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Intel MinnowBoard Max Preview


I’ve been spending some time over the last month playing with a preproduction Intel MinnowBoard Max, kindly supplied by Intel’s John Hawley. I’m told it’s pretty close to the final production design, with most of the outstanding development being concentrated on the EFI system. The original MinnowBoard was Intel’s answer to the Raspberry Pi. Built around a 1GHz Intel Atom E640 processor, the device was notable for being a product of Intel’s partnership with BeagleBoard and BeagleBone creator CircuitCo, and the resultant release of the PCB layouts, schematics, design files and even the EFI system code, under an open-source licence.

Sadly, the MinnowBoard’s stumbling block was the use of a 32-bit CPU, which required a 32-bit EFI, meaning it could only boot selected, limited operating systems. Thankfully, the Max upgrade promises a 64-bit version. My pre-production MinnowBoard Max sported a 1.33GHz dual-core Atom E3825 processor, a considerable upgrade from its predecessor, and it supports Intel’s 64-bit instructions too.

Coupled with the Max’s 64-bit EFI BIOS, that means compatibility with almost any operating system available, from Ubuntu and Debian to OpenWRT and even Windows Embedded, should you be adventurous enough to want to try it. The beefier 64-bit CPU is paired with 2GB of DDR3 RAM on a board that’s considerably smaller than the original MinnowBoard.

While it isn’t as pocket-friendly as the Raspberry Pi, it’s still a considerable space saver, measuring 99 x 74mm. There’s still no on-board storage, but the board includes a USB 2 port, a USB 3 port, a SATA port and a micro-SDIO slot. The lower left corner of the MinnowBoard Max also features a low-speed general purpose input-output (GPIO) header, which is a 26-pin 3.3V design (no guesses for where Intel got its inspiration for that feature). In total, an impressive total of 22 of the pins can be used as user-definable GPIO, of which two also support pulse-width modulation.

Intel’s real secret sauce can be found on the underside, though: a high-density, high speed expansion socket designed for use with add-on boards dubbed Lures. Unlike the low-speed header at the top, the high-speed expansion socket boasts everything from mini-PCI E lanes to mSATA support, giving hardware designers considerable leeway for expanding the capabilities of the base design. During testing, I encountered a handful of glitches on my early pre-production unit, but the MinnowBoard Max impressed once I’d convinced it to remain stable.

It was able to boot Ubuntu 14.10 Desktop from a USB 3 flash drive without difficulty or modification, and proved entirely responsive. Benchmarking bore out this responsiveness too, with the new CPU boasting a SysBench CPU test 95 percentile time of 3.22ms, compared to the original MinnowBoard’s 11.49ms. A multi-threaded compression test shows the Atom’s superior power over the (admittedly far cheaper) Raspberry Pi’s outdated BCM2835, taking 0.742 seconds to compress and 0.088 seconds to decompress a 10MB file, compared to the Pi’s 8.64-second compress and 3.08-second decompress respectively, and while drawing less than 1A at 5V, with just a tiny passive heatsink stopping the chip form overheating. There’s currently no official word on when the MinnowBoard Max will launch in the UK, but Intel has confirmed that a dual-core Atom E3825 1.33GHz version with 2GB of RAM as reviewed will cost $139 in the USA, with a single-core Atom E3815 1.46GHz variant with 1GB of RAM costing $99 (around £86 and £62 respectively).