Up Board review
Les Pounder tests a single board computer that offers an alternative to the Raspberry Pi, but will he take ‘up’ the offer?
When it comes to single board computers (SBC), the ARM CPU has near dominance with the Raspberry Pi, of course. But a recent Kickstarter has created a new Intel-based SBC alternative. The Up board comes in a variety of RAM and flash storage configurations, and we tested a board with 2GB DDR3 RAM and 16GB of eMMC flash storage.
Powering the board is an Intel Atom x5-Z8350 with a quad core 1.44GHz CPU that can scale to 1.92GHz. This is a powerful CPU for such a small board.
The layout of each board is identical with only changes to RAM and storage on offer. There are four USB 2.0 ports, as well as a USB 2.0 breakout port on the far left of the board, Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3.0 and HDMI.
Power is provided by a 5.5mm jack and not via a micro USB port. The Up board requires a minimum of 5V 3A to operate, but for best results it’s advised to use a 5V 4A power supply. On the top of the CPU is a large heat sink, along with another heat sink underneath the board. This heat sink is necessary as the Atom CPU can get warm, bordering on uncomfortably warm, so good ventilation is a must for prolonged use.
The Up comes with a 40-pin GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) that provides a similar experience to the Raspberry Pi. This offers control of pins using SPI, I2C, PWM and standard digital on/off. To control the GPIO, we used the RPi.GPIO Python library, which works exactly as the Raspberry Pi, but sadly we were only offered a Python 2 library. The Up board also isn’t compatible with Raspberry Pi add-on sadly we tested the Pibrella and only one LED worked, while the Unicorn HAT failed to install at all.
Pick a distro Being an x86-based CPU that has a UEFI BIOS, it’s possible to install many different flavours of Linux onto the board, but we installed the Ubilinux custom Linux distro for Up. Ubilinux is based on Debian Jessie and the latest version comes with kernel 4.4, a very recent kernel release. Installation only takes 2GB of the 16GB eMMC, leaving plenty of space for projects. Boot time is just 11s from pressing Enter on the Grubscreen to login, which is very impressive and beats the Pi 3.
Being a typical Debian distro we were able to update and install new software using the APTpackaging tool, and we used it to install the IDLE Python editor and htop, a dashboard of system resources in the terminal. We also tested the latest Ubuntu 16.04.1 release and were pleasantly surprised to see that it worked flawlessly.
All versions of Up come with a USB 3.0 OTG (On The Go) connector, so we tested an external USB 3.0 hard drive and copied a 1.4GB Ubuntu ISO image from the internal eMMC to the hard drive. Using USB 3.0, the transfer took 14 seconds at approximately 100Mb/s.
Compared with USB 2.0 which took 38 seconds at approximately 36.3Mb/s, we see a massive jump in transfer rates.
The Gigabit Ethernet works as expected, but none of our WI-FI dongles worked with Ubilinux so we were unable to test this feature – a bug that’s being worked on by the team.
As part of our tests, we ran the ioquake3demo to test the Intel graphics. Our tests at 1,152×864 pixels with 32-bit texture detail maxed out at 90fps (70fps on the Pi 3). Using Sysbench to calculate Pi, the Up took just 59s against the Pi 3 at 120s. The Up also has AES acceleration, running an OpenSSL 4096 sign test the Pi 3 managed 20 per second, the Up hit an impressive 75 per second.
Overall, the Up board is a powerful platform that can offer an experience similar to the Pi, but is the extra performance worth the cost?