back to article Chewier than a slice of Pi: MIPS Creator CI20 development board

Time was when chip-makers’ processor evaluation boards were well beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. That didn't matter, of course: ordinary mortals weren't interested in small, nude motherboards designed to help designers of embedded systems judge a microprocessor's suitability for the application they were working on. MIPS …

  1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    Media Center

    I have looked several times at Pi as a media center and have discarded it every time. Sure, if you shell for the various extra licenses from the foundation Pi shop it can just about do HD media playback. None the less, media is and will remain its secondary function.

    This board however, comes to M2M land from the other direction - from multimedia. I would expect it to do the job of "drop in replacement" for the 4 Debian based media center boxes I have around the house (a hodge-podge of ultra-small factor AMD E series and recycled thin clients). So if there will a half decent case for it, I will probably buy 3 of these without batting an eye lid. They will pay back compared to a PC (even a thin client) running MythTV/XbMC in 2-3 years time just from electricity power costs. Add to that the fanless/cool nature of the beast and the fact that it does not take any living room shelf space and it definitely starts to be quite appealing.

    1. AIBailey

      Re: Media Center

      Sure, if you shell for the various extra licenses from the foundation Pi shop it can just about do HD media playback.

      I used by Pi for a while as a media centre, and it does HD very well without any issue that I could see.

      The licence allows use of the hardware MPEG2 decoder in the chipset, needed for SD playback. HD playback is available by default.

      The reason I gave up was that while the playback of media files was fine, the UI (I was using XBMC, both the Raspbian and OpenElec versions) was laggy as hell to the point of frustration

      1. twelvebore

        Re: Media Center

        Try again with a Pi v2. I've been similarly sceptical of the Pi 1 for XBMC (I used it only for music playback, mostly headless), but the Pi 2 with a decent SD card running OpenELEC is pretty fantastic. A totally different machine. You do need a good SD card though...

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Media Center

          "with a decent SD card"

          ...and that's the main reason why some people think a Pi+XBMC can't it cut as an HD media centre. I have two setups and both were great, playing everything I threw at them, although I do tend to transcode all video to x264. I "upgraded" one and got an 8GB card, set it all up and although playback is still good, the menus and everything other than playback is slow and laggy now. The definition of a "good" SDCard seems to be a bit hit and miss, especially with lesser known or unknown brands which may or mat work at all or may or may not work well.

      2. Warm Braw Silver badge

        Re: Media Center

        The UI speed isn't too bad if you use a modest amount of overclocking. It's not exactly inuitive, though and it's pretty clunky to set up with just a remote control.

        However, a big drawback is the use of omxplayer - although it plays videos perfectly successfully, the navigation options are rudimentary to put it kindly.

        Some of the plugins are dreadful - try to skip around in an iPlayer radio stream and it will likely crash.

        Unfortunately, it seems a lot more work went into making the whole thing customisable to the nth degree than in getting the basics to work seamlessly.

    2. DrXym Silver badge

      Re: Media Center

      The Pi could do with a proper soft power button to be properly useful as a media centre. At present you have to shut the OS down and pull the plug or turn the power off. A soft power could do the shutdown automatically and put it in a low power state.

      The new Pi is likely fast and useful enough in other regards to power a UI and video playback.

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Media Center

        "The Pi could do with a proper soft power button to be properly useful as a media centre"

        Then make one. I'm sure you could detect a button push and trigger shutdown.

        Have the PSU run through a normally open relay and it will power itself down as well. You might want a reasonable time lag on that relay so that the pi can boot before the watchdog timer expires...

        1. DrXym Silver badge

          Re: Media Center

          "Then make one. I'm sure you could detect a button push and trigger shutdown."

          So I can't comment on a shortcoming in a device that prevents it functioning well in a certain role unless I produce a workaround that solves my personal need but doesn't do anything for anyone else?

          Why not just accept it'd be nicer if it had a soft power button built into it.

          1. Danny 14 Silver badge

            Re: Media Center

            My PI2 will play the HD content just fine. The best ive managed to rip from a bluray is a dts audio full 1080p, the pi2 doesn't skip a beat, even if I turn pass through off and let the pi2 decode the audio (this used to bring a pi to its knees).

            Granted I agree that the original pi wasn't the best media player unless you had a decent audio decoder. Now the PI2 can be plugged into any hdmi TV and decode audio and play HD content without issue. Im using openelec.

          2. Volker Hett

            Re: Media Center

            DrXym, the RPI is meant as a DIY Platform. If you want something read for use as a mediacenter, there are other devices better suited to this.

          3. werdsmith Silver badge

            Re: Media Center

            ""Then make one. I'm sure you could detect a button push and trigger shutdown."

            So I can't comment on a shortcoming in a device that prevents it functioning well in a certain role unless I produce a workaround that solves my personal need but doesn't do anything for anyone else?

            Why not just accept it'd be nicer if it had a soft power button built into it."

            Like many of the Pi shortcomings, somebody developed a soft power button add on very soon after the Pi appeared in 2012. There are more than one version, there's one that auto shuts down the OS in a car when the ignition is off. There are other pushbutton ones etc.

            Yes, it would be better built in for sure.

          4. John Robson Silver badge

            Re: Media Center

            Because actually it uses so damned little power that I don't care - and neither do most other people.

            If you really want it to be off when not in active use then by all means plug it into the TV USB port - then it will take a little time to boot and become useful each time, but that's the compromise you are making.

            Personally I don't think that .7A at 5V (3.5W, although it will be less most of the time) is all that much power to get fussed over. That's about 0.5p per day in electricity (assuming it runs at full whack 24/7).

            "... unless I produce a workaround that solves my personal need but doesn't do anything for anyone else?"

            If it won't do anything for anyone else then it's not a common requirement, so why add the cost?

    3. heyrick Silver badge

      Re: Media Center

      My Pi is hooked to an analogue flat monitor and while the UI is indeed a bit laggy, once the video is playing it does HD and embedded subtitles and it just "works". No licences were necessary. One is for VC1, whatever that is, and the other is for MPEG2 for DVDs (VOB files?). Those of us with more modern arrangements like XviD and the various types of H.264 - that stuff works out of the box. SD, HD, and all the resolutions in between.

      Plus it runs happily from a decent tablet charger.

      Plus I can switch SD card and it becomes something else.

      What's not to like?

    4. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Media Center

      I use the Pi as a media centre and it plays HD (MKV/MP4) fine. Along with the absence of a real power button and attendant warning about not being shut-off properly or needing several new starts, my biggest beef with the Pi is the piss poor NFS client in userland. DNLA sources work wonderfully, though it can take a while to initialise, but you need NFS if you want to take advantage of the media database functions. Hardly a deal-breaker at the price and there are possibly bits I could fix myself.

      For kicks I also set it up to do CI and was pleasantly surprised at how well that worked, just as long as you don't need to compile anything. A Pi-2 setup could be quite good for CI work and might even integrate with the media centre – get notifications that tests have passed while watching your favourite programmes.

      MIPS is going to struggle to get the critical mass of developers to write drivers for stuff. Pi has done this well by masquerading as being an educational device (and Scratch is popular).

      1. Tom 38 Silver badge

        Re: Media Center

        I use the Pi as a media centre and it plays HD (MKV/MP4) fine.

        Is there a more qualified statement than this? Does it decode H264 in Hi422P profile? What are the supported profiles/levels (will my "advanced" profile, level 5.1 content play? Level 4.1?)? Does it support H264 MBAFF? What is the maximum supported bitrate? Will it decode 60p content? Will it decode 2160p content?

        I don't mean to be an arsehole, but if the CPU isn't enough to decode the video, the hardware offload has to be sufficient to support all media types that you might want to throw at it. Being able to decode "scene" rips is good, but if you're going to need a different device to play back DVB-S2 content..

        I did a bit of googling, no word on specific profiles, it can handle up to 40Mb/s, so sufficient for bluray, can't do 60fps. Reading between the lines, it can't* do higher than level 4.0 at baseline, extended, main or high profile, and no higher than 3.1 at Hi422p, because of the stated max bitrate of 40Mb/s.

        * For given meanings of the word "can't". Some devices will just flat out refuse files that they think they can't play, some just play them and there is "corruption" at the point where it can't decode the frame, possibly (depending on error settings, frame drop and so on) leading to AV de-sync, audio glitches or garbled content until the next I-frame or beyond (AV de-sync will rarely fix itself).

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Media Center

          "I did a bit of googling, no word on specific profiles, it can handle up to 40Mb/s, so sufficient for bluray, can't do 60fps. Reading between the lines, it can't* do higher than level 4.0 at baseline, extended, main or high profile, and no higher than 3.1 at Hi422p, because of the stated max bitrate of 40Mb/s."

          Fair enough.

          Couple of questions:

          1) How easy is this info to find for other media players?

          2) How much do you expect to have to play for kit (a media player, a dev board, whatever) that can do all that list?

          1. Tom 38 Silver badge

            Re: Media Center

            Well for consumer devices, it's normally commonly listed in the tech specs, eg an Apple TV:

            H.264 video up to 1080p, 30 frames per second, High or Main Profile level 4.0 or lower, Baseline Profile level 3.0 or lower with AAC-LC audio up to 160 Kbps per channel, 48kHz, stereo audio in .m4v, .mp4 and .mov file formats

            For the Google chromecast:

            H.264 High Profile Level 4.1 (the processor can decode up to 720/60 or 1080/30)

            VP8

            10bit Hi422p is rarely supported by commercial devices. You'll often find it in cartoon rips, because it produces much more efficient encodes.

            On my (BSD) media centre, I use a (fanless) Zotac Nvidia GT 520 GPU, which supports all of these things (MBAFF deinterlacing (thanks for MBAFF, BBC :/ ), Hi422p, 2160p, better deinterlacing than bob/weave, Hi1080p30@L5.1), and cost £20. mplayer can offload all video decoding to the GPU via VDPAU, so 0% CPU usage. Bit bulkier than a SoC though!

            (I'll never understand why people choose such high levels to encode at, there is little difference in quality/bitrate between Hi1080p30@L5.1 and Main 1080p30L4.1, and usually is constrained to a bitrate within Main/4.1. Still, it is nice to get a file, and play it without having to say "oh thats the wrong codec options, give me 4 hours, I'll transcode it")

  2. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

    Community

    Despite any issues and limitations with the Pi, it is the community which makes it a hands-down winner and drives up-take. I suspect serious competition in the hobbyist arena would only come from a $50 X86 system which ran a free and full desktop Windows and that is not likely to happen any time soon.

    1. Danny 14 Silver badge

      Re: Community

      There are lots of x86 boards that are around the £60 mark (so no, not $50 but still in the same ballpark area) just add a usb stick and a DDR3 memory module (no more than £10 for the pair). I had an old AMD e350 board that used to run XBMC, this ran off a USB stick (Ubuntu + XBMC). It wasn't fanless though and I wasn't prepared to spend the money on a big heatsink when a Pi2 was almost as cheap.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Community

      Windows? are you differently abled?

  3. Rich 2

    Friendlier than C

    odd that you say the mips board supports C and that you think that I isn't friendly. The thing that put me off a Pi was that it was Python based and not C. C is far better for twiddling about with something like this

    It seems today's kids think Java is "low level"!

    1. Simon Harris Silver badge

      Re: Friendlier than C

      Doesn't the Pi come with gcc as part of its Linux tools?

    2. Tom 38 Silver badge

      Re: Friendlier than C

      wtf do you think the low level python interfaces are written in?

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Friendlier than C

        Pony juice!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Friendlier than C

      Well yes, of course the Pi is indeed Python based at the transistor level, but it's perfectly possible to get a C interpreter, and I believe that a C virtual machine can be simulated quite easily using the machine-code VM and a handful of macros.

      P Y T H O N B A S E D ? ? ?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Friendlier than C

        "the Pi is indeed Python based at the transistor level, but it's perfectly possible to get a C interpreter, and I believe that a C virtual machine can be simulated quite easily using the machine-code VM and a handful of macros."

        It's a bit like AManFromArse but without the florid language. As a sentence, its form is correct. The content of the sentence is plausible looking but is actually utter rubbish.

        Keep up the good work. Maybe somewhere else though.

  4. sundog

    Wait a second!

    Why does the "Pi 2" in your picture have a battery?!?! I'm staring at my Pi 2 right now, and there is most assuredly *NOT* a battery on it. There's only one reason for a battery on a Pi - RTC.

    So please, can you explain the presence of the battery on that Pi 2?

    1. Chris Evans

      Re: Wait a second!

      If you look closely you can see it has an RTC module plugged into the GPIO pins hence the battery.

      Pity it isn't the RTC module we developed for the Pi.

      I like the 8GB of flash. But as a RISC OS dealer it's not for me. I wish them well.

      1. linicks

        Re: Wait a second!

        Which RTC module is that?

        I use this:

        http://www.modmypi.com/raspberry-pi/breakout-boards/afterthought-software/rasclock-raspberry-pi-real-time-clock-module-v3.0

        On my Pi B+ and also on my new Pi2. Simple to install (on Slackware at least) and cheap.

        Install Slack on your Pi/Pi2

        1. Toxteth O'Gravy

          Re: Wait a second!

          It's the piFace RTC. See https://smittytone.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/review-the-piface-real-time-clock/

      2. Toxteth O'Gravy

        Re: Wait a second!

        Who’s we?

        Send me one and I'll try it out in place of the one I have in my Pi. Will I like it better than the PiFace that you can see in the picture?

  5. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    I'm not sure the Beagleboard should be in the same oblong box when it comes to the Venn diagram of Pi/Arduino fluffiness. The Beagleboard is considerably bigger, hungrier and better-stuffed than either. It is also considerably more expensive about 3 * Pi cash waddage.

    I was disappointed in the Pi's power consumption which made it impossible for me to use it in my envisioned project. Given the size I expected less of a thirst on it, but that was wishful thinking on my part and a dearth of hard information when I early-adopted on the whiff of a rumor.

    The Pi was an absolute dream to get working compared to my BeagleBone Black, which fought me all the way and required I install Chrome (the other "suggested" browser did not, it turned out, work with the BBB's webby-interface, at least not properly). The cascade of fupuck the community "help" induced to enrich the experience was breathtaking. I got it working eventually but it required a new browser I didn't want (and which attempted to scrape all my contacts when I brought it up) and Puitty to get the SSH to begin admitting the war was over and talk to me.

    The Pi set-up was "download this utility and use it to unpack the O/S. Don't erase your hard drive while you are at it. Oh, and don't use an SD card bigger than 8 gig or it won't boot". Relatively benign really, except that finding an 8 gig SD card was hard - every stockist in my area was dealing in 16-32 gig by then.

    While I can get behind anyone whining about the Pi's graphical interface - the mouse click behavior is atrocious on mine - I can't really see that using it to compare with the device in the article is useful. They are quite different machines, aimed at very different markets.

    Of course, the Pi sells mostly outside of that market, but that is gravy.

    1. Simon Harris Silver badge

      Re: Bah!

      "Oh, and don't use an SD card bigger than 8 gig or it won't boot"

      Stevie, I found an old 16MB SD card at the back of a drawer - you can have that one if you want, I'm not using it!

  6. Frank Bough

    Could you install IRIX on one of these?

    ...could it run flame?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    No love for hardkernel's ODROID range?

    It surprises me that el Reg has never reviewed any of the ODROID range of SBCs. There have been countless articles written about the Pi, and a smattering of articles here and there about other SBCs (Beaglebone, BananaPi, Galileo, Arduino and this MIPS thingie) but never any ODROID boards.

    In my opinion (as someone who owns 6 different ODROID machines and a bunch of add-ons), the ODROID range is probably one of the best out there and has a support forum that's second only to that of the Pi. They've even got a model that's the same price as the Pi (the C1) but has hardware that's superior in almost all respects.

    Maybe access to the devices has been a problem? Over the last 6-9 month period, two distributors have set up to serve European customers (pollin.de for the mainland and lilliputdirect.com in the UK), though, so it shouldn't be so hard for you guys to get your hands on a (free, natch) board for review. I'm sure that I'm not alone in liking these boards. I'm also fairly certain that a lot of readers would find a review to be very interesting/useful to them.

    I'm not a hardkernel employee or anything like that, btw, but I still think el Reg should consider doing a feature on them. Thanks.

    1. diodesign (Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

      Re: No love for hardkernel's ODROID range?

      Yeah, I guess supply is an issue. It's also what to do with one of these ODROID SBCs in a way that can stretch to 2,000+ words, personally speaking.

      I bought a Pandaboard and got burned when TI dumped OMAP, so I'm hesitant to trust another manufacturer (outside the usual) unless I've got an interesting project or two for it.

      No, not a media center (I don't own a TV). No, not a NAS. I don't have a home network to speak of.

      C.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stupid hardware manufacturers won't just sell hardware

    oh, so you have a dev board you want the community to start buying and developing for but the graphics chip is locked up tight? @%T#$ you, powerVR. Why can't you just make the best hardware you can and sell it without being scumbags? This isn't the nineties anymore!

  9. Chavdar Ivanov

    And if you want to get really down-and-dirty, try NetBSD-Current.

    http://blog.netbsd.org/tnf/entry/ci20_reaches_userland .

    1. FrankAlphaXII Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: And if you want to get really down-and-dirty, try NetBSD-Current.

      Sounds like fun actually, maybe I'm a masochist.

      I'd prefer any of the BSDs over what I've taken to calling the circus kernel for many reasons though, so I'm glad someone's working on it. I wonder if FreeBSD's MIPS port would work as well. Sounds like it'd be fun to try out, if I had one of these things anyway.

  10. Grandpa Tom

    I have been using the original RPi as a XBMC media center for more than a year. Yes, the lag and sluggishness drove me bats at first but after I used it for a while I adjusted my expectations. I have another RPi for another application and using the desktop is a trial because of the lag. It works, so I use it.

    I recently picked up an RPi 2. The difference is night and day. The XBMC interface (now KODI) is faster without any hardware change but adding the RPi 2 hardware makes all the difference. Truly a joy.

  11. lesway

    First hands-on impressions

    I picked up one of the current, and very purple, CI20's a few days ago. As far as performance goes, I agree that it runs like a dog - but that dog is at least part whippet. I was surprised that the xfce desktop is actually quite useable - similar in speed to my regular home desktop machine of maybe four years ago, and not unlike the corporate issue box that whines away on my desk at work. Except that it's silent, cold, and draws a pitifully small amount of power. I did notice that the feel of the desktop improved, unexpectedly, after enabling xfce's compositing option - yes, there's still a little tearing, but let's be realistic with expectations. I got this board as a hobbyist toy, not as a Playstation substitute.

    One interesting feature of the CI20 is the availability of a version of Android - currently there's an image of Android 4.4 on the Embedded Linux wiki (http://elinux.org/MIPS_Creator_CI20). That should provide some amusement for rainy Bank Holiday weekend. The limited ability to interface with PI hardware hasn't yet annoyed me, but perhaps it will. Or perhaps I'll take it as challenge.

    If there's an underlying issue with the board it's maybe this: it's trying to be both hobbyist chalk and developer cheese. Given Imagination Technologies core business is processor design, it's maybe no surprise if it fits the developer role better, at least until a hobbyist community grows around it.

  12. John 62

    I'm not the creative type of geek who has to tinker with home automation and constructing computer controlled reversible sedgewicks in my spare time, so I shouldn't judge, but I'm a little saddened that most of the comments here are about using the Raspberry Pi as a media server instead of controlling an automated fish tank feeder that automatically orders more fish food from Amazon and remotely controls your washing machine.

    As for the MIPS board, I can see it finding a home in universities where there's more need to teach fundamentals than secondary schools that are teaching the basics. i.e. if you're learning about architectures and assembler, you might as well have hardware to demonstrate things on, say MIPS, ARM, 68k, etc.

  13. 080

    You want a soft button?

    I admit to being no expert at MC but I do have a Pi B running OSMC Alpha 4 and control it with KODI on Android. No lag, great interface and a full choice power button. Well worth a download.

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