Little Computers

I like low powered computers.  It’s nice to use dedicated hardware for certain functions like file servers, routers, media players, etc.  Dedicated hardware means you don’t have to disrupt other functions to do an upgrade.  It also means that the dedicated hardware can be sized appropriately for the task, which helps avoid wasting energy for systems that are running around the clock.

For these reasons, I’m always on the lookout for hardware options.

VIA’s mini-ITX products have long provided a combination of small size and relatively low power consumption.  I’ve had a second hand motherboard/CPU combo powering my home file server for the last 5 years or so.  And their Pico-ITX boards shrink things down even further.

In the past year or so, Intel has gotten into the act with their low-powered Atom CPUs.  For under $100 you can get a barebones system with a compact case, a low-wattage power supply, a motherboard and an Atom CPU from NewEgg.  Unfortunately, these cheaper Atom systems pair their efficient CPUs with relatively inefficient supporting chipsets that can consume 4x the power of the CPU.  Options are starting to emerge.  Boards with the NVidia ION chipset draw less power and the included GPU can help with playing back 1080p video, but these carry a big price premium. In addition, some time this year, Intel is supposed to be shipping revisions more integrated options that draw less power.

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Right now though, there are some interesting options based on embedded Atom chips.  Fit2-PC sells tiny barebones systems (4″ x 4.5″ x 1.05″) that pair the 1.1GHz Atom z530 with a chipset that includes hardware assisted HD video decoding and uses a max of 8W.  The basic version, with 1GB of memory, room for a laptop hard drive and gigabit ethernet is $245.  Not exactly cheap, but these things are TINY. For another $10 you can add WiFi.  All of them have HDMI for video, and 6 USB ports.

All of the above options are x86-compatible chips, which mean that they can run most PC software, including Windows.  This compatibility means you can run the widest range of software with the least effort.  On the other hand being compatible with 35 year old software can mean that x86 chips aren’t the most efficient options out there, and chips that can run modern versions of Windows are often more powerful than you need for a router or a home file & media server.  To find the lowest power consumption for a given price you have to look for other options.

In the 90s we heard a lot about RISC chips, whose inherent efficiencies were going to trounce Intel’s x86 line, but Intel’s wasn’t that easy to unseat. RISC chips did much better in the embedded market, where the CPU was sold as part of a device that accomplished a relatively narrow range of functions.  Software compatibility was often less of an issue than price or power consumption and RISC held advantages for each.

Some of the x86 rivals like MIPS and PowerPC have had their successes in the embedded market, but these days, it seems like the most successful RISC architecture is ARM, which in the 80s, actually powered a relatively successful line of desktop PCs.  Later, it was picked for the Apple Newton, since then, the basic design has been licensed by dozens of companies who have used it as the core of various special purpose chips.  In recent years, an ARM chip built by Samsung has been powering the iPhone, and by some estimates, there are 6-7 other ARM “cores” in the iPhone providing specialized chips like the touch screen controller.

Another company, Marvel, has been producing ARM powered designs for various network appliances, and recently, they’ve been selling reference systems they hope developers will use to create novel devices.  (Interestingly, Marvel’s ARM products were originally developed by Intel).

The cheapest of these is the $99 “SheevaPlug,” which looks like a large “wallwart” power supply used to power a router, but has one gigabit ethernet and one USB port, along with a 1.2GHz ARM core, 512MB RAM. and 512MB flash memory.  There is even an ARM version of Ubuntu that runs on it, which means that it is as easy to set up as a server as pretty much any Intel system you could throw together.  Performance doesn’t look bad either, about on par with a 1GHz Athlon or Pentium M. Unfortunately, it looks like power consumption is ~5W, which means its not much better than the Fit2-PC I mentioned above, albiet at less than half the price.  More info here.

For $150, they offer the Open-RD board, which also exposes two SATA ports.  For another $100 you can get a loaded version of the Open-RD board with dual GigE ports, VGA output in an enclosure with a 12V power supply.

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