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.
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.
Some assembly required
The unboxing and setup of the Tinker Board should be familiar enough to anyone who has used a Raspberry Pi or other SBC. The board comes packaged in an anti-static bag inside a small cardboard box. The package contains a couple of small heatsinks that attach to the chips on the board using pre-applied thermal tape. The only other item in the box was a warranty card printed in several languages. No installation materials or setup instructions were included, which is standard for these types of devices.
The buyer needs to provide the Tinker Board with a power supply capable of providing a rather beefy 2.5 A at 5 VDC, and a microSD card with a minimum size of 8 GB. No case is provided, but most cases for the Pi 2 or Pi 3 will fit the Tinker Board. The software installation process is typical for SBCs: download the OS image from Asus’ Tinker Board page, extract the contents, and flash it to a microSD card using Etcher or Win32DiskImager. Asus provides its own Linaro-based Tinker OS and an Android port for users to choose between.
For perspective, the Raspberry Pi is similarly supplied without a power supply, case, or storage. The Liva PC, on the other hand, comes with all the hardware needed to get going. Users need only add an OS.
Single-board computers like the Pi and the Tinker Board don’t have the grunt or the software compatibility to compete with the usual x86 hardware when it comes to things like doing office productivity work. Neither do they typically have the hardware muscle for browsing the often inefficiently-coded modern web or doing content creation work. These devices are then best left to specialized tasks.
My intent was to use the Tinker Board, the Raspberry Pi 3, and the Liva Mini PC in three scenarios: working as an inexpensive, power-sipping miniature server, performing as a media player box with software like Kodi (nee XBox Media Center), and emulating gaming consoles from generations past.
Connecting to a display
The first sign of trouble came when connecting the Tinker Board to a display. All the Raspberry Pi units I have set up have always worked with any computer monitor or TV set I have connected to them. The Tinker Board would not provide any display output when connected to any of the four computer monitors I used, and it provided unsatisfactory output on the 1280×720 and 1920×1080 televisions I tested.
The Tinker Board’s output on both TVs went far past the edges of the displays’ edges and made using the machine a chore. Finding and clicking the main menu button was a guessing game because I simply couldn’t see it. I was able to find help to get the device to work with a monitor with a non-broadcast resolution, but these hurdles are far beyond what a user should be expected to overcome simply to connect a monitor.
The Raspberry Pi and the Liva PC both connected to all tested displays and delivered excellent output at native resolution without any overscan problems. Achieving correct display output on a range of monitors has been a trouble spot for other SBC upstarts in the past, but the Tinker Board has been on the market for several months and still has substantial problems in this area.
The Tinker Board comes with SSH enabled by default, so I was able to access and control the machine over my network even without a display. We reached out to Asus about these problems, and the company offered an improved version of the software. The updated software changed the nature of the problems, but did not resolve the issues.
Serving at home
In the mini-server role, I wanted to test three different ways someone might use a low-power server at home: serving files over SMB like a cheap, power efficient NAS, working as a torrent box, and babysitting an old laser printer with no network port as a simple print server.
The Tinker Board’s wired networking hardware is much faster than the Raspberry Pi 3’s. In iperf testing, the Tinker Board was able to nearly saturate a Gigabit LAN connection, delivering throughput ten times higher than the Raspberry Pi 3’s 10/100 Ethernet. The Pi 3 can achieve a maximum of about 95 Mbit/s in iperf testing, but performance as a cheap NAS is hampered by the fact that the networking hangs off the same 480 Mbit/s USB 2.0 bus as any storage devices, including the microSD card. The Tinker Board is also hamstrung somewhat by the storage speed limitations of the USB 2.0 bus, but the fact that its Gigabit LAN controller doesn’t share bandwidth with other devices helps a bit.
I set up all three devices with Samba for some real-world testing with TR’s standard media and work test sets. The media set contains 199 files with a cumulative size of 1.93 GB. The work set has 9132 files and a total size of 112 MB. All three machines were set up with the same 120 GB Adata SSD inside a UASP USB 3.0 hard drive enclosure. The Liva PC was thus able to use the drive at native SATA speeds, but the SBCs were both limited to USB 2.0 throughput.
The Liva won all read and write tests in dominating fashion, but the Gigabit Ethernet on the Tinker Board didn’t embarass the 100-megabit Pi the way that one might expect. Asus’ SBC really struggled in the work file set, actually losing to the Pi by a considerable margin. The Tinker Board’s sequential read and write speeds were disappointing overall, at about 24.5 MB/s in either direction. The bottom line is that neither SBC will work well as a substitute for a real NAS. The Liva could do the job if one is willing to put up with a tangle of USB cables.
As for torrenting, my home network connection is advertised as 300 Mbit/s, and only the Liva was able to keep up with incoming data, which showed bursts over 40 MB/s in my testing. The Pi was once again bottlenecked by its 100 Mbit Ethernet port and the Tinker Board couldn’t go any faster than about 24 MB/s.
It was relatively easy to set up all three machines as a Linux print server using instructions found online. I set up the printers on all three machines remotely using CUPS. I used the apt package manager to install CUPS and then configured the printer using a web browser on another machine on the same network. The setup process on all three machines was identical.
For those unable or unwilling to wade into the world of SMB and CUPS on Linux, the Liva has the added benefit of running Windows. As far as I could tell, any of the three devices would work well as a print server for an older printer without its own network port, but the Raspberry Pi is the clear winner here because of its substantially lower price.
Servers should ideally consume as little power as possible to do their thing. The rated power consumption of the Tinker Board and the Raspberry Pi are about the same, and the Liva PC has a slightly higher maximum power draw. For the simple home server use cases described here, it is difficult to recommend the Tinker Board over the Raspberry Pi given the higher price. The Liva delivers much higher peak performance as expected, though it cannot boot headless under Linux.
This should have been fun
While the Tinker Board’s networking performance doesn’t light the world on fire, our attempts to use this system as a game console or media streamer are where the Tinker Board really falls apart. Retro emulation is one of the most common uses for Raspberry Pi machines. Clever users have 3D printed cases to use the Pi 3 as a replacement for Nintendo’s hard-to-find NES Classic Edition, shoehorned the Pi Zero into an Altoids tin as a portable gaming machine, and more.
RetroArch is a popular software package designed for integrating emulator software together into a cohesive experience with an interface similar to the one found in Sony’s newer home and portable game consoles. Coders have created an entire Linux distribution called RetroPie that is completely dedicated to running RetroArch on Pi hardware. The Raspberry Pi 3 is generally fast enough to emulate all the popular 8- and 16-bit consoles and the Sony Playstation, but it doesn’t have the muscle to serve as an impromptu Nintendo 64. I thought that testing N64 emulation would allow the Tinker Board to strut its stuff.
RetroPie obviously doesn’t run on the Tinker Board, but sadly, neither does the generic RetroArch software. I was able to install RetroArch through the apt software package manager from Asus’ Tinker OS repository, and I could run it until I powered off or rebooted the machine, but after that the program crashed with a segmentation fault every time I launched it. This result was quite disappointing, given that Asus’ repository contains software compiled exclusively for the device. We reached out to Asus about this problem, but the company was not able to provide a fix.
I tried to download the source code and compile RetroArch for the Tinker Board’s ARM7 Mali hardware myself, but I was never able to get it to work. I went back to the drawing board and tried to install the Mupen64 N64 emulator without RetroArch. The package was listed in Asus’ Tinker OS repository, but attempts to install it were thwarted by unresolved dependencies.
The disappointment continued when using the Tinker Board as a media device with Kodi, formerly known as Xbox Media Center (XBMC). Getting Kodi set up on a PC is simply a matter of running the Windows setup executable or installing through a Linux package manager. Pi users have the option of installing the application on the popular Raspbian OS or choosing between two different Linux distributions specifically designed to run Kodi at system startup. I installed Kodi on Tinker OS using the package manager, but as with RetroArch, the program always crashed on startup after a reboot. I observed this behavior with three different power supplies and several microSD cards of varying make and capacity.
The Tinker Board was better than the Raspberry Pi 3 when browsing modern websites, though it still trailed far behind the Liva in terms of responsiveness. The Asus device was somewhat better at playback of non-HD Youtube videos with the h264ify plugin installed, but was still miles behind the smooth 1080p capability of the Liva. Neither of the ARM machines could play Netflix video through their web browsers.
Using Android on the Tinker Board
The incompatibility with computer monitors that I experienced in the Linux-based Tinker OS was repeated in Android. The overscan problem I observed in Linux was also present in Android, but the Android settings menu at least offered a straightforward way to scale the display to fit. Unfortunately, adjustments to this setting weren’t retained between reboots.
Asus’ Android 6.0 Marshmallow disk image does not include the Google Play Store app or Google Play services. I followed a guide from the only Tinker Board forum I was able to find, and side-loaded the necessary APK packages to access the Play Store. After installing these packages, I could search for and install apps from the Store, but warning messages indicating problems with Google Play services would appear periodically. In my opinion, Android is little more than a curiosity on the Tinker Board until Asus offers full Google Play Store and Google Play Services support.
I tested RetroArch and Kodi on Asus’ Android distribution by side-loading the APKs. The good news is that Kodi worked well and that RetroArch loaded without crashing. The bad news is that RetroArch’s interface was completely unresponsive whether using a keyboard, mouse, or wired Xbox 360 controller as input. Those hoping to capitalize on the Tinker Board’s Android support and the “4K” labeling on the box to use the device to play Netflix will be disappointed. The Netflix app did not appear in the side-loaded Google Play Store. I tried to side-load a Netflix APK, but that didn’t work either.
A brief word about GPIO
One thing that is generally included in an SBC that one doesn’t find in a standard computer is a set of general purpose input-output (GPIO) pins. These are pins that can be assigned different purposes by the user. The typical use case for GPIO pins is interfacing with simple electronic circuits like switches or LEDs. Some GPIO pins can be used for more specialized purposes, like interfacing with devices that use I2C or SPI buses. The GPIO documentation for the Raspberry Pi is the gold standard, and virtually any configuration one might want to achieve has been documented online.
The Tinker Board does include GPIO pins and software libraries to use them. I was able to get the GPIO pins to accept input from a simple switch and to deliver switched output to an LED, but the documentation for more advanced functionality, including using the I2C and SPI buses, was quite sparse. The Liva included no documentation at all for its GPIO pins. Users looking to connect a device with a sensor array would do better to look at a better-documented device from the Pi Foundation or a microcontroller like an Arduino or an ESP8266-based device.
Pirelli Tires used to advertise its wares with the slogan “power is nothing without control.” This pithy sentence sums up my experience with Asus’ Tinker Board. The Rockchip RK3288 SoC is considerably more powerful than the one in the Raspberry Pi 3, but Asus’ software ecosystem can’t capitalize on the power on tap.
Asus makes wonderful PC components, but the company doesn’t seem to have been prepared for the level of involvement needed to produce a successful ARM SBC. In the world of normal PC components, motherboard makers like Asus can largely focus on hardware while allowing the software engineers at AMD, Intel, and their ilk to sort out drivers. PC operating systems also aren’t Asus’ responsibility—that obviously falls to Microsoft and the open-source community.
The expectation in the SBC community, on the other hand, is that the board manufacturer will provide a turn-key operating system, a collection of software to use with it, and an extensive library of documentation. The implicit hope in that expectation is that those applications will run smoothly and stably. That didn’t prove to be my experience with the Tinker Board across a range of official Asus software. I brought up the range of issues we experienced with the Tinker Board with the company, and despite its support and the provision of some updated software, I was ultimately unable to surmount the range of headaches I had getting the Tinker Board working.
Connecting the Tinker Board to a display output proved endlessly frustrating. I got either no output or lots of overscan, depending on the particular monitor I used. Other SBCs don’t have similar issues. Kodi is the most popular media playback platform for ARM SBCs, and it did not work at all in Asus’ Tinker OS. RetroArch is similarly popular among people that want to build their own miniature emulation box, and I couldn’t get it to run on the Tinker Board at all. Asus’ Android port lacks Google Play Services and can’t access the Google Play Store, cutting off the most appealing aspects of Google’s popular OS.
By the time a good power supply, case, and storage are factored into the bottom line, the Tinker Board is almost as expensive as an x86-powered ECS Liva PC, and that system runs circles around single-board computers in real-world performance and software compatibility. For less demanding tasks, the Raspberry Pi 3 costs $30 less than the Tinker Board and has a much more robust software and support ecosystem. Several specialized tasks enjoy dedicated OS distributions for the RasPi, and countless guides exist for using the Pi for hundreds of different purposes.
At the end of the day, the Tinker Board is a powerful platform that needs a hefty dose of software polish and more robust documentation if it wants to challenge the Raspberry Pi’s crown in the world of single-board computers. For now, it’s simply too expensive and unpolished to stand out in the crowded SBC market.