We’ve already had our hands on the excellent Banana Pi M5 SBC in our previous issue, and have explored some of its capabilities. Today, we’re taking a look at its smaller sibling, the Banana Pi M4, and the differences in features and price that might make it more enticing for some.
The Banana Pi M4 used in this review has been provided to us by the manufacturer for review purposes.
Single board computers are somewhat of a different category from other computing platforms, as they tend to end up embedded in some other project or product or used for running a specific service. This makes their use more specialised, and thus shifts focus from pure performance and benchmarks to some other factors – like power envelopes, port selection and cost. Given that today’s SBCs are all incredibly powerful – strikingly fast compared even to last decades’ high-end desktops – many, if not most projects hardly utilise the power under the hood. For this reason, slower but cheaper and/or smaller systems, like the Raspberry Pi Zero, have proven so popular among hobbyists.
The Banana Pi M4 sports a slightly unconventional Realtek RTD1395 SoC, which features four Cortex A53 CPU cores alongside a Mali 470 MP4 GPU. Realtek is usually known as a producer of Ethernet controllers and audio codecs, but their chip division certainly holds its own in the set-top box and HD media device market. The M4 also comes with 1 or 2 GB of RAM and 8 GBs of eMMC on-board storage, the latter of which being a signature feature of Banana Pi computers.
The IO selection is also vast – with four USB 2.0 ports, a full-size HDMI connector, a 100 Mbps ethernet port, a 3.5 mm audio jack, a standard Pi-compatible GPIO header, a PoE connector, a debug RX/TX header, a USB-C power connector (using the USB-OTG protocol, so no USB-PD or other such technologies here, meaning a regular USB 2.0 power brick will work the best), a microSD card slot, four buttons, a boot selector switch, and a M.2 key E connector. There’s also on-board WiFi supporting the b/g/n/ac standards, and Bluetooth 4.2.
One of the main goals of the M4 is replacing the Raspberry Pi 3 lineup in projects that use it – as it offers the same form factor but expands on its connectors and features greatly. First off, the inclusion of a power and reboot switch, as minor as it may seem, is a feature we constantly wish for other SBCs to include. Next, the boot select switch is a huge time-saver, as it allows for choosing the boot location between the SD card and eMMC with a simple physical action, instead of requiring the eMMC to be empty for the SD to boot. We wonder why more SBCs don’t use this solution as it’s brilliantly simple. The BOOT and INSTALL buttons on the SBC are used for installing certain OSs and accessing U-BOOT easily.
M4 supports quite a lot of different OSs, from various Linux distros to Android 8.1, as as such, we’d consider it a mature platform. It even supports Raspbian – truly making it a drag-and-drop replacement for the Pi 3. Thanks to the boot switch, it’s also very easy to install multiple OSs on the system and transfer then to the eMMC, and also makes it possible to dual-boot with two different OSs on the SD card and internal storage, making it possible to change between these easily. Overall, the system install process for the M4 was more user-friendly than on the M5, which we appreciate.
We’ve tried Ubuntu Mate, Server and Debian and all three ran reasonably well. Even though the GUIs ran smoothly, we think the M4 truly shines in CLI usage as a webserver or IoT server. Still, all libraries and apps we’ve tried worked great, so we can’t say anything bad about the general usability of the system.
We always stress how unimportant benchmarks are in separating good from great SBCs, but still think they allow for a quick comparison and reference of a system’s pure computational capabilities. The Banana Pi M4 scored 2528 in the Octane test, 112 on the BMark GPU benchmark and pushed 55 FPS in the glxgears test (274 frames per 5 seconds). These results are higher than those of the Raspberry Pi 3B, the intended competitor of the M4, but are lower than the current high-end SBCs by quite a margin. Still, the M4 isn’t meant to compete with the likes of the M5 and Pi 4B, but rather to offer a quality alternative for projects requiring special hardware and functionality that it brings to the table.
Like the M5, the M4 has a speedy eMMC chip which offers serious read/write benefits over eMMC-less competitors, as well as a highly efficient cores that allow the M4 to sustain high load without thermal throttling (the external temperature never rose above 50 degrees). The powerful GPU in the M4 also allows for 4K 30FPS video playback with no hiccups. The presence of a PoE connector ensure compatibility with all Raspberry Pi HaTs, including the PoE hat, and the M.2 slot greatly expands the capabilities of the system compared to its intended competitors. Thus, interestingly, the M4, while slower in benchmarks than the M5, offers some key advantages in hardware which make it an extremely interesting proposition.
But there’s another killer feature. The Banana Pi M4 costs just $35. At this price, it all suddenly makes so much sense. That’s extremely cheap on today’s SBC market, where higher-end models often run north of $70, and require additional hardware to get all of the hardware functionality of the M4.
Aside from the M4, we also got sent an acrylic case for the unit, which easily assembles, protects the unit from dust and looks great, while seemingly not negatively affecting the thermal performance of the system. We commend the manufacturer on the great design here.
Overall, we think the Banana Pi M4 is both a great entry-point into the world of SBCs and a great replacement for older models in projects which require those. It’s not the fastest on the market by a long shot, but it’s very well equipped with a variety of connectors, has built-in storage, a clever system for managing boot disks and a built-in antenna system. This all, alongside great software support makes it a worthy SBC on today’s market.
More informations: https://www.banana-pi.org