This Atomic Pi Eats Other Pis For Lunch

The world is full of single board computers that want a slice of the Raspberry Pi action. Most of them are terrible. But fools and their money, yadda yadda, and there’s a new sucker born every minute. The latest contender to the Raspberry Pi is the Atomic Pi. It’s an x86-based single board computer that costs $35, shipped to your door. Is it worth it? Is it even in the same market as a Raspberry Pi? Or is it just a small budget computer without a box? I have no idea.

With that said, the Atomic Pi comes with an Intel Atom x5-Z8350 with Intel HD Graphics (Cherry Trail). There is 2 GB of DDR3L-16000, 16 GB of eMMC, and an SD slot for storage. Connectivity is a full HDMI port (primary audio out), USB 3.0 and 2.0 ports, a Mediatec RT5572 used for WiFi, a Qualcomm CSR8510 for Bluetooth 4.0, a “Legitimate licensed BIOS”, and a real-time clock. Overall, you’re looking at a top-of-the-line tablet computer from four years ago. One that would run Windows.

To use all the features of the Atomic Pi, you will need to buy a $15 breakout board to supply power to the board, and use a large industrial power supply, the kind you would normally find bolted to a RepRap or a homemade CNC machine. You will need to supply both 5 V and 12 V to the board if you would like to use the Class D audio amplifier, but if you only want to use audio over HDMI, supplying only 5 V will do. If you want to boot this board, it looks like you’ll need to bring a USB/TTL cable to make everything work. This may be a tough sell to a crowd with zero experience booting a bare Linux system. That said, it runs Nintendo 64 emulators well, which is the only reason people buy Raspberry Pis anyway.

Is the Atomic Pi the single board computer you need? I don’t know. But we’ve got an Atomic Pi on order, and we’re ready to go with a full review when it show up.

102 thoughts on “This Atomic Pi Eats Other Pis For Lunch

    1. I do exactly the same. Except I use Microsoft BASIC. Runs anywhere where there’s a C64, MSX, Cromemco, Altai, MS-Dos, Atari, or whatever other emulator. :D

  1. “use a large industrial power supply” WHAT?!?!?
    “the kind you would normally find bolted to a RepRap or a homemade CNC machine” ohhhh… nothing special

    Phew, you scared me there Brian, when you wrote “industrial” I thought like something used in the industry, something to power heavy specialized machinery, But since you refer to something used on an ordinary (DIY home tool) I guess that any beefy open frame or closed frame power supply would be good enough, so I think we’re fine.

      1. Having worked in the industrial automation field, I can definitely say size doesn’t matter. I saw very small, rack/dil mounted PSU, but yet the industrial touch were the specs and ruggedness. The cost could be 10x a commercial type.

    1. When I read “industrial” I thought “a 15kg brick that delivers 12V at 100A from multiple screw terminals”. There are also other voltages available, all in the price range of equivalent of 30USD…

  2. “You will need to supply both 5 V and 12 V to the board if you would like to use the…” I can already see people building these right into a ATX power supply. There’s usually a bit of room inside those.

    1. I seriously don’t understand why they couldn’t just put a tiny boost converter on the board for another $3. Nothing — seriously, *NOTHING* should ask for more than two terminals in terms of power input.

  3. Can anyone confirm the GPU on this one? I think that it’s one of the Atoms that uses a real, if cut down, Intel GPU; rather than the PowerVR-based GMA500/600/3600/3650.

    If so that is good; Intel graphics aren’t exciting but they play pretty nicely with normal Linux without any messing around or only-works-on-antique-Android-with-massive-binary-blobs.

    Intel’s cursed foray into rebadged PowerVR is pretty much a lost cause on Linux; and isn’t a whole lot better on Windows outside the brief 8/8.1 period when Intel and MS were indulging the mutual fantasy that Windows was a good tablet OS and Intel could totally handle cheap, low power, silicon.

    If it has the real GPU it’s a potentially interesting contender, bit more power draw than an rPi or the like; but should play absolutely stock x86. If it has the PowerVR it might as well be headless; at which point it’s a lot less exciting(especially since there are a lot of ARM application processors that are quite promising aside from the ‘pity the GPU is a closed blob that barely works except on one version of Android’ problem.

    1. Cherry Trail uses intel HD, just like earlier Bay Trail. And it IS exciting considering the performance/power ratio and linux software support for OpenGL and video decoding

    2. It isn’t one of the bad ones, That said the PowerVR stuff plays reasonably well in Linux in terms of functioning with defaults now. Though I am pretty sure there is no hardware accel with the default – I still use some of those machines and while there are a few problems thanks to the shoddy chipset support – like suspend won’t work right. They work just fine for ‘light’ use.

      I am very curious about its power draw myself – as one of the great things about a Pi is even going flat out you can have a little farm of them before you draw the idle power of 64bit workstation. As they are quite good with media of all types you can stuff one behind the TV, as a NAS, webserver and not worry about the power bill.
      For me this needs to be in a similar computation per watt range as a Pi to be worth it.. Otherwise use your old desktop, or laptop – why have new silicon if you have working old stuff that can do the job just as well.

    1. Who knows, their documentation is awful. I was interested in this board before I couldn’t find ANY details on the screw terminal I/O of the large breakout board. There are multiple PDF documents that seem to be copypasta of subsets of another PDF’s information.

      Their FAQ has a line about Mate-N-Lok connectors for power – why is there a FAQ asking where to get a power connector that is not documented as used anywhere on the board? All of their other documentation says that it’s a PC-style Molex on the large breakout board.

      Where are the electrical specs of the big-breakout’s screw terminals? What I/O is on those? I can’t find that anywhere but digging through the schematic – which doesn’t have any readily-accessible list of key information such as I/O voltage ratings.

      Of interest, the breakout schematic is labeled “AAEON Breakout” – I think that’s the company that makes UPBoard products…

    2. From comments sections on other sites (so I guess consider the source lol) the consensus is that these were boards purchased to be integrated into some audio appliance which either was never created or failed design or some other reason that there were 5000 of these weird boards available. I don’t think they were ever designed to be sold directly as an sbc. I think this theory makes sense as the company makes a bunch of call logging and recording equioment

    1. The CPU has support for SATA internally. Looking over the documentation, it appears there is a very limited subset of IO from the chip that is actually tied out to anything though, and the SATA pins are not. Would likely require either some fine pitch soldering work to get access to the SATA pins on the CPU, or a complete board redesign to break out more of the pins.

      The board was originally designed for a completely different purpose, and that’s part of the reason for the cost being so low on it. I would love to see someone design an SBC around the Cherry Trail chips that is actually intended for the maker/hacker crowd and has all of the pins broken out. Have a feeling that would be a good bit more expensive though.

      1. Well, they could simply design a board with the empty places for the nicer features/components. People who want them ( SATA, for an example ) could then populate it. I would like one with at least two SATA ports, even if I have to solder the required caps and connectors.

    2. There are certain things that the industry has decided it just doesn’t want us to have. Decent peripheral support on an inexpensive SBC without somebody paying a licensing fee for the USB logo is one of them.

      Oh well, at least it has USB 3 which is probably fast enough for decent hard drive access.

      One of these + a USB3/SATA adapter just might be replacing my BananaPi as my home server soon. At least I can finally use it as a print server to translate between some friendly format like Postscript and the crap my Brother printer (which claimed Linux support) speaks that only has binary x86 drivers.

      1. And audio in. When one of these boards has both audio in and out in an ordinary jack I’ll be way more interested. Most of the projects I would want a tiny computer for have something to do with two-way audio.

  4. It looks like a slightly redesigned version of the guts of an AcePC T(7/8/11) series box you can pick up from China for around $60 currently. Performance isn’t terrible, I have a couple on my desk running Kali Linux right now. Hopefully the BIOS is full featured like the T8, and not a super gimped no options one like the T11.

    Assuming this SBC is as similar as it appears to be, it may have a TPM2 on it as well, which can allow for some interesting things with encryption and such. WIFI/BT is different on this SBC, but I would guess it’s still SDIO.

    Now I’ll have to crack one of the ones I have open and see if they exposed any of the GPIO as pads on the mainboard. Could be an interesting device for an AIO controller for a CNC or 3D printer.

      1. You can purchase the T7/8/11 in 4GB RAM, 32GB or 64GB EMMC on Alibaba starting at around $45 in quantity, closer to $70 in singles.

        They start at about $100 on Amazon for the same units.

        I did pop the lid on the T11, but didn’t have time to pull the mainboard and inspect it in detail to see what GPIO might be broken out on it. It has two PCBs internally, the mainboard, and a daughter board attached via a FFC that has a VGA connector, additional USB ports, and the SATA interface on it. Box has a bay in the bottom for a 2.5″ SATA drive. Unfortunately, the BIOS on the T11 is super minimal with very few options available in it.

        The T8 I haven’t opened up yet. It’s significantly smaller and forgoes the daughter board. Don’t know what it has internally, so no idea if SATA/VGA/etc could be attached to the mainboard via a daughter board. It has a MUCH nicer AMI BIOS on it that lets you tweak just about everything possible.

        Performance in Kali isn’t terrible, mostly I end up bumping up against the RAM limitations when doing large scans of subnets. Windows performance is sluggish, but not as bad as the older cheap Atom tablets I’ve used. A proper SATA SSD in the T11 would likely help performance quite a bit. I did some quick tests on the EMMC embedded on the mainboard, and the R/W performance for 4K random isn’t spectacular, around 30MB/s. Contiguous R/W was a bit better at around 100MB/s.

        The maker/hacker crowd is not the primary market for the company selling the Atomic Pi. Their main product line is related to call recording. They essentially saw a way to make some extra cash off of an existing core unit they had designed for an entirely different purpose, and knocked together a breakout board to make it more friendly for that market. It’s far from ideal due to it being a re-purposed device.

        I’d love to see someone put out a board designed specifically for this market. That would likely increase the cost a good bit though, as the R&D cost for the design would need to be included in the cost. These re-purposed boards have already recouped the R&D budget from sales of the primary product at a much higher markup, and this is just a way for them to make some extra cash off of additional inventory.

        1. Some of the Alibaba folks have dual GbE port fanless models advertised at between $80~180 (usually based on quantity, rather than config) with the specs showing the NICs being Intel (which is great). Unfortunately, the CPU chips are all fairly long in the tooth. I’ve been asking them about units in the same price range, but with this same CPU chip (the Z8350), because my experience with it has been relatively good (https://esp8266hints.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/z83-ii-mini-pc-quad-core-8350/) and because it has the AES instructions. As others have mentioned, such a configuration should make
          a great little, low-cost, economical (to run) VPN/Firewall box.

          1. Well. For $900 USD I suppose adding the second port is not surprising.

            That’s like asking for a basket to go on your bike for carrying stuff, and someone says a dually pickup truck with turbo diesel engine would be better.

  5. When you test this do please make sure to, once linux is up and running, install wine. Then see if this thing can handle running windows exe file based software (office programs, CAD programs, notepad++,…) under wine. That’s bveen the one thing I’ve found annoying about raspberry pis, you can’t get x86 programs running on them due to use of an ARM core. If this atomic thing can do what a rapberry pi does, plus run pre-compiled windows x86 exe software under wine then it sounds a really great idea.

    1. I used to run x86 windows binaries on my RPi pretty nicely with ExaGear Desktop ($$$). It’s not fast, but it’s fast enough for running older windows programs. It’s just an emulator with a lot of convenience and good OS integration. Unfortunately ExaGear has been discontinued.

  6. “That said, it runs Nintendo 64 emulators well, which is the only reason people buy Raspberry Pis anyway.”

    I expect a bit of blow-back from Raspberry Pi advocates anytime now…

    1. Nahh,
      the author is Benchoff, we’ve come to expect over-the-top statements in his articles.
      In fact, some would be disappointed if one of his articles was unbiased.

  7. What about Spectre, Dirty-Cow, Rowhammer, Meltdown, Brainsmasher, Nosecrasher, Hearttrasher and all the other X86 hardware problems?
    Can we really still allow X86s to connect to the real world or shouldn’t they better be kept in a well walled asylum for their own sake?

    1. RowHammer, Spectre and Dirty-Cow aren’t limited to x86 and are possible against ARM. The rest sound like punk cover bands.

      https://mlq.me/download/master_thesis.pdf

      https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2017/09/in-a-first-android-apps-abuse-serious-dirty-cow-bug-to-backdoor-phones/

      https://developer.arm.com/support/arm-security-updates/speculative-processor-vulnerability/downloads/software-implications-for-spectre-meltdown-on-arm-cores

      Irony; The more ARM works to bring performance to parity with x86, the more vulnerable they become to x86 style issues. One reason Rowhammer is harder on some ARMs is simply they are too slow to make it feasible. I suggest you stick to Rad-hardened Z80s in Faraday cages if you are that worried about it.

    2. I do not see Ubuntu or anyone maintaining a repo containing binaries for the linux kernel for each possible ARM SOC out there. No one wants to have to compile an outdated custom Linux kernel in order to get their SOC to run.
      And by the time a custom Linux port for a particular ARM SOC is mainlined, the SOC is already halfway through its lifetime if not at the end of it. And even after its mainlined, few will like the idea of having to compile the mainline kernel every time it gets updated for each ARM SOC that they have. Oh and let’s one forget about the s**tshow that is the ARM GPU driver support.

      Find me a Linux OS iso/img file that can run on more than 10 different ARM SOCs and a regularly updated repo that allows me to regularly update the Linux kernel binaries for my ARM SOC . When that happens I’ll start to consider ARM based SOCs as an alternative to x86. As flawed as x86 is, it will always be king in the desktop and server markets because of this…i.e. one can download a single Linux iso from the web and install it on pretty much every x86 machine out there. one can also get regular kernel updates without having to pull teeth.

      1. > Find me a Linux OS that can run on more than 10 different ARM SOCs and a regularly updated

        armbian

        Its in better shape and kernel wise maintained better than Ubuntu or Debian on x86. On userspace level is the same since user space packages come from upstream.

  8. I sort of had my hopes up there, until I found out you needed to buy another board, and maybe another, yadda yadda
    to get it to work.
    And then when I saw it was sold out, (I didn’t see if/when to expect more) well that dashed any hopes to the ground and splattered them over a 4 meter area.

    1. you don’t have too, you can just hook up 5V directly to the board. If that’s too much work, their small $3 breakout board has the 2.5mm power supply jack. You will be able to boot up and login to the preloaded linux in less than couple minutes. I am pretty impressed with the board actually, boot and login to linux without any hiccup and detected my wireless n and ac instantly upon login and get connected to internet in less than 5 minutes.

      Btw, i do need a usb hub to hook up my mouse and keyboard though, they only have one onboard USB 3.0 connector.

    1. Intel seems to rely on the layers of industry in the PC industry to get things working. They keep the full hardware specs internally. There is lots of stuff here that they want to protect like enabling functional blocks that have been disabled at the factory used to bin parts (either for being able to sell chips with defects in a block as a different SKU, or sometimes just to protect a market segment). Other values might tune characteristics of a part and could be dangerous to the ‘health’ of the chip (at least from a warranty point of view).

      The next layer are documents that are given to partners with heavy NDA protection. These will provide recipes for things like strapping, power sequencing info, magic values firmware needs to program as well as certain blocks of init code and tools to help bring up new hardware.

      Then there is a layer that is more public. These docs might need an NDA before a chip is shipped, but are generally made public after the chip is shipped.

      Generally, the guys writing the drivers are Intel employees and are working from one of the more restricted documents. The public data sheets are more there to help OS maintainers or provide info on using a peripheral that implements a more open standard (like SATA or USB).

      This is a real issue for Intel when it comes to other markets because of how their silicon shares a lot of IP.

      I’ve worked for a partner before and the documentation was not bad (I can recall working with chips that had much worse documentation). But that doesn’t help in a space that is looking to get as close to full documentation as possible.

      I don’t think Intel will get there unless they had new silicon designed to be that open but still able to run x86 code (to take advantage of the years of software and compiler development). We’ve seen what the issues are with ARM based platforms thanks to the Pi and copy-cat platforms.

      I honestly think it will take getting some chip designers interested in an open source ISA (along with a body to help prevent too much fragmentation), an open source implementation of that ISA, open source memory controllers, open source interface buses, open source peripheral buses, and open source peripherals then layer open source code on that.
      I think we are just starting to see that become viable with RISC-V and the current state of FPGAs.
      Fabbing will still be a costly proposition but that’s where I think the brave people who go into OSH will be able to build businesses and prove it’s viable in a similar fashion to how OSS based companies needed to find a viable business model.

      1. Volume wise, not necessarily larger if you have to add boards to the atomic and it needs dual rail power instead of just small 40W 12V brick size of a laptop one.

  9. “The world is full of single board computers that want a slice of the Raspberry Pi action. Most of them are terrible. But fools and their money, yadda yadda, and there’s a new sucker born every minute.”

    Spoken like a true member of the Raspberry Pi “foundation”.

    Most of the Raspberry Pi competitors are Allwinner-based, Orange Pi, Banana Pi, Lichee Pi, etc.
    I would not describe these as terrible, as most have performance specs much better than equivalent Raspberry Pi’s for prices equal or less. The Raspberry Pi “foundation” broken record is “we have better documentation, better support, better community”. What they really have is a shady Silicon Valley company backing them (Avago Broadcom) selling closed silicon at inflated prices with “support” for hipster -level beginners. What? you still can’t get that $5 Raspberry Pi Zero for $5 in any quantity greater than one? Gasp..

    1. Yep, Raspberry Pi isn’t the best, just the first (or at least the first to gain popularity). I just bought my first Rpi, basically because of the support aspect. I kind of have buyers remorse. Extremely overpriced for the technology that you get, and while I find the (community) support to be good, I have only needed to reference it because of the annoying and pointless quirks that come with the board. For as many boards as they sell you would think they could get extremely deep discounts and come out with something much more modern. I suspect though there is quite a bit of profit when you can sell boatloads of something designed 2 years ago.

      1. If you feel the Raspberry Pi has quirks, good luck with one of the Pi clones because you haven’t seen nothin’ yet. The fact you haven’t needed support is itself an indicator of a well supported product and a compliment to those who came before you to identify issues, fix software, write howtos, etc.

        1. RPi (1,2,3) is technically a simple toy designed back in 2009, where support is simple since device is dump and simple. 99.99% of it was done by (huge) community and most of the software and howtos were already there, ready to be be recycled …

  10. NUCs are absurdly overpriced, some aren’t dual NIC, some don’t support AES-NI. If you want to do any form of encrypted network data transfer in any significant volume, especially at high data rates, you pretty much require AES-NI. That’s one of the many failings of the Pi3 – shitty network performance (more than 200mbit/sec is impossible because the gigabit controller is USB2 based) and no crypto.

  11. That chip supports AES-NI. If the ethernet controller is actually on a PCIe or PCI bus instead of USB2 like it is on the Pi, then this would make a fantastic VPN endpoint.

  12. Based on Intel’s info, it looks like the CPU alone is $21 assuming they are even still shipping this.
    As others have pointed out, this looks like some sort of surplus lot that is being sold off.
    Perhaps comparing to the LattePanda 2G/32G is the most comparable option I can find.

    It seems like it has been a real challenge to even get a reasonable x86 based board under $100. Maybe AMD can do something here but they are fighting bigger battles.

  13. Damn, I forget about buying this for a week and now it’s sold out – that’s what I get for procrastination.

    The Realtek PCIe Gigabit Ethernet interface would’ve been better off as either an Intel NIC, or as an expansion slot like an M.2 or plain PCIe 1x, in my opinion.

    1. you don’t really need a second board to use this, it is easy to hook up a 5V power to the main board directly (only 2 wires). The extra boards are for convenient purposes. The small extra board is for easy hook up of 2.5mm power supply, while the big extra board is for easy hook up of other peripheral . I actually owning one and just run the 5V directly to the main board. The board also come preloaded with ubuntu linux in the oboard emmc. I own almost any SBC on the market and this although biggest among all, but the best experience from unbox to boot up. I dont even have to burn an image into SD card, just hook up the power supply, HDMI, keyboard and login to linux in less than a minute.

  14. No sleep or hibernate that I could see, which is so important for solar or battery power. Still waiting for a SBC with sleep or hibernate that makes sense. The few ones with hibernate take almost the same time to boot as a normal boot, and sleep doesn’t save that much. Got to use a micro controller or mains power or a big honkin’ battery setup.

  15. No 4K support. This is very disappointing. It is just a slow AMD64 compatible computer. I can’t think of a good use for this computer that would not be surpassed by a small board with an ARM CPU. If they can meet this same price point on a model with a better CPU/GPU that supports 4K and maybe a little more power efficient, it would be great for Kodi and Retro Gaming (unfortunately, some emulators still only support AMD64 CPUs).

    1. Check out the videos ETA PRIME put on youtube to see it in action. I bought mine on amazon, and it should be here in two days or so. It looked very responsive, and the performance was really good in retrogaming. Older PC games ran well enough too, I was quite surprised. If you have a stack of dupont jumpers lying around like most of us, you can cobble up a power connection pretty easy, just use 2-3 pins to share the current load.

      1. https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=Intel+Atom+x5-Z8350+%40+1.44GHz&id=2774
        “Average CPU Mark 1266”
        It is more than 4 times slower than a 5 year old non-high-performance notebook I still own. It is quite slow. I do think it would be fine for retro gaming for the most part, but the lack of 4K video and decoding support is a blocker for me. The CPU was released in 2015. I am hoping they will design another with a newer CPU with the features I need for close to the same price.

  16. Some of the larger RPi supplies will work on this. You need a little electronic experience to make a connection but you dont need the adapter board for that. Iff you are looking at building a SBC like this or the Pi you better know a little anyway. Or use an old PC power supply for plenty of power and the fan can do double duty blowing over the Atomic Pi. This is really a Pi killer except the Zero or ZeroW. I still like playing with my 4 RPi’s but will be hooking up the Atom on the same test bed I use for them. Only took 2 trys on Amazon and less than 2 weeks to get it with no shipping. Super deal.

    Some of the videos on Youtube are showing pretty impresive power for the Atomic Pi.

  17. WARNING, this board is a system pull from a robot, this means limited stock , “explaining computers” just did a video on this. I have been seeing allot of videos seeing how wonderful this board is. But the sad fact is it is a PULL BOARD which means it is no longer made and once gone, it is gone. And development will be probably none

  18. i am wondering if it is 64 bit
    q
    uote:
    It usually refers to x86 for 32 bit OS and x64 for system with 64 bit. Technically x86 simply refers to a family of processors and the instruction set they all use. … The 64 bit computers can run both 32bit programs and 64 bit programs.
    what is the difference between x64 and x86 – Net-Informations.Com
    net-informations.com/q/mis/x86.html
    :end quote

    quote:
    And yes the initial generic name for the architecture was amd64 because it was developed, well, by AMD. Anyway, today is usually know as x86-64 or even x64. Intel licensed the AMD64 instruction set for their non-Itanium 64 Bit CPUs. Then, yes, AMD64 is one generic name for the x86 64 bit architecture.Sep 1, 2010
    64 bit – My processor is 64-bit – does that mean I need the amd64 …
    https://askubuntu.com/…/my-processor-is-64-bit-does-that-mean-i-need-the-amd64-ima…
    :end quote

    everyone referring to this as x86 seems to be implying it is 32 bit which doesn’t seem very useful unless you are using it for retro gaming.

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