Single-board computers (SBCs) have come a long way since the “dyna-micro” premiered in Radio-Electronics Magazine in 1976.
The dyna-micro rebranded as the Mini Micro-Designer 1. (Image courtesy of Radio-Electronics Magazine.)
Built with an 8-bit microprocessor and 256 bytes of erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROM), the first computer in a single circuit board seems ancient compared to its modern day progeny.
Nowadays, SBCs can be found in a wide range of devices for industrial, commercial and consumer applications. ICP America, which coincidentally shares its 40th anniversary with the dyna-micro, manufactures a wide range of SBCs for multiple applications such as:
- Dynamic Positioning for Marine Applications
- Robotic Controllers for Silicon Wafer Equipment
- Surgical Equipment in the Laser Surgery Industry
- Self-Serve Car Wash Control Computers
- Law Enforcement Vehicle Computers
Although the peripherals may differ, three principle components are involved in all of these applications: microprocessors, memory and input/output (I/O) devices.
Choosing the right SBC for a given application depends on the equipment requirements in terms of these three components as well as the SBC’s power requirements, backwards compatibility and form factor.
These six factors can make the SBC choice deliver outstanding product performance:
The majority of SBCs today include Intel, ARM or comparable central processing unit (CPU) architectures. The key question is whether the processing power your application demands is achievable within its temperature profile.
Most modern SBCs feature up to 32GB of memory. How much memory you need depends on your application, but there are many low-memory options that run at cooler temperatures with lower power needs.
SBC I/O Devices
First and foremost, an SBC’s I/O structure has to support your network’s needs. Contemporary systems offer everything from traditional serial ports to Ethernet, SATA and even USB 3.0.
The available power options for a given application can be a decisive factor when you’re considering several models. Moreover, the interdependence between power and cooling needs means that one should always be taken into account when considering the other.
SBC Backwards Compatibility
Although it’s tempting to simply opt for the newest model SBC, that won’t make a difference if it’s going into a rack with which it isn’t compatible. Ensuring that your SMBC is compatible with your existing backplane and network avoids the necessity of major overhauls down the line.
SBC Form Factor
There are many different models of SBC available and finding the right form factor depends on the spatial constraints of your application. The six most common setups are outlined below. All have slot support, either through mPCIE, C/F, DOC, or in the case of the PCI/ISA/PCIe products, the backplanes themselves.
The Embedded Board eXpandable (EBX) form factor features a super-low-profile design and flexible I/O functions. It uses an Intel Core Duo 2 processor and supports stacking in a variety of temperatures, making it ideal for use as a control board for smart fuel pumps.
The Embedded Platform for Industrial Computing (EPIC) solves the need for a form factor that fits between the PC/104 and EBX standards. With the option for dual-core processors, USB 3.0 support, SATA 6GB/s and 1080i HD-TV out, EPIC lives up to its acronym. Its speed and flexibility account for its use as a control board in surgical, diagnostic and clinical medical equipment.
The PICO-ITX form factor is built for intensive applications requiring mini x86 chipsets and power applications under 8 Watts. With Intel Atom and Celeron on-board “systems on a chip” (SoCs) and dual display support, its not surprising to find the PICO-ITX at the heart of many fleet management solutions.
For military controllers where size is a premium, such as tanks, armored vehicles and aircraft, the PC/104 is the form factor of choice. The –Plus models offer broader support; some can operate in ultra-low 5 Watt SoC setups. These features make the PC/104 the best stackable option.
The full-sized PICMG 1.0 SBC is designed to fill a variety of power and support roles in industrial applications. Easily deployed in half-size slots, it can be found in many types of manufacturing equipment, from robotics to X-ray inspection to process control.
Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) and System Host Boards (SHB) are specification upgrades to the PCI/ISA, adding support for PCIe slots for commercial peripheral boards. They are often used in servers for security, gaming and telecommunications.
For more information on how to choose the best single-board computer, download ICP America’s guide.
ICP America has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input into this post. All opinions are mine. –Ian Wright