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Open-spec COM version of Chip SBC sells for $16

Oct 12, 2016 — by Eric Brown — 1,573 views

The Next Thing unveiled a $16 COM version of the Chip SBC called the Chip Pro, plus a dev kit and a $6 SiP version of the Allwinner R8 SoC called the GR8.

The Next Thing, which gave us the $9-and-up Chip SBC and Chip-based PocketChip handheld computer, has unveiled a $16, open-spec computer-on-module version of the Chip called the Chip Pro. The Chip Pro measures 45 x 30mm compared to 60 x 40mm for the Chip. The Pro has half the RAM of the Chip with 256MB DDR3, and only 512MB NAND flash instead of 4GB NAND, but it retains the onboard WiFi and Bluetooth 4.2.

Chip Pro, front, side, and back
(click image to enlarge)

Next Thing GR8

The Next Thing is also selling a repackaged system-in-package (SiP) version of the single-core, Cortex-A8 Allwinner R8 SoC called the GR8 that integrates 256MB of DDR3 RAM. The GR8, which on the Chip Pro runs The Next Thing’s Debian Linux-based GadgetOS, is available separately for $6. Unlike just about any other SoC, the 1GHz GR8 is sold without requiring an NDA.

The Chip Pro COM and GR8 SoC will go on sale in December, and will ship in 1Q 2017. Meanwhile, you can pre-order a Chip Pro Dev Kit for $49 that includes two Chip Pro modules and ships in December. Unusually for COM and SoC products, there’s no discount pricing for volume orders. On the other hand, there’s no minimum order for the module or the SoC, either.

Chip Pro Dev Kit
(click image to enlarge)

The Chip Pro is completely open source, and available with freely downloadable design files schematic, PCB layout, and bill of materials. GadgetOS is based on Debian and mainline Linux, and the company can flash a different firmware of your choice before shipping as long as you have an order of 1,000 units or more (see farther below). GadgetOS offers fast boot times, OTA and container support, and automatic cross compiling, says The Next Thing.

The SiP designed GR8 SoC measures only 14 x 14mm, including the integrated Mali-400 GPU and 256MB of Nanya-built DDR3 RAM. The GR8 SoC’s SiP design, which uses a 0.8mm pitch, 252-ball FBGA package, reduces complexity and manufacturing cost by integrating the RAM.

GR8 block diagram (left) and pinmap
(click images to enlarge)

The 1GHz SoC encapsulates the Allwinner R8 SoC inside the original Chip, which is itself closely based on the aging Allwinner A13. With the cooperation of Allwinner and the help of Shenzhen-based accelerator HAXLR8R, The Next Thing has been providing full documentation and source code, which has often been hard to come by from Allwinner. The GR8 is even more fully documented with pinmaps and mechanical drawings.

This is about as open source as modern SoC gets, with the possible exception of SiFive’s RISC-V-based Freedom U500. The one major gap here is the rather opaque Mali-400 GPU, but at least it’s a familiar face.

Chip Pro and Dev Kit

The Chip Pro COM combines the GR8 with 512MB SLC NAND flash loaded with GadgetOS. The other key feature is the RealTek 8723DS wireless chip with 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.2 with BLE, backed up with an onboard chip antenna. The module runs at between 2.9V and 6V, and can be powered via the sole real-world port: a micro-USB 2.0 OTG. An Allwinner AXP209 PMI helps keep it running lean.

Interfaces expressed via 32 I/O pins include USB 2.0 OTG and host, 2x UART, 2x PWM, TWI, parallel camera, and SPI. The module is especially oriented toward audio, and provides a 24-bit ADC/DAC, One-Wire audio digital out, and I2S digital audio with dual mic interfaces.

Chip Pro block diagram (left) and pin assignments
(click images to enlarge)

The display interface supports [email protected] video decode and [email protected] encode. There are also various timers and interrupts, and an SD/MMC host controller interface compatible with eMMC 4.4. The design offers castellated edges, and is said to be optimized for surface mount manufacturing and robotic handling. The module has a fairly broad commercial temperature range of 0 to 70°C.

Ironically, the one product you can buy now — the Chip Pro Dev Kit — has the least documentation. The kit ships with two Chip Pro modules, one integrated on the carrier/debug board and the other packaged separately. The chip offers debug circuitry and headers, and a few coastline ports, which appear to include a USB host port, a micro-USB port, and audio and power jacks.

According to The Register story that appeared to act as a de facto announcement for the Chip Pro, each device will be sold with a free one-year subscription to The Next Thing management cloud service, with subsequent subscriptions costly only $1 per device per year. The service enables vendors to push cryptographically protected updates and security patches to Chip Pro devices. “Obviously, this introduces a potential single point of failure or compromise,” says The Register, “but it’s at least a decent attempt to ensure thousands of devices aren’t left sitting on the internet constantly vulnerable to attack.”

Computer-on-modules like the Chip Pro are very common in the commercial embedded market, but are still something of a novelty in the hacker board arena. The Chip Pro competes with products like the Raspberry Pi Compute Module and COM-like Raspberry Pi Zero. On the BeagleBone side, there’s now a sanctioned BeagleBone uSomIQ module from Mentorel, as well.

The Chip Pro is pricier than the Zero, but cheaper than the Compute Module and uSomIQ. It’s also smaller than any of these boards, and faster than the two Pi models. Keep in mind, however, that the Pi Compute Module is expected to be re-released soon with a quad-core Cortex-A53 SoC like the Pi 3.

Unlike any of these modules, however, the Chip Pro offers onboard wireless. More importantly to many, the Chip Pro is also more open source than these boards, especially the Pi models. The GR8 packaging, documentation, and single-unit sales are particularly significant, making it easier for makers and smaller manufacturers to build embedded devices from scratch.

Further information

The Chip Pro Dev Kit, which includes two Chip Pro modules, is available for purchase for $49, with shipments due in December. According to The Register, the $16 Chip Pro and $6 GR8 SoC will go on sale in December and ship in the first quarter of 2017. More information may be found at The Next Thing’s Chip Pro product page.

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One response to “Open-spec COM version of Chip SBC sells for $16”

  1. Jer says:

    The AXP209 looks to be on the PCB, not in the SiP.

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