Those interested in running Linux on a cheap Chinese “MiniPC” with an ARM SoC have had much reason for hope, and just as much reason for disappointment.
The hope springs from the low cost and rapid pace of development of these devices. Earlier this year, the state of the art were devices based on the Allwinner A10 SoC, which had a single ARM Cortex-A8 Core and a dual-core Mali400 GPU, which went for ~$100, now there are products well under $100 with single- or dual-core Cortex-A9 CPUs and a up to a quad core GPU.
The disappointment comes from the fact that these SoCs are targeted at Android, with terrible documentation, and that most of the manufacturers are terrible about complying with the GPL. Add to this the fact that important parts of the chip, like the GPU and the video compression accelerator are under NDA from the original holders of the IP.
Still, there is reason for continued hope. Over on the SlateDroid forums, “AndrewDB” has posted about his progress with getting Ubuntu running on the UG802, which has a RK3066 SoC.
Current status, to the best of my knowledge:
- Boots with Linux Kernel in Flash and RootFS on an SD card.
- Framebuffer video out over HDMI
- WiFi networking
What’s more, Andrew Kirby from Rikomagic, which sells a device based on this chip has been providing recent Kernel source. In addition, there is a working binary-blob based Linux driver for the video processing unit on an earlier Rockchip SoC that may be easily ported to this one.
Once upon a time, there was the SheevaPlug, a $99 computer with a 1.2GHz ARM CPU, 512mb RAM, 512mb of flash storage, USB2 and an SDHC card reader that ran Linux. The SheevaPlug gave birth to inexpensive commercial products, like the PogoPlug, and it’s cousin, the heavily discounted Seagate Dockstar.
Since then, there has been an explosion of ARM-based development platforms. The SheevaPlug was based on the Kirkwood system-on-a-chip from Marvel, who partnered with GlobalScale Technologies to create development and reference designs that could easily be customized for various applications. Similarly, Texas Instruments, which has its own ARM based SOC families, created the Pandaboard, BeagleBoard and BeagleBone to encourage people to develop applications for their chips. Globalscale and Marvel haven’t rested on their laurels, either, they’ve created a number of additional variants on Sheeva platform, some with video output, others with SATA interfaces, additional GigE, WiFi, and other differentiators.
This is really just scratching the surface. Samsung, Qualcomm, Nvidia and Broadcom all make their own ARM SOCs, and there is an explosion of devices based on Chinese chips, like the Allwinner A10 (single core ARM Cortex A8 + dual Core Mali GPU), Rockchip 3066 (dua core ARM Cortex A9 + quad core Mali GPU) and AMLogic 8726-M3.