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Low Cost Single Board Computers (SBC) have become very popular thanks to the Raspberry Pi – a very small $35 SBC that has sold over 12 million units in the past 6 years. One of the many uses for Single Board Computers is to help students learn how computers work. In reality, these tiny circuit boards are not very useful without being attached to a monitor and keyboard. Adding even a cheap used monitor and key board to the Pi Circuit board will add another $80 to the price of the Raspberry Pi.

In this article, we will look at three lowest cost options for using Single Board Computers. These options are the Raspberry Pi 3 B Plus, the ROCK 64 SBC – which is a greatly improved version of the Raspberry Pi and the Pinebook – which is an improved version Raspberry Pi which comes inside of a 14 inch laptop. The goal of this article is to show parents and teachers that, when all costs are considered, the Raspberry Pi is not actually the cheapest option for helping students learn about computers.

Anatomy of the Raspberry Pi
First, let’s look at the latest version of the Raspberry Pi called version 3 B+:

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There are several problems with the Pi 3 B+. The biggest is a very limited amount of RAM. RAM is much faster than data stored in permanent memory. Using modern operating systems and modern applications like book editing, image editing or video editing, it is common to need at least 2 GB of RAM – and 4 GB of RAM is even better to reduce the odds of your computer freezing up or crashing.

Anatomy of the ROCK 64
The ROCK 64 is a more recent Single Board Computer intended to address several of the weaknesses of the Raspberry Pi. The ROCK 64 comes with 4 GB of RAM for $45 – only $10 more than a Raspberry Pi. In addition, the RAM in ROCK 64 is DDR3 which is almost twice as fast as the Pi RAM which is DDR2. The ROCK 64 has several additional important benefits as we describe in more detail below. Basically, the ROCK 64 reduces the most critical Raspberry Pi Data Transfer “bottlenecks” in key components such as the USB and Micro SD connections - resulting in a computer that is on average about 10 times faster and has the power to display a large 4K high resolution TV screen - for a total price that is only a few dollars more than a Raspberry Pi.



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Comparing the ROCK 64 to the Raspberry Pi 3 B+
Let’s start at the upper right corner of both boards shown above and review the differences between these two models by working our way clockwise around both boards.

USB Ports: Pi 3 B+ comes with 4 USB 2.0 ports. But they are not that useful for data storage as the transfer rate is only 10 MB per second. By comparison, USB 3.0 ports transfer data 10 times faster – about 100 MB per second. Rock 64 not only comes with 4 times the amount of RAM – but it also comes with a USB 3.0 port which means much faster data transfers. If you also get a $10 ROCK 64 USB 3.0 to SATA adapter, the USB 3.0 port can be tied to a high capacity one Terabyte HDD drive to backup programs and documents.

Ethernet port: The Pi Ethernet port is also an older and slower version – again only 100 MB per second. Newer Ethernet ports, called Gigabyte ports, transfer data at 1000 MB per second. The ROCK 64 comes with a fast one GB Ethernet port allowing for truly high speed Internet access.

AV Jack: The AV jack on both Pi and ROCK 64 is a normal AV jack.

Camera Port: The Pi Camera port is used to connect to the Pi camera. But the Pi camera is not that great and costs $25. A much better Logitech USB Web Cam costs $32 – only $7 more than the Pi Camera. So if you are using a better web cam connected with one of the USB ports, the Pi camera port is really not needed. This is why the ROCK 64 does not come with a camera port.

HDMI Port: The ROCK 64 HDMI port supports 4K screen resolution (assuming you also use an HDMI 2 cable). This high of a resolution is certainly not needed for a laptop. But it is needed for feeding high resolution big screen TVs and large desktop computer monitors as well as for creating 4K videos. Since this is one of the most common use cases for single board computers, this 4K resolution feature is actually very useful. 4K screen resolution also requires a much better graphics card and also much more power than the graphics card and power that comes with a Raspberry Pi. The ROCK 64 includes both of these components.

Power Jack: The ROCK 64 comes with a real 5 volt, 3 amp power jack typical of most modern laptops and personal computers. By contrast, the Raspberry Pi comes with a tiny MicroUSB power jack typically found on low powered mobile phones. The ROCK 64 power jack means that there will be adequate power for a whole bunch of activities – not just for running a big screen TV.

Storage Options: The storage options for Raspberry Pi include a slow MicroSD card with a maximum of 32 GB and/or a slow USB thumb drive also with a maximum of 32 GB. There are no fast options. Note also that MicroSD cards can wear out very fast. SanDisk does not recommend the Ultra or Extreme cards with Raspberry Pi. The ROCK 64 has both of these slow options. But both can go up to 64 GB. In addition, the ROCK 64 has two much faster data storage and transfer options. First, for $35, you can buy a a 64 GB eMMC module, which is not soldered on to the mother board but is removable and replaceable. This eMMC module is still slow compared to an SSD drive - but it is twice as fast as the MicroSD option. Also, you can use the USB 3.0 port with an HDD adapter to connect to an HDD drive which will likely be as fast or faster than the eMMC module – but with the added benefit of allowing data storage all the way up to 1 Terabyte! There are Single Board Computers that offer even better storage options such as M.2 NVMe drives with data transfer rates up to ten times faster than eMMC or HDD drives. But these options currently cost $200 or more just for the SBC. For this cost, you might as well just get a real SSD laptop.

Comparing the Pinebook to the ROCK 64 and Raspberry Pi
We will next look at a single board computer that comes inside of a 14 inch laptop. It is called the Pinebook and it is made by the same team that makes the ROCK 64 – although the actual board used is a modified version of the Pine 64 board so it is no the same as a ROCK 64 board. Here is the link to this laptop: https://www.pine64.org/?page_id=3707

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The benefit of this laptop is that you do not need to pay an additional $60 for a monitor, $20 for a keyboard, $30 for a web cam and $12 for the power supply. The laptop includes all four of these items and even includes a reasonable battery that lasts for about 5 hours and can be recharged from a small solar panel (not included).

The Pinebook also comes with the Linux operating system pre-installed so there is no need to install the operating system as is needed with the Raspberry Pi.

The performance of this laptop is in between Raspberry Pi and the ROCK 64. The Pinebook has 2 GB of RAM and only 2 USB ports. It comes with WIFI but does not have an Ethernet port. It also comes with a built in mic and web cam as well as an HDMI port and MicroSD card slot. For data storage, the Pinebook comes with a small 16 GB eMMC card. Thankfully, this can be upgraded to a 64 GB eMMC card for $35.

The problems with this laptop is that the key pad is not very useful so count on adding a mouse. Also the key board tends to flex so typing takes some getting use to. Also the web cam is only 640 by 480 pixels. But for $99 (or really $134 for the 64 GB eMMC version, this is an amazing laptop. However, another drawback is that there is a several month waiting list to even get this laptop.

The only way to get a better laptop for less than this would be to find a real deal on a nice Acer Chromebook on eBay. The problem with looking for used or reconditioned laptops on eBay or Amazon is that bad computers on eBay and Amazon vastly out-number good computers - by a ratio of about ten to one. So you really need to know what you are doing. Even then, you may be throwing your money away on a lemon as most low cost laptops have major durability and performance problems. We explain what to look for in a low cost laptop in a separate article. See this link: https://collegeintheclouds.org/2-uncategorised/3-comparing-low-cost-school-computer-options

Comparing the Total Cost of a Pi 3 versus a ROCK 64 or a Pinebook
Both the Raspberry Pi and the ROCK 64 require the addition of about $60 for the monitor, another $20 for a key board, $30 for a webcam, $12 for a power supply and $10 for a case -bringing the price of the Pi and ROCK to about $160. This makes both the Pi and the ROCK 64 about $60 more than a Pinebook. But all three require several other accessories. These include $10 for a Live USB, $20 for a USB mouse and $20 for the MicroSD. This brings the price of the Pinebook up to about $150 and the price of the Pi and the ROCK up to $200. The ROCK 64 accessories, such as the 64 GB EMMC Card and SATA adapter can add another $50 to the ROCK 64.

Here is a Table comparing the features and prices of each option:

Single Board Computer Options

Raspberry Pi 3 B+

ROCK 64

Pinebook

Base Cost

$35

$45

$99

Monitor*

$60

$60

Included

Key Board

$20

$20

Included

Web Cam

$25

$32

Included

Charger

$12

$12

Included

Case

$10

$10

Included

Total Cost

$162

$179

$99

ARM Processor

Cortex A53

1.4 GHz

Rockchip 3328

1.5 GHz

Allwinner A64

1.2 GHz

RAM GB, Type & Speed

1 – DDR2-900

4 - DDR3-1600

2- DDR3-1600

USB 3 Hi Speed Ports

0

1

0

USB 2 Low Speed Ports

4

2

2

Ethernet Port

Low Speed

High Speed

Adapter $10

WIFI access

Yes

$10 USB stick

Yes

Max Screen Resolution

2K

4K streaming

1K

Data Storage Options

Slow MicroSD

Slow USB 2.0

eMMC &/or

USB 3 to HDD

EMMC

USB 2.0

Power

1.8 amp

3 amp

3 amp

AV Jack

Yes

Yes

Yes

Mic and Speakers

No

No

Yes

HDMI Port

Slow 1.0

Fast 2.0

Slow 1.0

* Either buy a used monitor or make a monitor from an old laptop. A new 2K monitor costs about $100 and a new 4K monitor costs about $300 to $600.

Opening Up a Pinebook
It is easy to open a Pinebook as there are only 10 small screws on the back – which have two sizes so keep them sorted. The battery attaches with 4 more screws. Here is the main circuit board in the upper right corner:

The processor is the ARM Allwinner A64 which is slightly slower than the Raspberry Pi and ROCK 64 processors. The 16 GB eMMC module is user replaceable. So, you can order the 64 GB eMMC for $35 if you want to replace the 16 GB eMMC – this is a very good idea!

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Which is the best deal of these three single board computers?
I like the Pinebook with the 64 GB eMMC which adds another $35 to the $179 price noted above. I think the Pinebook is a reasonable computer for a very low price. My second choice would be the ROCK 64 which is also about $200 and is powerful enough to use as your own personal Nextcloud server. I think Raspberry Pi just has too many drawbacks that cause it to freeze during complex tasks like editing videos. It is just not worth paying $200 for such a slow computer with so little RAM. But my favorite laptop is still the Acer Chromebook 15 with 4 GB RAM and an upgradeable SSD for very fast data storage which you can also get for about $200 to $300. As always, I look forward to your questions and comments. Email me at Springforschools (at) gmail (dot) com.

About the Author: David Spring has a Masters Degree in Science Education from the University of Washington. He has taught courses in computer technology, including the Windows operating system and the Linux operating system as well as HTML and CSS website development at several local colleges over the past 20 years. He is the author of Learn Linux and LibreOffice.org and the author of DistroTweaks.org – a system to help anyone create their own custom Linux operating system. David is also a member of the Bellingham Linux User Group. He lives in Ferndale, Washington with his wife, son and daughter.