All modules are not created equal and that’s a good thing. I started off this year by taking a look at five different Computer on Module (COM) products that target a similar market area—compact devices. I took a look at products from Systronix, NetBurner, Silicon Labs, Gumstix, and Kontron. They are all based on or around a small module and most can be used in deployment as well. While some are similar to each other in configuration, they cover a large, but not always overlapping, target market.
I start with short overview of each of the products. Each product is then covered in its own review section. In general, the modules can be had for less than $100, often much less. Kits are about twice that and typically include all the software and hardware needed to get started with software development. Most have hardware expansion or interface capabilities. Many have Ethernet support.
Gumstix provides their Stix modular environment that's based on small boards (about 3/4 by 4 inches) that house an Intel Xscale processor, memory and some peripherals. Depending upon the processor module, there are a number of connectors on the board designed for attaching peripheral modules. The modules are typically used for development and deployment in a range of networking, control, and robotics applications. The modules come preprogrammed with Linux. Processor boards start around $99 and peripheral boards are in a similar price range. Some are much less expensive depending upon the functionality.
Kontron’s X-Board starter kit is based on a small (2 by 2.5 inches) X-Board module. It is one of the higher-end kits that comes with a much larger host board complete with PCI connectors and a host of other peripheral connectors. The Xscale-based host board is typically for development only, while the X-Board module is designed for deployment. The module plugs into a SIMM-style socket and offers a range of peripherals, including a graphics interface. The kit comes with Linux and Windows CE and supports other operating systems like Wind River’s VxWorks and QNX. Kit pricing is around $200.
The NetBurner Mod5213 development kit is based on a chip-style module like a Parallax BASIC Stamp. It plugs into a standard 40-pin DIP socket and is priced under $20. The module is suitable for deployment, and it plugs into a host board for development work. The Freescale MCF5213 Coldfire-based module comes with three serial ports, an SPI port, a CAN interface, an 8-channel 12-bit ADC, and a preprogrammed RTOS. The kit is priced around $99.
Silicon Labs has a low-cost (about $10) USB dongle with a pair of its 8-bit microcontrollers. One handles the USB interface and the other is a host processor. Alone, the dongle is useful as a development tool, although it has limited peripheral support. Still, it’s a great software development tool. Silicon Labs also has a demonstration product that is a USB FM tuner using the same form factor just to show how easy it is.
Systronix’s TStik2 is similar to the Kontron X-Board module. The TStik2 uses a DIMM connection and it houses an 8-bit DSTINI400 processor from Maxim Integrated Products that can run Java. The TStik2 runs about $99 depending upon memory configuration. The development kits with a host board run about $200.
Which is the best? That depends upon a lot more than I can cover here. Computing power, memory, interfaces, pricing, programming tools, and bundled software are all major factors. Some products will get you up and running in particular areas faster depending upon your expertise. For example, NetBurner’s system is excellent for building a network device while Gumstix and Systronix have interfaces that make motor control for robotics much easier. Also, keep in mind that this collection is not exhaustive. There are lots of alternatives from these vendors and others.
Read Bill’s SBC module reviews:
Maxim Integrated Products