Start-up of the week

Meet the CuBox-I, Israel’s $45 PC marvel

A company from northern Israel has developed what may presage the next revolution in personal computing – a low-cost, low-power, highly capable computer

The minuscule motherboard inside the Cubox-I (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The minuscule motherboard inside the Cubox-I (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The next revolution in personal computing could very well come from the northen Israeli town of Yokne’am, where SolidRun, a start-up headed by two Israeli Arabs, has developed a $45 PC that can do almost anything a “big boy” computer can do – with all design and manufacturing done in Israel.

“Our goal is to supply anyone anywhere who needs one with a low-cost, high-capability computer that has a low carbon footprint and can do just about anything the average person would need,” said Kossay Omary, CEO of SolidRun. “That’s been our dream for a long time, and with our new CuBox-I computer, that dream is becoming a reality.”

CuBox computer Photo Credit: Courtesy)
CuBox computer Photo Credit: Courtesy)

For Omary, who started the company with CTO Rabeeh Khoury in 2010, SolidRun isn’t just a business — it’s a calling. “We have certain principles that we subscribe to and that are part of the DNA of our company and products,” said Omary. “First of all, we are very environment-friendly. Our CuBox series takes up very little power (the CuBox-I processor requires a miniscule 3 watts of power), and lets organizations save on the energy costs associated with full-size PCs.”

The Cubox-I can be used for all sorts of things a regular PC can be used for – dedicated or general purpose – and save loads of energy, because it can replace computers that require a lot more power.

“For some advanced applications, like high-level computer aided design or intensive Photoshop work, you would want a full-size PC,” said Omary. “But if you are using a PC as a media server or a cloud client, connecting to apps in the cloud, you don’t need the processing power of an advanced Sandy Bridge or Haswell processor. It’s like using a huge hammer to break a little nut — a huge waste of resources. We hate to see wasteful things.”

Besides being eco-friendly, the CuBox-I is user-friendly, too.

“We try to include as many rich features as we can, and support all open source platforms, like Android, various flavors of Linux, and so on,” said Omary.

“Our SDK is completely open to developers, to whom we give free rein to do whatever they want and can do with our computers. Given the open source SDK and tons of available software packages, our computers can be used in a huge range of scenarios limited only by your imagination; ranging from embedded, multimedia, education, cloud client, HMI and many other fields, as well as all the fun projects you always dreamed of,” said SolidRun CTO Khoury. “Everyone can take these computers to their own playground and build their special projects with it. It can be an excellent learning experience too.”

The CuBox-I, which SolidRun just introduced, is the second iteration of its CuBox series. The first computer, which has been in use since 2011, is being used in a wide variety of scenarios.

“For example, digital signage, in which a computer controls displays and monitors, has been one area our computers have been used in,” Omary said. “Because of the need for flexibility, digital signage application writers like our platform because they can easily adapt their software without rigid rules that most devices would require.”

Home automation is another area in which customers have found CuBoxes useful; just a few weeks ago, said Khoury, a single CuBox was used to control the lights and services in one of Australia’s largest houses.

But it’s for streaming music and video that customers have found the CuBox most useful. The platform supports XMBC, an open source media application that lets users stream music or video to TVs or other displays, offering far more flexibility and capabilities than devices like Apple TV, Apple Airport Express, and Google Chromecast. “For example, none of those devices can handle uncompressed FLAC (a very high quality audio format) files, but ours can. That is true high-fidelity, which you cannot get with the other devices,” said Omary.

Kossay Omary (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Kossay Omary (Photo credit: Courtesy)

With that, Omary is not looking to compete directly with Google, Apple, or other large consumer device companies — at least for now.

“Right now we are interested in making money from the hardware,” said Omary. “We of course see what users are doing with our computers, and if we see there is a strong demand for a feature, we will include it the next release of our SDK.”

Eventually, though, the company may come out with its own purpose-specific device.

Besides selling computers to retail customers, said Kossay, the company has a thriving business in the “white label” business, where SolidRun sells it computers to companies that use them for specific purposes or applications.

“One of our customers is a big Russian company that used our computers to distribute media files throughout a large convention center it built,” Kossay said, “while an Israeli company specializing in home automation is using CuBox as its central control box.”

Weighing 91 grams (0.2lb, 3.2oz), with a size of 2x2x2 inches, the new CuBox-I can do what its CuBox ancestor could, but SolidRun managed to get its costs down – from the $119.99 retail price tag of the CuBox, to the $45 that the CuBox-I will cost consumers. And the CuBox series has some pretty strong features. For example, it can support full streaming and decoding of full-screen 1080p video (using that same 3 watts of power) – a trick that Intel processors only just recently learned, said Khoury. It also has a HDMI 1080p Output, gigabit-speed Ethernet, built in wifi, connections for external storage (microSD, eSATA), USB ports, infrared – and up to four cores on its Freescale iMX6 SoC ARM processor.

The entire computer, in fact, has been boiled down to a minuscule motherboard, with the processor and chips soldered on.

“The box itself is much bigger, to include the connectors, wires, and so on, but the computer itself is a nice engineering achievement that we have been working on for the past several years,” said Khoury. “It’s hard to compare the relative power of our computers with our devices, but our $45 CuBox-I has at least as powerful a CPU as the ones that powered the last generation of iPads – with the addition of the advance video support, and of course the flexibility only we offer.”

If computers are an atypical product for an Israeli start-up to be making, the company’s funding model is even more atypical; SolidRun is completely bootstrapped, and although he would welcome investments from the right parties, Omary is perfectly satisfied to pay his own way. “We are in touch with and have good relations with several venture capital firms, but we want to make sure we keep the company’s direction on goal.”

Perhaps even most uncommon is SolidRun’s choice of manufacturing venue; the two partners are adamant that their device be produced in Israel, and only Israel.

“Lots of people ask us why we don’t move manufacturing to China, but we feel the quality control we get in Israel is much greater than we could possibly get in China,” said Omary. “The truth is, the manufacturing advantage in China is not as great as it once was, and for us, the largest part of manufacturing is done automatically anyway, so in that sense the labor costs would be the same. We have great manufacturing plants here that can guarantee that they use original components and high-level quality control – plus we can sleep at night knowing our technology is close by and safe.”

Omary and Khoury are both from Nazareth, and were friends even before they attended the Technion together. After working on several projects independently, the two worked for LAN-chip maker Galileo (bought out by Marvell in 2001). Omary went to the US, where he worked for a decade before returning home to start SolidRun with Khoury.

And Israel is indeed home for both of them. “We don’t consider ourselves an Israeli Arab company, and in fact we have people from all backgrounds working for us (SolidRun has 10 employees, and is looking to hire). Personally my experience in the Israeli high-tech world has been very positive, and in fact many people are rooting for us, hoping that we succeed, I have found.”

Discrimination is not something either he or Khoury have ever felt, said Omary, “although I have heard stories. And I imagine that if I had applied to work at a company like Rafael or IAI, defense contractors and security companies, I would have raised eyebrows. But that doesn’t bother me; the vast majority of companies in Israel do not engage in defense-related technologies, and for any Israeli, Jewish or Arab, with the education and the skills, the doors to high-tech are wide open.”

Rabeeh Khoury holds a CuBox (L) and a CuBox-I (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabeeh Khoury holds a CuBox (L) and a CuBox-I (Photo credit: Courtesy)

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