In October last year, Intel and Arduino announced a partnership to bring the former's shiny new Curie system-on-chip module to the maker market using the latter's board layout and ecosystem. The result was the Genuino 101 - known as the Arduino 101 in the US, for complex trademark-related reasons - and it promised a number of advantages over the Uno on which its physical layout was based.
Now the board has hit the UK, we've had a chance to put it through its paces to see if Intel has cracked the maker market at long last. To save you some time, the conclusion first: the Genuino 101 is an impressive device with plenty of potential, but it's going to take a little time before it proves itself a worthwhile alternative to the ubiquitous Uno except in specific scenarios relating to wireless connectivity or the need to upload very large sketches.
At first glance, the Genuino 101 could be mistaken for an Arduino Uno. The familiar layout is present and correct - including the infamous header offset - and all pins are present. Ignoring the Intel logo, there are only a few clues as to the Genuino 101's new capabilities: the small Curie module in the centre, and a more telling antenna trace at the bottom-right of the board with a Bluetooth logo nearby. This is the Genuino 101's first new feature: integrated Bluetooth Low Energy, making it easy to communicate with your creation wirelessly without tying up any of the board's precious IO pins.
The Curie module holds the remaining secrets. Developed by Intel for low-power wearable devices, the chip marks a major shift from the Atmel microcontrollers used on the Arduino Uno, Mega, and others. Under the unassuming exterior is a dual-processor, dual-architecture system: there's an Argonaut RISC Core (ARC) processor, intriguingly based on technology originally developed for the Nintendo Super FX chip, alongside an Intel Quark processor, which is a modern version of the company's classic Pentium architecture. This isn't the Quark's first outing: the Intel Galileo was the launch board for the original Quark, while the smaller Edison board saw it teamed with an Atom CPU to address performance concerns raised by Galileo users.
Here's where the story takes a twist: the two cores operate simultaneously, with one taking on the tasks previously handled by the Atmel ATmega microcontroller and the other running a real-time operating system (RTOS) specifically developed for the platform. The Genuino 101, then, isn't a microcontroller platform at all: it's a micocomputing platform. Sadly, at present the most exciting functions are locked away: Intel has stated that it won't be releasing the RTOS source code until at least March this year, meaning that it's only possible to use the platform as a fairly standard Arduino at present with the promise of more advanced functionality in the future.
That's not to say there aren't reasons to try the Genuino 101 out, though. Even if Intel never makes good on its promise of exposing more of the underlying operating system to the user, the Curie chip also includes an integrated accelerometer along with the aforementioned Bluetooth, though its suitability for wearable projects is hampered by the relatively large Uno-style board layout. Another advantage of the Curie-based Genuino 101 is an increase in memory: the 32-bit chip offers the user the ability to upload sketches up to 196KB in size and access up to 24KB of the 80KB static RAM (SRAM) available on the Curie. Just be aware that the switch to 3.3V logic may harm compatibility with some 5V shields, though the use of overvoltage protection on all pins means you're not likely to blow the Genuino 101 up while experimenting at least.
It's going to take time for the Genuino 101 to prove itself. During our testing we ran into a few areas where the documentation was lacking - such as uploading sketches from a Linux system, which requires an additional configuration step once the 200MB-or-so of extra tools and libraries have been installed into the Arduino IDE - and its real power will only become apparent when Intel opens up the RTOS on which it runs. For anyone planning a Bluetooth-enabled or accelerometer-based Arduino project, or who simply needs more space than the Arduino Uno can offer, it's still a tempting proposition - and a board with which we're certainly going to continue experimenting.