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 1280x720 and 1920x1080 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.