In the past ten years development boards, single-board microcontrollers, and single-board computers have revolutionised the many aspects of tech. With the availability of low-cost development boards, we have seen the Maker movement become established which is a growing culture of tech-based DIY enthusiasts.
While the Raspberry Pi was designed as an educational product, it has been embraced by the maker movement and is used by people of all ages and skills from an eclectic number of backgrounds. Businesses have also embraced these low-cost computers and frequently use them for prototyping or bespoke applications.
The Raspberry Pi gets a lot of press attention, but there are other well know options that both consumers and business use alike. They frequently get grouped together when people talk about development boards but they are very different, and each option has different uses as well as pros and cons.
All the RPi models are complete minicomputers that include a processor, GPU, memory, ethernet/wifi and USB. It needs an operating system to work such as Linux, and all the Storage is provided from an SD card. The current RPi3 uses a Broadcom BCM2837 chipset running at 1.2 GHz and has 1 GB LPDDR2 memory.
In comparison, the other popular option is the Arduino which is not a full computer but a microcontroller. The Arduino can be programmed in C, but can’t run an operating system. This, however, means it doesn’t need the amount of power the RPi has, and the processor is an ATmega328 clocked at just 16MHz, its ram is 2KB and the built-in storage is 32KB.
BeagleBone has several hardware options similar to the RPi and is a complete computer too. The main model is the BeagleBone Black; this uses a Sitara XAM3359 AZCZ100 Cortex A8 Processor from Texas Instruments, it has 512MB of ram, unlike the RPI though, it has its own onboard storage in the form of 4 GB of eMMC Flash. It is typically priced about £10 more than the RPI3.
On the face of things, the BeagleBone does not seem as appealing as the RPi equivalent as it is not as powerful and is more expensive. However, it is arguably a better choice for hardware prototyping and bespoke applications as it has a wider range of connectivity. The Sitara has two 46-pin headers making 92 connections possible many of which can be configured for whatever your needs may be.
The Beaglebone Black has 65 GPIO (General Purpose Input/Output) pins, 2 I2C buses, 2 SPI buses, 7 analogue inputs, 8 PWM outputs, 4 Timers, 4 UARTs and 25 PRU low-latency Input/output. Each digital I/O pin of the Black supports 8 different modes including the GPIO. This level of connectivity makes it good for commercial applications, and it can easily be mounted with a DIN Rail Enclosure.
In comparison, the RPi3 (and 2) has a 40 pin header of which there are 24 GPIO, one I2C bus, 2 SPI buses, 8 Ground pins, JTAG, 2 5V power pins and 2 3.3V power pins.
So, while the RPi maybe the 3rd best selling computer of all time, when it comes to business and commercial applications, especially in prototyping, industrial applications such as automation and various monitoring applications either the Arduino or Beaglebone maybe better options. The Arduino is perfect for ultra-small, low power and affordable solutions, while the Beaglebone is great for any applications that require a lot of I/O connections such as sensors.