Intel MinnowBoard Review – No Competition
Intel’s answer to the Raspberry Pi is here – but at nearly six times the price, can it tempt buyers back to x86?
Operating system: Angström Linux (Yocto Certified)
Processor: 32-bit Intel Atom E640T single-core at 1GHz
Video: Embedded Intel GMA 600
Memory: 1GB DDR2, 4MB SPI Flash (Firmware Storage)
Dimensions: 106 x 115mm
Weight: 119g (excluding PSU)
Input/Output: DVI-over-HDMI, Analogue audio in & out, 2x USB, 1x SATA-2, 1x USB device, 1x Serial console, Gigabit Ethernet, 1x micro-SDIO
Extras: Lure connector with CAN bus, HD audio, LVDS, I2C, 3x PCI Express, SATA-2, SDIO, SPI bus, 2x UART, 2x USB
Power: 5V at 2.5A
Clearly, the MinnowBoard is no Raspberry Pi. Measuring 102mm on its shortest side, it’s significantly larger, requires a whopping 2.5A from a 5V power supply to run and costs almost six times as much as the credit-card-sized Pi. The MinnowBoard does offer something the Pi lacks, however: full x86 compatibility.
At the heart of the MinnowBoard is one of Intel’s less powerful processors: the Atom E640T. Running at 1GHz, the single-core chip offers a 32-bit x86 implementation – already putting it on the back foot compared to the dual-core 64-bit APU found on rival AMD’s Gizmo, the closest device for comparison – while generating a surprisingly small amount of heat, allowing for passive cooling through a compact heat sink.
With 1GB of RAM, the MinnowBoard offers a surprisingly powerful yet lightweight platform for embedded computing. Peaking, during testing, at 7W from the socket, it scored a respectable 95th percentile time of 11.49ms – almost five times faster than the Raspberry Pi at 51.45ms, but still some way behind the Gizmo’s impressive 9.87ms score. Add in the fact that the Gizmo can run two threads simultaneously and it’s clear Intel isn’t going to win on outright performance – although it has included Hyper-Threading support in the MinnowBoard for pseudo dual-core operation.
Treating the MinnowBoard as a standard computer, however, misses the point entirely. The device is designed for embedded development, and to help Intel regain a foothold in a market that has become almost completely dominated by ARM-based systems. Accordingly, it includes eight buffered general-purpose input-output pins, along with two user-controllable LEDs and a set of four switches. Together, these turn the MinnowBoard into a ready-to-run system for developing embedded applications – and unlike with ARM-based devices, those used to an x86 toolchain don’t have to learn anything new.
The board also includes an expansion connector for add- in daughterboards dubbed ‘Lures.’ Designed to be analogous to the ‘shields’ of the Arduino microcontroller, the port gives each Lure access to considerable potential: as well as three PCI Express lanes, an SDIO channel, two USB channels and more, the port carries everything from CAN to I2C buses. Although there are no Lures available on the open market at the time of writing, several are in development – including one which will offer compatibility with Arduino shields.
That doesn’t mean the main board is bereft of connectivity: a micro-SDIO slot for the boot device, two USB ports, analogue audio connections, Gigabit Ethernet, and mini- and micro-USB ports for acting as a USB device or as a debug serial console are included. The board also features a SATA-2 port, offering up to 3Gbps of throughput to a mass storage device – with a second port available through the Lure expansion port if required.
At present, the MinnowBoard ships with a bare-bones installation of Angstrom Linux – no friendly out-of-box experience here. With full Yocto Project certification, however, rolling your own OS isn’t a challenge and Intel is in talks with distributions including Ubuntu to add support for the board’s somewhat unique 32-bit UEFI firmware.
Using documentation – still in progress – from the project’s founders, the MinnowBoard is quick to offer up its GPIO capabilities. The only real disappointment comes from the HDMI socket, which only carries a DVI signal and not the audio required of a full HDMI implementation. There’s also no support for HDCP encryption, although anyone considering using the MinnowBoard as a media playback system has probably missed the point of its design and features.
The MinnowBoard is a welcome foray from Intel into the world of open hardware and offers considerable potential. While its performance may lag behind the rival Gizmo board, the Lure connector holds promise for some impressive add-ons to come – but its high price means the Raspberry Pi has little to fear from this upstart.