At first glance, the CuBox-i seems largely unchanged from its predecessor reviewed back in issue 123. It has the same 55mm2 footprint, the same black finish, the same ports at the rear, an optical audio output at the side and a translucent window to an infrared receiver at the front. Even taking the unit apart reveals the same mezzanine board layout and angled heatsink we are all too familiar with.
A look at the specifications soon clarifies the difference. The CuBox-i4Pro features Freescale’s i.MX6 Quad processor, a system-on-chip (SoC) design with four 1GHz ARMv7 processing cores and the company’s GC2000 graphics processor. For those shopping on a budget, the CuBox-i is also available with the mid-range i.MX6 Dual at £99 and with the wireless features removed at £89. Compared to the 800MHz Marvell Armada of the original CuBox, any model would represent a considerable upgrade.
The top-end CuBox-i4Pro, as reviewed, also features a chip antenna connected to a built-in 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radio. While it would have been nice to see a connector for an external antenna, it’s hard to imagine where SolidRun would have placed one: the CuBox-i makes use of almost every cubic millimetre available within the black casing.
A bundled microSD card arrives preinserted into the rear of the CuBox-i, and it’s loaded with a version of Google’s Android operating system. Interestingly, SolidRun has gone to the effort of seeking the certifications required to load the Google Apps suite onto the card, meaning users receive Google Mail, YouTube, Google Maps and full access to Google Play straight out of the box. An even newer build, based on the latest Android 4.4 KitKat branch, can be downloaded from SolidRun’s website and provides an entirely useable desktop Android experience.
As with the HummingBoard, SolidRun’s internal development platform turned commercially-available hardware hacking platform, the true power of the CuBox-i doesn’t show itself until a more flexible operating system is installed. With the build of Canonical’s Ubuntu available from SolidRun being the out-of-date 11.10 at the time of writing, something SolidRun said it would be addressing as soon as possible, we tested using Debian Jessie.
Running the SysBench CPU test, the CuBox-i completed a 95th percentile time of 22.81ms, easily beating the 47.02ms of the original CuBox and way ahead of the Raspberry Pi’s sedate 51.45ms. The quad-core processor really shines in multithreaded applications, with a pigz compress and decompress test completing in 0.862ms and 0.133ms respectively compared to 8.64s and 3.08s on a single-core Pi.
With full support for digital audio over HDMI or optical outputs, a gigabit Ethernet port, 3GB/s eSATA for external storage and a built-in infrared receiver, the CuBox-i is clearly at home in a home theatre setup. Its compact size and black finish help it to blend in, but the gigabit network port is limited to a real-world throughput of around 366MB/s. This means anyone hoping to use a CuBox-i and eSATA hard drive for network attached storage functions may find the performance lower than expected – although perfectly fast enough to stream HD video content around the house.
Aside from a few minor software glitches, which SolidRun promised would be resolved in an impending update, the CuBox-i performed admirably during testing. With full HummingBoard compatibility, to the point of being able to take the microSD card from one and insert it into the other without difficulty, the CuBox-i should certainly tempt those who have yet to make the leap to experimenting with ARM.
The CuBox-i’s quad-core processor makes it one of the fastest ARM-based products we’ve ever tested, an impressive feat when you also take into account that it has by far the smallest footprint. For hardware hackers, the GPIO-equipped HummingBoard is likely a better choice but software compatibility between the two means it’s possible to chop and change throughout the life of a project