Review: Asus Tinker Board
The Asus Tinker Board is a new ARM-based single-board computer (SBC) which stands out from the crowd. It’s tiny, affordable, with strong performance, and targeted at the DIY/hobbyist market. Essentially a complete PC — motherboard, CPU, GPU, system memory and more — all in one package, it is priced at £54.99.
SBC’s are very much in vogue. With sales exceeding 10 million units, the Raspberry Pi is the most popular British computer ever produced. The Pi has retained its position despite other manufacturers jumping on the bandwagon producing similar computers. None of its competitors have, to date, come close rivaling its popularity partly because there’s more software and support available for the Pi. Things could change with the Tinker Board. And not just because the computer is developed by Asus, the 4th-largest PC vendor.
In the Box
Let’s not dwell on the packaging. Suffice it to say, the Tinker Board cardboard box is fit for purpose. Sturdy with the Tinker Board logo smiling on top. The presentation should appeal to the younger DIY enthusiast.
Opening the box reveals the single board computer protected in an anti-static bag on a cardboard tray. As the heat generation is higher than most SBC boards, a stick-on heatsink is supplied for the processor. This helps improve heat dissipation under heavy load or in hot environments. And there is also a brief quick start guide supplied.
Let’s scan the guide. This first edition is printed on thin paper, lists the package contents with safety information and a specifications summary. It also explains what equipment you’ll need. This consists of a Micro SD card (8GB+ recommended), power supply, monitor with HDMI cable, and a keyboard & mouse.
Hopefully, Asus will produce a starter kit for beginners with a Micro SD card (with adapter) pre-loaded with the TinkerOS (Debian) image, together with a power supply and case.
Connecting the Tinker Board
Anyone who has set up a Raspberry Pi computer or clone will be familiar with the process. Connect a suitable micro USB charger, attach the HDMI cable to the monitor, and plug in a USB keyboard and mouse. The operating system boots from a configured Micro SD card, as the unit doesn’t have a hard disk.
I’ve reproduced the Getting Started page above. The guide could be clearer on configuring the Micro SD card. The process is actually simple. Download and write the operating system image to the card. The TinkerOS image is available to download from Asus’s website. But the guide omits the web address. I expect this will be corrected in a later edition of the guide. After a quick Google search, I locate the download site, www.asus.com/uk/Single-board-Computer/TINKER-BOARD/. The operating system image is TinkerOS_DEBIAN.zip, a 679 MB download.
While the guide explains the image writing from a Windows perspective, Linux is covered on Asus’s website. I prefer open source software and this extends to operating systems. So I configure the Micro SD card using the latest Ubuntu distribution running on an Asus ZenBook UX305 – a fantastic, silent laptop. My favourite open source, cross-platform, image writing software is Etcher, simply because it’s so easy to use. Here’s a screenshot of Etcher in action.
With the TinkerOS image written to the card, I’m now ready to test the Tinker Board. Before doing so, let’s examine its specifications.
|Processor||Rockchip RK3288 Cortex-A17 Quad-core 1.8GHz|
|GPU||ARM Mali-T764 equipped with H.264/H.265 hardware decoder|
|Display||Full-size HDMI 1.4 supports up to 4K
15-pin MIPI DSI supports up to HD
|Memory||Dual-channel LPDDR3 2GB|
|Storage||Micro SD card slot|
|Connectivity||RTL8211E-VB-CG GbE LAN
AW-NB177NF Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n & Bluetooth 4.0 with EDR
|Audio||RTL ALC4040 Codec with 1 x 3.5mm audio jack with 192K/24bit audio|
|USB||4 x USB 2.0 ports|
|Camera Interface||1 x 15-pin MIPI CSI slot for camera|
|Internal Headers||1 x 40-pin GPIO equipped header|
|Size||85.60mm x 56mm x 21mm|
What makes the Tinker Board stand out are these impressive specs. It has considerably more beef than the Raspberry Pi 3. With double the RAM, and a significantly quicker quad-core processor, it’s better equipped for a wider range of projects. It’ll be a good base for media playback, computer vision, gesture recognition, even some basic gaming. Playing the latest games on a SBC is still a distant dream though.
The integrated ARM-based Mali T764 GPU is noteworthy with its fixed-function H.264 and H.265 hardware decoder for smooth 4K video playback. While the Raspberry Pi 3 offers hardware support for 1080p, the Tinker Board has the hardware to offer 4k decoding. Asus will be releasing the Rockchip Player in the TinkerOS with native hardware decoding for HD/UHD video content.
Audio has not been neglected. The Tinker Board provides an HD codec that supports up to 192kHz/24-bit audio. The audio jack has both audio output and a microphone in, without needing an extension module. Other refinements include Gigabit Ethernet, and support for SDIO 3.0. There is a Rockchip RK808 power management/clock chip.
As the name suggests, the board is targeted at the DIY market, and has standard maker and hobbyist connectivity options, including a 40-pin GPIO interface. The colour-coded GPIO header is a welcome touch making it easy to recognise the pin headers. The Tinker Board’s PCB dimensions and placement mirror standard SBC boards. A wide range of compatible accessories are therefore immediately available. A drop-in replacement; witnessed by a Raspberry Pi case snugly fitting the board.
The PCB also features silk-screening with connection header and location callouts, for improved connection clarity. Onboard MIPI headers have contrasting colored pull tabs.
Read on to see the board in action.