Note: This article was updated on Jan. 25, 2019 to include Android benchmarks.
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 be capable machines.
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 Raspberry 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 the 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 Raspberry 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 the 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.
SEE: Rock Pi 4: A closer look at the new Raspberry Pi challenger (TechRepublic gallery)
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 of 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, which has built up over many years with the help of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. 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.
Running the Rock Pi 4 on Android
However, while the Raspberry Pi may be spoilt for choice when it comes to operating systems, one major OS that has never enjoyed official support is Android.
The Rock Pi 4 supports both Android 'Nougat' 7.1 and Android TV. However, running Android 7.1 on the Rock Pi 3 proves to be something of a mixed bag, with some aspects working well and others barely at all.
Don't be deterred when setting up Android on the Rock Pi 4. After writing the supported Android OS image to an SD card, Windows 10 will likely tell you the card has 17 unformatted, I'm guessing just unrecognized, partitions.
Despite appearances, Android boots fine from the card, and once you get used to using a mouse with a touchscreen OS, it's relatively easy to navigate using a mouse and keyboard.
Setup is straightforward, with Android detecting and connecting to Wi-Fi networks without a problem and, after registering the device, Google Play Store also works, opening up a wide range of apps for you to install.
Unfortunately some apps work better than others, and the issue most likely to trip you up is web browsing, which I found very unreliable.
I tested both the default Lightning browser and Opera Mini, both of which initially appeared responsive and quick to load script- and video-heavy pages. Unfortunately longer use revealed both browsers would repeatedly choke on these sites, crashing or freezing after running them for more than 30 seconds.
Other apps worked well. Microsoft Word was very useable with no discernable lag, the Twitch app seemed responsive and played video without a hitch, and the card game Hearthstone was also smooth once it got going.
Even better the OS seems capable of decent 4K video playback, with the 4K/30FPS version of the test video Big Buck Bunny not skipping a frame.
Undermining these successes, however, is the always-present low-level jank. In the video player the image was misaligned so its left edge was cut off, in Twitch, and the Android desktop in general, the resolution of the screen was stuck at 480p, resulting in blurry icons and jagged edges.
I'm fairly confident both could be fixed, and I did manage to crank up the resolution slightly using Developer Mode, but it's worth knowing the OS isn't perfect out of the box. Also, be warned that leaving the screen saver on for too long resulted in the device never waking up.
You're not limited to running apps from Play Store, as by enabling Android to install apps from unknown sources in the Settings menu you can run an even wider range of software via APKs you download online. While doing so will expose you to a greater risk of malware, it also allows you to deploy the likes of the Amazon App Store, which seemingly worked without issue. Bad news for Fortnite-lovers, however, as Epic's global gaming phenomenon refuses to install.
By default, the OS offers a standard selection of media, camera, and contacts apps, although the Explorer app is very useful for reading files from internal storage and USB sticks.
Benchmarks for the Rock Pi 4, shown below, reveal the platform's performance to be lower than many Android devices, perhaps unsurprising given the price of some of the flagship handsets.
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 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. Get more information here.
Specs comparison: Rock Pi 4 Model B vs Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
Rock Pi 4 Model B has a faster processor and more cores than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
The RK3399 system-on-a-chip (SoC) used by the Rock Pi 4 relies on 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.
Rock Pi 4 Model B has similar wireless connectivity to the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
The Rock Pi 4 Model B 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 cheaper Rock Pi 4 Model A, which starts at $39 for a 1GB machine, lacks Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Rock Pi 4 Model B has faster memory and up to 4x as much as the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
The Rock Pi 4 is available with 1/2/4GB of DDR4 memory, compared to 1GB of DDR2 memory in the Raspberry Pi 3 B+.
Rock Pi 4 Model B 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.
Both boards support Power over Ethernet (PoE), although both require an additional HAT add-on to use this feature.
Rock Pi 4 Model B has faster USB ports than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
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 Raspberry Pi 3 B+.
Rock Pi 4 Model B has faster storage than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model 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.
Rock Pi 4 Model B is a similar size to the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+
The Rock Pi 4 is 85mm × 54mm, compared to the Raspberry Pi B+'s 85.6mm × 56.5mm.
Rock Pi 4 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. 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".
Rock Pi 4 Model B runs fewer operating systems than the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ but does officially support Android
The Rock Pi 4 supports far fewer open-source operating systems than the Raspberry Pi, notably missing the LibreElec media center OS, potentially reducing the number of projects the board could be used for.
That said, the Rock Pi 4 does support a range of Linux distributions, including Android, Android TV, Debian, Ubuntu Server, Armbian 5.67, and retro-games OS Recalbox, with Raxda saying support for LibreElec is due to be added soon.
Rock Pi 4 Model B uses a USB Type-C port for power
The Rock Pi 4 uses a USB Type-C port for its power supply, compared to the micro USB power connector on the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B +.
General performance: Rock Pi 4 vs 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.
Connectivity: Rock Pi 4 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.
The Rock Pi delivered similar speeds to the Raspberry Pi 3 B+ in the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz Wi-Fi band.
Web browsing: Rock Pi 4 vs Raspberry Pi boards
Data transfer: Rock Pi 4 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.
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.
The Android AnTuTu test suite benchmarks the performance of the CPU, GPU and memory of the computer, as well as its position relative to other Android devices that have run the benchmark.
|Overall||96,549 - defeated 23% of users|
33,833 - defeated 15% of users
22,252 - defeated 17% of users
36,913 - defeated 42% of users
3,551 - defeated 8% of users
Specs: Rock Pi 4 Model A / Rock Pi 4 Model B
Read more about single-board computers
- Raspberry Pi 3 Model A+ review: A $25 computer with a lot of promise
- Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ review: Hands-on with the new board
- Inside the Raspberry Pi: The story of the $35 computer that changed the world
- How the Raspberry Pi was created: A visual history of the $35 board
- Cheap but powerful Raspberry Pi rival: $45 NanoPi Neo4 is six-core Android board with USB 3.0 and 4K support
- A Raspberry Pi-style computer you can build yourself: Blueberry Pi (ZDNet)
- Google AI on Raspberry Pi: Now you get official TensorFlow support (ZDNet)
- Raspberry Pi-style Renegade Elite runs Android Oreo on six-core, 4K board (ZDNet)
- What are the best Raspberry Pi alternatives? Everything you need to know about Pi rivals (ZDNet)
- More must-read Raspberry Pi coverage (TechRepublic Flipboard magazine)
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.