already inserted.

      Have started a crowdfunding Project to fix the driver.

      http://igg.me/at/eMagii/x/5581172