Single-board computers (SBC) have come a long way since the “dyna-micro” premiered in Radio-Electronics Magazine in 1976. They are now found everywhere in a wide range of devices for industrial, commercial, and consumer applications.
For educators, students, budding robot enthusiasts, and serious robotics experimenters, SBC is a cost-effective and convenient way to add brains to home-made robots or applications (such as basic Linux or Android desktops, smart home hubs, retro game consoles, network-attached storage (NAS) devices), and have great fun!
There are tons of considerations when selecting a dev board to fit your needs, and choosing the right single-board computer for an application requires many considerations. Following are the four most important factors to address in your SBC selection process:
- Community size and resources – The size of the SBC community is perhaps one of the most overlooked elements when picking out a board. The impact of available resources, forums, subreddits, discord channels, websites, books, and magazines, is immeasurable. Theoretically, the larger a community is, the more available resources you’ll find.
- Hardware and software compatibility – Most board makers provide the benefits of loads from Linux distributions (distros). You might sometimes wish to run a non-Linux operating system (OS) such as Chrome OS, Android, NetBSD, OpenBSD, or even Windows. Some SBCs feature more distro choices, while others lack many options. A vast majority of dev boards, including the Raspberry Pi, are limited to ARM-based images. Some SBCs like the UDOO Bolt and LattePanda can also run full-fledged x64 operating systems like Windows 10 or x64 Linux distros. Therefore, you need to check the features like the number of distro choices, quality of available OSes, Linux vs. non-Linux distros, and app compatibility.
- SBC Accessories and available robotics kits – Typically, more widely-used SBCs benefit from additional accessories like cases and add-ons. And there is mostly a correlation between available accessories and the popularity of a maker board. Therefore, it is good to check the available SBC accessories like cases, add-on boards, sensors, touchscreens, and other external components.
- Price – One of the reasons single-board computers are becoming increasingly popular is that it is very affordable. You can find plenty of SBCs from $5-10 to a few hundred dollars.
Let’s now look at some of the best single-board computers for robotics! Our list consists of Raspberry Pi 3 Model B, ASUS Tinker Board S, Udoo x86 Ultra, and LattePanda 4G/64GB.
1. Raspberry Pi 3 Model B
Raspberry Pi has the most substantial global following of any single-board computer. No competitor can match the number of guides, tutorials, and software available for the Raspberry Pi. A regular user will even run into a problem that hasn’t already been solved. If there are no results from a web search, the users in the official forums are very responsive and usually respond within a day.
Setting up a Raspberry Pi is simple enough even for people who have not previously installed an OS. 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.
Within their projects, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B offers 28 GPIO pins plus 12 power and ground pins. For most projects, this is a very reasonable number of pins that will need them. The officially supported special communication protocols are SPI (Serial Peripheral Interface), IIC (Inter-Integrated Circuit), and UART (Universal Asynchronous Receiver-Transmitter). The GPIO functionality allows the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B to be connected to different peripheral devices and, consequently, expands the board ‘s functionality.
IIC and SPI buses can be used to attach multiple analogs to digital converters, which can be used to “read” analog channels such as thermal sensors, humidity sensors, CO2 sensors, etc. UART may meanwhile be used to communicate between multiple Raspberry Pi’s.
Using an OS image named RetroPie, Raspberry Pi 3 Model B can also be used as a console emulator. Raspberry Pi OSes are available in a massive number. Most of them are some general-purpose Linux flavor, and some other OSs are available for specific purposes, such as media streaming, gaming, and emulation. Raspberry Pi also has a “Pi Store” available, which houses hundreds of apps ready to download and use on a Pi.
2. ASUS Tinker Board S
The Tinker Board S is a single board computer manufactured by ASUS, known for their computers. A more powerful single-board computer than a Raspberry Pi Model B, The Asus Tinker Board S has a more powerful microprocessor and greater and faster RAM. It comes with 2GB ram, 1.8GHz Quad-Core processor, and 4x USB ports.
Unlike the previous version of the Tinker Board of the ASUS, model S comes equipped with 16 GB eMMC storage, which provides sufficient space to store the computer’s OS as well as some additional applications. The eMMC memory performs on an equal footing with the more commonly known SD memory used on most other single board computers out there since both are NAND based.
Tinker Board S is capable of running both Android and Linux right now. All you need to do is upload the appropriate Android or Linux image to set this board up and running. Both images can be obtained in the form of downloadable .zip files from the official web resource of the ASUS. Download the files and drivers on your computer and flash the Tinker Board S using the Etcher. Overall the process takes about 10 minutes to complete.
You will have no problem connecting with the Tinker Board S to a WiFi network or Bluetooth peripherals since it comes with an onboard 802.11 b/g/n – compliant WiFi and Bluetooth transceiver. This single board-computer also has enough juice to stream the 4K media at the frame rate of 30Hz through its HDMI port.
3. Udoo x86 Ultra
Udoo x86 Ultra is the most powerful variant, comparable in power to that of a typical budget PC. With 8 GB of RAM and a 2.56 GHz Intel quad-core CPU, the Udoo x86 Ultra is capable of running most of the apps you use every day, including some 3D games.
It supports all operating systems: Linux, Android, and Windows 10. In the same way, as you would on a regular PC, you can run an office suite, web browser, or an IDE. It can also run some PC games at 20-30 frames per second. The Arduino board’s high power and customizability make this SBC an extremely versatile tool for casual and power users alike.
The Udoo x86 is a clear winner, in terms of storage. Out of the box comes 32GB eMMC (embedded MultiMediaCard, basically a built-in SSD). Upgrading the storage as they deem fit is entirely up to the user.
The Udoo x86 Ultra is the best single-board computer capable of streaming high-quality media. It can stream a 30Hz 4 K video through HDMI and two mini display ports on up to three monitors. This opens the doors to set up a media station that is capable of UHD.
It has an embedded Arduino 101 board with an integrated gyroscope and an accelerometer with six axes. The Arduino board has built-in functionality for pins like a six-axis accelerometer and gyroscope and room for adding 12 additional GPIO pins. It also supports several key communication protocols: two IIC, two UART, LPC, and SDIO.
The Udoo x86 stands out for wired connectivity with three USB 3.0 ports, M.2 slot, a SATA connector, microSD slot, Ethernet, HDMI, two DisplayPort connectors and even an RC5 IR interface. This is on par with the requirements of regular desktop computers. Although it sports Intel’s Quad-Core x86 next-gen CPUs, it’s pretty energy-efficient as the entire Udoo board consumes less than 11 watts at any given time.
4. LattePanda 4G/64GB
LattePanda is a powerful SBC with a 64-bit Intel CPU. One of the few SBCs to have full support for Windows 10, LattePanda has an Arduino-compatible coprocessor and integrated Bluetooth and WiFi. It can easily handle daily tasks such as checking emails, editing documents, and browsing the web. Because the Raspberry Pi 3 is almost the same size, it can fit inside most of the cases built for the Pi.
The 64-bit system-on-a-chip Intel Atom used in the LattePanda board offers higher processing power compared to single-board computers based on ARMs. You can attach the board to a touchscreen with the Atom Cherrytail to create an ultimate Surface Pro experience (except because it doesn’t have a camera).
On the LattePanda, you can either choose the HDMI output for a standard style monitor screen or purchase the small 7 “LCD and, if you wish, the touchscreen option. This means you can free up the HDMI feed for other tasks such as playing a movie file, etc. This gives you the freedom of not having to plug in a USB keyboard because the LattePanda will default to providing a touchscreen keyboard style interface via the combination touchscreen and LCD.