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.

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  • Conficio - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    I wonder if there is any audio on there? Together with a display this would make great presentation devices for status boards in offices or shop windows. But sometimes you'd want some audio with that.

    Also does anybody know of USB solutions to drive a few I/O switches for physical start buttons or light and proximity sensors?
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    It sends audio over HDMI, but there's no mini-speaker if that's what you're asking.
  • RandomUsername3245 - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    Looks like an engineering demo of "look how small we can make a computer". This doesn't add much (beyond updated hardware) over a BeagleBoard or a Pandaboard... you've still got to carry around a powered USB hub *with* A/C adapter, usb keyboard, usb, mouse, usb ethernet.

    You pretty much have to connect a rat's nest of wires to get this to work.
  • RandomUsername3245 - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    This being said, I'd be tempted to buy one for $100!! It would be really sweet if it included an ethernet port, though.
  • Tanclearas - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    Develop a "tablet shell". Basically, the shell would be a display and battery. Open a door, pop in the Cotton Candy, and voila! Functioning tablet.

    Imagine upgrading your tablet's internal specs every year or two for $150. Also, I wonder how many perfectly usable touch screen displays are gathering dust/headed for the garbage every year.
  • mitcoes - Friday, January 13, 2012 - link

    I agree with you. But I give a plus - Unfortunately I have not a hardware company -

    Anyone can design a Phone + a Tablet, + a laptop and it works at TVs

    Then the user that buys this "empty" cases + battery plug his/her Cotton Candy at the device he/she wants to use having the same computer but different interface.

    As it is Android + Ubuntu it can be your only computer. And you will use it at yours different sizes cases with desktop + battery or even a desktop computer that is a monitor or a touch monitor with a dock for the Cotton Candy and similar.

    And any upgrade you can buy only one cotton candy but keep all your cases that usually have more duration than SoC state of the art or even second best.

    Of course, at this time the Phone case would have to be a only WiFi phone, connect via Bluetooth with other cheap phone or have phone hardware made inside.

    If it has phone hardware it can work as a "cheap phone" without the CC and as an smartphone with the CC plugged.

    I do not know why even them do not put this option at their home page, it would give them a lot more of target. Even at the brand market, with bigger sales than direct to customers.
  • Ambictus - Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - link

    I could see some potential in this for businesses once Windows 8 for ARM is released. You could take this with you and run presentations on it. Just plug into an HDMI port on a TV and you're rolling. It'll be interesting to see how this little thing plays out in the real world.

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