A few thoughts about today’s single-board micro computers

Let us talk a little bit about today’s single-board micro computers (micro PCs). What I’m referring to are very small single-board computers, comparable in size with a credit card, with a relatively low power consumption. They are usually fan-less and have no other moving component either. They can run any normal software which is written for their architecture (usually ARM) and does not have high resource requirements. They are frequently designed as a SoC (system on a chip). They usually have many input and output connectors and many of them support GPIO pins in order to be attachable to custom hardware.

The Raspberry Pi is indisputably the best known single-board micro computer today, with a very large and still rapidly growing community around it. For most of us it is the likeliest choice if we want to have a computer which is very small, one that we can use for tasks that don’t require a lot of resources (CPU, memory). But the Raspberry Pi is not the only device in its category. The competition has not been sleeping and there are more than a few similar small computers out there today, significantly more than you can count on your two hands. Some of these micro computers have been around for 2 or 3 years now, but most of them have hit the market in 2012, as a response of the competition to the launching of the Raspberry Pi in the first quarter of the year. In the year 2012 micro PCs have emerged like mushrooms after the rain, they were announced rapidly one after the other so fast that one could barely follow. The year 2012 has been a time of boom for the micro PCs, in fact it may happen that when we will look back upon 2012 from the future, we will consider it the beginning of a new era in computing, the year that marked the beginning of the reign of micro PCs. By no means am I trying to suggest that the micro PCs will push aside the normal desktop and laptop computers and that they will take over their responsibilities. Normal size computers have their own fields of use, they cannot be replaced when the software that runs on them is very resource-intensive (needs a lot of processing power, memory, etc.), or at least today the micro PCs are far too weak to take over those tasks, but, as we know, the tendency in the evolution of computers is to decrease the physical size, so it’s hard to say what awaits us in 10 years from now. The fact that today’s micro PCs have considerably less processing power and memory compared to the traditional PCs is not the only reason why they can’t handle every responsibility of their big brothers. Most of these small computers are based on the ARM architecture (which seems to be dictated especially by the small size and by the low power consumption that they target) and much software cannot run on ARM today. Even most operating systems are not suited to work on ARM, but the ones that are (Linux, Android, RISC OS, etc.) are now enjoying a rapidly growing popularity thanks to the micro PC boom. The biggest irony of all is that the operating systems that can run on the ARM architecture and that are prepared to work in a low resource environment are exactly the ones that are free, once again proving that the free software community is producing some very valuable results. The other major operating systems that are unable to work on the micro PCs better catch up fast, or they are going to lose an important segment of the market. The micro PCs are absorbed so well by the market because they are filling a void that has been waiting for a long time to be filled. Many home computer users and even servers don’t need a super-fast computer with a lot of memory. A micro PC like the Raspberry Pi is more then enough for them, but until recently there weren’t any micro PCs (or were very few and expensive) that one could buy for such purposes. Also, hackers and computer specialists adopt the micro PCs easily because to them they represent some very cool gadgets. And the truth is… they really are!

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