The Raspberry Pi changed DIY computing completely. In the years since its release, the pocket sized computer has proved to be the multi-tool of DIY software and hardware crossover development. We have covered it extensively, with beginner guides for people new to the board, along with projects to tackle to put your Pi to use. Since its release, several competitors have joined the market. Today we will take a look some notable alternatives to the Pi, along with some higher end computers which follow a similar function.
First on the list is the Rock64 Media Board Computer from Pine64. Designed to be a direct competitor to the Pi, this board does have a few key advantages over the Pi.
The board comes in at a number of prices, reflecting the amount of on-board RAM required. For a fair comparison we’ll look at the 2 GB version, as at $34.95 it competes with the Pi 3. At the time of writing the Rock64 hasn’t shipped, though its setup looks extremely promising. The 1.5 GHz Rockchip RK3328 quad-core processor outstrips the Pi 3. The Rock64 has double the RAM of its Pi counterpart, along with a socket to add bootable eMMC storage. It comes with the familiar full complement of GPIO pins.
Other plus points include a Gigabit Ethernet port, and while the Rock64 has one less USB port, it has a single USB 3.0 port along with two USB 2.0. The HDMI output on the Rock64 supports 4K at 60 frames per second (FPS).
This board seems like a no brainer then? Well it isn’t without its limitations. It has no on-board support for Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, while the Pi 3 has both. The Rock64 must be powered by a +5v 3A barrel jack, and while this isn’t a massive deal it is not as convenient as the micro USB cable required to power the Pi.
The power and connection speed this board brings to the table, along with its potential for being attached to external storage make it perfect for running a powerful server. There are several distributions of Linux that run on the Pi already, but if you need something with a bit more punch, the Rock64 is a very strong contender.
2. NanoPi NEO Plus2
Another strong contender from FriendlyArm is the NanoPi NEO Plus2. The Allwinner H5 quad-core 64-bit Cortex A53 processor can outperform the Pi 3 on paper, though that is not the main draw here.
This board combines a huge amount of features with a tiny footprint, coming in at half the size of its Raspberry counterpart. It too boasts a Gigabit Ethernet port, and also on board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections. It has 8GB of on board eMMC storage alongside its MicroSD slot, and has an identical 1GB of DDR3 RAM. All of these features come at a lower price point as well, as the board is available for just $24.99 from the FriendlyArm website.
Now this board while incredibly versatile is not without its problems. It comes with no HDMI port, as the board is designed to be used headless through its Ubuntu Core operating system. This means you will need to be comfortable with using your Pi with SSH. There is no direct audio out, though there are connections on the board for you to wire up an output yourself.
USB communication with the board can only be achieved with a USB-to-TTL cable. While this only adds a few dollars to your order, it is all worth bearing in mind. The board also only has two USB ports, although it does support being powered from its on board MicroUSB port much like the Pi.
With its tiny size and impressive array of features, this board is a real contender. While the Pi still wins if you want to make a home media center, the tiny size of the Plus2 makes it an attractive option for more advanced users.
3. Banana Pi
The Banana Pi appeared not long after the Raspberry Pi’s rise. Some of the boards they have released seem more like direct clones, but today we will be looking at the M2 Berry. This board fits the comparison criteria, with similar processing power courtesy of an Allwinner V40 SoC, and 1 GB of DDR3 SDRAM. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth come as standard, along with a Gigabit Ethernet connector.
The board is comparable to the Raspberry in many ways. It is the same size, and available from Aliexpress for the same price as the Pi 3. It has the same number of USB 2.0 ports, the same connectors for a camera and a digital display.
It does pack a few extra features though. The network chip on the Banana is separate, so the bandwidth isn’t throttled by other systems on the board. It also has a SATA port, allowing storage to be attached to the board directly. This, in combination with the on board microphone and camera port, would make a perfect home-brew security system.
The Banana Pi is also not without its issues. The board has a much smaller community, and the Bananian image designed for use with the boards has been discontinued. While there are many other operating systems which are compatible, at the same price it is likely more convenient to simply use a Raspberry Pi 3. If you are interested in something a little different with a few different features, the Banana Pi might well be worth a look. With the clone-of-a-clone Orange Pi available for even cheaper, it won’t break the bank to get one of these boards to tinker with.
Moving away from direct Raspberry Pi comparisons, it is worth looking into some of the boards attacking things from different angles.
The Espressobin approaches the Single Board Computer a little differently. Designed with storage and networking in mind, it has a dedicated Topaz network switch utilizing three Ethernet ports along with SATA connectors, allowing it to act as a sever, router, or pretty much anything you want it to be.
This board has no video out, and once again is likely not a good choice for beginners. It does have a USB 3.0 port, along with one further USB 2.0. The option to attach further peripherals through its miniPCIe port somewhat makes up for the lack of on-board Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities.
The board has a 64bit processor made by Marvell, who launched the board on Kickstarter, and are currently in the process of delivering boards to early backers. This board is available for $49 on Amazon. While this costs a little more than our previous choices, this is a very specialized board that in the right circumstances can do much more than the Raspberry Pi or any of its brethren.
The LattePanda first appeared in 2015, and made quite a splash with its powerful Cherry Trail Z8350 quad-core processor. Produced by DFRobot, the board has an integrated Atmega32u4 making it Arduino compatible, and runs Windows 10 as its main operating system. This board is designed to be in every way, a step up from cheap hobby development boards.
This step up also comes with a jump in price. The LattePanda is available for $209, making it the most expensive board we have looked at today — although lower spec models are available for $89. This higher price tag is justified however, if you need something this powerful for your projects, or are generally more comfortable working in a Windows 10 environment.
There are many reasons to use an official Raspberry Pi, the community is huge and well supported, they are cheap, and as a whole they are reliable. This article has shown however, that sometimes there are alternatives that may make more sense. Sometimes, you might even realize you shouldn’t be using a Pi at all.
There are many more competitors out there than we have mentioned today, and the only way to decide what to get is by comparing the hardware and seeing how well supported it is by the online community. You might just come across the perfect board for a fraction of the price you expected to pay. Maybe the micro:bit will draw you in, especially with its range of accessories.
Have you used any of these boards? Is there a board we have forgotten that we really shouldn’t have? Let us know in the comments section below.
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