Banana Pi review – tastier than Raspberry?
Does the first of the true Raspberry Pi clones have what it takes to come out from the shadow of its highly-successful inspiration?
Operating system: Linaro 14.04 (Raspbian, Android, Arch, openSUSE, Kali, OpenWRT also available)
Processor: AllWinner A20 ARM Cortex-A7 Dual-Core, 912MHz
Memory: 1GB DDR3 RAM
Storage: None on-board, maximum 64GB via SD Card and/or 2TB via SATA
Ports: 2x USB 2.0, USB OTG, gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, composite video, 3.5mm audio out, SATA 2 with 5V power
Extras: 26-pin GPIO header, infra-red receiver, microphone
Dimensions: 95.7mm x 74mm x 19.5mm including connectors
Weight: 43g excluding cables
Even if Lemaker, the Chinese-based company behind the Banana Pi, had picked a different name for its product there’d be no hiding its source of inspiration. The single-board computer boasts a 26-pin general-purpose input-output (GPIO) header at the top-left, both composite and HDMI video outputs, a 3.5mm stereo analogue audio jack, uses an SD slung on the underside for storage, and includes two USB 2.0 ports and an Ethernet connector.
In some respects, it’s surprising it has taken this long for someone to create a Pi-alike. A dig into the specifications shows that the Banana Pi isn’t a direct clone, but a considerable evolution: the single-core ARMv6 700MHz Broadcom BCM2835 is replaced with a more modern dual-core ARMv7 1GHz AllWinner A20, the RAM doubled to 1GB, and additional connectivity added in the form of a SATA 2.0 port with on-board 5V power supply for 2.5” storage devices.
The Banana Pi, then, is being positioned as an upgrade for users who have found the berry-flavoured variant lacking. Sadly, there are a fistful of caveats for those hoping for a drop-in solution to their woes. The Banana Pi’s footprint is somewhat larger than that of the Raspberry Pi, meaning that it’s not directly compatible with any cases or mounts designed for its rival. The 26-pin GPIO header, while designed to be pin-for-pin compatible electrically, is shifted sideways from the Raspberry Pi layout to make room for a corner mounting hole. This causes larger piggyback boards to foul on the composite video output.
A bigger issue presents itself in what Lemaker calls the Camera Serial Interface (CSI) connector. The A20 chip lacks a true CSI implementation, using instead a parallel camera interface. As a result, there are no off-the-shelf camera modules that will connect to the Banana Pi, although Lemaker promises to launch a module of its own in the near future.
These annoyances aside, booting the Banana Pi up shows that there’s plenty to recommend the project too. To speed its route to market, Lemaker has chosen to work on porting existing Linux distributions to its board rather than producing a distribution of its own. As a result, users can download SD card images for Linaro, openSUSE, Arch, and even Google’s Android, or complete the clone experience with a Raspbian port which in its earliest releases even retained the Raspberry Pi logo as its wallpaper.
At launch, these ports had issues of their own, in particular in the use of the GPIO header. In the most recent releases, Lemaker has worked hard to overcome these issues to the extent that most projects based around Raspbian and the Wiring Pi or RPi.GPIO libraries work absolutely fine on the Banana Pi.
In general use, the Banana Pi leaves the Raspberry Pi standing: the 95th percentile SysBench time for the Banana Pi stood at 29.72ms in testing, a considerable improvement over the Raspberry Pi’s 51.45ms. The dual-core processor also shines in multithreaded applications, completing a 10MB gzip test in 2.39s compress and 0.21s decompress to the Raspberry Pi’s 8.64s compress and 3.08s decompress times.
The faster processor is also supported by more reliable USB ports, but it’s the SATA connectivity that will likely interest most. Using the angled port on the top side of the board, it’s easy to connect mass storage to the Banana Pi without tying up a USB port – something even the newest Raspberry Pi Model B+ can’t offer. Sadly, its usefulness as a compact single-drive NAS is limited by system bottlenecks limiting overall network throughput to around 233Mb/s.
While it’s easy to pour scorn on Lemaker for its blatant attempt to ride on the coattails of the Raspberry Pi, the Banana Pi brings some impressive improvements. The processor is considerably more powerful, and the SATA port provides access to high-speed storage. An altered layout, bottlenecked network and some software bugs prevent a perfect score, however.