Single Board Computers Overview

Though they are not particularly common in office or home usage, single board computers are staples of industrial electronics. Compact, efficient and very reliable, these computers are important for automation, monitoring and controlling equipment and many other applications in industry.

These devices are typically used with backplanes, which allow a single board computer to be easily connected to systems and in a very compact arrangement.

While single board computers are typically less powerful than standard, tower computers, they are more than adequate for the purposes they are used toward in industry. Some of these devices are also excellent experimentation and teaching tools, owing to their low cost, simplicity and the fact that many of them can easily be connected to other hardware.

 

What Is a Single Board Computer

A single board computer is differentiated from a desktop or personal computer not by what it is capable of, but by the way it is designed. A single board computer has all of the elements of a complete computer contained within one single circuit board. Conversely, desktop computers have motherboards with slots for the basic components of the computer. On a desktop computer, the processor, memory, storage, input and output devices and other basic components attach via sockets on the motherboard. On a single board design, everything is self-contained.

Single board computers are also expanded in their capabilities differently than desktop computers. On a desktop computer, adding capability to the motherboard is typically accomplished by plugging a peripheral device into a slot on the motherboard. A high end video card, for instance, will be plugged into a specialized slot on the motherboard. On a single board computer, this and the other components required on the computer are simply a part of the circuit board and the device is ready to go as is.

Single board computers come in a huge range of different capacities. Because some of them are used to control very simple processes, some single board computers are very slow and limited compared to the average desktop computer.

 

What Are Single Board Computers Used For?

Single board computers are frequently employed in embedded applications. An embedded computer cannot be expanded upon and contains only the input and output capabilities it needs for the task for which it is designed. For example, a vending machine might have an embedded single board computer in it to control the functions of the vending machine, but there would be no provision to add more hardware to the computer to expand its capabilities.

In many cases, single board computers are plugged into a backplane. The backplane allows for input and output devices to be attached to the computer. Single board computers are frequently used in rack systems, which allows for reliable and fast integration into a system.

 

Why Single Board Computers Are Used in Industry

Single board computers have all of the capacity required to perform most automation tasks and specialized designs are widely available. These computers have some significant advantages over using a typical desktop computer for the applications to which single board computers are usually put.

Single board computers are very small. This allows them to be embedded in devices where space is very limited. The computers are also very efficient, giving them an edge where saving on power is concerned. In addition to these advantages, single board computers are self-contained, making them very reliable under trying environmental conditions.

Despite the fact that single board computers have generally less capacity than a multi-board computer, they are quite often more expensive than a multi-board computer. Single board computers are somewhat specialized equipment, which means that they are not manufactured in the same quantities as are standard multi-board motherboards. The reliability of these computers, however, make them very cost effective solutions for industry and, because they are self-contained, it is relatively easy to swap one out for the other if a computer needs to be replaced.

Various backplane options allow these computers to be expanded tremendously in their capabilities, so they are not overly limited by their designs. In fact, with certain types of backplane arrangements, single board computers can actually provide for more expanded capacity than can a standard multi-board computer and in a much more compact amount of space.

 

Variations

There are different types of single board computers available. Among the most common types are those that are designed to use backplane connections. These come in designs that work with various architectures, including Intel architectures and others. Some of the names of these designs include the PXI, VXI and the CompactPCI types, all of which are widely available.

With the backplanes, the computer is capable of working with connections including PCIX, PCI and others.

A System Host Board is one that meets the PICMG 1.3 specification. PICMG version 1.2 offered PCIX support. Prior versions offered support for PCI and IFA connections.

Some single board computers include hard drives and some do not. Those that do not are typically operated completely off of a network.

Other form factor options include Mini-ITX, PC/104, VMEbus, VPX, Embedded Compact Extended, and AdvancedTCA.

 

Specifications

Single board computers can be purchased to meet a huge variety of different needs. Some of them come with I/O interfaces that are specifically geared toward audio applications, networking applications, wireless applications and so forth. Being able to purchase these devices already set up for such uses makes them even more convenient.

While single board computers are generally differentiated from multi-board computers by having all of their components installed on the single board, some of them do come with expansion slots. These expansion slots include popular design such as microSD, Mini PCI, PCI, ISA, PCI Express and others. They can also be purchased based on the specific type of ports they come with, such as CRT, DVI, HDMI, VGA and so forth.

Where the basics of computers are concerned, the specifications are very similar to what one would assess if they were purchasing a desktop computer. Processor clock speed, front side bus clock speed, the type of processor used in the device, the amount of memory it can support and other considerations are all taken into account when purchasing these devices. Because many of them are used in such simple applications, purchasing single board computers with comparatively low power versus a desktop is quite often a viable means of saving money.

 

Popular Examples

Some single board computers have become popular outside of industrial use and also continue to fill roles in industrial uses. These single board computers typically have a sort of brand recognition associated with them and, quite often, are used actively by hobbyist developers, educational institutions and other users to teach and learn the basics of computing and embedded systems.

 

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi is a type of single board computer that was originally developed for educational purposes. It is very affordable, making it very popular with industrial users and hobbyists alike.

There are three different models of the Raspberry Pi single board computer. They include the Model A, the least powerful model, which comes standard with 256 MB of memory, basic video ports and no on-board networking.

Models B and B+ are more advanced, being supplied with more USB ports, increased amounts of memory, networking capabilities and other enhancements. Despite the different capabilities of these three versions, the Raspberry Pi has a same small size and weight in all designs.

The single board computers can run on several different flavours of Linux and can be programmed to perform a variety of different functions. The Raspberry Pi has been widely hailed for its utility as an educational tool, but it’s flexibility and easy programming also make it an excellent resource for serious developers and for certain applications. It can be expanded with additional hardware, including cameras and other options.

 

Arduino

Like the Raspberry Pi, the Arduino single board computer has a great deal of utility for hobbyists, educators and industrial users alike. It is based on an open-source platform and was designed specifically to work with devices such as actuators and sensors. This provides an easy way for it to be used as an embedded device in systems that interact with the outside environment.

The Arduino has applications in robotics, automation and other purposes that are vital to modern industry. At the same time, it is widely used by hobbyist for building simple robots and other forms of experimentation. It is an extremely expandable single board computer, able to be integrated with hardware such as thermostats and other types of sensors that can feed information to the device.

The Arduino exemplifies some of the advantages of single board computers, being very small and easily integrated into larger devices. It has substantial I/O capabilities, and is easily programmed. The C and C++ languages are widely used to program Arduino single board computers.

While the Arduino is widely known for its use in applications that include sensors and actuators, it is also capable of being used for communications, digital books and can be expanded upon with additional storage capabilities. The Arduino single board computer, with its particular capabilities, also makes an excellent solution for remotely piloted drones.

 

BeagleBoard

The BeagleBoard single board computer was developed by Texas Instruments, but is manufactured completely with open-source hardware. It was specifically designed to teach programming open source software, but has become very popular with hobbyists and for experimentation, as well.

This is a remarkably small device, but it is an entire computer on a single circuit board. It runs on various flavours of Linux, but is currently being adapted to run with other open source operating systems, such as the Android mobile operating system.

The BeagleBoard design includes USB connections, PC audio connections, SDHC, HDMI, DVI-D and JTAG ports, giving it tremendous flexibility. The device comes standard with 256 MB of memory. One of its more convenient features is the option to power the device through the USB connector. It consumes only 2 W of power in total. If the user does not wish to take advantage of the USB power option, the BeagleBoard can be powered through a standard power supply.

There are several different versions of the BeagleBoard, including the BeagleBone, a bare-bones version of the BeagleBoard, aimed at developers. There are also various expansion boards available, including ones that give the device wireless capabilities, the ability to be integrated with touchscreens and many other capabilities.

Enclosures are also available for the BeagleBoard, which makes it a feasible solution for use in some industrial processes. Its easy programmability, open-source nature and expandability make it a useful resource for people who are developing single board computers for serious applications, people who are using the devices for educational purposes and for people who are simply experimenting with the possibilities of single board computers.

 

Purchasing

Because single board computers are used in some very trying environmental conditions, it’s important to make certain that any design chosen is able to provide reliable service under the expected stresses. Minimum and maximum operating temperatures, the size of the device, the type of sockets that it has and other factors will all play into whether or not it is suitable for any particular application.

While single board computers are inherently less flexible than multi-board designs as far as expandability goes, the options for single board computers with many different expansion slots are rapidly increasing. In addition to this, there are many very specialized designs available, providing very powerful solutions for embedded applications where space is at a premium.

Single board computers will typically not have the upper range of performance that one will see with desktop computers, but they are getting very powerful with modern developments. Options such as the BeagleBoard, Raspberry Pi and others also make these very accessible, allowing a developer to get an entire computer on a very small circuit board that can be easily expanded for the purposes of actually building a practical appliance or simply experimenting. As is the case with most electronics, the price on single board computers has tended to drop over time even as the capabilities have expanded.