Innovation

A $6 Linux computer that plays Doom: Could this tiny Chinese clone challenge the Raspberry Pi Zero?

On paper the LicheePi Zero has a faster and more modern processor than the Raspberry Pi Zero, but there also several potential drawbacks to the new board.

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Image: Wu Caesar / Indiegogo

Another day, another would-be Raspberry Pi challenger, this time the tiny LicheePi Zero, which sells for as little as $6.

Like its namesake, the Raspberry Pi Zero, the single-board computer is aimed at electronics hobbyists who want to build their own gadgets.

On paper, it has a faster and more modern processor than the Raspberry Pi Zero, the cheapest Raspberry Pi board, as well as offering Wi-Fi connectivity at a lower price. However, there are also several potential drawbacks to this Chinese-made competitor.

The LicheePi uses an Allwinner V3s system on a chip (SoC), based on the ARM Cortex-A7 core and capable of running at up to 1.2GHz. That's faster than the Pi Zero's Broadcom BCM2835 SoC, which runs at up to 1GHz and is based on an older ARM11 core.

SEE: Raspberry Pi Zero W: The smart person's guide

However one limiting factor could be the LicheePi Zero's small amount of RAM, which is far lower than the Raspberry Pi Zero's. The LicheePi's Allwinner CPU integrates 64MB of DDR2 RAM, while the Pi Zero has 512MB LPDDR2 RAM on board — enough to run a desktop OS at a pinch. It seems that the Allwinner processor was designed for use in dual-camera systems, such as dashboard cams, that don't require external memory. Video-wise, the LicheePi board can decode 1080@30fps H.264-encoded video.

The base LicheePi Zero will sell for $6, slightly more than the $5 Raspberry Pi Zero, and $8 with Wi-Fi, versus the $10 Wi-Fi enabled Raspberry Pi Zero W. However, unlike the Raspberry Pi Zero W with its built-in Wi-Fi, the LicheePi requires a separate Wi-Fi board. Sizewise, the LicheePi Zero is a little bit bigger than an SD card, measuring 44.6 x 25.5mm.

The developer behind the LicheePi says the latest Linux kernel, version 4.10, is working with the board—which can boot from onboard SPI Flash or TF card—although some drivers are missing. So far they claim they have a Debian desktop working on LicheePi Zero, however there's no word on how well it runs.

The developer has also knocked together what they describe as a 'laptop' running Debian, by attaching the LicheePi to a small chiclet keyboard with a foldable 800 x 480 LCD screen, as seen below running Doom, the 1993 version rather than last year's remake.

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Image: Wu Caesar / Indiegogo

Piecing together custom electronics is what the 60-pin LicheePi Zero is designed for, and some of the pins on the LicheePi Zero can be inserted directly into a breadboard, a plug board that allows electronic components to be easily combined into circuits. However, like the Raspberry Pi Zero, the LicheePi has an unpopulated pin header, meaning owners first have to solder the necessary pins in place.

Like the Raspberry Pi Zero, the LicheePi includes a USB On The Go port, which can be converted into a regular USB socket using an adapter. However, unlike the Raspberry Pi Zero, the LicheePi doesn't include a mini-HDMI port, instead relying on an FPC-40P RGB LCD connector, which can be hooked up via ribbon cable to various adapters to offer HDMI or VGA connectivity, or to an LCD laptop screen. This same connector can also be linked to a DVP camera module or an expansion board offering more general-purpose input/output pins.

To expand its capabilities, the LicheePi Zero can dock with a secondary board, which offers a 5M MIPI camera, 4 ADC-keys, battery manger, Ethernet RJ45 Connector, microphone, 3.5mm jack, an additional TF card slot, and several pins for UART, SPI, I2C, PWM connections.

As with most of these Raspberry Pi clones, the LicheePi is something of an unknown quantity and can't rely on the range of good quality software and strong community support that has grown up around the Pi since it launched five years ago. Buying a Pi also has the advantage of supporting the Raspberry Pi Foundation, a charity committed to furthering computer science education.

There's also no guarantee the board will get off the ground. The individual or organization behind the LicheePi Zero is currently seeking $5,000 via the crowd-funding site Indiegogo. It appears to be the first campaign that this Indiegogo member has mounted, and as with any crowd-funding effort, there's no assurance that the final product will be delivered.

Read more about the Raspberry Pi

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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