The popularity of Single Board Computers (SBCs) for both hobbyists and developers (as a prototyping platform) has been rising steadily for many years. However, since the launch of the Raspberry Pi these little computers have achieved a whole new standing. In the wake of the success of the Raspberry Pi, lots of different SBCs have been released and many like the BeagleBone Black and Hardkernel’s range of ODROID boards have achieved a measure of lasting popularity. However all these boards have one thing in common, they all use CPUs based on designs by ARM. However that has now changed. Imagination Technologies has started to ship the Creator CI20, a SBC which uses a dual-core MIPS based processor.
Imagination announced the CI20 back in August and the company has now started selling the board via its online web store. For just $65 (or £5o) you can get your hands on a development board that will run either Android or Linux, and includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 4GB of on-board storage.
Compared to the other SBCs on the market, the CI20 is very impressive. It has a dual-core processor, something that neither the Raspberry Pi or the BeagleBone Black offer; 1GB of RAM, double that of the Pi and BeagleBone Black; and includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The only downside is that the CI20 is about twice the price of the Raspberry Pi. However it is only marginally more expensive than the BeagleBone Black. In either case the extra cost isn’t superfluous, the CI20 packs more punch, and has more connectivity options than the other two. The only mainstream SBC that stacks up more evenly with the CI20 is the newly announced ODROID-C1. The quad-core C1 costs just $35, however it doesn’t include any on-board flash, or Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth.
Here is a detailed look at how the CI20 compares to the Raspberry Pi:
|Device||Raspberry Pi||Creator CI20|
|CPU||700MHz ARM11 Broadcom CPU||1.2GHz dual-core Imagination MIPS32 CPU|
|GPU||Videocore IV||PowerVR SGX540|
|Storage||SD card slot||4GB onboard flash, SD card slot|
|Connectivity||4 x USB, HDMI, Ethernet, 3.5mm audio jack||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 2 x USB, HDMI, 3.5mm audio jack|
|Connectors||Camera interface (CSI), GPIO, SPI, I2C, JTAG||Camera interface (ITU645 controller), 14-pin ETAG connector,
2 x UART, GPIO, SPI, I2C, ADC
The CI20 is able to run Android 4.4. The firmware provided by Imagination is based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP), but it has some limitations. First this is just a vanilla version build from the publicly available source code. It doesn’t include any Google services, which means there is no Google Play. This can make getting apps for the CI20 a little hard. I tried using Amazon’s Appstore, but because Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets all use ARM based processors there aren’t many MIPS compatible apps in their store – maybe 10 or so. There are of course other third party stores, and it may be possible to side-load Google’s apps on the CI20, but I haven’t tried.
There are also a few other minor problems with the CI20. Having used several different ARM based media boxes (which are basically just boards like the CI20 packaged into a nice case), I had high expectations of the CI20. I had visions of being able to build a my own media box using the CI20. However there are several key things that don’t yet work under Android. The most important of which is support for external USB drives. Although SD cards can be used and I was able to play a movie from the SD card without any problems, I was unable to use an external USB flash drive. It simply wasn’t recognized by Android.
The current version of Android for the CI20 is a good proof of concept, and it shows the versatility of the board.
Unfortunately, when playing a movie from the SD card the sound didn’t work over the HDMI cable, and neither did it work via a Bluetooth speaker. While Wi-Fi works, there are no settings for the Ethernet.
What this all means is that the current version of Android for the CI20 is a good proof of concept, and it shows the versatility of the board. It proves that Android is fully MIPS compatible, and that with extra effort the CI20 could become a very useful Android board. However as it currently stands, there is work to be done. Imagination is also going to bring Android 5.0 Lollipop to the CI20, but there is no official release date.
As well as Android the CI20 is able to run Linux and it is clear that Linux is the primary operating system for this board. Many of the problems which exist under Android don’t appear with the Linux default Linux distro. USB flash drives are recognized and the Ethernet works as expected. Several different Linux distros are available for the CI20, the default one is Debian 7.0. The other distros include Gentoo, Angstrom and Arch.
Flashing a new firmware on the CI20 is quite easy. You need to download the firmware you wish to use and write it on an SD card using Win32DiskImager. With the power off, move the JP3 selector from 1-2 to 2-3. Insert the SD card into the CI and power on the board. The LED will go from red to blue to show that the flashing process has started. After about 10 minutes the the LED will go back to red. Power off the board, remove the SD card and move the JP3 pin back to its original position. Then just power on again to boot into the new OS.
The CI20 is clearly a versatile board. It has greater performance than the Raspberry and includes more memory. The built-in Wi-Fi is a great plus, as is the built-in Bluetooth. The Android support is good, but some work needs to be done to make it more friendly and more usable out of the box. The Linux support is excellent and is really the best OS available for the board at the moment. Like the Raspberry Pi, the CI20 has a set of GPIO pins which means the board is an attractive option for hardware enthusiasts. In a nutshell the board is more expensive than the Raspberry Pi, but the extra costs bring benefits.
Update (May 2015): Imagination has released a new iteration of the CI20 board as well as some new software. The new version of the board is better shaped (it no longer has the odd bits of that stick out) and a new layout that has been engineered to improve wireless connectivity performance and signal strength. As for the software, there is a new version of Android with several improvements including audio over HDMI and Bluetooth; new built-in Ethernet settings; audio jack auto-detection (easily switch audio output from HDMI to headphones and vice versa); and audio recording. Also support for USB storage is coming soon.