Matchbox computers: Small is beautiful (and powerful)

If you like to build your own PC or just want something extremely portable, these tiny devices can be very useful.

You could sum up most of the history of computing in one word: smaller. Each successive generation of computing devices has been tinier, more energy-efficient and more powerful than the previous one. Now we’ve reached a point where an entire PC can be crammed into a space not much larger than a matchbox or a stick of gum.

This new wave of “matchbox computers” (also known as “thumb PCs”) has ushered in not just new form factors but new kinds of applications. Hobbyists have flocked to these tiny systems, attracted by their size, low cost and inherent hackability.
Raspberry Pi
Raspberry Pi was one of the first open-source matchbox computers: inexpensive, tiny and energy-efficient.

Many of these devices are built either on open, freely reproducible architectures, or with well-documented components. Their appeal isn’t just limited to the U.S., either: the Raspberry Pi was developed in the UK, and the Odroid is a South Korean product.

Even big PC makers are now getting into the game: Dell’s Project Ophelia, an Android device on a stick, will run Android-based apps when plugged into a display’s HDMI port. It debuted at CES this year; the developer’s version should ship this month and the consumer version in July. It is expect to have a $100 price tag.
What led to matchbox devices?

Matchbox computing owes its existence to the confluence of several different trends:

Linux, GNU and FOSS. The Linux kernel and the GNU toolchain, products of the culture of free/open-source software (FOSS), have been used as the common substrate for any number of hardware designs. These range from set-top boxes and networking gear (with a little help from derivative projects like BusyBox) to Android-powered devices. Android itself, too, has been put to use in the same way.
Want to see what they look like?

Check out our slideshow:

16 matchbox PCs: Small but powerful.

From the most bare-bones and hobbyist-oriented to full-blown, ready-to-run PCs, a device for almost every price range and level of technical expertise.

Consequently, many matchbox devices are powered either by a Linux distribution of some kind, or by a stock edition of Android. Linux alone is most widely used on devices where the user interface is either minimal — no more than a command-line interface is needed, if even that — or where one needs to be custom-built for the device. Android, on the other hand, is useful for system-on-chip devices with built-in multimedia — graphics, sound, HDMI-out, etc.

System-on-chip (SoC) devices. A good deal of the most recent engineering for SoCs has been for the smartphone and ultrabook market, with smartphones showing off SoC designs at their most compact, power-efficient and feature-laden. And since SoCs consist of very few components by design, that makes them easier to build a device around. Wireless networking is also included by default in most SoC designs, which makes them even more compact because a network port doesn’t have to be included.

Standard interfaces. The standardization of interfaces for power, data and networking on most computers has made it easier for matchbox devices to implement those features consistently. USB, for instance, can be used both to supply power and to attach external devices, which means one less connector type needs to be provisioned on the device, making it smaller and less complex. The same goes for HDMI for video and audio, and SD card slots for external storage.

Hardware hackers. The subculture of tinkerers — making devices do things that weren’t intended by the manufacturer — isn’t by itself new. But the combination of open or standardized hardware designs plus free/open software on top of that has opened up whole new realms of possibility for what could be built and what those devices could be used for.
Many matchbox uses

Like computers themselves, matchbox devices have been finding a broad range of applications:

Replacing a full PC. Whether or not you can replace a full-blown PC with a matchbox system depends entirely on what you’re using it for. For those who have already built a good deal of their workflow inside Linux or Android, using a matchbox system isn’t much of a stretch. Users need to bring their own keyboards and displays (and sometimes software and operating systems), but those things aren’t hard to add.

It’s also possible for these systems to run as servers and not just workstations. Most matchbox devices have only the CPU and memory to handle modest user loads, but for certain applications (such as remote control) that may be all that’s needed.

Media playback. Many matchbox systems have storage extensions, either in the form of an SD card slot or a port for an external USB drive. Such a system can be docked with a display and sound system via a USB or HDMI port — or even a conventional audio jack — and used to play back music or videos on the go. Matchbox systems can also be used to build full-blown media centers.

Prototyping. Matchbox systems can be used as the basis for hardware prototypes for devices yet to be built. The final product could incorporate the matchbox hardware itself, or be custom-made using the same core components as the matchbox system (in other words, the same SoC, just in a different configuration). The makers of the Raspberry Pi device, for instance, have an entire forum dedicated to discussions of projects that can be built with the board.

Low-power scenarios. Running a full PC, even a laptop, requires a power draw that might not be possible in some circumstances — for example, if you need a system to run for a long time on a single battery charge. Matchbox systems draw very little power and can often be powered by no more than the wattage provided by a USB port.

Robotics and control. Many matchbox systems are used not just to build devices, but to be the control systems for other devices. The Gumstix Users wiki, for example, tracks Gumstix projects related to robotics, and various Raspberry Pi projects have been created to do things like control room lighting or water plants.

Obviously, matchbox systems aren’t going to challenge any of the consumer-targeted systems currently in the market, even low-cost ones such as the $249 Samsung Chromebook. However, hobbyists, developers and tinkerers may find some of these tiny computers an intriguing challenge and/or a useful tool.

We’ve assembled a slideshow of sixteen matchbox devices, from the most bare-bones and hobbyist-oriented to full-blown, ready-to-run PCs. Check it out — there’s a device for most every price range and level of technical expertise out there.


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