The Gig of Ham

One geek's contributions to the series of tubes

May 23, 2018 - 4 minute read - arm linux

Something better than a Rasberry Pi 2Q-2018 Edition

Ah, the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi. Loved and hated by many. I fall in both camps. I have at least 20 of them currently, and several are in production use. I also spend a lot of time with the larger ARM community, including the Works on arm project, and 96boards Open Hours. Something that comes up a lot is people wanting something “better” than a Raspberry Pi, and I finally decided to start writing up a comparison of boards I have used and like, that are generally available, and how they are better. The goal is to update this on a regular basis, at least once a year. There is some great stuff coming down the pipeline. But for now, let’s jump in.

Raspberry Pi’s current state of the art: The 3B+

Before we jump into “better” let’s talk about the gold standard from which everything is compared: The Raspberry Pi. The current generation is the 3B+, which is a minor revision to the 3B (which almost everyone refers to as the 3). The 3B and 3B+ are based on a quad-core Broadcom SoC that implements the ARMv8 instruction set using the Cortex-A53 IP. It also has 1GB of RAM, SD Storage, and USB based Ethernet. Both the 3B and the 3B+ also implement WiFi connectivity, but the WiFi on the 3B+ is the major improvement for that release. It’s gone from 2.5GHz only to dual band, and updates the speed from the N standards into the AC standards.

Defining “better”

So, now that we know what the state of the art with the Raspberry Pi is, let’s talk about it’s shortcomings. Where I think the RPi falls short is RAM and Ethernet. The 1GB of RAM is very limiting, and the USB based Ethernet has a myriad of limitations when it comes to throughput and latency. The WiFi is nice, but when running things like small clusters it’s more of a burden than an asset. Another major issue, especially on the newer boards, is power delivery. The MicroUSB power connector is a major limiting factor as it’s limited to about [email protected] and the 3B+ can easily use more than this. Finding good power supplies and cables can also be an issue here. Ideally you could power the board off the 5VDC pins on the GPIO connector, but it turns out doing this bypasses all the voltage regulation and power conditioning circuitry, so now that’s a problem you have to deal with as well.

So, how I am defining better is:

  • Better power connector
  • Native Ethernet
  • More RAM

Minimum requirements are:

  • Must be ARMv8 based, minimum quad core
  • Must run Linux at a minimum
  • Must be “available to purchase” and not a pre-order, coming-soon, or discontinued.

Not a terribly long list, but this is only my first go at this comparison. I’m sure more requirements will be added as time goes on, please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments at the bottom of the article.

The Contenders

Here are the contenders and the related specs in no particular order:

Name Cores RAM Network Storage OS Form Factor Case Approx Cost Notes
ODroid-C2 4xCortex-A53 (AMLogic S905) 2GB 1GbE Ethernet MicroSD or eMMC Vendor Ubuntu, AOSP, Armbian RPi Compatible Yes $46
ROCK64 4xCortex-A53 (RockChip RK3328) 2/4GB 1GbE Ethernet MicroSD, eMMC, SPI Vendor Ubuntu RPi Compatible Yes $35/$45
Firefly-RK3399 4xCortex-A53,2xCortex-A72 (RockChip RK3399) 2/4GB 1GbE Ethernet eMMC, MicroSD Vendor Ubuntu Custom Yes $199/$209
MACCHIATObin 4xCortex-A72 (Marvell ARMADA 8040) 1xDDR4 DIMM 2x10GbE, 1x2.5GbE, 1x1GbE MicroSD, eMMC, SATA Vendor SuSE, any UEFI Linux Installer Custom Yes $269 and up
Poplar 4xCortex-A53 (HiSilicon Hi3798CV200) 2GB 1GbE Ethernet eMMC, MicroSD Any UEFI Linux Installer 96Boards-EE ???? $99
HiKey970 4xCortex-A73, 4xCortex-A53 (HiSilicon Kirin 970) 6GB 1GbE Ethernet eMMC, MicroSD Vendor Debian 96Boards-CE ???? $299
DragonBoard 820c 4xKryo (Qualcomm Snapdragon 820E) 3GB 1GbE Ethernet eMMC, MicroSD Vendor Debian 96Boards-CE ???? $199
Jetson TX1 Kit 4xCortex-A57 4GB 1GbE Ethernet eMMC, MicroSD, SATA Vendor Ubuntu Custom ???? $477
Jetson TX2 Kit 4xCortex-A57 8GB 1GbE Ethernet eMMC, MicroSD, SATA Vendor Ubuntu Custom ???? $570

Those who did not make the cut, and why

  • LeMaker Cello : No longer available
  • Pine64 : Gigabit Ethernet doesn’t work due to design flaw in board.

Next steps

So, as I said above, I would love to hear from your additional suggestions meeting the criteria listed above. Please comment below or reach out to me on Twitter. The more feedback I get, the easier it will be to update this as time goes on!