Introducing Orange Pi: Linux-powered, single board computers

How to get up and running with sweet Orange Pi

How to get up and running with sweet Orange Pi
Image credits : 

Dave Egts, CC BY-SA 4.0

As open source-powered hardware like Arduino and Raspberry Pi becomes more and more mainstream, its cost keeps dropping, which opens the door to new and innovative IoT and STEM applications. As someone who's passionate about both, I'm always on the lookout for new innovations that can be applied in industry, the classroom, and my daughter's robotics team. When I heard about the Orange Pi as being a "Raspberry Pi killer," I paused to take notice.

Despite the sour sounding name, the Orange Pi Zero intrigued me. I recently got my hands on one and in this article share my first impressions. Spoiler alert: I was very impressed.

Why Orange Pi?

Orange Pi is a family of Linux-powered, single board computers manufactured by Shenzhen Xunlong Software Co., Limited, and sold on AliExpress. As with anything sold on AliExpress, be patient and plan ahead for shipping times of two to four or more weeks, because the products are shipped directly from mainland China to locations around the world.

Unlike the Raspberry Pi, which has had a small but growing family of single board computers for different price points, form factors, and features, the number of Orange Pi boards is much larger. The good news is that you have a tremendous amount of choice in the application you want, but the bad news is that amount of choice could be overwhelming. In my case, I went with the Orange Pi Zero 512MB version, because it has the right balance of features and is priced for use in high school, academic environments.

To see a high-resolution image with all the specs, go to the Orange Pi Zero website.

Specifically, I needed the device to be as inexpensive as possible, but still useful out of the box, with Internet connectivity for SSH and IoT applications. The Orange Pi Zero meets these requirements by having onboard 10/100M Ethernet and 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi for Internet connectivity. It also has 26 Raspberry Pi-compatible GPIO ports for connecting sensors for IoT applications. I went with the 512MB version of the Orange Pi Zero over the 256MB version because more memory is typically better and it was only $2 more. Out the door, the unit was US $12.30 shipped, which makes it cost effective for classroom environments where experimentation and creating magic smoke is encouraged.

Compared to a $5 Raspberry Pi Zero, the Orange Pi Zero is only a few dollars more expensive, but it is much more useful out of the box because it has onboard Internet connectivity and four CPU cores instead of one. This onboard networking capability also makes the Orange Pi Zero a better gift than a Raspberry Pi Zero because the Raspberry Pi Zero needs Micro-USB-to-USB adapters and a Wi-Fi USB adapter to connect to the Internet. When giving IoT devices as gifts, you want the recipient to enjoy the product as quickly and easily as possible, instead of giving something incomplete that will just end up on a shelf.

Out of the box experience

One of my initial concerns about the Orange Pi is that the vendor and community support wouldn't be as strong as the Raspberry Pi Foundation's and its community's support, leaving the end user all alone putting in extra effort to get the device going. If that's the case, I'd be reluctant to recommend the Orange Pi for classroom use or as a gift. The good news is that the Orange Pi Zero worked well right away and was actually easier to get going than a Raspberry Pi.

The Orange Pi arrived in my mailbox two weeks after ordering. I unpacked it and got it up and running in a matter of minutes. Most of my time was spent downloading the operating system. The Orange Pi can run a variety of operating systems, ranging from Android to Debian variants. I went with Armbian as it appeared to be the most popular choice for Orange Pi enthusiasts. Since Armbian supports many ARM-based single-board computers, you need to select the right Armbian build for the Orange Pi Zero. By following the Getting Started section of the Armbian User Guide, I was easily able to image a microSD card, insert the microSD card and Ethernet cable, power the unit with an existing 3A Micro-USB power adapter I use with my Raspberry Pis, and SSH into it.

Orange Pi interface

SSHing into the Orange Pi Zero.

Once SSHed in via Ethernet, I was able to connect to my wireless access point easily using nmtui-connect. Then I performed an apt-get update && apt-get upgrade and noticed that the update ran much faster than a Raspberry Pi Zero and closer to the performance of a Raspberry Pi 3. Others have observed similar results, too. It may not be as fast as a Raspberry Pi 3, but I wasn't planning to sequence genomes or mine Bitcoin with it. I also noticed that Armbian automatically resizes the root partition to fill the entire microSD card, which is an explicit, manual, and sometimes forgotten step when using Raspbian. Finally, for the US $12 price, three times as many students can learn on their own Orange Pi Zero as compared to a $35 Raspberry Pi 3, and you can give an Orange Pi Zero to three times as many friends.

Orange Pi Form Factor

The Orange Pi Zero form factor compared with the Raspberry Pi 3.

Closing thoughts

The Orange Pi is definitely a solution looking for problems. Given its low cost, ability to get up and running quickly, relatively quick performance, and GPIO-pin compatibility with Raspberry Pi, the Orange Pi, and Orange Pi Zero in particular, should definitely be on your short list for experimentation in your workshop, classroom, or robot.

Have you tried the Orange Pi? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

14 Comments

tj

In addition to Armbian, which is definitely the by far best Distro for the Orange Pis, I can recommend the (as far as I know Armbian-based) DietPi. Setup and configuration of various applications and also the OS itself is easier than on Armbian.

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DaveEgts

Thanks for the tip TJ!

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Clinton Johnson

I just ordered the "big" kit last week with case and expansion board. It came out to about $19 total and I'm excited to try it out now. Always been a pi fan from the beginning.

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DaveEgts

Cool. Feel free to let us know in the comments your first impressions!

I'm a Raspberry Pi fan too and it's great to see all the innovative form factors and price points for use in IoT and STEM applications.

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slu

I have now gone beyond three minutes waiting for the www.orangepi.org web page to load. If they don't care, I don't either.

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Jamie

But the board is closed source, the firmware is closed source, the video drivers are closed source. The latter means you're either stuck on the vendor's old 3.x kernel if you want to play video or use 3D, or you can have an updated kernel but forget video playback or games. Not only that, the factory image has been proven to contain root backdoors. Not quite sure I would be recommending this to anyone. I certainly wouldn't put one on my own network!

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Gerben

This counts for the raspberry pi as well. Closed source board, closed source firmware, closed source video drivers.

The backdoor was in the open source code that Allwinner supplied on github. Not in a binary image that does not have open source code.

There can be many reasons to prefer raspberry over orange, the ones you mention are not the ones.

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RajP

You're commenting on video drivers, playing video, games and use 3D. The base board design has no video output. Are you referring to the add-on that gives you TV out?

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Todd Sharp

It all works great until you try to program on it. I found it very frustrating that libraries like Pi4J and others didn't simply work out of the box. And that's the rub... Like you said, smaller user base means less OSS community support. At this point it's just a pretty LED box sitting on my shelf.

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Flavio Becker

Todd, my own experience has been positive and I didn't have any difficulties running the applications I needed. I tried Armbian and Ubuntu and also a version of Android with excellent results. Also the community support proved to be very helpfull. I strongly recommend the OrangePI boards.

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robertservice

Great article, David.
Have been looking for a SBC which has 2GB of RAM, 10/100/1000 Ethernet, at least 16GB of eMMC, Ethernet NOT run through a USB roadblock, and a more palatable clock speed than 1200 MHz (RPi Foundation's concentration on giving the ver.3 Bluetooth and WiFi is simply a diversionary attempt so that one doesn't concentrate very long on the lack of real compute power of the -3; if you really need these , you have plenty of USB ports available).
The Orange Pi Plus2 is the clear winner against the RPi3.

TJ, up above, says "...which is definitely the by far best Distro for the Orange Pis...".
Being a real noob, could anyone tell me more about this? Thanks!

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DaveEgts

Thanks for the kind words and encouragement!

Not sure if TJ would get this note as part of the comment thread, or if replying to his thread will ping him directly (maybe try that?), but what would you like to know about Armbian in particular?

Personally, I never heard of Armbian until I dug into the Orange Pi. It seems to be a very active community. By supporting boards from many hardware vendors, the community can be bigger and problems solved for one board could possibly help other boards making the distribution all the more valuable.

Others have commented on this post about the proprietary nature of the Orange Pi, which seems to happen in many efforts at first to get off the ground (Raspberry Pi included). The good news is that by banding together as open source communities we can work together to come up with open solutions. We've seen this with other hardware units and peripherals which started out as proprietary too.

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tj

Well, my experience started with reading about the bad official images for the Orange Pis in general. After trying out various official and also some from here:
http://www.orangepi.org/orangepibbsen/forum.php?mod=viewthread&tid=342
I finally read about Armbian and although it felt a bit patchy it worked rather well. It improved very fast. At the beginning it didn't seem to use the swap, but now it does, which is important when trying to use the pi as a Desktop, since 512MB RAM is rather thight. But the biggest advantage of armbian is specific for the OPi One. Since most images are originally for the OPi PC, the FEX settings file is not adjusted for the different voltage regulators of the One. Armbian is basically the only Distro with correct settings by default, see last abstract here:
https://linux-sunxi.org/Xunlong_Orange_Pi_One

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Jacob Gadikian

Orange Pi boards are really fantastic. The sunxi community has made great progress with the orange pi pc in particular, and I recommend that board over the others. Linux 4.11 should see a fully open stack of drivers for it that enable multimedia applications while using a kernel other than the 3.4 that allwinner provides.

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