Embedded boards, finally!

December 19, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

I was about to conclude that this day horizontally sucked beyond measure, but just as I thought as much -the door bell rang. It was FedEx (ta da!) with not one package, but two packages of super nerdy goodness. And here I was sure these puppies wouldnt arrive until after Xmas!

Top the x86 UP board, left bottom a Raspberry PI 3, bottom right the ODroid XU4

Top the x86 UP board, left bottom a Raspberry PI 3, bottom right the ODroid XU4

The ODroid XU4

A while back I ordered the very exciting “Raspberry PI 3 killer” ODroid XU4. It’s a bit of a unicorn, said to be roughly 10 times faster than the Raspberry PI 3. Honestly, having looked at the specs I can’t imagine it being more than 3 to 4 times faster; depending greatly on what your application is doing and the operative system in question. Here is the full spec sheet:

  • Samsung Exynos 5422 Cortex™-A15 2 GHz and Cortex™-A7 Octa core CPUs
  • Mali-T628 MP6(OpenGL ES 3.0/2.0/1.1 and OpenCL 1.1 Full profile)
  • 2 Gbyte LPDDR3 RAM PoP stacked
  • eMMC 5.0 HS400 Flash Storage
  • 2 x USB 3.0 Host, 1 x USB 2.0 Host
  • Gigabit Ethernet port
  • HDMI 1.4a for display

As you can see the ODroid comes armed with 8 CPU cores while the Raspberry PI 3 (RPI3) has only 4. It also comes with twice the RAM (which really impacts performance), and tests have shown the ODroid disk/IO speed is roughly double that of the RPI3. But the cores is what caught my eye, because 8 cores means 8 simultaneous threads. This means code written for node.js, apache [php] or indeed custom, natively compiled Free Pascal servers will be able to handle twice the payload straight off the bat. For stateless protocols like http, I am guessing a performance factor of 3 to 1 compared to an RPI3.

Having said all this, there will be exceptions where the PI3 performs equal of better. The RPI3 SoC have better HD video functionality, so the ODroid have to work harder to produce the same.

For those of you thinking the ODroid will solve all your Amiga emulation problems, the answer is yes. It is significantly faster than the RPI3. But never forget that single threaded applications like UAE (Unix Amiga Emulator) involves a high degree of chipset synchronization. If the chipset performs out of sync (for instance if the blitter finishes faster than it should), all manner of problems will occur. So all that synchronization causes some parts to wait. Meaning no matter how fast your computer is (even my Intel i7 CPU) UAE will never reach peak performance. It will never use the full capacity of a single core due to synchronization.

A small note is also popularity, which means less updates. ODroid has a somewhat slower update cycle than Raspberry. It has thousands of users, but it’s not even close to getting the attention of the Raspberry PI project. And where the Raspberry website has been community oriented, with inspiring graphics, free tutorials and a huge forum from day one – the ODroid has nothing that even compares.

From what I read and hear the biggest problem has been kernel updates. But, seriously, that is often a Linux fetish. Unless it’s a super important update, like going from 32 to 64 bit or patching a really terrible security flaw – most users are not going to be bothered by a 2 versions old kernel. You still have access to the proverbial library of Alexandria that is aperture package manager (apt-get command) and compiling a few programs from code is not that hard. It’s typically download, unpack, configure, make and install – and that’s it.

Naturally, considering the faster CPU of the ODroid, double the ram, double the IO speed – emulators like UAE will be awesome. ODroid is also the only ARM SoC out there in this price range that plays Sega Saturn and PSX 2 games without any problems. And it will also be far better suited for servers, be it natively compiled freepascal servers, mono ASP.net or Smart Pascal [node.js] work.

The UP x86 board

The second package contained another embedded board, this time the x86 based UP board. I bought the most expensive model they had, containing 4 gigabytes of ram and 64 GB EMMC on-board storage. The board sports a 64 bit Intel® Atom™ x5 Z8350 processor, running as high as 1.92 GHz. Between Raspberry PI 3, ODroid XU4 and UP – let there be no doubt which model will come out on top.

  • Intel® Atom™ x5 Z8350 Processor 64 bit – up to 1.92GHz
  • Intel® HD 400 Graphics ,12 EU GEN 8, up to 500MHz Support DX*11.1/12, Open GL*4.2, Open CL*1.2 OGL ES3.0, H.264, HEVC(decode), VP8
  • 4GB DDR3L
  • 64GB eMMC
  • 4 x USB2.0 external connector
  • 2 x USB2.0 port (pin header)
  • 1 x USB 3.0 port
  • 1 x Gb Ethernet (full speed) RJ-45
  • HDMI (DSI / eDP)
  • MIPI-CSI Camera interface
  • 5V DC-in @ 3A 5.5/2.1mm jack

Where the ODroid is rumoured to be 10 times faster than a RPI3, that is a statement closer to an urban myth rather than fact; The UP board on the other hand IS without a shadow of a doubt 10 times faster (and then some), no question about it. Since this is essentially a vanilla x86 SoC PC, the world is your oyster. The full onslaught of x86 software is at your disposal, be it Windows or Linux you chose as your base.

x86 UP board, same size as the PI3 but packing a hell of a punch!

x86 UP board, same size as the PI3 but packing a hell of a punch!

The board has no problems running Windows 10, Ubuntu (full 64 bit version) and Android. And it’s actually more responsive than a few laptops on sale. I wanted a cheap laptop for dedicated Amiga Emulation – but having tested both the low-end Asus and Dell models it just left me wanting. The problem with cheap model laptops is often the absurd memory they ship with (1 to 2 gigabyte). The devices spend more time swapping data back and forth between ram and disk than they do running your code!

This is not the case for the UP board thanks to the on-board 4 gigabytes of ram.

Being a Embarcadero Delphi and Smart Mobile Studio (object pascal for JavaScript) developer this board is perfect for my needs. It has so much more to offer than the cheap ARM boards and is something I can use to create custom hardware projects and avoid many of the adaptation problems associated with ARM Linux.

While I love Raspberry PI 3, Linux takes some getting used to. There are things that takes me days to figure out on Linux that I completed in minutes on Windows (I have been using Windows since the beginning after all). This will change as my skill and insight into Linux matures, but if I can choose between the RPI3 and the UP board, I would pick the UP board every time.

Price is a factor here. RPI3 sells for between $35-40, the ODroid retails for $99 while the x86 UP board can be yours for $150. But you can also buy a cheaper model with less ram and EMMC storage. The UP provider has the following options:

  • $99 – 2 gigabyte memory, 16 gigabyte EMMC storage
  • $109 – 2 gigabyte memory, 32 gigabyte EMMC storage
  • $129 – 4 gigabyte memory, 32 gigabyte EMMC storage
  • $150 – 4 gigabyte memory, 64 gigabyte EMMC storage

If you’re thinking “oh, for that price I could get 2, 3 and 4 PI’s respectively!”, keep in mind the level of CPU power, graphics speed and available software here. The fact that you can install and run Windows 10 and just copy over your Delphi or Smart applications is really sweet.

And if you are into emulation then naturally, Windows has the latest and greatest. Things like EmulationStation is going to run so much better on this device than anything else at this price out there, especially if you get the x86 Linux edition. You can run the latest WinUAE on Windows, giving you full PPC emulation and essentially booting straight into Workbench and OS4.1. $150 for an OS4.x capable SoC that is x86 based makes a hell of a lot more sense than forking out $489 for the A1222 low-end PPC based Amiga NG board planned for 2017. I mean, who the hell buys PPC in 2017 (!) Emulation will always be a little bit slower than the real thing, but we are talking negligible.

And with the UP board you can also re-cycle the hardware when you get bored with OS 4. I mean, there are only so many things you can do with a modern Amiga. It is great fun for enthusiasts like myself, but I would much rather run a juiced up version of OS 3.9 with my massive collection of WHDLoad software, cd32 software and modern compilers (like Free Pascal 3.1 which work brilliantly on an emulated, classic Amiga).

Programming

For the developer the UP board gives you the same choices you enjoy on your Windows development machine in general. You can use it to deliver your Delphi, C++ builder or Smart Pascal solutions. If you happen to own a Microsoft Embedded license its performance will be greatly enhanced since you can drop a lot of the “standard” stuff that has to ship with Windows. Remember, a standard Windows  installation is written to work on millions of PC’s and equal number of different hardware configurations. For customized, single purpose applications (like a kiosk system, information booth, cash machine type system) you will be able to cut out quite a lot. Do you need support for printers? Do you need driver-collection for hardware that is not there? Windows embedded allows you to cut the disk image down to the bones, and it’s also written to run on slower CPU’s than what people in general own – so the performance is much better.

  • Run your Delphi projects, it’s a normal PC after all
  • Run your node.js Smart Pascal projects with ease
  • Make use of nodewebkit for Smart Pascal to create full screen, desktop oriented software, enjoy the full scope of GPU powered CSS
  • Enjoy the debugging tools you already know
  • Run familiar databases like MSSQL, MySQL and Firebird with a more friendly and developed editors and tools
  • Use the more friendly backup solution that ships with Windows rather than some cryptic Linux solution (although some Linux versions that have desktop control-panels are just as great!)
  • Use GPIO ports from Delphi and C++ builder (!)
  • Just hook your UP board into your network and install/setup via remote desktop. It saves a lot of time.

If you are a Delphi programmer looking for a reasonable embedded board to ship your killer Windows-based product, the UP board is by far the best option I have seen (and I have tested quite a few board out there!).

The problem with high-end boards is not just the initial price, which can be anything from $300 to $400. Sure, these boards Intel i2 or i3 processors (much faster), but you end up paying extra for everything. Need a new ram module? That will set you back a pretty penny! Want GPIO? Again we are talking $100+ just to get that.

By the time you sum up the expenses, you realize it would have been cheaper to just visit the local computer store and bought a mico-atx board with more ram and a faster processor (!). Micro-atx is not that big, perhaps 2 times larger than the UP board (if you place them into a square). The micro-atx is often to high to be practical embedded boards where you want to cram as much hardware as you can into something the size of a router or set-top-box. The heat sink hovers over the motherboard like the eye of london.

Here is what you should have in mind:

  • Is size a factor?
    • No
      • Buy a cheap mico-atx pc
    • Yes
      • Take a look at the boards listed below
  • Do you need Windows support?
    • No
      • Get a ARM based device
    • Yes
  • Do you need an i3 or i5 CPU?
  • Do you need GPIO built-in?

Note: The UP project is presently busy working on their second kickstarter, which is cleverly called “Up 2” (sigh). This board is slightly larger, being dubbed “UP squared”, but there is a good reason for that. First of all it ships with the more powerful Intel® Pentium™ N4200 2.5 GHz CPU, up to 8 gigabyte of memory and 128 gigabyte emmc storage. Just like the present UP board you will be able to pick a configuration that matches your wallet, but they are aiming at roughly the same price-range as they have now. Head over to the UP project and have a peek at the specs!

Negatives

So far the only negative thing about the UP board is the speed of the emmc storage. As you probably know, emmc is a storage medium designed to be a cheap alternative to SSD. But when it comes to speed it can be anything from SD card to USB 3 in actual performance. This is very vendor spesific and obviously the cheaper models are going to be the slowest. So the first thing you are going to notice is that even though this is a PC, installing things takes a lot longer.

You can however enter the bios and boot from a USB 3 stick. For homebrew projects that shouldnt matter much, and these days a sexy and small 128 or 256 gigabyte (you know, those tiny usb storage devices that is barely the USB socket and little else) is affordable.

I find myself having to look for negatives here. I do think the UP organization should do something about the startup of the device. When you boot the UP logo is displayed, but they should have added a line of text about what key to press for the bios. I ended up going through the typical ones, F1, F2, F8 and F10 which did nothing. The next key was printscreen, before i finally hit DEL and the bios editor came up.

Insignificant, but a small detail that would make their product more polished.

A far worse notion is how they charge money for branding. When the product boots the UP logo comes into view for a couple of seconds (in full-screen). If you want to replace that, the minimal fee is $500 (for a small picture). This is something that simply infuriates me, because you cant change it.

When you buy an embedded board for production purposes, hidden costs such as this for something as simple as a picture – is completely unacceptable. I sincerly hope they drop this practise, because I will not use a board with a fixed boot picture in the embedded systems I deliver. There are plenty of other boards about there with similar specs at competitive prices. Being able to brand your own system is considered normal in 2016 and it has been common for years now.

At least an option in the bios for removing or hiding the UP logo should be in place.

 

The test

For the next few days before and after Xmas, I’ll be playing with these boards as much as time allows. I have already installed the latest Ubuntu on the UP board – and it performed brilliantly. I am presently giving Windows 10 a test drive, and my primary aim will be Smart Mobile Studio graphics demos and UAE running Amiga OS 4.1 final edition. I will also test how emulators work. This is especially exciting for the ODroid since that is the one most people will pick as an alternative to Raspberry PI 3.

If you are a dedicated retro-gamer or just love all things Amiga then again, the UP board should be of special interest to you. It will set you back $150, but considering that it has the exact same form-factor as the Raspberry PI (except its components go a few mm. higher) is considerably faster (in a league way beyond both the PI and ODroid) – this could be your ticket to get a cheap “next-gen” emulated Amiga. It will run OS 4.1 final without problems under WinUAE and it will be a pleasant experience.

I will give you updates as the frame rates, execution speed and overall performance comes in. Oh and the tests will obviously use the RPI3 as the baseline.

Cheers guys!

 

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