What’s the point of a cheap computer if it’s largely unusable?

That’s the question I was left asking after testing the new Orange Pi 3, a $35 single-board computer (SBC) that, on paper, promises to trump the specs of the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+, with a faster CPU and GPU, more memory, and support for 4K displays.

The problem is that theoretical power is difficult to tease out, with the software provided being so buggy that even basic features are hobbled and broken. The experience threw into sharp relief the role of the Raspberry Pi in offering a rare stable platform in a sea of flaky low-cost, single-board computers.

I tested the 2GB version of the Orange Pi board using the version of the Ubuntu 16.04 desktop OS that is available for the low-cost computer.

First impressions of the Orange Pi were fine, with the computer booting almost immediately and my Wi-Fi network being detected and connecting without issue.

It was then the problems started. The first indication came when running the default Firefox browser.

Open a modern news site in the browser, with the usual host of JavaScript being loaded in the background, and this doesn’t feel like a faster computer than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+.

It wasn’t unusable but it was sluggish and laggy when scrolling, reminding me of using the old Epiphany web browser that used to ship with the Raspberry Pi.

Compared to the relatively zippy Chromium browser available for the Pi today, browsing the web on the Orange Pi 3 was a more frustrating affair.

That lacklustre performance was reflected by synthetic tests, with the Octane benchmark that measures how browsers handle JavaScript returning a score of 420, a fraction of the almost 3,000 achieved by the supposedly slower Raspberry Pi 3 B+.

To top it off, not long after leaving the tab open with the site running in the background the browser crashed.

Unfortunately the whole operating system seems to be on a similarly shaky footing when running on the Orange Pi 3.

Next I tried a heading to YouTube, only to find the board refused to play any video, instead just endlessly buffering a clip that never loaded.

Not to be discouraged I downloaded a 1080p video to play locally on the machine, the Big Buck Bunny test video, a H.264-encoded mov file. This refused to play on the default Parole Media Player, throwing up a GStreamer backend error, while the other bundled media player VLC just froze at the start, never making it past the video’s black screen opening.

This is just a taste of the battle I faced using Ubuntu on the Orange Pi 3, as there are enough problems to slow me down to a crawl. Various aspects just didn’t work for me, Bluetooth support appeared broken and it wouldn’t connect to a 5GHz Wi-Fi network. Unless you’re well versed in Linux systems administration, for me most simple actions require 30+ minutes searching for answers to the latest error message that’s been thrown up. I couldn’t copy to USB sticks by default, as all USB sticks appeared to mount as read-only, an issue that couldn’t be resolved by changing ownership of the drive and file permissions, remounting the drive or by reformatting it. And only a very small amount of files can be copied to the SD card initially, as the default partition is so limited in size as to be almost unusable, and needs to be resized using a tool like GParted.

As a fix for all these difficulties I tried upgrading the operating systems software packages, to see if that might improve the situation.

Not only was the update process problematic, the graphical software installer falsely reported there was no storage left on the board, after updating and upgrading via the Terminal I found the computer would no longer boot, necessitating a clean install.

You expect a level of polish to be missing from the rival boards to the Raspberry Pi. Many are produced by relatively small teams of people and guaranteeing the stability modern computer users expect is challenging.

But compared to the simplicity of using the Raspberry Pi, the Orange Pi 3 was sorely lacking. Even the Rock Pi 4, which itself had a few problems with crashes and unexpected behavior, was far more comfortable to use as a everyday machine.

I’d normally include a range of benchmarks for the board but I had so much trouble running them on the Orange Pi 3, only a few are worth reporting. When connected to 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, the Orange Pi 3 recorded an average connection speed of 45.7Mbps via iPerf, a perfectly reasonable result and comparable with the Raspberry Pi 3 boards and the Rock Pi 4. It also racked up a score of 22 on the GLmark 2 GPU benchmark, slightly above a reported score of 18 for the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B on Ubuntu 16.04.

This is not a machine for the average user. The only person I can see being happy using this machine is someone with relatively deep technical knowledge of running Linux on Arm-based systems and who would feel comfortable rewriting the system fundamentals. Either that or somebody who has a limited use case in mind, who might be able to work around the limitations of the software and just utilize a few specific features, like the fast USB 3.0 data transfer. The selection of supported operating systems also includes Debian Desktop Jessie and Android 7.0, so maybe one of those will work better.

Maybe the state of the Orange Pi 3’s software support will improve over time, it is a relatively new board. In a statement, the team behind the Orange Pi 3 said the test images for Ubuntu worked “great” when they tested them on the board, so I guess there’s a chance I was just very unlucky, but it’s also true that it’s not the first time Orange Pi boards have been criticized for buggy and unstable software.

To the majority of people considering buying this board, however, I’d say buy a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ instead, and enjoy a single-board computer that doesn’t require battling endless technical issues.

A 1GB version of the Orange Pi 3 is also available for $30, and 2GB version for $35. Both the 1GB and 2GB boards are also available with 8GB eMMC Flash storage for $35 and $40 respectively.

Specs comparison: Orange Pi 3 vs Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

Please note, this section only compares the listed specs of each board, and should not be taken as a indication of superior performance in practice — particularly given the problems I encountered in testing.

The Orange Pi 3 has a faster processor than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The Allwinner H6 system-on-a-chip (SoC) used by the Orange Pi 3 relies on a quad-core, Arm Cortex A53-based 1.8GHz CPU.

The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ has a quad-core 1.4GHz Arm Cortex-A53 CPU.

The Orange Pi 3 has similar wireless connectivity to the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The Orange Pi 3 offers the same 802.11ac Wi-Fi but has Bluetooth 5.0, compared to Bluetooth 4.2 on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+.

The Orange Pi 3 has faster memory and up to 2x as much as the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The Orange Pi 3 is available with 1/2GB of DDR3 memory, compared to 1GB of DDR2 memory in the Raspberry Pi 3 B+.

The Orange Pi 3 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 Orange Pi 3 has faster USB ports than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The Orange Pi 3 has four USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 host, compared to the four USB 2.0 ports on the Raspberry Pi 3 B+.

The Orange PI 3 is available faster storage than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

Alongside microSD card storage, the Orange Pi 3 is available with up to 8GB eMMC storage to the board.

The Orange Pi 3 is slightly bigger than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The Orange Pi 3 is 93.5mm × 60mm, compared to the Raspberry Pi B+’s 85.6mm × 56.5mm.

The Orange Pi 3 has fewer options for attaching hardware add-ons than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The Orange Pi 3 only has a 26-pin header for hooking up the machine to other boards, sensors and motors, compared to the 40-pin header on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+.

The Orange Pi 3 runs fewer operating systems than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The Orange Pi 3 supports far fewer open-source operating systems than the Raspberry Pi, listing Android 7.0, Ubuntu 16.04 Desktop, Ubuntu Server, Debian Server Jessie, and Debian Desktop Jessie as being supported.

Orange Pi 3 specs

CPU H6 Quad-core 64-bit 1.8GHZ ARM Cortex-A53
GPU • High-performance multi-core GPU Mali T720• OpenGL ES3.1/3.0/2.0/1.1• Microsoft DirectX 11 FL9_3• ASTC(Adaptive Scalable Texture Compression)• Floating point operation greater than 70 GFLOPS
Memory+Onboard Storage Four Types:1GB LPDDR3 (shared with GPU)+EMMC(Default Empty)2GB LPDDR3(shared with GPU)+EMMC(Default Empty)1GB LPDDR3 (shared with GPU)+8GB EMMC Flash2GB LPDDR3(shared with GPU)+8GB EMMC Flash
WIFI+BT AP6256, IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, BT5.0
Onboard Network 10/100M/1000M , ethernet RJ45
Network Chip RTL8211
Audio Input MIC
Audio Output HDMI 2.0a and 3.5 mm AV Jack
Video Output HDMI 2.0a and CVBS
Video Decoding • H265/HEVC Main/Main10 profile@Level5.2 High-tier ;4K@60fps, up to 6Kx4K@30fps• H264/AVC BP/MP/HP@level5.1, MVC, 4K@30fps• VP9,Profile 0/2, 4K@30fps• AVS+/AVS JIZHUN profile@level 6.0, 1080P@60fps
PCIE • Supports RC mode• Supports x1 Gen2(5.0Gbps) lane•Complies with PCI Express Base 2.0 Specification
Power Source DC input,MicroUSB (OTG)
USB 2.0 Ports 1*USB 2.0 Host, 1*USB OTG 2.0
USB 3.0 Ports 4*USB 3.0 Host
Low-level peripherals 26 Pin
GPIO(1×3) pin UART, ground.
LED Power LED、Status LED and USB3.0 LED
Key Power(SW4)
Supported OS Android7.0, Ubuntu, Debian

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