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These tiny systems, ranging from bare-bones boards to full-blown, ready-to-run PCs, are ideal for hackers and hobbyists who want to create their own powerful machines.
Basic boards: Part 1
Basic matchbox devices are bare, but functional -- they come with some form of operating system support (although you may need to prepare the device to run it), and so can be gotten up and running almost immediately after being uncrated.
Clockwise, starting at top left: The education-oriented Raspberry Pi ($35), the hobbyist-and-manufacturing-oriented Gumstix Overo series (from $99-$229) and the hacker-friendly BeagleBoard Black ($44.95) are three of the most popular devices in this category, each having already garnered a following.
Basic boards: Part 2
Other devices have surfaced in the wake of the success of the Raspberry Pi and its peers, each a variant on the theme.
Clockwise, starting at top left: The Gooseberry (£40 or about $62) is a repurposed printed circuit board assembly originally developed for tablets rather than an original design like the Pi, but no less use useful for that. The Rascal Micro ($199) eschews video connectivity in favor of networking, so it can be used as a miniature headless system for controlling other devices.
The PandaBoard (and PandaBoard ES, its successor), at around $175, is pricier than the Pi; it sports a few more connectors and slightly more expandability.
Basic boards: Part 3
And a couple more: The $89 Korean-made Odroid U2 (left) packs in a Exynos4412 Prime ARM Cortex-A9 quad-core processor, much faster than the Pi's ARM-powered Broadcom SoC.
Another board that's used widely in automation projects is the Arduino (right), now available in a whole cornucopia of editions. The emphasis here isn't on power or speed, though: The Arduino Uno ($55 for the bare board, $60 for a retail box version), shown here, sports an 8-bit RISC processor running at a mere 80MHz (an Intel Core i7 runs around 3GHz).
Boxed up and ready to go
Many matchbox systems come as a bare board, for which you have to supply your own case. These units, on the other hand, come packaged in a case of some kind, courtesy of the manufacturer. They are often used as mini-media centers.
Clockwise, starting at top left: The Cotton Candy ($199) and Rikomagic (£55 or about $86) both run Android, while the CuBox ($119) has additional hobbyist-friendly features, such as a recovery mode that prevents it from being bricked by mistake.
Almost a full PC
These built-up matchbox systems offer a little more breathing room.
Clockwise from top left: The Trim-Slice H packs not only an ARM Cortex-A9 processor and an NVIDIA Tegra 2 chipset but a 2.5 SATA hard disk into a fanless case. Prices start at $279, with developer kits available at $175.
The folks at Cappuccino PC build full-blown Intel systems (Atom or Core, your choice); the fanless SlimPro SP675FP, shown here, measures 10 in. on its longest side and sells for $685.
CompuLab's fit-PC3, which starts at $275 with minimal configuration, uses a dual-core 64-bit AMD processor with a 2.5-in. hard disk and a Radeon HD 6250 or 6320 GPU.
Some even come with a keyboard.
Clockwise, from top left: The Ben NanoNote runs its own custom build of OpenWrt, the Jlime distribution or anything else you can get to run on its 336MHz MIPS processor. Only 1,500 pre-manufactured units were made, but the hardware design is available as an open project.
Next up in size, the OpenPandora (starting at $479), is billed as a mixture of PC and gaming console and is only a little larger than the Nintendo DS.
The Gecko Surfboard ($119) packs an Intel-powered system into a standard-sized keyboard but only uses 5 watts -- hearkening back to the everything-in-the-keyboard design of the Commodore 64/128.
Emerging Leaders 2018