Radxa Rock Pro

Radxa Rock ProUp to now, my delving into tiny computers has been limited to the Raspberry Pi, the Pi2, Zero and the Orange Pi. The latter still isn’t doing it for me as the latest attempt to get it working (DietPi) turned out to be not so good (no hardware acceleration, no PIO etc).

While the Pi2s are serving me VERY well I thought it might be nice to try something a little up-market – and so to the Radxa Rock Pro which in the USA costs around $99 or, somewhat inexplicably, around £113 in the UK – rather interesting as $99 translates to around £66. Even Amazon want £126 in the UK even though the same company sell it for $119 in the USA (don’t you get sick and tired of being ripped off in the UK?).

So – about twice the size of a Pi2, this board uses a quad-core ARM Cortex A9 running at 1.6Ggi , comes with 2GB of DDR3 memory, 8GB Nand Flash and supports up to 128GB of microSD.  It has a GPU, analog and HDMI video out, Ethernet AND WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 and analog audio out. It has 2 standard USB 2 connectors and a microUSB OTG connector. IR input, 2 pushbuttons, 3 programmable LEDS (red, green, blue), a real-time-clock (battery not supplied) and IO including GPIO, I2C, PWM, ADC and more.

In other words, the kitchen sink.

Radxa Rock Pro in enclosureAt first sight, a work of art. The box is nice, the packaging is nice and you get a power adaptor lead (which is more than can be said for the very much cheaper Orange Pi where I had to solder wires to get power to it). You need to be able to supply the board with up to 2 amps at 5v. I just happened to have a handy 5amp 5 way USB supply.

Software-wise the board supports Android (4.4.2), Debian and Ubuntu. I intend to use it with Debian (called Rabian – which sounds a little like a disease - and apparently officially maintained). But for the purpose of a quick review I downloaded the Android image.

Almost every different type of board I’ve tested recently has had issues… I turned this on – a few seconds later I had Android running – requiring only my login details – I downloaded Kodi (the artist formerly known as XMBC) – pointed it to my NAS-based movies, threw a 4GB movie at it – no problem. I ran this using the Ethernet cable but the high speed WIFI works just as well out of the box.

And that’s about it  - how do you review something that just works. At 1920*1080 resolution it looked somewhat interpolated to me but I guess that’s down to Android – and to be fair, video playback looked great.

I did notice something a little odd - despite using a 64K microUSB, Android reported that I had 4GB. It turns out that by default, Android is installed on INTERNAL memory so in fact the system is currently ignoring my 64GB drive! The Debian installation – Rabian – is ONLY available for internal memory – it turns out that the default Android is ALSO using internal memory – and hence knows nothing about the external SD.

Of course – playing videos on the device is very different to attaching stuff to the GPIO and powering it from, say, Node-Red – but that’s for another day.

Update 21/12/2015: I’ve now installed Debian on the Rock – at first sight it looked as if you could ONLY install their Debian in the internal 8GB of memory – that concerned me a little as this stuff does not have infinite life – what happens if it wears out? Regardless, I installed Node-Red, Apache and Mosquito without any real issues and mounted my 64GB microSD as a folder under root. All of that was working well but I really wanted everything on an SD card – for backup purposes if nothing else as Linux backups tend to be a nightmare. Anyway, I wrote to Radxa and they quickly pointed me to the nightly build of an SD-based version of Rabian. I installed that and this time the desktop Debian 8 graphical environment came up with user “root”.  I checked that out and noted that while the WIFI was operating (both wired and wireless) – the Bluetooth manager could find no reference to Bluetooth and the volume control in the control console could not find any reference to volume control devices. I’ve written to Radxa for feedback.

In the process of setting up speech, I discovered that my favourite program NORMIT is now dead thanks to the miserable people at Google closing API access. The only alternative I’m aware of that is any good is eSpeak (synth speech) and that simply will not run in the Rock Pro – and that started me thinking – all of this IO is all very good – but how do you access it? On the Raspberry Pi there are (for example) not only NODES to  do this but lots of examples – I can find no such thing for the Pro. I did find an example of a simple read-write process to the GPIO pins and I’ve successfully tested that – I’m fairly confident I can toggle at least 29 pins on and off… but that’s all I’ve achieved. There are at least 2 serial ports on the board and both of them work without issue in Node-Red.

When I’m all done I think this could end up transforming one of my large and very nice but NOT smart TVs into a bang up to date media centre, OR – depending on just how fast this thing is it might get the job of central MQTT server! It certainly FEELS a lot faster than the Pi2.

The basic board looks great but I suspect at this point, that support is more important than the raw power of a device such as the Radxa Rock Pro. Time will tell.

More later.

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16 thoughts on “Radxa Rock Pro

  1. Cool board.
    You know you can triple the traffic by posting unboxing videos, right? 🙂
    This beauty doesn't have a SATA port, does it?

    >>depending on just how fast this thing is it might get the job of central MQTT server!
    Is MQTT broker really that resource hungry? Which one are you using?
    I'm planning to build a smart house when my order from Aliexpress comes through, so far I've been putting everything on Cubieboard1 - openhab, Mosquitto, NFS, Kerberos, you name it 🙂

  2. The cool thing with Android on this board is that I believe the source is available for it to build your own custom image. You can do this under Ubuntu on a VM if you only have a PC but a native Ubuntu machine will be faster.

    What I like about Android is that development lets you debug on the target through the USB port. No need to setup GDB of other debugging hashups with the likes of Linux. You just code and hit run and it downloads to the target and runs with full debugging. Once you get used to the way Android dev works it is quite easy to create apps quickly and there is a load of online help for this too.

    1. Indeed. Right now however I want to try Debian and for reasons beyond me it isn't taking any notice of the SD. That accounts for why Android ran without issues - it is already on internal FLASH. When you plus in an SD that is supposed to take precedence but didn't... I've contacted support.

  3. i like the size of it also but i have always a problem that i found Linux is too much not friendly. did you try any of the windows TV boxes. i have one got from China almost a year already pre installed genuine windows (not pro version) and has a office 360 license for one year.
    spics is intel processor up to 2.1Ghz, 2G ram, 64GB built-in memory. amazing device for almost 120 dollars. i use it as HTPC.
    all MQTT, node red any thing can be installed and run like magic. all that with Windows ease of use.

    just search PIPO X7 or new nodels with attached touch screen X7s, X8 aliexpress.

    1. I'm a great fan of Windows on the PC - I use it every day and would never consider moving to Linux or a MAC. But... for control applications - I'd rather stay a million miles away - no matter what - Microsoft are a huge commercial operation who succeed as they've mastered making money out of fresh air - it may be cheap right now to focus on Windows embedded development - but I don't think that will last.

      Banggood have a nice new sparkly Windows machine incidentally.... ideal for media systems etc - though why anyone would walk around the streets with one in their pocket (as in the advert) as it has no screen - I have no idea. Here's the link - http://goo.gl/1xnaAt

    1. Thanks for that Jan. Be wary. The advertising on this item is wonderful - it looks clean, modern, efficient, friendly... but what happens when you get the board and the campaign is over.

      Look at the many items I have reviewed in the blog over time - that never did quite make it. Some are self-funded, some are Kickstarter but the story is always the same - great ambition, great promise but the reality often falls short.

      Take the Raspberry Pi as a success story - many emulate it but as yet no-one has managed to get the support structure to match that of the Pi. It does what it says and though the original model was little more than a toy, the Pi 2 runs day in and out without issue other than the frankly STUPID decision to allow booting only from SD. Look at the many features of the Pi - and you can USE them. There are litterly thousands of code examples, projects and libraries out there to do pretty much anything you want not to mention a raft of helpful free and paid books and magazines.

      Now let's look at the Orange Pi - just like this Pine - another promise of a better way - a must-have once you've read the blurb. The board is faster than the Pi and it is DIRT cheap - just like the Pine. But when it comes to using it.... the designers could not give a crap - support is almost zero. The only operating systems that actually work for it have been enabled by third parties - usually as a hobby and I have not seen ONE implementation able to run the many subsystems - most cannot even access the parallel ports. Some brave efforts have so far been thwarted by lack of information

      Look at software projects such as BLYNK - a Kickstarter project. Live May last year - some of the features touted then STILL don't work and progress could be faster - where will we be next year - but not half as slow as another of my previous loves - NETIO - this had great promise as the be-all for IOT remote control - almost zero progress in the last year.

      I could list many such projects.

      I'm currently playing with the Rock Pro which, while much more expensive, is like the Pine in that it is a more powerful cousin of the Pi and has been around for a while - it is a marvellous piece of hardware - but attaching Node.JS to it and trying to control the ports- the only library I can find out there is old now and is preliminary - yet has not been updated for a year. SO many features but can they ACTUALLY be accessed by anyone other than die-hards?

      It seems like any Tom, Dick or Harry can put together a cheap processor board - but will it be supported widely enough to let it do what you want?

      Support - it is all about support.

      1. Thank you for your extensive reply Peter. I haven't tried any of the other boards you mention, so I take your comments for granted.

        Let's see what happens when this board comes out. Probably the same as you have experienced with the Orange Pi and BLYNK... As long as I can run Kodi on it, it will be sufficient for me.

        If you are interested to know about my findings, then let me know and I will keep you updated.

        1. Jan D, my experience with RPi challengers as a TV client has been disappointing so far. It is not enough to have a powerful board that is able to run Kodi. Together with powerful video hardware (unlike BeagleBone Black) you will need a driver for it (unlike Orange Pi PC) and some small things like CEC (use the remote of your TV; unlike Odroid C1).

          I totally agree with Pete: A new board is only as powerful as it's (software) support. Unfortunately the hottest contender for the RPi is the RPi2.
          But please if you find something 'better' than an RPi2 - tell us immediately!

  4. I started down the Pine A64 path, but then found this which makes it sound very much like the Orange Pi situation: http://forum.armbian.com/index.php/topic/491-need-help-on-pine-a64-15-64bit-quad-core-12ghz-single-board-computer/

    Have you taken a look at the Kangaroo PC: http://www.kangaroo.cc/ ? Very much like the Banggood tiny, but from InFocus, the projector company. I wonder how it will compare to the Rock Pro both in performance and power consumption. Includes 2200 mah battery (good for about 4 hours) and someone in the NewEgg forum says Ubuntu works...

    1. Hi Bob

      Well, on the Northeastern principle of "shy bairns get nowt" I've written to both of them to see if they want to send one for review in the blog - I must admit it would be nice to do a side by side comparison on ease of setup etc. Time will tell and thanks for the information. I guess one good think about the Kangaroo is the internal battery - so instead of having to come up with an un-interruptable supply as I usually do with these things (usually one form of mobile phone battery backup system) it is built into the price.

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