NanoPi NEO4 review: A powerful Raspberry Pi rival but with drawbacks

Whether the shortcomings of the board overshadow its solid performance depends on what you want to do with the $50 NanoPi NEO4.

Raspberry Pi: The inside story of the $35 computer The co-creators of the credit-card-sized board tell the inside story of how the breakthrough computer was born.

The NanoPi NEO4 is a curious machine, a single-board computer that's both better and worse than the Raspberry Pi's flagship 3 B+.

In what's an all too common problem with machines pitched in competition to the $35 Pi in the low-cost computing market, it's a board that should be faster and more capable but whose shiny specs don't tell the full story.

Whether those shortcomings overshadow some solid performance depends on what you want to do with the $50 NanoPi NEO4, which like other single-board computers is aimed at developers building software and hardware.

The trouble with the NanoPi NEO4 is its contradictions. It's certainly not just powerful on paper, with its superior specs paying off in synthetic benchmarks, as you can see in the graphs below, with the NEO4's six-core CPU beating all other boards in some tests, including the Pi and the capable Rock Pi 4.

SEE: More Raspberry Pi coverage (TechRepublic Flipboard magazine)

The problem is the NanoPi's edge over its competitors was sometimes difficult to discern in practice or hampered by other broken features.

Using the board's official FriendlyDesktop operating system, a custom version of Linux-based Ubuntu 18.04 OS, was a haphazard experience. It wasn't irredeemably compromised, but at every turn something didn't work as expected.

The Wi-Fi connected, but only to the slower 2.4GHz network and not the faster 5GHz networks, which weren't even recognized.

The USB 3.0 port worked, but slower than expected, transferring data to and from the computer's SD card storage only slightly faster than the USB 2.0 ports on the Pi 3 A+.

The default Chromium browser initially loaded all the sites thrown at it, but promptly froze after opening Gmail, Google Docs and a couple of JavaScript-heavy news sites. That may sound like a lot to pile onto the NanoPi, but it was only four tabs, something both the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ and the Rock Pi 4 were able to cope with, despite the Pi 3 also being limited by only having 1GB of RAM.

When it came to installing and upgrading software, the command-line Apt package installer threw up all sorts of errors, initially a 'resource temporarily unavailable' message, which was fixed by a reboot, and then getting stuck while "processing triggers for man-db".

Individually, none of the problems above may matter, as it's not as if the bulk of users pick up these boards to run them as an everyday PCs, and for many users the extra CPU speed alone may be worth the price, particularly when given the NanoPi's decent performance in the Phoronix Test Suite's language benchmarks.

But it's worth pointing out that the performance advantage demonstrated in the synthetic benchmark doesn't give the full picture.

SEE: Inside the Raspberry Pi: The story of the $35 computer that changed the world (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

One area where I encountered the fewest problems was using the NanoPi NEO4 as a media player, a relatively common use for single-board computers.

Playback of local video, stored on the machine rather than streamed over the internet, was pretty much flawless. The default video player was able to play a x264-encoded 1080p and a 4K/30FPS video smoothly and without a hitch. Online video playback was more spotty, with good performance when playing 1080p/30FPS and 720/60FPS videos on YouTube but 1080p/60FPS video kept stopping and starting.

Comparing 3D performance with other single-board computers was tricky, due to the lack of a suitable benchmark. I was unable to compile Quake 3 to run the benchmark on the NanoPi NEO4, while the glmark2 3D benchmark doesn't seem to work properly on the Pi (it ran but the graphics were corrupted).

Basically the NanoPi NEO4, as with other Pi rivals I've tested so far, is missing the same key ingredient that made the Pi the success it is today.

Yes the Pi is an extraordinarily cheap computer, yes it is small enough to slip into your pocket, and yes you can use it to build your own homemade gadgets.

But a large part of what made the Pi successful is its stability, that it offers all of those things in a package that pretty much just works, removing the uncertainty that comes with buying a $35 computer.

Years of investment by the Raspberry Pi Foundation in improving the core desktop of the Raspbian OS to boost its performance, reliability, and features has paid off handsomely.

In comparison, the NanoPI NEO4 is rougher around the edges. Despite its decent performance in benchmarks, it once again seems to be another low-cost board saddled with so-so software support.

If you're a whizz when it comes to the Linux terminal commands and don't mind delving into the nuts and bolts of an OS to tweak performance and fix features this may be the single-board computer for you.

For the less technically inclined, however, the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ is not only $15 cheaper but also remains the better choice. You might not get the same raw performance, but you'll get more certainty that the board will work as expected.

The NanoPi NEO4 is available here for $50.

Specs comparison: NanoPi NEO4 vs Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The NanoPi NEO4 has a faster processor and more cores than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The RK3399 system-on-a-chip (SoC) used by the NanoPi NEO4 relies on two sets of CPU cores, a dual-core 2GHz 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.

The NanoPi NEO4 has slightly worse wireless connectivity than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The NanoPi NEO4 only offers 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, compared to 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+.

The NanoPi NEO4 has slightly faster memory than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The NanoPi NEO4 is available with 1GB of DDR3-1866 memory, compared to 1GB of DDR2 memory in the Raspberry Pi 3 B+.

The NanoPi NEO4 has faster Ethernet than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model 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.

The NanoPi NEO4 has faster USB ports than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ but fewer of them

The NanoPi NEO4 has one USB 3.0 port and one USB 2.0 port, compared to the four USB 2.0 ports on the Raspberry Pi 3 B+. That said, as mentioned the USB 3.0 port seemed to work at speeds comparable to the USB 2.0 ports on the Raspberry Pi 3 B+.

The NanoPi NEO4 Model B has faster storage than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

Alongside microSD card storage, the NanoPi NEO4 sports an PCIe x2 interface supporting up to a SSD, and you can also add up to 32GB eMMC storage to the board via a socket.

The Raspberry Pi supports up to 128GB microSD card storage and while you can add an SSD, it's necessary to connect it via USB, limiting its throughput.

The NanoPi NEO4 is roughly half the size of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The NanoPi NEO4 is 60mm × 45mm, compared to the Raspberry Pi B+'s 85.6mm × 56.5mm. That said if you want to use the you want to use the NEO4 for any serious tasks you'll probably want to pick up the $5.99 heat sink, which adds substantially to the weight and bulk of the board.

The NanoPi NEO4 Model B is 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, with the first 26 pins compatible with the Raspberry Pi, which may mean the board works with some existing Pi hardware add-ons.

The NanoPi NEO4 can output to 4K displays and is capable of smooth 4K video playback

The NanoPi NEO4 supports HDMI 2.0a, able to output video to 4K@60Hz displays and can playback 40K/30FPS x264-encoded video smoothly, compared to the Pi 3 B+, which is capable of smooth video playback at resolutions up to 1080p and has a HDMI 1.3 output.

The NanoPi NEO4 runs fewer operating systems than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ but does officially support Android

The NanoPi NEO4 supports fewer open-source operating systems than the Raspberry Pi, which runs a wide range of Linux-based desktops, media center systems, as well as curios like RiscOS and Plan 9.

The NEO4 supports a range of Linux-based operating systems, including a custom version of Ubuntu 18.04, Lubuntu 16.04 and Android 8.1 (if you buy an additional 16GB eMMC module for $12).

The NanoPi NEO4 uses a USB Type-C port for power

The NanoPi NEO4 uses a USB Type-C port for its power supply, compared to the micro USB power connector on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B +.

Performance

General performance: NanoPi NEO4 vs Raspberry Pi boards

The Dhrystone benchmark measures the general CPU performance, focusing on calculations using integers.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

The Whetstone benchmark measures another aspect of processor performance, this time how the CPU handles floating point calculations.

whetstone-2.png
Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

Used in supercomputer testing, the Linpack benchmark also measures how rapidly a machine can handle floating point calculations.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

In all of the above CPU tests, the NanoPi NEO4 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.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

Connectivity: NanoPi NEO4 vs Raspberry Pi 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.

iperf.png
Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

The NanoPi NEO4 delivered similar speeds to the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in the 2.4GHz band but failed to detect 5GHz networks.

Web browsing: NanoPi NEO4 vs Raspberry Pi boards

The Octane benchmark provides an idea of how the Chromium browser in the Pi's default Raspbian OS handles JavaScript, the default scripting language of the web. If your browser is slow at JavaScript, it's slow full-stop.

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Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

Despite its superior specs the NanoPI NEO4 achieved broadly the same score as the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in the Octane benchmark when running in the default Chromium browser, and in practice actually felt slower when browsing several heavier sites.

Data transfer: NanoPi NEO4 vs Raspberry Pi boards

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.

filetransfer.png
Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

Despite sporting a USB 3.0 port, this nominally faster port worked at the same speed as the USB 2.0 on the Raspberry Pi 3 A+.

NanoPi NEO4 specs

CPUModel: Rockchip RK3399

Number of cores: big.LITTLE, 64-bit Dual Core Cortex-A72 + Quad Core Cortex-A53

Frequency: Arm Cortex-A72(up to 2.0GHz), Cortex-A53(up to 1.5GHz)

GPUMali-T864 GPU, supports OpenGL ES1.1/2.0/3.0/3.1, OpenVG1.1, OpenCL, DX11, and AFBC
VPU4K VP9 and 4K 10bits H265/H264 60fps decoding, Dual VOP
Memory1GB DDR3-1866
StorageeMMC: no Onboard eMMC, but has a eMMC socket

microSD Slot: microSD*1 for external storage up to 128GB

ConnectivityEthernet: Native Gbps Ethernet

WiFi: 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 combo module

Antenna*1: IPX Connector

AudioAudio output: HDMI
Video InputOne 4-Lane MIPI-CSI, up to 13-megapixels
Video OutputHDMI*1: HDMI 2.0a, supports 4K@60Hz, HDCP 1.4/2.2
USBUSB 3.0*1: USB 3.0 Type-A ports

USB Type-C*1: Supports USB2.0 OTG and power input

USB 2.0*2: USB 2.0 Host, one is Type-A, the other is 2.54mm header

Pin-headerGPIO1: 40pin

2 X 3V I2C, 1x 3V UART/SPI, 1 x SPDIF_TX, up to 8 x 3V GPIOs

PCIe x2

PWM x1, PowerKey

GPIO2:

1 x 1.8V 8ch-I2S

GPIO3:

debug uart, 3V level, 1500000bps

USB 2.0 x1

LEDPower LED(Red)*1

GPIO Controlled LED(Green)*1

OthersRTC Battery: 2 Pin 2.54mm pitch through-hole pad

Working Temperature: -20℃ to 70℃

PowerDC 5V/3A
OS supportAndroid 7.1.2 (eMMC Module required)

Android 8.1 (eMMC Module required)

Lubuntu 16.04 (32-bit)

FriendlyCore 18.04 (64-bit)

FriendlyDesktop 18.04 (64-bit)

Armbian (3rd)

Kernel versionLinux-4.4-LTS

U-boot-2014.10

PCB8 Layer
Dimension60*45mm
Weight30.25g
win20190228144053pro-2.jpg

The NanoPi NEO4.

Image: Nick Heath / TechRepublic

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