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2018 reader survey of 116 open-spec Linux/Android SBCs

Jun 5, 2018 — by Eric Brown — 2597 views

Vote for your favorites from our freshly updated catalog of 116 sub-$200, hacker-friendly SBCs that run Linux or Android, and you could win one of 15 prizes.

An embedded engineer awakening from a 20-year coma might find today’s hacker board scene surprising to say the least. The idea that anyone would individually sell circuit boards with fanciful, fruity names for less than the price of a pizza would be perplexing. The fact that most would give away the designs for free would be mind boggling. The fact that millions of people would buy these SBCs, and that tens of thousands would care so deeply about the boards that they would donate their time to support them would be downright incomprehensible.

And yet the open hardware experiment continues, year after year, with more and more vendors, community projects, and SBCs. Go figure.

Welcome to our fourth annual reader survey of open-spec, Linux- or Android-ready single board computers priced under $200. In coordination with Linux.com, we’ve identified 116 SBCs that fit our requirements, up from 98 boards in our June 2017 survey.

We invite you to check out our freshly updated summaries of 116 SBCs, as well as our spreadsheet that compares key features of all the boards. Our list of 116 boards has grown by 13 since our Jan. 4 New Year’s hacker catalog roundup of 103 boards, which lacked a survey component.
 

Intro to June 2018 hacker boards (You are here.)


 

Click on over to SurveyMonkey to select up to three of your favorite boards from our list and answer a handful of questions on key buying criteria and intended applications. By completing the survey, you will earn a chance to be among 15 randomly selected winners who will receive free boards generously donated to our annual survey by Aaeon UP, Qualcomm and Gumstix. Last year, 1,705 survey respondents participated, with most selecting the Raspberry Pi 3 as their first choice.

 
15 hacker SBC prizes

The prizes this time around include five Qualcomm DragonBoard 410c development boards and five Chatterbox Raspberry Pi Expansion boards from Gumstix (Rasp Pi not included). There are also five different Aaeon UP board models including an UP, an UP Squared, and an UP Core, as well as the new UP Core Plus and AI Core module with a Myriad 2 VPU.

To register for the prize giveaway, we need your contact information — but it will only be used if you are selected as a winner. (Note: You must be 18 years or older to register for the giveaway. Void where prohibited.) Once the 14-day survey period ends, we’ll compile our official list of the “Top 10 Hacker SBCs” and show rankings of all the others. Survey prize winners should receive their boards in July.

We would prefer that judgments be based on hands-on experience, but it’s not a prerequisite. Even if you’ve only learned about some of the boards from the media, by word of mouth, or from a demo at a friend’s house, store, or tech show, we’d like to hear from you. If your favorite board isn’t on the list, please add it to the comments area at the end of this article.

Below, you can read about our selection criteria, as well as some of the trends we’ve seen in the hacker board world over the last year.


[quick jumps: SBC descriptions | SBC specs table |

 
Selection criteria

Community backed SBCs running Linux and Android sit at the intersection between the commercial embedded market and the open source maker community. Hacker boards are used as desktop replacements, homegrown media centers, and Internet of Things devices such as home or industrial automation gizmos. Other applications include robots, drones, smart city equipment, signage kiosks, and much more.

All the boards in our catalog sell for under $200 for at least one of their configurations, not including shipping costs. The boards must be available for order or pre-order with shipments expected before July 1. In some cases, we’ve included crowdfunded boards that have completed funding and may not be available for pre-order at this time, but are expected to re-launch publicly in the coming months. Some of these boards are currently listed as out of stock, but if they are fairly new boards that have previously been available for sale, we have given them the benefit of the doubt that they will return soon.

Our SBC criteria requires that a board have a minimum of two real-world connections, for example a micro-USB port and microSD slot. We allow sandwich-style board-sets, with carrier boards and attached computer-on-modules, even though strictly speaking they are not actually single board computers. Another rule: Linux or Android must run on the board itself rather than on a connected desktop. As a result, we could not include the $139 LimeSDR Mini.

The boards must also meet our relatively flexible selection criteria for open source compliance. No SBC is completely open source from the hardware perspective, especially given today’s typically opaque GPUs and often sketchily documented CPUs. Relatively few of these boards explicitly claim fully open source hardware licensing, but a significant majority provide full schematics. At the very least, the SBC’s community project or vendor website must post extensive specs, as well as schematics for at least all external connections, or for the carrier board in the case of sandwich-style SBCs.

The projects must also offer at least some community and technical support for individual developers, such as forums, tutorials, and other resources for sharing tips and designs based on the SBCs. More important to most customers is the need for open source Linux or Android distributions for download that can dependably exploit the boards’ resources. In the case of new SBCs, we allow a bit of a grace period to post the above resources in a timely manner. Increasingly, projects are meeting user demands for using recent, mainline Linux kernels.

We’re willing to overlook deficits in one area for excellence in another. For example, MYIR doesn’t offer much in the way of community, but it provides technical support, full schematics, and extensive documentation. At the other extreme is the Raspberry Pi, which lacks full schematics, but offers a remarkably open GPU and provides some of the best community resources available. All of this involves some judgment calls, so please inform us of any regrettable omissions — or unfair inclusions/exclusions — and we’ll keep that in mind for the next round.

 
2018 trends in community backed SBCs

We had fewer SBCs drop off the list since January compared to the more considerable churn in late 2017. Our 2018 deletions include the retired Arduino Industrial 101, which was the last of the remaining Linux-enabled boards from Arduino. The SavageBoard project never seems to have gotten off the ground, so we removed that as well. The DragonBoard 410C, which has been out of stock for most of the year, has given way to Arrow’s new DragonBoard 820c. (Arrow and Qualcomm did have enough DragonBoard 410c boards left over, however, to generously donate them for prizes.) (See our January roundup for more on the boards that were removed in the last half of 2017.)

For the most part, the newcomers have come from established projects. We’ve seen a lot more affordable new Orange Pi (Shenzhen Xunlong) and NanoPi (FriendlyElec) SBCs to the point that for our January roundup we enforced a 10 board per project limit, and even then were forced to combine a few similar boards into single summaries. This time, we’ve expanded the limit to 15.

We’re continuing to see pricing pressure, with more and more boards selling for $20 or less, but we’re also seeing more high-end boards, an increasingly number of which are over our $200 limit. These include Lemaker’s $299, Kirin 970 based HiKey 970 and Avnet’s $249, Zynq UltraScale+ based Ultra96, both of which are high-end 96Boards SBCs. Just last week, Seco’s Udoo project successfully Kickstartered an open-spec Udoo Bolt SBC that showcases AMD’s Ryzen Embedded V1000 SoC. The SBC, which is due to ship in December, starts at $298 for a workable kit.

Many of the boards we’re seeing in the $100 to $200 range are either x86 based or built around the Rockchip RK3399, a high-end hexa-core Arm SoC with x86-like interfaces. In part, the allure is Rockchip’s superior Linux support. Meanwhile, the notoriously bad Linux support on Allwinner SoCs continues to improve, thanks to community groups like Armbian.

Arm boards continue to dominate our list, with more and more 64-bit ARMv8 models. Quad-core, Cortex-A53 SBCs such as the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B and new Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ represent the new mid-range. We have 40 64-bit Arm based boards this time compared to 20 a year ago, nine in 2016, and only two out of 53 in our 2015 survey. Surprisingly, there’s often not a huge difference in price between similar 32- and 64-bit models, although that’s often because many vendors continue to sell 64-bit boards like the Raspberry Pi 3 with only 1GB RAM when they really need 2GB.

 
Small wonders

As in 2016, vendors have continued to introduce tiny, low-cost, stripped-down IoT boards that imitate the Raspberry Pi Zero W, Orange Pi Zero, and NanoPi Neo. Newcomers include the Banana Pi BPI-M2 Magic, Banana Pi BPI-M2 Zero, NanoPi Duo, NanoPi Neo Plus2, Orange Pi 3G-IOT, and Orange Pi i96.

We’re seeing a lot more boards with eMMC flash storage and onboard wireless. Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) ports are also becoming more commonplace. The faster new RPi 3 Model B+ not only moved up to GbE, but added a Power-over-Ethernet capability. There are now six boards that have dual Ethernet ports, up from one a year ago. These include the Banana Pi BPI-W2, HummingBoard Pulse, Orange Pi R1, UP Squared, and optional Dual-Ethernet versions of the two new MinnowBoard Turbot boards.

There has been steady growth in native SATA, mini-PCIe, and M.2 interfaces, and not only on the x86 boards, but also on SBCs based on Rockchip and other high-end Arm SoCs. Also on the rise are extended temperature ranges, which signals the growing use of hacker boards in industrial projects.

Several newer SoCs such as the RK3399 and NXP i.MX8M have boosted audio support, primarily to feed demand for consumer devices with voice agent. A few boards such as the HummingBoard Pulse have tapped these capabilities to add onboard mics and support for SPDIF, I2S, and/or DSD512.

The adoption of the Raspberry Pi’s 40-pin expansion connector continues to gain ground, with varying degrees of compatibility, enabling a wider variety of third-party SBCs to make use of many if not most mainstream RPi expansion boards. The number of boards with Arduino expansion has slipped somewhat, but after a slow early 2017, there are several new 96Boards entries, including the Chameleon 96, DragonBoard 820C, and Orange Pi i96.

Looking forward to the year ahead, we can expect to see more SBCs with GPUs, FPGAs, or other co-processors that support AI, visual processing, and deep learning algorithms. Already, several higher-end boards, such as the DragonBoard 820C, promise such capabilities. Mostly this is happening on boards above our $200 price limit, such as the HiKey 970 and Ultra96. An UP Core Plus SBC with AI board add-ons based on Intel’s Cyclone 10GX FPGA and Myriad 2 VPU will ship in October, but it may well be over the $200 limit for an entry level model sold at retail.

All these boards are bargains compared to the most significant open-spec SBC to arrive this year: the $1,000 and up HiFive Unleashed. This dev board for the Linux-friendly SiFive Freedom U540 SoC based on the open source RISC-V architecture will no doubt be followed by more affordable options. Still, it will likely be years before they fall under $200. Should we raise our limit?

 

 

June 2018 Hacker-Friendly SBC Round-up References

 

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One response to “2018 reader survey of 116 open-spec Linux/Android SBCs”

  1. codelectron says:

    “An embedded engineer awakening from a 20-year coma might find today’s hacker board scene surprising to say the least. The idea that anyone would individually sell circuit boards with fanciful, fruity names for less than the price of a pizza would be perplexing. The fact that most would give away the designs for free would be mind boggling. The fact that millions of people would buy these SBCs, and that tens of thousands would care so deeply about the boards that they would donate their time to support them would be downright incomprehensible.”

    Haha thats a well written statement to compare the past with present. Going further I predict that these fruity named boards are going to be cheaper than the fruit themself.

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