Raspberry Pi vs. APC Rock

Not three years ago, when thinking of a new electronics project, you had to plan for some breadboard configuration time where you were going to figure out how to hook-up the microcontroller of your choice to whatever signals were coming in. Personally, I always thought of this stage of a bit of a pain: “High” frequency signals would pollute other signals, devices would need to be either on daughter cards or have the right package to be hooked-up correctly… Arduino development boards changed that forever. The Raspberry Pi made it official. And now, others are jumping into the bandwagon. Today: APC’s Rock vs. what has become the baseline of low-power, low-cost, semi-custom computing, the Raspberry-Pi.

Background

Much has been said about the Raspberry-Pi. So much in fact, that I won’t go over it again. The one thing I will say is that, without a question, it’s been far more successful than what was originally expected.

APC is VIA’s brand that is meant to show their vision of what the future of desktop PC’s will look like. VIA is a taiwanese fabless electronics manufacturer that both designs and produces their own processors, and provides semi-custom low-power PC’s.

Each product is the result of a very different background – the Raspberry Pi wanting to bring computer development to everybody, and the Rock being the second generation device for getting on the internet quickly. But yet…

Head-to-head

When I hear “future of desktop PC’s”, I think of  low-power versions of today’s Toshiba’s LX810 or the Sony VAIO VPCL. APC has a different idea. The Rock’s case is no different to that of the Raspberry Pi. In other words, it’s non-existant. Full disclosure, the APC Paper does have a case, but it comes at a higher price-point. In any case, the point I’m trying to make is that APC’s vision is that of the Raspberry Pi’s foundation: simple, low-cost hardware driven by cheap (or free) operating systems.

Similar vision, but what does the end result look like?

Raspberry Pi Model B VIA APC Rock
SoC Broadcom ARM11 @ 700 MHz VIA ARM Cortex-A9 @ 800MHz (single-core)
Processor Architecture 32-bit ARM v.6 32-bit ARM v.7
GPU Broadcom videocore, capable of OpenGL, OpenVG, Full HD Yes (800 x 480 resolution suspected)
RAM 512 MB DDR2 512 MB DDR3
Storage SD (not included) microSD
Storage Size Expandable through USB 4 GB NAND flash
USB 2 ports 2 regular ports; 1 microUSB
Ethernet 1 port, 10/100 Mbps 1 port, 10/100 Mbps
Video Output Composite or HDMI VGA or HDMI
Realtime clock No Yes
SPI 1 1
LED No No
GPIO 8 12
I2C 2 1
PWM Audio Jack 4
I2S Yes Not branched out explicitly
ADC input No No
UART 1 1
Timers No -
CAN No No
JTAG Yes Yes
Power Supply 5V 5V
Power consumption 3.5 W 12 W
Size 85.60 mm x 53.98 mm 170 mm x 80 mm
OS Linux-based, Qt-based Android 4.0 (preinstalled), ThinPC OS
Expansions Standard USB accessories as supported by Linux USB accessories as supported by Android

Let’s try to simplify:

  • The SoC on the Rock is faster than that on the Raspberry – it might be comparable to the one used on the BeagleBone (although others seem to have a different idea). RAM is definitely faster, and it’s nice to have a dedicated FLASH memory that basically contains the OS. It also includes serial pins and GPIOs, which speaks to the manufacturer’s vision of creating a rapid-prototyping board.
  • But then there’s power consumption. The VIA chipset is definitely more power-hungry than that of the Raspberry Pi (or of the BeagleBone, for that matter). Almost 3.5x more.
  • Android is de-facto operating system on the Rock (which goes hand-in-hand with the idea of allowing the final user to get on the internet as fast as possible). I am not familiar enough with Android to make a judgement call over Linux, but I suspect it is easier to hack into the hardware for home-brewed projects using the latter.
  • Clearly, the Rock has almost double the real-estate than that of the Raspberry Pi. It might not be a big issue if in fact the device is meant to be resting on-top of a desk somewhere, but with real-estate comes cost…

One of the non-tangible items lacking on the table above is support – The Raspberry Pi community shares schematics, and code. Forums have been set-up. This is not so clear with the APC community. In fact, the manual limits to explaining how to turn the power on.

The Rock sells for USD79 + S&H, which normally adds-up to US$99. A Raspberry Pi plus S&H, power-supply, HDMI cable and a 4GB SD card will be around USD75.

Conclusion

Well, even though hardware is somewhat comparable (with the APC Rock having slightly superior specs), the two devices have two very different approaches to the end-customer. The Raspberry Pi is intended as a completely hackable machine, while the Rock is a better key-in-hand solution. The former is a better prototyping board; the latter a cheap get-online-quick solution.

Sources

http://apc.io/products/rock/

http://apc.io/rock-manual/

http://apc.io/media/apc/library/8950-A/rock-pinout-diagram.pdf

http://apc.io/media/apc/library/8950-A/rock-metalshield.pdf

http://www.arm.com/products/processors/cortex-a/cortex-a9.php

http://www.topnotchtablets.com/via_8850_chipset

http://www.via.com.tw/en/company/vision.jsp

http://elinux.org/RPi_Hardware

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