When it comes to single board computers, the Raspberry Pi is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Sure, it’s not the most powerful, or the most compact, or even the cheapest. But its devotees are legion.
The current version is the Raspberry Pi Model 3 B+, released for “International Pi Day” on 14 March 2018. Topline specs are 1.4GHz 64-bit quad-core processor, dual-band wireless LAN, Bluetooth 4.2/BLE, faster Ethernet, and Power-over-Ethernet support (with separate PoE HAT).
Sounds like a tidy package, right? Retailing for $35, it’s perfect for a variety of DIY projects, whether it’s connecting your 3D printer to a network, or learning to code, or putting together a streaming media hub.
Well, the truth of the matter is, where Raspberry Pi blazed a trail for single board computers, a multitude of imitators have followed in its wake. And there’s a sizeable group of people who do need something more powerful, or more compact, or even cheaper.
Without further ado, here’s a selection of the best Raspberry Pi alternatives you can buy in 2018. It’s a fast moving market, where a byte-sized contender will appear and disappear in the fritz of a neuron. And you’re taking a risk with available software or community support, which cannot hope to rival the RPi.
But if you’re feeling brave, these are the single board computers worthy of consideration.
The Tinker Board S is the second iteration of a single board computer by Asus, a major PC manufacturer.
Immediately obvious is that it has the exact same size, layout, feature set, and 40-pin connector as a standard Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. That means the Tinker Board S can function as a drop-in replacement for any fruity computers you already have in circulation. But why would you want to do that?
That brings us to the second point, which concerns the specs. While an RPi is substantially cheaper, the Tinker Board S has a faster — albeit still 32-bit — processor, the Rockchip RK3288 (4x Cortex-A17 @ 1.8GHz). It also has a more powerful Mali T760 GPU, 2GB RAM, and Gigabit Ethernet instead of Fast Ethernet.
This Raspberry Pi alternative also has 16GB of built-in eMMC memory and supports upscaled 4K/30fps playback. Other features include WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and 4x USB 2.0 ports, plus microSD, micro-USB, and HDMI interfaces. Oh, and something called a smart audio jack.
A growing community site has a forum and other resources to get you started. In addition to TinkerOS, a fork of Debian Linux, there are images for Android and Armbian, plus emerging support from applications like Retropie and Volumio.
Ah, but there’s a catch. Isn’t there always? The Tinker Board S has a suggested retail price of $89, though the older Tinker Board (which omits the 16GB eMMC) can be found for as low as $50.
The Odroid-XU4 is a next generation single board computer with more powerful, more energy-efficient hardware. Tellingly, it chooses to abandon copying the RPi dimensions for a marginally smaller form-factor.
This Raspberry Pi alternative boasts a Samsung Exynos5422 (4x Cortex-A15 @ 2.0GHz and 4x Cortex-A7 @ 1.4GHz) CPU, combined with a Mali-T628 MP6 GPU and 2GB RAM. It can run various flavors of Linux, including the latest Ubuntu 16.04 and Android 4.4 KitKat, 5.0 Lollipop and 7.1 Nougat.
Thanks to the eMMC 5.0, USB 3.0 and Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, the ODROID-XU4 will have blazing fast data transfer speeds. To the general user, this equates to faster bootup, web browsing, networking, and even 3D gaming. The price is $59, but it’s still missing the WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity.
The Rock64 Media Board comes loaded with a 1.5GHz Rockchip RK3328 64-bit quad-core A53 processor and a Mali-450 MP2 GPU. It ships in three configurations offering 1GB ($25), 2GB ($35), and 4GB ($45) of 1600MHz LPDDR3 RAM.
This single board computer has the same form-factor as a Raspberry Pi 3, but the Rockchip is a little bit faster than the Broadcom processor found on the RPi Model 3 B+. Plus, at the same $35 price point you can get double the RAM (whereas the 1GB model is $10 cheaper).
There’s also a bootable eMMC socket alongside the more typical MicroSD, so it’s possible to add 16GB ($14), 32GB ($19), or 64GB ($31) directly to the board
Another key difference is that this Raspberry Pi alternative has one less USB port, but one of the three is USB 3.0. There is also HDMI 2.0 and Gigabit Ethernet support. Unfortunately the Rock64 doesn’t include wireless functionality, so you’ll have to add a USB dongle. There’s also no DSI (display) and CSI (camera) interfaces, but there is a dedicated power jack and it supports 4K at 60fps.
In terms of operating system support, there’s initially Debian and Yocto Linux with more to follow. Android 7.1 and Android with Kodi 16.1 can also be run.
It often gets confused with the Raspberry Pi, due to their shared roots in budget hardware and STEM education, but they are not the same.
An Arduino is based around microcontrollers, whereas a Raspberry Pi is based around a microprocessor connected to on-board RAM and other features.
While both boards can control electronics attached to their pins, the Pi is also capable of being used as a full desktop computer. Conversely, the Arduino is easier to use when building electronic prototypes, and also to swap out for a new microcontroller in the final product.
Indeed, beating at the heart of the vast majority of desktop 3D printers — the fused deposition modeling kind, at any rate — is a thing called a RAMBo. This is not a bandana-wearing paragon of American military virtue, but an acronym for RepRap Arduino-compatible Mother Board.
So the question is, what’s the right tool for your project? If it’s being used to power something like a robot, a NERF gun turret or a 3D printer, then the Arduino is a suitable Raspberry Pi alternative.
The BBC micro:bit is a bare-bones micro-controller with a pedigree that goes all the way back to the 1980s. It takes its name from the original BBC Micro, an 8-bit home computer that, for many schoolkids in the UK, was their very first experience of computer programming.
Continuing this educational legacy, the BBC micro:bit is a $16 device with an ARM Cortex-M0 processor, accelerometer and magnetometer sensors, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, a display consisting of 25 LEDs, and two programmable buttons. This Raspberry Pi alternative can be powered by either USB or an external battery pack.
In technical terms, it’s nowhere near as powerful or as versatile as other single board computers on this list. But as a low-cost, accessible introduction to coding and other basic projects, the BBC micro:bit is a fantastic Raspberry Pi alternative. Indeed, the two can be paired to work together.
Wait, what? The Raspberry Pi Zero W listed as a Raspberry Pi alternative? Yeah, it sounds crazy, but hear us out. For a mere $10, this dinky little RPi is a fantastic option for Internet of Things projects where space is at an absolute premium.
The 65 x 30mm Zero upgrades the same ARM11 processor found on the Raspberry Pi A+ and B+ to 1GHz speed and 512MB RAM. This single board computer ships with a microSD slot, a pair of micro-USB ports, and a mini-HDMI port with audio support.
Plus, it has the same Cypress CYW43438 wireless chip found on the $35 Raspberry Pi 3, providing 802.11 b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.1 with BLE.
On the downside, this Rapsberry Pi alternative missing all the USB ports and audio jacks found on the RPi 2 and 3, through for a little extra you can buy a RPi Zero with presoldered headers for enhanced connectivity.
ThePocketBeagle is a single board computer from BeagleBone, which just about qualifies as a Raspberry Pi alternative thanks to its microSD slot and micro-USB port.
This tiny titan is built around an Octavo Systems OSD3358 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 and integrated 512MB DDR3 RAM. It’s about 56 x 35mm big, about the same size as the equally minimalist Raspberry Pi Zero.
The idea is that you can plug this Raspberry Pi alternative into a laptop like a USB key-fob. From there, you can program the device using a web browser that provides access to the Linux command-line and text editor.
The PocketBeagle costs $25, which is substantially more than a RPi Zero for similar specs, but it’s still cheaper and smaller than a full-sized RPi3.
The Odroid-C2 has the same 85 x 56mm size and layout as the Raspberry Pi 3, but raises the technical specs to a Amlogic ARM Cortex-A53 1.5Ghz quad core CPU and Mali-450 GPU.
Elsewhere, the Odroid-C2 has 2GB RAM, and storage options go up to 64GB eMMC or a 16GB microSD card. This Raspberry Pi alternative can output 4K @ 60Hz video, and has gigabit ethernet and HDMI ports, four USB ports, and a 40-pin RPi connector.
Images are available for Android 6.0 Marshmallow or Ubuntu 16.04, based on a Linux 3.14 LTS kernel. Popular applications like Retropie are supported too.
Taken together, the specs of this single board computer are considerably greater than the RPi. But for some strange reason there’s no WiFi or Bluetooth onboard, and the price is higher at $46. Occupying one of the USB ports with a WiFi or Bluetooth dongle jacks up the inconvenience a little bit more.
TheHuawei HiKey 960 is a single board computer that can run either Android or Linux operating systems. The intriguing thing about this Raspberry Pi alternative is that it boasts the same chip as the Huawei Mate 9, one if Huawei’s best-performing smartphones.
It has a Kirin 960 SoC Quad Core ARM chip (4 x 2.3GHz ARM A73 cores, and 4 x 1.8GHz ARM A53 cores). There’s 3GB RAM, and the Mali G71 MP8 GPU has enough throughout to power a 4K screen. Other hardware features include 40-pin and 60-pin connectors for attaching cameras, cooling fans, and more.
Alas, while this single board computer is something of a pocket powerhouse, the recommended retail price is a stonking $239. To procure one entails a kick to the wallet like a donkey with a sore tooth.
The Pine A64-LTS is a $32 Raspberry Pi alternative with microSD, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet, audio jack, dual USB 2.0, and micro-USB ports. This single board computer is 127 x 79mm and has a Pi-compatible 40-pin connector and a 14-pin Euler connector.
The topline tech specs are a quad-core ARM Cortex A53 1.2GHz 64-bit processor with and Mali-400 MP2 GPU and 2GB RAM system memory. There is also an optional eMMC module of up to 128GB and microSD booting capability. But perhaps the most important feature is the LTS moniker, with translates to Long Term Support guaranteed for 5 years.
Linux distros it can support include Android 6.0/7.1, Remix OS 2.0, Debian Jesse Mate, and Ubuntu Mate 16.04. The boards are further compatible with openSUSE, Armbian, Arch, Fedora, Gentoo, and more.
Pine64 has also launched an open source Pinebook laptop based on the same A64 processor, which sells for $89 (11.6-inch) or $99 (14-inch).
The Banana Pi M64 is a single board computer with a quad-core Allwinner A64 1.2GHz CPU, plus Mali-400 MP2 GPU, 2GB RAM and 8GB eMMC. Inside this Raspberry Pi alternative you have 4K-ready HDMI, MIPI-DSI, and MIPI-CSI, as well as onboard wireless and Gigabit Ethernet connections. The 92 x 60mm board also has a trio of USB host ports, a micro-USB, and an RPi compatible 40-pin connector. It currently retails for $60.
The Orange Pi Plus2 is a Raspberry Pi alternative that can run distributions such as Lubuntu, Raspbian, and Android on a quad-core, 1.6GHz Allwinner H3. This 108 x 67mm single board computer also has a Mali-400 MP2 GPU and 2GB DDR3 RAM plus 8GB eMMC. It also has an RPi-compatible 40-pin connector, plus four USB host ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and WiFi. The Orange Pi Plus2 is further equipped with micro-USB, microSD, SATA, HDMI, CVBS, and CSI connections.
The NanoPC-T3 Plus is a single board computer with an octa-core Samsung S5P6818 1.4GHz CPU, a Mali-400 MP GPU, 2GB DDR3 RAM and 16GB eMMC. This Raspberry Pi alternative measures 100 x 64 x 11.8mm, and has 3 x USB 2.0 ports. It has WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and a Gigabit Ethernet port, as well as microSD and micro-USB client connections.
Media-friendly ports include HDMI, LVDS, LCD, MIPI-DSI, MIPI-CSI, and audio. In place of the 40-pin RPi connector, the NanoPC-T3 Plus provides a 30-pin GPIO header. OS supports includes Android, Debian, and the Ubuntu Core 16.04 based FriendlyCore. It currently retails for $75.
This $45 single board computer is equipped with a quad-core A53 S905X up to 2GHz, with a Mali-450 MP2 GPU, 2GB DDR3 RAM and an optional 8GB to 64GB eMMC. Le Potato has the same size, port layout, and basic feature set as the Raspberry Pi 3, including 4x USB host ports, Fast Ethernet, and 40-pin expansion, but there’s no WiFi or Bluetooth.
On the plus side, the HDMI port of this Raspberry Pi alternative is 2.0 with 4K support. The board ships with schematics and source code for Linux 4.14 LTS, Buildroot with Linux 4.9, Armbian Debian and Ubuntu, LibreELEC 9, and Android builds up to 8.0 (Oreo).
LattePanda occupies a unique position as a Raspberry Pi alternative; it’s the first single board computer to run a full version of Windows 10, which comes preinstalled. To make such a thing possible, it boasts an Intel Atom Cherry Trail Z8300 Quad Core 1.8GHz processor with 2GB DDR3 RAM and Intel HD Graphics GPU.
It also has three USB ports, integrated WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0, and an Arduino-compatible co-processor that allows it to be used like an Arduino board to control electronics attached to its 20 GPIO pins. Elsewhere, there’s support for HDMI and Fast Ethernet, and a microSD slot that supports up to 32 GB storage.
Reports on usage are that the LattePanda tends to run rather hot, so you’ll need to investigate a cooling solution to avoid throttling of the CPU. Also, it’s rather expensive at $119. For that price, you could buy 12 Raspberry Pi Zero W units and rack ’em up in a processing cluster.
License: The text of "Best Single Board Computers 2018 (Raspberry Pi Alternatives)" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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