VIA launches "Android PC" mini ARM-based system
VIA Technologies has dipped a toe in the water of the rapidly filling ARM mini-computer market with its $49 (including power supply) APC (Android-PC), consisting entirely of a motherboard in a "half" Mini-ITX format (Neo-ITX). With 512MB RAM and 2GB NAND Flash storage, it has better specifications than many similar mini systems. It has both HDMI and VGA ports, and a single microSD slot, which can be used to add additional storage. It does, however, have surprisingly high power consumption figures. VIA says that, when running the pre-installed Android 2.3 "PC System", it consumes 4 watts when idling, rising to a maximum of 13.5 watts. It is not clear whether this maximum is measured on the mains side or on the low-voltage side – if the latter then power supply losses need to be factored in on top of this.
The APC will be competing with the Raspberry Pi, PandaBoard, Pogoplug, Cotton Candy Stick, Trim-Slice, Valueplus TizzBird N1, MK802 and so on. More and more mini-computers with ARM SoCs – on which hobbyists can run Android, Linux or other operating systems – are entering the market offering low costs and low power consumption. The target markets for these products differs widely though: like the more venerable Arduino project, the inexpensive Raspberry Pi is designed primarily for hobbyist programmers and for teaching computer science in schools; the eSATA and Gigabit Ethernet ports on the Pogoplug make it more suitable as a home server or NAS substitute; while devices based on USB flash drives are usually more focused on the Android operating system.
Source: Wondermedia Compared to the APC, other mini-computers containing ARM SoCs are significantly more economical or, like the Trim Slice's NVIDIA Tegra 2, deliver a lot more computing power with similar power consumption figures. While the latest smartphones contain optimised successors to ARM's Cortex A9 micro-architecture with two cores and a clock speed of 1.5GHz, and the Tegra 2 runs at 1GHz and has two A9 (ARMv7) out-of-order cores – the APC, with its single core 800MHz Wondermedia Prizm WM8750 is stuck in the ARM11 generation with the ARMv6 command set (ARM1176JZF). This kind of specification leaves Android feeling somewhat sluggish even on the tiny screens of cheap mobiles – the APC's HDMI port will be offering a maximum resolution of 720p.
ARM systems like the APC are not well-suited for use as home servers or NAS substitutes, as they do not have any SATA ports and are usually equipped with just 10/100 Ethernet chips. Some ARM mini computers, like the Trim Slice, have SATA ports connected via Hi-Speed USB 2.0 and cannot manage even 30MB/s. Because of their comparatively modest computing power, their meagre RAM and their slow mass storage channels, these systems tend to feel slow when running standard Linux distributions.
Their strengths only become apparent when running a slimmed down operating system, custom built for small embedded devices, like Android and its associated applications. It is, though, not yet clear whether the APC will be able to access Android apps through the Google Play store and safely tap into that ecosystem.