Say Hello to BeagleBone: A Preview

Has a taste for fruit pies

It’s no secret that ARM-based SoCs are advancing at an incredible rate compared to x86 CPUs.  While ARM ratchets up the performance on the high end with multi-core architectures like the Cortex A9 and Cortex A15, which rivals and in many cases exceed the performance on low-power x86 chips, licensees such as TI have created full-featured SoCs at single-digit prices, enabling new low-power devices at tiny price points.

The $89 BeagleBone, created by the same group that created the BeagleBoard and performance BeagleBoard-xM, contains one of these not-so-new ultra-cheap, ultra-fast TI chips – the AM3359, based on the Cortex A8.  This SoC delivers a fast 2-issue in-order CPU complete with PowerVR’s SGX530 GPU, on-chip ethernet and LPDDR support.  Those who are savvy in the ultra-mobile space will recognize the Cortex A8 from other popular devices, such as the ubiquitous iPhone 3GS and the faster-clocked A8 in the iPhone 4.  The BeagleBone’s A8 comes in clocked at 720 Mhz, a full 20% faster than the A8 in the 3GS and about 30% slower than the 4.

Left: The $25 Raspberry Pi prototype; Right: The Cortex A8-powered BeagleBone with hand model

The immediate comparison potential customers will make is to the oft-mentioned Raspberry Pi, a $25 barebones board which famously ran Quake 3 at 1600×1200 with 4x AA at about 20fps.  The diminutive Raspberry Pi  is a very different animal than the BeagleBone – while the folks out at BeagleBoard are attempting to make a utilitarian board with multiple expansion opportunities, Raspberry Pi’s goal is only to provide computing at the lowest possible price.

Both solutions run full-fledged Linux. The BeagleBone ships with a 2GB microSD card pre-loaded with the Angstrom Distribution, node.js, and the Cloud9 IDE.  As of early November, there is no official word what will come with the Raspberry Pi.

It is easy to see the ideological difference in the composition of the two boards.  The BeagleBone contains the fast Cortex A8-based AM3359 with 256MB of RAM, while the Raspberry Pi uses the now-ancient ARM11 with 128MB, the same chip used in the original iPhone and iPhone 3G.  The Raspberry Pi is clocked at a healthy 700Mhz (vs 412Mhz in the 3G), but the ARM11 is simply a slower architecture.

The Raspberry Pi is well suited for low-stress productivity apps and educational software, and contains only a single USB, ⅛” audio, and HDMI port (no Ethernet on the $25 model, look to the $35 Model B for that).  The creators claim the Raspberry Pi will sport 16 general-purpose IO pins, but they were not present on the demo model pictured.  On the other end of the spectrum, the BeagleBone sports two 46-pin, two-row female expansion headers, gigabit Ethernet, microSD, onboard LEDs, a USB port with serial/JTAG conversion – and strangely, no standard monitor outputs, relying instead on its 46-pin headers for multiplexed output to LCDs.  Simply put, this will not even replace your mom’s PIII desktop, this is a different niche.  There is the $149 BeagleBoard-xM, which sports a higher clockspeed, dedicated HD-video capable DSP, and DVI-D, but it does so on a larger board with a larger price.

The BeagleBone does not contain a dedicated video decode chip, relying instead on the SGX530, which is only rated for 720×480 at 24FPS.  Considering the trouble you’ll have connecting a monitor to the board anyway, HD video decode is a secondary issue and not what the BeagleBone was designed for, opting instead for healthy GPU power.  The Raspberry Pi made video decode one of its chief priorities, with a dedicated chip providing 1080p30 high-profile decode.  So, surprisingly, if you’re just looking for a quick-and-dirty media center, the cheaper board is a better option.

If you want to build a controller for your flying robot, 3D printer, zombie hunter, smart thermostat, or automatic face-activated home-entry system. you’re going to want a BeagleBone.  With processing power exceeding an iPhone 3GS and 60 I/O ports at $89, we’re looking at performance near that of the Pentium III (depends on who you ask) with 256MB of RAM and copious I/O, all on a board that draws less than 2W.  But it won’t do the things the mainstream expects a computer to do.  This is a hobby device, and fills a very well-defined hobby niche.

The BeagleBone will retail for $89 at  BeagleBoard already produces the BeagleBoard and BeagleBoard-xM, both of which are proven devices.  Distributors report late November availability.  We hope to get one in our hands soon to give a first-hand look at what development on a BeagleBone looks like, so stay tuned.S|A

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Samuel Reed