Nano PI Fire 3, part two

If you missed the first installment of this test, please click here to catch up. In this installment we are just going to dive straight into general use and get a feel for what can and cannot be done.

Solving the power problem

pi-powerLike mentioned in the previous article, a normal mobile charger (5 volt, 2 amps) is not enough to support the nano-pi. Since I have misplaced my original PI power-supply with 5 volt / 3 amps I decided to cheat. So I plugged the power USB into my PC which will deliver as much juice as the device needs. I don’t have time to wait for a new PSU to arrive so this will have to do.

But for the record (and underlined) a proper PSU with at least 2.5 amps is essential to using this board. I suggest you order the official Raspberry PI 3b power-supply. But if you should find one with 3 amps that would be even better.

Web performance

The question on everyone’s mind (or at least mine) is: how does the Nano-PI fire 3 perform when rendering cutting edge, hardcore HTML5? Is this little device a potential candidate for running “The Smart Desktop” (a.k.a Amibian.js for those of you coming from the retro-computing scene)?

Like I suspected earlier, X (the Linux windowing framework) doesn’t have drivers that deliver hardware acceleration at all.

shot_desktop-1024x819-2-1024x819

Lubuntu is a sexy desktop no doubt there, but it’s overkill for this device

This is quite easy to test: when selecting a rectangle on the Lubuntu desktop and moving the mouse-cursor around (holding down the left mouse button at the same time) if it lags terribly, that is a clear indicator that no acceleration exists.

And I was right on the money because there is no acceleration what so ever for the Linux distribution. It struggles hopelessly to keep up with the mouse-pointer as you move it around with an active selection; something that would be silky smooth had the GPU been tasked with the job.

But, hardware acceleration is not just about the desktop. It’s not some flag you enable and it magically effect everything, but rather several API’s at either the kernel-level or immediate driver level (modules the kernel loads), each affecting different aspects of a system.

So while the desktop “2d blitting” is clearly cpu driven, other aspects of the system can still be accelerated (although that would be weird and rare. But considering how Asus messed up the Tinkerboard I guess anything goes these days).

Asking Chrome for the hard facts

I fired up Google Chrome (which is the default browser thank god) and entered the magic url:

chrome://gpu

This is a built-in page that avails a detailed report of what Chrome learns about the current system, right down to specific GPU features used by OpenGL.

As expected, there was NO acceleration what so ever. So I was quite surprised that it managed to run Amibian.js at all. Even without hardware acceleration it outperformed the Raspberry PI 3b+ by a factor of 4 (at the very least) and my particle demo ran at a whopping 8 fps (frames per second). The original Rasperry PI could barely manage 2 fps. So the Nano-PI Fire is leagues ahead of the PI in terms of raw cpu power, which is brilliant for headless servers or computational tasks.

FriendlyCore vs Lubuntu? QT for the win

Now here is a funny thing. So far I have used the Lubuntu standard Linux image, and performance has been interesting to say the least. No hardware acceleration, impressive cpu results but still – what good is a SBC Linux distro without fast graphics? Sure, if you just want a head-less file server or host services then you don’t need a beefy GPU. But here is the twist:

Turns out the makers of the board has a second, QT oriented distro called Friendly-core. And this image has OpenGL-ES support and all the missing acceleration lacking from Lubuntu.

I was pretty annoyed with how Asus gave users the run-around with Tinkerboard downloads, but they have thankfully cleaned up their act and listened to their customers. Friendly-elec might want to learn from Asus mistakes in this area.

Qtwebenginebrowser

QT has a rich history, but it’s being marginalized by node.js and Delphi these days

Alas, Friendly-core xenial 4.4 Arm64 image turned out to be a pure embedded development image. This is why the board has a debug port (which is probably awesome if you are into QT development). So this is for QT developers that want to use the board as a single-application system where they write the code on Windows or Linux, compile and it’s all transported to the board with live debugging back to the devtools they use. In other words: not very useful for non C/C++ QT developers.

Android Lolipop

2000px-Android_robot.svgI have only used Android on a pad and the odd Samsung Galaxy phone, so this should be interesting. I Downloaded the Lolipop disk image, burned it to the sd-card and booted up.

After 20 minutes with a blank screen i gave up.

I realize that some Android distros download packages ad-hoc and install directly from a repository, so it can take some time to get started; but 15-20 minutes with a black screen? The Android logo didn’t even show up — and that should be visible almost immediately regardless of network install or not.

This is really a great shame because I wanted to test some Delphi Firemonkey applications on it, to see how well it scales the more demanding GPU tasks. And yes i did try a different SD-Card to be sure it wasnt a disk error. Same result.

Back to Lubuntu

Having spent a considerable time trying to find a “wow” factor for this board, I have to just surrender to the fact that it’s just not there. . This is not a “PI” any more than the Tinkerboard is a PI. And appending “pi” to a product name will never change that.

I can imagine the Nano-PI Fire 3 being an awesome single-application board for QT C/C++ developers though. With a dedicated debug port making it a snap to transport, execute and do live debugging directly on the hardware — but for general DIY hacking, using it for native Android development with Delphi, or node.js development with Smart Mobile Studio – or just kicking back with emulators like Mame, UAE or whatever tickles your fancy — its just too rough around the edges. Which is really a shame!

So at the end of the day I re-installed Lubuntu and figure I just have to wait until Friendly-elec get their act together and issue proper drivers for the Mali GPU. So it’s $35 straight out the window — but I can live with that. It was a risk but at that price it’s not going to break the bank.

The positive thing

The Nano-PI Fire 3 is yet another SBC in a long list that fall short of its potential. Like many others they try to use the word “PI” to channel some of the Raspberry PI enthusiasm their way – but the quality of the actual system is not even close.

In fact, using PI in their product name is setting themselves up for a fall – because customers will quickly discover that this product is not a PI, which can cause some subconscious aversion and resentment.

37013365_10155541149775906_3122577366065348608_o

The Nano rendered Amibian.js running some very demanding demos 4 times as fast as the PI 3b, one can only speculate what the board could do with proper drivers for the GPU.

The only positive feature the Fire-3 clearly has to offer, is abundantly more cpu power. It is without a doubt twice as fast (if not 3 times as fast) as the Raspberry PI 3b. The fact that it can render highly demanding and complex HTML5 demos 4 times faster than the Raspberry PI 3b without hardware acceleration is impressive. This is a $35 board after all, which is the same price.

But without proper drivers for the mali, it’s a useless toy. Powerful and with great potential, but utterly useless for multimedia and everything that relies on fast 2D and 3D graphics. For UAE (Amiga emulation) you can pretty much forget it. Even if you can compile the latest UAE4Arm with SDL as its primary display framework – it wouldn’t work because SDL depends on the graphics drivers. So it’s back to square one.

But the CPU packs a punch that is without question.

Final verdict

Top the x86 UP board, left bottom a Raspberry PI 3, bottom right the ODroid XU4

There are a lot of stable and excellent options out there, take your time

I was planning to test UAE next but as I have outlined above: without drivers that properly expose and delegate the power of the mali, it would be a complete disaster. I’m not even sure it would build.

As such I will just leave this board as is. If it matures at some point that would be great, but my advice to people looking for a great SBC experience — get the new Raspberry PI 3b+ and enjoy learning and exploring there.

And if you are into Amibian.js or making high quality HTML5 kiosk / node.js based systems, then fork out the extra $10 and buy an ODroid XU4. If you pay $55 you can pick up the Asus Tinkerboard which is blistering fast and great value for money, despite its turbulent introduction.

Note: You cannot go wrong with the ODroid XU4. Its affordable, stable and fast. So for beginners it’s either the Raspberry PI 3b+ or the ODroid. These are the most mature in terms of software, drivers and stability.

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