It’s time for a change. You need a new challenge. Scattered around your house (or just your hobby space) are several Raspberry Pi computers, all performing different tasks. You might have a home security system powered by your Pi, or a media centre. Perhaps you converted an old non-wireless printer into a wireless printer using the Raspberry Pi, or you’re hosting a website, or even an automated Twitter account.
Put simply, you feel as though you have mastered the Raspberry Pi, that there is nowhere else left to go.
You’re wrong: take a look at these five alternatives, each of which can open a whole new world of DIY technology to you.
But First: What to Look For in a Raspberry Pi Alternative
Most people use the Raspberry Pi Model B or B+, so we’re going to use this as our baseline for comparison. Although the new Raspberry Pi 2 is a strong alternative in itself, we’re going to proceed assuming that you’re “Pi’d out” enough to want to leave the platform behind, quad core or not.
To this end, we’ll compare basic specs, price and operating system, as well as highlight the key differences. By the end you should have a good idea of which Raspberry Pi alternative is for you.
For a low cost alternative to the Raspberry Pi, the first place to look is the ODroid-C1, the most basic of the ODroid series of devices that offers support for Ubuntu 14.04 and Android KitKat.
With a 1.5Ghz quad core ARM CPU, Mali-450 MP2 GPU and 1GB DDR3 SDRAM, the board has and Ethernet port, four USB 2.0 slots, and an infrared receiver. There is a micro-USB port but this is for USB OTG; unlike the Raspberry Pi, ODroid-C1 requires a DC power supply via the traditional jack.
A type D micro HDMI connector is available, and the board can be expanded and interacted with via the 40 pin GPIO header.
Beaglebone Black $55
A step up, spec wise, is the Beaglebone Black, a computer that while superior to the Pi certainly owes its continued existence to the expansion of the small computer sector which was spearheaded by the Pi’s launch.
With support for Debian, Android, Ubuntu and Cloud9 IDE, the Beaglebone Black has a 1GHz Cortex-A8 CPU, 512MB DDR3 RAM, 4GB of eMMC on-board flash storage, a 3D graphics accelerator, NEON floating-point accelerator and 2x PRU 32-bit microcontrollers. OSB OTG, USB host, Ethernet and HDMI connectors are all present, as are two 46 pin headers. A vast selection of Beaglebone Black projects are available, including the construction of a mobile gaming console.
Once touted as a Raspberry Pi successor the Beaglebone Black has built its own user base, remaining relatively successful while failing to match the popularity of the Pi.
Banana Pi $35
The Android-built Banana Pi is not quite a clone of the Raspberry Pi – more of an enhancement. Around 10% larger than the Raspberry Pi, this board has various OS options available such as a Debian variant Bananian (although the Raspberry Pi’s Raspbian is also compatible), Lubuntu, Fedora, Arch Linux and FreeBSD among others, as well as Android 4.2 and 4.4.
A Cortex A7 dual-core ARM processor, Mali-400 MP2 dual core GPU and 1GB DDR3 DRAM controls the unit, which has the Raspberry Pi-style microUSB connector. Two USB ports and a single USB OTG connector are included, along with the expected SD card slot, Ethernet connector, HDMI, camera connector, and audio output. Some differences to the Raspberry Pi include the power, reset and uboot switches mounted on the board, a user-defined LED, and IR receiver.
The Banana Pi is a curious beast, but one that offers the familiarity of the Raspberry Pi at the same time as representing an upgrade of sorts.
A slightly upgraded version, the Banana Pro, is also available.
More expensive than the Raspberry Pi but with more connectivity options, the Hummingboard comes in three models. We’re looking at the least costly option, which features Ethernet, powered USB ports (no more external hubs!), a GPIO header, HDMI, microSD slot, digital and analogue audio and an IR receiver and a camera.
Controlling this lot is a single core system on a chip processor with 512MB of memory and GC880 GPU. Power comes to the board via microUSB, and the Hummingboard-i1 can run XBMC and Linux. Additional options are available with the other models, as well as additional cost. If you’re looking at a home media project that is more powerful than that offered by the Pi, this should be your choice.
Minnowboard Max $99
Finally we have the single core version of the Minnowboard Max, an open source board with an Intel Atom CPU (1.46GHz, 64-bit). This particular component enables the device to run Windows 8.1, as well as Debian, Android 4.4 and is Yocto Project Compatible (it also runs, unofficially, Fedora, Linux Mint and CentOS).
The $99 version (an upgraded $139 alternative is also available) features 1GB DDR3 RAM, Intel HD graphics, HDMI out, microSD card slot, SATA2 connector, Ethernet, USB 3.0 and USB 2.0, GPIO pins and UEFI firmware option.
Put simply, this is a collision between a Raspberry Pi-style project board and a Windows PC. The Minnowboard Max was used in the building of a K9 robot from the popular British TV series Doctor Who – this video tells you more…
That’s five top alternatives to the Raspberry Pi, but which will you chose? Do you know of one we have missed? Tell us in the comments!