As single board computers progress and become more and more powerful, so does their use as a desktop replacement become ever more viable. We’ve talked about this before – with several companies marketing their products as capable of such feats while accomplishing the task with varying levels of success. We’re not quite there yet (with the exception of some Intel-based SBCs which encroach upon the desktop territory both in performance and price), ARM SoCs are quickly catching up to their x86 siblings and in some high-end cases even surpassing them.
But as technology tends to do, what once was the very summit of our prowess has since slowly trickled down and seeped into inexpensive parts, enabling the advent of many technologies in the consumer field. With that being said, it’s not hard to fathom the incredibly low prices and (relatively) powerful performance modern SBCs bring. Sure, the Raspberry Pi was the trendsetter and before its debut it had been incredibly difficult to obtain any serious “disposable” computational power. Nowadays, however, with so many contenders available, the SBC form factor is a market in its own right.
Despite the fierce competition, the latest entry in Raspberry Pi’s portfolio, dubbed the Pi 4B (our review of it can be found here), remains one of the most powerful and the most popular board on the market. Naturally, a wide array of accessories for the model have popped up, some of which are quite necessary thanks to the Pi’s poor thermal performance. Cases have also been popular from the inception of the SBC as protecting a computer’s guts from dust generally seems like the right idea.
In a market saturated with boards, cooling solutions for the former and boxes to shove the former two into, how do you stand out?
SBCs are great. Reading through our extensive list of SBC reviews we’ve created over the past few years, one can notice our own love for these little systems enabling everyone to deploy IoT systems and create various server-based projects, among other things. At the same time, certain models have proved themselves worthy of serious industrial use thanks to their wide IO arrays and reliability. SBCs also draw impressively little power, with the most power-hungry models rarely requiring more than 15W under top loads, making them very easy to power.
Sadly, that power is usually provided by a switched-mode power brick attached to a nearby outlet and delivered through a USB port – which means that there’s nothing between a power outage and your data being lost or services being fully interrupted. Short of a full-size desktop UPS, there’s not much that can be done to combat outages – but given the fact that compact size is one of the biggest upsides of an SBC, it’s easy to see why a large, bulky battery backup box is somewhat inappropriate in most use-cases.
In today’s review we’re taking a look at a solution to this problem – SunFounder’s PiPower – a tiny, easily attached and sleek UPS system designed for SBCs. While it’s not the first device of its kind, it’s certainly the neatest one we’ve seen so far. SunFounder sent this device free of charge to us for review purposes.
Inside the box are quite a few parts – all the screws and standoffs, an acrylic backing plate, a screwdriver and the PiPower module itself. Two high-quality braided cables (one Type-C and one Micro USB) for connecting the UPS to the SBC are also included in the set – which is a great touch. These cables are extra-short, which is great for keeping the setup tidy (can you even easily get such tiny cables commercially?) and for keeping the overall footprint small.
We’ve already the overheating tendencies of modern SBCs a few times in the articles we’ve written in the past. Seriously, these little powerhouses need some sort of cooling – be it passive or active – to retain their peak performance for a reasonably long time.
Some of them come with stock heatsinks, while others don’t. The latter group is thus often left by most users to overheat and throttle, seriously lowering performance. Sitting at a not-so-nice toasty 80°C, while technically safe, is not the best practice and certainly does not do any good to the CPU.
Most solutions for cooling single-board computers come in one of two flavours: a small heatsink or a small heatsink with a fan bodged atop. While this is reasonably effective for low-TDP SoCs, it leaves a bit to be desired, especially when overclocking.
SunFounder had something different when they sent us the Raspberry Pi 4 IceCube cooling solution. It’s a proper little heatpipe-based system with a radiator and an RGB (everything has to be nowadays) fan. It looks like a miniature version of a proper desktop cooling setup – and it’s adorable. The mounting was pretty straightforward – as the cooler holds itself suspended on four arms right above the CPU, RAM, ethernet controller and the USB controller. The IceCube uses rather thick thermal pads to couple the bottom of the heatsink – which does make using thermal paste a bit of a challenge – but in our tests the provided thermal pads worked a treat!
As a demo project, we created a little Wi-Fi enabled display stand using the SunFounder 10.1″ LCD touchscreen, Banana Pi M5 and the RTK8822CS BPI WiFi adapter. The display setup was extremely smooth and easy, but the WiFi module setup required some additional steps.
After installing the WiFi module on the back of the M5, we enabled the environment overlays for the “wifi_bt_rtl8822cs” layout.
After doing this, we had a great little touchscreen-enabled wireless IoT device, capable of connecting to various databases or websites and displaying dashboard data.
SBCs have been changing industry and maker spaces for quite a while now – and while many projects are developed using CLI tools and SSH access, sometimes a more graphically impressive solution might be needed – especially when user comfort is important.
This is when many of us reach for a proper display – and while SBCs work great plugged into the TV, it’s not always convenient to hog up hardware already in use for a project. Here SBC screens come into play – a somewhat niche group of products that usually add display and touch functionality to these little computers – turning them into fully-fledged standalone devices.
Some SBC screens, like the Official Raspberry Pi display, use hard-to-come-by cables or obscure ports which limit their usability to a single model or family of computers. This is why HDMI-based screens offer a big advantage when board compatibility is key.
SunFounder sent us their 10.1” HDMI IPS display for review. This unit is on the larger side for this kind of equipment – and being HDMI-based, has a large list of devices supported. There’s another trick up its sleeve – the touch controller works over USB, which further increases compatibility – there’s basically no device on the market that doesn’t have USB!