Is the BeagleV-Ahead a true Raspberry Pi 4B competitor, or simply an afterthought?
In less than a lifetime, we went from computers that filled an entire room to devices that fit in our pockets. While ‘pocket-sized devices’ may conjure images of modern smartphones, what I’m really talking about are single-board computers better known as micro-controllers. Single-board computers are devices that have all the functionalities of a full computer but on a single circuit board. You might be asking what’s the point of a single-board computer, why not just use a laptop? Depending on your need, there may be price or size constraints to consider, and laptops can be expensive.
Today, the most well-known name in single-board computing is the Raspberry Pi, a device that is used across multiple disciplines. They can be used by middle schoolers learning to code, all the way up to industry professionals creating custom solutions for clients. Unfortunately, this does create high demand for the Pi, which can make it hard to purchase from online retailers. Luckily some competitors like BeagleBoards have stepped up to create the BeagleV-Ahead, an entirely open-source board that is set out to dethrone the Raspberry Pi 4B. Will it fall flat or rise to the challenge?
Raspberry Pi & BeagleV-Ahead At a Glance...
Now, let’s go over these points in more detail below.
First, let’s compare the hardware installed on each of our competing devices. While the two devices have similar components such as the 4GB of LPDDR4 memory, Gigabit Ethernet, and MicroSD compatibility – the resemblances end there. For starters, they may both support micro-HDMI, but only the Pi supports dual monitor output. The feature may not always be needed, but it can be useful in projects where tasks need to be visualized on two different screens. This small quality-of-life feature may be the deciding factor for a working engineer.
Let’s look at some of the areas where BeagleBoard falls short. One drawback of BeagleBoard is the external antenna needed for Wi-Fi connection; it dangles off the board and could break easily. However, the most glaring hardware issue for the BeagleV-Ahead was their choice to use a 3.0 Micro USB for data transfer instead of a standard USB A port or USB C. Interestingly enough, they include a 3.0 Micro USB to USB adapter in the box which makes you wonder why they didn’t design the board with USB in the first place.
BeagleBoard does offer some advantages over the Pi, however. One advantage being BeagleBoard’s two CSI ports to support two cameras. This feature is especially useful since computer vision projects have become increasingly more popular. The BeagleV-Ahead’s largest advantage over the Raspberry Pi is the built-in 16 GB of flash memory. That built-in memory means that, unlike the Raspberry Pi, BeagleBoard can install and run an OS right out of the box.
Finally, the two devices use different CPU architectures, so let’s compare those. The Pi uses the Quad-core Cortex-A72 (ARM v8) which runs on the ARM architecture, a licensed architecture. BeagleBoard has the quad-core Xuantie C910 which runs on Risc-V, architecture which is completely open-sourced. Since ARM architecture has been around longer, there is currently more support, but given Risc-V is open-sourced there is less barrier to entry. The open-sourced architecture could be enticing enough for developers to make the switch.
Common practice is for developers to set-up their own OS to fit their use cases. However, having a micro-controller that functions immediately out-of-the box is ideal. This is where the BeagleV-Ahead comes out ahead of the Raspberry Pi. Since BeagleBoard has the 16 GB of onboard storage, it comes installed with Yocto, a Linux-based system. Whereas the Raspberry Pi requires an external microSD card to install Raspberry Pi OS, a Debian derivative.
After using Raspberry Pi’s Flashing software to load the OS onto the Raspberry Pi, operating it is as easy as plugging the SD card into the Raspberry Pi. Although the process is not difficult, it is time-consuming and adds extra steps to your workflow compared to the Beagle board. Users may feel the extra few steps are a nuisance, and decide to switch.
Both devices make it easy to install a different OS, like Ubuntu. Users can reference instructions found on both device’s websites. So, while having users install their own OS to their own specifications is useful, we feel it would be optimal to have an already running OS with the option to change to something else if desired.
Ease of Use
An important question to ask when deciding on a micro-controller is “what kind of support does the device have”? The Raspberry Pi 4B is well documented on the official Raspberry Pi website, and they have a large community of users ready to answer questions. This means that there is a library of software that has been well-optimized for the Pi as compared to other micro-controllers on the market. For example, BeagleBoard does not have a community as large as the Pi, so most documentation comes from the official BeagleBoard website. Because the BeagleV-Ahead is using fairly new technology it’s understandable that they don’t have the same level of documentation. However, because it operates as open source, this will likely improve with time.
There is an ever-growing community that supports Risc-V architecture and sees it as the future of computing. Additionally, the datasheet for this CPU is readily available and provides more information, so developers should have an easier time navigating this chip. While the Raspberry Pi 4B has better documentation now, the BeagleV-Ahead will likely increase its documentation at an exponential rate in the coming years. This allows new developers to become experts in a new technology before anyone else. This is good news for future users of the BeagleV-Ahead, but remains as a current drawback for developers now.
As mentioned before, developers are usually constrained by price considerations when picking a suitable micro-controller for projects. The Raspberry Pi’s 4 GB model is $55 retail; however, they can be extremely hard to find. This means that you’ll most likely end up relying on online resellers who might charge upwards of $100. The high demand on the device enables these higher prices.
On the other hand, the BeagleV-Ahead is more expensive at $149 retail, but is readily available on trusted sellers like Digikey and Mouser. Although the BeagleV-Ahead is open source and should have lower overhead than the Pi, BeagleBoards are currently produced at a much lower quantity, keeping prices high.
So, how does the BeagleV-Ahead hold up?
Like most things: it depends. If you are a beginner and have not had much experience with single-board computers, it might be better to go with the Pi. The Raspberry Pi’s official website has well-documented guides for new users. There is also a large community ready to answer any questions or problems new users may be facing. The BeagleV-Ahead is still in its early stages and is not as well documented as the Pi is. However, in instances when the Pi isn’t available, the BeagleV-Ahead is a great alternative. Particularly if you are more experienced and looking to try out the new Risc-V technology, BeagleBoard may be better for you. Everyone has their own specific requirements to consider, so we encourage you to use this guide to look at all aspects of both boards.