That Intel is pushing its products into the embedded space is no secret. The company’s presentations at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year concentrated on its efforts to turn its chip design know- how into low-power products suitable for everything from smartphones to Internet of Things (IoT) sensor networks. The MinnowBoard project is a big part of that.
The original MinnowBoard launched back in 2013 as a partnership between Intel and CircuitCo, the organisation which designed and developed the ARM- based BeagleBoard development platform. Like the BeagleBoard, the MinnowBoard, reviewed in issue 131, was an open-hardware development platform designed for everyone from engineers testing out new product ideas to hobbyists looking for a new toy.
Adoption of the MinnowBoard was slow, however. Use of a 32-bit UEFI firmware meant that operating system compatibility was poor, despite Intel producing a Yocto- compliant board support package (BSP). Coupled with relatively poor performance from its single-core 32-bit processor, it’s fair to say the MinnowBoard was not a commercial success.
Success is relative, however. When you have as much money as Intel to throw at these projects, failure is simply an opportunity to learn – and learn Intel has. The MinnowBoard Max arrives as the successor to the MinnowBoard, production of which has now ceased. As well as being considerably smaller, a quick glance at the specifications demonstrates that Intel and its CircuitCo partner have been listening intently to feedback from users.
The biggest change is a shift from a 32-bit processor to a more modern 64-bit chip, complete with rewritten 64-bit UEFI firmware. As well as boosting performance, this gives the MinnowBoard Max software compatibility of which its predecessor could have only dreamed: theoretically, any operating system which can boot on a general-purpose x86 PC can boot on the MinnowBoard Max with a minimum of effort. Microsoft has, naturally, made much of its support for Windows 8.1; of more interest to its target market is support for Linux distributions ranging from Debian and Red Hat all the way through to Google’s semi-closed Android platform.
The new processor, Intel’s Atom E3825 system-on- chip (SoC), brings improved performance, boosted clock speed to 1.33GHz and two physical cores alongside an increased allowance of 2GB of DDR3 memory. A lower- cost variant of the MinnowBoard Max featuring a single- core 1.46GHz Atom E3815 and 1GB of RAM, is planned to launch in the near future but was not available at the time of writing.
A quick benchmark shows just how different the new Atom processor is to its predecessor: running a single- core test on the SysBench application showed a 95th percentile completion time of 3.22ms – far faster than the 11.49ms of the first MinnowBoard – and the Max boasts a second core to help it streak further away from the original.
As a development board, it’s no surprise to find that the MinnowBoard Max has a number of features lacking from general-purpose PCs like Intel’s Next Unit of Computing devices, which, development features aside, offer significantly higher specifications at a similar price. A 26-pin GPIO header immediately makes one think of the non-plus variants of the Raspberry Pi, although unlike its undoubted inspiration the MinnowBoard Max features pulse width modulation (PWM) control over two of the eight user-accessible pins for control of servos, dimming of LEDs and similar functions.
The biggest feature, however, is the MinnowBoard’s Lure header. Properly known as the High Speed Expansion Connector and located on the underside of the board, this 60-pin header includes additional GPIO pins along with mSATA, mPCIe, USB, I2C and more. Adoption of the standard has been slow, but add-on Lures are beginning to appear with everything from Arduino compatibility to mPCIe headers for future expansion.
Max is an undeniable improvement on the original MinnowBoard design in both software compatibility and performance. It offers flexibility, but for those who don’t need open hardware or GPIO capabilities. It’s beaten in value by Intel’s own general-purpose Next Unit of Computing (NUC) machines, while its ARM-based rivals typically sell for a fraction of the MinnowBoard’s initial launch price.