The MK802 Android Mini PC and Ham Radio
Since the introduction of the $25 to $35 Raspberry Pi mini pc was introduced earlier this year, there has a flurry of small inexpensive pcs that have followed. One of the most popular mini pcs has been the Mk802 pc on a stick. While the Raspberry Pi can still be hard to get ahold off, the MK802s are readily available from US vendors. The MK802 ships with Android 4.0 installed. The prices for the MK802 pc runs around $60 – $70 dollars shipped. Even though the MK802 seems to cost about twice as much as the Pi, you are getting a little more for your money. The MK802 comes with a case, built in wifi, power supply, HDMI adapter cable, usb adapter, and a mini usb cable. So in the end they are pretty equally priced considering shipping for Pi and adding the cost of the power supply and other cables. Plus running Android, the MK802 is pretty much ready to go out of the box. The MK802 also has more built in memory and a slightly more powerful processor. Like the Pi the MK802. the MK802 can run several Linux distributions using that can be installed on a micro SD card. Simply install the Linux distribution on an 8GB card, insert the into MK802s card reader and you are now running Linux. To go back to Android simply remove the micro SD card and reboot.
Having spent 3 weeks testing the MK802, it appears that this small computer is more useful as of this writing than the Rasberry Pi for Ham Radio applications due to it’s better performance with the built in Android OS and the Linux distributions are a bit faster. The one strength the Pi still has over the MK802 is with its GPIO interface which makes it easier to interface to external hardware devices. Like the Pi the Linux distributions are a little quirky and not as complete as a typical desktop Linux installation. Also since the MK802 and the Pi require ARM packages, some software is not going to work.
Even with these computers limitations, they are still useful for embedded applications or use in high risk applications where you would not want to use an expensive laptop. The other applications would be in situations where you needed a small light weight system that requires low power. Like the Pi the MK802 requires 5 volts dc. The MK802 has two USB ports for connection to a keyboard and mouse. You will also need a monitor or TV with a HDMI interface for display purposes. With updated firmware, the MK802 can also be used with external audio interfaces under Android. I found that most of the Linux distributions do not support external sound cards very well yet. Audio output as of this writing is primarily supplied over the HDMI interface for most of the Linux distributions.
Initial testing showed that most ham radio apps that are written for Android work pretty well on the MK802. Ham radio apps for Linux like Fldigi look like they can run pretty decently on the MK802 under Linux. However, I wasn’t able to fully test Fldigi due to the lack of external USB audio device support. I suspect this might be easily fixed by someone with some good Linux chops. Speaking of Linux, after trying several of the available Linux distributions , I found that the Rikomagic Lubuntu 12.04 image was probably the best right now. This image and others can be found on the Miniand Forums. I would also suggest if you are going to run Linux, make sure you get a MK802 with 1GB of built in DDR3 memory. I have a 512K model and most of the images require the Uboot modification to work correctly. No big deal, just takes more steps to get the Linux distributions installed on the micro sd card.
Overall, the MK802 is a pretty neat little computer for the money. There are several models out there in different form factors and different specs. If you plan to run Linux, just be sure the device can support it. Some devices look like the MK802, but may have different processors. Look for the processor to be listed as an Allwinner A10 1.5 GHz. Here is a very nice article comparing the MK802 with the Raspberry Pi if you would like more in depth comparison, Hopefully over the next few weeks Ham Radio Science will be looking at a few projects you can use the MK802 for.
In the meantime discuss the MK802 in our MK802 Forum.