$199, 4.2” computer is Intel’s first Raspberry Pi competitor

The Minnowboard: More expensive, more powerful, more open.

With the Raspberry Pi, Arduino Due, and BeagleBone, the world is full of cheap, tiny computers that can be used by creative developers in everything from robots to space flight.

One thing these platforms have in common is an ARM processor. Now they have some competition from Intel with its “MinnowBoard,” a $199 computer in the form of a 4.2″ x 4.2″ board with an Intel Atom processor.

The first 500 MinnowBoards rolled off the production line a few months ago and sold out within a week, Senior Embedded Systems Engineer David Anders of CircuitCo told Ars at the LinuxCon conference on Tuesday. CircuitCo, also the maker of the BeagleBoard and BeagleBone computers, made the MinnowBoard after being approached by Intel, which wanted to build an x86-based open hardware platform. A new MinnowBoard production run of 5,000 boards began this week.$199, 4.2” computer is Intel’s first Raspberry Pi competitorThose numbers won't threaten the Raspberry Pi's million-plus-selling business, and the MinnowBoard at its initial price is likely to attract a different customer base. But Anders believes x86 boards will reduce in size and price to the point where they will become more suitable for hobbyists.

Open hardware lets users do what they want

It's notable that the MinnowBoard is an open hardware platform, a distinction that Arduino and BeagleBone can claim but Raspberry Pi cannot. Users could create their own MinnowBoards by buying the items on the bill of materials—all the design information is published, and CircuitCo chose components that can be purchased individually rather than in the bulk quantities hardware manufacturers are accustomed to, Anders said. Users can also buy a pre-made MinnowBoard and make customizations or create their own accessory boards to expand its capability.

And being an open hardware platform means that the source code of (almost) all the software required to run the platform is open.

In a keynote address, Intel CTO Dirk Hohndel told the LinuxCon crowd that the MinnowBoard was “specifically designed as the first open hardware board based on x86, and that allows you to build derivatives without an NDA. All the pieces are open and available, all the blueprints you need, all the source files you need. You can create your own embedded platforms without Intel, without any of the vendors involved.”

There's just one exception: with the graphics processing unit, only the binary files required to drive the GPU are available, as the source code remains closed. Anders said that's a sticking point for some purists, but he's hoping that “as long as we continue to keep pressure on companies like Intel, Texas Instruments, and Freescale… eventually they'll see the light and say, ‘we'll make these open as well.'”

MinnowBoard can load any operating system that can run on the Intel Atom processor. It ships with the Angstrom Linux distribution, which is compatible with the Yocto Project, a set of templates and tools that helps users “create custom Linux-based systems for embedded products.”$199, 4.2” computer is Intel’s first Raspberry Pi competitor Schematic

Cool specs, bro

The device is suitable for anything from hobbyist projects to high-performance embedded applications, with I/O performance being one of the MinnowBoard's standout capabilities. PCIe, SATA disk support, and Gigabit Ethernet make it suitable for file servers and network appliances, Intel notes in a video:

MinnowBoard uses a 5V/2.5A power supply. Other specs are as follows:

Integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 600

  • PCI Express
  • SATA2 3Gbps
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • MicroSD
  • USB
  • UEFI Firmware
  • 1GB DDR2 RAM
  • 8 GPIO pins
  • 2 GPIO-controlled LEDs
  • 4 GPIO switches

Although it's more than four times the price of the BeagleBone Black, the MinnowBoard is also four or five times more powerful, according to Anders. “If you look at optimizing a few things, you can get it up to 10 times more powerful,” he said.


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