SOC Boards Getting Faster and Cheaper

While I wait for my “holds 4 boards” dogbone stack case to create my “I.T. Shop In A Box”, I thought I’d just “freshen” up the old database on the current “Bang for the Buck” in System On A Chip (SOC) based small board SBCs (Single Board Computers). While so far I’ve only bought Raspberry Pi boards, I do sometimes covet the other brands. Odroid looks to make the hottest (and pricier) boards, while Banana Pi and Orange Pi seem to compete on flat out price and bang-per-buck respectively. So far I’ve still been willing to pay the extra $4 or $10 for the English designed Pi and the larger library of software for it. But you never know…

Just as a reminder, the Pi B is a v6 instruction set chip at 700 MHz, the Pi Model 2 is a v7 instruction set, 32 bit, and 900 MHz, while the Pi Model 3 is a 64 bit chip at 1.2 GHz. Now, the competition that caught my eye:

An Intel SOC based SBC

At the top end, this is an SBC with an Intel SOC (so faster per MHz than the ARM chip family in the Pi gear)

Sub-$100 maker board packs Apollo Lake SoC, 4K video, dual GbE
Oct 31, 2016 — by Eric Brown —

Aaeon’s “Up Squared” hacker SBC offers dual- or quad-core Intel Apollo Lake SoCs, plus up to 8GB RAM, SATA, dual HDMI, 4K video, dual GbE, mini-PCIe, and more.

Aaeon Europe has launched a Kickstarter project for a follow-up to its x86-based “Up” hacker board. If it shipped today instead of its April 2017 due date, the “Up2” (or “Up Squared”) would be the most powerful hacker-friendly single board computer around. The SBC features the new 14nm-fabricated Intel Apollo Lake system-on-chips, and offers a feature set that is rare even on high end hacker boards.

The Up Squared supports up to 8GB DDR4 of RAM and up to 128GB eMMC 5.0 of on-board flash, and offers 4K video encode and decode, dual GbE ports, dual HDMI video outputs, a SATA interface, M.2 support, and mini-PCIe expansion. You also get eDP, dual MIPI-CSI, 3x USB host ports, and both a 60-pin GPIO and a 40-pin interface tied to an Altera Max 10 FPGA.
Apollo Lake Celeron and Pentium SoCs that are also being supported by Congatec, Seco, and others in their recently announced Apollo Lake based COMs. Specifically, the initially available processors are:
Intel Celeron N3350 — 2x cores @ 1.1GHz/2.4GHz, 1MB L2 cache, 6W TDP
Intel Pentium N4200 — 4x cores @ 1.1GHz/2.5GHz, 2MB L2 cache, 6W TDP
Apollo Lake offers faster performance and faster graphics performance than Intel’s previous Bay Trail, Cherry Trail, and Braswell SoCs. The SoC includes Gen9 graphics with triple 4K display support, as well as four vector image processing units
Like the original Up, the Up Squared is not open source, but it offers a price that is quite affordable for an x86-based SBC. The dual-core Celeron N3350 model starts at 89 Euros ($98) while the quad-core Pentium N4200 version goes for $169 Euros ($185), in both cases equipped with baseline amounts of SDRAM and eMMC flash.

It seems the chip has a basic speed and a ‘burst for a while’ speed…

The Atom T5700 appears to be the fastest of the Goldmont processors, with a standard rate of 1.7GHz that bursts to 2.4GHz. By comparison, the Atom x7-E3950 has 1.6GHz/2.0GHz performance, and the Pentium N4200 is listed as 1.1GHz/2.5GHz.

I suppose there’s a use for that…

There are times I’ve needed an Intel chipset / instruction set for some software. It is interesting that I can get it now in a dinky card for $90. And that’s a pretty hot system for that price and size. I spent about that for a ‘disposable used system’ at the local hacker / junk store (and it had the CPU / power fans from hell…and needed a strange video driver). So this kinda puts an upper bound on what I’ll pay for a system. $100.

How Low Priced an ARM SBC?

At the other extreme, there’s this one:

Yeah, you read that right. $7 for a computer…

IoT-oriented $7 Orange Pi Zero has both WiFi and Ethernet
Nov 3, 2016 — by Eric Brown —

The 48 x 46mm Orange Pi Zero runs Linux or Android on a quad-core Allwinner H2, and offers WiFi, 10/100, microSD, USB host and OTG, and a 26-pin RPi header.

Shenzhen Xunlong has added a Raspberry Pi Zero competitor to its Orange Pi lineup of open source hacker boards. The new Orange Pi Zero is selling for just $7 plus shipping, for a total price of $10.30 when shipped to the U.S.
Whereas the Orange Pi Lite and Orange Pi One use the Allwinner H3 SoC, the Orange Pi Zero offers the rarely seen Allwinner H2 variant. As far as we can see, the only notable difference between the SoCs is that the H3 supports 4K video while the H2 is limited to 1080p. Like the H3, the H2 has four Cortex-A7 cores clocked to 1.2GHz, as well as a Mali-400 MP2 GPU clocked at 600MHz. The H2 is still much more powerful than the 1GHz, single-core ARM11 Broadcom BCM2835 on the Raspberry Pi Zero.

So “only” does 1080p video…
and about the same speed (a hair faster) than the Pi M2 (but it has some “issues”…)

What’s the catch? DIY Video Out… so best suited to headless servers, which are most of the uses I have… ( I only look at one screen at a time anyway, and open ‘windows’ into the other systems…)

What the Orange Pi Zero lacks compared to those two boards, as well as the Raspberry Pi Zero, is a real-world video output. You can hook up a screen to a TV video out interface that’s located on the board’s 13-pin function header, which also offers audio, IR, and two more USB interfaces. The Zero also has half the RAM of those three boards, with 256MB, although you can buy a 512MB version for only two dollars more, at $9 plus shipping.

For my tastes, that 256 MB is a bit light (especially for a Fat OS like Ubuntu or Debian) but more than enough for an Alpine port. Especially one run headless and without the overhead of a bloated X-11 / video code.

I’d likely pop the extra $2 for the 512 MB anyway, though… So about $12.50 (?) all up shipped to the USA.

So there’s my “lower bound” on compute engines. About $10.

I note in passing it has built-in WiFi, so connecting a bunch of these guys in a cluster via WiFi could be interesting:

The Orange Pi Zero is the first Orange Pi we’ve seen that ships with listed support for Armbian, a quickly maturing Debian distribution that offers specific support for Allwinner chips. There is also support for Android 4.4, Debian, Raspbian, and Ubuntu.

Specifications listed for the Orange Pi Zero include:

Processor — Allwinner H2 (4x Cortex-A7 @ 1.2GHz); ARM Mali-400 MP2 GPU @600MHz
Memory — 256MB or 512MB DDR3 SDRAM
Storage — MicroSD slot
Wireless — 802.11b/g/n (Allwinner XR819 module) with antenna
Networking — 10/100 Ethernet port with PoE (default off)
Other I/O:
USB 2.0 Host port
Micro-USB 2.0 OTG port (with power input)
13-pin function interface (TV out, mic, earphone, mic, 2x USB 2.0, IR)
GPIO (1×3) pin
Debug serial port
Mic interface
Expansion — 26-pin header compatible with Raspberry Pi B
Other features — power & status LEDs; power button
Power — via micro-USB OTG
Dimensions — 48 x 46mm
Weight — 26 g
Operating systems — Android 4.4, Ubuntu, Debian, Armbian, Raspbian

It would be an ‘easy add’ to a Build Monster Station to have a stack of these, all connected via WiFi, and using “distcc” to build the software. Just plug one in to a common power rail, load a preconfigured mini-SD chip, and let it wirelessly join the build cluster… 4 more cores for $10… plus power cable / connector.

Now, truth be known, I’m likely to be spending $9 for the mini-SD card and another $5 or so for the power supply, and at that point the $15 for the “balance of system” starts to argue for buying more system… So unless I’m buying a dozen of these guys for some reason, I’d likely move upscale from them just a little.

Seems to have many / most of the current crop.

I may yet someday buy something other than the Raspberry Pi family. I covet the extra couple of hundred Mhz clock rate on some, the SATA and 10/100/1G Ethernet on others. Yet so far I’m happy with what I have… and have not fully deployed the ones I have. So not buying just yet. The one clear and valuable truth in buying computers is that it very much does pay to wait. In 18 months, everything will be about double the performance for the same price point. At least until we run out of Moore’s Law gains. Until then, I think I’ll just keep watching things get better…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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8 Responses to SOC Boards Getting Faster and Cheaper

  1. LG says:

    It seems that the price point of the Beagleboard has also come down. < $70.00

  2. Pingback: Disintermediation vs Framing and Messaging | Musings from the Chiefio

  3. E.M.Smith says:


    Interesting… that link didn’t work on my Tablet (in Opera, I think…) but did work on the Chromebox (Chrome browser). Probably an Android or Opera (Beta release) bug…

    I’ve not gotten ‘into’ the Beagleboard family (despite liking the Altoids Case idea ;-) They are a bit more “control of things” oriented and I’m more “dirt cheap but functional I.T. Shop and desktop”. Still, some times, I find my self wanting one ;-)

    A friend builds robots and teaches robotics to high school kids. I keep thinking I need to hang out with him / them more and do some small robot with a Beagleboard in it…

  4. pg sharrow says:

    The ability to array a bunch of SOC units with WiFi is intriguing as a step in the right direction. The software for such a thing is more important then particular board lines if they can later be ported over. I see xx86 as being a slowly dying platform. The ability to easily include or transition to robotics should be the primary criteria and desktop a nice feature. “Chip on board” and robotic factories is resulting in cheap computing as well as made to order digital devices. It is still “made by hand” software that makes the things work, at least the first time, after that a key stroke is all that is needed to manufacture copies…pg

  5. E.M.Smith says:

    Unix / Linux has been developed over about 45 years. Other than idiotic sidetracks like systemd, it is mostly a finished system. Generally just stripping out the excess, filling in some config files, and maybe writting one program gives you a product.

    We’re in the realm of commodity hardware and commodity software.

    For example, it took me about an hour to comfigure my build system, then a couple more to make it ‘distcc’ capable running on 8 cores in two boards. About the same level of effort to make it anew on two of these $10 boards. So call it $40 with mini-SD cards and power supplies and 3 hours. After that, it is just $20 and 10 minutes for each board added. That makes a 1000 core super build monster about $5000 and one work week to assemble.

    This will extend to small robots. A mob of robots with WiFi boards like this can self assemble such a mesh network distributed computer. (Yes, you can make Skynet this way. I’ve worked out how in broad strokes. No I’ll not share. The risks are too high.) So expect to see your whole house “smart systems” sharing bulk compute workload. I’m likely to buy a few of these just to play with making that mesh happen (letting others do the sensors and mechanicals)

    The x86 architecture isn’t dead yet. It has some major performance advantages (what you get for that extra $50 per chip…) and I’d easily pay 2 to 4 times as much for it. Amdhal’s Law says a faster single CPU will always have a need to fill, but Moore’s Law says it will be an ever shrinking portion of the problem space. But what will kill it is the combo of faster ARM chips with nVidia like graphics (vector compute) units. Probably about a year from now I’ll be buying a multi-gigaflop SBC of that type and learning CUDA programming language. See that prior article on $ per gigaflop and how low that went. Robotic vision and cars are using that combo.

    Now picture a hundred of those 400 Gigaflop $100 boards in a mesh net… 40 TeraFlops for $10k is going to have serious implications…

  6. catweazle666 says:

    Hah! Gigaflops…Teraflops…

    I’ve still got a Science of Cambridge MK14.

    Now, that was REAL computing…

  7. andrewsjp says:

    C.H.I.P. says my $9 computer has shipped from Hong Kong. Runs Linux. Single core, WiFi, composite video, BlueTtooth, USB2, 512 MB memory, 4GB storage, microSD card, audio. See more at Can’t wait…

    John Andrews in Knoxville

  8. Pingback: Comparing and Choosing SBCs – computer on a board | Musings from the Chiefio

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