PCs vs Single-Board Computers
The Raspberry Pi is enormously popular and seems to be leaving an indelible mark on the electronics community. Given that the first Raspberry Pi computer was only released five years ago, though, it's sometimes easy to forget that the computer revolution was actually started with the invention of single-board computers such as the ZX80, Commodore 64, TRS 80, and the BBC Micro way back in the day.
Some of these computers where DIY kits, requiring the user to use a soldering iron and clippers, while other computers where pre-made units that worked right out of the box. These computers were very handy for performing basic everyday tasks such as coding, word processing, and finance. Sometimes, however, there were applications that required more processing power or increased memory. Unless the computer had an IO port that could accept larger memories or a co-processor, such adjustments to the computer had to be done by physically hacking the machine, itself.
On top of that, because of the lack of pin compatibility between processors and memory ICs, an upgrade could not be done by simply replacing a part with a more powerful one.
Sound familiar? While the Raspberry Pi family of single-board computers is convenient, it's also limited in terms of processing power and memory. These obstacles can be overcome with the use of add-ons via GPIO ports. After decades, we're still facing the same basic issues with single-board computers.
The Development of Customizable PCs
The lack of compatibility between computers gave birth to the IBM PC, a machine based on off the shelf parts with software and hardware compatibility at its heart. This machine truly revolutionized the computer market as it allowed customers to customize their computer to fit their needs for the first time.
Some users may want the latest processor for a demanding application or increased memory for more complex programs (such as object orientation). This customizable design also allowed for other companies to sell computers with ease which led to the rise of the IBM-compatible range of machines.
The PC has allowed for full customization of computers. Image courtesy of Andrew Dunn [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Today, computers can be customized in nearly every single respect, from the processor and RAM to the motherboard, sound card, hard drive, and so on. Arguably, it was this evolution towards customizability that made PCs as accessible as they are today.
But could customization similarly change the way we see and utilize single-board computers? Or is the demand simply not there?
A Customized Single-Board Computer
Manufacturing technology has advanced drastically in the past 30 years with the rise of 3D printing and pick-and-place. Instead of a circuit being soldered by hand and visually inspected by a trained engineer, computers can essentially control and monitor the entire production line for a product from start to finish. It is this technology that has helped element14 and Via to provide customization services for the Raspberry Pi.
While individual computers cannot be purchased (due to the setup cost and design requirements), the computers can still be customized from the SoC used, on-board storage, RAM, and even IO requirements such as displays, USB, SD slots, and COM ports.
This customization is still in its infancy but as time progresses we may see single board computers customized to individual customers become the norm. One move for such computers may be a more modular design (i.e., a mini PC) where RAM is placed onto small PCBs that can be slotted into a socket.
Another move could involve companies who produce CPUs to band together and create generic pinouts. This would allow for different processor types to be mounted into the same PCB package, effectively removing the need to redesign the PCB when a different processor is used.
However, could such customization result in a single-board computer revolution?
The Raspberry Pi computer. Image courtesy of SparkFun
Single-board computers have simplicity and reduced cost at their heart. They offer considerably more processing power than a microcontroller (such as PIC, AVR, etc.), but considerably less than a tower PC or laptop. At the same time, they are usually offered in credit card-sized PCBs with plenty of GPIO, making them very useful in applications where a powerful microcontroller is needed with peripheral capabilities.
Despite the lures of low costs, simplicity, and space-saving PCBs, single-board computers are still not truly mainstream. Because the market that single-board computers reside in is narrow, the idea of customization for individual customers may be unnecessary at this stage. The range of processing or memory requirements in single-board computer applications does not appear to be very large which, in turn, results in low demand.
Like their predecessors, today's single-board computers may need to undergo some evolution before they can compete with PCs. In the meantime, customizable Pi services are still being offered, so surely there's some demand.
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Single-board computers are an invention of the past that have resurfaced with success. Customizing such computers may be a benefit to some but whether it becomes commonplace is dependent on demand and manufacturing feasibility.
Arguably the next big step for customizable single-board computers will be when ICs share common pinouts and packages or if engineers go back to modular design.
Have you ever designed or used a customized single-board computer? Share your experiences in the comments!