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Jul
13

Cubietruck review

by Gareth Halfacree

Designed for those who have outgrown the Cubieboard2, can the Cubietruck’s boosted specifications justify its increased selling price?

Technical specs

Operating system: Android 4.2.2 pre-loaded in NAND

Processor: AllWinner A20 dual-core ARM Cortex-A7 1GHz

Graphics: ARM Mali 400 MP2 dual-core graphics, HDMI and VGA outputs

Memory: 2GB DDR3, 8GB NAND flash storage

Dimensions: 111.6mm x 88.3mm x 17.8mm

Weight: 67g (excluding cables)

Storage expansion: 1x MicroSD, 1x SATA

Connectivity: 10/100/1000Mb Ethernet,802.11b/gWi-Fi, Bluetooth, 2x USB Host, 1x USBOTG, IrDA Receiver, Optical Audio Output, Headphones Out, Line In

GPIO: 54 headers on top side

The AllWinner A20 dual-core processor is unchanged from the Cubieboard2, but that's not necessarily a bad thing
The AllWinner A20 dual-core processor is unchanged from the Cubieboard2, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

Review

The follow-up to 2013’s upgraded Cubieboard2 single- board computer (SBC), the Cubietruck was originally known as the Cubieboard 3. A departure from the family’s traditional narrow circuit board layout led to a name change prior to launch and, if nothing else, it helps differentiate the more powerful design from its predecessor.

Physically, the Cubietruck is dramatically different to either Cubieboard model. It adopts a far wider layout, increasing from just over 60mm to 88mm across its shortest edge. A switch from the bottom-facing GPIO pins of the Cubieboard mean a reduction in overall height, however, from 24mm to just 17.8mm – the minimum possible while retaining a full- size Ethernet connector and stacked USB ports.

The GPIO headers have changed more than their location, too. Rather than the 96 pins of the Cubieboard and Cubieboard2, the Cubietruck has only 54 user-accessible pins in total. Thankfully, most major features – I2C, SPI, I2S, UART, PWM and so forth – are retained; the bulk of the reduction is due to the design now breaking out additional features of the A20 processor as fully populated ports.

This also explains the size increase: in addition to the two USB ports, single Ethernet port, audio ports, IrDA port, HDMI port and SATA port of its predecessor, the Cubietruck now includes an optical audio connector, VGA video output, a battery-backed real-time clock with lithium-ion battery, and on-board 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios.

The Cubietruck bundle also includes a sheet-based clear plastic housing, which comes with an additional feature enabled by the increased footprint of the board: the ability to mount a 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD directly beneath the system. A bundled SATA cable provides both power and data, making the Cubietruck one of the smallest self-contained NAS boxes around – the performance of which is helped by the boost from 1GB of RAM to 2GB and a gigabit Ethernet port.

But not everything has been upgraded in the move. The Cubietruck uses the same AllWinner A20 dual-core 1GHz processor featured in the Cubieboard2, with no sign of a quad-core variant for those who need more power. That said, the A20 is a decidedly impressive chip, running fast and cool even without the use of the bundled slim passive heatsink.

The use of the same chip means that software compatibility is on a par with the Cubieboard2. The same range of Linux- based operating systems are available for booting from SATA, micro-SD or the on-board NAND – the capacity of which has been doubled to 8GB. By default, the system comes with a bundled port of Google’s Android operating system – and has the same flaws as the version included with the Cubieboard2. For anything other than simple media playback, it’s advised to switch to a more capable operating system.

Where the Cubieboard2 invited comparisons to the cheaper but considerably less capable Raspberry Pi, it’s harder to do the same with the Cubietruck. At almost £90, it costs as much as three Model B boards – although it also offers vastly improved specifications and performance that equates to a roughly four-fold speed boost for multithreaded applications. It also includes almost everything needed to get started – various cables, the acrylic case, heatsink, and an OS pre-loaded in NAND – bar a USB power supply, eschewing the Pi’s frugal bare-board approach.

Whether that extra power is worth the cash will largely be down to individual use-cases: as an embedded board for simple electronics projects, the Cubietruck is vastly overpowered; for use as a low-power NAS, microserver, set- top box or media streamer, however, it could prove an easy sell.

Verdict

4/5

The stock Android software aside, the Cubietruck is a significant upgrade from its predecessor despite retaining the same A20 processor. Whether it’s worth the extra money will depend on your individual budget and use-case, but in certain applications – media streamer, micro-NAS – the additions to its feature set make all the difference.

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