Testing the NanoPi NEO and the NanoPi 2 Fire

Lead Image © Ioulia Bolchakova, 123RF.com

Raspberry Quartet

The number of ARM-based small computers is growing on a daily basis. FriendlyARM introduced the NanoPi NEO, a computer that is even smaller than the Pi Zero and just as inexpensive. We take a look at the NEO and its brother, the NanoPi 2 Fire.

A manufacturer of ARM computers can find it difficult to garner headlines because not much difference can be found among the numerous implementations being produced. Low pricing and a minimalist form are considered the crowns of achievement and are more highly contested. However, the hobbyist is glad for each additional option, because small differences can affect the outcome of individual projects.

In this article, I introduce two devices from the NanoPi series by FriendlyARM [1]. This Chinese hardware manufacturer offers additional accessories, such as displays and sensors, in addition to systems on a chip (SoCs). I focus here on the NanoPi NEO and the NanoPi 2 Fire. The NEO is very small and minimalist; the Fire is not much bigger, but better equipped and with a smaller price tag than that of a standard Raspberry Pi (Rasp Pi).

Figure 1 shows, from left to right, a size comparison among the NanoPi NEO, Pi Zero, NanoPi 2 Fire, and a regular Rasp Pi. Table 1 shows a selection of the most important features of each device.

Table 1

Hardware Features




Frequency (GHz)






NanoPi NEO

Allwinner H3 (Cortex-A7, ARMv7)



256 and 512MB

100Mbps Ethernet

USB 2.0 (two via the pin strip)

UART available, 24 GPIOs; can solder additional connections

NanoPi 2 Fire

Samsung SP54418 (Cortex-A9, ARMv7)





1000Mbps Ethernet

USB 2.0

40 GPIOs Pi compatible, two hardware buttons, camera connection

Raspberry Pi Zero

Broadcom BCM2835 (ARM11, ARMv6)



Mini-HDMI, composite can be soldered



40 GPIOs can be soldered, camera connection

Raspberry Pi 3

Broadcom BCM2837 (Cortex-A53, ARMv8)



HDMI, LCD, composite


100Mbps Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth

4x USB 2.0

GPIOs available, camera connection

Figure 1: A direct size comparison (from left to right) of the NanoPi NEO, Pi Zero, NanoPi 2 Fire, and a standard Raspberry Pi.

NanoPi NEO

The Allwinner H3 chip is the centerpiece of the NanoPi NEO. The quad-core processor tends to overheat with heavier loads, but anyone who crunches numbers with an SoC has selected the wrong platform anyway. The lack of mainstream support for the platform is a more critical issue, especially for the Mali-400 graphics chip; however, it is not relevant for the NEO. The storage features can also become a bottleneck. The NEO comes in 256MB and 512MB versions, but 256MB is too small for a quad-core.

Just like the Pi Zero, the NanoPi does not come with the GPIO strip soldered on. The Pi Zero does support the entire 40-pin Rasp Pi strip. The NEO on the other hand has 24 pins and is less compatible. The interfaces make for more important differences. The NEO does without an HDMI output, but offers a fast Ethernet connection and a standard USB port. Hobbyists can speak with two additional USB ports via a pin strip, which has corresponding solder points. When it comes to debugging, a UART connection accommodates a serial console.

All in all, the NanoPi NEO appears to be predestined for smaller server tasks for the time being. Although it has lots of computing power, I/O performance is limited. The Pi Zero is not a good choice for these purposes because if you retrofit the missing Ethernet port with USB, you lose your only USB connection, which, by the way, only works with an OTG cable. Additionally, the Pi Zero quickly bumps up against its power limits with a passive hub. It does not simultaneously support Ethernet and bulk storage. Significantly, WiFi connectivity and the keyboard are not a problem. The NEO costs $7.99 (EUR12.90) making it nominally more expensive than the Pi Zero. Once all of the adapters (e.g., mini-HDMI and OTG cables) are purchased, the price for the Pi Zero is about the same.

NanoPi 2 Fire

The NanoPi 2 Fire comes better equipped than the NEO, but even so, it is minimalist compared with the Rasp Pi. This austerity is also reflected in the low $22.99 (EUR30) price. Unlike the NanoPi NEO, the Fire offers a Rasp Pi-compatible GPIO strip and connections for camera and display, both HDMI and LCD. Additionally, it shines with its gigabit Ethernet connection in the form of a Realtek chip. The Fire has just a single USB port. Two hardware buttons, sorely missing on the Rasp Pi, complete the equipment.

The NanoPi 2 Fire CPU uses an S5P4418 Samsung chip. According to the data sheet, the chip supports all of the customary multimedia formats with hardware acceleration, although H.265 is missing. Otherwise, the quad-core processor can wind up to 1.4GHz. The board also has 1GB of RAM, which is just as much working memory as the core of a Raspberry Pi 3 (RPi3).

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