Move over, Raspberry Pi: 7 single-board computers for geeks

Get a head start on the next tech boom by hacking together tomorrow’s Internet of things hit today

7 cheap computing boards for scratching your maker itch
Antonis Papantoniou

7 cheap computing boards for scratching your maker itch

The Internet of things is beginning to see practical results as it evolves along three paths: machine-to-machine communications, smart systems, and the ad hoc IoT of home automation systems. 

Underlying this trend is a new generation of embedded systems -- and the imaginations of IT pros and hobbyists alike, kindled by the availability of cheap boards and sensors.

Inventive hacks of the popular Raspberry Pi, for example, are solving IT problems on the cheap. And while not every idea sparked by these components and computing devices will fall under the heading of IoT, scratching the itch to tinker will lead to deeper insights into what may come.

Following are several board options for hobbyists, developers, and IT pros to consider for their next invention.

Arduino

Arduino

Launched in 2005, the open source Arduino board has inspired creations ranging from satellite equipment to Enough Already, an Arduino-based project that processes TV signals, muting the TV whenever an overexposed celebrity is being talked about. There are multiple models; the most popular, known as Uno (pictured), sells for about $30.

Arduino "enables everyday people with little or no technical background to build interactive products," says Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi. As opposed to Raspberry Pi, which is a small Linux computer, Arduino is an integrated platform with hardware, software, a development environment, and documentation. Arduino processors range from 8-bit AVR processors to 32-bit ARM processors.

Banana Pi

Banana Pi

The Banana Pi open source board runs Linux and Android and is powered by an Allwinner A20 ARM Cortex A7 dual-core processor. Its 26-pin GPIO headers are compatible with Raspberry Pi. The board has a targeted price of $29.99 (although it costs more than that right now) and offers a SATA connector and Gigabit Ethernet capabilities.

Banana Pi "can be used as the hub of [the] Internet of things, and I believe it will play a very important role in the Internet of Things," says Leo Liu, a member of the LeMaker team, which supports the board. Banana Pi is intended for "anyone who wants to start creating with technology,' LeMaker said.

BeagleBone Black

BeagleBone Black

The $50-per-board BeagleBone Black runs an AM335x 1GHz ARM processor and can boot Linux in a few seconds. Applications have included home security systems, robotics, and 3D printers, as well as inventory management and scanners. The BeagleBone Black's key selling point is its customizability, says Jason Kridner, co-founder of Beagleboard.org.

"You can't make your own Raspberry Pi, whereas you can absolutely make your own BeagleBone Black." (Raspberry Pi's Eben Upton says both boards are expandable and should not be framed as competitors.) The target user profile for BeagleBone Black is a Web developer looking to add actuators and physical sensors for capabilities like touch and temperature. It supports USB, Ethernet, and HDMI and is compatible with Debian, Ubuntu, Android, and other platforms.

Intel Galileo Gen 2

Intel Galileo Gen 2

Certified as an Arduino open source development board, the Intel Galileo Gen 2 is based on Intel's Quark SoC X1000 processor and a Pentium instruction set. It's geared toward makers, educators, and DIY enthusiasts, with an expected retail price of $60. It can be programmed using the Arduino IDE via Mac OS, Windows, or Linux. Galileo Gen 2 itself runs Linux.

"Intel Galileo is a great tool for quickly prototyping simple interactive designs, such as LED light displays that respond to social media or for tackling more complex projects, from automating home appliances to building life-size robots controlled by a smartphone," according to Michael Bell, a VP in Intel's new devices group. Standard I/O interfaces are supported, such as PCI, Ethernet, and USB.

Intel NUC

Intel NUC

Intel's NUC, aka Next Unit of Computing, comes in a 4-by-4-inch form factor and is positioned by Intel as a higher-performing compact PC alternative to Raspberry Pi. The NUC has found uses in home theatres, digital signage, and kiosks, and it's served as a gateway to the Internet of things, according to Intel. It costs around $130 to $140 plus memory and storage, is powered by Intel Core processors, and runs Windows, Linux, Android, or Chrome OS.

pcDuino

pcDuino

The pcDuino mini-PC, from LinkSprite, runs OSes such as Ubuntu and Android and sends output to HDMI.

"PcDuino is a single-board computer that is compatible with [the] Arduino ecosystem," says pcDuino founder Jingfeng Lui. The pcDuino has Ethernet and WiFi built in, but includes no Arduino AVR chip. "All the Arduino schedule code is simulated at [a] low API level," Lui says.

There are several members of the pcDuino family, with prices ranging from $35 to $99. The board runs mostly Allwinner and ARM CPUs. Programming in Java, Python, and other platforms is supported, as is an Arduino-style IDE. The board has been used in such systems as a temperature sensor and ultrasonic sensor (pictured).

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi

This tiny, $35 Linux- and ARM-based board is getting a lot of attention, used in devices ranging from temperature and humidity monitors to Web-controlled power strips and beyond. Initially intended to serve as an affordable computer for children, it's primarily deployed in educational settings and by hobbyists. The recently upgraded Model B+ board (pictured) doubles the number of USB ports to four, and it offers 40-pin GPIO, reduced power consumption, and a low-noise power supply.

"We really want to position this [upgrade] as being kind of an evolutionary improvement," says Eben Upton, co-founder of Raspberry Pi.