With the availability of cheap flash media, energy-efficient and abundant ARM processors, and the practically zero cost of Android, a new type of product has emerged in the marketplace: embedded Android devices. While Android is certainly familiar on phones and tablets, these devices are rather multifunctional and can be adapted to a wide variety of potential applications, such as public internet terminals, digital signage, video players, and much more.
Sanoxy MK808The MK808 is a very affordable option, and seems to be actually fairly generic: the apparent creator, Sanoxy, lists the device at $99.99 (USD), though it can be found through third parties on Amazon for under half that. As embedded Android devices go, this appears to be the most ubiquitous. The connectivity options are somewhat limited: it has one microSDHC slot, one USB 2.0 host, one USB-OTG (Micro) port, and as one would expect, HDMI out. The specs are certainly reasonable, with a Rockchip RK3066 Dual-Core ARM CPU at 1.6 GHz, paired with a Mali-400 GPU, 1 GB RAM, and 8 GB NAND onboard.
The lack of available ports can be somewhat limiting, but that can be corrected with a USB hub. The current version of Android for the MK808 is 4.2.
Pivos XIOS DSOne of the more expensive, yet more versatile options, is the Pivos XIOS, at a MSRP of $109.99 (USD). Unlike other embedded Android solutions, the XIOS offers a great deal more in terms of connectivity. In addition to the standard microSDHC slot and HDMI out, it has 3 USB 2.0 ports, a 10/100 Ethernet port (in addition to 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi) and a front-facing IR port for the included remote control. It has a slightly larger footprint to accommodate those extra options. At 3.93" x 3.93" x 0.66", it’s somewhat larger than the gum stick form factor common to other embedded Android devices. Under the hood is an ARM Cortex-A9 CPU at 800 MHz, with a Mali-400 GPU, 512 MB of DDR2 RAM, and 2 GB NAND.
Somewhat secondary to being an embedded Android device, Pivos is marketing it primarily as a video player, with a custom distribution of XBMC, which is optimized to use hardware decoding, though they insist that XBMC support is presently in beta. Additionally, the XIOS DS is still on Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), not Jelly Bean.
The ODROID-XU, at an MSRP of $169.00 (USD), is one of the more expensive devices of its type, but it packs a great deal more power for the price. This device is quite clearly somewhere between industrial and enthusiast level and is much more open for those who want to get to the circuit board and do interesting things with the hardware. The first indication of this is that the case on the ODROID-XU is a polypropylene shell that snaps shut: no screws, no mess -- just pop it open.
The ODROID-XU has a Samsung Exynos 5 CPU, which is one of the first commercially available ARM “big.LITTLE” CPUs: It contains a quad-core ARM Cortex-A15 at 1.6 GHz, and a quad-core Cortex-A7 1.2 GHz in one package. Alongside that is a PowerVR SGX544MP3 GPU, 2GB LPDDR3 RAM, 10/100 Ethernet, 4 USB 2.0 host ports, 1 USB 3.0 host port, 1 USB OTG port, microHDMI output, and for storage, microSDHC or eMMC 4.5. It also has 30 I/O pins for various uses. Of note, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi is available only as a USB module, though there’s clearly no real shortage of those.
The ODROID-XU currently runs Android 4.2.2 and Ubuntu Server 13.04 with only console output. Older ODROID devices have support for Ubuntu but in a way that isn’t quite hardware-optimized, and according to HardKernel, the major impediment in Linux support now is the HDML/LCD driver for X.Org. Further updates will occur in Q4 2013.
Quick comparison: Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a very neat device and great educational tool, but in fairness, it isn’t that great at running Android. The Pi has a single-core 700 MHz ARM processor and 512 MB of RAM. It's quite capable of running minimal Linux distributions, RISC OS, and even the open-source BeOS offshoot Haiku, but Android may well be a bit too resource-intensive for it. The Raspberry Pi definitely has cost working in its favor -- at $25 or $35 (USD) depending on the model. So, if you’re not tied to Android, it’s definitely worth a look.
Buy according to your need. If you need to be pushing a lot of pixels or crunching a bunch of numbers on a small board running Android, the ODROID-XU is the product for you. If you want to watch Netflix on your TV or run a video streaming app in a public place, the MK808 can accomplish that for you with ease and within budget.
James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware. James is currently a student at Wichita State University in Kansas.