The days of sub-$100 computers being too slow to do anything useful are long gone.
Arguably it was launch of the Raspberry Pi in 2012 that proved to the wider world that cheap computers could actually do useful work.
Since the release of the $35 board, an army of imitators have borrowed its name, with the hope of capitalizing on the world’s insatiable appetite for the Raspberry Pi, today one of the world’s best-selling computers.
One of the latest rivals to jump on the Pi bandwagon is the Rock Pi 4, a board whose specs roundly trounce the Raspberry Pi. But does that technical superiority make the Rock Pi a better computer? That very much depends on what you want to do with the board and your expertise using Linux and single-board computers.
The performance of the Rock Pi 4 certainly outstrips that of the flagship Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ (as you can see in the benchmarks below), but it also lags behind the Raspberry Pi in several important respects.
First there’s the cost, the version I tested, the 4GB Rock Pi 4 Model B, will set you back some $75, more than twice the cost of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. If you want a cheaper version, the Rock Pi 4 Model B is available with less memory, starting at $49 for the 1GB model ($39 for 1GB Model A version, which doesn’t include Wi-Fi or Bluetooth).
The Rock Pi 4 is also trickier for the novice user to get to grips with. Don’t get me wrong, the version of the Debian Stretch OS, available from the website of Rock Pi maker Raxda, initially worked perfectly out of the box.
You can immediately feel the benefits of the beefier CPU, and more importantly the additional memory, with the responsiveness of the browser and the desktop on the Rock Pi 4 comparable to a budget laptop, and the computer certainly feeling like a more serviceable everyday desktop than the Pi 3 B+.
As well as comfortably running Gmail and Google Docs, 1080p YouTube video seems to play without a hitch, and you can really see the benefit of that additional memory as it plays while other tabs run in background. Playback of local video is equally smooth, with a 1080p movie not dropping a frame using the OS’ default video player. However, 4K video playback was still out of reach, for me at least. The 4K/30FPS version of the Big Buck Bunny test video plays in the browser and locally, but was jerky. However, the fact the video played and was only stuttering, rather than freezing, suggests it might be possible to achieve smooth 4k playback with the right player and video codec.
There’s a lot more to the Rock Pi, with support for Android and Android TV operating systems, and the availability of faster storage, up to 128GB eMMC, both of which I hope to test out in a future article.
But as I continued to use the Rock Pi I ran into a number of issues. The sound didn’t work through my monitor, unlike other computers I’ve attached via HDMI, requiring me to plug headphones into the 3.5mm jack instead.
And while every piece of software I tried initially worked, during benchmarking I updated the software package list and upgraded the installed software packages, only to find that subsequently neither the Firefox or Chromium browsers would load.
Both these issues may be fixable with time and effort, but the resolution isn’t obvious to a novice user, and resulted in me having to revert to a fresh install of the OS.
In comparison, the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ and A+ felt more robust during my time with them, and I never ran into issues where updates broke the system.
The Raspberry Pi’s other trump card over the Rock Pi 4 is its community. I sorely missed the comprehensive tutorials and forums answers available for the Raspberry Pi.
A case in point was compiling Quake 3 to test 3D performance on the Rock Pi, which I gave up on after hours of trying different methods and chasing down resolutions for error messages.
This undoubtedly is down to my own inexperience, but when testing the Raspberry Pi I arguably knew even less and was still able to find a guide to walk me through the process. In this respect, I felt the absence of the Raspberry Pi’s large and helpful community quite acutely.
The final issue is a bit of an odd one. While using the Rock Pi 4 I noticed my board gave off a distinctive, slightly unpleasant smell once it heated up, which might be an issue for someone using the Rock Pi 4 in a confined space.
I also used the Rock Pi with a supplied heatsink, which I imagine would make it almost impossible to use with existing Raspberry Pi cases, despite the similar dimensions of both boards.
So, yes the Rock Pi 4 really is a souped-up Raspberry Pi that delivers on its promised performance. When everything is working well, it’s noticeably snappier and could be a good fit for those wanting a developer board with more muscle than the Raspberry Pi.
But by leaving the behind the Raspberry Pi’s community you’ll be sailing in slightly choppy waters, so only do so if you’re confident you can navigate problems as they arise.
The Rock Pi 4 is available from various authorized resellers, more information here .
Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic
How the Rock Pi 4 Model B compares to the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
Faster processor and more cores
The RK3399 inside the Rock Pi 4 uses two sets of CPU cores, a dual-core 1.8GHz Arm Cortex-A72 paired with a quad-core 1.5GHz Arm Cortex-A53 in a Big.LITTLE configuration, which swaps tasks between cores for greater power efficiency.
The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ has a quad-core 1.4GHz Arm Cortex-A53 CPU.
Same wireless connectivity
The Rock Pi 4 Model B offers the same 802.11ac Wi-Fi and but has Bluetooth 5.0, compared to Bluetooth 4.2 on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+. The cheaper Rock Pi 4 Model A, which starts at $39 for a 1GB machine, lacks Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Faster memory and up to 4x as much
The Rock Pi 4 is available with 1/2/4GB of DDR4 memory, compared to 1GB of DDR2 memory in the Pi 3 B+.
Both boards have gigabit Ethernet, but the speed of the Raspberry Pi’s Ethernet is constrained by relying on a USB 2.0 bridge, which limits the maximum throughput to about 300Mbps.
Both boards support for Power over Ethernet (PoE), however the Rock Pi 4 requires an additional HAT to use it.
Faster USB ports
The Rock Pi 4 has two USB 3.0 ports and two USB 2.0, compared to the four USB 2.0 ports on the Pi 3 B+.
Alongside microSD card storage, 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.
The Raspberry Pi supports microSD card storage and while you can add an SSD, it’s necessary to connect it via USB, limiting its throughput.
The Rock Pi 4 is 85mm × 54mm, compared to the B+’s is 85.6mm × 56.5mm.
Not 100% compatible with the Raspberry Pi’s hardware add-ons
There’s a 40-pin expansion header for connecting to boards, sensors and other hardware. Though this header’s pin layout is similar to that of the Raspberry Pi, the Rock Pi’s maker said it wasn’t possible to make it “100% GPIO compatible”.
Runs fewer operating systems but does officially support Android
The Rock Pi 4 supports far fewer operating systems than the Raspberry Pi, notably missing the LibreElec media center OS and a decent retro-games emulator OS at present. That said, the Rock Pi 4 does support Android, Android TV, Debian and Ubuntu Server, with Raxda saying support for Armbian 5.67, LibreElec and Recalbox is due to be added soon.
How does the Rock Pi 4 perform relative to Raspberry Pi boards?
The Dhrystone benchmark measures the general CPU performance, focusing on calculations using integers.
The Whetstone benchmark measures another aspect of processor performance, this time how the CPU handles floating point calculations.
Used in supercomputer testing, the Linpack benchmark also measures how rapidly a machine can handle floating point calculations.
In all of the above CPU tests, the Rock Pi 4 substantially outperforms the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+.
Sysbench is another measure of general CPU performance – here showing single-core and quad-core performance of the two boards.
This iPerf benchmark measures the speed at which data is transferred between two computers, in this case between an Ethernet-wired PC and the single-board computers tested. These figures are a guide rather than absolute measures, since network speed can be affected by many factors.
The Rock Pi delivered similar speeds to the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz Wi-Fi band.
Shown is how long it took to transfer a 1.3GB Raspbian img file from the Pi’s microSD storage to an attached 16GB USB stick.
Once again the Rock Pi 4 is in the lead, cutting 30 seconds off the copy time of the Raspberry Pi 3 A+, unsurprising given the Rock Pi 4’s inclusion of USB 3.0.
Read more about single-board computers