Tuesday, 5 July 2016

System on Chip Computing at home

I'm an oldie.  I'm also lucky that i was exposed to computers in my working life around 45 years ago and began writing some programs for large companies in 1976.  While I was never particularly interested in computers for fun, since I have left the industry i am beginning to actually enjoy the things.  And one of the things I now appreciate is the changes I have seen.

In 1980 I still had a TRS80 computer next to my bed, so that when I woke in the middle of the night with the solution to a programming problem floating around in my dreams I could immediately get it onto disk.

That was then.  Now we have mobile phones with more power than any of the computers I used.  And I had the luxury of returning to a UNIX derivative for my every day computing in 1998, after years of putting up with things like Microsoft systems, which have never really worked.  I'm still waiting for Microsoft to create a multi-tasking operating system.  They had it when they were in a joint venture with IBM working on OS/2, but dumped multi-tasking for some reason and brought out Windows 95.

The thing that has annoyed me a lot though is desktop computing.  I have no need of super powered computers for my work.  My requirements are a large display, another display because I like working with two screens, decent storage and enough power to render videos in a sensible time.  And although I don't play games on the computer I do use it for watching video and playing music.

Quite a while ago I began messing with System on Chip computing, outside of tablets and phones.  Initially I played with the PcDuino, but while it had some great innovations there was no library that allowed direct access to the power of the onboard graphics.

Then my son introduced me to the Raspberry Pi.  The Pi fails against the PcDuino with regard to NAND memory and Flash RAM (the Pi 3 now has 1GB of RAM on board but no NAND and does almost everything from the microSD card).  But what it does have is something called OMXplayer.

OMXplayer directly accesses the hardware decoding on board graphics chip of the Pi and allows beautiful smooth HD video at 720p and 'pseudo' 1080p or better.  Something that is just not possible on these small SOC machines using software decoding.

Within the limits imposed on the Raspberry Pi 3B by the small amount of RAM and running the entire system from a micro SD card, it is rather a powerful little computer.  While rendering a video is not great, it can be done on small videos.  It just takes some time and you need to set up a decent swap file first.

But day to day work like using the web, office programs, processing images in imagemagick, editing pictures using GIMP.  These sorts of things all work well and quickly.

And arguably the best use for the raspberry Pi around the home is plugged into a decent TV and stereo, then used to either play multimedia content from an eternal drive or streaming content from the net.  KODI is perfect for this, especially once you learn how to use KODI plug ins.

Back to the desktop.  There is a new generation of desktop computers appearing based on the System On Chip model.  These are more powerful than things like the raspberry Pi and are built with a different purpose in mind.

One that comes to mind is the Mac Mini, which when I saw one, wasn't quite as mini as I had thought.  It looks about 30mm high and about 200mm each side.  But the idea is right.  My last two desktop computers were about 300mm wide by about 400mm deep and 100mm high.  The mac Mini made them look huge.  I looked at it as a possible replacement for my now ageing Compaq.

But among my requirements a couple of things stand out.  Lots of USB 3.0 ports, and the ability to run two displays.  Also I need to move up from 4GB RAM to 8GB RAM.  I do a lot of graphics and I need to have pluggable storage more than I need large internal storage.  As a former technician I also do a lot of parts replacement.  The Mac doesn;t really allow that.  And the Mac is relatively expensive.  I always have a maximum budget of between $350 and $400 for a replacement computer each three years.  This year I stretched it to over four years and with increased software requirements I'm pushing the limits.

So there I was wondering what to do net when I discovered the Gigabyte BRIX.  For years I used Gigabyte main boards and other components to either build or repair customers' computers.  Now I found a box about the height of the Mac Mini, with similar specs, and only a little more than 100mm by 100mm and about 35mm high.

It not only has outputs for two displays and a 64 bit Celeron quad core processor, but it has 8GB RAM.  And to top it off, there are four USB 3.0 ports.  Something I could not find anywhere on desktop computers under $700.  Plus it has built in Wireleless and Bluetooth and Gigabit Ethernet.  so just about everything I needed in one compact box.

The Celeron processor is only the 1.6GHz model, but it runs up to 2.08GHz when needed.  And it is only $364 including delivery.

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