Have you always wanted to operate your own web server? Raspberry Pi makes this goal more realistic, without commanding a high price and expert-level knowledge for set-up: hosting a website’s test environment or a private cloud is just as manageable for the small computer as controlling light sources, heaters, or other home devices (home automation). In our tutorial, you’ll find out all you need to...
Raspberry Pi has basically become a synonym for single board computer. The mini-computer the size of a credit card supports countless applications and has quickly become the holy grail for do-it-yourselfers: It can, for example, serve as a web or mail server, as a basis for a Cloud, be set up as a media center, or be converted into a game console. The possibilities are as diverse as the price is low – many applications can be acquired for under 40 dollars. But there are alternatives to Raspberry Pi that are even smaller, more powerful, or cheaper. Here, we give an overview.
The current model: Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
Raspberry Pi is available in different version, but Raspberry Pi 3 Model B is what will be compared with the alternatives. It visually resembles the previous models, but offers some new features – without altering its basic design. With the Quadcore processor Cortex-A53, 64-bit is available for the first time. The chip clocks up to 1.2 GHz. Like its predecessors, Raspberry Pi 3 comes with 1GB of memory. In terms of connectivity, it has improved: For the first time, WLAN and Bluetooth are included. But more power does have its downside: The energy needs have increased slightly when compared with the previous versions. This is only really important during long-term use of the server, though.
Connectivity options for all kinds of accessories are still available in abundance: For example, four USB 2.0 ensure a large number of connectivity options. A LAN connection is available, as well as a pin board for special devices with 40 GPIO pins. For video and sound interfaces there is a HDMI port, and for analog sound output the mini-computer has a 3.5mm audio jack.
The possible software solutions are also numerous: In addition to the operating systems already available on Linux (NOOBS, Raspbian, etc.) and the first Android options, the Windows 10 IoT core is also supported by Raspberry Pi 3 Model B. The core doesn’t behave quite like a classic Windows system, but instead, as a special developer operating system. IoT denotes the “Internet of Things.” Raspberry Pi 3 is priced around 40 dollars.
What alternatives are there to Raspberry Pi?
The variety of good Raspberry Pi alternatives is expansive – so expansive, in fact, that we can only present a selection in this article. The manufacturers all have different focus points, which makes a comparison between all alternatives at once not possible or meaningful. We will only present the single board computers (SBC) that are similar to Raspberry Pi, or that particularly challenge the reigning model: The similarly named Banana Pi M3, the extremely cheap C.H.I.P., as well as the high-performance Cubieboard5, and the exotic NanoPi M3, are discussed here.
Banana Pi M3
The resounding success and influence of the model is reflected in the naming of this Raspberry Pi alternative. Banana Pi is more than just a copy of the famous model – the little wonder box has some things that its namesake doesn’t. The strong Allwinner-A83T processor, including eight ARM Cortex A7 cores and a maximum speed of 1.8GHz, provides plenty of power, at least on paper. The 2GB of memory space is double that of Raspberry Pi, and is as high as that of its closest competitors.
Banana Pi is also widely equipped with connectivity options: In addition to a HDMI port and a 3.5mm audio jack for sound output, it has a DSI display, CSI camera connector, and an integrated infrared receptor – an on-board microphone for easy sound recording is also built-in. But this Raspberry Pi alternative is somewhat lacking when it comes to the available USB ports: only 2 USB 2.0 ports are built-in – half as many as Raspberry Pi 3. Banana Pi M3 also comes with on-board WLAN, Bluetooth, and a 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet network interface. The biggest distinguishing feature of Banana Pi in comparison with Raspberry Pi is the SATA port: If something was saved in the previous version, Banana Pi M2, then you can easily connect the hard disk drives to the M3. There is also a micro-SD card slot and an 8GB comprehensive eMMC model.
According to the manufacturer, a majority of the popular operating systems for single-board computers can be installed on Banana Pi M3 – including various Linux derivatives or Android.
Whether Banana Pi M3 really qualifies as a Raspberry Pi alternative is not decided by price: At around 80 dollars, it’s almost twice as expensive as the main competitor. Ultimately, that’s the consequence of powerful technology: More power costs more money. As a rule, beginners are better off with Raspberry Pi – the large community and easy-to-use operating systems make the technology more accessible. More experienced users will enjoy the increased power and higher performance of Banana Pi M3 more than beginners.
The Price of Raspberry Pi is an initiation – and the single-board computer C.H.I.P. knows how to answer: With a price of just 9 dollars, the little machine is cheaper than all of the other alternatives to Raspberry Pi. It also clearly lessens the size of Raspberry Pi; from the start-up “Next Thing Co.”, C.H.I.P. is just as large as a matchbox and at 40 x 60mm is the smallest in this comparison. It’s no wonder, then, that the system, which started as a Kickstarter project, immediately found its fans and followers: Within 24 hours the developers received a whopping $200,000 to support the project.
Inevitably, there are reductions in capability: C.H.I.P. only runs on an ARM cortex R8 single-core processor that clocks up to 1GHz. With 512GB of RAM, it has only half the available memory as Raspberry Pi 3. WLAN and Bluetooth interfaces, and 4GB of flash memory also come pre-installed by default with the Linux distribution Debian. Like Banana Pi, C.H.I.P. is also a good Raspberry Pi alternative for beginners – it can be started immediately without major detours. However, there’s only one analog output available for displays. To connect to screens via HDMI or VGA you need a separate adapter. Once you add in the cost of accessories, you’re almost back in the price range of the more powerful competition.
Power is supplied via a micro-USB port, as well as an available lithium-ion battery. This enables the mini-computer to be used well on the move. It’s no surprise that the manufacturer has also created a portable offshoot called Pocket C.H.I.P. that’s now available on the market. The device holds an integrated battery that lasts for around five hours. The pocket version is primarily designed as a mobile game console. But you can still use it as a mini Linux computer, especially since the pocket version is suitable for modification – a fact explicitly stated on the manufacturer’s page.
An entirely different approach is offered by this Raspberry Pi alternative: Cubieboard 5, also called Cubietruck Plus, which focuses on performance. Pricewise, it is clearly on the higher end (in comparison with the previous single-board options): The price for the mini-computer sits at around 100 dollars. The centerpiece of the board is an Allwinner H8 processor with eight Cortex A7 cores that clocks up to 2GHz. The PowerVR SGX544 GPU core is built in, and Cubieboard5 has the same generous 2GB of memory as Banana Pi M3.
Cubieboard5 is characterized by its many connections: The standard WLAN is on board, as well as a Bluetooth interface and a LAN connection. In addition to a micro-SD slot, there is the possibility to connect HDD or SSD disks through the SATA-II port to the board. For video output, an HDMI 1.4a interface, as well as Displayport 1.1, are accommodated by Cubieboard5. A 3.5mm audio jack is also built in. Thanks to 70 free assignable pins, users can experiment and connect numerous external devices to the Cubieboard5. The permanently-installed lithium ion battery allows the device to be operated even without a power supply for a short time, which makes it particularly interesting for server operation.
According to the manufacturer, Android, Ubuntu, “and many other open source distributions” can be used as an operating system for this Raspberry Pi alternative. But how the hardware tolerates the different operating systems has to be determined by trial for individual cases.
The best of both worlds – cheap price and plentiful equipment – is offered by the exotic NanoPi series, made by the Chinese manufacturer FriendlyARM. The latest developments – from NanoPi Neo to NanoPi M3 – are intended to be respective alternatives to Raspberry Pi models. While NanoPi Neo is the smallest single-board computer from FriendlyARM and the most likely to be compared to Raspberry Pi Zero, NanoPi M3 is in competition with Raspberry Pi 3. Despite the considerable amount of equipment, NanoPi M3 still managed to be smaller than the larger competition. NanoPi M3 measures just 64 x 60mm, while Raspberry Pi 3, like the model before it, is 93 x 65.3mm in size.
Despite the size, equipment has not been sacrificed: a Samsung S5P 6418 processor with eight Cortex A9 cores is built in, which can be clocked up to 1.4GHz each. The NanoPi M3 also contains 1GB of memory, making it a good Raspberry Pi alternative. It also has an abundance of connections: A micro-SD card slot, four USB 2.0 ports, a micro-USB port – for the power supply – as well as a HDMI port and a 3.5mm audio jack, all placed on the tiny circuit board. The GPIO pin board is no different from the larger model, and includes slots for 40 pins.
You can connect a mouse and keyboard over the Bluetooth interface, and an internet connection can be established via either WLAN or the Ethernet port. On the software side of this Raspberry Pi alternative, it can run Android, Debian, or the bootloader Das U-Boot. Documentation on the wiki of the manufacturer is extensive, but it is yet to be seen whether exotic models like NanoPi can build-up a similarly large community of manufacturer-independent support. NanoPi M3 costs around 35 dollars online.
Which Raspberry Pi alternatives are the best depends on many factors – above all, the intended purpose and the experience of the user. If you want to run a pure data server, you can use the weaker, more economical and, ideally, power-saving Raspberry Pi alternatives. This category includes, for example, the C.H.I.P. mini-computer from Next Thing Co. If establishing a media server is the goal, then a HDMI connection is a must. Equally important in this case is having as much hardware as possible. Here, experienced users can look at systems like the Cubieboard5.
Not to be neglected is the software side: Hardware can only exploit its full potential when sufficient software is supported. In this respect, Raspberry Pi still proves to be a perfect all-rounder – especially for beginners. A large community offers suggestions and support. But even the inexpensive or less expensive alternatives to Raspberry Pi still offer superior hardware. Users find high performance alternatives with Banana Pi M3 or Cubieboard5 – but have to note that not all software or hardware options are supported. This overview table presents the most important hardware features in comparison.
|Raspberry Pi 3 Model B||Banana Pi M3||C.H.I.P.||Cubieboard5||NanoPi M3|
|Max clocking||1,2 GHz||1,8 GHz||1,0 Ghz||2,0 GHz||1,4 Ghz|
|RAM storage||1 GB||2 GB||512 MB||2 GB||1 GB|
|Flash memory||-||8 GB||4 GB||8 GB||-|
|Video output||HDMI, DSI, Analog||HDMI, DSI||Analog||HDMI||HDMI|
|Audio output||HDMI 3.5mm jack||HDMI 3.5mm jack||Analog||HDMI 3.5mm jack Optical||HDMI 3.5mm jack|
|Power supply||Micro-USB||Micro-USB||Micro-USB Battery||DC 5V/2.5A Battery||Micro-USB DC 5V/2A|
|Dimensions||93 x 63,5 mm||92 x 60 mm||40 x 60 mm||112 x 82 mm||64 x 60 mm|
|Price||ca. $40||ca. $80||ca. $9||ca. $100||ca. $35|