The Tinkerboard Strikes Back

For those that follow my blog you probably remember the somewhat devastating rating I gave the Tinkerboard earlier this year (click here for part 1, and here for part 2). It was quite sad having to give such a poor rating to what is ultimately a fine piece of hardware. I had high hopes for it – in fact I bought two of the boards because I figured there was no way it could suck with that those specs. But suck it did and while the muscle was there, the drivers were in such a state that it never emerged for the user. It was released prematurely, and I think most people that bought it agrees on this.

asus

The initial release was less than bad, it was horrible

Since my initial review those months ago good things have happened. Asus seem to have listened to the “poonami” of negative feedback and adapted their website accordingly. Unlike the first time I visited when you literally had to dig into recursive menus (which was less than intuitive in this case) just to download the software – the disk images are now available at the bottom of the product page. So thumbs up for that (!)

They have also made the GPIO programming API a lot easier to get; downloading it is reduced to a “one liner” for C developers, which is the way it should be. And they have likewise provided wrappers for other languages, like ever popular python and scratch.

I am a bit disappointed that they don’t provide freepascal units. A lot of developers use object pascal on these board after all, because Object Pascal gives you a better balance between productivity and depth. Pascal is easier to learn (it was designed for that after all) but avoids some of the pitfalls of C/C++ while retaining all the good things. Porting over C headers is fairly easy for a good pascal programmer – but it would be cool of Asus remember that there are more languages in the world than C and python.

All of this aside: the most important change of all is what Asus has done with the drivers! They have finally put together drivers that shows off the capabilities of the hardware and unleash the speed we all hoped for when the board was first announced. And man does it show! My previous experience with the Tinkerboard was horrible; it was the text-book example of a how not to release a product (the whole release has been odd; Asus is a huge, multi-national corporation. Yet their release had basement 3 man band written all over it).

So this is fantastic news! Finally the Tinkerboard delivers and can be used for real life projects!

Smart IOT

At The Smart Company we both create and use our core product, Smart Mobile Studio, to deliver third-party solutions. As the name implies Smart is a software development system initially made for mobile applications; but it quickly grew into a much larger toolchain and is exceptionally good for making embedded applications. With embedded applications I mean things that run on kiosk systems, cash machines and stuff like that; basically anything with a touch-screen that does something.

smarts

The Smart desktop gives you a good starting point for embedded work

One of the examples that ship with Smart Pascal is a fully working desktop embedded environment. Smart compiles for both ordinary browsers (JavaScript environments with a traditional HTML5 display) but also for node.js, which is JavaScript unbound by the strict rules of a browser. Developers typically use node.js to write highly scalable server software, but you are naturally not limited to that. Netflix is written 100% in Node.js, so we are talking serious firepower here.

Our embedded environment is called The Smart Desktop (also known as Amibian.js) and gives you a ready-made node.js back-end that couples with a HTML5 front-end. This is a ready to use environment that you can deploy your own applications through. Things like storage, a nice looking UI, user logon and credentials and much, much more is all implemented for you. You don’t have to use it of course, you can write your own system from scratch if you like. We created “Amibian” to demonstrate just how powerful Smart Pascal can be in the right hands.

With this in mind – my main concern when testing SBC’s (single board computers) is obviously web performance. By default JavaScript is a single core event-driven runtime system; you can spawn threads of course but its done somewhat different from how you would work in Delphi or C++.  JavaScript is designed to be system friendly and a gentle giant if you like, which has turned out to be a good thing – because the way JS schedules execution makes it ideal for clustering!

Most people find it hard to believe that JavaScript can outperform native code, but the JavaScript runtimes of today is almost a whole eco system in themselves. With JIT compilers and LLVM optimization — it’s a whole new ballgame.

Making a scale

To give you a better context to see where the Tinkerboard is on a scale, I decided to set up a couple of simple tests. Nothing fancy, just running the same web applications and see how each of them perform on different boards. So I used the same 3 candidates as before, namely the Raspberry PI 3b, the Hardkernel ODroid XU4 and last but not least: the Asus Tinkerboard.

I setup the following applications to compile with the desktop system, meaning that they were compiled with the Smart project. We got plenty of web applications but for this I wanted to pack the most demanding apps in our library:

  • Skid-Row intro remake using the CODEF library
  • Quake 3 asm.js build
  • Plex

OK let’s go through them and see where the chips land!

The Raspberry PI 3b

bassoon

Bassoon ran well, its not that demanding

The Raspberry PI was aweful (click here for a video). There is no doubt that native applications like UAE4Arm runs extremely well on the PI (which contains hand optimized assembler, not exactly a fair fight)- but when it comes to modern HTML5 the PI doesn’t stand a chance. You could perhaps use a Raspberry PI 3b for simple applications which are not graphic and cpu intensive, but you can forget about anything remotely taxing.

It ran Bassoon reasonably fast, but all in all you really don’t want a raspberry when doing high quality IOT, unless its headless code and node.js perhaps. Frameworks like Johnny #5 gives you a ton of GPIO features out of the box – in fact you can target 40 embedded systems without any change to your code. But for large, high quality web front-ends, the PI just wont cut it.

  • Skid-Row: 1 frame per second or less
  • Quake: Can’t even start, just forget it
  • Plex: Starts but it lags so much you can’t watch anything

But hey, I never expected $35 to give me a kick ass ARM experience anyways. There are 1000 things the PI does very well, but HTML is not one of them.

ODroid XU4

XU4CloudShellAssemble29

The ODroid packs a lot of power!

The ODroid being faster than the Raspberry PI is nothing new, but I was surprised at how much power this board delivers. I never expected it to give me a Linux experience close to that of a x86 PC; I mean we are talking about a 45€ SBC here. And it’s only 10€ more than the Raspberry PI, which is a toy at best. But the ODroid XU4 delivers a good Linux desktop; And it’s well worth the extra 10€ when compared to the PI.

Personally I don’t understand why people keep buying PI’s when there is so much better options on the market now. At least not if web technology is involved. A small server or emulator sure, but not HTML5 and browsers. The PI just cant handle it.

  • Skid-Row: 4-5 frames per second
  • Quake: Runs at very enjoyable speed (!)
  • Plex: Runs well but you may want to pick SD or 720p to avoid lags

What really shocked me was that ODroid XU4 can run Quake.js! The PI can’t even start that because it’s so demanding. It is one of the largest and most resource hungry asm.js projects out there – but ODroid XU4 did a fantastic job.

Now it’s not a silky smooth experience, I would guess something along the lines of 17-20 fps. But you know what? Thats pretty good for a $45 board.

I have owned far worse x86 PC’s in my day.

The Tinkerboard

Before i powered up the board I was reluctant to push it too far, because I thought it would fail me once again. I did hope that something had been done by Asus to rectify the situation though, because Asus really should have done a better job before releasing it. It’s now been roughly 6 months since I bought it, and roughly 8 months since it was released here in Europe. It would have been better for them to have waited with the release. I was not alone about butchering the whole board, its been a source of frustration for those that bought it. 75€ is not much, but no-one likes to throw money out the window like that.

Long story short: I downloaded the latest Ubuntu image and burned that to an SD card (I actually first downloaded the Debian Jessie image they have, but sadly you have to do a bit of work to turn that into a desktop system – so I decided to go for Ubuntu instead). If the drivers are in order I have a feeling the Jessie image will be even faster – Ubuntu has always been a high-quality distribution, but it’s also one of the most demanding. One might even say it’s become bloated. But it does deliver a near Microsoft Windows like experience which has served the Linux community well.

But the Tinkerboard really delivers! (click here for the video) Asus have cleaned up their act and implemented the drivers properly, and you can feel that the moment the desktop comes into view. With the PI you are always fighting with lagging performance. When you start a program the whole system freezes for a while, when you quit a program the system freezes – hell when you move the mouse around the system bloody freezes! Well that is not the case with the Tinkerboard that’s for sure. The tinkerboard feels more like running vanilla Ubuntu on a normal x86 PC to be honest.

  • Skid-Row: 10-15 frames per second
  • Quake: Full screen 32bit graphics, runs like hell
  • Plex: Plays back fullscreen HD, just awesome!

All I can say is this: if you are going to do any bit of embedded coding, regardless if you are using Smart Mobile Studio or some other devkit — this is the board to get (!)

Like already mentioned it does cost almost twice as much as the PI, but that extra 30€ buys you loads of extra power. It opens up so many avenues of code and you can explore software far more complex than both the PI and ODroid combined. With the tinkerboard you can finally deliver a state of the art product built with off the shelves web components. It’s in a league of its own.

The ‘tinker’ rocks at last

When I first bought the tinker i felt cheated. It was so frustrating because the specs were so good and the terrible performance just came down to sloppy work and Asus releasing it prematurely for cash (lets face it, they tapped into the lucrative market established by the PI foundation). By looking at the specs you knew it had the firepower to deliver so much, but it was held back by ridicules drivers.

There is still a lot that can be done to make the Tinkerboard run even faster. Like I mentioned Ubuntu is not the racecar of distributions out there. Ubuntu is fat, there is no other way of saying it. So if someone took the time to create a minimalistic Jessie image, recompile every piece with maximum llvm optimization and as few running services as possible — the tinkerboard would positively fly!

So do I recommend it? I am thrilled to say that yes, I can finally recommend the tinkerboard! It is by far the coolest board in my collection now. In fact it’s so good that I’m donating one to my daughter. She is presently using an iMac which is overkill for her needs at age 10. Now I can make a super simple menu with Netflix and Youtube, buy a nice touch-screen display and wall mount it in her room.

Well done Asus!

  1. February 27, 2019 at 10:14 pm

    Jon, do you have any comparison stats or view on the Tinker board vs Pi3B+ for Amiga emulation?

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