Testing the CubieTruck/CubieBoard3 in everyday use

Lead Image © studiostoks, 123RF.com

A Mini Revolution

CubieTruck is a dual-core, single-board system with easy configuration.

Until a few years ago, a reference to single-board computers (SBCs) had little to do with the notion of fast computing. Only a few dedicated enthusiasts knew how to appreciate the reliability of SBCs like the RouterBOARD from MikroTik [1] or embedded systems like the ALIX board from PC Engines [2]. In today's world, the state of affairs is quite different.

Now, a distinct category of small computing devices offers significant performance capabilities at a reasonable price, and quite a few interesting options exist for anyone looking for more performance than the Raspberry Pi (Rasp Pi) offers. CubieBoards belong to this category. In this article, I focus on the CubieTruck (spelling varies on the website, but recent usage favors CamelCase) and operating the device with free software.

All CubieBoards [3] released thus far, starting with the original version in 2012 to the 2013 CubieBoard3 (aka CubieTruck) and the 2016 CubieBoard5 (aka CubieTruck Plus), are based on a multicore ARM processor from Allwinner with the Sunxi architecture [4].

The CubieBoard Family

Each CubieBoard model comes with equipment above average for this category of device. It includes a Serial AT Attachment (SATA) connection, which in the CubieBoard4 (aka CC-A80) was replaced with USB 3.0, a Gigabit Ethernet interface, and a high-performance graphics processor with 2GB of RAM. Although smaller than 15x10 cm, the little computers have features like VGA and HDMI interfaces (HDMI only beginning with the CubieBoard5/CubieTruck Plus), and various pins to control various capabilities and provide debugging. All of the boards have a slot for a microSD card, which makes it easy to prepare the board and load it with software.

The focus of this article is the CubieBoard3/CubieTruck (Figure 1). Although the first improvements date back to October 2013, this computer has not lost its competitive edge in terms of performance. Delivery contents include the board, three plexiglass plates with spacers, washers, and screws, as well as a selection of cables for SATA, USB, and power [5]. A 16GB microSD card [6] must be purchased separately. A power supply is required when connecting a SATA hard drive to the CubieTruck, and you should consider investing in a cover for the computer to protect it from dust. All of the components shipped plus the SD card tally to about $230 (EUR200, £150).

Figure 1: At 15x10cm, the CubieBoard3/CubieTruck is significantly larger than the Rasp Pi.

Starting Up

CubieTruck comes as a kit that needs some assembly. After attaching the accompanying heat sink for the processor, you should arrange the plexiglass plates according to the notches on the board, mount the spacers between the plates, and screw them together.

To install the software that will run on the board, you need to retrieve a suitable image (see below), validate it, and burn it to a microSD card. After inserting the card into the board and booting the computer, the software installation is complete and you are good to go.

It takes about two or three hours to get from unpacking the kit to actual use, which should be ample time for you to look everything over, admire the blinking LEDs, and load, test, and install images onto the board. Your efforts are rewarded with a full-fledged, small-format computer.

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