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 A very outdated version of Android.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.
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.