At the Bay Area Maker Faire last weekend, Intel was showing off a couple of sexy newcomers in the Single Board Computer (SBC) market. It’s easy to get trapped into thinking that SBCs are all about simple boards with a double-digit price tag like the Raspberry Pi. How can you compete with a $35 computer that has a huge market share and a gigantic community? You compete by appealing to a crowd not satisfied with these entry-level SBCs, and for that Intel appears to be targeting a much higher-end audience that needs computer vision along with the speed and horsepower to do something meaningful with it.
I caught up with Intel’s “Maker Czar”, Jay Melican, at Maker Faire Bay Area last weekend. A year ago, it was a Nintendo Power Glove controlled quadcopter that caught my eye. This year I only had eyes for the two new computing modules on offer, the Joule and the Euclid. They both focus on connecting powerful processors to high-resolution cameras and using a full-blown Linux operating system for the image processing. But it feels like the Joule is meant more for your average hardware hacker, and the Euclid for software engineers who are pointing their skills at robots but don’t want to get bogged down in first-principles of hardware. Before you rage about this in the comments, let me explain.
Earlier this year, a new single board computer was announced, and subsequently made its way onto the market. The Tinker Board was a little different from the rest of the crop of Raspberry Pi lookalikes, it didn’t come from a no-name company or a crowdfunding site, instead it came from a trusted name, Asus. As a result, it is a very high quality piece of hardware, upon which we remarked when we reviewed it.
Unfortunately, though we were extremely impressed with the board itself, we panned the Asus software and support offering of the time, because it was so patchy as to be non-existent. We had reached out to Asus while writing the review but received no answer, but subsequently they contacted us with a sorry tale of some Tinker Boards finding their way onto the market early, before their official launch and before they had put together their support offering. We updated our review accordingly, after all it is a very good product and we didn’t like to have to pan it in our review.
This week then, news has come through from Asus that they have now launched the board officially. There is a new OS version based on Debian 9, which features hardware acceleration for both the Chromium web browser and the bundled UHD media player. There is also an upcoming Android release though it is still in beta at time of writing and there is little more information.
The Tinker Board is one of the best of the current crop of Raspberry Pi-like single board computers, and it easily trounces the Pi itself on most counts. To see it launched alongside a meaningful software and support offering will give it a chance to prove itself. In our original review we urged tech-savvy readers to buy one anyway, now it has some of the backup it deserves we’d urge you to buy one for your non-technical family members too.
A new single-board computer by Orange Pi has popped up for sale on AliExpress. The Orange Pi 2G-IoT is designed to compete with the Raspberry Pi Zero, and if specs are anything to go by they have done a nice job.
There are a lot of options for extra small single board computers these days and there’s a growing list at the lowest price points. Let’s call it the sub-$20 cost range (to quell the argument of shipping fees). We have seen C.H.I.P., the Raspberry Pi Foundation released the Pi Zero W (an update to the Zero line that included WiFi and Bluetooth), the already available Orange Pi Zero (which was featured in a project on Monday), and now add to that list the unfortunately named Orange Pi 2G-IoT.
The 2g-IoT is sporting an ARM Cortex-A5 32bit clocked at 1GHz with 256MB DDR2 RAM. It’s nice to see 500 MB of on-board NAND to go along with an SD card slot for larger storage. It also has a CSI camera connector, WiFi, Bluetooth, an FM Radio and GSM/GPRS with a sim card slot on the bottom. It is pin compatible with Raspberry Pi’s almost standardized GPIO layout.
All this for $10 is quite impressive to say the least, especially the addition of GSM/GPRS. Will it kill Raspberry Pi Zero W sales? We think not. While the Orange Pi’s are great little computers, they don’t have the community support that is afforded to Raspberry Pi products making for less support online when you run into a problem. That’s if you can even get the thing running in the first place. The Orange Pi’s website has not yet been updated to reflect the new release. However if you are interested in getting one for yourself right now, head over to your favorite Chinese electronics supplier.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.