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Jul
23

Banana Pi review – tastier than Raspberry?

by Gareth Halfacree

Does the first of the true Raspberry Pi clones have what it takes to come out from the shadow of its highly-successful inspiration?

Technical specs

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

Review

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 resemblance is uncanny
The resemblance is uncanny

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.

Verdict

4/5

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.

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    • Keith McNeill

      “While it’s easy to pour scorn on Lemaker for its blatant attempt to ride on the coattails of the Raspberry Pi”

      But would anyone really do that? I thought the Raspberry Pi guys would actually welcome other manufactureres, as it helps the original aim of low cost computing.

    • Michael Horne

      You’re right, it IS easy to pour scorn on the blatant riding of coat-tails, and much scorn should be poured. By using the name of ‘Pi’, they are trying to insinuate themselves in a very cynical way into the Pi community, even though their board is fundamentally different in terms of architecture. I applaud them for their price-point, but not for their marketing strategy. The other thing that benefits the Pi is the enormous community it now has, something which Lemaker has been unable to foster so far. I would say 4/5 is being a bit generous.

    • Mangap

      It is time to improve the software and accessories.
      It is good if we have option/competition for faster processor and more connection.

    • Huihong Luo

      I’ve been using Banana Pi for a month to port our iOS AirPlay mirroring software, rPlay, from Raspberry Pi. I have to say that Banana Pi is much better than Raspberry, 5x faster and most importantly it supprts Android and can run Chrome browser. Raspberry seems impossible to support Android or to run Chrome browser. When I build rPlay on Raspberry, I can go to lunch (> 1 hr), whereas on Banana Pi, I can only do a coffee, as it takes only 10 mins. According to the Banana Pi officail site, http://www.bananapi.com, upcoming Android 4.4 is planned. Right now, the only thing missing for Banana Pi is community support.

    • http://www.cmdann.ca/ Daniel Blair

      My review of the Banana Pi: http://cmdann.ca/banana-pi/ and my review of the Raspberry Pi Model B+ http://cmdann.ca/raspberry-pi-b-plus-review/

    • PePas

      Very interested getting this as my home server, with the SATA port. Need a good case though, so it’s portable during moves, and getting the power supplies to be compact would be good (the 3.5″ SATA needs 12V as well).

    • Glen Duncan

      “an upgrade for users who have found the berry-flavoured variant lacking”

      Botanically speaking, bananas *are* berries.

    • http://raspberrywebserver.com/ PyPlate

      I’m really happy with the increase in performance. I just built a cluster with 4 Banana Pis. Check it out at http://banoffeepiserver.com/

    • http://www.aliexpress.com/store/product/Raspberry-PI-camera-1GB-Memory-10-100-1000-Ethernet-RJ45-optional-WIFI/302756_1738027357.html Banana Pi Cherry

      hi keith, we are trying we make the banana pi low cost computer board in the furture :)

    • http://www.aliexpress.com/store/product/Raspberry-PI-camera-1GB-Memory-10-100-1000-Ethernet-RJ45-optional-WIFI/302756_1738027357.html Banana Pi Cherry

      hi luo, if your Rpi user want try the banana pi pls kindly let me know, we could supply you with quality and best price & service . :)

    • Will Lotto

      Huihong – bananapi.com is only a reseller. Lemaker.org is the manufacturer. Similarly, http://www.bananapi.com.au is the Australian distributor.

    • shankar

      Can any body suggest how to enable HDCP in Banana Pi

    • http://www.cmdann.ca/ Daniel Blair

      I have now reviewed the Banana Pi R1 open source router.. http://cmdann.ca/banana-pi-r1/ Based off the Banana Pi the router has a 4 port switch and 802.11 b/g/n WiFi.

    • Christopher

      I would agree if not for the raspberry pi foundation’s lack of upgrades in spite of the fact that hordes have been practically screaming for them. They will have rendered themselves irrelevant anyway and/or seriously impeded the development of high performance projects. If they can’t keep up then it’s time to bow out. Maybe if this catches on a bit more they will be forced to reevaluate their timetable.

    • Michael Horne

      They’re not *trying* to aid the development of high performance projects. It’s not in their educational aims.

    • Christopher

      Right, I agree that it’s not in their stated goals. I’m sure the world would explode if someone created an educational product that people actually wanted to use and was updated as necessary to remain technologically relevant..

    • Michael Horne

      Off ya go and do it, then. ;-)
      Seriously, though, I sort of get what you’re saying, but I can understand that they don’t currently want to have to maintain code bases and repos for multiple different chips.

    • Christopher

      You’re right. That’s certainly not an easy thing to do. I can understand why they would try to avoid it. Maybe that way of thinking needs to be revised though. I mean in the realm of technology I think that educational products need to be as usable and currently relevant as possible. I for one would much rather learn on the device that’s the best bang for my buck. In a way I also think maybe it wouldn’t be difficult for them at all if they just shared the responsibility and were more democratic. If they just said to the community “hey we want to always have a high end version that’s compatible and we need your help to do it” I think it would be taken care of in short order and they would be even more relevant than they are now. Possibly many times more relevant. Anyway, I totally see where you’re coming from, I’m guessing when it comes down to it our perspectives aren’t that far apart. :-)

    • J.Teigland

      As Michael highlighted – the aim with the RaspberryPi has never been to produce commercially successful high power device BUT a low cost educational device. So the Raspberrpi might lack a bit of processing power but the flexibility of the device in terms of usage is phenomenal ; weather stations , robotics , block programming or straight Python coding are but a few flavours.
      I think it’s fair to say that the foundation has been a victim of their own success , the support they offer now though is genuine and extensive – their ambassadors are regularly seen to support events and initiatives here and abroad. I have personally not tried the BananaPi , SolidRun however sent me a Hummingboard – a similar ‘Pi-clone’ for review purposes. The immideate issue in using the ‘PiClones’ is an obvious lack of support or community resources, this then completely defies the objective of competing with the Raspberry Pi platform. I’m not a developer or a software engineer , I have the ‘educator label’ hence I will be looking for a device that relatively easily can be set up for use for a workshop – not having to battle with a suitable OS installation for days on end.
      I have read a number of reviews of the ‘Pi-Clones’ in various forums, magazines and user boards – comparing raw processing power is interesting from a ‘geek perspective’ but does not equate ‘usability’ say in a classroom or a workshop.

      And just to finish of ‘Banana Pi’ . . . Really Lemaker ?!?! I DO pour scorn on your branding and marketing . . . .

    • Glen Duncan

      +Michael Horne said: “even though their board is fundamentally different in terms of architecture.”

      Fundamentally different? What’s different? The BPi can run UNMODIFIED RPi distro images. How is that different? They’re both ARM, and the BPi can run ANY code compiled for the RPi without issue.

    • Marius

      Who cares what they call it and whose coat tails they are riding. It is great to have choice.
      That they call it ‘PI’ is just easy for the consumer to place it. Really dont understand why people – the consumers- get so worked up about it

    • http://www.htpcguides.com/ Mike

      Impressive benchmarks using Banana Pi’s SATA and Gigabit http://www.htpcguides.com/raspberry-vs-banana-pi-benchmarks-sata-gigabit-matter/

    • http://www.gaveroid.com/ Gavin

      I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but some things aren’t 100% compatible – anything that looks specifically for the RPi’s specific GPU won’t run on the BPi. I’ve failed to get many operating systems meant for the Raspberry to run on the Banana, but all of those operating systems were media-based and depended on the Raspberry’s GPU. However, many of the OSes that people will want to run, as long as you download the functionally identical releases from the Lemaker website, do work on it. Raspbian, Risc OS, Lubuntu, etc. work beautifully.

      Ex. OpenELEC, RaspBMC, PiPLAY (that worked but EmulationStation wouldn’t launch due to a different GPU so it’s useless).

    • http://www.gaveroid.com/ Gavin

      The Raspberry Pi platform was made for education, yes. However, many people use it for quite the opposite, so a more powerful (and more finnicky if you don’t know how to use it correctly) alternative was released – the Banana Pi. I love my Banana Pi, the only thing is it is lacking a sense of community. However, you will not be battling with a suitable installation if you’re using the more common OSes – Raspbian, Lubuntu, RISC OS, Android, all work fine on it. The ones that don’t work usually are looking specifically for the RPi’s hardware, and of course being that the Banana Pi is ARMv7 (not ARMv6 like the Raspberry) and has a different (but more powerful) GPU that’s bound to happen. It’s just a matter of people not waving it off and considering it a not-worth-it Chinese POS like they do.

      However, with that being said there’s a new Banana Pi quad core that just came out, so although the Banana is great, I’m going to put it in a MAME cabinet to run emulators and buy myself a Pi B+ 2 for all other needs because it’s faster and will have more community support.

    • chemister

      I think Banana Pi Pro blows everything out of the water. RPi 2 may be better but still no Gigabit ethernet is bit of a turn off.

    • Indy Tonne

      Depends on how complicated you want it to be. On older external hard drives you my find a dual voltage(5V/12V) supply you can salvage. I would not go for that, as most of these only handle about 2A on 5V which may be enough for the BPi and the hdd but it won’t upkeep much more than that.
      My favorite solution to this problem is using a single voltage supply, probably a 12V2A one and downconverting the 12V with a proper buck regulator like the compact KIS 3R33S. Ordering in packs of ten will cost you around a buck each, shipping from China included. At 3A continuous they are more than capable of handling the BPi, your HDD and plenty of USB devices. Unfortunately they come preadjusted to 3.3V. If you want 5V, add a 8.2k-8.6k resistor across ADJ and GND. The BPi can handle up to 6V at the input(according to BPi schematics), but exceeding 5V will (unlike with the non+ Raspi)not give you any benefits, as all 5V outputs are fed from a 5V1A boost converter on the BPi. If you need more than 1A on the USB ports and GPIO combined, by any means use powered hubs or you will fry your BPi like i unfortunately did. To reduce complexity, you may feed the hubs from the same module like the BPi or if you want to play it safe, use a second converter.
      I can’t really help you with a case there but all the components needed for the use case you stated will fit inside an external 5.25″ drive enclosure you can find online or while “dumpster diving”. Good luck :)

    • Indy Tonne

      It’s probably not possible using the FOSS type of distributions. You will probably have to go for android to do that. My question however, is why anyone would want HDCP enabled on HDMI. HDCP has already been broken and so have other DRM protection mechanisms like BD+ and AACS. Imho it makes much more sense to get rid of content scrambling way before the content reaches your TV/projector/whatsoever or even your BPi.
      If luck or rather the lack of it has it, your display device of choice may not handle content that isn’t HDCP protected, you’re probably lost.

    • PePas

      Thanks for the response. I’m not that conversant in electronics, so I’ll be going with an old 3.5″ enclosure + power supply and I got a case for the Pi already, and I’ll strap them together. Nothing else needs to connect to it (except the ethernet) so the power should be sufficient.

    • Bhupendra

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    • Moni

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