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pine64+ 1G SoC 64bit computer

So, I know it has been absolute ages since I posted last, mainly due to life, illness or study getting the way. So, I thought it was time for an update, and what better way to update than to discuss my latest toys, or projects.

So, I have recently become involved in four kickstarter projects. One scored me a 3D printer, another was for a more stable ESP8266 wireless MCU, and the other two were for some ‘cheap’ SoC (System on a Chip) computer boards – one for $9, and the other for $29.

For this post, I’ll focus on the last one. So you’ve probably heard of the Raspberry Pi by now… these days, just about everyone has. It really is a great board… small, inexpensive, well documented, and is more than just a computer. With the GPIO pins on the Raspberry Pi, you can also dabble with some electronics, and make things like home automation projects. It is especially good when you would want the beefier processing power of a computer, but don’t want the size and power-hungriness of it. However, unless your needs are relatively undemanding, it won’t be replacing your desktop computer anytime soon… it’s not THAT powerful… but it is getting better with every revision.

Pine64+ 1GB with a MCP23017 attached to the I2C bus for testing

So what’s so special with the $29 computer board I gottten (shown right)¬†since the Raspberry Pi’s so great? Well, a couple of things. But to clear something up first, technically it was a $15 board, but I got the one with double the memory, and with the wifi module, hence $29. And in doing so, I have hinted at one of the advantages the Pine64 has over the Raspberry Pi – it has a a built-in wifi module. One of the things a lot of people get for the Raspberry Pi is a Wifi adapter, and in doing so, depending on which model you get, you loose 1 of 2 or 1 of 4 USB ports immediately. Not so bad with the 4 USB port models, but can be painful for the 2 port models.

Then you say “but most of the Raspberry Pis have an ethernet port”… so connecting to a network is easy if you have a ethernet cable nearby. That is true, but there is another catch… the ethernet and USB share the same chip (I’m not sure if this changed for the Raspberry Pi 3, but this was the case until at least then)… meaning if you had wanted to do something like have a raspberry pi share files over a network from a USB drive… then don’t hold your breath… not only was it slow… but the ethernet would shut down every now and then. The pine64 doesn’t have this issue as it has a separate ethernet control chip (as does the Cubietruck, which is the board I currently use as as network attached storage (NAS) drive).

Another advantage is hinted in the name. The pine64 has a 64bit processor, whereas the Raspberry Pi, and most other SoC boards have a 32bit processor. This is starting to change, as there are a few other boards starting to come out on the market now. However, the pine64 is one of the first, cheapest, and feature rich I have seen to date. Why does 64bit matter? Well, it only matters if you want to be able to proces a lot more data more quickly, or be more power efficient than it’s 32bit cousins¬†when processing the same amount of data.

Just like the Raspberry Pi, the Pine64 has support for a directly connect LCD and camera, so you don’t loose those options if you want them. It has a Raspberry Pi compatible header (the 40 pinout), as well as it’s own Euler bus and an expansion header for power switches, LEDs and the serial console. It boots from a microSD card, so that makes switching operating systems as easy as swapping out the microSD card. If you need to be able to run it from a battery, there is even built-in support for that… just plug in a compatible batter, and move a jumper, and you’re set.

So, I’ve been singing praises about the Pine64, so what’s the catch? Well, the Raspberry Pi header isn’t 100% compatible, but so far, the variances are only minor once you’re know about them, and can be easily remedied. The gigabit ethernet (another big plus if you want to transfer a lot of data fast) appears to have issues with some setups – if this is software fixable is yet to be determined. Probably the biggest failing point of the Pine64 is the documentation, or the lack thereof. For instance… unlike other boards… the new user will probably get the board, and then go to the forum asking “where do I start?”. There is no “getting started” guide. There is no friendly walk-throughs on getting your new toy up and running. Not even a video tutorial to show you what all the different ports and sockets do. What you will find is a random collection of information scattered all throughout the forum, two wiki pages, and a site that backer created which will hopefully fill a lot of that gap up.

Now, since this was a kickstarter project, the thing that happens to nearly 90% of tech related kickstarters happens… they were way behind schedule. And providing timely updates wasn’t a strong point of this project, so there are several threads where people are understandably upset over why they don’t have their board, and hadn’t received any responses to emails. However, shipments are nearly done, so that phase is nearly over. People have their boards, and are starting to ask questions about how to get this and that working. This is unfortunately another problem arises… whilst some people on the forum are very helpful, some others just aren’t. They think they are, and they do have a lot of valuable experience to share, but also can give beginners completely wrong, conflicting information, or sometimes respond when they don’t know anything, but want to make it appear that they do. Unfortunately, this individual is a moderator, and when confronted, likes to wave that authority. So until the dust settles, and more people come on board, the forum is a bit of a train wreck waiting to happen.