The CuBox, announced in December 2011, has been slow in coming to the UK, but is finally available through compact computing specialist New IT. Has it been worth the wait?
The first thing that strikes you about the CuBox is its size: measuring just 55mm on a side and 42mm tall, it’s one of the smallest fully featured microcomputers around. Its compact footprint comes courtesy of a split design, which moves some components onto a mezzanine board above the main PCB. Unlike the Raspberry Pi, OLinuXino and similar, it’s also provided in a specially designed casing which hides the components and a large aluminium heatsink that’s bonded to the processor.
The system-on-chip is a Marvell Armada 510. Based on the ARMv7 instruction set, the chip runs at 800MHz and includes an integrated Vivante GC600 graphics engine. A vMeta HD Video Decoder provides extra grunt for 1080p video playback.
That does have a knock-on effect on the system, though: the CuBox’s 1GB of memory seems generous in a market where 512MB is the norm, but a whopping 256MB is reserved for the GPU and a further 128MB for the vMeta – meaning a mere 640MB is available to the user. This can, however, be tweaked: operating system images are available to turn the CuBox into a headless server, disabling the GPU in order to give the user access to the full 1GB of DDR3 memory – extended to 2GB in the recently launched CuBox Pro.
Software is the CuBox’s weak point. Although it’s been out in the US for a year, development is slow and the available software lags behind rival devices. The stock OS, Ubuntu 10.04 supplied on a bundled 4GB microSD card, is particularly poor: as well as being nearly three years out of date, the software is compiled for soft-float – a decision which cripples performance and makes the desktop almost unusable.
Replacing the operating system – a handily easy process, thanks to a built-in serial console available on the micro-USB port and a clever script that allows the CuBox to download operating system images and write them to its own microSD card – with a hard-float build of Ubuntu 12.04 drops the SysBench benchmark time from 174.2ms to 48.83ms, beating the Raspberry Pi’s score of 51.45ms. For an ARMv7 chip, though, that score is somewhat disappointing: the Olimex A13-OLinuXino scores 25.7ms on the same benchmark and costs half the price.
Where the CuBox shines is not as a general-purpose desktop, but as a home theatre PC. Its eSATA port allows for easy connection to high-capacity external hard drives, and its Gigabit Ethernet connectivity is more than up to the job of streaming 1080p video around the place. Installing the recommended GeeXboX operating system, which includes XBMC, results in an incredibly capable home entertainment system with support for Consumer Electronics Control (CEC) for pausing, playing and navigating the menus using the TV’s remote. An IrDA port at the front allows for a dedicated remote control – not included – and an optical port at the side provides S/PDIF digital output at sample rates of up to 192KHz.
The only real fly in the ointment for home theatre use – aside from the £105 price tag, which puts it head and shoulders above the competition and nearly into the realm of professional development platforms – is a somewhat picky HDMI output, which is happiest when working with standard 1920×1080 displays. There’s no support for 16:10, 17:9 or 3:2 display aspect ratios, nor does it support the PAL SD resolution of 768×576. For most users, though, this will be a minor inconvenience.
The multimedia performance of the CuBox is excellent, let down only by the selective nature of its HDMI video output. The integrated micro- USB serial console makes recovery from disaster simple, and the compact dimensions make it easy to hide among home entertainment devices. Sadly, its general-purpose compute performance and high price make it a poor choice for other uses.
This review was originally published in Linux User & Developer 123. You can get our latest issue, and subscriptions, from our online shop.