Lately, we’ve been seeing a whole bunch of Android/Linux PCs that cost under $100, down to $25 for the Raspberry Pi, and you can use them for pretty much anything. It goes without saying that you should expect significantly slower performance than from a $1000 PC. But as a way to use more “computers” around your house for different applications, like making a Smart TV or a low-end console, these barebones systems are ideal.
Now, a new ARM PC from VIA, based on a Neo-ITX motherboard, we’ll give you a quick way to back-up your old PCs in case they crash and die on you. All you need to do is connect it to a monitor or TV.
What you get for $49 is a 800 Mhz ARM11 CPU, 512 MB of DDR3 RAM, 2 GB of flash storage, and a GPU that will support 720p video playback and most games around (at the Angry Birds level of graphics). You’ll also have access to an Ethernet port, 4 USB ports, Audio-out/Mic-in, microSD slot, HDMI, and VGA display ports. You can house this board in a standard Mini-ITX or microATX chassis. If you want a Smart TV, you’re probably better off buying a Raspberry Pi, but I think this board is a lot more useful for replacing the internals of old PCs.
The disappointing part is that this $49 computer only runs Android 2.3. While Android 4.0 may not be an OS that is perfectly optimized for the PC form factor, it’s a whole lot better than Android 2.3, thanks to its landscape tablet-mode. So, I hope they will at least support ICS in the future (or, better yet, whatever version Google is releasing soon).
Also, any PC like this should support at least some version of Linux, maybe one that can run very fast on such low-end machines. For those who want Ubuntu, I’m afraid you’re out of luck with the ARMv6 chips like ARM11, because Canonical decided not to support it going forward. ARMv6 is an old architecture, as ARM is less than a couple of years away from launching the 64-bit ARMv8 architecture.
This brings me to another point. I would like VIA and other manufacturers to deliver higher-end versions of these all-in-one boards in the future. I like the overall idea, and they’ll probably get some good marketing out of selling a “$49 PC”, but I’d like to be able to replace my old PC with hardware that is decently powerful. A dual-core Cortex A15 chip would be 10-15x faster, and, if such a board would be priced under $100, or even under $150, it would be a very good deal.
One advice I’d have for the companies pondering a jump on the low-end “PCs” bandwagon would be to stop using ARM11, and go straight to single core or, better yet, dual core Cortex A7 chips. They’ll have ARMv7 compatibility, which means Ubuntu will support it in the future. Even Chrome for Android will work on such machines, and they’ll be significantly more powerful than ARM11 as well.
Another idea would be to use the highest-end ARM chips and try to make low-end “Android consoles” (with Google’s approval), so they can get Android games working on them. If the market would be flooded with such $100 consoles, game developers would be a lot more interested in making games for Android first. Also, I think it’s something Google really needs to do if they don’t want to stay in Apple’s shadow forever. But they need to do it soon, before Apple does the same with their own Apple TV box or the rumored Apple TV set.
Here’s a presentation video if you’re interested to learn more about VIA’s $49 Android PC.