State of hardware and software to tinker with

Posted on March 7, 2012


Every so now and then I compile a little state of things.

See this list of articles for this current and past posts.

Faster, better, more compact, more productive

When you want to build stuff, today is the best time to live and next week will be even better.

  1. Android internals: System on a Chip awesomeness – the real heart of any Android device is a small square of grey-black: the ARM chip it runs on. Additionally you will find some chips for IO (USB), video and memory. The innards of  an Android Media player can measure less than 3 x 2 centimeters (like my Archos 28 media player) and run 4 GB storage and 256 MB RAM on a 1 GHz processor.
  2. 1 GHz, 256 MB Android tablets and Android phones for below 100 euro – When you shop around, you will find more and more low-cost Tablets and phones for around 100 euro and less. These machines are powerful enough to run your Java code to interact with your hardware. The added bonus with cheap phones i                                                          s that they can run as a WiFi Hub as well. Add a Socket Server to the package and you have all the basics to run your projects without the need of much more.
  3. 1 euro per GB for SD and Micro-SD cards – As the sales increases, prices continue to drop. If you are willing to settle for lesser known brands or slower cards, you can end up paying 1 Euro per GB, meaning that for 32 Euro you have 32 GB of storage space. The SD cards sold for this price are usually Class 4, meaning they reach a transfer speed of 4 GB per second.
  4. Stable prices for IO – IO solutions like the IOIO, WiFly and Android ADK boards are relatively stable for the past two years.
  5. 2.4 GHz wireless USB keyboards starting from 20 euro – If you only need to read sensors and sensor-input, an alternative to the more expensive IO boards might be (wireless) USB keyboards, starting from 20 euro. Most cheap tablets in the market offer by default USB Host, so you can connect a USB keyboard directly or via a USB Hub, allowing you to add several separate sensor-readers throughout your space.

Updates in ARM-based hardware

  1. 200 euro HD, Dual Core 1GHz ARM based development boards – The current choices for consumers are: BeagleBoard, PandaBoard, TrimSlice and the Calao Snowball. Prices range from 160 euro to 200 euro for one board. Each of these boards can run either Android or a Linux variant, including a stripped down Ubuntu. Each is capable of 1080 x 1920 pixels HD output. I bought PandaBoard (two display output) and the Snowball (single display output), but did not have time yet to test-drive them. The sizes (10 x 10 cm or smaller) is ideal for compact solutions like 22 inch HD Touch Screens built into tables or walls.
  2. 25 USD ARM11 Raspberri Pi – The Raspberry Pi is an ARM11 based computer the size of a credit card. Developed for educational purposes it is low-cost and intended to be a pocket-size computer.
  3. Below 99 euro ARM 8 and ARM11 tablets – The amount of 7 inch and even 10 inch tablet computers below 99 euro is increasing. One reason is the availability of (what I think are) white-labelled tablets from Chinese manufacturers. The tablets run 800 MHz ARM 8 or ARM 11 processors, an average of 256 MB RAM and are, in most cases, underpowered to be of any use as a tablet, but perfect for tinkering. Most come with USB Host, so you can attach a keyboard and mouse to it.
  4. Below 99 euro cellphones – Samsung and LG are one of the leaders in low-cost phones. The Samsung Galaxy Y and the LG Optimus Me can be found for around 129 euro with a pre-paid card. On special sales you can find offers for these and similar phones at 99 euro (and probably soon even below that).

Dual core processors, Ice Cream Sandwich

The current run of tablets and devices come with dual-core ARM A9 processors. All tablets in this range run ICS. I list only four mainstream tablets: Archos, RIM, Asus and Acer.

  1. 200 euro 8 inch Archos tablet, Blackberry  7 inch  249 euro tablet – Looking at the lower side of the spectrum, Archos still is one of the more affordable brands, offering a dual core Cortex A9 starting at 1 GHz. Blackberry lowered their prices for the 7 inch Playbook significantly, making it a competitive tablet. RIM was smart enough to enable the Playbook to run Android software, it is no longer an outsider to the horde of available tablets. The Archos has probably about 512 MB RAM. the Playbook scores 102 MB RAM.
  2. 399 euro Asus Transformer 1,  399 euro Acer Iconia – Both running on a dual core Cortex A9, the Asus and Acer are the more expensive counterparts for the Archos and Blackberry tablets. Both have 1024 MB RAM. The Asus comes with a keyboard.

Quad-core processors

This is stuff to come. Asus will probably launceh a 7 inch tablet for around 250 USD. The Quad-core Transformer Prime goes for around 600 euro with keyboard.

Using low cost Android telephones as local Servers with BlueTooth and built-in WiFi

When you build installations and networked hardware solutions, the low cost (130 euro and less) telephones open a very interesting new set of oppertunities.

With Android you can share your WiFi as a Host for other systems to connect to. Add a data plan to this and you can run a relatively low-cost solution to log and share data from WiFi-enabled systems anywhere there is 3G (or 4G) reception.

Android and options for IO

On the IO-field not much has changed. Basic Android installs are still limited in what the device supports: mouse, keyboard and storage (USB sticks and harddrives). Android currently handles a limited set of inputs, listed below.

  1. 15 to 20 euro (wireless) USB/Bluetooth keyboard, reading matrixed input – You can hack a standard (wireless) USB or Bluetooth Keyboard to register changes in the state of switches. There are several experiments to be found online (for instance this one, or this video that keeps it really simple). There are some limitations (you can press several keys at the same time, but some key-combinations pressed at the same time can lead to “overlap”. See in depth-info here.) Most interesting might be the  2.4 GHz wireless option (already for sale from 20 euros) and connecting multiple keyboards to one Android device using a USB Hub.
  2. The 49 USD IOIO and the  79 USD Arduino ADK board – Links: IOIO board, Arduino ADK board. Both boards are similar in the base use: offering Analog and Digital input and output. Both use the same principle:
    1. Connect the IO board as an USB host.
    2. Set the phone to: Android Debugging Mode: allowing it to receive Serial communication via the USB port
    3. Run software that can read and write the serial protocol offered via the external IO board
  3. The 85 USD WiFly for IO over WiFi – Think of the WiFly as an XBee via WiFi. The WiFly with breakout board comes for around 85 USD and communicates via WiFi to your server. By running either HTTP or a Socket Server you can send and receive data to manipulate items and read sensors.
  4. Running resistive touch on a big screen – When your Android Device has resistive touch, you can replace that (or add to it) any size of Resistive Touch screen. I tested this with 4-wire Resistive touch (see this post) and it worked. the only problem is performance and availability in the future. More and more low-budget tablets will run capacitive touch screens.

Windows on ARM

The next big thing on ARM devices will be Windows, for several reasons. One is the availability of Office, which will make Windows tablets one of the more interesting Netbook alternatives. But also the availability of full IO capacity (probably) will open new possibilities for tinkering.