Review: The Asus Tinker Board (Updated)

In the years since the launch of the original Raspberry Pi we have seen the little British ARM-based board become one of the more popular single board computers in the hobbyist, maker, and hacker communities. It has retained that position despite the best efforts of other manufacturers, and we have seen a succession of competitor boards directly copying it by imitating its form factor. None of them have made a significant dent in the sales figures enjoyed by the Pi, yet they continue to appear on a regular basis.

We recently brought you news of the latest challenger in this arena, in the form of the Asus Tinker Board. This is a board that has made us sit up and take notice because unlike previous players this time we have a product from a giant of the industry. Most of us are likely to own at least one Asus product, indeed there is a good chance that you might be reading this on an Asus computer or monitor. Asus have made some very high quality hardware in their time, so perhaps this product will inherit some of that heritage. Thus it was with a sense of expectation that we ordered one of the first batch of Tinker Boards, and waited eagerly for the postman.

Update:

A member of the Asus Marketing team read this review and contacted Hackaday with some updated information. According to our discussion, the Tinker Board has not officially launched. This explains a lot about the current state of the Tinker Board. As Jenny mentions in her review below, the software support for the board is not yet in place, and as comments on this review have mentioned, you can’t source it in the US and most other markets. An internal slide deck was leaked on SlideShare shortly after CES (which explains our earlier coverage), followed by one retailer in the UK market selling the boards ahead of Asus’ launch date (which is how we got our hands on this unit).

Asus tells us that they are aiming for an end of February launch date, perhaps as soon as the 26th for the United States, UK, and Taiwan. Other markets might have some variation, all of this contingent on agreements with and getting stock to regional distributors. With the launch will come the final OS Distribution (TinkerOS based on Debian), schematics, mechanical block diagrams, etc. Asus tells Hackaday it is a top priority to deliver hardware video acceleration for the Rockchip on the Tinker Board. The Board Support Package which hooks the feature into Linux is not yet finished but will come either on launch day or soon after. This is the end of the update, please enjoy Jenny List’s full review below.

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A Motherboard Manufacturer’s Take On A Raspberry Pi Competitor

In the almost five years since the launch of the original Raspberry Pi we have seen a huge array of competitors emerge in the inexpensive single board computer market. Many have created their own form factors, but an increasing number have gone straight for the jugular of the fruity board from Cambridge by copying its form factor and interfaces as closely as possible. We’ve seen sterling efforts from the likes of Banana Pi, Odroid, and several others, but none have yet succeeded in toppling it from its pedestal.

The ASUS Tinker specification.
The ASUS Tinker specification.

The latest contender in this arena might just make more of an impact though, because it comes from a major manufacturer, a name you will have heard of. Asus have quietly released their Tinker, board that follows the Pi form factor very closely, and packs a 1.8 GHz quad-core ARM Cortex A17 alongside an impressive spec we’ve captured as an image for this article. Though they are reticent about it on their website, there is a SlideShare presentation with some of the details, which we’ve placed below the break.

At £55 (about $68) where this is being written it’s more expensive than the Pi, but Asus go to great lengths to demonstrate that it is significantly faster. We will no doubt verify the accuracy of that claim as the boards find their way into the hands of our community. Still, it features a mostly-Pi-compatible I/O header, and the same display and camera connectors as the Pi. There is no information as to how compatible these last two are though.

Other boards in this arena have boasted impressive hardware, but have fallen down when it comes to the support for their operating systems. When you buy a Raspberry Pi it is not just the hardware you are taking on but the Raspbian operating system and its impressive community support. The Tinker supports Debian, so if Asus is to make a mark they must ensure that its support rivals that of the board it is targeting. If they succeed in that endeavor then the result can only be good news for us.

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Hack An 8085 like it’s 1985

If you have been building electronic hardware for several decades, do you still have any projects from your distant past? Do they work? An audio amplifier perhaps, or a bench power supply.

[Just4Fun] made a rather special computer in the 1980s, and it definitely still works. Describing it as “An 8085 single board computer with an EPROM emulator” though, does not convey just how special it is. This is not the modern sense of a single board computer with an SoC and a few support components. Instead it is a full system in the manner of the day in which processor, memory and peripherals are all separate components surrounded by 74 series glue logic. The whole system is wire-wrapped on a piece of perfboard and mounted very neatly in a rack. The EPROM emulator is a separate unit in a console case with hexadecimal keyboard and 7-segment display.

As the video below the break of an LED flashing demo shows, the EPROM emulator allows 8085 machine code to be entered byte by byte instead of having to be burned into a real EPROM.

[Just4Fun] leaves us with plans to replace the period EPROM emulator with a modern alternative, an EEPROM on a PCB designed to fit in the original bank of EPROM sockets. In this he suggests he might fit a bootloader and a BASIC interpreter, something entirely possible back in the day with conventional EPROMs, but probably not as cheaply.

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Very, Very Tiny X86 Systems

The most interesting market for Intel in recent years has been very, very small form factor PCs. ARM is eating them alive, of course, but there are still places where very small and very low power x86 boards make sense. The latest release from SolidRun is the smallest we’ve seen yet. The SolidPC Q4 is one of the smallest x86 implementation you can find. It’s based around the MicroSoM, a module even smaller than a Raspberry Pi, and built around a carrier board that has all the ports you could ever want from the tiniest PC ever.

The SolidPC Q4 is technically only a carrier board featuring a microSD slot, Displayport, HDMI 1.4B, two RJ45 ports with the option for PoE, three USB 3.0 Host ports, jacks for mic and stereo sound, and an M.2 2230 connector for a wireless module. The interesting part of this launch is the MicroSoM, a System on Module based on Intel’s Braswell architecture. Two models are offered, based on the quad-core Atom E8000 and the Pentium N3710. Both modules feature up to 8GB of DDR3L RAM and 4GB of eMMC Flash.

The interesting part of this launch is the MicroSoM, a System on Module based on Intel’s Braswell architecture. Two models are offered, based on the quad-core Atom E8000 and the Pentium N3710. Both modules feature up to 8GB of DDR3L RAM and 4GB of eMMC Flash. The size of these modules is 52.8mm by 40mm, or just a shade larger than the stick-of-gum-sized Raspberry Pi Zero.

The SolidPC isn’t intended to be a Raspberry Pi competitor. While those cheap ARM boards are finding a lot of great uses in industry, they’re no replacement for a small, x86 single board computer. The pricing for this module starts at $157 according to the product literature, with a topped out configuration running somewhere between $300 and $350, depending on options like a heatsink, enclosure, or power adapter. If you want a small single board computer with drivers for everything, there aren’t many other options: you certainly wouldn’t pick a no-name Allwinner board.

Colorful Display Keeps Track of Your Network

So you’ve built out your complete home automation setup, with little network-connected “things” scattered all around your home. You’ve got net-connected TVs, weather stations, security cameras, and whatever else. More devices means more chances for failure. How do you know that they’re all online and doing what they should?

[WTH]’s solution is pretty simple: take a Raspberry Pi Zero, ping all the things, log, and display the status on an RGB LED strip. (And if that one-sentence summary was too many words for you, there’s a video embedded below the break.)

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31415926 (That’s roughly Π times 10 million Raspberries)

The Raspberry Pi Foundation founder Eben Upton has announced that their ten millionth eponymous single-board computer has been sold since their launch back in February 2012. It’s an impressive achievement, especially so since their original sales expectations were for a modest ten thousand. For those of us who watched the RS and Farnell websites crumble under the strain of so many would-be purchasers on that leap day morning four and a half years ago their rapidly exceeding that forecast came as no surprise, but still, it’s worth a moment’s consideration. They passed the Sinclair ZX Spectrum’s British record of 5m computers sold back in February 2015, leaving behind the Pi’s BBC Micro spiritual ancestor on 1.5m sold long before that.

Critics of the Pi will point out that its various versions have rarely been the most powerful small single board computer on the market, or even at times the cheapest. They will also point to the closed-source nature of the Broadcom binary blob that underpins Pi operating systems, and even the sometimes unpredictable nature of the Pi Foundation with respect to its community, product availability and launches. But given that the Pi Foundation’s focus is not on our side of the community but on using the boards as a tool to introduce young people to computing, it’s fair to say that they’ve done a pretty good job of ensuring that a youngster can now get their hands on a useful and easily programmable computer much more easily than at any time in the past.

Would we be in the same position of being able to buy a capable Linux computer for near-pocket-money prices had the Raspberry Pi not been released? Probably so, in fact certainly so. The hardware required to deliver these products has inevitably fallen into a more affordable price bracket, and we would certainly have plenty of boards at our fingertips. They would probably have Allwinner or maybe Mediatek processors rather than the Pi’s Broadcom part, but they would be very likely to deliver equivalent performance at a similar cost. Where the Raspberry Pi’s continued success has come from then has not necessarily been from its hardware but from its community and software. The reliability and ease of use delivered by the Raspbian Linux distribution that Just Works for the parent putting a Pi in front of their child, and the wealth of expert information on the Raspberry Pi forums to get them through any Pi-related troubles are what has given the Pi these sales figures. The boards themselves are almost incidental, almost any hardware paired with that level of background information would likely have met with similar success. Comparing the Pi software experience with for example one of their most capable competitors, it’s obvious that the software is what makes the difference.

It’s likely that Raspberry Pi sales will continue to climb, and in years to come we’ll no doubt be reporting on fresh milestones on ever more powerful revisions of their product. But it’s also likely that their competition will up their software game and their position in the hearts and minds of single board computer users might be usurped by a better offering. If this increased competition in the single board computer market delivers better boards with more for the hardware developer community, then we’re all for it.

Hacker Builds New Single Board Computer Out of Old Single Board Computer

[Ncrmnt] had a busted tablet PC with an Allwinner A23 SoC inside. He combined two of our favorite past-times, Linux hacking and 3D printing, to make a rather sweet little single-board-computer out of it, giving the tablet a second life.

Step one was to make sure that the thing works. Normally, you’d hook up a wired serial terminal and start hacking. [Ncrmnt] took it one step further and wired in a HC-05 Bluetooth serial module, so he can pull up the debug terminal wirelessly. The rest of the hackery was just crafting a bootable SD card and poking around in the Android system that was still resident in the flash memory of the system.

Once the board was proven workable, [Ncrmnt] designed and printed a sweet custom case using Solvespace, a constraint-based 3D CAD modeler that was new to us until recently. The case (after three prints) was a perfect fit for the irregularly shaped system board, a 3.7 V LiIon battery, and a speaker. He then added some nice mounting tabs. All in all, this is a nice-looking and functional mini-computer made out of stuff that was destined for the trash. It’s fast, it’s open-source, and it’s powerful. Best of all, it’s not in the dumpster.

There are pictures and more details on his blog, as well as [Ncrmnt]’s TV-stick to computer conversion that we’ve covered before.