The seeed company offers a single board computer and case combination that could make for a nice rollout for a number of solutions. Jack Wallen offers his take after a hands-on review.
I was recently sent a combination of the seeed Odyssey single board computer and the seeed re_computer case for review. I've always found these types of computers to be an incredibly valuable part of the IT landscape because they are so versatile. Use them as a desktop or a kiosk. IoT? Sure, why not? Cluster them together for a small container deployment? Of course. Anywhere you need a tiny form factor computer, you've got a solution.
The Raspberry Pi is the gold standard of single board computers. When seeed reached out to me, my first inclination was, "You're not Raspberry Pi." Then again, I've always been a champion of the underdog, so why not give it a go?
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It should come as no surprise that the seeed single board computer impressed me. Why? Because it's not that hard to create an impressive outing at this size. There's not all that much to them, and with just enough system resources, anyone can deploy a working desktop or server with ease.
All told, it wasn't the most pleasant experience I've ever had, but the end result was a working system, running Ubuntu Desktop 20.04 and running it well. Before I continue, let's look at the specs of the unit I was sent.
Specs for the seeed Odyssey
CPU: Intel Celeron J4105 @ 1.5-2.5 GHz
Arduino microcontroller: Microchip ATSAMD21G18 32-Bit ARM Cortex MD+
GPU: Intel UHD Graphics 610 at 200-700 MHz
RAM: 8GB LPDDR4
Storage: 64GB SanDisk eMMC V5.1 (with expandable microSD slot)
Wireless: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac @ 2.4 or 5 GHz and Bluetooth 5.0
Networking: Intel I211AT PCIe Gigabit LAN X 2
Audio: Microphone + Headphone combo connector
USB: 2 X USB 2.0 Type-A, 1 X USB 3.1 Type-A, 1 X USB 3.1 Type-C
Video interface: HDMI max resolution 4K @ 30 Hz, DP max resolution 4k @ 60 Hz
Misc.: SIM card socket, SATA III, M.2
The Celeron processor puts this in the lower mid-range spec, but that doesn't mean the board can't punch a bit above its weight.
At first, I thought I'd install Ubuntu Server 20.04 and use it as a Kubernetes controller; however, I opted to install a desktop Linux distribution so I could get more immediate feedback on the performance. If this single board computer could smoothly run a desktop, chances would be good that it'd be useful as a small-scale server.
Before I could go through the installation, the board and case had to be assembled.
Assembling the seeed Odyssey single board computer and case
I'll preface this by saying I grew up in my father's bike shop. From a very young age, I was assembling bikes and other items. "Some assembly required" puts a smile on my face. IKEA is no match for my prowess with instructions and tools. I've pieced together plenty of computers in my day.
But this board and case? Wow. If you don't have the innate ability to look at sparse instructions and improvise a bit, you're going to struggle getting this case and board together. It's not impossible, but it took a few attempts just to figure out what the instructions were trying to tell me.
Even before trying to put the board/case puzzle together, the first major hurdle was attaching the antennae to the board. My eyesight isn't the greatest, and the antennae connectors are small enough to place your eyes at def con squint (Figure A).
It's not only lining the connector up (which I had to use a magnifying loupe to get it just right), it's the amount of pressure required to make the connection. Your first inclination is, "I'm going to break this thing!" Eventually, with enough might, that connector will pop into place, and you're ready to move on to the second step.
With the antennae in place, you can then dive down the confusing rabbit hole of attaching the board to the case. There are a number of plastic edge plates to choose from--just make sure you select the two that match your board. Inserting those plates can get confusing. Here's my advice:
- Lettering faces out
- Tabs face down (more on this in a bit)
- Insert the tabs all the way before attempting to place the board in the case
- Make sure to insert the board in such a way that doesn't cause the sides to fall out of place
Here's the best piece of advice I can give you with regards to assembly, and it's something that isn't mentioned in the instructions: In each corner (on one side of the case), you'll find four round magnets--that's up. You then insert the board from the bottom, screw it in, attach the wires for the antennae, and attach the bottom. It's that simple--after about 20 minutes of trial and error. Knowing which way was up, after removing the clear top and not remembering those magnets held it in place, is key.
Under normal circumstances, I'd have blamed that fumbling on myself, and looking back on the instructions, I can now fully understand what the drawings meant. If I had only held that foresight while assembling this, it probably would have taken me all of two minutes to get the bits together. The lesson here is that the case is actually pretty easy to assemble--once you understand which way is up and which way is down.
Once everything was assembled, I inserted a USB drive (with a live Ubuntu Desktop 20.04 instance ready to go), hit the On switch, and installed Linux over the Windows installation. The install was as smooth as any I'd ever done and, in the end, I had a perfectly functioning desktop (Figure B).
How does the seeed Odyssey perform?
I'm not going to lie, the seeed board doesn't hold a candle to my System76 Thelio Desktop, though that's like comparing a Ferrari to a 1967 VW Beetle. The seeed performs pretty well for certain tasks.
You won't be rendering video with it, but browsing the web, checking email, and general office productivity is not only quite easy, it's impressive. I was able to launch Firefox with a number of tabs, use GIMP, and update the OS, and the Odyssey didn't bat an eye--that's as much a testament to Ubuntu Desktop 20.04, as it is the Odyssey. If I had left Windows 10 on the machine, I'd bet it wouldn't perform nearly as well.
Would I use this tiny form factor machine as a primary desktop? Probably not. Would I purchase a number of them, cluster them together, and deploy containers to be used as internal services and apps on a LAN? Why not?
In the end, if you're looking for a serviceable single board computer with a handsome aluminum case, the seeed Odyssey and re_computer case are very good options.
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