pcduino3 nano

So I recently bought a pcduino3 nano . I have completely avoided the Arduino and Raspberry Pi crazes. Especially for the Raspberry I never quite saw the point of a computer that used an SD card as a hard drive and had no sata connector. However I did like the idea of a very tiny quiet and low power computer that ran linux. So the pcduinos have been around for a while. Sure they have ‘duino’ in the name and have some GPIO pins laid out a certain way, but they are basically tiny Allwinner ARM based linux systems with various processors and features such as HDMI out, 1GB or so of ram, a microSD slot, internal NAND, a SATA connector and in the case of the nano a gigabit LAN interface.

So SATA and Gigabit LAN and the nano was ‘only $40 delivered’. I guess I thought ‘how bad could it be for $40’.

So I’ve been playing with it for a few weeks now. I haven’t figured out anything specific to use it for so far but;

  • Speedwise in the lubuntu UI its on the sluggish side, but its not bad really. The default Xorg setup does not include the fbturbo acceleration … which is kind of annoying to set up. Not sure why they don’t include this in the Lubuntu image
  • The default desktop includes chromium and some other standard stuff, but I quite like that the Arduino IDE is included and you can get up and running very quickly doing examples hitting the GPIO pins. So hardware interfacing-wise you can have it hooked up to something on a breadboard very quickly (though it is a 3.3V system).
  • Updating the kernel is a bit odd. I assumed you just needed to dd the kernel in, but the linksprite site will often post the kernel in one or two forms. If they don’t post the dd version of the kernel, you have run some strange looking Windows only Allwinner programmer for writing to Allwinner chips (Phoenixcard).
  • Gigabit ethernet didn’t really work properly when the nano first came out. It was like gigabit that really really wanted to run at 100MBps …. but a kernel update seems to have corrected the gigabit. Its still no Intel Pro1000 gigabit. I was just doing some reads off a NFS mount as a vague benchmark … and was getting around 250MBps. Running ttcp on my home network reckons there is 600Mbps available on my home network between the nano and a modern linux  intel box. I am not sure I believe that.
  • There are some weird bugs. A really strange one is that the arduino IDE can completely lock and kill the machine. There is a forum thread ;Arduino IDE crashing pcduino3.  According to the thread the bug is fixed. I find it is fixed so long as I never ever run the IDE from a terminal prompt. If I run it from a terminal prompt it pretty much consistenly locks up the nano. However, a really strange behaviour is that if I redirect text output to dev null it does not lock up . e.g.:  arduino >/dev/null 2>&1 . UPDATE: 26.12.2014. I did a apt-get update/upgrade … and now Arduino IDE just locks up all the time now
  • I’ve now got the right SATA/Power cable hooked up to it and have the root fs on a mechanical hard drive. Its hard to know if speed wise it is any different, but at least I don’t feel like I am destroying the micro SD card
  • I knew ahead of time that the Allwinner chips were probably not a good choice if I wanted to run XBMC, so I haven’t played around with much. I didn’t get this to run XBMC.
  • A lot of the howto information on the linksprite site is in the form of video instructions. Personally I find this highly annoying, especially if you have to refer back to something later.

So, for $40 I probably can’t complain too much. However, the bug where the Arduino IDE kills the machine is a bit scary … so far as reliability goes. Having now ventured into these tiny ARM computers … it has made me more curious about the Raspberry Pi and all the similar tiny systems.