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Improv – Raspberry Pi’s big brother introduced

Raspberry Pi is undoubtedly one of the most popular devices (in its own category) in the world. There are unimaginable possibilities with this device, but now there is a device which I would consider ‘big brother’ of the cute little Pi.

Aaron Seigo, the well known KDE developer took wraps off of Improv – a tiny, cheap yet extremely powerful device to satisfy the hunger of those who like to play with their toys.

I get on in touch with Aaron to understand the goal behind launching this device. One obvious query was that since Raspberry Pi is already there what’s the difference between the two devices? He praised RPi and said, “Raspberry Pi is a great piece of kit, first off; its goal of a low-cost board for education obviously required making some compromises.”

Improv has better hardware than Raspberry Pi. It has a dual core 1Ghz Cortext-A7 CPU with Mali400 GPU, 1Gb RAM and 4GB NAND flash which makes it a far, far more powerful device than Raspberry Pi which has a single 700Mhz ARM 11 with a far weaker GPU. In the memory department Pi only has 512MB of RAM and no NAND flash at all.

Another notable difference, as Aaron explained, is that “Improv is modular: the CPU card and the feature board dock with each other. This means that as we bring out new CPU cards or new feature cards, you can mix and match, re-use hardware, etc.”

That’s one feature that Raspberry Pi and other such boards out there are not offering.

So there is much longer shelf life of these devices (though Pi Foundation also wants longer life of their devices) and a user can upgrade as and when new hardware comes to the market.

As free as possible
One problem with Raspberry Pi or any such device is the non-free hardware modules or driver blogs. The problem lies with hardware vendors who think keeping things proprietary gives them an edge over competitors. Aaron is a very strong supporter of free software so I was curious how open is this hardware?

I was not surprised when he told me, “Mobile GPUs are horrible for this; the X.org driver and kernel DRM driver for the Mali400 GPU are Free software, but there is still an Android-only blob that we load when necessary using libhybris.”

Beyond this, it’s Free software and the feature board itself is licensed under the GPL. Aaron says that the complete hardware design files will be available at the time of shipping.

Strong backing?
Raspberry Pi, though developed by a foundation, is backed by engineers who work with Qualcomm so its foundation is very strong. So is Improv’s. It is supported by Great Wall and All Winner, two of the larger companies in the device world right now, says Aaron.

While Pi focuses on students (thought it’s been used by adults more) Improv is focusing on makers, entrepreneurs and companies looking for a good prototyping platform. “With Improv’s modularity and greater horsepower, it’s a much better fit for more demanding needs,” said Aaron. In addition MakePlayLive can produce custom runs of hardware, casework and even retail boxing if someone wants to use it as their own branded product.

So I can clearly see there is no conflict here – both are targeting different markets and have different approach.

So if there is someone who is looking for a more powerful device as it’s hard to find an engineering board as powerful as Improv. The modularity of the device – whether it be hardware or software makes it a better choice and not to forget the community behind it. Both Raspberry Pi and Improv teams value the community the most. Aaron, in general the entire KDE community, is known for putting the community first so there is no doubt that Improv will benefit from the larger free software community behind Improv.

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The device is on sale in North America and Europe for $75. You can order Improv from MakePlayLive.

Swapnil Bhartiya

A free software fund-a-mental-ist and Charles Bukowski fan, Swapnil also writes fiction and tries to find cracks in the paper armours of proprietary companies. Swapnil has been covering Linux and Free Software/Open Source since 2005.

7 Comments

  1. Its pretty simple, for the projects I want to work on, this is great and when they get around to getting further into the educational aspect, then I will buy the Pi for nephews and nieces..

    Different uses for both. Sometimes the small form factor of the Pi is a deal breaker, sometimes its not.

    >While Pi focuses on students

    My problem is that so far the educational aspect is adult led (teachers in classrooms and kids whose parents are techies or the standard high school geeks who would be into this stuff even without a Pi) while I see more of a potential to reach a wide audience of kids in a student led approach. A combination of lectures, howto’s, projects and games all done through online, video, aninations, etc which a child could learn on its own.

    I look more at the Pi as being able to reach more than the usual suspects (which isnt in itself a bad thing).

    The Kano OS kickstarter project http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/alexklein/kano-a-computer-anyone-can-make
    seems like its taking the spirit of the Pi to that place.

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