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I am going to spend the summer at my parents on a rural area. I don’t intend to take a laptop with me as I don’t enjoy working on laptops and have no need to have a computer on the go. Specially during pandemic times.

I am looking for a single board computer I can use as a desktop workstation. Most people think of the raspberry pi, but I would like to know about alternatives.

Which one do you prefer/recommend and why?

One thing I find quite negative is all this SD card as main storage. I’ll most likely will have to setle for it, but I am curious if there are alternatives with support for sata.

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    I’d recommend a NUC here. I’ve tried using an RPi 1, and then an RPi 3 as desktops, but both were painful compared to a NUC, which was drama-free. I’ve never had any problems with mainstream Linux on mine. IIRC, it comes with either SATA or M.2.

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      I’ve also used an Intel compute stick when traveling. It has the added benefit of not needing an hdmi cable.

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        It has its benefits, but it was slow when it came out five years ago… I used one for a conference room and it really is disappointing. A NUC would have been better. Harder to lose if you do take it traveling, too.

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        I agree with this: If you don’t want a laptop, a very small form factor PC is a better choice than a more barebones SBC for use as a general-purpose PC. The NUC is great, though there’s some similar alternatives on the market too.

        I have a Zotac ZBOX from a little while ago. It has a SATA SSD, Intel CPU and GPU, and works great in Linux. In particular it has two gigabit NICs and wifi, which has made it useful to me for things like inline network traffic diagnosis, but it’s generally useful as a Linux (or, presumably, Windows) PC.

        The one I own has hdmi, displayport, and vga, making it compatible with a wide selection of monitors. That’s important if you’re expecting to use random displays you find wherever you’re going to. It also comes with a VESA bracket so it can be attached to the back of some computer monitors, which is nice for reducing clutter and cabling.

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          Yeah I just bought 2 NUCs to replace a tower and a mini PC. They’re very small, powerful, and the latest ones seem low power and quiet.

          The less powerful NUC was $450, and I got portable 1920x1080 monitor for $200, so it’s much cheaper than a laptop, and honestly pretty close in size! And the CPU is good, about as powerful as the best desktop CPUs you could get circa 2014:

          https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=Intel+Core+i5-8260U+%40+1.60GHz&id=3724

          old CPU which was best in class in a tower in 2014: https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=Intel+Core+i7-4790+%40+3.60GHz&id=2226

          (the more powerful one was $800 total and even faster: https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=Intel+Core+i7-10710U+%40+1.10GHz&id=3567 although surprisingly not that much faster)

          This setup, along with a keyboard and trackball, is very productive for coding. I’m like the OP and don’t like using a laptop. IMO the keyboard and monitor shouldn’t be close together for good posture.

          In contrast the tower PC in 2014 was $700 + ~$300 in upgrades, and the monitor from ~2006 was $1000 or more. Everything is USB-C too on the NUC/monitor setup which is nice.

          I guess my tip is to not upgrade your PC for 7-10 years and you’ll be pleasantly surprised :) USB-C seems like a big improvement.

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            Yeah I just bought 2 NUCs to replace a tower and a mini PC. They’re very small, powerful, and the latest ones seem low power and quiet.

            NUCs are great machines, but they are definitely not quiet. Because of their blower-style fan, they become quite loud as soon as the CPU is just a bit under load. Audio proof: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOkyFLrPc3E&t=341s

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              So far I haven’t had a problem, but it’s only been about 3 weeks.

              The noise was the #1 thing I was worried about, since I’m sensitive to it, but it seems fine. For reference I replaced the GPU fan in my 2014 Dell tower because it was ridiculously noisy, and I have a 2012 era Mac Mini clone that is also ridiculously noisy when idle. The latter honestly 10x louder than the NUC when idle, and I have them sitting side by side now.

              The idle noise bothers me the most. I don’t have any usage patterns where you are running with high CPU for hours on end. Playing HD video doesn’t do much to the CPU; that appears to be mostly GPU.

              I’m comparing against a low bar of older desktop PCs, but I also think Macbook Airs have a similar issue – the fan spins really loud when you put them under load. For me that has been OK. (AdBlock goes a long way on the Macbooks, since ads code in JS is terrible and often pegs the CPU.)


              I think the newer CPUs in the NUCs are lower power too. Looking at the CPU benchmarks above, the 2014 Dell i7 is rated a 84 W TDP. The 2020 i5 is MORE powerful, and rated 10 W TDP down and 25 W TDP up.

              I’m not following all the details, but my impression is that while CPUs didn’t get that much faster in the last 7 years, the power usage went down dramatically. And thus the need to spin up fans, and that’s what I’ve experienced so far.

              I should start compiling a bunch of C++ and running my open source release process to be sure. But honestly I don’t know of any great alternative to the NUCs, so I went ahead and bought a second one after using the first one for 3 weeks. They’re head and shoulders above my old PCs in all dimensions, including noise, which were pretty decent at the time.

              I think the earlier NUCs had a lot of problems, but it seems (hopefully) they’ve been smoothed out by now. I did have to Google for a few Ubuntu driver issues on one of them and edit some config files. The audio wasn’t reliable on one of them until I manually changed a config with Vim.

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            Never heard of a NUC before now but I can agree that trying to use an RPi as a desktop is unpleasant.

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              Yeah the Pi CPUs are very underpowered, it’s not even a fair comparison. They’re different machines for different purposes. I would strongly recommend against using a Pi as your primary Linux development machine.

              I think this is the raspberry Pi 4 CPU, at 739 / 500:

              https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=ARM+Cortex-A72+4+Core+1500+MHz&id=3917

              And here’s the one in the NUC I bought for less than $500, at 7869 / 2350 :

              https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=Intel+Core+i5-8260U+%40+1.60GHz&id=3724

              So it’s it’s 4-5x faster single-threaded, and 10x faster overall !!! Huge difference.

              One of them is 1500 Mhz and the other one is 1600 Mhz, but there’s a >10x difference in computer. So never use clock speed to compare CPUs, especially when the architecture is different!

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              I have also been using a NUC for a year now, and it works well. A lot of monitors also allow you to screw the NUC to its back, decluttering your desk.

              Just watch out, it has no speakers of it’s own!

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              I am a fan of RockPro64. It has a Rockchip RK3399, with dual-core Cortex-A72 and quad-core Cortex-A53. It also has a slot for the vendor’s eMMC cards, so you don’t have to deal with microSD cards that end up breaking. The price is reasonable, you can get a heatsink with or without a fan, and I like the company: they do cool things like Pinephone, a $200 Linux smartphone.

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                How well does it work with stock distro-provided kernels, like the generic ARM64 kernel in Debian or Fedora? I don’t like SBCs that require their own custom kernel, or worse, their own custom-made distro image.

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                  My understanding has been that you will generally not find an SBC that works well with a generic Linux distribution. (Might be wrong.) I ran Armbian on a RockPro64 and it worked quite well; now I run FreeBSD 13 on it and it has no issues at all.

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                    I also use Armbian, which I find “generic enough” these days for these boards. At least it’s not some weird out-of-date custom image. It appears that there are now daily Debian images (more details here), but I don’t know what kernel they use.

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                      By generic Linux distribution, what do you mean? Does manjaro arm qualify?

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                        Yes, that looks very good, and just the counterexample I was hoping for.

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                      The RockPro64 is very similar to the Pinebook Pro. I would be astonished if the Manjaro Arm builds that are available for the Pinebook Pro don’t Just Work there.

                      The release notes for Manjaro ARM 21.02 says that they supply an image for it.

                      There’s not any secret sauce at all in Manjaro ARM. The kernels are generally pretty vanilla upstream beasts. You might have some work to do to get other distributions packaged so UBoot will deal with them, and there might be some manual effort to get UBoot in place, but with a good open worked example like Manjaro, it won’t be bad.

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                        See the blogposts here https://marcin.juszkiewicz.com.pl/archives (June 2020) for a lot of good info about RockPro64 and Linux

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                      I would go with a second hand laptop. It is cheap, performant, not too big in clam mode, standard port wide and has a resale value if you don’t need it for long.

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                        I recently got a SimplyNUC Ruby R8 - https://simplynuc.com/ruby/. I paid about $1200 USD for it and then threw a 2TB Samsung 980 Pro NVMe drive in it (another ~$300). So total outlay of around $1550-1600.

                        It’s got a Zen 2 in it and it’s obscenely powerful. I have an Alienware desktop that I use as VM host and the Ruby R8’s mobile CPU scores higher than the Alienware desktop CPU on PassMark and friends.

                        Right now it’s sitting mostly idle, but I’ve got FreeBSD 13 on it and have been doing some App Dev with bhyve and/or jails.

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                          The Ruby R8 sounds really interesting. How’s the fan noise, both at idle and when maxing out the CPU?

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                            Pretty quiet even when I am compiling something and pegging all the cores. Typical high speed laptop fan sound if you’re doing something intensive.

                            That said, it gets good airflow where it sits so I don’t often notice an issue.

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                          I can recommend Compulab, which builds very rugged industrial computers, including single-board ones. I really don’t like the lack of durability with the NUCs and they feel very cheap.

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                            Like others, I would strongly recommend something like an Intel NUC. For the following reasons:

                            1. Supports fast NVME storage along with SATA.
                            2. High quality open-source graphics drivers
                            3. Lots of standard I/O (DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, USB3, Ethernet, WiFi/Bluetooth)
                            4. Large RAM capacity (Usually 64GB)
                            5. (Relatively) Fast
                            6. Excellent Linux/BSD support, along with virtualization, across many distros (it’s just a PC)

                            Their biggest downside is their cost. Unless you buy a previous generation used, you can easily spend $700+. Other downside is lack of stuff like exposed GPIO, I2C, SPI bus headers, which may not be relevant to you if you’re not doing any serious hardware hacking.

                            Every ARM-based SBC I’ve used I’ve always relied on a secondary desktop computer to do certain things. I could never see myself living on one exclusively. And when pricing out an ARM SBC, be sure to include the cost of any add-ons, a high quality power supply (Under-powering a SBC will cause crashes and sometimes data corruption), a good chassis, etc.

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                              To be honest, I never got into SBCs; I don’t like dealing with naked boards (around a cat, no less) nor do I like messing with their limitations. You might have better luck with say, an SFF business desktop. They’re reliable, predictable machines, faster than any SBC out there, and can be had cheap on the used market. I use one for a server and it’s more than enough power.

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                                There are some great little boards out there:

                                • NanoPC T4 (FriendlyARM): keeps up with (or beats) the RPi 4 on performance, has an NVMe slot, uses onboard eMMC instead of SD cards, has a ~$10 metal case & fan option for sustained, desktop-style usage
                                • RockPro64: good performance, full PCI slot, very active user community and good vendor support
                                • Khadas VIM3 and VIM3l: similarly fast, very compact, a bit pricey in terms of performance per $$
                                • Odroid/HardKernel C4: RPi form factor (incl. compatible GPIO layout), good performance with only passive cooling, supports eMMC or SD boot media, needs a USB WiFi adapter
                                • Odroid N2+: better performance than the C4 (uses the same SoC as the Khadas VIM3), lots of I/O, nice “tiny desktop”-style cases
                                • LattePanda: “original” board runs a low-power Celeron, Alpha/Delta models use laptop-class i3 chips, decent performance and native x86 (incl. Windows, if you want that), onboard Arduino-compatible MCU, definitely more $$ than most ARM boards

                                Unfortunately, if you want something soon you may be more constrained by availability than desired features. The chip shortage is hitting these manufacturers hard, esp. since they don’t have the volume or clout of a big OEM.

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                                  ODROID-H2+ which is small 4 cores x86 system: https://www.hardkernel.com/shop/odroid-h2plus/

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                                    I’d look at archlinuxarm’s supported armv8 platform list.

                                    Yes, it’s short and the specs are low. Particularly, SBCs have this tendency to be ram-starved. I personally find that I can’t work on less than 16GB anymore, and it’s going to be tight unless I have at least 32GB.

                                    So you should also consider ryzen-based embedded systems, or just building your own computer on mini-itx form factor.

                                    And do not discount laptops. They are “a desktop workstation” once you attach a separate screen/keyboard/mouse.

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                                      A feature packed RPi CM4 carrier board with M.2, such as the Tofu board, I think is the dream for me currently.

                                      I have ambitions of building a laptop, and its 7-28V input is also a perfect match for a 6 cell LiPo battery.

                                      Edit: Or the Mirko board for a full size M.2 slot.

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                                        … also as FreeBSD recently got ARM64 into TIER 1 architecture - which means binary updates with freebsd-update(8) along with security patches and binary packages using pkg(8) then suddenly Raspberry Pi 4 8GB become very interesting and wanted SBC :)

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                                          Rpi4 is a decent option if you don’t need GPU acceleration. Currently it is a mess with latest kernel + using a stock distro (like Debian for example).

                                          Other options: Pine64, Honeycomb LX2.

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                                            it works adequately with latest Fedora and Debian Bullseye though (headless).

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                                              Yes, I use it with Bullseye. It is really fast.

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                                              The Honeycomb LX2K is not an SBC. Even without the RAM modules there are two boards :D

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                                              What are you valuing in choosing a SBC or something smaller than an ITX rig? Is the minimal size or portability (without mobility) a requirement? If budget is your concern, consider a used business workstation, e.g. Lenovo Thinkstation or similar form factor.

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                                                I use a Lenovo think centre as my main workstation at home.

                                                I wanted something with minimal cost and easy portability. Wouldn’t really carry a thinkcenter or a mini itx build in my pocket like I would a raspberry pi.

                                                I am also aiming for something I don’t feel too bad about loosing or even getting stolen. An SBC is also more easily repurposed on all sorts of DYI projects. Or I could give it away to someone that wants it. As I don’t know many people that would want a low spec desktop computer that is not an SBC.

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                                                Start with Debian wiki about raspberry pi, then read Armbian forum. There are too many poorly supported boards.

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                                                  The UDOO BOLT V8 has a Ryzen V1605B 4C/8T with Vega 8 graphics. The V3 has a 2C/4T Ryzen V1202B with Vega 3 graphics.

                                                  BOLT V8: https://shop.udoo.org/udoo-bolt-v8.html

                                                  BOLT V3: https://shop.udoo.org/udoo-bolt-v3.html

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                                                    Depending on what you’re up to, I’ve been working with both the Jetson Nano ($99) and the Xavier (uhh $700?) for a project I’m working on. They’re both quite solid units, although the Nano is pretty limited (4GB RAM, pokey CPU). The Xavier is a pretty capable unit, although compile times are a bit long; there’s an 8-core ARM CPU, but it’s not screaming fast. If you’re doing ML stuff though, the Xavier has a pretty capable GPU.

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                                                      HARDKERNEL have a lot of different options including the H2+ (sadly out of stock) which is x86 and has two SATA3.0 ports.

                                                      Their HC4 also has dual SATA ports and is available.

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                                                        I have both Hardkernel Odroid XU4 and Pine Rock64 (among others) and they’re great little devices but think they’re not ideal for workstation use unless you also have a larger faster x86 system nearby. I’d consider getting a NUC or a mini-PC (see this one from ASRock) or trolling auction site for a Lenovo Thinkcentre M93P “tiny” small form factor (sff) or HP G1-600 which go for $150-$200 and run Linux or Windows easily.

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                                                          I have the Jetson Nano, and that may work well for a desktop, although I only use this for my autonomous robot. I’m looking at upgrading to the Jetson Xavier NX ( https://developer.nvidia.com/embedded/jetson-xavier-nx )

                                                          I haven’t heard of the RockPro64 or NUC, but I’ll keep those in mind for low power servers.

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                                                            I run my home lab on a mix of Rock Pi X’s (https://www.seeedstudio.com/Rock-Pi-X-Model-B-4GB-p-4277.html) and Raspberry Pi’s. The Rock Pi X is basically a Raspberry Pi but with an Intel processor, so I just wanted to throw that out there as an option. If this will be your main computer, I definitely recommend something more powerful: these types of devices are fine for set-and-forget services, but as a daily driver, you will definitely find them lacking.

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                                                              This is an interesting board. Do you know of any European reseller?

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                                                              I’ve been looking at the Asus PN50, comes with 4000 series AMD cpus (Ryzen7!) in a NUC-like format: https://www.asus.com/Displays-Desktops/Mini-PCs/All-series/Mini-PC-PN50/ One limitation is NVMe only up to 512gb, SSD to 1tb, but goes to 64gb ram.

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                                                                Raspberry Pi4 8GB RAM + USB3 SSD can work as a desktop replacement, if you are frugal. Very frugal. Tiling window manager type of frugal, an up to date desktop environment alone makes using it a chore eben with no application started.

                                                                Pi4 + SDcard is like driving a car with emergency wheels.

                                                                If you are the type of user who has more than a dozend tabs opened constantly, do not go this route.

                                                                Also, last time I checked (January) hardware video acceleration still did not work, if you tried the 64bit OS version.

                                                                I’d recommend a NUC mounted with a vesa bracket behind an antiglare monitor, a fitting set of short cables, decent bluetooth in-ears, and maybe a foldable vizor for the monitor.

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                                                                  Libre Computer’s ROC-RK3399-PC (Renegade Elite) is quite good, and they also have SBCs with RPi form factor like AML-S905X-CC (Le Potato).