Review – BeagleBone Black

03Jul13

I first came across the BeagleBone when Roger Monk presented at OSHUG #18 in April 2012. It was easy at the time to write it off  as too expensive and too underpowered – the Raspberry Pi was finally shipping and the lucky first 2000 already had their $35 computers whilst the rest of us waited for the next batch to roll out of the factories. Who in their right minds would spend three times more on something less capable?

Things change quickly in the tech world, and the BeagleBone Black seems to have resolved issues with both price and capability. It’s impossible to avoid comparisons with the Raspberry Pi, so I won’t even try:

Raspberry Pi Model B BeagleBone Black
MSRP $35 $45
I paid £23.39 £25.08
Processor 700Mhz ARMv6 1Ghz ARMv7-A
RAM 512MB SDRAM 512MB DDR3
Onboard flash None 2GB
External flash SD microSD
Network 100Mb 100Mb
USB ports 2 1*
Video out HDMI/Composite microHDMI
Audio out HDMI/3.5mm microHDMI
Resolution 1920×1080 1280×1024
GPIO ports 17 65

The comparison could go on further, but I’ll try to concentrate on the main differences…

CPU

The BeagleBone Black’s CPU is faster by clock speed and a more modern design. This means that it can run Ubuntu rather than needing it’s own flavour of Linux. That probably isn’t much of a big deal now that Raspbian is so popular, and it’s a rare day when I notice I’m using Raspbian rather than Ubuntu (in fact Raspbian feels more like Ubuntu than Debian for the tools I regularly use).

BeagleBone Black 1 : Raspberry Pi 0

Storage

The BeagleBone comes with 2GB of onboard flash, which means that there’s no need to buy an SD card to get it going. Better still it comes pre installed with Angstrom Linux, a web IDE and a node.js environment for controlling GPIO. There’s further expansion via microSD and given that there’s little spread on price or performance these days between SD and microSD that’s a good thing as the form factor is tidier.

BeagleBone Black 2 : Raspberry Pi 0

Video

Eben Upton often talks about the Raspberry Pi using a mobile phone system on chip (SOC), but I suspect that it might actually be a part designed for set top boxes (there are after all very few mobile phones with full HD screens). Not only can the Pi drive a screen at 1920×1080, but it also has hardware acceleration for popular video CODECs. The original BeagleBone was missing video altogether (it needed a ‘cape’), so it’s a big move forward that the Black can drive a screen, and 1280×1024 is fine for many purposes – it just doesn’t suit modern wide screen monitors, and it’s not much use for home entertainment purposes.

BeagleBone Black 2 : Raspberry Pi 1

USB

The twin USB port on the raspberry Pi means that it’s easy to connect a keyboard and mouse, or a keymote and a WiFi dongle. I know that many people use their Pis with (powered) USB hubs, but I so far seem to have got away without needing to do that. Sadly the BeagleBone Black has only 1 USB port, so it’s pretty hard to use USB peripherals without resorting to a hub. Given that there’s an Ethernet connector that’s the same height as a double USB port at the other end of the board it seems rather silly to have cut this corner.

BeagleBone Black 2 : Raspberry Pi 2

The BeagleBone Black has some other USB tricks up its sleeve though… Like the Raspberry Pi it takes power from a USB connector (mini rather than micro), but unlike the Pi it’s designed to connect to another computer (as the power draw is within normal USB range). In addition to using this port for power the BeagleBone can also use it as a virtual network port, so all that’s needed to start playing with the BeagleBone is what comes in the box and a regular laptop or computer.

BeagleBone Black 3 : Raspberry Pi 2

GPIO

Not long after my kids first got their hands on a Pi I realised that they weren’t interested in low powered computers (they already have better) or cheap computers (they don’t pay for them). They were however interested in physical compute projects – anything that could interact with the outside world… and that meant doing stuff with general purpose input output (GPIO).

We’ve had lots of fun flashing LEDs, building burglar alarms and playing ladder game, and all this stuff was made possible by the Pi’s GPIO. I’ve not yet exhausted the Pi’s GPIO capabilities with any project, but it wouldn’t be too hard – though there’s always I2C and SPI there to expand things. I’ve also found it reasonably easy to work with breadboard projects using a ‘Pi Cobbler‘ or build my own things using boards like Ciseco’s ‘Slice of Pi‘.

The Pi might be good for GPIO, but the BeagleBone is great for it. With 65 GPIO ports, and nice chunky ports down both sides (perfect for poking components or jump wires straight in).

BeagleBone Black 4 : Raspberry Pi 2

Projects

I thought I’d reflect back over the projects that I’ve used my Pis for over the past year or so:

  • OpenELEC (living room media streaming) – whilst I expect it wouldn’t be too hard to port OpenELEC to the BeagleBone Black it’s weaker graphics capabilities mean that I can’t really see the point.
  • iPad connectivity – the BeagleBone would be just fine at running VNC.
  • Securely accessing your home network – the key requirements here are SSH and low power consumption, so the BeagleBone Black is great.
  • Alarm – the better GPIO on the BeagleBone would have made this very easy (and possibly it could have all been done in the integrated IDE).
  • Arcade Gaming – porting MAME should be straightforward. The video limitations won’t matter for older games, and the better CPU might make some games work better that struggle on the Pi. Hooking up a joystick via GPIO should be easy.
  • Project boards – there’s less need for project boards with BeagleBoard given it’s better GPIO capabilities, and the stackable ‘capes’ offer lots of very tidy ways to expand.
  • Sous Vide – this would be an easy project on the BeagleBoard, though I ended up using a Model A Raspberry Pi for this (which would still be a bit cheaper).

Conclusion

For me the Raspberry Pi has excelled at two things:

  1. It’s a great low cost streaming media player when paired with OpenELEC (or similar XBMC distro)
  2. It’s great for physical compute projects

The BeagleBone Black doesn’t have the media capabilities of the Pi, but it’s even better that the Pi for physical compute projects. Despite that I’d be surprised if the BeagleBone enjoys the same success in terms of community mind share and volume shipped. Of course that doesn’t matter… the improvement of the Black over the original BeagleBone shows that we can expect a much better/cheaper Raspberry Pi some time in the not too distant future.



3 Responses to “Review – BeagleBone Black”

  1. 1 Bacchus

    I think you need to consider the large amount of 3rd. party support that the Pi has attracted, plus the fact that it’s a charitable venture aimed at building skills amongst younger people.

    There’s more to platforms than raw performance and I/O – If they were the only considerations the IBM PC would never have got off the ground, as it wasn’t powerful, the I/O was difficult to use, and it was expensive. As for it’s “worthiness”, well… :)

    • As I said at the end I don’t expect the BeagleBone Black to attract the same sort of community as the Pi (and of course the heart of that community is the charitable foundation) – though I know the BeagleBone (and BeagleBoard) have a strong community of their own.

      The ultimate point is that both the Pi and BeagleBone are good things, and a little bit of competitive tension should keep things getting better.

      I’ve taken a bit of flak via Twitter for not covering openness. Of course the PC succeeded where others things fell by the wayside because it was a more open platform. I’ve said before that there’s a fundamentalist element in the open source hardware community that wants everything to become a ‘toaster project‘. For me both of these platforms are plenty open enough.

  2. 3 Tim

    If you prefer Ubuntu, you can download Ubuntu from various sites, or get a pre-installed and configured micro SD Flash with Ubuntu 13.04 for the BeagleBone Black from the guys at Akiri:

    https://www.akirisolutions.com/products/beagle-bone/ubuntu

    The BeagleBone Black is an awesome board.


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