The Raspberry Pi and Pi 2 have taken the world by storm and created a huge interest in single-board computers; their simplicity, portability, and affordability make them great for tinkerers and kids alike. But not everyone wants a Pi. If you’re looking for something a little different, you can find it in one of the great Raspberry Pi alternatives.
Before we get started, though, we’ll go over exactly what the Raspberry Pi brings to the table and why you might want to choose another single-board computer. The Raspberry Pi Model B packs a quad-core 900 MHz processor, 1 GB of RAM, 4 USB ports, a full HDMI port, ethernet port, camera and display interfaces, micro SD card slot, and a GPU for graphics. It can run Linux as well as Windows 10, and costs about $35.
The first-generation Raspberry Pi is also still available, but the specs are a notable step down from the Pi 2: 700 MHz processor, 256 or 512 MB RAM, and only one or two USB ports. Some of the early models don’t have ethernet ports either, so you won’t be able to plug them into an internet connection. The Pi 2 is a step up in every way.
So why go with anything other than the Raspberry Pi? The main reason is that there are a lot of boards out there that provide more power. They have faster processors, more ram, better GPUs, and more connectors. Some have wifi built in, some offer gigabit ethernet, and a few even offer a solid amount of onboard storage. If your project is going to need more than the bare bones of a computer, going with another board might be a good idea. And, of course, it’s always fun to use something that’s outside of the mainstream.
Best Raspberry Pi and Pi 2 Alternatives
1. BeagleBone Black ($30)
“Boot Linux in under 10 seconds and get started on development in less than 5 minutes with just a single USB cable,” promises the BeagleBone website. It’s tough to beat that. It can run Debian, Ubuntu, and Android out of the box, and there are a lot of developers out there who will have other ideas about what it should do.
A 1 GHz processor, 512 MB of RAM, 4 GB of onboard storage, a 3D graphics accelerator, and a mini-HDMI port mean you can turn the BeagleBone Black into a handheld gaming console, a task automator, a robot controller, and much more. BeagleBone even has a huge repository of projects that you can take on using the board, complete with images and instructions. The onboard storage makes it a more easily self-contained board than the Raspberry Pi, which needs an SD card to store data.
2. ODROID-C1+ ($48)
ODROID calls the C1+ “the most powerful low-cost single board computer available,” and they might be right. It absolutely can’t be beaten on price. And the fact that it runs Ubuntu, Fedora, ARCHLinux, Debian, and OpenELEC makes it extremely versatile for such a little board. It also has native support for running Android, which means you won’t have to hack it in like you would with a Pi.
But don’t be fooled by the small size; a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor, a Mali GPU, 1 GB of RAM, gigabit ethernet, 5 USB ports, a microSD card slot, an HDMI port and an IR receiver are all hiding under the hood. It also sports a number of I/O pins, making it an effective electronic prototyping device as well. One of the coolest things about the ODROID-C1+ is that it’s compatible with ODROID’s HiFi board, which is a digital-to-analog converter aimed at helping you play digital audio on vintage hifi equipment.
3. UDOO Dual Basic ($99)
The Dual Basic, despite being the smallest board in the UDOO lineup, still packs a punch. A 1 GHz processor, 1 GB of RAM, 2D and 3D graphics accelerators, HDMI output, two micro-USB ports, two USB-A ports, an onboard micro SD card reader, and audio and mic ports will let you do just about anything you want to do with this little board. It even has Arduino-compatible pinouts.
Although the Dual Basic is currently the best deal among UDOO boards, it will soon be surpassed by the UDOO Neo, a board that combines the functionality of a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino, but also includes a 9-axis sensor, wifi capability, and a Bluetooth receiver, and starts at $50. It’s been successfully funded on Kickstarter, but isn’t available yet. When it is, it might just be the best single-board computer out there.
4. Radxa Rock2 Square ($100)
If you’re looking for a bit more power, the Rock2 can provide it. A quad-core processor, 2 GB or 4 GB of RAM, 16 GB or 32 GB of solid-state storage, 2.5″ SATA hard drive compatibility, Bluetooth 4.0, HDMI port, ethernet port, headphone port, IR receiver, and SD card port all come standard. You can even upgrade to a 3.5″ hard drive if you make a couple small modifications. When it comes to power and versatility, it blows the Pi away.
While the Rock series is primarily Android-based, Linux and Firefox OS can both be run on the boards as well, giving you a lot of options for what you want to do and learn. Kali Linux is especially interesting, as it’s often used in penetration testing, and can be run from the Rock series, making the Rock2 a potentially very useful little device.
5. NanoPC-T1 ($67)
If you’re looking for a low-cost way to get into microcomputing, the NanoPC-T1 should be a contender. A 1.5 GHz Samsung quad-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, 8 GB of onboard storage, HDMI and audio ports, three USB ports, an ethernet port, an SD card slot, and support for Linux and Android mean you’ll be hard pressed to come up with a simple project that the NanoPC can’t handle.
The board also supports the addition of an LCD touchscreen with an adapter board and a standard- or high-definition camera, opening up lots of possibilities for projects. Make a touchscreen game, a home security system, a selfie-taker, or anything else you can imagine. NanoPC also sells a number of accessories and useful modules at great prices. Don’t miss the wifi module for $25!
6. MinnowBoard MAX ($145)
There are actually two versions of the MinnowBoard MAX available; a $140 version and a $100 version. The extra $40 gets you 2 GB of RAM instead of 1 GB, but both versions include a 1.33 GHz dual-core processor, Intel graphics with HDMI out, a micro SD port, two USB ports, a SATA2 hard drive connection, and an ethernet connection.
While it isn’t the best deal out there—the UDOO boards offer a lot more for the price—the forthcoming expansion boards (known as “lures”) could make this a contender for some developers out there. The fact that it offers a hard drive connection could also be very appealing to many potential users, as this is something you don’t get with the Raspberry Pi and many other single-board computers.
7. ODROID-XU4 ($120)
Another great board from ODROID, the XU4 packs a lot of power—it’s one of only two boards on this list to offer a 2 GHz, eight-core processor (over twice as fast as the Pi!), and it costs a whole lot less than the other option. Combining this with USB 3.0 ports means you can actually use this little board for doing some pretty powerful computations. There’s so much power, in fact, that the XU4 requires an onboard cooling fan instead of a simple heatsink.
2 GB of RAM, three USB ports, a microSD port, gigabit ethernet, and an HDMI port round out this very nice microcomputer and make it a really great value. The board can run Linux or Android, including the latest Android 5.0. And you can easily expand it with some cool add-ons from ODROID.
8. pcDuino4 Set-Top Box ($25)
One of the most common uses for the Raspberry Pi is as a media center manager, using systems like Kodi (by the way, be sure to get the best out of Kodi with our list of great add-ons). If all you want is a way to interface with your media and your TV, the pcDuino4 is a great way to do it. It’s a very small board without many bells and whistles; 1.6 GHz quad-core processor, Mali GPU, 1 GB of RAM (shared with the GPU), 8 GB of onboard storage, a wifi module, and the ability to put out HD and 4K video via the HDMI port.
The pcDuino4 comes with a remote that you can use with the IR receiver to control your media, and an enclosure is even included in the next-to-nothing cost. There’s also an AV output if you’re looking to use it on an older TV. All in all, if you’re looking for a single-board computer for a set-top box, it’s going to be tough to beat the super low cost of the pcDuino4.
9. Banana Pi ($35)
Very similar to the Raspberry Pi, the Banana Pi single-board computer can even run a Raspberry Pi image, making your computer think that it actually is a Raspberry Pi. Other than a different name, it brings some pretty familiar stats to the table: 1 GHz quad-core processor, 1 GB RAM, HDMI port, gigabit ethernet port, SATA port, and 3 USB ports. Again, if you want to add a hard drive to your board, the Raspberry Pi won’t do it—so the Banana Pi might be a better bet.
Banana Pi markets this board as a great introduction to building your own computers, and the versatility of the board certainly makes it a good option for beginners. While not quite as cheap as some other options, it’s near the bottom of the cost scale, and there are plenty of projects documented out there that you can use to get started (I recommend checking out Project Banana Pi).
10. Cubieboard4 ($144)
With one the largest price tags in this list, you’d expect the Cubieboard4 to deliver some serious performance—and it does. A 2 GHz eight-core processor is supplemented by 2 GB of RAM, up to 64 GB of onboard storage, 1080p and 4K output, built-in 300 Mbps wifi, Bluetooth 4.0, and a clear plastic case. If you want to do something with a single-board computer, you can probably do it with the Cubieboard.
The ability to support 4K video means this board could be a great media center manager, but the 2 GHz processor could be put to much better use for games, automation, or other imaginative projects. While Cubieboard is rather new, and their documentation and example projects are lacking, if you’re confident in your skills, this could be a great board. Much like the Radxa Rock, the Cubieboard sets itself apart from the Raspberry Pi with significantly more powerful components, from the processor to the wifi.
A Whole New World of Single-Board Computers
Many people think that the Raspberry Pi is the only single-board computer out there, but there are so many more options. From ultra-cheap boards that work best as media center managers to more expensive ones that can power games and screens, any budding developer or home tinkerer can find a board that fits their needs.
Two boards that deserve honorable mention in our list of Raspberry Pi and Pi 2 alternatives are the C.H.I.P., a $9 computer that runs LibreOffice and lets you surf the web over wifi, and the Onion Omega, a single-board computer that’s only 25% of the size of a Raspberry Pi. It’s tiny, it’s connected to the cloud, and it lets you use high-level programming languages. It’s going to be a smash hit.
Now get out there and build something!