The APC Has Arrived!

The APC is VIA’s new, ultra-mini, $49 Android PC.  If you were lucky enough to get in on the Pre-sale then your APC is on it’s way this week.  It has already landed here at Oschemes and so far, lives up to it’s hype of being a workable PC at a price point lower than most IC’s evaluation kits.

Let’s start with the requisite unboxing pix..

The packaging is a nice, plain brown cardboard box with a tiny APC logo on the front.  Refreshingly hype-free, it adds a nice “no frills” touch that reminds the user that this may be a mass-production device from a major PC manufacturer, but is still essentially a prototype-level board.  If this is what you’re looking for, you got it.

Just inside, we see a 9V, 1.76A switching wall wart and a USB extender.

Hey, here’s some marketing for you!  You get TWO, count ‘em, TWO anti-establishment stickers to keep you in the indie mindset.  Although we think it’s a great device at an awesome price, it was impossible to resist the urge to crack jokes like: “A bicycle, because it’s neither very fast nor very powerful”, or “A bicycle, because it’s going to take a lot of work to get anywhere”.  Har har..  We love you, APC, so we jest!

Oh, there!  A glimpse of bare-board goodness!  We must keep digging!

Removing the final cardboard shield, we finally uncover the ESD-bagged APC board.  And underneath, the pleasant surprise of a tiny back cover.  This should provide roughly one billion APC case modders with a fairly neat and professional looking finish.  Kudos!  And there’s the board in all it’s glory.  VIA has done us a great service in keeping the silkscreen fairly verbose, pointing out features such as the “Front Panel (F_PANEL)  header pins, EEPROM BIOS, and others.  A neat jumper (SW1) mentions that we can change the device from a USB host (the typical configuration) to a USB device (presumably for firmware upload or other such programming).  The chipset is indeed the 800MHz, ARM11 based WonderMedia WM8750, (note: Get datasheet!) and the entire system is decidely thin.  We’re sad to see the DEBU_COM (presumably debug) port is not populated, nor is it’s two IC’s or support components – that might be something for the to-do list – but there should be plenty to poke around in for now.

Now: Does it do what it looks like it’s supposed to?

We plugged the APC into a TV via the HDMI port, popped a wireless keyboard/mouse dongle into one of the USB’s, and fired it up.  It worked like a charm, instantly taking HDMI control and showing an APC logo after about 15 seconds.  The entire boot time was roughly 45 seconds, at which point you’re greeted with the good ol’ Android 2.x “search box” home screen.

To give you an indication of the device’s speed..  It’s not fast.  As a thin client or other type of light-duty service it should prove excellent, but to expect it to be an equivalent to a nettop would be setting your expectations a bit too high.  BenchmarkPi for Android clocks in at about 2400ms with the APC, whereas a handy android phone clocks in at about 1050ms.  Response while web browsing (using ethernet) is a bit stuttery and takes some time getting used to the lag.  The device has a million and one uses, but household PC probably isn’t going to be one of them.  At least not on the stock Android 2.3 that comes pre-loaded.  It feels a bit misleading to see all those “PC-looking ports”, but we must restrain ourselves from thinking of the device as a tiny PC instead of a giant RaspberryPi, which is probably a little more in line with it’s capabilities. Ask it do what it can do well, and you will be pleased.  Ask it to do what it cannot do well, and you will be disappointed.

Of course, a big bonus is VIA’s open-source (and actually useful) distribution of their version of the Android OS, including the U-Boot bootloader.  Go to the APC firmware repository here on GitHub to get your filthy mitts on it.  As an Android tutor, this could be a fantastically useful device for universities and such – especially at it’s rock-bottom price.  But putting the graphics-laden Android aside for a moment…  Who will be the first to boot Linux on this beast?  Has it already been done this week?  We predict that the push to boot and naturalize Linux on this device will be an overwhelming key to it’s success.  Time to start peeking under the hood, folks,  and see where we can go from here.

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