Let’s take a look at ARM boards again

Over year ago I wrote post in which I complained about cheap developer boards but concentrated on ones supported by Linaro. This time I want to write about boards which I did not even had occasion to play with.

Most popular one was Rasperry/Pi. But as I already wrote why I’m tired of it I prefer to not discuss it too much. In short: old cpu core (ARM11), not enough memory (256MB), requires closed binaries even to boot (the GPU binary also contains the first stage bootloader).

Then we have a lot of boards based on AllWinner A10/A13 cpus. Single core Cortex-A8, no Linux kernel support in mainline. Fun is that there is Serial ATA controller in SoC but most of the boards does not offer that so users have to use SD or USB storage which is slower. Example devices: Hackberry, Cubieboard, Mele A1000.

Fun stuff starts to appear from Freescale area. i.MX6 cpu has potential and many options available. There are Wandboard, Sabrelite with second one providing interesting addons like mini PCI-Express slot (with PCIe signals) or small board with buttons (Android oriented).

Quad A9 boards are also available with Samsung s3c4412 cpu — like ODroid-X which I described when it was released. But no Serial-ATA in this processor.

So which one to choose? All depends what you want to do with it. Few days ago on debian-arm mailing list someone asked “Workstation based on ARM motherboard, good idea ?” which got me to conclusion that it possible to setup low specification desktop today with ARM cpu.

I wonder how much would I have to pay for mini-ITX compatible board (can be smaller but has to be mountable to normal PC case) with 2-4GB of memory (SO-DIMM preferred) with quad core cpu and Serial ATA. So I could connect usb mouse/keyboard, monitor though HDMI, speakers with 3.5mm jack, Ethernet (1GbE preferred) and boot Debian/Ubuntu straight from SATA hard drive or ssd. 2D/3D acceleration working and recent (max 2 versions old) Linux kernel working with not insane amount of patches. But such day probably will not happen.

UPDATE: Looks like VIA had such idea with their APC board. Neo-ITX format but components few years old ;(

Alix.1c and Koala MiniPC case

Today I got case for Alix.1c mainboard. For reminding: this is PC Engines board in mini-ITX format, powered by AMD Geode LX800.

Package arrived from Koan Software and contained one of their products: MiniPC 2PCI case.

Package contents

There were many addons in the box:

  • 60W 12V AC adapter
  • 2.5″ ATA -> Slim DVD/CD adapter
  • PCI riser for 2 slots
  • wall mounting elements
  • 2.5″ ATA 3.5″ ATA adapters
  • bracket for 3 DB9 connectors (additional serials anyone?)

AC adapter is added because case contains small PSU with few connectors. I do not use it because Alix.1c mainboard consists similar one already (and lack ATX power connector).

Inside view

Inside case there is a lot of space available:

There are mounting places for 3.5″ HDD, 2.5″ HDD and slim DVD/CD drive (signal adapter attached). There are also 2 fans (60mm each) but I left them not connected (Alix does not require cooling and lack sockets for fans).

Front panel

Front panel has 2 USB sockets, HDD and power leds and power button. As usual in mini-ITX cases there is no Reset button. Not present in my case (but available as option) is CompactFlash slot accessible from front. I did not ordered it because Alix has such one integrated.


Case is very high quality made — no sharp edges, easy access to all peripherals. And all those addons which are in a box makes overall cost smaller. If someone is searching for good mini-ITX case then MiniPC ones are good choice (and there is smaller version without place for PCI cards).

PCI 3.3V 🙁

As I wrote before I plan to make router based on Alix.1c — but after putting it into case I discovered one problem with board itself. It has 3.3V PCI slot so I have no use of PCI riser which was added to case. Will search for VIA one because it is universal (3.3V/5V) so I will get slots (but have to remember that cards have to accept 3.3V signals).

Is it time to replace WRT54GS?

Since few months I have 10/1Mbps network connection (downlink/uplink). Recently it was downgraded to 1/1Mbps and I had no idea why. Finally it appeared that my router was the problem…

Exact reason was QoS which I enabled few days ago. It looks like DD-WRT which I use now can not handle it on WRT54GS without degrading network speed. For now I disabled this but it is not an option because I plan to use VoIP more in next months so I need warranty that it will get all bandwidth it needs never mind what else would be running.

Current plans are to make use of Alix 1.c which I have from PC Engines. Soon I will have nice case for it so the only things to buy will be miniPCI WiFi card (friends suggested getting one of Atheros based ones) and 1GbE network card. I already have 2GB CompactFlash for rootfs and spare 2.5″ hdd which will be used for storage.

This configuration should be fast enough to have more functions then just router/AP. I plan to make it also printer/scanner server and probably there will be some more to add.

Why Alix board is nice and why not quite

There are nice things in Alix board design and few not quite nice.

Nice ones:

  • only 12V voltage needed (small external PSU is in package)
  • DC-DC converter on board (so no need for ATX PSU or PicoPSU + 12V external PSU)
  • slot for CompactFlash storage on board (no need for CF->ATA adapter)
  • miniPCI slot
  • low profile (board has height of dual USB connector)
  • 22 GPIO lines
  • 256MB of RAM soldered on board (so no space taken by memory slot)
  • no fan, no heatsink

What I do not like:

  • lack of ATX back cover for ports (so when you put it in case you will get big hole for dust)
  • lack of memory slot (even SO-DIMM one if someone want more then 256MB RAM)
  • ATA connector is 44 pin one for 2.5″ harddisks (looks like it is impossible to buy 2.5″->2.5″ cable in Poland)

So if someone know where to buy 2.5″ -> 2.5″ ATA cable in Poland then please write in comment.

PC Engines Alix1c arrived

During GUADEC time Stelios Koroneos from Digital Opsis announced that PC Engines company donated two Alix1c boards to OpenEmbedded. As the board is interesting I wrote that if no one else will mail than I would like to play with it.

Today it picked it on post office and brought home. First reaction during unpacking: “Wow, this board is TINY!” because I had not used mini-ITX boards before. After connecting few cables (power, ethernet, vga, usb keyboard) and shorting “power switch” with screwdriver I got it booted and checked BIOS settings. Unfortunately I was unable to boot from PXE 🙁

I did search in drawer and took 256M CompactFlash card which I bought few years ago for “collie” and decided to install something on it. Decided that this time it will be Voyage Linux (Debian derived distribution for x86-based embedded platforms such as WRAP, ALIX and Soekris 45xx/48xx boards). Fetched their install CD (33M only) and started qemu with CF card as harddisk and that ISO. Few minutes later card was put into slot on Alix board and I got Voyage running.

Of course I could not resist and now board is upgraded to plain Debian ‘sid’ and 2.6.22 kernel ;D After wedding I will replace NSLU2 with Alix board and add few functions for it:

  • Samba server
  • Bluetooth Access Point
  • CUPS based print server
  • NFS server

During that time I also plan to move it from CF card and Debian to 2.5″ harddisk and Ångström.