Linux Hacker Board Trends in 2018 and Beyond

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When I read Brian Benchoff’s recent claim in Hackaday that the maker board market was stalling, I had a sense that there might be some truth to it. The novelty of community-backed, open-spec SBCs has worn off, and there were few new boards in 2018 that seem destined to become Raspberry Pi killers. Yet, the more I researched open-spec Linux/Android maker SBCs for LinuxGizmos’ New Year’s edition SBC catalog, the more I realized that the sector was very much alive — just a bit quieter than before.

There were 19 new SBC entries since our June roundup of 116 SBCs (compared to 13 new products that appeared in that reader survey catalog since the January 2018 New Year’s hacker catalog roundup of 103 boards). Despite the removal from market of several older products in Q2 2018 and the dissolution of The Next Thing and its Chip board — and even after we eliminated several older boards with fading communities, such as the 86Duino and PCDuino8 — we ended up with 122 boards, six more than in June.

Benchoff’s speculation that fewer maker boards were sold in 2018 may well be correct, but I have seen no proof of it. If there has been a slowdown, Benchoff nailed the reason: poor documentation. Other drawbacks to the hacker board scene include buggy software and less frequently, hardware. In many cases, the documentation and images are fine, but by the time they arrive, your shiny new SBC is already halfway to obsolescence.

Many of the casual, Raspberry Pi home automation hobbyists who experimented with faster, but not always reliable Banana, Orange, and NanoPi’s and other more obscure bargain-basement SBCs in recent years have returned to the fold. And why not return to the very capable Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ — the SBC of the year and the winner of our June reader survey — or the smaller new RPi 3 Model A+? The RPi 3B+ is only a modest improvement over the 3B, but it is close enough to the competition in price, features, and performance to shift the comparison to software and support issues. If the Raspberry Pi Foundation had been faster to transition from ARM11 to Cortex-A SoCs, the hacker board market might be considerably smaller than it is today.

Despite the atypically buggy PoE board for the RPi 3B+, which was quickly resolved with a refund and a reboot, things tend to work more smoothly in Raspberry land. Most buyers are more interested in solid community support and no-doubt software and HAT compatibility than they are in having full schematics.

Yet, there’s a second trend that is leading us toward more diversity: The maker board movement continues to merge with the commercial SBC industry. There appears to be significant growth in small manufacturing customers using open-spec boards with a variety of special features ranging from AI to voice control to Time Sensitive Networking. These technically knowledgeable buyers need solid documentation and schematics for prototyping new products but are usually less interested in other community resources. More to the point, they are tired of the high prices charged by commercial vendors, which only make sense with huge volumes.

New maker SBCs and trends in late 2018

Many of the new boards we’ve seen since June are aimed at relatively niche applications rather than trying to beat the Pi at world domination. There are new router boards such as the Banana Pi BPI-R2, as well as an increasing number of extended temperature SBCs such as the Firefly-PX3-SE. We’ve seen industrial focused newcomers such as the HummingBoard CBi (CAN bus interface) and novel sandwich-style module/carrier board combos like the Khadas Edge. Seeed has introduced a ReSpeaker v2.0 model aimed at far-field voice control applications.

The trend toward Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) continues with products like the Renegade Elite. (The RPi 3B+ may now have a PoE option, but it’s hobbled by a Gigabit Ethernet port that is limited to 300Mbps.)

We’re seeing more SBCs with built-in cellular modems or mini-PCIe and M.2 slots capable of supporting them. FriendlyElec has jumped on this trend this year with 2G, 3G, and 4G themed NanoPi IOT models.

The still fledgling x86 hacker board arena continues to grow with the Intel Gemini Lake based Odroid-H2 board, which appears to be the most powerful hacker SBC in history. The Odroid-H2 is the first hacker board to feature an Atom processor from a recently released Atom/Celeron product family.

Another new Intel-based board — Aaeon’s Apollo Lake based Up Core Plus — is one of several new entries since June designed for machine learning and neural network processing. These AI contenders include the Allwinner V5 based Lindenis V5 and Bitmain Sophon BM1880, which uses a novel TPU-enhanced Arm SoC of Bitmain’s own design. Khadas is selling a version of the Khadas Edge with the AI-enhanced Rockchip RK3399Pro SoC.

Among more mainstream boards, we saw a continuing shift from Allwinner SoCs to the high-end, hexa-core Rockchip RK3399. In early 2018 we saw a lot of RK3399 entries in the $110 to $150 range, but newer models are more affordable.

The new Khadas Edge, Renegade Elite, and 96Boards form-factor Rock960 all start at about $100, and others have been cheaper. FriendlyElec introduced a $65 (2GB) and up NanoPi-M4 and followed up with a compact, $45 NanoPi Neo4. The Neo4 is an impressive feat despite the limitation of only 1GB of RAM, which isn’t enough for the RK3399. Also in this range is Pine64’s $60 (2GB) and up RockPro64, which shipped earlier this year.

No single Raspberry Pi killer emerged in 2018. Yet, the collective group of RK3399 vendors appear to be acting as a counterpoint in the Pi. The RK3399 is fast and offers x86 like technologies such as PCIe, SATA, and HDMI 2.0, and it has better Linux mainline support than the still-improving Allwinner SoCs.

2019 SBC trends

So what can we expect in 2019’s board market? The Raspberry Pi Foundation has already said that it is done with the Raspberry Pi 3 line and that it will upgrade from the current 40nm process for the next model. In March 2017, a year after the launch of the original Raspberry Pi 3, Raspberry Pi Trading CEO Eben Upton told ITPro that the RPi 3 successor would be at least three years away, pegging it at March 2019 at the earliest. It would not be surprising if the Raspberry Pi 4 didn’t arrive until late 2019, or even 2020. If there’s a major recession, we will likely see fewer SBC introductions. Otherwise, however, the growth in niche applications will probably block consolidation for the time being.

With TI’s new quad-core Cortex-A53 Sitara AM65x, it might be time for a BeagleBone reboot, and we should see more NXP i.MX8M boards such as TechNexion’s new sandwich-style PICO-PI-IMX8M spin on the Wand-Pi-8M. In the x86 world, meanwhile, a community-backed SBC based on the AMD Ryzen Embedded V1000 chip may arrive, although it may not clear our $200 limit.

So far, no RISC-V based SBCs have slid under our $200 limit, but one is likely to arrive in 2019. We could even see a low-cost Google Fuchsia hacker board. Meanwhile, you can check out the new Linux supported C-SKY ISA for as little as $6 with the new C-SKY board.

Overall, we’ll see a growing focus on 5G and edge analytics. In 2019 we are likely to see at least one 5G-ready board, and many more high-end edge IoT boards with NPUs, VPUs, and smartened up GPUs. So get ready to start talking TOPS and deep learning frameworks.

Sounds like fun. Let’s go.