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VIA launches $49 Android PC (geek.com)
170 points by 11031a 1953 days ago | hide | past | web | 106 comments | favorite

I just want an ARM box that I can run headless in my closet and keep on all the time to use as a build bot.

First I bought a SheevaPlug (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SheevaPlug) but that fried itself before long.

Next I bought an Efika MX Smarttop (https://www.genesi-usa.com/store/details/11), which works ok, but doesn't always boot reliably (I boot it headless most of the time, so can never get to the bottom of why).

I wish I could jailbreak my Apple TV 3, because it's cheap and the form factor is perfect for this. But it's looking like it will be more difficult to jailbreak than previous generations.

I just want something I can run Debian or Ubuntu on and know that when I restart it it's going to come back up. Any suggestions?

As a build bot? What are you building?

For me, a build bot has to be ultra powerful. The thing I'm usually building has 40k+ files and the linker dies unless I have more than 4gig of ram. This VIA or a Raspberry PI just isn't going to cut it as a build bot.

Of course there are tons of other uses.

> As a build bot? What are you building?

My library upb (https://github.com/haberman/upb/wiki). It is ~5k LoC and builds in 10 seconds on x86. 4gig of RAM is entirely unnecessary. It pays to be small. :)

I'm using a beaglebone running Ubuntu, it's a brilliant little box, cost £55.

There's the pandaboard too, which is more powerful with hdmi output

Where on earth do you get a beaglebone for £55? Haven't seen it for < £70.

Does it reliably boot headless? If it does I'll order one before the ink dries on this comment.

Yes, it's been very reliable for me. It ships with angstrom Linux, but it's trivial to install Ubuntu.

I've got it hosted in a collocation rack now, so it had better stay reliable :-)

I've written a short blog post about it http://www.ewanleith.com/blog/956/my-60-arm-server

Awesome, I'm totally getting one, thanks! Also appreciate learning about nmon, which looks nifty.

(Still do wish I could jailbreak my AppleTV though. That is one sexy piece of hardware.)

Out of interest, what does it cost to host one of these in a colo rack? I was thinking about it as an alternative to my VPS.

(Apologies if you said this in blog post already, it's currently unavailable.)

Used Google cache to read the blog. This is what was written in the blog:

So, now it’s time to take it to the next level – I’ve paid for the beaglebone to go into a colocation rack in Telehouse North, with a friendly colocation company called Jump Networks who were happy to help out with the experiment, and who only charge for £50 + VAT for installation and a very low monthly cost for hosting the equipment, as little as £5 per month – perfect for an ARM server.

Sorry about that, the blog is hosted on linode, who had scheduled a reboot for tonight, which turned into a 2 hour outage...

The colo I picked only charges for electricity and excess bandwidth, which is why I picked them.

It cost £50 to install, and £12 a year in hosting costs for electricity and bandwidth, but the host I'm using says they'll have to introduce a minimum charge of about £5 per month if lots of people start doing it with these micro servers.

I bought an Android set-top-box, the Flexiview FV-1, ($120ish, 1Ghz Cortex A8) at the end of last year and got Debian running on it.


I haven't run one 24/7 for more than a week or two though, so I don't really know how good it would be as a server.

What about a simple router? They costs loads less: I tried something like this here : http://simula67.wordpress.com/2012/01/14/how-to-create-a-dow...

Check out Aboriginal. It's Linux in an ARM VM specifically for compiling to an ARM target.


Thanks for the pointer, but I'd also like to track performance numbers over time.

Isn't this a perfect use case for Raspberry Pi?

Except it doesn't have much memory, no sata/ide interface, a relatively slow CPU and a version of the ARM that isn't the same instruction set as most Android/Linux targets

You might want to look into getting an AppleTV 1. It can run OSX and most likely Ubuntu. They should be quite cheap now.

The AppleTV 1 is a decent system, but it's an x86 machine, and the author seems to want an embedded ARM box.

Oh my bad. I thought he wanted an ARM box because they're usually much cheaper.

Try TonidoPlug2. It runs debian squeeze.

I'd suggest the cheapest Dell desktop box. Or even the cheapest Dell server.

It will be a magnitude order more costly though, both in acquisition price and electricity.

Dell makes ARM machines? Do tell. I already have headless build bots for x86 (new Mac Mini) and PowerPC (old Mac Mini), which are perfect in form factor for this. I specifically want an ARM machine to add to them.

If wifi routers had usb....



Its mips based though, not arm. Runs openwrt nice. I use mine as a file/print server.

WJW, 3 antennas!

Why the downvotes? I really found 3 antennas interesting..

This is about the price-range I would like to see for a ChromeOS box.

Put it in a box I can hide behind a standard monitor, let me reuse the old mouse and keyboard and I can finally throw away the Windows XP PC my in-laws are using for Chrome and Freecell. And use 1/10th of the power.

I'd rather pay more for a high-end Cortex A15-based ChromeBox. Browsing will be very slow on an ARM11 chip, especially if you use it in "desktop mode", which will make it feel even slower compared to using it in a mobile phone. Also, it better have a good GPU, otherwise it won't even support resolutions higher than 800x480 (this one might).

But I do think ChromeOS devices should be somewhere in the $200 price range (or free with contract if you want LTE and plan on using it on the go).

In 1989 I ran a Unix system with 1000 users on hardware less powerful than this, why this kind of horse power cannot run something as simple as a web browser says more about the inefficiencies inherent in current operating systems and programming methods than they do about the hardware.

"why this kind of horse power cannot run something as simple as a web browser"

Web browsers aren't simple. Every web page is a complicated nest of sizing constraints and it seems like hardly a CSS property is added without making that worse. And then IE4 had to come along and make all of these sizing constraints dynamically changeable. And then we wanted fancier font rendering, so glyphs weren't free or even cheap anymore.

And I'm just talking text & tags here, not even remotely about anything like OpenGL or video, just core browser stuff.

You can render web pages on mere dribbles of power with Links/Lynx, but it's not some sort of mere coincidence that the result is a much degraded experience, it's actually fundamental to what a web browser is nowadays. I mean, look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTnIxIA5KGw And that's a simple webpage.

> as simple as a web browser says more about the inefficiencies inherent in current operating systems and programming methods than they do about the hardware.

No. This is simply not true, at least at the extreme you are suggesting.

What I have open on my quad-core 8GB RAM desktop right now: two Eclipse sessions; One emacs server, with about 20 client windows; Firefox, with 30+ tabs; 20 or so console sessions; five PDFs of documentation; an IRC client; an image viewer and a Jabber client. All of this is spread over two big monitors, with antialiased fonts, fast scrolling, lots of undo history and all sorts of good things.

The truth is that expectations have changed. Say all you want about having 1000 users on a single core, but users today are getting a much richer environment, and capabilities that we only could have dreamed of twenty years ago. This isn't waste or inefficiency, it's using what we have.

Web browsers are also far from simple. High resolution graphics, interactive sites, multiple format support, dynamic content loading, antialiased fonts and all these other things do add up. Compare that to what a user was doing on a tiny slice of a machine 20 years ago. I'd call it progress.

You can still run a lot of users on "modest" hardware. Dave Richards posts regularly about his terminal server work for Largo, Florida. 250 users running GNOME, firefox, libreoffice, etc. on one server with 64GB of RAM may not be up to 1989 standards, but it isn't shabby.


Agreed, just that image of the VIA board takes 730k. That's over 11 Apple IIs and most people have multiple tabs each with multiple images, streaming video players, iTunes, etc. running.

Heck, just a unicode font that includes every character in the basic plane takes 22Meg! Did that guys 1989 unix box display Chinese, Japanese and Korean?

How are you able to cognitively manage so many apps (FF alone with 30+ open tabs)? I find having more than a handful of apps and tabs open a clutter.

Now go read the hardware compatibility list: http://www.menuetos.net/hwc.txt. It only apparently supports 4 network cards, 2 audio cards and a handful of video cards, and all of them are very old tech.

It's essentially a niche operating system, and isn't going to do 1/10th of the stuff that one written with "bloatware" is going to be capable of. I mean, look at what it has for a browser: http://www.menuetos.net/098b3.png

Oh, I'm sure this will run lynx with no problem at all! ;) It appears to me, though, nowadays most people prefer nice graphic interfaces, free-style layouts, visual and audio effects.

The whole multimedia thing, you know.

Also, this Android box costs and weighs a fraction of that wonderful machine you used to serve 1000 of users.

So I'd still call it a progress worth 25 years of technology evolution.

Web pages are a lot more complex these days than they were then.

People should read your comment a few times to let it sink in.

But, iRobot, why should we care about efficiencies? Energy grows on trees.

I predict we are going to see many, many more ARM devices. And Apple is going to lead the way.

This is going to bother some people who like to write bloated, inefficient code. Their focus is on multi-core and concurrency. But to do simple things (retrieving text, images, audio, or video via http, sending/receiving email, etc), one does not need that much power.

The rise of ARM will create opportunity for a different set of programmers who are more efficiency-conscious.

You should always be wary if any binary blobs are required (often the case with video drivers). They will limit what you can do in terms of upgrading the kernel and hence the rest of the OS.

Sadly VIA have a history of not quite getting this whole "open" thing: http://www.phoronix.com/scan.php?page=article&item=via_o...

You're entirely right, but Wondermedia/VIA actually have a moderately good history with their GPL source for ARM system-on-a-chips.

Although most end vendors of devices using the WM8xxx line of chips are GPL violators (direct-from-China business models where noone cares), Wondermedia themselves have been supplying GPL source via Harald Welte of Gpl-Violations (formerly also employed by VIA):


100% blob-free to my knowledge. Unfortunately they haven't released anything for the WM87xx series (apc.io) yet, but these devices are brand new so here's hoping.

If you're interested you can dig up some more details, and the follow from-scratch open kernel development efforts, at


(What I -really- hope they release is publicly available datasheets.)

My vision for these boards is not to display graphics, but to send/receive data from the internet and a local network. I'm not going to use a Pi to watch movies or some other resource-intensive task. I'd just as soon use the power of GPU that comes with Pi for some other task besides video.

What would be interesting is if one of these boards would be designed such that, by pure coincidence, it could fit into an Apple form factor (cheap/old/maybe used). I've read that in, e.g., Vietnam, people with soldering irons do all sorts of hackish things to iPhones.

Or maybe a market for curved edge form factor casings develops. Maybe it already exists. But I never saw any Apple-like form factors in the mini-ITX offerings. Whenever you see something with a cool form factor, it seems it's always a proprietary package, hermetically sealed, not easy to tinker with.

The Raspberry Pi starts up by loading an opaque blob into the GPU, and that then runs the CPU under supervision. ie the CPU is a servant and controlled by the GPU, not the other way around as is normal in the PC world.

So irrespective of your video intentions, you are still at the mercy of a blob.

But unless your are a real FOSS zealot (say > 500milli Stallmans) you are at the mercy of the bios, the disk controller firmware and the CPU microcode on any machine

In reality being able to run whatever user programs you want in whatever combination you want without artificial is what FOSS is all about.

The "user programs" you want to run are determined by the operating system. And the operating system is determined by blobs, controllers, BIOS and similar gunk.

If for example the Pi blob is such that Linux kernel 3.7 can't run then you are SOL. Or if on a device like this their blob only works with Android 2.3 then you can't run a different version. Or maybe you can't run one of the BSDs.

The video/GPU is especially relevant in the Pi case because it controls what the CPU can do.

Yes that's true - I was thinking of people who complain they don't have details for some deep detail of the GPU shader cores to write an opensource driver for their NVidia card.

What's more exciting than this computer itself is the potential it represents. If you read the actual product page [apc.io], a lot of it is devoted to just how small this new Neo-ITX form factor is.

For comparison's sake:

  Mass-market paperback - 19.8cm x 13cm
  Neo-ITX - 17cm x 8.5cm
  IPhone 4 -  11.5 cm x 5.86 cm 
  2.5inch SSD - 10 cm x 6.99 cm
  Raspberry Pi - 8.6cm x 5.4cm
So the Neo-ITX is a third bigger than an IPhone 4.[1] And the perfect size to nestle a normal SSD right on top.

Not very far down the road, we will be looking at a complete, very functional computer (harddrive, wireless internet, etc.) in a package about the size of a small book. All for 15 watts.

And what I love best: it will be so cheap and versatile. Because it will use modular, already popular hardware.

Remember the good old days of the desktop:

Swap out the HDD for a bigger one. Replace it easily if it fails. Swap out the whole motherboard if that fails. Keep using the same damn case and power adaptor for ten years.

And best: put in random, new PCI express cards that expand the capabilities of the computer, using it in ways the original designers hadn't foreseen. As happened in the past with:

  Wireless Networking
  Exploding GPU power

[1] I initially used a deck of cards for comparison. But I couldn't visualize exactly how big a deck of cards is. But an iPhone...

So many comments and no-one could manage any praise?

It matches the real-life cost of the Rpi, probably will have general availability around the same time, and has double the memory and a little onboard NAND.

It may not be perfect, but remember this sector is very much in its infancy, and a little more competition has to be a good thing for improvements in future devices all round.

Finally, a cheap ATX-compatible ARM board. Give me PCIe and DIMM slots and I'll be salivating. Equip it with something like a dual-core Cortex chip and I'll be throwing wads of cash in all directions.

Why not just buy any number of Atom or Fusion motherboards out there? Cost is in the same realm as what you're asking for and they already have those slots. Power consumption isn't much more than the ARMs, but there's actual product you can buy today.

If you don't mind waiting a bit, see Freescale iMX6: http://boundarydevices.com/products-2/nitrogen6x-board-imx6-...

I think you're missing the point, it's not about wads of cash, it's about dribbles of cash.

It will no longer be cheap once you add all the stuff you want.

4 watts when idle

no power management? my standard voltage laptop with a spinning disk, screen and low backlighting idles at 6-7.

And can you really get away with no HS/F at 13 watts under load?

FWIW, SheevaPlug idles at 4 watts as well.

That's also what I thought. But I couldn't find Raspberry Pi idle wattage anywhere, so I'm not sure if that's good or bad in comparison.

VIA: if you're reading this, your address help@apc.io is busted :-(

The original email I sent was:

Hi, I'm really excited to see the $49 Android PC; it looks like a perfect platform for a number of projects I've been thinking of.

However I'm worried - most manufacturers offering low-price Android devices fail to comply with the terms of the GPL.

Will you be releasing the source code to any GPL'd components used by your system? And will you allow customers to install their own OSs on the device or will it be restricted to your own build of Android?

Thanks for your time; I look forwards to your reply.

And sales@apc.io is bouncing too. Classy.

Alongside the obvious comparisons to Raspberry Pi, it's worth looking at Allwinner A10 based devices like the Mele A1000: http://rhombus-tech.net/allwinner_a10/hacking_the_mele_a1000...

Same price bracket, faster Cortex A8 based processor, and (most importantly) marketed as "hackable" with available source & tech docs, and a community working on porting other OSes to it.

Even if you don't want to hack on it yourself, this means you're more likely to find interesting uses and software updates for it down the line.

IMHO these are the aspects VIA should be aiming to compete on as well, so it's not stuck with a crummy vendorware version of Android.

Bad link try this: http://rhombus-tech.net/allwinner_a10/

Other than that, its an interesting box too although it looks like it is harder to get one's hands on it.

Thanks, fixed typo in the other link.

The Melee boards are available to ship now from Aliexpress vendors, so you'd have it in your hands sooner than the apc.io (July predicted ship date) or the Pi (still filling backorders.)

> Android 2.3 OS

sigh. ICS has been out for 6 months now. It's tragic that companies are shipping an ancient 2-year-old OS with their computers.

It's more complicated than that, though. You can't just download ICS and drop it on the board. There are drivers to port and middleware integration to do. Someone has to do that. Google did it for OMAP4 (the Galaxy Nexus), but that's it. This isn't an OMAP4 board, and $50 a unit doesn't pay for a lot of software integration work.

This is where the ARM ecosystem tends to fall down. The PC World is built on compatibility. No one can ship a board if it doesn't run Windows (or even DOS, frankly). Graphics cards have VESA and VGA fallback modes so that you can bootstrap a driver installation. And as a result the Linux community can leverage this to provide pretty great support for new hardware, even if it starts out as a fallback or partial implementation for a few versions. None of that exists in the SoC world.

So if VIA or NVIDIA or Samsung or Qualcomm want ICS to run on their chips, they need to do the work. So far they have not. Nor have their customers been willing or able to.

Canonical and others in the Linux community are working on making a universal kernel for ARM SoC's, and they hope it will work on most of them by 2014. That might help with upgrades and compatibility in the Android world, too, especially since they are planning to merge the Android kernel back into the main Linux kernel.



I agree with your comment entirely (esp. the PC/ARM bit.)

Also, the WM8750 is an ARM11 not a Cortex A8 or better, so it's a good bit slower than most phones running ICS. I don't think its GPU credentials are cutting edge either.

So in terms of raw hardware specs it'll come in alongside the flagship phones released with Android 1.6 and 2.1. ICS may not be a good candidate even if/when the development is done.

(Which is insane given that it's still objectively powerful hardware, but even more powerful hardware breeds equivalently consuming software.)

I hope they also have linux distributions for it other than android. If it works with arduino, these could lead to very inexpensive analog/digital controllers.

As long as the distro has drivers for VIA WonderMedia WM8750, it will be fine. Honestly I have no idea if any distros do.

Add wi-fi, remove vga and ethernet, drop the usb towers and make it flatter, make an aluminum case and sell it for $99.

You'll sell a million just the first couple of months.

Do not remove VGA. There are a TON of old VGA monitors (LCD as well) just sitting around, and this is a perfect machine to use with them.

Force people to use HDMI and most of them will have to buy a new monitor.

http://apc.io is the original source.

It has a nice photo of Allen and Gates.

Now, what I'm wondering is how easy it is to replace Android with your own OS. I want to know about the bootloader.

This somehow lacks all geek-appeal to me. It looks like a regular mother board. Not interested.

The raspberry pi on the other hand looks cool. Strange.

It depends on what you intend to do with it. My mom's computer is due for an upgrade and she would probably be happy with a beefier version of this machine. Swapping the motherboard should be trivial enough and the PC would continue to look familiar, at least.

She's used to Ubuntu and she couldn't care less about the ISA the machine is running. Moving to Android could prove an interesting experience, but I suspect machines like this will have outstanding support for other Linuxes as well and I'd assume Via has a lot to gain by cooperating.

By now, most likely, someone from Microsoft will have called to offer some incentive if Via favors Win8 over Android on the platform. We'll see what happens.

Yes, these machines are nearly ready. They need a little bit more stuff, and some nice cloud stuff set up.

Put them in a little box, bolt them to the back of a nice monitor and they're great for most people.

Oracle will claim a patent infringement because the thing looks too much like a Sparcstation SLC...

I'm willing to overlook the geek appeal for the low price. I can see myself building a small NAS or media center with this.

I wonder how difficult it could be to install an ARM version of Linux on it. I'm not that interested in the Android aspect of it, besides maybe using it as a cheap tablet replacement (they'd need to upgrade the Android version though.)

I feel the opposite.

The main issue of (amost) ALL these boards is the code. They always use a large part of proprietary bobs, which makes using them a pain. Even the Raspberry pi has the issue. In particular, if you've a recent GPU you're often doomed. Want video accel? Nope. Proper video support? Update to more recent libraries? Nope again.

Related, my boss just ordered one of these for me to play with: http://www.asiapads.com/product_info.php?products_id=2246

I'm looking forward to it.

Internally, it's called "chrisk's Crapper Computer" (my name is Chris last name starts with K)

Nice! Looks a lot better than what VIA is doing. At least the CPU is reasonably powerful.

please blog/post about it when you get it. i am interested in one myself.

Why does it have a VGA port instead of a DVI port?

Because having both a DVI and a HDMI port is redundant. HDMI is backwards compatible with DVI so you can convert DVI <-> HDMI easily, but not VGA which is analog.

It also has HDMI. They should have dropped the VGA and saved a buck.

On the flip side I can pick up a VGA monitor off the curb (i.e. free) while the cheapest HDMI monitor is still expensive.

the cheapest HDMI monitor is still expensive

Everyone has different levels for what "expensive" means. You can get new HDMI monitors for well under $150, and new DVI monitors for well under $100, and DVI<->HDMI adaptors are under $10.

Sure but it is worth baring in mind the context-- that this is a $50 PC.


~$100 for a monitor (which can also be used with other computers) isn't expensive when we are talking about a $50 board.

Whether "it's expensive" depends entirely on the market. There are markets (developing countries, education) where tripling the total cost of the setup, compared to using a monitor you already have, is significant.

Yes, I get that. Hence the bit where I said Everyone has different levels for what "expensive" means.

My apologies, between your two comments I was confused about the point you were making.

It doesn't have wlan, not even a dual core cpu, pity. but i am still going to buy it.

including a radio means much more expensive certification testing. so they often just have you use a USB wifi stick.

That's not true if you use a pre-certified wifi module. Of course such modules cost half as much as the board, largely because they eliminate the cost of intentional radiator testing. But I agree, USB wifi is so cheap these days it makes no sense to have it built-in.

thank you for the explanation

I wonder how much wifi/wireless would add to the cost?

Wow. And Bluetooth is just another $1.19. http://www.amazon.com/Bluetooth-USB-Micro-Adapter-Dongle/dp/...

Those would be two good additions.

Could you run a server on this? Something like NodeJS with low casual traffic? Would that work on Android at all?

Yes you could, I've been experimenting with running a server on arm for a couple of months and its surprisingly capable.

Node works well on arm because of all the effort google make for v8 to run well in Android

For some unknown reason all those sensor terminals, atms and other smart devices are powered by windows.

Windows is an awful choice since it requires a huge pricey box with fans, since it shows its dialog messages over the interface, catches viruses and yet they stick to it. It makes me sad thinking about how much money do they waste on it and how MS is able by get their cut while making everyone lives and products worse by using their BS power.

Windows has been available on embedded systems from almost the very beginning. Windows CE was not originally for tablets, it was for ATMs and the like.

But still they use stock Windows. They don't use CE or XP Embedded. They use the popping up dialog windows, screensaver kind.

PC? How is this thing even close to a PC?

Looks like a motherboard to me,

It uses solid state storage and the RAM, graphics system, etc. is bundled into the single System-on-a-chip. Plug in the power then hook it up to keyboard/mouse/monitor and you are up and running.

What he's saying is that it's a bare component. Generally a PC is a usable system.

One will still need to add a powersupply and case at a minimum. (And then you can plug in your power, keyboard/mouse/monitor, etc.)

OK, fair enough. I don't think the lack of a case is a huge deal (zip tie it inside a tiny cardboard box, whatever) but the requirement for a special power supply is significant. In comparison, a raspberry pi can be booted up and used with parts that a typical geek has lying around (micro-usb charger, usb periphs, monitor).

Edit: it looks like it comes with a power adapter, so it's effectively a fully functional computer out of the box (just as much as any system without kb/monitor).

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