IoT & Embedded Technology Blog

Have Embedded Computing Systems Found a Home in Consumers’ Homes?

This is not to say that embedded computing products are not already found in the typical home. To be quite clear, embedded microcontrollers are used in almost every new appliance that has any type of display, or has features beyond the lowest cost bare-bones models. Embedded computing modules and integrated systems, however, are generally not found in the home, as they are much more expensive than functionally-comparable consumer products. Furthermore, embedded computing products are usually designed with ruggedized, but aesthetically plain, enclosures. Lastly, embedded computers usually have the minimum hardware required for a given application and offer few, if any, extra bells or whistles like CD-ROM or Blu-Ray burners. For these reasons, one might assume that there was not much chance of embedded computing platforms gaining traction in the consumer market. That is, until now.

As we visited AMD’s booth at last year’s Design/West Embedded System Conference, we noticed that a company called Xi3 was showing a modular computer that utilized AMD processors, called their “5 Series”. Xi3 was demonstrating how these small, but reasonably powerful, modules could be deployed in an array for supercomputing applications, as a ‘data center on a wheels’. Although our impression at the time was that these Xi3 units might not be rugged enough for some military applications, the compact case size and attractive form factor made some of us want to adopt one. As it turns out, we were not alone.

There is buzz from the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that gaming company Valve is taking a financial interest in Xi3, and is considering their modular computers for home use with its products. The Xi3 unit called “Piston” has higher processor power, and is more graphically capable than versions of the Series 5 Xi3 products that we saw in early 2012. With a base model starting at ~$500 and a 240GB SSD version at ~$900, these Xi3 units are priced much higher than similar capacity Xbox360 or Playstation 3 gaming products. On the other hand, though, people used to pay two to three times these prices for thedesktop cube computer that Apple rolled out in 2001. These Xi3 products that were originally developed for the embedded market are likely to be a lot more reliable, while still having a sexy design that high end consumers will value.

With server and PC suppliers in many cases looking to expand away from traditional enterprise IT, consumer and SOHO markets by targeting embedded applications, Xi3 shows us that the tables can be turned. It is certainly possible that additional embedded computer suppliers will take some of their powerful and compact platforms and upscale them for the luxury consumer market. This trend could get very interesting.