Single-Board Computer Review and Roundup

Mark Harris
|  Created: August 12, 2020
Single-Board Computer Review and Roundup

Single-board computers offer an interesting way to get started with a project that needs more computing power than a microcontroller. Whether you’re looking to develop something which will have an embedded microprocessor running a Linux system, or you’re looking to build something lower volume and make use of an embedded processor module, or make the single board computer the basis of your project there’s something available for everyone.

Single-board computers really took off with the introduction of the Raspberry Pi in 2012. Small form factor computers have been around for a long time, but since the release of the Pi we have seen a massive uptake in the number of users of such systems. With the increasing number of users, there has been an expansion of the community surrounding them - providing better support and more options for getting advice and guidance on how to implement your project ideas. Prior to the Pi one of the most popular systems was the BeagleBoard. However, the Pi has had far more influence on the single board computer market, with many boards copying the Pi’s layout and connectivity.

Prior to the revolution in single board computers, you would have needed to use a development kit with a reference implementation that may have been very board specific. Often you would not have been able to get very much support for it from the manufacturer or the board had no community built up around it. I owned several development kits that supported Linux, Android, and other operating systems; however, it was often a real hassle to get to a project started, at least with a small team, using these kits. Single-board computers nowadays have more powerful hardware, modern up to date operating systems, and great communities built around them. A major advantage of these systems is the community that keeps the operating system up to date and continuously adds new drivers and hardware support.

I've compiled a single-board computer that review for some of the best options available today, and why you might want to use them to get your next project started.

Raspberry Pi 3 Model B

While not the latest Raspberry Pi model, the Pi 3 Model B is probably the most popular single-board computer on the market today. If you don’t need all the capabilities of the Raspberry Pi 4, version 3 offers a lower price and still has plenty of capabilities. The Model 3 B has gigabit Ethernet; however, it’s throughput is limited by its implementation to the maximum speed of the USB 2.0 bus, giving you a real-world performance of around 225Mbps, rather than the 950Mbps of the model 4.

On the board are all the peripherals you expect from a computer: four full-sized USB 2.0 Ports, wired and wireless networking, HDMI and LCD outputs, stereo audio output, and a camera interface over MIPI. Every board in the Raspberry Pi range has a 40 pin IO connector that breaks out some lower-level peripherals and IO for implementing your project. Pi extension boards (called hats) are easily found with almost any functionality you might desire. The board uses a microSD card socket for installing the operating system and internal storage, which allows a lot of flexibility in terms of storage capacity. In addition to the microSD, you can also mount USB connected drives, allowing you to utilize terabytes of storage, although only at USB 2.0 speeds.

As mentioned above, the wired Ethernet connector is limited by USB 2.0 speeds, which is likely not an issue for many Internet of Things type projects. You also get WiFi for disconnected operation. The CSI camera interface is suitable for machine vision. However, the processing of the Pi 3 is only just acceptable for basic applications. The DSI display interface allows the Pi to easily be used for a human/machine interface or kiosk type project.

For me, the major advantage of the Raspberry Pi is the community behind it. You can usually find an implementation of something similar to what you’re trying to achieve as an open source project, which can provide a great starting point. The community support is excellent, and there are so many resources available to learn how to do pretty much anything with the Pi.

CPU

Broadcom BCM2837
4 x ARM Cortex-A53 1.2Ghz
64bit ARMv7 Architecture @40nm

GPU

1 x VideoCore IV 250MHz

RAM

1GB 32bit LPDDR2 450MHz

Flash Storage

Micro-SD @ 50Mhz/SDR25

USB 2.0 Host

4 Ports

Ethernet/LAN

10 / 100 Mbit/s / Limited Gigabit

Video output

HDMI 1.4 / RCA / DSI

Audio Output

MDMI / 3.5mm Jack / I2S

Camera Input

MIPI CSI 1080p

Real Time Clock

No (unless using an add-on module)

IR Receiver

No (unless using an add-on module)

IO Expansion

40 pin port

GPIO / UART / SPI / I2S

ADC

No (unless using an add-on board)

Power

USB Micro 2.0 5V 2.5A

Size

85 x 56 mm

Weight

42g 

Price

US$35


Raspberry Pi 4

The Raspberry Pi 4 offers similar connectivity to the model 3, however with a new faster processor, Bluetooth 5, true gigabit Ethernet and USB 3.0 ports. For many computer users, the Pi 4 has sufficient power and capability that it can easily replace a desktop computer. It's more than capable of most office tasks. If your IoT application requires a lot of processing power for applications such as machine vision, a lot of connectivity, or a huge amount of storage, the Pi 4 is a great choice.

The Pi 4 can also make a great edge server for low-cost IoT data collection nodes. It provides a local database/web server for nodes to submit data to, prior to the data being transferred to cloud services - providing a highly reliable system that provides a highly reliable system that can withstand intermittent connectivity to the web.

With the increased processing capabilities and connectivity options comes an increased power draw. The Pi 4 switched to a USB type C connector for input power to allow the supply of 5V/3A over the 2.5A limit from the previous model. In addition to the additional power requirements, the Pi 4 needs significantly more cooling than the previous model. While a Pi 3 can generally be placed in a fully sealed enclosure without much, the Pi 4 will need some thought on the thermal aspects of a sealed implementation.

CPU

Broadcom BCM2711, Quad core Cortex-A72 (ARM v8) 64-bit SoC @ 1.5GHz

GPU

Broadcom VideoCore VI

RAM

1GB, 2GB or 4GB LPDDR4-3200 SDRAM (depending on model)

Flash Storage

microSD

USB 2.0

2 Ports

USB 3.0 

2 Port

Ethernet/LAN

10 / 100 / 1000  Mbit/s 

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 5.0, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

Video/Audio output

2 × micro-HDMI ports (up to 4kp60 supported), 2-lane MIPI DSI display port, 4-pole stereo audio and composite video port

Camera Input

2-lane MIPI CSI camera port

Real Time Clock

No (unless using an add-on module)

IR Receiver

No (unless using an add-on module)

IO Expansion

40-pin GPIO header, populated

ADC

No (unless using an add-on board)

Power

5V DC via USB-C connector (minimum 3A), 5V DC via GPIO header (minimum 3A)

Size

85 x 56 mm

Weight

42g 

Price 

US$55


ODROID C2 

ODROID makes several single-board computers that give more application-specific possibilities. Their products are more expensive than the Raspberry Pi. However, they do have some interesting possibilities with a similar layout to the Raspberry Pi, and a similar 40 pin connector. This makes an ODROID single-board computer easy to use with various accessories and expansion boards designed for the Pi.

The ODROID C2 is a solid competitor to the Raspberry Pi 3B. It is significantly faster and has a powerful GPU. In addition to faster processing, the C2 has true gigabit Ethernet and SD card access. The C2 also has some interesting additional features on board compared to the Pi, with an IR receiver and onboard ADC. The onboard ADC could be a significant bonus for a project integrating with analog sensors.

The ODROID community is fairly large, and there is a range of operating systems available for the C2. However, it is not as large as the Pi community (no other single-board computer community is).

ODROID XU4

As mentioned above, ODROID has several different form factors. The XU4 breaks away from the Raspberry Pi style; however, it is a similar size. This board has a very powerful octa-core processor with the same GPU as the C2 plus a 3D accelerator. With all this processing power, the board comes complete with a cooling fan and heatsink, as it needs to be actively cooled under moderate to high load. 

While this is a very powerful and capable single-board computer, it has a couple of drawbacks. Namely, it’s IO pins are 1.8V. You will need to use a level converter to use most accessories and sensors you would use with other single board computers. That being said, if you’re looking for processing power and graphics acceleration, it’s an excellent option.

Similar to the C2, the XU4 also has an IR receiver and ADC onboard. Where the Raspberry Pi Model 4 needs a 3A power supply, the XU4 recommends a 4A due to its massive processing power.

CPU

Samsung Exynos5422 ARM® Cortex™-A15 Quad 2.0GHz/Cortex™-A7 Quad 1.4GHz

GPU

3 x ARM Mali-450 MP 700MHz

RAM

2Gbyte LPDDR3 RAM PoP (750Mhz, 12GB/s memory bandwidth, 2x32bit bus)

3D Accelerator

Mali™-T628 MP6 OpenGL ES 3.1 / 3.0 / 2.0 / 1.1 and OpenCL 1.2 Full profile

Flash Storage

eMMC module socket : eMMC 5.0 Flash Storage (up to 64GByte) MicroSD Card Slot (up to 128GByte)

USB 2.0

HighSpeed USB standard A type connector x 1 port

USB 3.0

SuperSpeed USB standard A type connector x 2 port

Ethernet/LAN

10 / 100 / 1000 Mbit/s

Video output

HDMI 1.4a with a Type-A connector

Audio Output

HDMI Digital audio output. Optional USB sound card

HDD/SSD SATA interface

SuperSpeed USB (USB 3.0) to Serial ATA3 adapter for 2.5″/3.5″ HDD and SSD storage

WiFi 

USB IEEE 802.11 ac/b/g/n 1T1R WLAN with Antenna (External USB adapter)

Camera Input

USB 720p

Real Time Clock

No (unless using an add-on module)

IR Receiver                 

Yes (on-board IR sensor)

IO Expansion

22 GPIO pins and 2 AIN (analog input) pins, SPI, UART, I2C, soft I2C

ADC

10bit SAR 2 channels

Power

4.8Volt~5.2Volt  (5V/4A Power supply is recommended)

Size

83 x 58 x 20 mm

Weight

38g

Price

US$59


Asus Tinker

Asus is a giant of desktop and laptop computers, and their entry into the single-board computer space is very interesting. The board follows the Raspberry Pi style. However, it has some great additions, such as a colour-coded 40 pin header. Meanwhile, it lacks USB 3.0, which is now a basic interface one would expect to find on a single-board computer, but it does provide a number of standard interfaces through the 40-pin header.

Asus’s manufacturing and engineering prowess are extremely evident with the copious amount of components on the board, and their density. With this comes a significant bump in low-level communication protocols on the 40 pin header compared to the Raspberry Pi, which tends to require software implementation of many protocols. The Tinker supports all the common protocols with multiple ports, making connectivity to digital sensors and peripherals a breeze. The Tinker has its own Linux-flavoured OS and supports a large range of other Linux operating systems.

CPU

Rockchip Quad-Core RK3288 processor

GPU

Integrated Graphics Processor ARM® Mali™-T764 GPU

RAM

2GB Dual Channel DDR3

3D Accelerator

 

Flash Storage

Micro SD(TF) card slot

USB 2.0

4 x USB 2.0

USB 3.0

 

Ethernet/LAN

RTL GB LAN

Video output

1 x 15-pin MIPI DSI

Audio Output

RTL ALC4040 CODEC (192K/24bit
HD Audio)

Bluetooth

Bluetooth V4.0 + EDR

WiFi

802.11 b/g/n,Upgradable i-PEX antenna header
(MHF4)

Camera Input

1 x 15-pin MIPI CSI

IO Expansion

1 x 40-pin header :
- up to 28 x GPIO pins
- up to 2 x SPI bus
- up to 2 x I2C bus
- up to 4 x UART
- up to 2 x PWM
- up to 1 x PCM/I2S
- 2 x 5V power pins
- 2 x 3.3V power pins
- 8 x ground pins
1 x 2-pin contact pin :
- 1 x PWM
- 1 x S/PDIF

ADC

No

Power

Micro USB power-in
(5V/2~2.5A power is required)

Size

83 x 58 x 20 mm

Weight

55g

Price

US$59


Banana Pi M64

Banana Pi makes a large range of Pi-compatible boards, but in this article, we’ll only look at the M64. The Banana Pis all have excellent engineering and a good community. The Banana Pi also has one of the largest distributor networks behind the Raspberry Pi, which makes it very easy to pick one up to try out.

The Banana Pi only has two USB 2.0 ports. However, it does have WiFi and Bluetooth. Depending on your project, you might find the onboard microphone interesting. The Banana Pi supports BSD, Linux, and Android operating systems.

CPU

Allwinner 64 Bit Quad Core ARM Cortex A53 1.2 GHz

GPU

Dual core Mali 400 MP2

RAM

2 GB DDR

Flash Storage

8G eMMC flash onboard MicroSD slot

USB 2.0

2 x USB 2.0 ports
1 x USB 2.0 OTG

Ethernet/LAN

10/100/1000 Mbit/s Ethernet

Video Output

HDMI port and multi-channel audio output MIPI LCD interface

Audio Output

3.5mm jack and HDMI

Audio Input

onboard microphone

WiFi

Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 4.0

IR Receiver

yes

IO Expansion

GPIO (x28) Power (+5V, +3.3V and GND)
UART, I2C, SPI or PWM

ADC

No

Power

5 V @2A

Size

92x60mm

Weight

48g

Price

US$52


Nanopi Neo4

Where other boards try to copy the Raspberry Pi layout, the Nanopi lives up to its name and is extremely compact relative to similar performance boards. Its smaller form factor and respectable processing power plus GPUs make integration into your product a more viable route than using the full-sized Raspberry Pi. The Nanopi is popular with Smart Home/Automation communities because of this.

Despite the small size, the board still supports USB 3.0, gigabit Ethernet and MIPI CSI camera interfaces, Bluetooth, and WiFi. The IO interfaces are significantly more limited than other boards in this list, making it a less ideal choice for interfacing with sensors and non-USB peripherals.

One of the interesting features of this board is the real-time clock. Having a real-time clock on board allows you to put the system into different sleep modes/low-power modes compared to other boards in this list.

CPU

big.LITTLE, Dual-Core Cortex-A72(up to 2.0GHz) + Quad-Core Cortex-A53 (up to 1.5GHz)

GPU

Mali-T864 GPU, supports OpenGL ES1.1/2.0/3.0/3.1, OpenCL, DX11, and AFBC

VPU

4K VP9 and 4K 10bits H265/H264 60fps decoding, Dual VOP

PMU

RK808-D PMIC, cooperated with independent DC/DC, enabling DVFS, sofeware power-down, RTC wake-up, system sleep mode

RAM

1GB DDR3-1866

Flash Storage

no Onboard eMMC, but has a eMMC socketm microSD

USB 2.0

2x USB 2.0 Host, one is Type-A, the other is 2.54mm header

USB 3.0

1x USB 3.0 Host Type-A

USB C

Supports USB2.0 OTG and Power input

Ethernet/LAN

10/100/1000 Mbit/s Ethernet

Video Output

HDMI 2.0a, supports 4K@60Hz, HDCP 1.4/2.2

Video Input

one 4-Lane MIPI-CSI, up to 13MP

Audio Output

HDMI

WiFi

Wi-Fi/BT: 802.11 b/g/n

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 4.0 combo module

IO Expansion

2x 3V I2C, 1x 3V UART/SPI, 1x SPDIF_TX, up to 8 x 3V GPIOs 2x PCIe
1x PWM, PowerKey
1x 1.8V 8ch-I2S
debug uart, 3V level, 1500000bps

ADC

No

RTC

Yes + backup battery pins (2.54mm pitch through-hole)

Power

5 volt @3A

Size

60 mm x 45 mm

Weight

48g

Price

US$50


BeagleBone AI

As mentioned at the start of the article, BeagleBoard was one of the first popular single-board computers. The legacy has continued. However, the popularity of the BeagleBone is far below that of the Raspberry Pi and popular Pi compatibles.

The BeagleBone is relatively expensive for the limited processing power and capabilities it features; however, the Programming Realtime Units and M4 subprocessors could make that cost well worth it depending on the project. In my opinion, the PRU is where the BeagleBone really shines. Most single board computers lack anything in the way of real-time capabilities, and with the programmable real-time units, you can do tasks such as high-speed IO. With the quadrature encoder interface, this can be used for driving servos at incredible step rates, beyond what a microcontroller is capable of. The two ARM Cortex M4 cores can allow offloading of real-time tasks and lower power usage for specific tasks.

CPU

AM5729 

2x ARM Cortex-A15 (1.5GHz)

Co-Processors

4x200-MHz PRUs, 2x ARM Cortex-M4, 2x SGX PowerVR, 2x HD video

RAM

1 GB

Flash Storage

1GB DDR3 (2x 512Mx16, dual-channel), 16GB on-board storage using eMMC, microSD card slot

USB 2.0

Type-A USB 2.0 host port

USB 3.0

Type-C USB 3.0 5Gbps Host/Client port,

Ethernet/LAN
 

Gigabit Ethernet,

Video Output
 

microHDMI, cape add-ons

Audio Output
 

microHDMI, Bluetooth, cape add-ons
 

Supported Interfaces

4x UART, 12x PWM/Timers, 2x SPI, 2x I2C, 7x A/D converter, CAN bus (w/o PHY), LCD, 3x quadrature encoder, SD/MMC

WiFi 

2.4/5GHz WiFi,

IO Expansion

72 (3.3V) (7 shared with analog)

ADC

7x Pins (3.3V) 

On Board Sensors

on-die temperature

Power

USB-C 5V

Size

86x53mm

Weight

110g

Price

US$99


LattePanda 4/64

We talked about the Raspberry Pi 4 being able to stand in as a complete PC replacement for a typical office or home PC; however, with Linux as the only operating system, it could be hard to get people to try something new if they are used to Windows. The LattePanda 4 runs an Intel Quad Core CPU, which allows it to run full Windows 10.

This makes it the only board in this list that can run Windows. It’s also the most expensive board on this list, yet still far cheaper than a computer. That being said, this is also the most expensive LattePanda model. With a full Intel CPU, 4GB of RAM, a decent amount of onboard flash storage, and an Intel GPU, this is an interesting option. The cheapest model in the lineup has 2GB of ram and 32GB of flash storage on board.

It also features an ATMega32U4, the same 8-bit processor used by basic Arduino boards, which offers basic real-time processing capabilities. There are 20 GPIOs from the ATMega, and 6 from the Intel CPU exposed. In addition to this, there are 6 “Gravity” connectors. With HDMI and MIPI-DSI outputs, connecting to a display to run as a kiosk or similar is trivial, especially with the onboard touch panel connector. 

Processor
 

Intel Cherry Trail Z8350 Quad Core 1.8GHz

Co-Processors
 

ATMega32u4

GPU
 

Intel HD Graphics, 12 EUs @200-500 Mhz, single-channel memory

RAM
 

4GB DDR3L

Flash Storage

64GB

USB 2.0
 

2x

USB 3.0
 

1x

Ethernet/LAN
 

100Mbps Ethernet

Video Output
 

HDMI and MIPI-DSI

Audio Output

 

Supported Interfaces

Onboard touch panel overlay connector

WiFi 

Yes

Bluetooth
 

Yes, 4.0

IO Expansion
 

  • 6 GPIOs from Cherry Trail processor
  • 20 GPIOs from Arduino Leonardo
  • 6 Plug and play Gravity sensor connectors

Power
 

5V, 2A

Size
 

88x70mm

Weight
 

55g

Price
 

US$149


Conclusion

We’ve looked at just a small selection of options in this single-board computer review, and there are many more out there. I feel this list should give you a good review of some of the capabilities and options you'll find on the market. With a range of processing capabilities, connectivity options, interfaces, and layouts, you’re likely to find a single-board computer that can meet your desires.

If you’re just looking for a board to experiment with, it is very hard to pass up the Raspberry Pi series. With an excellent price, huge community, and more tutorials than you can poke a stick at, the Pi has a lot to offer. If your next project needs more connectivity, processing, or graphics power, then one of the other options here could be perfect for you. These boards make for excellent experimentation platforms. It’s easy to access the IO and peripherals to work with on a breadboard or build a custom expansion board that can drop right onto the single board computer. 

Would you like to find out more about how Altium can help you with your next PCB design? Talk to an expert at Altium.

About Author

About Author

Mark Harris is an engineer's engineer, with over 12 years of diverse experience within the electronics industry, varying from aerospace and defense contracts to small product startups, hobbies and everything in between. Before moving to the United Kingdom, Mark was employed by one of the largest research organizations in Canada; every day brought a different project or challenge involving electronics, mechanics, and software. He also publishes the most extensive open source database library of components for Altium Designer called the Celestial Database Library. Mark has an affinity for open-source hardware and software and the innovative problem-solving required for the day-to-day challenges such projects offer. Electronics are passion; watching a product go from an idea to reality and start interacting with the world is a never-ending source of enjoyment. 

You can contact Mark directly at: mark@originalcircuit.com

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