Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Future Remains Bright - Ivy on the Horizon

Industrial/Embedded/Single Board Computers

The names above are the categories to which the motherboard form factors discussed below belong to.  These terms seem to be somewhat interchangeable and include many different form factors that are both smaller as well as some that are larger than the ATX standard and its variations.

I am by no means an expert in this field and the information below is based on my still evolving knowledge of these boards.  I apologize ahead of time for any inconsistencies contained in this post.  One thing is clear, however, the line between consumer and industrial is blurring.  The popularity of mobile computing, with its requirement for power efficiency and small yet powerful form factors has driven the miniaturization of consumer hardware as well as software.  On the hardware side, mobile chipsets today are often just as powerful as their desktop counterparts.  Smaller I/O such as mSATA and mini-PCIe are quite common.  On the software side operating systems are becoming more light weight.  In my opinion, Windows 8 will mark the death of the Compact Embedded or (Embedded Compact?) software.  You could argue that Windows RT or even Windows Phone 8 are CE operating systems, but reviewing the specs on "Embedded Boards" over the past 5 years shows a clear trend.  While the recommended OS from 3 - 5 years ago almost always had some Windows CE release next to it, current boards have statements like "all popular operating systems software."

Arguably, the most powerful current Mac is the Mac Pro with retina display.  It contains the i7-3720qm processor for the qm77(or hm77/hm76) chipset.  This small chipset is available on these form factors, as well as SATA 6gb/s and USB 3.0.  Up to 8gb of DDR3 RAM, mini-PCIe, and gigabit ethernet are common as well.  These represent top of the line components and compete with ATX boards in all categories with the exception of graphical capability via PCIex16 busses.  However, Ivy Bridge is somewhat of a turning point for on-CPU graphics and end-user addable discrete mobile graphics will hopefully be available at some point.

I suspect as the consumer/industrial lines continue to blur, more SBC/Industrial board makers will make their expertise and wares more available to the consumer.  I don't believe desktop computing is dying, but as mobile computing drives innovation, I think we will see its components shrink down in size as well.

The ECX / 3.5" Form Factor (105mm x 146mm)

Anyone who has read my blog knows that I have become a big fan of this form factor.  The major reason for this is its fit into the iMac G4 base.  While mini itx is obviously more mainstream and widely available, it is not ideally suited to this mod because of its size.  Small "non-industrial" form factors such as Nano itx and Pico itx are not hard to find, but these typically use low power processors.

Quanmax's KEEX-6100

The ECX/3.5" Form Factor developed as an embedded industrial board.  It seems to be somewhat of an offshoot of the stackable PC/104 compatible: EPIC and EBX (5.25") boards.  Sometimes the ECX is classified as a SBC or embedded computer with these other form factors, sometimes it is classified with the EBX as a "disk sized SBC", or sometimes it is in a category by itself.

3.5" boards do not tend to support PC/104 (though some do) and instead were supported by intel as an open standard: Embedded Compact Extended Form Factor.  The intention was a small form factor for use in cars, medical equipment, and information/kiosks.  With such varied uses, a very wide variety of capabilities exist in this form factor.  In general most tend to support LVDS natively and include a small form factor storage such as compact flash.  They also tend to use mobile chipsets, RAM modules, and mini-PCI expansion.  Power is usually by a P4 (2x12V 4 pin connector).  Because they may need to be used in processor intensive tasks, they are available with top of the line mobile processors.

In my experience they tend to be very compatible, malleable, and fairly simple "no proprietary" features boards.  As a result, I have been extremely pleased with their performance in both core 2 duo and core i/sandy bridge variants.

I intend this post to be reminiscent of a previous post "The Future is Bright".  Back then, I took a break from my 20" mod to wait for the release of a Core i Variant of the ECX form factor by Quanmax and the KEEX-6100 did not disappoint.

The largest upgrade I can make to my previous mod would be graphically.  As a separate graphics card is impractical, use of Ivy Bridge's HD4000, would be very ideal.

IVY BRIDGE ECX BOARDS

1) GENE-QM77

First I saw this board released by AAEON (a sub-company of ASUS)
Courtesy of aaeonusa.com
2) Then AVALUE announced this 3 boards including the ECM QM77 an ivy bridge ECX board

I feel like these will be obtainable in the next coming months with likely other options to follow.  As a result, I have decided to pause on my 20" pro mod until these are available.

The EPIC Form Factor (115mm x 165mm)

The Embedded Platform for Industrial Computing.
Courtesy of windowsfordevices.com
Is a standard created to fit in size between the PC/104 and EBX Industrial Form Factors.  Most seem to support stackable PC/104 and PC/104+ add ons.

In general these seem to be similar, though slightly larger than the ECX.  In general, these tend to support more powerful processors and less low-power systems.  They have some extra I/O options.

I have never worked with these boards, but at only 1cm x 2cm larger than ECX boards, I certainly consider them a viable alternative.

IVY BRIDGE EPIC BOARDS

Avalue's EPI-QM77
- Appears to be very similar to the company's ECX-QM77 mentioned above.

Courtesy of Avalue.com.tw


In The Meantime:
As I have the quad core i7 board ready to go, I will either place this in the base of a new iMac G4 20" or give my core i5 a refresh with the upgraded processor and native PSU.

I am also building a game room and working on plans to incorporate a touch screen bar game based on the guts of an old MEGA TOUCH by Merit CRT display.  As to the form factor, I was thinking about using a 17" eMac.  Hopefully, I'll have updates soon.

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