Up 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.
At 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.