All News | Boards | Chips | Devices | Software | LinuxDevices.com Archive | About | Contact | Subscribe
Follow LinuxGizmos:
Twitter Google+ Facebook RSS feed
*   get email updates   *

Ringing in 2018 with 103 hacker-friendly SBCs

Jan 4, 2018 — by Eric Brown — 7562 views

Welcome to our latest biannual round-up of hacker-friendly single board computers that run Linux or Android. Included are a brief review of recent SBC market trends, a catalog with key features, specs, and pricing of each SBC, and a table comparing them all.

Relative to our June report, which was accompanied by a reader survey co-sponsored with Linux.com, our latest hacker-friendly single board computer (SBC) round-up has grown from 98 to 103 boards. Although there’s no survey here, we invite your comments in the discussion area at the bottom of this post.

There are three parts to this round-up: this post, which provides an overview of recent SBC market trends and discusses our latest crop of hacker-friendly SBCs in general terms; a catalog post with brief descriptions, specs, pricing, and links to related LinuxGizmos coverage and supplier product pages for all 103 SBCs; and a Google docs spreadsheet that tabulates key features and pricing for all 103 boards. Links to each are in the box below.

 

January 2018 Hacker-Friendly SBC Round-up References

To qualify for inclusion in this round-up, the SBCs must be priced at under $200 in single units. They must either either be shipping now — which is true of almost all the boards — or available for pre-sale, with shipments promised by May. When products are listed as out of stock, we use our judgment. For example, although the popular Odroid-XU4 is out of stock, we would be surprised if it stays that way for long, so we kept it around. In other cases, we removed some older, out of stock products, with the expectation that they’re gone for good. In the case of the FirePrime S, we were wrong about that last June, so we brought it back this time around.

The listed prices are the lowest we saw at publication, but the pricing is often fluid. For example, we’ve listed the Raspberry Pi 3 with the $30 discount price currently offered at MicroCenter, although it typically sells for $35.

In most cases, the prices do not include free shipping, or if so, only to certain regions. Because shipping prices often vary considerably based on region and service tier, we do not offer shipping details except to note a few highlights.

 
Selection criteria

To meet our definition of “single board computer,” the boards must 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 compelling new, $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 the typically opaque GPUs or often sketchily documented CPUs. Few of these boards explicitly claim fully open source hardware licensing. At the very least, however, 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 what we call “sandwich-style SBCs” (see farther below).

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 mainline — and preferably recent — 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 more importantly 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 in June.

 
Trends

Many of the trends we have noted in recent roundups have continued in the last half of 2017, with the notable exception of Arduino/Linux integration. There are now fewer Linux/Arduino hybrids, as well as fewer new Linux boards with Arduino shield connectors.

Other trends have accelerated, such as the growth of tiny, super-cheap IoT boards, and an increase in boards with Raspberry Pi 40-pin expansion connectors. The trend toward new x86 boards has also continued with new products like the Up Core, despite losing a few oldies like the Galileo and Edison kits.

One newer trend is an increase in Rockchip-based boards. New entries include the Firefly-ROC-RK3328-CC (Renegade), Pine64’s Rock64, and Vamrs’s Rockchip RK3399 Sapphire. In part, this is due to greater performance and x86-like interfaces, but it’s also linked to Rockchip’s superior Linux support. Linux support on Allwinner is improving, however, thanks to community groups like Armbian.

 
How many SBC models do we really need?

Since June, we have seen more than the typical number of product introductions — more so than is evident from the increase from 98 boards to 103. In part, this is due to our practice of combining very similar boards from the same vendor into a single listing in our hacker-friendly SBC catalog. It’s also a result of our continuing implementation of a 10-product-per-vendor rule, which forced more combinations than we would have liked, especially in the case of the Orange Pi boards. We will consider increasing the limit per project or vendor, next time around.

For this round-up, we also removed more older entries than in the past. In most cases, as with LeMaker’s Banana Pro, the boards were discontinued. Notable among these were Intel’s Quark-based Galileo and Atom-based Edison Kit.

We also deleted the AMD-backed Gizmo II board, which no longer appears to be for sale. As a side note, we’ve seen no SBCs of any kind over the past year using AMD’s once widely deployed G-Series and R-Series embedded chips. (Come back to embedded, AMD: Intel needs a competitor there, too.)

Other subtractions occurred in Linux-equipped Arduino boards. Arduino appears to have abandoned its hybrid Linux experiment, and has at least temporarily stopped selling the Tian and Yun, although the Arduino Industrial 101 is still hanging on.

We have additionally excised other boards such as the DPT-Board, Marsboards, or the RiotBoard, which are either outdated, overpriced, or supported by non-functioning community sites. We keep an eye on reader rankings in our mid-year SBC survey, to help us make these judgment calls.

In other cases, vendors have done more trimming of older boards than usual, now that first and second waves of hacker boards have matured into the 3-5 year range. FriendlyElec, for example, tossed the NanoPC-T3, NanoPi M1, NanoPi M3, NanoPi 2 Fire, and NanoPi S2, while adding several new models that either explicitly or effectively replace them. Shenzhen Xunlong’s Orange Pi project, however, has not done much trimming.

Many hacker SBC enthusiasts welcome the trimming as it helps clarify the product lines, which often include many very similar boards with only minor variations. On the other hand, too many removals can leave customers high and dry.

Makers crave board longevity, but they also want up-to-date, well-maintained software. Many projects do manage to find a nice balance of introducing a few new products a year that fill user needs, and then properly maintaining them over time.

 
Hungry for a COM-and-carrier sandwich?

One solution has been to sell “sandwich-style” board-sets in lieu of monolithic SBCs, with the idea that users can keep the carrier board for many years while replacing the COM with a faster processor and more memory. More typically, however, the COM updates never come, and instead a new board combination is produced with a new carrier.

Partially, this is because interfaces are changing as fast as the processors — the bane of all modular hardware projects. Technexion’s Wandboard.org, for example, has offered essentially the same i.MX6 COMs on its popular, sandwich-style Wandboards for five years. When the i.MX8 came along, instead of issuing a new COM, they have launched a Wand-Pi-8M as a monolithic SBC with updated interfaces.

Another advantage of sandwich-style SBCs is that the baseboard portion is typically supported by open schematics and other design info for the baseboard layer, regardless of whether the COM’s design is open or closed. This approach satisfies the commercial board vendor’s desire to supply a core component in volume, while enabling a device developer to spin a customized version of the sandwich SBC’s carrier board.

Links to all three parts of our January 2018 hacker-friendly SBC round-up are in the box below.

 

January 2018 Hacker-Friendly SBC Round-up References

 

(advertise here)


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
PLEASE COMMENT BELOW

3 responses to “Ringing in 2018 with 103 hacker-friendly SBCs”

  1. Tim B says:

    Minor correction / suggestion — I know this is a Linux blog, but technically, any of the items on the comparison spreadsheet which utilize the Intel Atom processor are also fully capable of running Windows (full), as well as Linux.

  2. Phil Endecott says:

    The Marvell ESPRESSObin is an interesting board that’s not listed.

  3. Harvey R. says:

    Since a lot of SBC’s compete with RPi, it would an interesting piece of information to include in your survey about either case size requirements and/or if the SBC would fit in a Raspberry Pi case. Also it would interesting if a case “file” would be available for 3D printing.

Please comment here...