The world has gone nuts for the new Raspberry Pi Zero single-board computer and although the ‘sold out’ sign is almost continuously being displayed, there are plenty of Pi alternatives for different applications.
Get ready, because after these 12 low-cost options, you may not look at computing the same way ever again.So what are you waiting for? Make something!
Price: Approx. US$30
It’s not designed to run Windows, mind you, but the new Arduino 101 features Intel’s equally new Curie, a tiny 32MHz/32-bit chip.
Arduino is the name the world’s maker community turns to most often, providing small low-cost boards for interacting computers with the real world via sensors, LEDs… almost anything you want.
Want to make the world’s best lightshow next Christmas? You could easily start with Arduino as your base. You code it with the free Arduino app available from the website using its easy-to-learn programming language.
It doesn’t run Windows or Android, but instead uses what’s known as Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) and is aimed squarely at those wanting to build Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
With smart features like accelerometer, gyroscope and Bluetooth connectivity built in, it should be perfect for that job.
The ‘Arduino’ branding here is US-centric; elsewhere, the board is the ‘Genuino 101’.
Banana Pi M2
Price: From $78
From: Banana Pi
It sits just a touch higher on the performance ladder than the Raspberry Pi 2 with a quad-core Allwinner A31S processor, 1GB of RAM and microSD card slot for storage expansion. There’s Gigabit Ethernet, plus HDMI and four USB2.0 ports.
It aims to mimic the Raspberry Pi B+ board with a 40-pin GPIO (general purpose input/output) header allowing you to add in your own hardware and make your own gadgets.
The Banana Pi website isn’t overly stocked with info, but what’s great about this one is the range of operating system options available on the site — everything from Raspbian to Android 4.4 to Ubuntu and Fedora Linux. Nice.
There’s even an input connector for adding a custom camera. Banana Pi also has other board alternatives available.
It has an appropriately named Attiny85 microchip on-board and is designed for making simple gadgets. You could easily attach a weather sensor to this one and use it to control a fan or light up a warning light.
Available on eBay for under US$2, this is one of many boards you can program with the free Arduino app. It also has useful extras, such as built-in analog-to-digital converter and pulse-width modulation outputs.
You might only get 8KB of on-board program storage, but you’ll be surprised how little memory you need when you code direct and aren’t lumbering around a desktop OS.
This thing is tiny — just 25 x 20mm, so it won’t take up much space, whatever you put it into. The circuit board is the USB port itself and just slots straight into a typical PC USB port.
Ideal for teaching kids to build and code.
Price: From US$80
To give you an idea of how important this class of computer is, the CSIRO uses Edison boards to help discover the cause of colony collapse in honey bees. No honey bees — no food. That’s heavy-duty stuff.
Some might consider these boards ‘toys’, but the CSIRO doesn’t. Edison features a dual-core Intel Atom CPU clocking at 500MHz, plus a 100MHz Quark microcontroller chip.
You get 1GB of RAM and 4GB of flash storage. Throw in dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, Edison is out-of-the-box ready for IoT action.
It runs a mixture of Real-Time OS and Yocto Linux, and like many of these boards, you can program it with the Arduino app.
There’s no video output, but you do get a USB2.0 port and a range of interfaces, such as serial peripheral interface (SPI) and SD card slot.
Price: From US$40
The MK808B Plus is a tiny Android computer with miniHDMI connector on one end, a Type-A USB host port on the other.
Connect it up to a monitor or TV, plug in a USB hub with keyboard and mouse and you have an Android computer system.
This budget unit comes variously with Android 4.1, 4.2 (JellyBean) and 4.4 (KitKat), so aim for KitKat. You’ll also see dual-core and quad-core chips, so again, check specs before you buy.
Despite its diminutive size, the MK808B can play 1080p video, even handle Netflix and games like Beach Buggy Blitz.
It comes with Gmail and Google Play Store apps and because it uses ARM-class CPUs, it’ll run most Google Play apps, including Kodi (formerly XBMC).
The ‘B’ denotes Bluetooth, while the original MK808 only offers Wi-Fi. Small enough to fit into your pocket.
Price: From US$50
In reality, these are super-compact computers, often with as much grunt as tablets and phones. The MXIII-G is just one example — we’ve chosen it for its price (starting under US$50), but also for its ability to playback 4K video.
It’s powered by a 2GHz Amlogic S812 quad-core ARM-class processor with eight-core graphics. You also get Ethernet, HDMI output, S/PDIF digital audio out, two USB ports and microSD card slot.
Some models are sold preloaded with Kodi (formerly XBMC), so you’re ready to hook it up to your big-screen telly and enjoy your movie library.
It typically comes with Android 4.4/KitKat operating system, but there are more expensive options with Lollipop available.
There’s no purpose-built GPIO to play with, but if you like the idea of Android as a desktop OS, plug in a mouse, a keyboard and you’re away.
Price: From US$75
It runs Samsung’s eight-core Exynos 5422 Octa chip, packs in 2GB of RAM, two USB3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet and HDMI in something about the size of a credit card.
You can run Linux or Android (up to Lollipop/5.0 at the moment), but it still has expandable input/output (I/O) ports to plug in your own gadgets. Or you could just turn this into a serious home theatre system.
In comparison to the latest Raspberry Pi 2, the XU4 should be roughly three-to-four times faster. Again, it runs ARM-class CPU tech, so it should have no trouble with most Google Play apps.
It might be a little pricey by comparison at US$75, but you’re looking at a Galaxy S5 smartphone minus screen and battery, so on that scale, its decent value — and with greater versatility.
Orange Pi PC
Price: From US$25
From: Orange Pi
Again, it aims to exceed the original Model B R-Pi and with its 1.6GHz Allwinner H3 quad-core Cortex A7 chip, the Orange Pi PC should do that comfortably.
There’s a gig of RAM on-board, four USB 2.0 ports (one an OTG port), even an actual power switch.
Like the Banana Pi, there are a couple of keys here — first, it’s another providing a Raspberry Pi Model B-compatible 40-pin GPIO header.
But second, because of its Cortex A7 chip, it’ll run various OSs from Android 4.4/KitKat and Debian Linux. The makers claim it’ll even run Raspberry Pi and Banana Pi OS images.
The thing to be aware of with all of these alternative Pi brands is that community support won’t be in the same league as the Raspberry Pi — that’s not necessarily a problem, just a fact.
pcDuino nano v3.0
Price: From $89
This is a slimmed-down version of the ODROID-XU4, featuring a dual-core 1GHz Allwinner A20 processor, 1GB of RAM and 4GB of on-board flash, but expandable thanks to a microSD slot and — wait for it — a SATA2 port.
Yep, you could potentially run a solid-state drive on this one (there is SATA power on-board, but only a two-pin connector).
It’s a real liquorice-allsorts with two USB ports, HDMI and Ubuntu Linux operating system support. But what makes this stand out is the Arduino Uno-style pin headers, allowing you to plug in your own hardware components just like an Arduino.
The Ethernet port handles up to 100Mbps and there’s even a 3.5mm stereo analog output.
For an extra $30, you can grab a version with built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi, support for digital audio out, even run it off battery power if you want.
By aiming to combine the best of Raspberry Pi and Arduino-like features, you get a single board that has lots of possibilities.
Dubbed PINE64, it’s the Raspberry Pi Zero on steroids.
At time of writing, it had flown passed its original $30,000 Kickstarter goal to the tune of some $1.7 million. It’s due for release early 2016 and will run a customised version of Android 5.1/Lollipop, with apps making it suitable for TV use.
It runs a 1.2GHz quad-core Cortex A53 processor from Chinese chipmaker Allwinner and will support up to 4K video playback.
About the size of an iPhone 6, you can use it like a Raspberry Pi, add in your own electronic components and make your own gadgets, or just turn it into a home theatre media player, even learn how to code.
According to the makers, it’ll consume just 2.5 watts of power and can be powered by a single 3.7V Lithium-ion battery.
STMicroelectronics is one of the big microchip makers in the IoT market. And to help you get involved, it produces basic ‘discovery’ boards featuring Arduino-style hardware, but with considerably more grunt.
Rather than use the Arduino app, the STM32-Discovery boards use ST’s own software suite, offering greater access to more serious coding options.
If you’re ready to create the next killer IoT device, it’s a good place to start.
There are several different versions but the basic STM32F103 board sells for around $20 and gives you a 72MHz/32-bit chip, very similar to the $5 STM32 boards on eBay, just bigger.
Other versions come with built-in LCD screens you can code, even play video on if you’re clever.
Being more complex to code, they’re not quite as popular as Arduino, but if you have a real electronics bent and want to get into the industry, you could do far worse than one of these.
Price: From US$50
A cross between the original Raspberry Pi and the Arduino Uno, the UDOO Neo Basic delivers an unusual dual-core Freescale i.MX 6SoloX chip with one phone-grade (Cortex A9) and one gadget-grade (Cortex M4) core.
You get 512MB of RAM, MicroSD card slot and microHDMI output. But impressively, it supports an analog camera input, Fast Ethernet and Arduino-compatible pin headers. Or you can just use it as a PC with its Android 5.0 and customised Linux OS support.
There are two USB ports — one full-size Type-A, the other is a microUSB OTG port.
Again, about the size of a credit card, there are several UDOO boards in the lineup, including quad-core models offering more features and speed. UDOO also has sensor modules you can plug in and get creative with.
This one will be a touch faster than the Raspberry Pi, but not by much.