Up close with the Banana Pi

Lead Image © Pabobchote Akkahbutr, 123RF.com

Attack of the Clones

The Raspberry Pi has spawned a new generation of imitators. One of the top contenders is the Banana Pi.

The Raspberry Pi computer has been a runaway success since its release two and a half years ago. With success comes imitation, and many new products are seeking to follow in the footsteps of the Raspberry Pi and cash in on the renewed interest in computing, programming, and hacking.

One of these hopefuls is the Banana Pi [1], which you could only describe as a Raspberry Pi clone. The Banana Pi was designed and built in Shenzhen, China, where a large number of your gadgets and other possessions are likely manufactured.

I find it a little bit disappointing to see boards coming out that are (to most people) such blatant clones of the Raspberry Pi and that do not currently give back to the community in the same way – but I suppose it would be naïve to assume this would not happen in today's world. Having said that, the old saying goes "imitation is the highest form of flattery," and ultimately, I think that more choice in the open source marketplace can never be a bad thing. I guess the very fact that people are trying to build businesses on top of the Raspberry Pi ethos and form factor goes to show what an impressive and solid platform it is for everything from learning and hacking to industrial applications. So, without further ado, I'll unpack this new product – the Banana Pi.

First Impressions

When I first saw the Banana Pi board on the Internet, it looked almost identical to the Raspberry Pi (Figure 1). Unlike the production version board (which is a dark blue – similar to the color of most Adafruit products), the original Banana Pi prototypes were green and were almost indistinguishable from the Raspberry Pi at a quick glance. Most of the components on the Banana Pi board also appeared to be in a similar position, which added to the similar appearance, although the Banana Pi has a few more connectors.

Figure 1: The Banana Pi board looks strikingly similar to the Raspberry Pi – and it is.

This similarity is somewhat of an illusion. A closer look reveals the overall size of the Raspberry Pi is approximately 56x85 mm, whereas the Banana Pi is 60x92 mm, which represents a size increase of approximately 16 percent in board surface area.

As you will see in Figure 2, this increase is quite significant. For a product that is a clone of the Raspberry Pi, this size differential is a problem because it means that you can't use the same case for both units – even with significant modifications. Furthermore, the Banana Pi uses a slightly thinner 1-mm circuit board compared to the 1.5-mm board used on the Raspberry Pi.

Figure 2: The is significantly larger than the Raspberry Pi, meaning they won't fit in the same case or mounting slot.

The top of the Banana Pi looks a bit sparse in places because the processor and RAM chips are actually located on the underside of the board (Figure 3). The CPU is the large chip on the bottom, which says Allwinner A20 on it, and the RAM chips are the slightly smaller ones next to it. The RAM chips used on the Banana Pi are standard DDR3 RAM chips which, as you can see, are mounted separately from the CPU. On the Raspberry Pi, however, the RAM is mounted directly on top of the BCM2835 in a PoP (package on package) layout and is of the LPDDR2 type. LPDDR2 is a low-power RAM standard designed for use in battery powered and mobile devices and performs similarly, but more efficiently, to the DDR3 RAM used in the Banana Pi.

Figure 3: The processor and RAM chips are located on the underside of the Banana Pi, allowing for a more sparse design above.

The Banana Pi makes use of the Mali-400 MP2 graphics processor (GPU), as opposed to the Broadcom VideoCore IV GPU used in the Raspberry Pi. Which one is a better GPU is under constant debate, and under different tests, they perform very differently – the Mali-400 beats the Broadcom chip significantly in the GTKperf test [2]; however, in other tests, the Broadcom unit performs better (as is often the case with CPU and GPU benchmarking tests). In any case, both boards have very good dual core graphics processors.

Perhaps the most important factor in the graphics debate is the VPU (visual processor unit), especially if you are intending on running a media center with one of these devices. The hardware acceleration available in the Banana Pi is next to non-existent, and there is no XBMC support. According to a recent thread on the XBMC forum, XBMC support for the Allwinner A20 is unlikely [3] due to poor support from Allwinner and the fact that the A20 is now quite old (approximately 2 years).

You can forget about using XBMC for playback of any 1080p video, and because the Raspbmc and OpenELEC distros are both built on XBMC, you won't be able to use them with Banana Pi. Video players that can run without GPU or VPU support will likely still work fine, but they too will almost certainly not be capable of 1080p playback (or anything close to it).

According to several sources, the Banana Pi GPU currently isn't supported for Raspbian either, so the LXDE graphical desktop environment is running entirely on the CPU, which is a bit disappointing. If you are not intending to undertake any graphics intensive activities like 3D rendering or high definition video playback, these limitations probably won't matter too much to you; however, it is worth noting that, certainly for the time being, hardware-accelerated graphics are not going to happen unless you put in a significant amount of work.

The Banana Pi offers all the same connectors you are familiar with on the Raspberry Pi: HDMI, Ethernet, 2 x USB, microUSB power in, RCA video, 3.5mm audio jack, and both camera (CSI) and display (DSI) ports. The Banana Pi also accepts a full-size SD card in the slot on the bottom, which is in the same place as on the Raspberry Pi, but it uses what looks like a slightly sturdier metal port – which would likely suffer less accidental breakages than the one on the Raspberry Pi.

Some of these ports are actually in different locations or upgraded on the Banana Pi – the Ethernet is a Gigabit Ethernet port, the CSI and DSI connectors have been swapped in location and are physically larger and are of a different pitch (size/spacing of pins), and the microUSB power port has been moved onto the same side as the HDMI connector. The Banana Pi also adds a microUSB OTG (on the go) port (where the microUSB power is on the Raspberry Pi), SATA power (the small white connector between the two microUSB ports), and a SATA data port (the big black one next to HDMI port).

Other additional items present on the Banana Pi are an onboard microphone (between the RCA video and 3.5mm audio jack), an IR receiver (next to the USB ports), a hard power-off button and a reset button (both on the same edge as the USB OTG port), and a third user-programmable button (behind the Ethernet port). Bizarrely, the Banana Pi has a large amount of unused space on top of the board with only power (red) and Ethernet status (blue) LEDs, so you have no easy way to monitor CPU activity. The Ethernet port also has its own LEDs built into the connector, so you can see network activity. Additionally, you have a user-programmable (green) LED.

After you boot the Banana Pi (you can find instructions for SD card creation below), you'll quickly notice the CPU improvements  – the system boots up faster, programs load faster, and intensive tasks use less CPU power. Browsing the Internet also is noticeably faster, thanks to the faster processor and the upgraded Ethernet capability. Once I had booted up into Raspbian on the Banana Pi, I ran an update:

sudo apt-get update


sudo apt-get upgrade

On my Raspberry Pis, these commands usually send the CPU usage straight up to 100 percent; on the Banana Pi, the update process uses an average of about 20 percent with a peak of about 50 percent for a few seconds. You'll find a more methodical test of the CPU and GPU online [1]. The test shows that, when running a dual threaded test on the Banana Pi using sysbench, the Allwinner A20 CPU is approximately 4 times faster than the BCM2835 CPU in the Raspberry Pi – this is hardly surprising as it is comparing an old, single-core ARMv6 processor with a newer, dual core, ARM Cortex-A7 CPU. Bizarrely, in that same study, the Raspberry Pi beat the Banana Pi in a single-threaded test, but this could be an anomalous result and might differ using a different CPU benchmarking method.

Banana Pi is not as fast as an up-to-date desktop computer, but it would certainly make a more acceptable computer for day-to-day usage than a Raspberry Pi – but in that arena, you may be better off just purchasing a cheap Allwinner A20 (or other CPU) based phone or tablet, or something like the Cubox-i from Solidrun [4].

Table 1 shows a comparison between the specifications of the Banana Pi and the Raspberry Pi model B with 512MB RAM.

Table 1

Banana Pi vs.Raspberry Pi


Banana Pi

Raspberry Pi Model B


Allwinner A20  ARM Cortex-A7 Dual Core

Broadcom BCM 2835 ARMv6 SoC full HD multimedia applications processor


ARM Cortex-A7 Dual Core 1GHz

700MHz Low Power ARM1176JZ-F


ARM Mali400 MP2, OpenGL ES 2.0/1.1

Broadcom VideoCore IV dual core, OpenGL ES 2.0/1.1

Memory (SDRAM)

1GB DDR3 (shared with GPU)

512MB LPDDR2, 400MHz


SD (Max. 64GB)/MMC and Sata connectors

SD/MMC/SDIO connector

Onboard Network

10/100/1000 on Allwinner A20

10/100 on LAN9512 chip

Video Input

CSI (camera serial interface) for external camera board (not yet available to purchase)

CSI (camera serial interface) for external camera board

Video Outputs

HDMI 1.4, CVBS , LVDS/RGB via DSI connector

HDMI 1.3a, RGB, DSI (display serial interface)

Audio Output

3.5mm jack and HDMI

3.5mm jack and HDMI

Power Source

5V via microUSB

5V via microUSB

USB 2.0 Ports

Two direct from Allwinner A20 chip

Two on LAN9512 chip


Reset button: Next to MicroUSB connectorPower button: Next to Reset buttonBoot button: Behind HDMI connector


GPIO(2X13) pin

GPIO, UART, I2C bus, SPI bus with two chip selects, CAN bus, ADC, PWM, +3.3V, +5V, ground

GPIO, UART, I2C bus, SPI bus with two chip selects, +3.3V, +5V, ground





Android 4.2, Raspbian (modified), Lubuntu, openSUSE (Firefox OS and others coming soon)

NOOBS, Raspbian, Raspbmc, OpenELEC, Pidora, Arch Linux, RISC OS and many more unofficial ports

Product size






How to Buy

The Banana Pi board appears to have been developed by an organization in China called LeMaker [5]. The group currently uses space provided by Shenzhen University in Shenzhen, China. The boards appear to be manufactured by the Shenzhen company SinoVoip [6].

Precise details on the design, manufacture, and corporate sponsorship are difficult to find. It doesn't inspire a lot of confidence that the Banana Pi websites are a bit slow and have a number of dead links. Additionally, English is not the first language of the team behind the Banana Pi, so some of the information on the websites is written in slightly broken English that is sometimes difficult to understand.

Purchasing the Banana Pi was an equally frustrating experience, although in the time since I purchased one, a number of simpler ordering options have surfaced. See the sidebar titled "Buy a Banana Pi" for a list of some available outlets.

I purchased direct from Sinovoip by emailing them through the Alibaba.com electronics store, because the other methods of purchasing did not exist at the time, and I paid by PayPal. The transaction was quite painless and the device arrived fairly quickly, considering it came by standard post from China. One of the Banana Pi websites claims that the "target price" for the Banana Pi is US$  29.99, but my source charged nearly twice that price.

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