Heads up, Intel: TI chips bring ARM to Arduino gadget market

A Texas Instruments ARM-based chip means hardware hackers who like Arduino will have another choice besides Intel's Quark for computing projects.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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The Arduino Tre, a small computer for hardware hackers and hobbyists, uses Texas Instruments' Sitara AM335x processor, which is based on the Cortex-A8 design from ARM Holdings.
The Arduino Tre, a small computer for hardware hackers and hobbyists, uses Texas Instruments' Sitara AM335x processor, which is based on the Cortex-A8 design from ARM Holdings. Arduino

Watch out, Intel, because Texas Instruments wants to get its ARM-based processors into the Arduino market aimed at tinkerers, experimentalists, and hardware hackers.

At the Maker Faire in Rome on Saturday, Arduino movement co-founder Massimo Banzi, along with Texas Instruments' Jason Kridner and Gerald Coley, described a new Arduino electronics board called the Arduino Tre that increases the computing power of the diminutive devices a hundredfold. Their presentation comes shortly after Intel announced its Arduino-compatible Galileo boards.

The Arduino Tre speed boost comes from its Texas Instruments Sitara AM335x processor, which is based on the Cortex-A8 design from ARM Holdings. Because ARM chips are nearly universal in the smartphone market that Intel has been struggling to penetrate, they're a top competitive concern for Intel, and TI's move means it might not be Intel's Pentium-derived Quark chips that hobbyists end up with when looking for their next widget.

Arduino devices historically used 8-bit Atmega microcontroller chips from Atmel, processors that are very limited by today's standards and that run low-level software for AVR-architecture chips. The 32-bit TI chip, though, opens the door to a heavier-duty operating system: Linux.

"Thanks to the 1GHz Sitara AM335x processor, Arduino developers get up to 100 times more performance with the Sitara-processor-based TRE than they do on the Arduino Leonardo or Uno," Zoe Romano, who handles marketing work for the Arduino project, said in a blog post. "This performance opens the doors to more-advanced Linux-powered applications. The Sitara-processor-based Linux Arduino can run high-performance desktop applications, processing-intensive algorithms, or high-speed communications."

The approach means the Arduino movement is shifting in the direction of another small, inexpensive electronics board, the Raspberry Pi, which uses an ARM processor.

The Arduino Tre is actually two computer systems in one, though. It also includes an AVR microcontroller for compatibility with existing Arduino projects and hardware.

Arduino systems can be used for a wide variety of hardware projects -- among them toilet paper printer, tactile weather-forecast device, gesture-controlled lamp, and a robotic beer-pouring system. They're a good learning tool for electronics students, which is why Google, ever eager to appeal to the tech set, has embraced Arduino, too.

So far, Arduino boards process electronic input signals and issue output signals, a fairly primitive but programmable operation. They can be hooked up to any number of sensors, motors, displays, and other widgets. People write programs on a regular computer and transfer them to the Arduino device.

Running Linux on them opens Arduino up to a much broader range of software possibilities and programming options.