Hands-on with the Qualcomm Dragonboard dev kit

This year's Computex has been a great one for developers of embedded systems, with Linaro partner Samsung launching a low-cost development board - and now Qualcomm offering one of its own. We've snagged some hands-on time with the Qualcomm Dragonboard to find out what's what.

Designed for both software and hardware developers who want to work with a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset in their next mobile device, the Dragonboard is Qualcomm's first low-cost modular development platform. Named for rival Texas Instrument's popular Pandaboard and Beagleboard kits, the Dragonboard is the ultimate geek's toy.

We spoke to senior engineer Lawrence King, who took us through the capabilities of a pair of prototype boards. "The Dragonboard features a dual-core Snapdragon APQ8060 running at 1.5GHz, and runs on an Android base," he explained - before suggesting that a more generalised Linux-oriented package will be available for embedded systems developers in the near future.

Despite a focus on Linux for the future, it's clear that the Dragonboard is aimed at developers of Android smartphones: the default package includes a phone-size touch-screen display along with a physical telephone keypad located beneath. Qualcomm is keen to point out the platform's flexibility, however.

Unlike some other development boards, the Dragonboard is designed to allow hardware vendors to add and remove capabilities with ease. "It's a big-boy's Arduino," King joked. "I've only had this single-chip 10.1-inch display a week, but I've already hacked it into the Dragonboard." We were also shown models with CMOS camera sensors attached, and a clever module which includes gyroscopic sensors and accelerometers.

The default Dragonboard package, produced in partnership with BSquare, will include the bare board and processor and is set to cost $300 - a significant premium over TI's Pandaboard, which can be had for as little as $179. The full development kit, meanwhile, will set buyers back $500. The board is expected to launch at the end of July to the beginning of August, and will be open to all - there's no need to sign any partnership agreements with Qualcomm.

We approached Qualcomm vice president Terry Yen about the release of the development kit, and whether his company - like rivals ST-Ericsson, Texas Instruments, and Samsung - would consider joining the not-for-profit Linaro group, which encourages system-on-chip houses to share general improvements to the Linux kernel to make embedded Linux better for all. Sadly, the response was far from enthusiastic.

"I wouldn't rule out joining Linaro," Yen explained, "but our focus is not to get a CPU into laptops, but our communications chips instead. We're not quite as focused on CPUs."

Yen's reluctance to commit to Linaro membership is a real shame, and something which puts at risk the hard work of the engineering team: when offered the choice between a Qualcomm development kit with no Linaro backing, or a rival's kit with full Linaro support, many will likely choose the latter - and potentially miss out on what is looking like one of the most exciting, if expensive, development platforms to date.

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