Single Board Computers are all the rage these days and for a good reason: The supporting technologies have become so sophisticated and powerful and the prices so low that off-the-shelf SBCs are great for everything from embedded systems in commercial products through supporting hobby projects to being educational tools.
Perhaps the most famous of SBC is the Raspberry PI (I covered the latest version of this board, the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B, in a recent article) but that’s not the only contender in the SBC market as new ones are appearing all the time.
The CI20 is based on a System on a Chip (SsoC), the JZ4780 Mobile Application Processor manufactured by Ingenic Semiconductor. This SoC includes a dual-core 1.2 GHz MIPS32 processor with PowerVR SGX540 GPU, 32k L1 cache, 512k L2 cache, an ITU645 controller for the camera interface, anAC97/I2S/SPDIF audio controller, and an IEEE 754 compatible Floating Point Unit. To that the board adds:
- 8 GB Flash
- 1 GB DDR3 memory
- Audio output via 4-pin input/output jack and HDMI connector
- 10/100M Ethernet
- 802.11 b/g/n WiFi
- Bluetooth 4.0
- HDMI output up to 2K resolution
- h264 video playback up to 1080p at 60 fps
- 2 x USB – host and OTG
- 14-pin EJTAG connector
- 2 x UART, GPIO, SPI, I2C, ADC, expansion headers
The CI20 consumes 800 mA under full load and the power supply should deliver 5V at 1A at a minimum (a 2A supply is recommended if you’re going to use power-hungry USB devices).
The board comes with either Debian 7 (Wheezy) pre-installed or you can re-flash it to run Android 4.4 (KitKat) or various flavors of Linux (Gentoo, Yocto, Angstrom, Arch, and OpenELEC are available). Haiku and OpenWRT are also in development.
Android on the CI20 is slow and takes about five minutes to boot (this appears to be an OS implementation issue). On the other hand even Debian takes about two minutes to come up but once it’s running the system’s performance appears good. Like me, you may find yourself thinking that booting Debian has failed because there’s no display on the attached monitor … until you press a key, then you’ll find it is, in fact, up and running. Perhaps it was the TV I was using …
So, is the CI20 a better choice than, say, the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B? Performance is roughly the same but some might argue that being based on the MIPS processor is a downside; while that does limit the range of software available, it’s not a complete showstopper. The CI20’s built-in WiFi and Bluetooth are significant pluses but there are also, unfortunately, no cases compatible with the CI20's form factor which is about twice the size of the Raspberry Pi SBCs. Those pluses and minuses might be more-or-less a wash but the big issue is that at $65 the CI20 is twice the price of the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B.
So, overall the CI20 is a good product though not a completely compelling one given its pricing. The MIPS Creator CI20 gets a Gearhead rating of 4 out of 5.
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