Chances are, if you follow techspecs, you’ve had a chance to work with an Arduino board—most likely the Arduino Uno. The low cost of these boards and Arduino’s super-simple integrated development environment (IDE) make them the go-to microcontroller for both novices and experts.
On the heels of widely available microcontrollers are single-board computers (SBCs) with embedded operating systems (usually Linux based). Embedded SBCs have been on the market for a decade or more, but the recent expansion of the Maker movement and dwindling costs of processors have created a larger market for this near-limitless technology. Our friends over at MAKE Magazine have an entire issue dedicated to these amazing devices.
As mentioned, Arduino is a big name in the Maker movement; and the Yún will likely continue that trend. In addition to the microcontroller capabilities of boards like the Uno and Mega (and specifically, the Leonardo), the Yún features a microprocessor running a Linux distribution.
In essence, the Yún provides an SBC and an Arduino microcontroller in a single piece of hardware. The Yún also features full Wi-Fi and Ethernet capabilities, 64 MB DDR2 RAM, and 16 MB of flash memory on the board. And, of course, the massive Arduino community across many sites and forums provides all the support you’ll need. It seems like the only thing the Yún doesn’t have is a direct output to video (such as HDMI or RCA); you would need a separate shield for video capabilities. So if you’re looking to monitor video directly from your SBC, you may consider the Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone Black.
The Raspberry Pi is an SBC produced by the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity that began as a quest to get students interested in computer science beyond word processors and the Internet. Its founders created the Raspberry Pi as a low-cost introduction to programming and physical computing; the Raspberry Pi has gone beyond that stated goal to become an in-demand alternative to expensive desktop systems.
The current iteration, Raspberry Pi Model B, offers 512 MB SDRAM, HDMI and RCA video outputs, two USB ports, an Ethernet port, and SD card slot. To get started, you will need to download an operating system to an SD card and install it on the board. The Raspberry Pi doesn’t have as many GPIO pins as the Arduino Yún or BeagleBone Black, so you might be limited in how much you can expand your peripherals; on the other hand, the graphics processor and HDMI output of the Raspberry Pi makes it perfect for building a media server or even a gaming console. And the large and growing community will probably help you create those builds.
As a development board, the BeagleBone Black from BeagleBoard wins the expansion contest. With a whopping 65 digital I/O headers and 96 total expansion headers, the BeagleBone Black offers the flexibility to be the core of the most complex projects. Perhaps its most inviting feature, the BeagleBone Black is ready to use right out of the box. It ships with the Ångström Linux distribution installed on the board, and the BeagleBoard site walks you through the entire getting-started process.
The robustness of the BeagleBone Black makes it great for robotics and other elaborate systems. A 1GHz processor and 512 MB DDR3 RAM put speed in your corner, but its graphics-driving capabilities seem to be less than those of the Raspberry Pi. Additionally, the BeagleBoard community is not yet as huge as its Arduino or Raspberry Pi counterparts. But if you’re willing to embrace the “Y” of DIY now, you can be on the vanguard of the BeagleBoard community.
So Which SBC Works Best for You?
All three of these popular SBCs contain the features sets and novice-to-intermediate user friendliness to power your DIY (or DIT!) projects. And, of course, there are other SBCs out there.
What kind of projects interest you? Do you have a Yún, RaspBerry Pi, or BeagleBone Black? Or are you using another board (or combination of boards)? Let us know in the comments.