China In Chips & Boards, Or Not

I’ve spent a day or two wandering down lists of Single Board Computers, looking up companies, finding their addresses and for some where they send their “Fab” or have their semiconductors ‘fabricated’. All with the goal of identifying what makers are heavily involved with China and what makers are not.

Some History & Problem Admiration

Realize this list will NOT be comprehensive nor will it be completely reliable. There’s a few reasons for that. First off, a lot of the “Dirty Work” of making things like the PC Board itself has been ‘outsourced’ by most makers to some 3rd party company, often in China, and it is usually not possible to find out who or where. Similarly, manufacture of cheap commodity parts like capacitors and resistors tends to wander around to cheap labour pools with minimal environmental rules. When I first came to Silicon Valley in the ’70s, there were huge numbers of people employed to make components and installing them on computer boards. That included a large female workforce from places like the Philippines. (Women were especially good at fine detail work with small parts, so wiring chip headers or placing small parts on boards was common work). Over the decades, all that moved “overseas”. Even the chip “fab” moved.

Then a big wave of “Fabless” chip designers came along. Why build your own chip foundry just to make a new CPU or WiFi chipset if you could just rent some time at a low cost fabricator somewhere else? Let them decide where to put their factories and what labor pool to use. While at a semiconductor maker in the ’70s as a Production Planner, I assigned work to assembly plants in the Philippines, Malaysia, some in California (but shrinking) and more. Nobody but me knew for sure which batch of chips was assembled into those plastic packages and tin cans in just what country. That was with a company that had lots of its own “Fab”. With a Fabless chip maker, it will depend on just what contract they have with whom.

Now the good bit is that the biggest chip foundry in common use for this kind of stuff is TSMC. “https ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TSMC”

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Limited (TSMC;[…]) is a Taiwanese multinational semiconductor contract manufacturing and design company. It is one of Taiwan’s largest companies, the world’s most valuable semiconductor company, and the world’s largest dedicated independent (pure-play) semiconductor foundry, with its headquarters and main operations located in the Hsinchu Science Park in Hsinchu, Taiwan. TSMC has a global capacity of about 13 million 300mm equivalent wafers per year as of 2020, and makes chips for customers with process nodes from 2 micron to 5 nanometers. TSMC is the first foundry to provide 7 and 5 nanometer production capabilities with the latter being applied on the new Apple A14 and Apple M1 SoC, and the first to commercialize Extreme Ultraviolet (EUV) lithography technology in high volume.

Note that they are “multinational”. So your “made in Taiwan” chip might not be actually made in Taiwan. But it probably is. Note, too, the reference to the Apple chips being made by TSMC; yeah, your Apple is not made in America either. Just because a company HQ is in Silicon Valley doesn’t mean the products are made anywhere in particular.

This all makes it a bit hard to remove China entirely from your computers and the products you use. But you can removed the most At Risk parts. That is the goal of this posting.

Sidebar On Taiwan:

There is a high probability that at some point, and I’d speculate it will happen while China Joe, Beijing Biden, is on the throne, China will invade Taiwan. When (IMHO, not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’) that happens, then the “world’s most valuable semiconductor company’ that makes most of the “hot chips” used in all sorts of electronics (including a fair amount of gear used by our Military…) will fall into the hands of the CCP Chinese Communist Party (IF it isn’t bombed to bits in the process…). So I suggest you buy any product that depends on TSMC before that happens. What makers would get hurt, then? Again from the wiki;

Most of the leading fabless semiconductor companies such as Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Apple Inc., Broadcom Inc., Marvell, MediaTek, Nvidia, and Qualcomm are customers of TSMC, as well as emerging companies such as Allwinner Technology, HiSilicon, Spectra7, and Spreadtrum. Leading programmable logic device companies Xilinx and previously Altera also make or made use of TSMC’s foundry services. Some integrated device manufacturers that have their own fabrication facilities like Intel, NXP, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments outsource some of their production to TSMC. At least one semiconductor company, LSI, re-sells TSMC wafers through its ASIC design services and design IP-portfolio.

Look at that customer list and let is soak in just how exposed is the entire Tech World and all our gadgets to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Broadcom is not just a big WiFi router maker, it is the chipset in the Raspberry Pi. So it’s fine to say Broadcom is a Silicon Valley USA Company so the R. Pi is “safe”, except their chips are made in Taiwan and China is flying bombers past them…

We will see several of those “customer names” again as “Chinese Companies”, but one needs special emphasis.

Note that Allwinner is a maker from China with a LARGE presence in the SBC Single Board Computer market. Just that product I’m most interested in using and where this article is looking at ways to avoid China. So is Allwinner “OK” because it is actually run to Fab in Taiwan (maybe) or is it not OK since it is a Chinese Mainland company and you don’t really know where the Fab was located? That’s the kind of issue you run into.

My rule will generally be that any SOC System On Chip (CPU and more, the brains of the board, that One Big Chip) or SBC (the board itself with parts on it) with headquarters in Mainland China or Hong Kong (now…) is highly suspect. The CCP requires that any and all Chinese Companies work for and with their military and spying agencies.

IMHO it isn’t enough to say “Well, TSMC did the actual fab so they would catch any buggery”. They won’t. They will put the masks on the machine, fab some parts, send them to the contracting company for acceptance and when approved, crank out thousands. They don’t have the time, money or interest to reverse engineer what the customer wants made and then assure it isn’t subtly a security risk.

In 2011, it was reported that TSMC had begun trial production of the A5 SoC and A6 SoCs for Apple’s iPad and iPhone devices. According to reports, as of May 2014, Apple is sourcing its new A8 and A8X SoCs from TSMC and later sourced the A9 SoC with both TSMC and Samsung (to increase volume for iPhone 6s launch) with the A9X being exclusively made by TSMC, thus resolving the issue of sourcing a chip in two different microarchitecture sizes. Apple has become TSMC’s most important customer.
[…]
In July 2020, TSMC confirmed it would halt the shipment of silicon wafers to Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer Huawei and its subsidiary HiSilicon by the 14th of September

Here we see more of the dynamic. Apple has the iPhone assembled by Foxconn, a Chinese company, using as their major chip maker a Taiwanese company that China wants to capture. Think Apple Upper Management wants to upset China in any way? They go out of business overnight if China gets upset with them.

Note that HiSilicon is a wholly owned subsidiary of Huawei, so IMHO one of the most likely sources of buggery in chip sets. Watch for that name and, IMHO, avoid it. Also note that China is not fond of the rejection of Huawei and capturing TSMC would “fix that”…

With that, lets move on to the chip sets. Note that I’m NOT addressing things like memory chips or UARTS or any of the disk drivers and Ethernet chips. Each of those has the potential to be a place where some kind of exposure is built into a product. Why am I not looking at them? First off, there’s just way too many to track. Secondly, it is my opinion that if a maker is having their SOC fabricated outside China, and their HQ is not in China, the will most likely be using parts that are known clean and likely from other non-China sources. This is a crap shoot, but one in your favour.

THE most likely to be buggered is the CPU / SOC as it has the most ability and the easiest ways to insert malware. That is followed by USB devices and then the uSD cards (as all of them have some compute ability and software inside of them). Hardest to do is a simple part that does one tiny task that isn’t very smart. The limit case there is passive parts like resistors, capacitors, inductors.

Yet China DID insert a buggery part onto a large computer board (Intel architecture based) used in a bunch of companies / server farms. It was a part that was NOT supposed to be on the board, made to look like another part that was supposed to be there. It was caught, but not before a lot of folks were embarrassed. I also was at a Major Entertainment Company when a batch of “marketing USB Drives” arrived from China. Our security group tested these and found that about 10% came from the factory with a pre-installed virus. Had we handed them out to customers, 10% of them would have compromised their computers.

The point is: We KNOW absolutely that China (and thus the CCP) have an ACTIVE program to insert malware and spying capabilities into the equipment they make and ship to the world in general and the USA in particular. It IS HAPPENING and is not a hypothetical.

It is for that reason that I will buy NO hardware “made in China” unless I’m doing it specifically to examine it or potentially if there simply is no other choice. For example, I bought 2 Orange Pi One boards at about $12 to $15 each. These are “Made in China”. Why did I buy them?

First off, their operating system is under my control, so any buggery would need to be outside of that space. Second, I do not use them for anything important. On initial bring up, I watched for any “odd behaviour”. Then there’s the simple fact of their target market: Folks designing equipment who are likely to do things like run network sniffers and such. High risk of getting caught. Finally, SO FAR the focus of China’s espionage efforts has been on the PC and bigger class of equipment, almost entirely using AMD64 / x86 / Intel architecture. It just has not been their target.

I still do not trust those boards, but as a lab experiment decided it was OK to play with it.

The other batch of China Stuff is 3 boards from the Pine64 company. They had HQ in Silicon Valley and equipment assembled in China. Then not that long ago moved their HQ to China. I bought mine as “low cost and interesting” despite having Allwinner & Rockchip chips in them based on the HQ being in Silicon Valley and their reputation as quality engineering folks with an emphasis on open source projects and things with a privacy interest (like switches to turn off microphones and cameras at the hardware level). I was willing to trust the Silicon Valley guys to keep the Chinese fab honest. Now that HQ is in China, under CCP laws, that’s out the window. I’m willing to run the boards I already have, using NON-China operating system software, but I’ll not be buying any new products from them. Their reputation is still good, but a Chinese Military Boot legally on their throat is bigger.

The Chip Sets

Again, not exhaustive. I’m mostly not going to look at things with one small 400 MHz processor and 256 MB of ram, or things in the micro-controller range. Those DO matter (and why I want no IoT I-diot Of Things devices in my home. It is just too attractive a target to hack. reportedly in the last election one of the Dominion Vote Diddle Boxes was talking to China via a “Smart Thermometer” on the wall. Piggybacking the traffic on the WiFi and internet connection of that device (essentially using it as a WiFi Access Point). I’m not interested in having Chinese run WiFi APs scattered around my house…

But for this posting, I’m ONLY going to look at bigger chips with enough capacity to run a modest desktop and built into SBCs like the Raspberry Pi, Banana Pi, Odroid C2, etc. I’m also specifically NOT going to be looking at x86 / AMD64 “Intel” style boards. Why? First off, they cost a lot more. Second, I “don’t DO Windows” so don’t need them. Third, they are the main target architecture for CCP Viruses and buggery (though that is changing over time…). Then, finally, it is my opinion that the ME Management Engine is a HUGE privacy and security hole, and most likely a “Back Door” appliance inserted for the USA TLAs pleasure. China is not the only country doing jiggery buggery on hardware and software… So yes, “someday” I might get an x86 based SBC to play with, but I’ll treat it rather like my Pine64 boards. Suspect.

These are listed in no particular order of importance. I just ran down a couple of lists of SBCs and pulled names out, looked into them, tossed some as too small or too uninteresting and kept the ones with the biggest presence. I WILL give “honourable mention” to a MIPS chip set. MIPS at one time (’80s?) was a hot ISA (Instruction Set Architecture – so ARM and Intel and such) well MIPS and PowerPC and others were important for a time too. You can still get some MIPS based SBCs. Software will be limited and the primary use is also limited, but it’s an interesting ISA. I may get one someday just to play with it, but mostly this is all about ARM chips. Any other ISA mentioned is just my curiosity getting loose.

I’ll be putting the word CHINA next to those that I’d not buy.

Chip Maker     Country        Major Brands Using It

Actions        CHINA          Banana Pi SC4
Allwinner      CHINA          All sorts of Orange Pi, Banana Pi and more.
AMLogic        USA - Fab TSMC Odroids, Libre Computers but they are Chinese
Broadcom       USA            Raspberry Pi
Freescale/NXP  Dutch / USA    Hummingboard
FriendlyARM    CHINA          "Nano" brand boards
HiSilicon      CHINA          Subsidiary of Huawei
Media Tek      Taiwan         Linario 96 boards
RealTek        Taiwan         Banana Pi W2
RDA Micro      CHINA          
RockChip       CHINA          Pine64, "White Box" tablets,
Marvell        USA (Bermuda)  Globalscale, Dragonfly
Samsung        South Korea    Odroid, Gumstix
Texas Inst.    USA            Panda Boards

Allwinner and Rockchip tend to dominate all the Pi Clone low cost tier. That’s the thing to use as your first sort / rejection. Also “FriendlyARM” and the whole “Nano” line get the boot.

AMLogic, Broadcom, Samsung, Marvell and Media Tek sort things IN. I’m unfamilar with Freescale/NXP (A Dutch USA merger) but that makes the Hummingboard line interesting.

I’m also vaguely interested in the Gumstix and Dragonfly products, but don’t know much about them.

Do note that this says nothing about relative performance. Some makers, like Texas Instruments, largely made “controllers” and other lower cost lower performance parts. Yet they have made a nice board and CPU chipset. BUT, it is just crazy over priced.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PandaBoard

The PandaBoard was a low-power single-board computer development platform based on the Texas Instruments OMAP4430 system on a chip (SoC). The board has been available to the public at the subsidized price of US$174 since 27 October 2010. It is a community supported development platform.

The PandaBoard ES is a newer version based on the OMAP4460 SoC, with the CPU and GPU running at higher clock rates. Like its predecessor, it is a community supported development platform.
[…]
The OMAP4430 SoC on the PandaBoard features a dual-core 1 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore CPU, a 304 MHz PowerVR SGX540 GPU, IVA3 multimedia hardware accelerator with a programmable DSP, and 1 GiB of DDR2 SDRAM. The PandaBoard ES uses a newer SoC, with a dual-core 1.2 GHz CPU and 384 MHz GPU.

Dual Core A-9 at 1.2 GHz? That ought to be selling for about $15 to $25, not $175. Somebody is smoking something… Just because it’s made in the USA doesn’t mean that I’m going to buy one if the price is crazy or the performance is in the gutter.

Some useful links for SBCs and listings of what chip set is in which products:

Yes, a Russian link. Oddly, I find the Russians have had their head on straight the last few decades while China has risen to be the Global Bad Guy and the USA has gone a bit nuts. (UK and EU largely navel gazing… and playing games with each other…)

https://wikidevi.wi-cat.ru/List_of_Single-board_computers

https://wikidevi.wi-cat.ru/List_of_Single-board_computers/Comparison

Oddly, the prior Wiki page looks to be gone, but still around under a particular user:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:OliverGalvin/Comparison_of_single-board_computers

So you can look down those lists and pick out just which SBC makers are most full of which Chinese Chips and know what to avoid. I’ve done a little of that in my lists, but there’s a lot more detail to work through.

There are a few trends. Some makers tend toward “All China all the time”. Others have “Mixed bag of whatever”. And a very few have “No China” as their major mode. I’m going to list that last set here:

Linario – From Cambridge in the UK, uses Qualcom and Media Tek chips sets
Raspberry Pi – USA Broadcom chipset
Odroid – South Korea Uses Samsung or AMLogic chips
Nvidia – They make their own ARM cores and then add a CUDA core parallel processor GPU.
Inforce – uses Qualcomm chips

Yes, it is a pretty short list for widely available and not too expensive Non-China SBCs. There are many others, but they tend to be very low power, not commonly available (embedded industrial market), or rather pricey. I’ve likely missed some gem somewhere, but that will take a longer time combing the lists, and looking up names I don’t know, to find them.

Why no BeagleBoards? Just too low power to interest me. Fine for you folks playing with robot controllers and small stuff.

Note that Marvell supplies the chips for the Chromecast products from Google and Azure for Microsoft. It has legal HQ in Bermuda for “tax purposes”…:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvell_Technology_Group

On November 12, 2019, Marvell announced that their ThunderX2 SoCs have been deployed on Microsoft Azure.
[…]
Google’s Chromecast products are powered by Marvell SoCs. Namely the Marvell ARMADA 1500 Mini SoC (88DE3005) for the Chromecast 1st gen and Marvell ARMADA 1500 Mini Plus SoC (88DE3006) for the Chromecast 2nd gen & Chromecast audio. Synaptics acquired Marvell Multimedia Solutions on 2017-06-12 [28] ARMADA 1500 SoC’s are now produced under different names

Avoiding:

Tends to use China Chips or is made in China, so on my personal Avoid list:

Cubieboards - CHINA   lots of Allwinner chips
Banana Pi  -  CHINA   and uses lots of Allwinner chips
Orange Pi  -  CHINA   and uses lots of Allwinner chips
C.H.I.P. - not sure where made, but Allwinner chips.
FireFly - also not sure where made but uses RockChips.
Hackberry 10 - Allwinner
HiKey - uses HiSilicon chips
MarsBoard - Allwinner chips
OLinuXino - Allwinner chips
pcDuino - Allwinner chips
Pine  - LOTS of Allwinner and Rockchip
Radxa - Rockchip
Tronsmart - Allwinner A80

Again: I’ve not listed ALL the boards using China chips, especially lower power ones. Nor have I listed ALL the boards using non-China chips. Many are just names I don’t know or who have one or two products I’ve never seen for sale. They may be GREAT! but I don’t have time to look into all of the “also ran” makers. Hit the list yourself and see if you find some interesting small gem of high performance with low price not from China.

Sidebar On Mips

As a minor side note, the MIPS RISC processor has a niche in a lot of small appliance boxes. It was a “hot chip” ISA at one time, but mostly displaced by ARM in the commodity box business. Still, it has a following. The Cavium processor is a MIPS CPU. Also a company named “Onion” has a fun little cheap bit of tech for making Access Points and similar. (No, no HDMI output and not suited for a desktop, but if you want an ‘instant AP cheap’…)

There are a few MIPS chips / SBCs on those lists.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIPS_architecture_processors

Embedded markets

Through the 1990s, the MIPS architecture was widely adopted by the embedded market, including for use in computer networking, telecommunications, video arcade games, video game consoles, computer printers, digital set-top boxes, digital televisions, DSL and cable modems, and personal digital assistants.

The low power-consumption and heat characteristics of embedded MIPS implementations, the wide availability of embedded development tools, and knowledge about the architecture means use of MIPS microprocessors in embedded roles is likely to remain common.

Synthesizeable cores for embedded markets

In recent years most of the technology used in the various MIPS generations has been offered as semiconductor intellectual property cores (IP cores), as building blocks for embedded processor designs. Both 32-bit and 64-bit basic cores are offered, known as the 4K and 5K. These cores can be mixed with add-in units such as floating-point units (FPU), single instruction, multiple data (SIMD) systems, various input/output (I/O) devices, etc.

MIPS cores have been commercially successful, now having many consumer and industrial uses. MIPS cores can be found in newer Cisco, Linksys and Mikrotik’s routerboard routers, cable modems and asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) modems, smartcards, laser printer engines, set-top boxes, robots, and hand-held computers. In cellphones and PDAs, MIPS has been largely unable to displace the incumbent, competing ARM architecture.

MIPS architecture processors include: IDT RC32438; ATI/AMD Xilleon; Alchemy Au1000, 1100, 1200; Broadcom Sentry5; RMI XLR7xx, Cavium Octeon CN30xx, CN31xx, CN36xx, CN38xx and CN5xxx; Infineon Technologies EasyPort, Amazon, Danube, ADM5120, WildPass, INCA-IP, INCA-IP2; Microchip Technology PIC32; NEC EMMA and EMMA2, NEC VR4181A, VR4121, VR4122, VR4181A, VR4300, VR5432, VR5500; Oak Technologies Generation; PMC-Sierra RM11200; QuickLogic QuickMIPS ESP; Toshiba Donau, Toshiba TMPR492x, TX4925, TX9956, TX7901; KOMDIV-32, KOMDIV-64, ELVEES Multicore from Russia.

So there’s a lot of them out there, but more in industrial products than in home SBC toys. Still, I found this product interesting. A Very Dinky SBC designed for the IoT market, it could be a fun way to make a very miniaturized Conservative Box like Access Point

https://onion.io/

All inclusive IoT Compute Platform
Onion Corporation builds computing and connectivity devices for the Internet of Things. Onion products are drop-in solutions that help customers build their connected products and reduce their development time.

IF your interest is going to the way-small and way-cheap toys, it might be useful:

https://onion.io/omega2/

Currently selling at $10-$14 more or less for the bare chip. On a board with needed bits to actually use it, about $50.

Low-cost, production-ready Linux modules for connected devices and sensors
The Onion Omega2 Linux Compute Modules are designed for applications that require drop-in connectivity and computing. The 42.9×26.4×9.9 mm package features a CPU, memory, flash storage, and a WiFi radio. It runs a Linux Operating System and is FCC certified, making it a small but powerful solution for IoT devices.

Wi-Fi enabled Linux-based module for IoT applications
Dual mode 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi – simultaneously host a WiFi access point and connect to existing WiFi networks
On-board WiFi antenna & U.FL connector for optional external antenna
CPU, memory, and flash storage are built-in
Runs OpenWRT Linux operating system out of the box
FCC and CE certified
Features USB, ethernet, MicroSD, 2x UARTs, I2C, SPI, GPIOs interfaces

https://onion.io/store/omega2-pro/

Omega2 Pro
$49.00

OM-O2PRO

The Omega2 Pro IoT computer is the next generation of Onion’s Linux-based, WiFi development board and the most powerful IoT computer we’ve made yet. It is a standalone device – the processor, memory, gigabytes of storage, and Wi-Fi are all built-in, and it’s smaller than a breadboard, making it easier than ever to build connected hardware applications.

Features & Specifications
Processor: 580 MHz MIPS CPU
Memory: 128 MB RAM and 384 MB flash swap file
Storage: 8 GB
Connectivity: 2.4 GHz b/g/n Wi-Fi
Operating System: OpenWRT 18.06 Linux
Battery Support: LiPo battery management & JST-PH battery connector
Antenna: 2 dBi directional chip antenna & U.FL connector for external antenna
Dimensions: 73 mm x 44 mm
A common theme we heard from our users of previous Omega iterations was that they felt constrained by storage space. The gigabytes of storage on the Omega2 Pro will allow you to build rich, modern applications, with plenty of space to hold libraries, assets, media, and more.

The Omega2 Pro is compatible with the entire ecosystem of Omega2 Expansions!

OpenWRT is a router focused Linux port that runs in very little hardware. As this is a MIPS device, it could be fun to play with. OTOH, at $50 for one core at 580 MHz of RISC, it’s an expensive toy for the compute power. Still, you could build a hidden WiFi AP into a cigarette box or big keychain fob. Has USB 2.0 on it, so a USB thumb drive and you can have a file swapping area pretty quick and easy.

I doubt that I’m going to “go there”, but it does look like it would be a fun minimal sized package for a Conservative Box Stealth Mode…

In Conclusion

No, I didn’t do the whole job for you. Hopefully I did the “heavy lifting” and pointed you at the low hanging fruit choices and what is most likely to be avoided. Plus links to details.

I’m happy with Odroid / Raspberry Pi as my two main families of devices for most of what I do. I’m interested in the NVIDIA board as a parallel CUDA Core learning platform / compute engine.

I’ve also got a minimalist urge to play with one of the Postage Stamp sized objects to make a miniature / clandestine AP and file sharing device, but so far not enough of an urge to actually buy anything. Hopefully it stays that way. ;-)

Then every so often I think of getting one of the x86 SOC based boards, just so I’m not dealing with ARM Chips for some odd alien OS I’d like to try. But over time the ARM world is slowly dominating so I figure eventually the OS Guys will catch on that it isn’t all “embedded”. Especially now with Macs joining Chromebooks in the ARM based game.

But for now, for me, this is more a day-dream exercise than an actual need. Prep for a future need to “buy in a hurry”. Today I’ve got about 1/2 my inventory of SBCs actively being used at any one time. That means I have more than enough “extras and spares”. Most of them were bought for evaluation or testing / education anyway, so purpose already served.

Like the Orange Pi at nearly nothing which confirmed to me it was not adequate as a cheap compute node due to no heat management meaning it heat limits fast and 512 MB of memory being way too little for a quad core machine. Only 128 MB / core. It helped set my rule of thumb of 250 MB / core of 32 bit and 1/2 GB to 1 GB per core of 64 bit cores. That’s worth $12 to know.

Were I buying something today, it would likely be the NVIDIA NANO at $100. Why? Because programming CUDA cores is a hot topic in everything from AI to self driving cars and computer vision and would likely really help climate models as high end parallel processing.

Yeah, the ARM chip on it isn’t as fast as the Odroid, but it’s plenty fast enough.

IF I didn’t want to play with CUDA cores? I’d buy more Odroid. Especially the N2. I did a comparison of speed of my existing boards based on Dhrystones / Mhz (from the Wiki listings). The Odroid N2 is about 2 times faster than anything else I’ve got, but doesn’t cost 2 x as much. Plus it has worked flawlessly ever since I bought it. What, about a year ago?

It is just a nice, fast, comfortable desktop experience. (Even if I am running Armbian with SystemD in it. The Armbian folks fix /hide a lot of the SystemD buggery…)

Right behind it would be the Odroid XU4 that I’ve run as my desktop for a couple of years and find it quite nice too.

IFF the Raspberry Pi had any decent heat management (instead of needing high end aftermarket heat extractors of exotic type…) and had a regular HDMI connector ( I have no mini-HDMI and don’t want to buy more cables) AND had proper power in (using USB_C doesn’t cut it for CPUs of that size and boards of that power – it is pushing the spec) AND had better on board I/O: Then I’d consider it. But instead they took a design that was marginal but OK at 1 GHz and have tried to keep key aspects of it as they moved up to hotter A72 cores that suck more power (4 of them, when the RockPro64 runs hot even with a heat sink with just 2 of them… the A73 cores runs a lot cooler and is even faster). They just over ran the other abilities of the board and didn’t “fix it”. So no R.Pi M4 for me.

I’m curious about the Linario and Inforce boards, but don’t know enough about them to evaluate them from paper. Then, I don’t know prices or anything else, really. I also can’t justify buying a few more boards just to evaluate them when I’m not using all the computes / boards I have now. So others will need to pitch in on those boards, and are they a good Bang/$ ratio.

Hopefully this long wander through the underbelly of Semiconductor Fab and computer boards is helpful to folks. It was enlightening to me to find out just how much tech world hinges on Taiwan…

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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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12 Responses to China In Chips & Boards, Or Not

  1. Kneel says:

    “AMLogic, Broadcom, Samsung, Marvell and Media Tek sort things IN.”

    My Android box is AMLogic SoC – good to know USA based.
    I suspect that these SoC chips are pretty much packed to the limit and not much room for any shenanigans anyway – as long as you are “bleeding edge”, I guess. So a bit of a dilemma as getting the “cheap” ones inevitably means not bleeding edge. On the plus side, they are seen as an “appliance” used by consumer market, so little value in having hardware “spy” stuff attached, IMO – sure, maybe the firmware is “hacked” to report on your viewing habits etc, but that’s gone anyway. Whereas the SBC stuff is known to be used by people doing “computing” rather than having an appliance.
    That’s my take, anyway – that “re-purposing” such boxes is likely “safer” than unknown hardware designed for purpose. YMMV.

  2. E.M.Smith says:

    THE big feature of a “purpose built box” is the engineer time spent evaluating, programming, and testing the SOC / system / board. Lots of “eyeballs with brains and test equipment” doing things with the sample chips, early engineering runs, and sporadic QA Batches.

    So any “chippery buggery” is very likely to show up as some kind of anomaly in that process.

    FWIW, the “buggery” can be very very subtle. Things like putting a few zeros where their ought to be more key length in some encryption, or swapping an algorithm by a smidge (both were seen in different cases, one of them argued to be a simple error, but an awful convenient one).

    There’s really 2 games going on.

    1) Bugger the gear.
    2) Do it in such an artful and subtle way only an expert can figure it out, and you are the best expert around. Bonus points if you make it look like a ‘perfect accident’….

    Very few pull off a #2. Every so often one can be found and folks end up impressed by it…

  3. E.M.Smith says:

    FWIW, PhilJourdan put a comment about this thread in 1/2 of a comment here:
    https://chiefio.wordpress.com/2021/01/25/w-o-o-d-beginning-of-the-end-25-jan-2021/#comment-139110

    I’m replying here…

    It isn’t a big tech ability to read “China” as the place a company is located and put it in an article, so I’m not seeing where I deserve much credit, but, OK, I’ll take it ;-)

    FWIW I DO think the odds of there being any bugs / spyware stuck into ARM chips and SBCs from China is pretty darned low. Not much potential for gain out of it.

    OTOH, buggering $4 token USB Drives to be handed out to kids and ‘electronic picture frames’ is pretty weak tea too, and both were done.

    The big “feature” is just putting some intrusion aid into everywhere, then you can pick and choose which ones to follow up. So maybe MY office is damned uninteresting as all they see is me typing blog postings, but if one ended up in a “demo” by some school kid to “Dad” and “Dad” was CEO of something interesting, or a General somewhere…

    So I just see it as a big “Odds” game.

    Since it costs me nearly nothing to avoid China Chips, and since in the last 2 or 3 years China has gone a LOT more operational against the USA (and Australia and India and Japan and Taiwan and…) I just figure it’s going to be good hygiene from here on out to not have any recent China gear in my shop…

    Or to at least isolate their use to places where they can do no damage. Like my TV Network. Go ahead, find out the spouse watches a lot of Star Trek and NCIS…

    Oh, one other bit:

    In general, my impression of the “more China parts” gear is that it works OK, but isn’t as sturdy as the non-China gear. Odroid in particular just seems to have thicker more sturdy PC Boards, much better heat sinks, parts seem a bit better quality, etc. The Orange Pi One has such a thin PC Board that it can’t help cool the chip and it flexes when you grab it. Just sort of cheesy… (BUT it does work…)

    So there’s that… I like buying better build quality, and if it’s $30 instead of $15, I’m OK with that.

  4. H.R. says:

    @E.M. – You mentioned NCIS.

    Mrs. H.R. and daughter-in-law (DIL) like a lot of the same shows and they like to watch TV. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big TV watcher.

    Son and DIL stayed with us for a year while saving for and shopping around for a place of their own to buy. The Mrs. and DIL would often settle in together to watch something. So…

    I’m puttering in the kitchen and walk into the family room where the Mrs. and DIL are watching some TV show. All I see is a bunch of people standing around talking at each other and doing not much of anything, all of them wearing jackets with NCIS in big yellow letters on the back.

    I asked, “What’s NCIS stand for; No Clue, I’m Stupid?”

    They were not amused and I beat a hasty retreat back to my cooking. To this day, I still don’t know what NCIS stands for.

  5. E.M.Smith says:

    Navy Cops
    Naval Criminal Investigative Service

    Typical Story Line:

    Find dead {Marine, Navy, Coast Guard} in {Alley, field, car, water} and send to autopsy because {Drugs found, Place a mess, shot, need longer script} and have Lab Nerds find {drugs, no drugs, shot, poison, rat bites, …} so investigators must {shoot someone else, bust drug dealer, run in circles scream and shout, look menacingly at Bad Guy, look concerned at each other, comfort spouse of victim} and then {solve mystery with it’s not a mystery, bust bad guy, bury bad guy, lock up bad guy, get on an airplane to a ship at sea to be continued}. Sidebar Story: One of the NCIS team {gets a new date, hits on a co-worker, hits on a suspect, gets hit on by a victim or victim family member, kisses a Trans and doesn’t know it (really that only happened once… one episode, several times in one episode…), or is home alone and lonely. Rinse and repeat.

    Now you don’t need to watch it…

  6. H.R. says:

    “…look concerned at each other…”

    I think that’s where I walked in 😜

    I just might get a t-shirt printed up with NCIS on it and my interpretation of the acronym in small letters just below the acronym. Prolly shouldn’t wear it around Naval Installations, though.

  7. Compu Gator says:

    E.M. Smith originally posted on 1 February 2021 at 7:19 pm GMT [*]:

    I’d speculate it will happen while China Joe, Beijing Biden, is on the throne, China will invade Taiwan. When […] that happens, then ⟨TSMC⟩ the “world’s most valuable semiconductor company” that makes most of the “hot chips” used in all sorts of electronics (including a fair amount of gear used by our Military) will fall into the hands of the CCP Chinese Communist Party (IF it isn’t bombed to bits in the process).

    I don’t doubt expectations of Red China invading Taiwan during the grossly compromised Beijing Biden Administration, but I do quite seriously doubt that the CCP would allow damage being done to TSMC. It has technology that even our major U.S. semiconductor fabs, from whom I have no doubt that the CCP tries to steal everything it can, haven’t been able to perfect themselves (e.g., intel and single-digit nanometer wafers). Sooo, I expect the CCP to preserve as much as possible of the superior TSMC technology by an aerial assault with paratroopers at a blitzkrieg pace, before anyone in TSMC management realizes that that is the dire emergency for which they’ve been given autodestruct passwords. Can you say “Operation Paperclip”?

    So I suggest you buy any product that depends on TSMC before that happens. What makers would get hurt, then?  Again from the  wiki  [🐉]
    […] Most of the leading fabless semiconductor companies such as Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Apple Inc., Broadcom Inc., […], Nvidia […] are customers of TSMC [….]

    [….]
    I’m interested in the NVIDIA board as a parallel CUDA Core learning platform / compute engine. [….] Were I buying something today, it would likely be the ⟨4 GB⟩ NVIDIA NANO at $100.

    Wey-ell, maybe some of us could apply a portion of the Bidelosi Administration’s proposed additional round of CoVid-19 federal relief payments; it’s lately been reported as $1400 to individuals. So it might provide an excellent opportunity for purchasing 1 or 2 of the threatened SBCs [🚀]. The Democrat leadership reportedly believes that they can pass the enabling appropriations bills without any Republican votes. I assume that it will be yet another legislatively reprehensible Democrat exercise in “you must pass it to find out what’s in it”.

    It might be highly entertaining to read what a Tom Clancy-written team led by Jack Ryan & John Clark, or a Ted Bell-written team led by Lord Alexander Hawke & Sir Stokely Jones Jr., could do with an assignment to prevent the capture of TSMC.

    ——–
    Note * : E.M.Smith: “China In Chips & Boards, Or Not”.  Posted on 1 February 2021:  https://chiefio.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/china-in-chips-boards-or-not/.

    Note 🐉 : “Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, Limited”:  https ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TSMC.

    Note 🚀 : E.g., “NVIDIA® Jetson Nano™””.  The URL containing the word “buy” is linked only for info about the numerous models; I have no connection whatsoever with this site nor its products:  https://developer.nvidia.com/buy-jetson; https://developer.nvidia.com/embedded/learn/get-started-jetson-nano-devkit.

  8. p.g.sharrow says:

    @Compu Gater: It appears to me that the CCP will be going out with a whimper and not with a BANG!
    Much Like the Soviet Union evaporated at what looked to be their zenith, the Chinese Communist Party is actually very frail and on the verge of collapse. Their Military is mostly a front that is best suited for garrison duty and control over the population…pg

  9. hubersn says:

    I am a collector of SBCs of a special kind (those who run RISC OS). In this specifc market, the OMAP5 variants by TI (successor of the OMAP4 that powered the PandaBoard) are a good choice, but the GPU is not 4K-capable. Example boards that carry an OMAP5 SoC are the BeagleBoard-X15, the ISEE IGEPv5 and as the premium solution in ATX-compatible form factor and several S-ATA ports the Elesar Titanium – insanely expensive, but…as.a collector…

    But in the end, the Pi 4 is hard to beat in the price/performance ratio – the Cortex-A72 beats the once-high-end Cortex-A15 of the OMAP5. If you use a case like the Argon One, you will end up with a nicely-boxed, nicely-cooled system which also converts the silly Micro HDMI into ful-size HDMI. Now that the Pi 4 supports true Gigabit Ethernet, true 4K video output, dual-head, and quite fast USB3 as well…as I said, hard to beat. I experimented with various cases, and even the simple ones with a small fan have solved the heat problem nicely.

  10. E.M.Smith says:

    @Hubersen:

    Well you had me excited for a moment about the BeagleBoard-X15.

    I like the A15 cores (the XU4 uses them for the ‘big’ cores). But the X15 has 2 while the XU4 has 4 of them, plus another 4 of the A7 cores…

    Then the cost! At Mouser it’s $267.00 (!) just OMG pricey.

    So OK, it IS a very nice board… but I can’t spend that much on toys, and certainly not for a board that runs at less than 1/2 the speed of a $57 board…

    The Argon One case does look like it solves the problems. $40-$50 in some places, but only $25 at Amazon as I type this:

    Not keen on the fan (I like silent passive cooling) but it is software controllable and most likely will not run too often if the whole case is the heat sink. I can live with that.

    This jumps the package price of a Pi-4 plus enough cooling up to around $65+ some 1 GB or $75+some 2GB. Also more or less livable.

    Only remaining point is the 4 x A72 cores where the A72 is a heat generator and not as fast as the cooler A73 of the Odroid N2 (but it costs 1/3 more at $100…)

    So, OK, I think you convinced me. With THAT case and cooling solution that also fixes the HDMI port size, I could see it as a nicely workable package.

  11. E.M.Smith says:

    @CompuGator:

    Just note that in any armed conflict, BOTH sides, and often some 3rd parties, have an interest in “key assets” not falling into “enemy hands”.

    So were the CCP Army to parachute in and capture TSMC intact, would, say, Japan or India or the UK or Russia or… decide better if the CCP did not control it? Would a Taiwan Insurgency decide to deny them their “prize” with a howitzer or two? How about a jet flight from South Korea (perhaps eyeing the advantage to Samsung…) or a missile from N. Korea that isn’t aimed so good… or even a USA Standing Order that Biden didn’t know to cancel…

    Plans and theories are nice, but rarely survive first contact with an enemy…

    As a Prepper Sort, I’d rather have my board / chipset bought and in hand prior to the start of the Return Of Taiwan to the loving embrace of Mother CCP…

  12. E.M.Smith says:

    I’ve added the Raspberry Pi Model 4 to my DMIPS comparison chart here:
    https://chiefio.wordpress.com/2021/01/21/arm-chips-whats-a-digit-mean/#comment-139090

    It comes out at 28,320 where the RockPro64 is faster by a little at 32,680. This was a bit of a surprise as the RockPro64 only has 2 “fast” A72 cores vs the Pi at 4 x A72. Why is interesting. A quote from the update:

    UPDATE:
    […]
    Key point to note is that the RockPro64 still beats it, despite only 2 x A72 cores while the Pi has 4 x A72 cores. How? Well, first off the RockPro64 runs at 2 GHz while the Pi M4 is only 1.5 GHz. That bites. Then the 4 x A53 cores add another 13,800 DMIPS to the 18,880 of the 2 x A72 cores. Also note that single core performance will be 9,440 for the RockPro64 but only 7080 for the Pi M4. Things that are single threaded will go faster on the RockPro64.

    So the net-net of it is that for total gross throughput, the RockPro64 will beat by a little, while for single core single thread it will beat by 2/1.5 or 1.33 x on single core. However, in the middle ground of a “few” threads (more than 2, less than 5) the Pi M4 may beat if it can run all for A72 cores while the RockPro64 can’t effectively use the A53 cores to catch up. Maybe… (as there’s a lot of other moving parts being ignored).

    The Odroid N2 is still more than double the computes for about 1.5 x the price (with a decent heat solution in the price of the Pi M4 but less memory) plus has faster single core performance and has 8 cores, 4 each of the faster A73 and the A53 good for decent computes at lower heat / power consumption. So IMHO still “king of the hill”.

    The Pi M4 will have the advantage of millions of folks buying it so lots of software updates / fixes / options.

    Personally, I’m on the fence about it, still.

    I lived on the RockPro64 for a week or 2 (or more?). It was “livable but just a tiny bit annoying” after the N2. I’m now back on the N2 and again having a more or less “no waiting” experience.

    I have to expect that with lesser total computes and a slower single core speed, the Pi M4 will have a similar degree of “just enough to notice” sloth on some tasks. Plus, once you add enough memory to be interesting, the price rises rapidly. $75 (with heat solution) for 2 GB. My N2 cost about $100 with 4 GB. Looking around, I’m seeing order of $80 for the Pi M4 with 4 GB, then you add $25 for the heat extractor and get $105…

    So I have to pay MORE to get LESS? About 1/2 the speed. Um….

    Still it will have some uses and some benefits, but I’m not feeling the need at the moment. The N2 beats it a lot on speed, and the RockPro64 is sitting on the desk if I need something about the same performance (but without the need of a fan).

    My conclusion is that for a NOOB wanting the entire Raspberry Pi Ecosystem to help them, the Pi Model 4 with the fancy case is a nice option. For a person looking for “computes for the $Buck” and able to do a normal Linux install, the Odroid family beats it.

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