Before using the machine, it’s worth refreshing the package list. Enter the following command at a shell:
sudo apt-get update
Next, upgrade the installed packages with the command:
sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
This found 121 packages to upgrade and 2 new packages. If you’re interested in the default package set, I took a snapshot with the command:
Both package lists are available to view at the end of this article.
uname is a handy tool to elicit system information. Entering the command:
outputs the text “Linux linaro-alip 4.4.16-00097-gc9727d4-dirty #23 SMP Fri Jan 13 12:29:56 CST 2017 armv7l GNU/Linux”
A little explanation. The Tinker Board is running the Linux kernel 4.4.16. ALIP is a small distribution used for bringing up ARM boards. ARMv7 means the processor runs the 32-bit instruction set.
Desktop & Applications
Asus uses their own operating system (TinkerOS) for the Tinker Board which is based on the Debian distribution. It’s certainly very snappy to boot to a graphical desktop. The screenshot above is the first thing you’ll see on startup. It’s the LXDE desktop.
There are only a few graphical applications pre-installed with TinkerOS. But there is Chromium (my favourite web browser), PCManFM (a lightweight file manager), and Vim, a venerable text editor. Other applications installed are 3 terminal emulators, LXMusic (a simple music player), and an image viewer.
I’d prefer to see a configuration utility on startup making it easy for beginners to configure the system and install package sets for different projects/purposes. For example, the machine defaults to a US keyboard layout which is easy to correct if you are familiar with Linux. But let’s make things simple for everyone.
Below are screenshots of three applications. First, we have Chromium. This reports as version 52.0.2743.116 built on 8.5, running on Debian 8.7.
Chromium feels decidedly nimble both starting up and in operation. Surfing the net on the Tinker is the best I’ve experienced on an affordable SBC. I actually wrote most of this review on the Tinker Board in Chromium. Editing the article on WordPress felt as responsive as an Intel Core i5 desktop computer.
However, streaming HD video over the BBC iPlayer service in Chromium is ruined by lots of tearing. Bear in mind that I’ve seen more powerful machines suffer this issue. Frankly, software decoding doesn’t cut the mustard. The standard repositories include Kodi 16.1. Kodi is an excellent open source home theatre software. I watched some HD BBC steams using the iplayer add-on with Kodi. Video playback wasn’t perfect as there is still some tearing. Overall, video playback with software decoding isn’t as good as I’d like. Hopefully, playback will be vastly improved with the release of the Rockchip Player, with its hardware decoding. Audio streaming over Bluetooth to a Cambridge Audio Minx Go wireless speaker is impressive.
PCManFM is a lightweight file manager. Developed since 2009, it’s a mature application. It performed well in operation.
htop is a handy utility, showing the quad-core processor in action, the running processes, and the load average. Notice the system has no swap file created by default. But 2GB of RAM should suffice for most purposes.
I’ll be running detailed benchmarks in a later article. For now, I’ll take the opportunity to run a simple CPU benchmark with sysbench, a modular, cross-platform and multi-threaded benchmark tool for evaluating operating system parameters. This system tool is installed with the command:
sudo apt install sysbench
One of the tests sysbench performs is the calculation of prime numbers. This puts the processor under load with the caveat it only tests a limited set of its capabilities. The benchmark is run here using a single thread to calculate the first 15,000 prime numbers. For now, I simply wish to get a flavour of the Tinker Board running single-threaded applications.
sysbench --test=cpu --cpu-max-prime=15000 run
The Tinker Board took 194 seconds to complete the task. To put the result into context, the same benchmark is run on the Raspberry Pi 2 and Pi 3, an Asus laptop (ZenBook UX305), and a Core i5 desktop computer. The plot below illustrates the Tinker Board is about 60% faster than the Pi 3 for this benchmark.
sysbench can also test file I/O performance. With the Tinker Board’s SDIO 3.0 interface, I anticipate significantly faster read and write speeds to the Micro SD card. But I’ll save this for the benchmark article.
Without any formal testing, it’s clear the wireless performance is superior to the Pi 3. It’s likely the improvement lies with the Tinker’s integrated shield controller.
SBC’s often suffer from the software not making full use of the hardware. Multimedia enthusiasts will look forward to the release of the Rockchip video player.
With a great design and an impressive specification, the Tinker Board is a remarkable SBC. It’s more expensive than a Raspberry Pi 3, but the improved performance and extra RAM opens the device up to a wider range of projects. The board is not just for IoT enthusiasts, hobbyists, and PC DIY enthusiasts. It’s more than capable as a desktop replacement. It therefore has a huge market to tap into. Whether it displaces the Pi 3 depends on the support it receives from the open source community, and the commitment from Asus to fully exploit the power of this ultra-small form factor board.
As promised, here are the package lists showing the software installed before and after updating.