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Linux maker board market survives chip shortage, adds 29 new SBCs in 2021

Jan 15, 2022 — by Eric Brown 8,560 views

In this intro to our catalog of 136 Linux hacker boards, we examine how the 2021 chip shortage led to higher prices, limited availability, and more than twice the usual number of discontinuations. Yet, 29 models launched in 2021, including SBCs with M.2 slots, RISC-V CPUs, and AI chips.

Welcome to our 2022 edition of our roundup of maker boards selling for $200 or under that run Linux or Android. The Catalog link in the box below leads to 136 new or updated SBC summaries, and the spreadsheet links offer quick feature comparisons.
 

January 2022 Hacker-Friendly SBC Catalog Links

 

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Almost all the boards here are “open spec” — supplying hardware schematics and other open resources — and/or community backed, with maker-friendly features like open source OS image downloads, forums, and tutorials. The majority offer both open specs and community. (See our criteria sidebar for more details.)

Throughout 2021, we knew the chip shortage was leading to higher SBC prices, reduced availability, an increase in product retirements, and launches that were delayed even more than usual. Yet, the full impact was only revealed when we checked prices and updated items between Dec. 13 to Jan. 7. More than one in four SBC models in our Jan. 2021 catalog are no longer available.

The boards that are available are often a lot more expensive. After years of decreases, SBC prices began to rise over the last two years, and in 2021 they took a sharp turn upward. We have yet to run a detailed analysis, but 10-30 percent increases have been typical, and some boards have more than doubled in price.

The price boosts may not be a deal-breaker with a $30 board but are far more significant in the over $100 range. (You can do your own price analysis by comparing our feature spreadsheet in the box below with last year’s chart. )

The price jumps can be tied directly to severe shortages in processing cores, RAM, and other components. More recently, this has been exacerbated by general inflation, which has similarly been driven largely by pandemic-related supply chain problems.

The shortages and chip price increases are not universal for all parts, and some manufacturers did a better job of maintaining larger stocks than others. Also note that many of the steeper increases are for boards that are on the way out, in which case the vendor is selling off stock and unwilling to sacrifice profits in a bid for market share. Yet relatively few boards are priced the same as last year, and only a few are cheaper.


Raspberry Pi 4

Even market leader Raspberry Pi, which has long been famous for maintaining low and consistent prices, reversed some of its price cuts in October. Yet, its price increases are lower than among its competitors and most of the SKUs have remained the same.

The chief problem bedeviling the Pi is supply. Yet despite reports claiming you won’t be able to buy an Rasperry Pi 4 until 2023, we found the RPi 4 and almost all the Pi models in stock, at least in limited quantities and with limited RAM configurations. With the Pi and many other boards, sales are often limited to single units per customer per month. Some vendors have shipping delays ranging from a month to six months.

Limited Raspberry Pi availability opens a window of opportunity for other board manufacturers. Yet most are in the same bind, if not worse. Some of the biggest price hikes and product discontinuations have been seen among Pi pseudo-clones from Chinese vendors. Only about half of Shenzhen Xunlong’s Orange Pi models in last year’s catalog are still available, and only one new product was introduced in 2021: an Orange Pi 3 LTS model that replaces the similar Orange Pi 3. On the other hand, Orange Pi price increases have been relatively modest.


Orange Pi 3 LTS

Only a few of FriendlyElec’s NanoPi and NanoPC boards and SinoVoip’s Banana Pi SBCs were discontinued, and they each added two new models in 2021. Yet, their prices have skyrocketed, especially in the case of the NanoPi boards.

Other board vendors have shown similar trends, with the Odroid project losing the Odroid C1+, C2, and H2+. Radxa’s Rock Pi E, X, 4C, and N10 are all out of stock, although Radxa launched the RK3568 based Rock 3 (see below) plus some new RK3399-based Rock Pi 4 A+ and B+ models and a tiny Radxa Zero built around a quad -A53 Amlogic S905Y2.


Radxa Zero

Keep in mind that many of the sharply culled product lines were already primed for consolidation. In recent years, there have been more minor variations of Orange, Banana, and NanoPi boards than we really needed.

Many of the 42 boards removed from the catalog have either been clearly “discontinued” or “obsoleted” by the manufacturers. Even more are simply no longer showing up on shopping searches. A few have risen in price over our $200 limit.

In many other cases, the SBCs are simply “out of stock,” often with statements by vendors, such as Amazon, that they do no know when or if the product will return. In the past, we have noted the “out of stock” status, but generally kept the SBCs in the roundup with the assumption they would soon return. We only removed them if they had also been out of stock the year before, or were clearly aging, without offering clear price or feature benefits over similar new models from the same vendor.

This year, we took a tougher stance. Unless the product was new or if there was a clear indication it was returning, we have removed the product. As usual, we have also excised a few older products that no longer have active communities. Some of the 42 products on our discontinued list will return, so you may want to check on them from time to time.

 
Feature trends among 29 new SBCs

Despite the chip shortage devastation, all is not doom and gloom. Many of the boards listed here are in ample supply, and we were surprised to see so many new products. The 29 SBC launches are only slightly fewer than last year’s high of 33 (out of 150), and almost three times more than the 11 new entries in our Jan. 2020 catalog of 136 boards.

One might have expected that between the chip shortage and the growing market dominance of the Raspberry Pi, that product launches would slow. That held true for many established manufacturers, yet several contravening trends have emerged to keep the SBCs coming.

First, SBCs continue to add value as prototyping and platforms for new ideas in IoT, AI, robotics, and more, and they are often used in end products as well. Use cases for edge computing have only increased during the pandemic, with healthcare related devices growing in importance.


RPi Zero 2 W

Raspberry Pi, meanwhile, has kept a tightly focused product line with only two main categories: Pi-sized boards and tiny Zero IoT boards. There was a new Raspberry Pi Zero 2 W board in 2021, but this essentially replaces the earlier Zero boards. In a sense there are only two Raspberry Pi SBCs: The RPi Zero 2 W and the Raspberry Pi 4. This leaves plenty of niches for others to fill, including edge AI, media player/signage, industrial, NAS, router, and robotics boards.

Unlike earlier Pi models, the Raspberry Pi 4 is one of the faster Arm boards around. Aside from a few new models based on the faster Rockchip RK3399, there have been no new Arm-bsaed SBCs that have eclipsed the RPi 4 over the last year on price/performance. The performance leaders continue to be the Odroid-N2+ and Khadas Vim3 with their hexa-core, Cortex-A73 and -A53 Amlogic S922X and AM311D, respectively. Most of the smaller number of pricier, Intel-based models also offer faster processors, although we saw only two new x86-based boards over the last year: Aaeon’s Up Squared Pro and Icewhale’s ZimaBoard, both of which use Intel’s Apollo Lake.

If the RPi 4 continues among the performance leaders, it is falling behind when it comes to I/O. The Raspberry Pi 40-pin connector continues to dominate the industry for low-speed connections, but the Pi still lacks high-speed expansion such as SATA and PCIe. (The RPI 4 has a PCIe interface but it is used for USB 3.0.) In addition to the slow but steady increase in SATA-ready boards, there are several new entries that offer M.2, mini-PCIe, and PCIe slots, most of which support cellular or SSDs, in some cases including NVMe.



Pine64’s Quartz64 Model A (left) and T-Firefly’s ROC-RK3566-PC
(click images to enlarge)

Most of the PCIe-enabled products use Cortex-A55 processors, such as Rockchip’s new RK3566 and more I/O rich RK3568, which are slightly slower than the RPi 4’s quad -A72 Broadcom BCM2711. These include Pine64’s Quartz64, Radxa’s Rock 3, and T-Firefly’s ROC-RK3566-PC, ROC-RK3568-PC, and sandwich-style AIO-3566-JD4. Asus’ new, RK3399Pro powered Tinker Edge R, meanwhile, provides mini-PCIe expansion.

The Raspberry Pi has also yet to add AI acceleration, opening another opportunity for others. There are now 16 boards in our collection that provide NPUs, including 9x new models. The NPUs are either built into the SoC, as with the RK3566, RK3568, RK3399Pro, and i.MX8M Plus, or added as a standard feature via add-ons such as the Edge TPU chip found on Google’s Coral boards.

The trend toward increasing RAM and eMMC has slowed somewhat this year, in part due to shortages and high prices. Many of the 8GB RAM SKUs, for example, are unavailable. We have yet to see the move to 2.5GbE that has accelerated in commercial embedded computing, but we do have three more dual-GbE boards, adding to a growing list.



StarFive’s VisionFive V1 (left) and Sipeed’s Nezha
(click images to enlarge)

Finally, the RISC-V wave continues to flow into the Linux hacker board space. Although SiFive’s development boards are too expensive for our roundup, StarFive’s new VisionFive V1 board makes the cut at $175 for a full kit. Sipeed introduced a low-cost LicheeRV-Nezha and mid-range Nezha, both with Allwinner’s RISC-V based D1. RVBoards has its own almost identical version of the Nezha called the RVBoards-Nezha.

 
SBCs to watch out for in 2022

Over the next year, we can expect the chip shortage to slow and prices to stabilize – although we won’t be returning to the low prices of 2019 anytime soon. We will likely see more product discontinuations, accelerated not only by chip shortages but also by the rise of faster processors with NPUs and greater expansion capabilities. We will also see new products, many with NPUs and RISC-V processors.

The Raspberry Pi 5 is unlikely to show this year, which leaves room for some other high-end boards that have been announced and will ship in the coming weeks and months. Of particular interest is Radxa’s Rock 5, which went on pre-order a few days ago, too late for our year-end cut-off. This is the first SBC built around the delayed and much anticipated, 8nm Rockchip RK3588, an octa-core Cortex-A76/-A55 SoC with a powerful Mali G610MC4 GPU and a 6-TOPS NPU. The $79-and-up Rock 5 features up to 16GB RAM, triple displays at up to 8K, 2.5GbE, and 2x M.2 slots. Rockchip also recently revealed a slightly feature reduced Rockchip RK3588S with fewer display, USB, and PCIe interfaces.



Radxa Rock 5 (left) and Khadas Vim4
(click images to enlarge)

Other upcoming SBCs of note include the Khadas Vim4, which is based on an octa-core -A73 and -A53 Amlogic A311D2. There is also the RK3568-based Banana Pi BPI-R2 Pro and the HummingBoard-T, which is built around the safety-focused TI AM64x (and which will likely be over our price limit). In the x86 realm, DFRobot Kickstarter’ed a $229 and up LattePanda 3 Delta SBC featuring Intel’s Jasper Lake.

Check out our last two roundups for more on recent SBC trends from processors to I/O to software. Or step back into maker board history and explore them all:

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PLEASE COMMENT BELOW

4 responses to “Linux maker board market survives chip shortage, adds 29 new SBCs in 2021”

  1. asdf says:

    Big thumbs up for continuing to do this list!

  2. Phil Endecott says:

    No Jetson Nano?

    Is it discontinued? I believe there is a “Nano Next” in the pipeline.

    I guess the other Jetson boards are too expensive.

  3. spuwho says:

    Out of the 136 listed, how many can be ordered and shipped within a week of said order?

  4. Ray Knight says:

    I would assume that the Jetson Nano isn’t on the list as it is out of stock and unavailable pretty much everywhere.

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