‘First $15 Supercomputer’ Attracts $1.7m Kickstarter Investment

The Pine64 A64 offers 64-bit supercomputing power in a tiny package starting at just $15

An electronics start-up has raised more than $1.7m (£1.2m) via the Kickstarter fundraising service for a tiny, high-performance computer it is selling for just $15.

Silicon Valley-based start-up Pine64’s Kickstarter campaign, which ended on Saturday, raised a total of $1,731,465, or more than 55 times the initial goal of $31,416.

Program code on a monitor © alexskopje - Fotolia

The company calls its Pine A64 device “the first $15 supercomputer”, noting that while the basic model consists only of a tiny computer board, it can be expanded and customised to run Android applications, power a Linux system, run home devices using the openHAB operating system and power a 3D printer, among other things.

Pine64 is selling some of the add-ons needed to make such gadgets work, including Wi-Fi adapters, touch-screens, batteries, 3D print files and enclosures.

The computer is similar to the UK-designed mini-computer Raspberry Pi, with the difference that it’s aimed at high performance, using a 64-bit ARM architecture that’s more powerful than the Raspberry Pi’s 32-bit ARM architecture.

The A64’s quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 processor, running at 1.2GHZ, implements the same 64-bit ARMv8-A instruction set used by Apple’s iPhone chips since 2013. The A7, which powers the iPhone 5S, was the first 64-bit chip to ship in a smartphone or tablet computer.

Pine64 says the A64’s processor delivers 20 to 30 percent better performance over a comparable 32-bit chip.

Power efficiency

Moreover, the use of power-efficient ARM architecture means the system consumes only about 2.5 to 3.5 watts, compared to a typical desktop or server delivering similar performance, which consumes between 75 and 300 watts, Pine64 said.

“By simply leveraging already existing power efficiency found in table architectures, the Pine A64 board is able to save you so much in power without sacrificing anything in performance,” the company stated.

Support for Android 5.1 means a wide variety of software is available, according to the company – although users will need to have the technical know-how to set it all up. Pine64 also recommends the Ubuntu Linux distribution and openHAB, although other operating systems are also supported.

The A64 uses a dual-core MALI-400 MP2 graphics processor running at 500MHz, giving it graphics capabilities slightly better than the original Xbox, according to the company.

Swappable start-up disk

The basic model includes two USB ports, HDMI output, 3.5mm audio/mic output, Ethernet port and two I/O expansion buses. For an additional fee users can buy additional ports and accessories such as a camera module, touch panel module or LCD panel port.

The basic model includes 512MB of RAM, upgradeable up to 2GB. Its boot disk is stored on a removable MicroSD card supporting up to 256GB, meaning users can update the system or change operating systems by swapping cards.

Shipping for the original backers is planned for next month, while others pre-ordering after the campaign close date are expected to receive devices in May or June.

The company said it plans to continue selling the original board for $15, but if volume rises high enough the price could come down.

64-bit power

Supercomputers have used 64-bit chips since the 1970s, and ARM announced its 64-bit-capable ARMv8-A architecture in 2011, aiming at mobile devices and power-efficient corporate servers.

Apple’s use of the architecture in the iPhone has spurred higher demand for mobile devices, according to ARM.

Android has supported 64-bit platforms since Android 5.0 “Lollipop”, released in March of last year, and the Linux kernel has supported ARM’s 64-bit architecture since 2012.

ARM’s 64-bit chips can also run 32-bit-native software faster and more efficiently than a comparable 32-bit chip, meaning better battery life and improved responsiveness, according to ARM.

Earlier this month AMD launched a range of 64-bit ARM chips aimed at corporate data centres, the Opteron A1100 family of System-on-Chips (SoCs).

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