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BeagleBone Black Review

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

Beagleboard Rasberry 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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