The March 1st Sparkfun New Product Friday post included a linux development board that peaked my interest. The pcDuino was described in the post as something that folks who were looking at the Raspberry Pi but wanted a bit more should check out. The post went on to say that besides running Ubuntu and Android you could connect Arduino shields to it. I was hooked and by the end of the day had placed my order. A week later a red Sparkfun box showed up at my doorstep.
After unboxing it I connected a keyboard, a mouse, an HDMI cable and my ethernet switch and applied power. I was rewarded a few moments later with an Ubuntu 12.10 LXDE window on my monitor. Getting this far was a no brainer.
My next step was to get it to connect to my home network using the wireless dongle that I had ordered with the board. Unfortunately, this didn't go as well. At the time the image loaded in NAND didn't support the chipset used on the wifi dongle.
I have been working with the pcDuino for about three months. For me the pcDuino has been very DIY and therefore has been an interesting (sometimes frustrating) learning experience.
To aid with the DIY process there is a lot of good information. Sparkfun has tutorials. There is a support website for the pcDuino that contains informational posts, software images, a wiki and forums. Finally there is a pcDuino repository on github.
pcDuino on github
When I got my pcDuino these sites were much less mature than they are now and didn't have a whole lot of information. However, I found that there are a number of Allwinner A10 based development boards and a number of inexpensive A10 based tables made in China. As a result there is a small (compared to the RPi community) but very active user community.
Googling around the internet I found a number of sources of detailed information and source code:
Forums at doozan.com - these forums are a treasure trove of information. The information is a bit dated but still very useful.
rhombus-tech - this is another site that has a lot of good A10 based information.
linux-sunxi - this site is the heart of the community and along with the linux-sunxi google group is the best source of information and software.
The lack of out of the box support for the wifi dongle led me to attempt to load the driver source and compile it. Unfortunately, the pcDuino image didn't contain the necessary header files to be able to compile the driver so I was stuck.
After looking a bit further it appeared that if I compiled my own kernel I could include the needed wifi driver. It also looked like there were several other options that I was looking for that were available from the repositories at linux-sunxi. I ended up setting up a cross compile environment on Ubuntu and building my own kernels. Building my own kernels enabled me to finally get the wifi card working and to get bluetooth working.
Over the past three months the pcDuino community has grown. The community, along with the folks that developed the pcDuino, continue to move things forward. There have been several new software images released by the pcDuino folks, some software ported to the platform, a number of tutorials developed and informational posts that apply specifically to the pcDuino.
Below is setup I I have been using. I attached my pcDuino to a piece of plexiglass with rubber feet on it to keep it from sliding around. I am using an older Sparkfun 3.3v FTDB Basic board to connect to the pcDuino's serial console and a Manahattan USB hub to connect the wifi card, an IOGear Bluetooth dongle and a keyboard and mouse as well as to supply power to the pcDuino.
One area that has been challenging is the ability to integrate some of the features that come in the stock software working with custom kernels. There is a lot of discussion as to the cause of this on various websites. It appears that some of the problem is the level of support Allwinner is providing the open source community. However, even with these challenges things have come a long way thanks to a core of very dedicated people.
My experience with the pcDuino has been positive. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a moderately powered linux development board for DIY projects as long as they are comfortable with a product that is slightly rough around the edges.
More to come...