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Best for hobbyists
Raspberry Pi 3 B
Raspberry Pi is the most recognizable name in the single board computer niche. Raspberry Pi boards are the most popular, having the largest following and the most active community. There are more software and project guides available for Raspberry Pi than for all the other SBCs combined. This makes it a great choice for practically anyone, but especially for people who want to set up a project as a hobby and for first-timers.
The largest and most active community
Raspberry Pi has the largest following of any single-board computer. The amount of guides, tutorials and software available for the Raspberry Pi is unmatched by any other competitor. A regular user has close to no chance to run into a problem that hasn’t been covered already. If a web search doesn’t yield any results, the users on the official forums are very responsive and will usually reply within a day.
Can be turned into a fully-functional multimedia center
You can easily turn any Raspberry Pi into a fully functional home media streaming station with its ability to stream 60Hz Full HD videos. You just have to hook the Model B up to a Full HD monitor (through an HDMI cable), decent speakers (the Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity will allow the use of the wireless ones). Then download applications (Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, and Kodi for example are all supported out of the box) and your home multimedia station is ready. Once built, you can even control the media station using an Android or iOS app.
Great legacy gaming support
Raspberry Pi 3 Model B can be also be used as a console emulator using an OS image called RetroPie. Setting up RetroPie the first time will only take about 30 minutes on average for someone who has never done it before, and even less for experienced users. You can emulate various platforms ranging from early ‘80s legacy consoles like the NES, to more recent ones like the Wii and PlayStation Portable.
No built-in storage
Unlike Udoo or C.H.I.P, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B has no integrated storage. An SD card must be used as a storage.
Other things to note
Comes with built-in Wireless LAN and Bluetooth 4.1. Has 40 GPIO pins. Has an official Debian-based image which is supported by the company and the community alongside several other Linux distributions and Android which can be easily installed and has a dedicated app store with hundreds of applications available. It does get hot pretty quickly while doing some “intensive” computing however, and the ARM-based CPU may be a problem when trying to run some applications or games.
I bought my first Raspberry Pi without any clear idea on what I was going to do with it. The amount of projects people have done with a simple Raspberry Pi is mind-blowing. Unfortunately I haven’t done anything more complex than setting up a home server with my Pi but I am definitely going to do some cool projects in the future when I get some time. I remember a video on YouTube where some guy had built an arcade machine using a Raspberry Pi. Amazing!
Udoo x86 Ultra
The Ultra is comparable in power to that of a typical budget PC. It can run most applications you would usually run on a PC on a daily basis, even some 3D games. It supports Linux, Android, and Windows 10. And it has an embedded Arduino 101 board with built-in gyroscope and six-axis accelerometer. The high power and customizability offered by the Arduino board make this SBC an extremely versatile tool for casual and power users alike.
Capable of running as a day-to-day PC
With 8 GB of RAM and a 1.6 GHz quad-core Intel CPU, the Udoo x86 Ultra is capable of running most applications an average user would need on a daily basis without any particular problems. You can run an office suite, web browser, or an IDE the same way you would in a normal PC. It can also run some PC games such as DotA, League of Legends and Team Fortress 2 on 720p at 20-30 frames per second.
Great media streaming potential
The relatively high power makes the Udoo x86 Ultra the best single-board computer for high-quality media streaming. It can stream 30Hz 4K video on up to three monitors through HDMI and two mini display ports. This opens the doors for setting up a UHD capable media station. Applications like Netflix, Spotify, Kodi, YouTube, etc. are also supported, as Udoo x86 can run operating systems which support these applications.
Best storage capabilities
In terms of storage the Udoo x86 is a clear winner. Out of the box it comes with 32GB eMMC (embedded MultiMediaCard, basically a built-in SSD).Then it’s fully up to the user to upgrade the storage as they see fit. If you need fast (but expensive) storage—an SSD is the best option. A microSD card can also be used as a storage option.
Poor wireless connectivity
Udoo x86 has no integrated hardware to connect to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth networks. You have to buy an additional wireless antenna ($14.90) and use the only M.2 slot in order to connect to wireless networks.
Other things to note
Supports RetroPie so it can be used as a retro gaming emulator. Has great documentation and guides available online and the community is quite helpful even if a bit small. It’s very expensive though, at least as far as single-board computers go. It’s priced at $259.
I wanted to build a DIY smart home automation system and I had used multiple Raspberry Pis for various projects through the years so it was logical that I would try a Raspberry Pi for this project as well. Unfortunately the Pi 2 Model B was not up to the task and was rather slow. So I decided to use something else instead. That’s where I stumbled upon the Udoo x86 Ultra. The specs seemed amazing even though the price was a bit steep compared to a Pi. But I got one anyways and it worked just as promised! The home automation system is close to done and works great (I just need to find a way to make voice recognition work) and in no small part thanks to the Udoo board.
Best learning platform
Priced at just $9, CHIP is the cheapest SBCs on the market. It comes with a pre-installed Debian-based operating system so there’s no setup required out-of-the-box. The official documentation is very well organized and covers pretty much all aspects the user will need. Cheap and easy to use, it’s a perfect choice for those who are looking for a simple development environment to learn how to program or how to set up a single-board computer.
At only $9, it’s the cheapest single-board computer on the market. This makes it perfect for a “first time purchase” as you won’t be investing a large amount of money in something you aren’t sure how you'll use.
Unlike many single-board computers that require an operating system installation from scratch, CHIP comes with an OS preinstalled and ready to go. It’s a Debian Linux derivative and it’s quite easy to use even for someone who has never used Linux before. It also comes with a lot of applications installed such as a web browser and a text editor. It even has a programming language installed called Scratch, which is aimed for beginners.
Great as a learning platform
The official documentation available for CHIP is easy to read and outstandingly informative. You can learn how to use the CHIP and perform different tasks with it through the documentation alone. For example, the documentation fully covers the GPIO pin use. As previously mentioned, it comes with the Scratch programming language, which (admittedly) is aimed at helping children learn how to program but it’s useful even for grown-ups who want to learn how to program. If Scratch is too easy, installing a full-featured, true programming language like Python is very easy.
Slow and sluggish performance
Given its price point, the C.H.I.P. simply cannot handle high performance applications. For example, while streaming Full HD videos, the frame rate is incapable of reaching the comfortable 25-30 Hz range. Due to its low processing potential, CHIP has limited application amplitude
Other things to note
CHIP has built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 4 GB flash storage. It can also run without a monitor and can be controlled through a PC or laptop by connecting it via microUSB. Unfortunately, it is currently difficult to buy a CHIP since they are consistently out of stock due to high demand. You need to be patient before you can purchase one of these.
My 10-year-old son got interested in programming so I decided to make it even more fun for him (and me!) I bought a CHIP board for just $9 and helped him set it up for the first time. It works wonderfully for learning a programming language (I am currently teaching him Python.) Unfortunately it does not do any complex computing, but it’s decent enough for text editing and browsing the web, although it does get sluggish on some JS-heavy websites. But for a fun project and learning platform, it’s a great choice.
What others are saying
How they compare
- There’s virtually no setup needed. It comes with an operating system preinstalled so there’s no need to do anything from the software side. You just need to plug it into a monitor and connect a keyboard and mouse and it’s ready to go. It even has some basic applications (like a web browser) already installed.
- Setting up a Raspberry Pi is easy enough even for people who have not installed an OS before. The official documentation is very detailed in explaining how to install the official Raspberry Pi OS, called Raspbian and even a beginner can follow it without a problem.
- Doesn’t have a built-in storage so you need to get an SD card or external hard drive before setting it up.
- It’s absolutely straightforward to set up. The installation guides for all supported operating systems are provided in written and video form.
Can stream 4K videos at 30 Hz and to three monitors at the same time. This is something no other single-board computer currently on the market can do.
Can play some modern games like Team Fortress 2, Dota 2 and League of Legends at 30 FPS. More demanding games are also technically supported, but have such a low framerate that they’re virtually unplayable.
Supports RetroPie and can emulate consoles from retro ones up to newer ones like the Playstation 2 and PSP.
The Raspberry Pi can do most daily activities without any major issues. Browsing the web, checking the email and editing text is not a problem at all. It can also stream Full HD videos at 60 FPS.
The Raspberry Pi 3 Model B can emulate retro consoles (and some newer ones) through RetroPie. Games played with RetroPie can usually be played at 30-60 FPS.
- While still a very powerful single-board computer, it’s not as powerful as some other SBCs. For example, it has some problems with streaming 4K videos; and even at Full HD, it has problems with YouTube. It is also unable to run newer games even if they are not very demanding such as Team Fortress 2 or DotA.
- You can complete some basic tasks with CHIP. Things like browsing the web, editing text, or streaming 720p videos can be done without any hassle.
- Anything other than simple tasks is virtually impossible. Streaming Full HD videos can only be done at 3-5 FPS and console emulation is not possible, at least not at a playable framerate.
Support and documentation
Raspberry Pi has the largest following of any other single-board computer. The amount of guides, tutorials and software available for the Raspberry Pi is simply unmatched by any other competitor. A regular user is extremely unlikely to run into a problem that hasn’t been covered already. If a web search doesn’t yield any results, the users on the official forums are very responsive and will usually reply within a day.
The official documentation available at the official website is very well structured and covers pretty much all of the aspects a typical Raspberry Pi 3 user will require.
Released just last May 2016, the CHIP already has a strong, growing community. More than 39,000 backers pledged more than $2,000,000 to help bring the CHIP project to life. The official forum is growing in activity, with about 64 topics posted per week. On average, new topics get multiple replies within the first couple of hours, the community is very active and responsive. Even older topics stay up to date.
The official documentation for CHIP is brilliant. The documentation is complete, well-structured, and easy to read. People generally new to SBCs will find the documentation extremely helpful, as it not only covers pretty much everything the regular user would run into, but it is also written in a very straightforward way.
- The Udoo x86 community is small as it’s just off from the Kickstarter. Not many people have their boards yet, but the fact that Udoo raised over $800,000 at Kickstarter sounds promising. The official forum seems fairly active with an average of 200 views and 5 replies per discussion.
Even through the community is growing, the product is not considered mainstream. When purchasing this SBC, you should be aware that some tinkering will be required. Prolific users will also most likely run into some sort of problem that might not have yet been discussed on official resources.
The official documentation available at the official website is lacking. Apart from the hardware specification sheet, there’s generally not much information or project examples available for the Udoo x86 at the moment. The users will have a lot of tinkering and hacking to do if they want to achieve any positive results with their projects.
The Raspberry Pi Model 3 has an onboard 2.4 GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi which works out of the box, as long as the latest version of the default operating system is installed.
The Model 3 B has built-in Bluetooth support. This is very helpful when connecting multiple peripherals or if you’ve run out of USB ports to connect to.
Wired connectivity is pretty complete as well. Users will get four USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, Ethernet, a 3.5mm audio jack, CSI (camera interface), and DSI (display interface).
- For wired connectivity, the Udoo x86 stands out: It has three USB 3.0 ports, a SATA connector, M.2 slot, microSD slot, Ethernet, HDMI, two DisplayPort connectors, and even an IR RC5 interface. This is on par with what regular desktop computers require.
- The Udoo x86 Ultra does not have Wi-Fi or Bluetooth out of the box. However, it has an M.2 slot where an officially supported antenna module can be mounted. This module provides 803.11n Wireless LAN and 5 GHz Bluetooth 4.2 at for $15. Unfortunately, attaching the antenna will occupy the M.2 slot which could have been used for an SSD instead.
- The C.H.I.P shines in terms of wireless connectivity. The tiny $9 SBC comes with Bluetooth 4.0 and 803.11 b/g/n Wireless LAN built in.
- Wired connectivity is sadly lacking. With only one USB and one micro USB port available. In order to attach a mouse and keyboard, you will have to buy an additional powered USB hub. The video output is initially a TRRS connector, while optional VGA or HDMI connectors will cost an additional $10 and $15 respectively. The audio output is streamed through an on-board 3.5mm TRS plug. It also lacks an ethernet port.
Has a total of 45 GPIO pins, which is more than the typical SBC.
Multiple standard communication protocols are also available, as an example: IIC, UART, 1-Wire, SPI, and CSI. Just like with Raspberry Pi, the IIC and SPI buses can be used to connect CHIP to external ADC’s (analog-to-digital converters) and DAC’s (digital-to-analog converters) in order to read and write analog signals to external hardware (sensors and actuators, for example).
The Raspberry Pi 3 model B offers 40 GPIO pins to be used within their projects. This is a very reasonable number of pins for most projects that will need them.
The special communication protocols officially supported are the following: IIC (Inter-Integrated Circuit), SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface) and UART (Universal Asynchronous Receiver-Transmitter). The GPIO functionality explained above allows the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B to be connected with various peripheral devices and, as a result expands the functionality of the board. For example, IIC and SPI buses can be used for attaching multiple analog to digital converters which can be used to “read” analog channels like thermal sensors, humidity sensors, CO2 sensors, etc. Meanwhile UART can be used for communication between multiple Raspberry Pi’s.
The Udoo x86 Ultra comes with 28 GPIO ports in total which may seem small, but considering the fact that it has an Arduino 101 embedded inside, it’s actually a decent amount. The Arduino board has built-in functionality for what some of the pins would be used (like a six-axis accelerometer and gyroscope) and adds 12 additional GPIO pins.
Several key communication protocols are also supported: two IIC, two UART, LPC and SDIO.
What additional peripheral hardware is usually required in order to run a SBC?
Most of the time you will need to have a mouse, keyboard and a monitor. Sometimes a DC power supply cord will also be required.
Linux is very commonly used as an OS for a SBC, is it worth trying Linux based SBC without any previous experience with Linux?
Sure. Actually, a Linux based SBC is very convenient tool in learning the basics of Linux before trying it on your desktop computer.
In general, how is the SBC loaded with an OS, and does it require any particular skillset?
It strongly depends on the SBC. Some SBCs even come with preloaded OS (C.H.I.P. for example). If the OS is not preloaded, well, it will mainly require the user to follow very detailed step by step guides, which are provided by the manufacturer as well as by the community most of the time so no particular skillset will be involved there.