The past year has produced a steady stream of single-board computers that surpass the specs of the flagship Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, some of which have also matched its rock-bottom $35 price tag.
But getting hands-on with these boards reveals the specs sheet only tells half the story. Boot up one of these theoretically more powerful computers and you’re likely in for a nasty surprise.
While they may look the part, all that latent power is largely useless if there isn’t the software to take advantage of it.
A case in point is my experience with the Orange Pi 3, a recently released $35 board with a faster processor and double the memory of the Raspberry Pi 3, as well as modern features, such as USB 3.0 and HDMI 2.0a.
But tapping into that power is another matter. Start up the version of the Ubuntu 16.04 operating system provided for the board and the problems soon become apparent.
In my experience, video wouldn’t play, Bluetooth wasn’t recognized, 5GHz Wi-Fi wouldn’t connect, and the Firefox browser was noticeably more sluggish than the Chromium browser on the nominally less powerful Raspberry Pi 3 B+. You might think updating the system would help. But no, when I tried this it broke the operating system to the extent it would no longer boot.
Using the board rapidly became an exercise in frustration, with the experience marred by the brittleness of the operating system and general lack of stability you expect from a modern computer. In a statement, the team behind the Orange Pi 3 said the test images for Ubuntu worked “great” when they tested them on the board, so I guess there’s a chance I was just very unlucky, but it’s also true that it’s not the first time Orange Pi boards have been criticized for buggy and unstable software.
To some extent, the same uncertainty plagues other single-board computers (SBCs) I’ve tested, and while nowhere near the same as the Orange Pi 3, the Rock Pi 4 also suffered from low-level issues that reared their head from time-to-time.
You expect some extra effort will be required when setting up a $35 computer. But resolving these problems goes beyond knowing sufficient Bash commands to change access permissions or make a file executable.
More importantly the headaches associated with trying to run these cheap single-board computers makes you appreciate what you’ve got with the Pi. A $35 computer that is stable and to a large extent that just works. In 2019 you may be paying a premium for the specs, but that extra outlay is buying peace of mind. And if you ever do run into the rare issue, there’s a huge community to help you, not to mention years of tutorials and guides to get you started on projects.
That might not be exciting, but for novice users like myself that stability is worth paying for.
It makes you realize why the Raspberry Pi Foundation has invested so much in updating the Pi’s official Raspbian OS, employing dedicated staff to work on improving software over time: revamping the desktop, adding hardware acceleration for more media players, and upgrading the browser — all while ensuring backward compatibility stretching right back to the very first Raspberry Pi. As TechRepublic’s James Sanders highlights, getting Linux-based operating systems working well on Arm-based SBCs is always going to require a lot of work, due to their lack of mainline kernel support.
While people are clamoring for the Raspberry Pi 4, by focusing on stability the Raspberry Pi Foundation has given the Pi a USP that other low-cost, single-board computers struggle to match.
That said, the quality of SBCs do vary, and there are Pi rivals with a good reputation for usability, such as the Odroid family of boards, which enjoy software support for years after release. And, of course, there are also more technically proficient users who will be able to sidestep some of the roadblocks thrown up by less reliable boards.
But that doesn’t detract from the fact there are a swathe of users, myself included, who are interested in a device like the Pi but who don’t have chops to plaster over the cracks in the desperately creaky operating systems that ship with some of these boards.
For them, the Pi remains the best choice, regardless of how powerful its competitors get.