Seven years after the release of the $35 Raspberry Pi computer, demand remains as strong as ever, with sales on track to pass 27 million boards anytime now.
While the Pi's initial success stemmed from it being a budget board packed with enough computing power and features to be moulded into a huge range of tasks -- ranging from controlling robots to running a media center, its enduring popularity results from its strong software support and extensive community, which helps newcomers and has created a wealth of tutorials and guides.
But the Pi is not alone, a broad spectrum of single-board computers exist: some similar to the Pi, some budget bare bones offerings and others more expensive but offering some improvements.
The quality of these boards varies greatly, as does the type of tasks they are suited to, and this guide will walk you through some decent options for Pi alternatives, while also highlighting the drawbacks.
WHAT ARE THE STRENGTHS OF THE RASPBERRY PI?
The Pi's primary strength is its ease of use compared to many rivals.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has invested years of work in improving the Pi's core software, notably its default operating system, known as Raspbian. The bespoke OS is designed to get the best out of the Pi hardware and loaded with free software -- both the everyday basics like a web browser and office suite, but also tools for learning to code.
Yet the official support is only half the story, with much of the board's usability coming from the plethora of community-created guides and tutorials -- with the answer to many questions only a Google away. Beyond the staunch community support, the Pi can be augmented by a broad ecosystem of boards and kits that extend its capabilities, turning the board into everything from a robot to a virtual assistant.
The Pi also strikes a shrewd balance between price and capability. Co-creator of the board Eben Upton has stated in the past that keeping the board affordable is very important, and its latest incarnation, the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, manages to pack an awful lot into a computer that sells from $35.
WHAT ARE THE SHORTCOMINGS OF RASPBERRY PI?
Not a huge amount. When the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B was released in June this year, it offered many features Pi users had been asking for.
Not only did the newer, faster board offer superior performance, it packed in USB 3.0, dual 4K display support, and true Gigabit Ethernet. On paper it's also capable of 4K@60 video playback of H.265-encoded video, although this support is currently being added to operating systems.
The only missing feature is the lack of an eMMC or a SATA interface for adding fast storage to the board. The counter argument is that an SSD hooked up to the Pi 4's USB 3.0 ports could read and write data more rapidly than eMMC storage and is good enough for most use cases. However it would have the disadvantage of not being built into the board.
The release of the Pi 4 makes many of the alternatives pretty difficult to recommend, given the marginal improvement in specs many offer for the price, especially when combined with their drawbacks. It's hard to think of another single-board computer that offers the same features for the price as the Pi 4.
That's especially true given that certain boards that outperform the Pi on paper are often found wanting upon testing, due to bottlenecks in the system and the frequently poor software and driver compatibility of these Pi rivals.
WHAT'S THE BEST CHEAP PI ALTERNATIVE?
Unfortunately if you want a cheaper board than the Pi you're going to have to compromise.
If you don't mind tackling issues with software and drivers, then you could try the $21 Pine A64. The board was first released some years ago and is weaker than the Pi 4 in just about every respect -- with a slower CPU based on an older and weaker Arm architecture, offering slower memory, inferior 802.11n Wi-Fi. However it is some $14 cheaper than the base Pi 4, while offering the same amount of memory and Gigabit Ethernet, with a pin header that is compatible with hardware add-ons for the Pi boards -- so it has some advantages over the $25 Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+.
There's a but, however, on release the Pine64 was heavily criticized in several reviews for having such poor software support that some reviewers couldn't even get a working Linux desktop to boot.
Three years on and things seem to have improved somewhat, with the board's Wiki listing working versions of Android 7.1 and Ubuntu Xenial with the Mate desktop -- complete with office suite and browser -- as being available for the board. However there still seem to be issues, such as the Xenial build missing support for hardware acceleration for video.
On paper, the La Frite also promises comparable video playback performance to the Raspberry Pi 3 B+, can output to 1080p displays via HDMI 1.4, and offers two USB 2.0 ports
However, the board's bigger brother, Le Potato, has also been criticized for lacklustre driver and software support, so it's probably yet another Pi wannabe that you should only buy if you have the time and knowledge to invest in getting it to work.
WHAT IS A GOOD RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR THE SAME PRICE?
With the release of the Raspberry Pi 4 being so recent, it's tough to find a board that beats the specs of the board for a similar price.
That said, the ~$35 Pine H64 Model B does offer more memory than the Pi 4 for the same price and its CPU is also clocked at a higher speed.
The catch is those advantages aren't clear cut; while the Pine machine offers more memory, it is also DDR3 RAM, older and slower than the DDR4 found on the Pi 4.
And while the H64's CPU may operate at 1.8GHz, compared to 1.5GHz on the Pi, that speed bump may mean little in terms of actual performance due to the Pi 4's CPU being based on a newer Arm architecture.
Compounding that disadvantage is the fact the H64 has slower Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, one fewer USB 3.0 port, and doesn't support dual displays. There are also issues with driver support that affect HDMI sound and USB 3.0 working at the speed of USB 2.0, according to a recent review -- although work is ongoing on improving software support.
If 4K video playback is what you're after, then the $27 Le Potato has been praised for how it handles 4K, H.265-encoded video with a Kodi media player, but also criticized for software and operating system support being nowhere near as robust as on the Pi, so you'll have to be technically proficient to get it working.
There is also the Orange Pi 3, which on paper sounds good for the price, although I have a hard time recommending that given the board's very flaky performance in testing.
WHAT ARE CHEAP ALTERNATIVES TO THE RASPBERRY PI ZERO W?
The $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W is one of the smallest and cheapest machines available, costing roughly the same as a KFC Bargain Bucket, and packing 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. As such it's hard to find a machine to match it.
One that comes close on paper is the $10 Nano Pi Neo, which will cost you the same as a Raspberry Pi Zero W but lacks the Pi's built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, has half the memory (the 512MB version costs $12) and no mini-HDMI. However, the Allwinner H3 processor is based on a newer architecture than the Pi Zero W and is clocked to run faster, as well as having 36 pre-soldered GPIO headers for hooking up to hardware. A 10/100M Ethernet port will let you remotely connect to the board. So it's a reasonable choice for tinkering with hardware or prototyping simple IoT devices.
WHAT IS THE CHEAPEST RASPBERRY PI ZERO ALTERNATIVE?
One of the cheapest alternatives is probably the 256MB Orange Pi Zero H2. However it is difficult to find a board that combines the balance of hardware features and software support offered by the Pi Zero W, as is true of the more expensive Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.
Still, if you're suitably confident you can deal with the technical hiccups, the 256MB Orange Pi Zero H2 sells for less than the $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W while still offering the 802.11n Wi-Fi and 10/100 Ethernet of the Pi board.
Available as an $8.50 board, it has 256MB RAM -- half the memory of the Zero W. And while the board might be slightly cheaper than the Pi Zero W, it lacks the Pi's HDMI port, with the only audio-visual interface being available via the board's pins. This should be less of an issue for a device of this type however, as most users would remotely connect to the board via another computer.
Again, given my experience with Orange Pi boards, it's worth bearing in mind you'll likely need to be technically proficient to get the Orange Pi H2 running smoothly.
WHICH RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVES HAVE THE BEST REPUTATION?
Odroid boards may cost a little bit more than the competition but generally have a good reputation for being decent boards with good operating systems -- Ubuntu and Android -- with a range of decent bundled software, like browsers and office suites. One of the few downsides seems to be boards like the Odroid XU4 require additional add-ons to make its GPIO pins compatible with Raspberry Pi expansion boards and add-ons.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE RELEASED IN 2019?
Some powerful single-board computers have come out in 2019, many of which are based on the hexacore Rockchip RK3399 processor, which pairs beefy 2GHz dual-core Arm Cortex A72 cores with less powerful quad-core 1.5GHz Arm Cortex A53 cores.
This year saw the release of the six core, 4GB $79 Odroid N2, which packs four 1.8GHz Arm Cortex A73-based processors and two 1.9GHz Arm Cortex A53-based processors, with the system-on-a-chip (SoC) able to switch tasks between processors to save energy. Some of its specs are superior to the Pi 4, as you'd expect for the price, such as double the number of USB 3.0 ports and up to 128GB of eMMC Flash storage. However, it does lack the Pi 4's dual displays and built-in Wi-Fi. Operating system-wise it supports Ubuntu 18.04 LTS and Android 9.0 Pie, although these are works in progress, with some features still being developed.
WHAT ARE THE MOST USEFUL APPLICATIONS FOR RASPBERRY PI?
The Raspberry Pi is nothing if not versatile, with uses ranging from media center, to lightweight general-purpose computer to cheap machine for prototyping gadgets.
Of the myriad alternative single-board computers available, there are machines that double down on each of these specialties -- such as those detailed below.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR A MEDIA CENTER?
The $25 Rock64 Media Board is decent value for a 2GB board that can manage 4K playback of local video -- that is, stored on your hard drive rather than streaming over the internet -- at 30fps in various video formats, and handles 1080 playback of YouTube video via the built-in media player in the Android 7.1.2 OS that runs on the board.
One rather big downside is that reviews found a lack of working apps on the OS, with major streaming sites like Netflix not working. So it's maybe only a good choice if you're only interested in streaming video stored locally, or you're willing to spend a lot of time tinkering to get software working. However, the board's makers have committed to supporting software on the board until 2022, so it's likely this situation has improved over time.
If you're willing to pay a bit more, there's the $46 Odroid C2. The C2 is a good match for the Pi 4 on many specs, sporting Gigabit Ethernet, and supporting 4K displays via HDMI 2.0, together with up to 32 channel audio. While it lacks Wi-Fi support, users report the board performs well as a media center, smoothly playing back local 1080p and 4K H.265-encoded video and has support for streaming services such as Netflix, as well as running Ubuntu, Android and the media center software LibreElec.
That said, it lacks several features of the Pi 4, including dual-display support, the faster memory --- and is based on an older CPU architecture.
As mentioned above, the Le Potato board can reportedly manage smooth playback of H.265-encoded 4K video using Kodi media player but issues with the reliability of its software means it will require quite a lot of setting up.
Ultimately, the Raspberry Pi 4 should prove to be a better media center than most of these boards, due to its dual 4K display output and support for 4K@60FPS playback of H.265-encoded video. However, this smooth 4K video playback is currently being implemented in Raspberry Pi operating systems, so performance may be hit-and-miss for a while.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR A ROUTER?
A reasonable option for the price, thanks to its prioritising fast data transfer over other uses, is the $28 NanoPi Neo Plus2. While it lacks HDMI or other audio-visual out ports, it sports Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 support, quad-core Cortex A53 Allwinner H5 processor, 1GB DDR3 RAM and 8GB of eMMC onboard storage.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR A HOME SERVER OR NAS?
Fast storage is important when you're pulling a lot of data from the board, for instance running the board as a file server.
While most of the boards with SATA support cost three figures, putting them outside of the designation of a Pi alternative, there are a growing number of low-cost computers like the Pi 4 with USB 3.0 support, allowing an SSD to be hooked up for fast storage.
A decent choice of board with two USB 3.0 ports, 2GB memory, gigabit Ethernet, eMMC storage, and an octa-core processor is the $49 Odroid XU4.
If you're willing to splash out a bit more, the Rock Pi 4 sports an M.2 interface supporting up to a 2TB NVMe SSD, and you can also add up to 128GB eMMC storage to the board. When testing the six-core board, I found its performance to be solid in many respects, with a few technical quirks. The downside is the board costs $75, more than double the price of the cheapest Pi 4.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR A DESKTOP PC REPLACEMENT?
The Pi 4 Model B is a decent choice for a budget, full desktop computer replacement. The Pi's official Raspbian desktop OS is lightweight and runs smoothly, and the 4GB Pi 4 is able to swap between online services like G Suite and today's script and video-heavy websites without much slowdown -- thanks both to the additional memory and optimized Chromium browser.
As such, it's difficult to pick a decent alternative for the price, but a couple of reasonable choices are the Rock Pi 4 and the Odroid N2, both of which will cost you ~$75, $20 more than the 4GB Pi 4.
There's also fewer guarantees that the performance will fulfill its potential with Pi rivals. For instance I found the Rock Pi 4 to still have some instability in its version of the Debian Stretch OS.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR A RETRO-GAMES EMULATOR?
The Odroid boards seem to be a decent choice for retro-gaming, with the $49 Odroid XU4 supporting the RetroPie gaming platform, which bundles a wide range of Arcade, home-console and classic PC game emulators. While the Odroid N2 isn't supported by RetroPie yet, there is anticipation among the community as to how the six-core board will improve on the XU4. The Raspberry Pi 4 promises to be a decent performer too, but the latest version of RetroPie doesn't yet support the Pi 4.
The Odroid XU4 is able to smoothly emulate newer console games, such as Goldeneye on the N64, Streetfighter on the Dreamcast and Kingdom Hearts on the PSP.
One downside is that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi support are not built into the XU4, so you'll need to use a USB dongle for wireless connectivity.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR HOMEMADE IOT GADGETS?
If you're after a super-simple machine then the $10 Nano Pi Neo mentioned above is a reasonable choice, providing you're happy working with wired rather than wireless connectivity. If you want Wi-Fi there is the $19.50 Nano Pi Duo2, whose Allwinner H3 CPU is clocked at a faster speed than the Pi Zero W and has a newer processor architecture, that offers faster DDR3 RAM, and whose two pre-soldered pin headers offer 32-pins for hooking up hardware. However, it lacks the Pi's mini-HDMI port and Bluetooth support, and is almost double the price.
If you want something with more connections and you are willing to spend about double the cost of the Pi 4, then there is the $99 Up Core.
The computer has a quad-core 1.8GHz Intel Atom x5-Z8350 processor and 16GB eMMC storage. However, the ace up the board's sleeve are the 100 pins available for hooking up additional boards and other custom hardware, compared with the 40-pin header available on the Pi. The UP Core's high-speed expansion connector includes pins for UART, SPI, 2 x USB HSIC, PCI-Express, GPIO, Intel Sensors Hub, SDIO and 5V Power.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR HARDWARE MAKERS?
The $99 Up Core board listed above offers a lot of options for connecting up hardware, but if you're an amateur maker you should check out the Beagle Boards and Arduino.
A good starting place is the Pocket Beagle, a tiny $25 board well suited to prototyping electronics due to its extensive hardware expansion options -- although you will need to solder on the pin headers yourself. The board offers 2 x 36-pin headers (unpopulated) with USB 2.0 OTG, 8x analog inputs, 44x digital GPIOs, 3x UARTs, 2x I2C, 2x SPI, 4x PWM, 2x quadrature encoder inputs, 2x CAN bus, 23x programmable PRU I/O pins, 3x voltage inputs for battery, USB, power line, 2x voltage output (3.3V LDO + 1x voltage input).
In other respects, it's not the most powerful or feature rich board, with no Wi-Fi or Ethernet, no on-board storage and half the memory of the cheapest Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.
However, a favorite for makers is Arduino, a project that provides hardware, software and community support for people who want to create DIY electronics.
Arduino lends its name to a range of programmable microcontroller boards, which serve as the brains of these homemade devices. These boards can be wired into circuits, where they can interact with lights, sensors, motors, microphones, buttons, and any other component you want to include in your homespun appliances. For instance, you could use an Arduino to build a motion-controlled video camera or to remote control the lights in your sitting room.
A good choice for beginners is the Arduino Uno Rev 3, which is a bit of an all-rounder, relatively cheap (€20 or about $22), with enough digital and analog pins to get you started on building electronics, and a raft of relevant tutorials available online.
Adding new features to the board can be straightforward, with the easiest option being to use a shield, an expansion board that slots directly into the Arduino's pin headers. Shields can add an array of features, ranging from Zigbee wireless connectivity or an SD card reader.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ARDUINO AND RASPBERRY PI?
While the $35 Raspberry Pi is often mentioned in the same breath as Arduino, due to its superficially similar appearance and equally low price tag, there are significant differences between the Arduino and the Pi. Arduinos are based around microcontrollers and Raspberry Pi is based around a microprocessor connected to on-board RAM and other features. While both boards can control electronics attached to their pins, the Pi is also capable of being run as a full desktop computer. However, the Arduino arguably has the advantage of being simpler to use to make electronic prototypes, and also to swap out for a new microcontroller in the final product.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR IMAGE RECOGNITION AND AI?
Due to their limited processing power, the Pi and its rivals were traditionally of limited use for running machine-learning models by themselves, needing to be paired with AI accelerators such as Google's Coral USB stick.
However, while training machine-learning models may still be the preserve of more powerful machines, work by Google to improve the efficiency of machine-learning models and the better hardware of the Pi 4, means the Pi now isn't half bad at running some trained machine-learning models.
A Pi 4 benchmark measuring how it ran trained TensorFlow Lite image-recognition models showed it outperforming the Nvidia Jetson Nano board and another SBC with an AI accelerator, the Intel Neural Compute Stick 2. The findings were quite surprising, given the Jetson Nano and Neural Compute Stick 2 both sell for ~$99.
However, if you're looking for a better performance by a single-board computer, the benchmark did find that the $150 Coral Dev Board, which features Google's Edge TPU machine-learning accelerator, came out on top, perhaps unsurprising given the price.
The Edge TPU-powered system-on-a-module is capable of executing "state-of-the-art mobile vision models such as MobileNet v2 at 100+ fps, in a power efficient manner", according to Google.
The Coral Dev Board includes an NXP i.MX 8M system on chip that consists of a quad-core Cortex-A53 and Cortex-M4F, a Vivante GC7000 Lite Graphics graphics processor, 8GB of eMMC storage, and 1GB of LDDR4 RAM.
An alternative, slightly cheaper board with an AI accelerator is the $100 Khadas VIM3 Pro board, which features a Neural Processing Unit capable of five trillion operations per second.
WHAT IS THE BEST RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVE FOR LEARNING CODING?
Already used in schools across the UK, the matchbox-sized BBC micro:bit is designed to make it easy for kids to write simple programs to control the board's hardware, with creations to date including basic games and animations.
Individual boards are available for $14.81, with a discount for buying in bulk.
WHICH LAPTOPS ARE THE BEST ALTERNATIVES TO THE RASPBERRY PI?
It's practically impossible to find a good laptop anywhere near the price of the Raspberry Pi, but if you're in the market for a decent budget laptop, ZDNet's Cliff Joseph recommends the $279 Lenovo 14e Chromebook.
Similar in price to some of the most expensive single-board computers, it's a 14-inch machine with a 1,920x1080-resolution display, a 1.6GHz AMD A4-9120C processor, 2 x USB 3.0, up to 8GB of DDR4 RAM and up to 64GB eMMC storage. The Chrome OS also includes Google's G Suite of productivity tools such as Google Docs, Gmail and Google Calendar.
WHICH MINI-PCS ARE THE BEST ALTERNATIVE TO THE RASPBERRY PI?
There are better mini-PCs out there, but the Intel NUC5CPYH is one of the cheapest, while still being roughly double the price of the Pi.
While the performance of its Intel Celeron processor N3050 won't set the world on fire, the 1.6 to 2.1GHz processor is no slouch relative to the Pi and its competitors, it can output to 4K displays via HDMI, has four USB 3.0 ports, one SATA 3.0 connector for fast storage and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, putting it ahead of most other boards in this round-up.
WHICH INTERNET TV STICKS ARE THE BEST ALTERNATIVE TO THE RASPBERRY PI?
Despite its modest specs by PC standards, the $50 Fire TV Stick 4K has more than enough features to trounce many Pi rivals when it comes to media playback.
Offering 4K video playback with access to a wide range of apps, the device supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi support, 8GB storage, and voice control using Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant.
While 8GB doesn't offer much space to store files, it is designed primarily as a device for streaming, rather than downloading, media.
WHAT ARE ALTERNATIVES TO THE RASPBERRY PI COMPUTE MODULE?
The Raspberry Pi Compute Module 3 (CM3) packs the same 1.2GHz, quad-core Broadcom BCM2837 processor, VideoCore IV GPU and 1GB memory used on the Pi 3 Model B onto a slimmer and smaller board.
The CM3's compact design, the same size as a DDR2 small outline dual in-line memory module, is suited to being built into electronic appliances.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has said it is evaluating options for a CM4, based on a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B.
There are limited alternatives to the CM3, but one option is the $29 SOPINE A64, which includes the same quad-core Arm Cortex A53-based processor used in the Pine A64 single-board computer, along with 2GB of LPDDR3 RAM memory. These are packed into the SODIMM-DDR3 form factor -- again more commonly used for sticks of memory in PCs. Like the CM3, the idea is to allow hardware makers to incorporate the board into appliances.
CAN YOU USE A RASPBERRY PI CASE WITH RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVES?
Sometimes. Many of the boards imitate both the size, profile and layout of the full-size Raspberry Pi family of boards, in order to be compatible with cases, at least prior to the Raspberry Pi 4 altering the layout.
However, it's always worth checking online before ordering a case, as even slight deviations from the layout could mean the case doesn't fit.
CAN YOU USE RASPBERRY PI HARDWARE ADD-ONS WITH RASPBERRY PI ALTERNATIVES?
In a similar fashion, lots of boards offer an identical pin header to the Pi family of boards in order to improve compatibility of the boards with Pi add-ons. It's worth checking the specs listing to see if the pins on the alternative board are designated as Raspberry Pi-compatible, and even then it's worth doing more research online to check the success people have had using Raspberry Pi add-ons with the board in question.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGER COMPETITORS TO RASPBERRY PI BOARDS?
This article highlights some of the best rival boards but if you are curious to check out more, here is a list of some of the better-known competitors and their computers: Beagleboard, Banana Pi, Cubieboard, PandaBoard ES, Pine64, LattePanda, NanoPi, Odroid, ASUS Tinker Board, UP Core, UDOO, Bubblegum-96, Inforce 6410Plus, MediaTek X20, HiKey 960 and Onion Omega.