Asus’ Tinker Board single-board computer reviewed

The Raspberry Pi Foundation made a larger-than-expected splash when it released the first version of its eponymous single-board computer way back in February 2012. That original single-core, 700 MHz ARM11 machine has since ripened into a far more powerful quad-core, 64-bit computer with an audience far beyond the classrooms its creators originally had in mind.

With success comes imitators. Maker-focused e-shops now have pastry cases filled with a host of Pi clones in Banana, Orange, and Rose flavors in addition to BeagleBoards and Odroids. Some of these clones have sought to undercut the Raspberry Pi on price, while others add extra I/O capabilities like SATA ports. Asus is the first major motherboard vendor to enter this space, and its Tinker Board boasts Gigabit networking, more memory, a faster CPU, and enhanced graphical capabilities, including 4K video playback. The original goal of this review was to put the machine’s horsepower to the test, but software problems prevented us from performing many of the intended benchmarks.

Promising hardware and the competition

Let’s start with the hardware. The Tinker Board is built around a 1.8 GHz Rockchip RK3288 quad-core ARM Cortex-A17 SoC. An integrated Mali-T760 graphics core pushes pixels around as fast as its 600 MHz core allows. The CPU and GPU share a 2 GB pool of LPDDR3 memory. Primary storage comes via a spring-loaded microSD slot, though additonal drives can be added to the Tinker Board using the quartet of USB 2.0 ports. The overall layout of the Tinker Board’s I/O is nearly identical to the Raspberry Pi 3, with the exception of a connector for an external Wi-Fi antenna. The ribbon connectors for a display and camera, as well as the bank of 40 general-purpose input-output pins are in the same locations, though the exact GPIO pin layout is completely different from the layout used on all newer Pi models.

Note the similarities in I/O layout in Asus’ Tinker Board, above, to the Raspberry Pi 3, shown below

Asus offers Linux and Android operating systems for the Tinker Board. Tinker OS is based on Linaro, which in turn is based on Debian Linux. Asus’ Android port is based on Android Marshmallow, which is now two versions old. An official Android port is somewhat uncommon among SBC vendors, though its usefulness on the Tinker Board is tempered by the omission of Google Play Services and the Google Play Store. I focused my testing on Tinker OS, though I did try to use the Android port, as well.

Most of the Tinker Board’s components are mounted to the top of the board, with the exception of the pair of 1 GB memory chips and the microSD slot that sit on its underside. The heatsinks shown in the first picture of this article come in the box with the Tinker Board, but the user must fit them to the board.

When compared to the SoC aboard the Raspberry Pi 3, the Tinker Board’s CPU is markedly faster. The Ethernet port has the twofold advantage of having a Gigabit, rather than 10/100 Fast Ethernet controller, and it also doesn’t run on the same USB 2.0 bus as the rest of the peripherals. The Rockchip’s ARM Mali graphics have more potential than the 300 MHz Broadcom VideoCore IV unit in the Pi, as well. Asus says the Tinker Board can deliver 4K output over its HDMI port, but I was not able to put this claim to the test. I don’t own a 4K display, and other issues arose that would have stymied such testing anyway. More on that in a bit.

The Pi and other SBCs also have to contend with low-power computers powered by Intel’s Atom-based Celeron and Pentium chips. I also brought a Raspberry Pi 3 and one of ECS’ Liva mini PCs to the party. The specific Liva model I used was released in 2015 and sports an Intel Bay Trail Celeron N2806 dual-core chip running at 1.60 GHz (2.0 GHz Turbo), Intel HD Graphics running at 313-756 MHz, 2 GB of LPDDR3 memory running at 1066 MT/s, and 32 GB of eMMC storage. The Liva is still available for around $100. This is about $30 more than even the Tinker Board, but it does include a case and a power supply in addition to the previously-mentioned integrated storage. The Liva Mini is slightly larger than a Tinker Board in a case, and its maximum power draw of 15 W is about 15% higher than Asus SBC. The Liva packs Gigabit Ethernet just like the Tinker Board, but it is bringing several guns into a knife fight with its USB 3.0 bus, dual-band capable Wi-Fi chip, and full x86 compatibility.

The Liva does have two handicaps when compared to the SBCs. While the Liva runs Windows 10 without any challenges, Linux compatibility is currently limited to Ubuntu-based distributions. When running Ubuntu, the Liva will not boot unless a display is attached. Second, while the Liva has pins marked “GPIO,” no documentation was provided. Those looking for a way to drive relays or integrate sensors that communicate over I2C will have to jump through some hoops.

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