CES2017: Complete Register Documentation For The C.H.I.P.

Last October, Next Thing Co., makers of the popular C.H.I.P. platform unleashed the C.H.I.P. Pro, a very capable Linux system on a tiny board. The goal of the C.H.I.P. Pro is to be the brains of a project or product, similar to the Gumstix boards from an ancient era long before the Raspberry Pi.

Introduced alongside the C.H.I.P. Pro was a fantastic little device. The GR8 module is a complete Linux system on a chip, with an ARM Cortex-A8 processor and 256 MB of RAM, all on a relatively small BGA chip. This is a drop-in part that gives any piece of hardware a Linux brain.

There was a datasheet at the time the C.H.I.P. Pro and GR8 module were released, but a datasheet can only go so far. What you really need to use a Linux system on a module is a massive tome filled with descriptions of registers and all the hardware nooks and crannies needed to get the part working. At CES this week, Next Thing Co. brought what everyone has been asking for: an NDA-free complete register documentation for the core they’re using on the GR8 module. This is 400 pages of spiral-bound goodness that will tell you how to do everything with this chip.

Using the C.H.I.P. for products

When the C.H.I.P. was first released, it was easy to write it off as a board glomming on to the popularity of the Raspberry Pi. However, Next Thing Co. didn’t start with the C.H.I.P. – they started with Otto, an animated gif camera built around the Raspberry Pi compute module. The Otto was successful, but the compute module is a little expensive, so Next Thing Co. turned their attention to building a modern, inexpensive version of the old Gumstix boards.

The C.H.I.P. Pro and GR8 is the culmination of this work, and already a few companies have used it in production. At the Next Thing Co. suite, they showed off a new version of the Outernet base station powered by the C.H.I.P. Pro, and the TRNTBL, a wireless, Bluetooth, Airplay, and Spotify-connected turntable.

To illustrate how easy using the C.H.I.P. Pro in a product is, the guys at Next Thing Co. removed the Pi-powered guts of an Otto and replaced it with a C.H.I.P. Pro. There wasn’t much inside – just a battery, camera module, and a few bits and bobs. That’s great for anyone who wants to build a product that needs a relatively fast chip running Linux, and the stuff from Next Thing Co. makes it easy.

NextThingCo Introduces C.H.I.P. Pro, GR8 System On Module

NextThingCo, makers of the very popular C.H.I.P. single board Linux computer, have released the latest iteration of their hardware. It’s the C.H.I.P. Pro, an SBC designed to be the embedded brains of your next great project, product, or Internet of Things thing.

The C.H.I.P. Pro features an Allwinner R8 ARMv7 Cortex-A8 running at 1 GHz, a MALI-400 GPU, and either 256 MB or 512 MB of NAND Flash. The Pro also features 802.11 b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, and is fully certified by the FCC. This board will be available in December at supposedly any quantity for $16.

The design of the C.H.I.P. Pro is a mix between a module designed to be installed in a product and a single board computer designed for a breadboard. It features castellated edges like hundreds of other modules, but the design means that assembly won’t be as simple as throwing down some paste and reflowing everything. The C.H.I.P. Pro features parts on two sides, making reflow questionable and either 0.1″ headers or a cutout on a PCB necessary. As a single board computer, this thing is small, powerful, and a worthy competitor to the Raspberry Pi Zero. A C.H.I.P. Pro development kit, consisting of two C.H.I.P. Pro units, a ‘debug’ board, and headers for breadboarding, is available for $49, with an estimated ship date in December.

A $16 Linux module with WiFi, Bluetooth, and no NDA is neat, but perhaps a more interesting announcement is that NextThingCo will also be selling the module that powers the C.H.I.P. Pro.

The GR8 module includes an Allwinner R8 ARMv7 Cortex-A8 running at 1 GHz, a MALI-400 GPU, and 256 MB of DDR3 SDRAM. Peripherals include TWI, two UARTS, SPI (SD cards support is hacked onto this), two PWM outputs, a single 6-bit ADC, I2S audio, S/PDIF, one USB 2.0 Host and one USB 2.0 OTG, and a parallel camera interface. This isn’t really a chip meant for video out, but it does support TV out and a parallel LCD interface. A limited datasheet for the GR8 is available on the NextThingCo GitHub.

Putting an entire Linux system on a single BGA module must draw comparisons to the recent release of the Octavo Systems OSD355X family, best known to the Hackaday audiences as the Beaglebone on a chip. Mechanically, the Octavo chip will be a bit easier to solder. Even though it has almost twice as many balls as the GR8, 400 on the Octavo and 252 on the GR8, the Octavo has a much wider pitch between the balls, making escape routing much easier.

Comparing peripherals between the OSD355X and GR8, it’s a bit of a wash, with the OSD coming out slightly ahead with Ethernet, more RAM and fancy TI PRUs. Concerning pricing, the GR8 wins hands down at $6 per chip in any quantity. That’s significantly less than the OSD355X.

The original C.H.I.P. has been exceptionally well received by the community NextThingCo is marketing to, despite the community’s distaste for Allwinner CPUs, cringeworthy PR, and questions concerning the true price of the C.H.I.P.. The C.H.I.P. Pro will surely see more than a few uses, but the GR8 is the real story here. A jellybean part that contains an entire Linux system has been the fevered dream of a madman for years now. The GR8 makes putting the power of open software into any project much easier, and we can’t wait to see the applications it allows.