FXI Cotton Candy Demo: More Power than You Can Shake a (Thumb) Stick atby Jarred Walton on January 9, 2012 10:23 PM EST
Anand and Jason had a chance to speak with FXI a while back, but at the time they weren’t able to give him any hands-on time with their micro-computer concept device, codenamed Cotton Candy. They’re demoing the hardware at CES, and this time we were able to play around with the device and get a feel for what it can do. At a high level, the idea is really simple: take your typical SoC device, strip away the display and battery, and add a couple USB connectors and an HDMI output. The result is a completely functional computer in something roughly the size of a thumb drive—at least, a larger thumb drive circa 2008.
The core SoC in Cotton Candy is the latest Exynos chip running at 1.2GHz, giving you two ARM Cortex A9 cores and a Mali 400 GPU. This is one of the fastest 40nm SoC solutions currently available, and it’s capable of running any compatible OS. (Future versions of the hardware can of course switch to newer, faster, smaller SoCs.) FXI had several Cotton Candy demo units on hand demonstrating different OSes; Android 2.3.4 is the farthest along in the Android ecosystem, although they did have an Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS = Android 4.0) build running in software rendering mode (and the fully functional build of ICS is expected in the next few months). Besides flavors of Android, FXI had another unit running a Ubuntu build. There’s no flash storage built into the SoC itself, or even in the “USB stick”; the units instead have a micro-SD slot for storage, and the OS and data all resides there. That opens up the potential for a single hardware device that could easily run multiple operating systems with just a simple swap of the micro-SD chip, which has some really cool possibilities for those that like to try out new OS releases but may not want to root/wipe their current OS.
Another interesting aspect of Cotton Candy is how it interfaces with other devices. The simplest mode consists of plugging the HDMI connector directly into any HDMI-compatible display, using the full size USB connector to provide power (via an AC-to-USB adapter). The OS boots in roughly 15 to 20 seconds, and provided you have the appropriate hardware—e.g. FXI used a USB Bluetooth radio with a keyboard and mouse—you can begin using your computer. That’s nothing particularly noteworthy, but it’s only one of several options. Plug Cotton Candy into another PC and things change; after a 15-20 second delay for the device OS to boot, Cotton Candy presents itself as a storage device on your desktop/laptop. Run the appropriate executable—Windows, OS X, and Linux binaries are included—and you get an application that shows the Cotton Candy OS, all in a virtualized environment. (Note that the virtualization is just for the display and input options on the host computer.) You can also plug Cotton Candy into tablets and smartphones, where again the input devices and screen are virtualized and you get a touch interface. (Presumably this will require an appropriate virtualization client for the host device, so Cotton Candy may not work with every tablet/smartphone out there.)
Now granted, running Android with a keyboard and mouse in place of a touch-screen interface feels a bit clunky depending on what you’re doing—swiping through screens with a mouse just isn’t as intuitive, and Angry Birds isn’t as fun when you’re not poking at the screen with your finger—but for web browsing and other traditional PC-centric tasks it works fine, and 1080p video also played without issue. Using a tablet or smartphone just to pull up another tablet/smartphone style OS may also seem a bit unusual, but there is a goal in all of this. So FXI has put a small and fully functional computer inside a thumb stick, capable of running some of the latest OSes at 1080p without trouble. That’s fine, but why exactly do we need this? FXI’s idea is that as SoC hardware continues to advance, devices like smartphones and smart TVs are rapidly consigned to the scrap heap of history. While that might be fine for a smartphone that gets upgraded every year or two, it doesn’t work as well with TVs, car computers, or other “smart” devices that may be used for 5-10 years (or longer, assuming they hold up). What’s more, as people move towards Cloud-centric computing models, all they really need is a common user interface that lets them get to the cloud. That’s where Cotton Candy comes in, as you could potentially carry one device around that has access to all the apps and data that you want/use and the UI stays the same wherever you go.
Besides a USB input (for power and data) and an HDMI output, the current units also include a micro-USB port that can interface with standard USB peripherals. FXI had a PS3 controller connected at one point playing a game on the Ubuntu stick. Of course, that’s a little weird looking as the controller is many times larger than the rest of the hardware, but it works and it adds potential for other interesting uses of the hardware. Finally, the thumb stick includes wireless networking and Bluetooth support as well. FXI is aiming to have hardware available for “well under” $200 by the end of the year. $200 would probably be too high, considering Apple’s iPod Touch goes for $200 and comes with a display, speakers, case, etc. The FXI hardware is faster than the current iPod Touch, but that’s over a year old. If Apple releases an updated iPod with hardware similar to the iPhone 4S/iPad 2 at the same $200 price point, we suggest a price closer to $100 as reasonable for Cotton Candy—similar to what many media streamers cost.
Whatever the price, however, there will likely be buyers—software developers as one example might be interested, particularly given the potential to easily swap between micro-SD cards and OSes. Depending on what other features are bundled into the device(s), and what interesting software is created to leverage the hardware, there’s a lot of room for creative and innovating solutions. We look forward to seeing where things go from here, and hopefully as final hardware nears completion we’ll be able to provide some additional testing and evaluation of Cotton Candy.