The Evolution of Single Board Computers

Narrative

Single board computers have evolved exponentially over the years since their inception. At a time when microprocessors were limited to just a handful manufactures such as Intel or Motorola, selections were based on the maker of the chip. Improvements in the capacity, complexity, and density of microprocessors caused a shift in the markets primary decision process. Today, users are no longer limited to just a few manufactures. Some key factors when choosing the right single board computer include: operating systems, physical footprint, price, and CPU speed. Selections, performance, and capabilities have changed the way individuals utilize single board computers.

Single board computers differ from traditional desktops because they do not rely on expansion slots. In its purest form, an SBC is a PC board with memory, a processor, and some form of input and output that enables the device to function as a computer. One of the earliest examples of a true single board computer is the “dyna-micro” of 1976 and when sold, branded as the MMD-1 or Mini-Micro Designer 1. The “dyna-micro” built by E&L Instruments was based on the Intel 8080, featured I/O, memory, a user input device, LED readouts for display, and a breadboard for experimenting. Requiring only external power, the MMD-1 became the first true single board computer.

The single board computer ecosystem continued to evolve as standards were adopted and technological advancements were incorporated into designs. Early single board computers were extensions of the microprocessors bus architecture. Due to hardware limitations, early single board computers relied on a backplane to expand their capabilities by connecting multiple boards together. The Multibus I introduced in the late 1970’s was based on Intel’s processor family and became the first IEEE standard 796.

As the early single board computers and their proprietary designs of the 1970’s was phased out, the 1980’s saw an upsurge of large scale integration. Advancements in the semiconductor made it possible to decrease costs while increasing functionality. During this time, hardware designs began to streamline but due to a lack of standards, the software development was still a time consuming and costly process.

The personal computer era had gained steam and changed the technology landscape considerably. With millions of personal computers installed across the globe, PC architecture began to dictate standards. Single board computers come in many different platforms but the popularity of the x86 architecture makes it hard to ignore the benefits even if it’s not best or most cost effective.

The Raspberry Pi foundation changed the single board computer game. Released in February of 2012, the raspberry pi was designed to teach computer science skill to students. At first, the raspberry pi was released in two flavors, the model A and model B both with varying specs. Their popularity skyrocketed due to in part of their price point starting at only $25. The raspberry pi runs a lightweight version of the Linux OS that is based off Debian. The Raspberry Pi foundations have made some significant advancements in the single board computer ecosystem. In November of 2015, the foundation released the raspberry pi zero. The pi zero featured a 1 GHz single core ARM 32-bit processor, 512 MB of RAM, USB, Mini-HDMI, and a camera interface all packed into a footprint smaller than a pack of gum for a staggering $5.