Testing and comparing small-board computers

Lead Image © Daniel Villeneuve, 123RF.com

Battle of the Bitty Boards

The Odroid-C2 and the Pine A64+ are among recent newcomers to the single-board computer market. Benchmarks show how these two boards compare with the Raspberry Pis 2 and 3.

The Raspberry Pis 2 and 3 (RPi2 and RPi3; see the box titled "A Success Story") compete in several benchmarks against two more recent boards on the market: the Odroid-C2 and Pine A64+. All four of the boards are priced between about $30 and $50 (EUR40 and EUR50/£26 and £44). Technology and the intended use for each computer play a role in deciding for or against a particular model.

A Success Story

The Rasp Pi exemplifies a classic success story. Since the Model B came on the market in February 2012, there has been no stopping the little computer. As of October 2015, more than seven million models carrying the Raspberry Pi label had been sold. The Rasp Pi has attained these heights of success even though it was neither the first nor the most powerful small-board computer (SBC). Its selling points are an attractive price tag of $35 and the GPIO (general-purpose input/output) header, behind which the Raspberry Pi Foundation educational mission lies: Teaching young people about hardware and software programming through tinkering and experimentation.

Nobody knows exactly how many projects have thus far been implemented with various Rasp Pi models, but the numbers probably run into the millions. These projects range from the smallest to clusters of circuits to the Astro Pi project [1], which put two Rasp Pis on the ISS space station a few months ago so that school children could carry out experiments they themselves had designed. The Raspberry Pi and its competitors are also catching on in the fields of security, automation, and robotics. Additionally, they are finding application as multimedia centers and as small components of network-attached storage. However, these types of uses are bringing the Rasp Pi, even in its third generation, close to the limits of its performance capabilities.

Success stories such as that enjoyed by the Rasp Pi always attract copycats, especially from Asian companies that have been busy releasing competing products on the heels of new Rasp Pi developments. These offshore companies hope to gain a foothold in the booming small-computer market. However, the hardware itself is not the only feature attracting consumers to the Rasp Pi. Its $35 price tag is hard to beat.

Equally important is what the Rasp Pi has achieved in just a few years: a well-functioning infrastructure with well-maintained software and accessories and a large and active community. Efforts at copying these types of developments have fallen short in the Asian commercial space in part because their manufacturers do not necessarily place the same kind of emphasis on open source thinking. For example, Allwinner, which manufactures semiconductors in China continues to have a negative effect on the GPL [2].

In spite of its strong position in the marketplace, the Rasp Pi is hanging on to a concept that puts it at a disadvantage with competitors. The Raspberry Pi Foundation wants the board design to remain downward compatible, and it is difficult to compensate for the limitations of this approach. For example, the RPi3 introduced at the end of February 2016 only has a 10/100Mbps Ethernet connection, even though most of its competitors already offer Gigabit Ethernet. The necessary remedy here would be to change the Rasp Pi layout from the ground up since the Ethernet connection in the present design depends on a slow USB 2.0 controller.

The Candidates

For a comparison of competitive performance, the RPi2 Model B (RPi2B) and RPi3B line up at the starting gates with the Odroid-C2 from Hardkernel and the Pine A64+ from Pine64. The challengers have similar price points as the two Rasp Pis, and the manufacturers adhere to an open source philosophy.

Odroid already offers a number of accessories and has attracted an active community for its products. At Pine64, this is just starting to happen. A shop has been set up, and the community is busily at work on the software.


The RPi2B debuted on February 2, 2015 [3]. It is distinguished from its predecessors by its quad-core CPU, a Broadcom BCM2836 specially developed for this model, and 1GB of main memory, which is twice as big as earlier models.

The BCM2836 system on a chip (SoC) is based on a 32-bit ARM Cortex-A7 microprocessor core with a maximum clock rate of 900MHz. This contrasts with the first generation Rasp Pi with an ARMv6 and clock speed of 700MHz. Additional features, such as price and size, have remained the same. Applications on the RPi2B are supposed to work up to six times faster than on the RPi1B+.

The growing number of available operating systems for the new Cortex-A7 platform includes two specialty distributions for the Internet of Things (IoT): Windows 10 IoT and Ubuntu Snappy Core.

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