I use Unix™-like systems everywhere (I’m not going to get into a religious argument about this …I’ve been using various sorts of Unix for dang-near 40 years now and I just never quite got the hang of the GUI paradigm, so call me an old fart if you like; the moniker fits quite well 🙂 ). Recently I’ve replaced a few of the bigger, more power-hungry boxen around the house with ARM boards, which are inexpensive to buy and very cheap to run. Some of the Linux offerings (Armbian, Debian, Ubuntu-core and the various siblings, family and friends) are doing an amazing job of keeping up with the ever-changing, disparate array of hardware coming out of the Middle Kingdom (and FreeBSD isn’t far behind), so using these tiny boards as headless servers is quite viable nowadays.
Recently I bought a Nano-Pi M1 (plus 3D printed case) from the FriendlyARM on-line shop, with the intention of pressing it into service as a 24×7 web-cam support machine and general anything-else-I-can-get-to-run-on-it server. As an ESP8266 user, MQTT was one of the leading candidates in the “anything-else” category. Well, the good news is that it’s really not that difficult to get a distribution to run on one of these $11 boards. FriendlyARM do a lot better than some of the other manufacturers in making relatively up-to-date releases available from their web site and again, unlike some of the others, the choice of working distributions is actually greater than just one.
While I still haven’t got the web-cam up and running (anyone want to recommend a decent, cheap camera with reasonable resolution for landscape shots?), I have had a lot of fun playing about with this small board and trying out the various flavours of Linux available for it.
Having mentioned the Nano-Pi M1, I have to say that it is not the subject of this post, though. While browsing my normal favourite collection of sites over breakfast this morning I came upon this little beauty (courtesy of CNX-Software …one of the better sites for cutting-edge info on embedded systems).This is the new, NanoPi NEO from FriendlyARM; the latest stable-mate to the NanoPi M1 (and for that reason, I have a quite reasonable expectation that this board will have good support from day-1 …and as my mouse hovers over the “Add to Cart” button, I hope that FriendlyARM won’t prove me wrong).
This tiny board (40mm x 40mm) has 100Mb ethernet, a USB-2 port (with two more ports available on header pins), a micro-USB socket for power and data, a Micro-SD card socket, a 36-pin header for GPIO (which includes I2C, UART, SPI and general I/O pins) all driven by a quad-core Cortex A7 running at 1.2GHz and 256MB of DDR3 RAM (512MB of RAM for an extra $2).
So how much is it? $7.99 for the 256MB version.
Before I get screamed at, I need to qualify that price and tell you that the last time I bought anything (the M1) from FriendlyARM, the postage was $10 (via DHL to most of the world, so reasonably speedy), so you need to add that into your budget. As far as I can see, there’s no case available yet (Update:- Just heard back from FriendlyARM that the case is in the works and should be available towards the end of this month …July 2016).
Update:- It looks as though FriendlyARM have changed their shipping options. When I went to “checkout” this time, the cheapest option was plain old “China Post”, with Fedex just a couple of dollars extra and the DHL/TNT option a few dollars more.
Update:- I mentioned in the original version of this post that it might be worth adding FriendlyARM’s $1 heat-sink to your order. Better hold off on that for the time being. The processor on the NEO is on the bottom of the board and we still have no idea of what the case is going to look like. Oops!
It’s going to be hard to beat this as an off-the-shelf, ethernet-connected, low power (as in watts used, not computing power) MQTT/DHCP/DNS server for your ESP8266 network.
Last word… for GUI-centric people, please do note that there is no video output connector on this board; it’s serial-console only.
Update (Aug 8th 2016):- As of today, the printed case for the NEO is now available for sale on the FriendlyArm site. There’s also a fairly chunky heat-sink. Both are priced at $2.99. The pricing is a little bit of a downer, as together they bump up the total cost of the unit by a fairly hefty margin. The other downer is the colour …do you really want a neon-pink case sitting anywhere around your house?