Thanks to boards like the Raspberry Pi, DIY computing projects are no longer reserved for enthusiasts who can afford to sink hundreds of dollars into them. As the new $5 Pi Zero demonstrates, picking up on a new project now costs the same as a cup of coffee. It also means that if a new entrant wants to make an impact, it needs to include a better range of components or beat its competition on price. Or both. And that's exactly what PINE64 Inc. is looking to do.
There's no denying that the PINE64 Inc. is attempting to build upon the Raspberry Pi's legacy. The team says its board's name is derived from two constant variables – Pi and Euler's Number e (the mathematical constant). As you may have guessed, the 64 comes from its 64-bit processor and the A helps differentiate it from future versions. Taking of processors, the PINE A64 hosts an ARMv8 Cortex-A53 chip. Oh, and it starts from just $15 and is available to "pre-order" via Kickstarter right now.
Measuring 3.125 inches by 5 inches, the PINE A64 includes a quad-core ARM Cortex A53 1.2GHz processor, dual-core Mali 400 MP2 graphics, support for up to 2GB of DDR3 SDRAM, a microSD slot (which can handle cards up to 256GB), up to gigabit ethernet, two USB 2.0 ports, one HDMI 1.4 connector offering 4K output and both a stereo mini-jack connector and built-in 3.7V Lithium battery charging circuit. PINE64 Inc. will also offer separate modules that will add a 5-megapixel camera port, 4 lane MIPI video port, touch panel port, WiFi connectivity and Bluetooth 4.0. Like other boards, it runs on 5V power through MicroUSB but can also call upon on-board power management via a battery.
"PINE64 set out to create a simple, smart and affordable computer that gives people access toward making their next big idea come to life." says Co-Founder Johnson Jeng. "We provide a powerful 64-bit quad-core single-board computer at an exceptional price and remain compatible with multiple open source software platforms to build a community of creativity and innovation."
If you're familiar with other ARM-based boards then you know the drill. It can be set up to operate as a mini computer, a gaming console, control your connected home and let you run your own media center. It'll handle Android 5.1 (Lollipop), Ubuntu Linux, openHAB, OpenWRT and Kodi, which offers 4Kx2K output via the H.265 video standard (1080p60 and 4Kp30) and also supports Miracast.
Why so cheap?
When asked why Raspberry Pi continued to launch hardware based on the ARMv7 architecture when ARMv8 64-bit chips are readily available, founder Eben Upton alluded to the fact that a more powerful processor would come with a boost in price. When your business is focused on delivering performance without the cost, that can become a problem.
For PINE64 Inc., the tipping point likely came earlier this year when companies began launching new super-cheap 64-bit System-on-a-Chip (SoC) platforms. Allwinner, for example, touted a $5 64-bit Cortex A53 processor for tablets way back in January, and it's this chip that powers the $15 PINE A64 board. A year is a long time in the fast-moving world of processors, so it's reasonable to expect that Raspberry Pi's rationale for sticking with ARMv7 isn't as valid as it once was.
PINE64 is available as three different models -- the PINE A64, PINE A64+ and PINE A64+ 2GB -- that offer more memory, connectivity and features for a little extra money:
While there are plenty of 4K streamers now available, namely via Amazon and Roku, nothing quite beats being able to build one yourself. The open-source community has already fully embraced the Raspberry Pi and ported powerful media center software so it can run on the Pi's ARMv7 chipset, but video decoding is stable but not spectacular. Sure, you can throw a 4GB Matroska-encoded (MKV) file at it and it'll do the job, but extra performance is always welcome. That's not to say the PINE A64 is a 4K powerhouse, and a lot also depends on the software you're using for the job.
PINE64 Inc. says it is launching pre-orders via Kickstarter (with a $31,416 goal) in order to get an idea of what makers want to see before it comes to market. Do people want a $15 version or a $19 model with better specs, for instance? If you decide to back the project today, the company says boards will begin shipping globally in February.
There will undoubtedly be interest in a development board that can offer more power and similar features to the Pi and at an very competitive price. However, it remains to be seen whether the crowdsourcing approach will resonate with makers who can order a rival board anytime they want.