What has made SBCs so great for projects is their affordable prices, ease of use, and a friendly, resourceful community to tap into. However, these boards have struggled with more general-purpose tasks such as web browsing, media playback, and compute-intensive processes. This has made them not ideal as a regular old computer. It is like trying to make a netbook play a movie while having tabs open on Chrome, y’all!
Will we ever get to the point where SBCs will be good enough to replace a mid-range desktop? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m hopeful. There are plenty of SBC boards, like the RPi 4, Pine64, LattePanda, and Intel NUC, that have been touted to being the next desktop computer. Their price ranges differ vastly, with the most powerful boards costing as much as a high-end computer, and the other SBCs that attempt to improve their specs without compromising the spirit of its predecessors. Radxa’s Rock Pi 4B tries to do the latter, making for a high performance, cost-efficient SBC.
Whether you’re looking for a prototyping board for projects, a suited-out media server, or a compact-sized cyberdeck, the Rock Pi 4B has a lot to offer in terms of specs and flexibility. It’s not often you come across an SBC with a hexa-core processor, or even the option to use an M.2 NVME SSD for storage. You can boot using a microSD or an eMMc module for speed. The GPU on this board is impressive, to say the least, making it great for video game emulation. Like the RaspberryPi 4, it also supports 4K video and has the standard 40-pin expansion header for development, making it a potential alternative to RPi if you don’t mind forking over a few more bucks. Not bad given its modularity and speed.
While this board can be used in various applications, it appears that manufacture, Radxa, has geared its accessories for server use. Along with having better multi-threading with the hexa-core processor, Radxa sells a quad- or penta-SATA hat to expand the board’s storage space. There is also a PoE hat available if you need the device powered via ethernet. Frankly, it’s a bit comical seeing the SATA hat set up in its skeletal form. What a beast!
But let’s get to my favorite part about the Rock Pi 4B: This board has a variety of supported OS images to choose from. The Rock Pi 4 officially supports Android OS, Android TV, Ubuntu Server, and Debian, along with third-party operating system images such as Armbian, Manjaro, LibreELEC, and Recalbox. Support for Android, Armbian, and Manjaro is not often seen in other boards, such as the RPi. With these options, the Rock Pi 4B can be as simple or as complex as you’d like, allowing newbies to play with a more powerful board and providing experienced users flexibility to design projects with better specs. That’s pretty freaking sweet.
In regards to setting up the Rock Pi 4B, I found the whole process fairly painless. The installation guides for the pre-made operating systems are well written, making it easy to have your flavor of OS up and running in no time. The bootup for Rock Pi 4B is quite snappy. I was able to run a Youtube video while having multiple tabs open and set up a development environment with very little lag.
Despite this, there are still some hiccups that affect user experience. For one, the links to the Manjaro images from the official website lead me to 404 pages, and I had to find them separately through Manjaro’s ARM download page. As of recent, the operating systems have been inconsistent with stability, with certain features non-functioning and others running smoothly. Of the OSes I’ve tested, I had the best luck with Armbian, Manjaro, Ubuntu Server, and Android TV 7. While I was able to get Debian to boot, I was not able to get the USB ports to detect my mouse and keyboard, making it impossible to use! The Radxa forums provide some reprieve for these types of conundrums, however, the community — while being quite knowledgeable — is fairly new and sparse compared to other well-known SBCs such as the Raspberry Pi.
Radxa is still making improvements on this board since its release, so I would recommend looking into the forums to see if the Rock Pi 4 works well for what you’re hoping to build before committing to it. With that said, I’m optimistic that the hardware can be taken to its full potential in the next couple of months. From the exposure I’ve had with the Rock pi community, it seems like there is a lot of potential for growth and I look forward to seeing how it develops.