It’s a fantastic little device, a low-spec computer available for under $30 – but how long will the Raspberry Pi dominate the small PC hobbyist market? Are there any competitors ready to take its place?
Available with 512 MB of RAM (258 MB on older models) and a 700 MHz GPU, the Raspberry Pi is one of the most astonishingly versatile pieces of kit on the market today. Offering the flexibility to build a media centre, retro gaming system, NAS box or even a desktop computer – along with the stated aim of providing a platform for children and students to learn software development – the Raspberry Pi is under attack from a number of competing alternatives that offer more processing power and connectivity options.
So what are these competitor devices, and do they have a chance of dislodging the Raspberry Pi from its much-loved position as king of the mini computers?
What Makes a Raspberry Pi Successor?
The specifications of the Raspberry Pi are modest, but effective. The little PC is 85.60 mm × 53.98 mm (3.370 in × 2.125 in), with a depth of just 15 mm. Before it is housed in a case, the unmodified Raspberry Pi weighs 45 grams (1.6 oz).
Although the more popular Model B was originally released with 256 MB of RAM, it now ships with 512 MB; other developments in the system specification should be expected as costs are reduced. Perhaps the real strength of the Raspberry Pi is in its connectivity options, allowing HDMI out, RCA out, audio out and the connection of various USB devices, an SD card and an Ethernet cable. There are also GPIO pins for expansions and bespoke cable connections.
Clearly, this is modest, and any computer of a similar form factor will need to look at topping these specifications. Similarly, the competing device will need to feature additional connectivity and storage options, as well as a good choice of operating systems and perhaps even an accessible BIOS or embedded OS for low-level tasks. Competitors determined to unseat the Raspberry Pi should also be looking to price their hardware in the same sub-$50 zone.
One last word before we look at the alternatives, you’ll notice a regularly-cited Raspberry Pi competitor missing. We’ve skipped on mention of the Arduino, however, largely because it isn’t really a competitor at all. Its feature set is quite different and indeed the Pi and Arduino can be connected to work in tandem for some projects.
Israeli company CompuLab is releasing the miniature ARM-based computer Utilite later in 2013, powered by a Freescale i.MX6 system-on-chip with a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and support for up to 4 GB of RAM. In addition, four USB 2.0 ports and a single USB OTG port, two Ethernet ports, onboard 802.11 WiFi and Bluetooth are also included, along with I/O connection options and HDMI and DVI-D out are included.
1080p H.264, VC1, RV10 and DivX decoding are all available, possibly positioning this device as a multimedia solution, and OpenGL ES 1.1 and 2.0, OpenVG 1.1 and OpenCL EP are all supported by the GPU.
Available operating systems include Android and Linux, with CompuLab claiming that the device will be “offered with fully featured, desktop-grade Ubuntu Linux or Android operating systems delivering rich multimedia and PC-like user experience.”
Sounding more like one of the many PC-on-a-stick solutions that are currently around, the Utilite does seem like a computer that could take prove popular. However its $99 price point (and that’s for the basic model) puts it outside of the Raspberry Pi’s target market.
Chances of creaming the Pi – 6/10
Closer in style to the Raspberry Pi is the BeagleBoard. Of the four available models, the most basic version is the BeagleBone Black, priced at $45.
Hardware wise, BeagleBone Black uses the same Package on Package (POP) CPU/Memory chip concept as the Pi, saving space on the 86 x 53 mm mainboard. Capable of running Android and various Linux distributions, BeagleBone Black has a 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A8 core CPU, Imagination Technologies PowerVR SGX 2D/3D GPU (with support for dual displays) and 512 MB DDR3 memory.
Connectivity for this device is provided by microHDMI for audio and video out, with 2 GB 8-bit eMMC on-board flash storage, a single USB port with host capability (therefore capable of connecting HDDs, mouse, keyboard, etc., via a USB hub). Boot time is under 10 seconds, which is pretty impressive.
Produced by Texas Instruments, the original BeagleBoard actually predates the Raspberry Pi, with the first device launched in 2008. However the current BeagleBone Black model seems to have been designed to attract the same enthusiast market as the Raspberry Pi.
Can the BeagleBone Black compete with the Raspberry Pi? Well, it shares some of the ethos of the Pi, and is intended as a development platform for developers and hobbyists. It has a good chance.
Chances of creaming the Pi – 8/10
Available for just $63 (£40 in the UK), the Gooseberry is just above the Pi’s price range, and is marketed heavily as “An alternative to the Raspberry Pi.” How true is this?
With a single A10 1 GHz CPU (overclockable to 1.5 GHz), a 400 MHz Mali GPU and 4 GB of onboard storage (upgradable to 32 GB with microSD), the Gooseberry has built-in 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, a single 3.5 mm audio jack, one mini USB port, HDMI out and a microSD slot. The operating system of choice is Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and although Ubuntu can run, it requires some work beforehand.
Capable of being flashed directly over USB from a standard desktop computer, the Gooseberry is a curious piece of kit. On first glance it is like a much flatter Raspberry Pi, although it is a little larger (sadly there appears to be no record of the device’s dimensions on the official website or elsewhere, so I’m basing this entirely on the size of the peripheral connectors). However it does seem – like the Utilite – to be a device less geared for development and more towards entertainment. The fact that it is derived from a Chinese PCBA often found inside tablet computers is a good indicator of this.
The Gooseberry is a sound computer, but not quite in the same league as the Raspberry Pi when it comes to flexibility, development and hobbyist pursuits.
Chances of creaming the Pi – 6/10
What Does The Raspberry Pi’s Creator Think?
Any of the candidates above could prove a dangerous opponent to the Raspberry Pi, providing the support, PR and a strong ethos are present. But will any of them succeed?
When I met with Eben Upton early in 2013, he was confident that it would be a while before anything came along to challenge the Pi. After pointing out that there was nothing else in the sub $50 space, he observed that “The issue of threats is an interesting one, I don’t really acknowledge anything as being threatening but our aim is for there to be lots of small programmable computers. If someone builds a lot of small programmable computers that’s good.”
Conclusion: Who Will Succeed The Raspberry Pi?
The companies listed above all have clear aims in how their computers will offer more power and options than the Raspberry Pi. But whether they will manage to steal the market share away from the non-profit project is difficult to say.
Despite the strength of the BeagleBone Black, I’m inclined to think that the Raspberry Pi is here to stay, perhaps updated with extra RAM and CPU cycles every year or so and even perhaps an extra USB port.
But what do you think? Is the Raspberry Pi in an unassailable position? Does its non-profit status mean that any company attempting to replicate its success is wasting its time?
Let us know in the comments.