A single board computer (or SBC) is an entire PC in the form of a single (usually quite small) piece of hardware. Some prominent names in the SBC market may be familiar to you—such as Raspberry Pi, Odroid, and LattePanda. At the high end, there are other familiar names that you may not even associate with SBCs . . . like Nvidia and AMD!
Single board computers can be used for many purposes, such as: a tiny general-purpose desktop PC; a dedicated media PC for playing music, TV, and movies; an emulation machine; a server; a hobby electronics or programming project; and much, much more.
Even though many single board computers are similarly priced, there is a ton of competition in the single board market. Wonder why that is? Well wonder no more: it’s because different single board computers are often specialized for different groups and different purposes. Now, join us as we delve into the big wide world of single board computers!
Not Just for Nerds Anymore
Well, almost. More and more single board computers these days come with their operating systems pre-loaded onto their storage (usually a micro SD card), so you don’t even have to worry about technical aspects of set-up. The alternative, as I found out when I made my own cloud server, would have been lines and lines of code.
But as SBCs have become more popular, more and more guides have been made for them (even for specific situations like my cloud server). So the good thing is—so long as you’re okay with following instructions—you should be fine!
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that the boards below are for very different purposes from each other. We’re going to walk you through them so that you can get a feel for how these SBCs are similar, and how they are different.
So settle in as we walk you through the popular single board computers on the market, and make it totally clear which board is for which type of user!
The Inexpensive, Well-known Single Board Computer:
More often than not, the Raspberry Pi is people’s first jumping off point into the world of single board computers. Partly down to that low price point (I’m a student and even I could afford one!), but also because there’s just so much documentation and free community software out there at this point. The Raspberry Pi is incredibly flexible and has been used for damn near everything at this point from build-it-yourself robot cars ($80 for the kit) to retro gaming ($90 for the kit) to huge coding and wiring starter packs ($50 without Pi). The Pi’s only big drawback is (as you might expect at its price) that it has very meager specifications when compared to other SBCs, let alone conventional computers.
Who is the Raspberry Pi for?
Essentially anyone wanting to mess around with single board computers for the first time without breaking the bank, or even as a gift for a family member or friend.
The Teeny Tiny Single Board Computer:
Aww look at it, so tiny! This compact single board still packs a meaty processor and has become a favourite among users wanting a powerful system to run Android or Linux on small build projects. One of the more popular ones out there (and still holds a special place in my heart) is the all-in-one, multi-system-emulator Gameboy kit you can buy and then build! For $59 (runs on a slower version of ODROID) you get the whole kit.
Who is the Odroid XU4Q for?
Handheld-favoring retro gamers, extremely small form-factor builders, and learners.
The All-Rounder Single Board Computer:
Those of you who make your own PCs will recognize the name behind this board. Which is actually great, because ASUS do a superb job of providing an easy-to-understand board, complete with color coding. When you go digging into it, there are plenty of wonderfully nerdy aspects to the board. However, digging in will also show that ASUS have thought things through. For example, a nice amount of eMMC storage. With the storage directly on the board, you get the bonus of it being faster and more reliable than the micro SD card used by most boards below $100. So this is where you can install your main OS for stability!
Who is the Asus Tinker Board for?
Someone who wants to, well, tinker. The colors make it very user-friendly compared to other boards, and there’s plenty of step-by-step guides out there!
The Powerhouse Single Board Computer:
Also called the ‘cubietruck’ for its grunt, this board boasts a mighty Cortex-A7 (that’s an 8-core CPU)! This has made it very popular with folks wanting to build a fully fledged PC on a tiny footprint. I’ve seen them sneaking in behind TVs, inside people’s desks… some really imaginative designs! What’s more, there is a lot of connectivity options for you to really mess around with using it with multiple devices to take advantage of the multi-core processor.
Finally, one of the most excellent aspects of this board is that the design itself is open-source. So if you’re super nerdy and want to go messing with board code and design, you’re in luck with this!
Who is the Cubieboard 5 for?
Generally larger-scale projects with multiple devices that need the multi-core performance. Very rarely for first-time users, but can still be used for first timers if they’re willing to experiment and fail on various setups.
The “BUT WHAT ABOUT WINDOWS” Single Board Computer:
Don’t worry, Mr. Microsoft Exec who reads our blog. We didn’t miss out on a Windows machine in this list. In all seriousness, this is one of the boards most popular with people who want a seamless experience from their normal PC. It comes complete with possibly the cutest named CPU on the market in the Intel Cherry Trail Z8350 (a 4-core CPU), as well as 2GB DDR3L RAM, 32GB storage, and Intel HD Graphics.
It won’t blow the world away, yet it will give you a full Windows 10 experience out-of-the-box.
Who is the LattePanda for?
Generally, people who want a comfortable and familiar experience—who just need a Windows PC in a tiny form factor without the stress of having to know code.
NVIDIA vs AMD: At It Again With Single Board Computers
Oh good lord, they’re at it again.
Not content for fighting over our wallets for GPUs (and CPUs), AMD and NVIDIA are throwing down in the single board computer market too!
AMD Single Board Computer:
Think of a normal $300-400 PC from our main parts page. Then shrink it down into a single board. That’s more or less what UDOO have done with the Bolt range. The V8 (the most powerful) currently isn’t available on Amazon, as the team only began shipping these for their kickstarter backers this month. But you can place an order directly with the link above, if you want your name down for one now in the future.
The specs? Only a 4-core, 8-thread AMD Ryzen V1605B which runs at 2.3GHz with a boost clock all the way to 3.6GHz (on a single board!). Oh, and that’s not all, this comes with a Radeon Vega 8 iGPU, up to 32GB DDR4 2400MHz, and it even has a high speed M.2 port on the board. You know, just because. Don’t listen to me though, here’s a video from its makers giving you a rundown of the possibilities (before the start of their now successful kickstarter):
Who is the Udoo Bolt for?
Serious gamers who want a second PC to work as a streaming unit, travelling workers who want a super-portable PC, or even media enthusiasts who want a robust smart hub for their TV. There’s a lot of possibilities with this amount of power.
NVIDIA Single Board Computer:
You know how we gamers sometimes connect 2 GPUs together for improved performance? Well, when it comes to AI computing, NVIDIA remembered that technique and… well, they went a little mad.
Imagine a learning computer in your car which remembers the layouts of the roads when you drive them and knows how to react to oncoming traffic. And that’s just one example! This thing is just packed with compute power, more than a normal GPU workstation. The potential of this thing is a little scary if you think about it.
A far more fun (yet similar) example is how the folks over at Postmates designed an autonomous delivery robot. You can watch that here:
Who is the Jetson AGX for?
Anyone who wants to mess around with AI. Just don’t go creating Skynet on us.
There really is a PC for everyone, isn’t there? The single board computers show that you don’t need a super-performing system to have a good time (although here’s looking at you UDOO + RTX 2080Ti, don’t think we didn’t notice that madness…).
For me, I use my Raspberry Pi as a learning tool to mess around with streaming and network applications (I am doing a Video Production and Streaming BSc, after all), yet more often than not it is the flexibility of having the power in such a small form factor that makes all the difference.
Yet what about you? Do you own a single board computer? Are you planning to purchase one to make something?
Let us know in the comments!