Mar 012014
 

I saw a VIA APC 8750 single-board computer for $20 on eBay. After poking around various reviews, tech blogs, and forums, it sounded like a computer with some promise but a few problems.

The 8750 looks great on paper: 800 MHz ARM CPU; 512 MB RAM; 2 GB on-board NAND flash memory; VGA and HDMI video up to 720p; 4 USB ports; microSD slot; stereo audio in and out. No case, but it comes with a AC power adapter. Plus various pins for hooking up serial ports and sundry devices. All for $50 new (or, in my case, $23 used including shipping).

In real life, the 8750 doesn’t look so good. VIA (confusingly calling themselves APC for this line of computers) took a great idea and completely screwed it up.

The big problem? They took a good tinkerer’s computer and installed a completely locked-down version of Android Gingerbread on it.

Yes. Gingerbread. A very outdated version of Android. And they locked it down, with no root access. And no app store of any kind. And only a few apps: A crashy browser; a crashy version of YouTube; a Settings manager; and a front-end to Google Search, plus a Contacts  manager and the terrible Android Email (not Gmail) client. That’s it. That’s all. No Linux. No BSD.

One determined hacker did manage to get Raspbian Linux running on his 8750, and provided binaries and instructions to the world. But he got zero support from VIA for his efforts, and he eventually decided that he had better things to do than act as homebrew-support for a company that didn’t support tinkering on their tinkerer’s computer. So, he pulled down his blog and his binaries. And that was that. It’s currently still possible to follow the recipe and install Raspbian, but you’ll need to cook up your own serial cable and 3.3V (not 5V) connection in order to access the 8750’s console mode in order to do so. Or live with an old, slightly broken hack-version of Raspbian booting off of the microSD card.

You can also sideload Android apps via microSD card or USB flash drive. They of course need to be Gingerbread compatible, and can’t require root access. You can even install Google Play.

Whee.

Overall, the 8750 wasn’t a total waste for the price of a movie ticket and snacks. I enjoyed monkeying around with it for several hours, trying different ways to get root access, or to update Android, or to get a modern version of Linux running.

I really have to wonder what the people at VIA were thinking, though: they made an interesting competitor to the Raspberry Pi, then put a locked-down, ancient version of a completely inappropriate OS on it.

Mar 012014
 

I have a thing for cheap, usable computers. If it’s $20 or less and sounds like it might do something useful, I’ll probably buy it.

I’ve been very impressed with Pogoplug ARM-based computers. They were originally designed to act as personal cloud servers, but are easily hacked to install Arch Linux. I have two, an E02G (similar to the pink one pictured) and a V4-A1 (the black one pictured). I’ve connected old USB hard drives to both to serve as file storage. Flash drives would work as well, but the hard drives were “free” and the flash drives would push the price over $20 per computer. A new E02 can run to $24 or $30, but a used one can be had for under $20 including shipping. Similarly, the V4-A1 is typically $15 new, $10 used, including shipping.

I use the E02G to host a homebrew web-based RSS feed reader (a replacement for Google Reader, RIP). Which I use every day, and which pushes the E02G to its limits in terms of both its 1.2 GHz CPU and its 256 MB of RAM. The feed reader uses MariaDB–a spinoff from MySQL–for database stuff, and it’s really the SQL server that keeps the Pogoplug busy and its memory chock-full.

Because the E02G is busy doing something I care about, I use the V4-A1 for tinkering. The V4-A1 is a bit more limited than the E02G, with only 1 USB port, 128 MB RAM, and an 800 MHz CPU. It’s also smaller and cleaner looking. (Honestly, the E02 is pretty ugly.) If I end up buying a third Pogoplug, I’ll probably spend the extra (gasp!) $5 or $7 and get another E02.

Compared to the more expensive Raspberry Pi, the Pogoplugs have the following pros and cons:

Pros

  • Comes complete, including case and power supply. The bare Pi costs $25 – $35, but adding in a power supply and case can add $15 or much more.
  • Designed from the outset as a personal server to run continuously.
  • Cheap!
  • Easy to get Arch Linux–a complete, secure, and well-supported version of Linux with all the modern conveniences–up and running.
  • Faster CPU than the Pi’s 700 MHz one.
  • 3 USB ports instead of just 1 or 2.
  • Gigabit ethernet port (not that the Pogoplug can really use that much bandwidth).
  • Like the Pi, the Pogoplug runs silently without fans.

Cons

  • No video support; no VGA or HDMI port. You SSH into the Pogoplug from another computer over the internet.
  • No GPU or FPU, so tasks involving heavy computation–like recoding video files–can be very slow.
  • Half the RAM of the Pi model B rev 2 (but same as earlier models).
  • The Pogoplug company makes their money off of their cloud service, not the computers, and definitely not off of homebrewers (mis)using the computers. So there is no support from them.
  • No edgy chic hipster cred like the Pi. Or community support like the Pi has.
  • No analog or digital I/O lines.

In other words, if you’re looking for a cheap, reliable little box to reliably do boring, stodgy things like act as a file server or SQL server, the Pogoplug is definitely worth a look. If you’d like to mess around with tiny ARM-based computers at minimum cost, it’s hard to find a cheaper alternative to the ‘plug.