Now that there are two capable, sub-$10 computers for Makers — the $5 Pi Zero and the $9 C.H.I.P. — the debate will rage online over which board is faster, cheaper, and the right one to use in a project. These debates are often unproductive, but they don’t have to be. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of each board.
Not sure which board is right for you? Make:’s interactive Board Guide lets you dial into the field to find the best one for your needs.
The main processor of the Pi and C.H.I.P. are fairly evenly matched, both operate at 1GHz with 512MB or RAM, but the C.H.I.P. uses the newer ARMv7 architecture (the Pi Zero uses an older ARMv6 architecture, which is confusingly also called ARM11). They each are powered using USB, but C.H.I.P. can also be powered using a Lithium Polymer battery and has built-in charging circuitry. Pi Zero requires a microSD card to act as storage space for an operating system and applications; the slot allows for swappable software and memory expansion at the same size. C.H.I.P. has onboard 4GB of NAND flash storage, and ships with an operating system preloaded in the memory. To go bigger, you have to use USB (a faster interface than the SD card) and an external drive or storage device.
Pi Zero provides an unpopulated 40-pin connector for input and output (I/O). Whereas C.H.I.P. offers two rows of 40-pin female headers — 80 total I/O — for easily accessible I/O. HDMI mini provides video output on the Pi, and composite video output is possible, but requires aftermarket soldering. C.H.I.P. lacks HDMI — though an HDMI accessory board is available — but has composite video output through the TRRS jack (it looks like a headphones jack).
The biggest difference between the two boards is with connectivity. C.H.I.P. has built-in Wi-Fi and BLE; the Pi Zero has no way to access the internet without additional accessories. Solving this lack of connectivity makes the cost of owning a Pi Zero increase greatly. It’s not just that you need a USB Wi-Fi dongle, you’d need a powered USB hub to have a Wi-Fi dongle, keyboard, and mouse (it only has one USB slot for peripherals; the other is for power).
Differing Design Approaches
The debate is also about differing approaches to product design. Is it better to take an existing product and remove components to make it cheaper, or is it better to simply setup and build a cheap product with all the features you want?
On one side, the Pi Foundation has taken an existing design and removed components from it to make it cheaper. The Pi Zero is a smaller board with less connectors. The CPU is faster by 300MHz than the Raspberry Pi B+, but that is thanks to a software configuration setting, which could be done on the B+ too.
Next Thing Co., on the other hand, only has one computer in their product lineup. C.H.I.P. is inexpensive because NTC has leveraged economies of scale and developed close business relationships with suppliers and manufacturer in Shenzhen, China.
This is how we got here. Six months ago Next Thing Co. launched their $9 computer on Kickstarter, generating over $2 million in pledges. The board is now shipping to crowdfunding backers; they’ll begin taking proper preorders on Cyber Monday.
Meanwhile, on Thursday the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced and began to sell the $5 Pi Zero, and included the board in copies of their MagPi print magazine. It was immediately available, but sold out on all reseller sites by the next day.
Ownership Costs More than Retail Price
The cost of owning either a C.H.I.P. or a Pi is a bit more money than the retail cost of the boards. Peripherals such as a power cable, keyboard, mouse, and monitor are necessary to accomplish any computer task on either of the devices. But it turns out the $5 Raspberry Pi Zero costs significantly more to operate than the Next Thing Co. C.H.I.P..
|C.H.I.P.||Raspberry Pi Zero|
|Cable Cost||$1 USB cable for power||$13.35 (USB OTG, USB standard to micro, HDMI to HDMI mini)|
|Storage Cost||None (built-in eMMC storage)||$5.65 4GB microSD card|
|GPIO||80||26 of 40|
|CPU||1GHz Allwinner R8||1Ghz BCM2835 (same as all pre-Pi 2 boards, but overclocked)|
|Storage||4GB||MicroSD card (not provided)|
|Wall Power||USB 5V @ 300mA (peak)||USB 5V|
|Battery Power||Single cell 3.7V LiPo battery w/ 2-pin JST-PH 2.0mm||None|
|USB||1 standard & 1 micro with OTG||1 micro with OTG; 1 micro|
|HDMI||No (addon $13 HDMI accessory board is available, cheaper if bought with C.H.I.P.)||Yes|
|Composite||Yes via ⅛” mini TRRS to RCA composite video output cable||None (hardware hack enabled, requires soldering pins to TV holes)|
|OS||Custom Linux, soon to be mainline Linux||Custom Linux, not mainline|
|IO Header type||Female headers||Through holes|
Actual Operational Costs
Regardless of how much it costs to operate a Pi or the fact that you have to buy an add-on board to get HDMI output on C.H.I.P., it’s fantastic that both of these products exist. Even seven months ago, the notion that 1GHz computers would cost under $10 would have seemed a bit crazy. And despite the fact that these boards require additional peripherals to operate in a constructive manner, the price is far less than ever before.
And lastly, there’s the community aspect. Raspberry Pi has been around since 2012, with millions of its boards in the wild, huge amounts of established software available, and a large community of users who are available to help with any issues.
C.H.I.P. is the new player in this field, and has created a tremendous buzz with their product. It is leveraging strong relationships in the massive Linux and open source software and hardware communities, which may help it gain a large following. But right now, only crowdfunding backers have their boards. It will take a bit of time for those legs to grow.
What do you think the outcome of these low-cost, powerful devices will be, and what projects do you want to make with them? Be sure to tell us in the comments below.