Small Form Factors for Embedded Devices

Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out...

—Robert J. Collier

There are dozens of different Small Form Factors in use today. The largest volume of those being used in Embedded Personal Computers (PC's), such as the Mini-ITX, Nano-ITX and Pico-ITX form factors. However, what we're going to talk about today are even smaller form factors, typically those used for embedded microcontrollers in application specific uses, such as smart devices and process controllers. Today we're talking about form factors for processors, and in upcoming segments we'll also be covering those used for adding small peripherals and interfaces to other (larger) form factors.

What is a Small Form Factor?

Small Form Factor lacks a normative definition and is consequently open to (mis)interpretation and/or misuse. It historically referred to any (PC) computer format that was smaller than a traditional tower computer, and was applied to any smaller computer, such as shoebox size (Shuttle), small cubes, net-tops and book sized computers.

For the purposes of discussion today, we will define a Small Form Factor as, any computing device, or circuit board, that is smaller than the Standard ATX motherboard, meaning smaller than 12.00 by 9.65 inches (305mm by 244mm).

Trends in Small Form Factors for Embedded Devices

There are two primary trends in Small Form Factor adoption today, and those break down along the lines of quasi-Proprietary standards versus Open Source Hardware standards. Companies like Texas Instruments have adopted quasi-Proprietary standards, such as the TI LaunchPad and the BeagleBoard, which are used primarily to market and support their proprietary microprocessor/microcontroller products. While other companies like Atmel, Freescale, and Cypress Semiconductor have embraced Open Source Hardware platforms such as the Arduino family of small form factor boards. The Raspberry Pi was developed in the UK by the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intention of providing a low cost platform for teaching basic computer science in schools. Other vendors like NXP, have embraced a more breadboard friendly Dual-Inline-Package (DIP) format, and have been having great success with their "mbed" format for small embedded processors.

  • TI LaunchPad
  • TI BeagleBoard
  • RaspberryPI
  • Arduino Uno
  • Freescale Freedom
  • Cypress Pioneer
  • NXP mBed
  • ST Discovery

Popular Small Form Factors for Embedded Computing

  • BeagleBoard
  • LaunchPad
  • Arduino
  • Raspberry Pi
  • Freescale Freedon
  • Cypress Pioneer
  • NXP mbed
  • STM32 Discovery

Each of these Small Form Factors are popular for use with their companion microcontroller/microprocessor family brands, and each have different stenghths and weaknesses.

Small Form Factor Comparisons

As you can see from the comparison table, there is a large difference in performance between those boards capable of running Linux (the BeagleBone and the Raspberry Pi), and their smaller cousins that typically run only a single captive embedded application. However, if real-time performance for a small application is what you need, then then smaller form factors will suit your needs just fine. In some of the following segments, we'll be delving into each of these platforms in much more detail, as well as discussing the programming enviroment(s) (Integrated Development Enviroments) for each of them.

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