Around Chrome Unboxed we talk about new devices a lot. We get a little giddy every time we come across a possible new Chromebook or upcoming technology for Chrome OS.
In our never-ending search, we come across terms such as baseboard, mainboard and overlay.
But what does it all mean?
While I won’t pretend to have anything near a full grasp of all the terminology or the technical depth of what the developers do on a daily basis, I wanted to give a simple layout of what these terms mean.
If you have visited our site at all, I’m sure you’ve seen some of the news about an upcoming device codenamed ‘Kevin’. ‘Kevin’ is the codename for a new Rockchip RK3399 device. But, ‘Kevin’ is also the board name for this Chromebook. You would have also read that the baseboard for this device is codenamed ‘Gru’. We have also seen a device named ‘Gru’ whose baseboard is ‘Gru’ as well.
In that, you can see that the two devices ‘Kevin’ and ‘Gru’ share a lot of the same support and characteristics. If the baseboard ‘Gru’ has support for a certain function then ‘Kevin’ will inherently have the same ability.
Why so many names?
I tried to think about this in terms that would make sense for me. Suddenly I remembered that I used to be a car salesman (a Master Certified Ford Consultant to be precise. My business cards were crowded).
That was when it clicked.
A Lincoln is a Ford. Well, that’s is to say, some Lincolns and Fords are built off the same platforms.
The same can be said for Chromebooks.
A Ford Fusion (one of my personal favorite vehicles) and a Lincoln MKZ are essentially the same vehicle. From the outside, they may be a little bit different aesthetically, but there’s no denying it’s the same car. The platform is the same.
As for our devices, you can see that the two devices ‘Kevin’ and ‘Gru’ share a lot of the same support and characteristics. If the baseboard ‘Gru’ has support for a certain function then ‘Kevin’ will inherently have the same ability. Baseboard ‘Gru’ is the platform. The main boards/devices are ‘Kevin’ and ‘Gru’.
So, much like our Ford and Lincoln, our two Chromebooks will share similar features and have a lot of the same functionality.
So what’s an overlay?
This is the razzle dazzle part of the demo ride. The overlay, in my understanding, is the device specific features and support.
Although a Ford Fusion may come fully loaded and function similarly to the Lincoln MKZ, I might find options in one that I won’t in the other. For example, THX certified sound systems are exclusive to Lincoln. It doesn’t change how the car drives but I can’t have that rich theater sound in my Ford.
Our examples of ‘Kevin’ and ‘Gru’ are no different. They share the same baseboard, processor and same standard features or functions. But, as we reported, ‘Gru’ has been fitted with support for fingerprint scanners. While ‘Kevin’ is capable of this function, we have not seen that feature added to that device.
Generally, the baseboard are designed by the chip maker such as Intel, Rockchip or MediaTek. We see continuous commits from the OEMs showing updates and added support to their boards all the time. Chromebook manufactures then put their own skin on the device and add the features they chose and disable the ones not needed.
We have seen many examples of this since the early days of Chromebooks. With only a few exceptions like the Pixel line, most baseboards are used for multiple devices by many OEMs. A good example would be all of the Braswell devices we have been reporting on. Although the manufacturers are many and the designs and features are wide-spread, they all share the same baseboard: ‘Strago’.
I would presume that a standardized baseboard makes it easier for core functions to be added and would allow the Chromebook manufacturers to easily customize their branded devices without having to start from scratch.
This is also a great way for Google to ensure that any device using Chrome OS will meet the standards they have set for their software. That way you can be assured that it just works.
I hope this sheds a little light on the process of making a Chromebook. I am still learning every day and I hope you stick around to see all that is coming next.