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The Raspberry Pi is the undisputed king of cheap, small, single-board computers (SBCs). Since its 2012 release, it has sold over 25 million units, making it one of the most popular computers of all time.
Unsurprisingly, many competitors are trying to take the top spot with either cheaper hardware, more power, or interesting setups. One such competitor is the NanoPi NEO4, a unique challenger to the Pi.
What Is the NanoPi NEO4?
The NanoPi NEO4 from FriendlyELEC is a $50 SBC in a smaller than average form factor. Measuring just 60 x 45mm it’s not much larger than a Raspberry Pi Zero. Despite its size, it features the Rockchip RK3399 chipset which combines dual and quad-core Cortex processors.
So it’s more powerful than any Raspberry Pi, smaller than most, and offers the same features. Could this be the Raspberry Pi Killer?
The NanoPi NEO4 in Numbers
Before taking a deeper dive into the NEO4, let’s look at the specs.
- Processor: Rockchip RK3399 Dual-core Cortex-A72 and Quad-core Cortex-A53
- RAM: 1GB DDR3-1866
- USB: 1 x USB 3.0 Type-A, 1 x USB Type-C (Supports USB 2.0 OTG and Power input), 2 x USB 2.0 (1 Type-A, 1 via 2.54mm header)
- Connectivity: Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
- GPU: Mali-T864 GPU supports OpenGL ES1.1/2.0/3.0/3.1, OpenVG1.1, OpenCL, DX11, and AFBC
- Video Processing: 4K VP9 and 4K 10bits H265/H264 60fps decoding, Dual VOP.
- Storage: MicroSD up to 128GB, eMMC socket, SSD/HDD through PCIe
- Media Output: Audio/Video via HDMI
- Pin-Header: 40 x GPIO with SPI/UART/I2C, 2 x PCIe
- Dimensions: 60 x 45mm
- Weight: 30.25g
- OS Support: Android 7.1.2 & 8.1 (eMMC Module required), Lubuntu 16.04 (32-bit), FriendlyCore 18.04 (64-bit), FriendlyDesktop 18.04 (64-bit), Armbian (3rd)
Buy: NanoPi NEO4 from FriendlyELEC
What NanoPi NEO4 Does Better Than Raspberry Pi
At first glance, the NEO4 blows the Raspberry Pi out of the water. Its processor is much faster, and while it doesn’t have more memory, the DDR3 RAM is better quality. The addition of USB 3.0 and the extensibility that an eMMC port and PCI Express (PCIe) brings are also lacking on the Pi.
While size isn’t necessarily a factor for many, the tiny frame of the NEO4 will undoubtedly be a draw for those embedding the board into their hardware projects. It can support multiple operating systems and seems to fit into every place the Raspberry Pi already does. The extra $15 cost isn’t much for the additional features you get.
The Advantages of the NEO4
The promise of 4K video will make the NEO4 an attractive upgrade to people using a Pi as a media server. The small size fits this use case well, and it’ll be even more suitable for mounting to the rear of a screen.
The powerful CPU will also make it highly desirable as a small server. FriendlyELEC provides the FriendlyDesktop/Core operating system based on Ubuntu 18.04, which supports Docker, making it perfect for modern container based web development.
Since the NEO4 has a PCIe port and supports Gigabit Ethernet, it would also make a powerful DIY NAS system. So far it seems like it has the Raspberry Pi beat. Is this all as good as it sounds?
The Disadvantages of the NEO4
As the thorough rundown in the video above by YouTuber MickMake shows, the 4K video capabilities seem a little spotty, among some other issues.
While this might be a deal breaker for many, most SMB media servers perform poorly with 4K, so the NEO4 isn’t alone. Anyone looking for a fully fledged media server should likely be looking for something more powerful.
Some users have reported that the FriendlyDesktop/Core 18.04 OS is not stable enough for day to day use. This won’t be a problem for power users who are happy about installing a new operating system or getting under the hood of the provided one. It could be a deal breaker for those looking for a day to day system, especially given that you can use the Raspberry Pi as a desktop computer without these issues.
Can NanoPi NEO4 Replace Your Raspberry Pi?
The NanoPi NEO4 looks attractive on the surface, but it’s unlikely to usurp the Raspberry Pi any time soon. Its small form factor is a big draw, but it’s also a drawback. No Raspberry Pi HATs will be fully compatible with the irregular sized GPIO pins.
What about the Pi Zero? The NEO4 certainly seems to have it beaten. While it is true that the NEO4 will outperform the Pi Zero, the bulky heatsink makes the size comparison unfair.
There’s nothing wrong with the NanoPi NEO4. It’s powerful, small, and feature packed. There just doesn’t seem to be anything that sets it aside other than its size. It runs into issues here and there, but in reality, almost all SBCs do.
Using a Raspberry Pi isn’t always plain sailing either. The difference is, the Pi’s popularity has generated a huge online community who have encountered the majority of problems before you.
Don’t count out FriendlyELEC just yet though, if you can stretch to $65 you can get the NanoPi M4. The optional 4GB of RAM make it one of the more powerful SBCs on the market. The M4 has the potential to be the real Pi killer.
Small Boards, Big Potential
The NanoPi NEO4 is an excellent little SBC, and well worth the $50 entry fee. It just doesn’t take what the Pi is and improve on it like the NodeMCU did to Arduino.
The beauty of almost all SBCs is that they are similar enough to be interchangeable. Whichever board you get, install Raspbian, then do something awesome with it!